Rachel's Democracy & Health News #837  [Printer-friendly version]
January 12, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: During 2005, there was considerable talk
about the nuclear power industry reviving itself -- with the help of
huge new federal subsidies -- but the industry seems to be in such
deep trouble on many fronts that it will remain moribund, though
still highly dangerous to world peace.]

By Peter Montague

[In this series we are discussing the most important issues of 2005.
--DHN Editors]

Nuclear power did not have a good year in 2005, despite President
Bush's and Congress's best efforts to revive the moribund industry
with massive new federal subsidies.

Consider these facts:

** The U.S. currently has 103 nuclear power plants in service. They
employ a controlled atomic chain reaction to make heat to make steam
to turn a turbine to generate electricity. The plants are very
complicated and therefore prone to breakdown and operator error.
Because of the partial fuel meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant
in Pennsylvania in 1979, followed by the serious fire at Chernobyl
in 1986, no new nuclear power plants have been ordered in the U.S. for
the past 29 years.

Everyone -- even President Bush -- agrees that the current generation
of nuclear plants is too problem-prone to inspire confidence. On June
22, 2005, the President gave a speech at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear
plant in Maryland saying, "Some Americans remember the problems that
the nuclear plants had back in the 1970s. That frightened a lot of
folks. People have got to understand that advances in science and
engineering and plant design have made nuclear plants far safer."

However, none of the President's new "far safer" plants have actually
been built. Indeed, their designs have not even been approved by the
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Furthermore, as the Los Angeles
Times reported June 11, the new nuclear designs are not very
different from the old designs. This is an industry that lost most of
its talent during the "dry period" of the last 30 years, and bright
young engineers are not flocking to design new nuclear power plants.

Still, three companies would love to build a new generation of nukes
-- if they can convince taxpayers to put up the billions of dollars
needed because there are few eager customers for new plants.

President Bush said he would put up $2 billion to help get four new
power plants running. And the Idaho Engineering Laboratory has a
$1.25 billion project going to develop a next-generation
atomic/hydrogen plant. But the industry says it needs much more in
the way of taxpayer subsidies before it will thrive.

Private utility companies are reluctant to invest in nuclear power
because they got badly burned once before. As the Los Angeles Times
said June 22, "But the sober reality of nuclear power is that the
U.S. will move slowly and cautiously, at best, because Wall Street
financiers and the nation's utility industry still have vivid memories
of the legal, financial and regulatory debacles that resulted from the
building binge of the 1970s."

One of the things utility executives remember best is the nuclear
accident at Three Mile Island in 1979. Peter Bradford, a former member
of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, explained to the New York
Times May 2, "The abiding lesson that Three Mile Island taught Wall
Street was that a group of N.R.C.-licensed reactor operators, as good
as any others, could turn a $2 billion asset into a $1 billion cleanup
job in about 90 minutes," Mr. Bradford said.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, President Bush and Vice-
President Cheney are exceedingly eager to revive the civilian nuclear
power industry. President Bush says it is because nuclear plants
represent the best way for the U.S. to wean itself from foreign
sources of oil. In his Calvert Cliffs speech June 22, the President
said nuclear power, "could play a big role in easing the nation's
dependence on foreign fuels," according to the Philadelphia
Inquirer. But even nuclear industry executives acknowledge that this
argument doesn't hold water.

Nuclear power generates electricity; oil is used to generate only 2.8%
of all the electricity in the U.S., so a few dozen new nuclear power
plants can't make much of a dent in our reliance on foreign oil. At
some time in the hazy distant future -- say 50 or 100 years from now
-- after a raft of untried technologies have been financed, developed,
tested, and deployed, then nuclear power plants might substitute for
oil by producing hydrogen, but at present new nuclear power plants
will do almost nothing to diminish U.S. reliance on foreign oil.

Meanwhile, there are many other serious problems besetting the nuclear
power industry:

** Shoddy workmanship continues to plague the nuclear industry. A
leak of radioactivity at the Hope Creek Plant in New Jersey in March,
2005, was not caused by excessive vibration in the reactor's B
recirculation pump, as the plant's operators first thought. It was
caused by a faulty weld.

** Sloppy management continues to embarrass the industry as well. In
March, 2005, operators of the Crystal River nuclear plant in Florida
discovered that three illegal aliens had falsified social security
numbers and thus gained employment inside the plant.

** It did not help when officials at the Los Alamos National
Laboratory revealed in January, 2005, that they had lost 600 pounds
of plutonium -- enough to make dozens of atomic bombs. Laboratory
officials tried to reassure the public by saying the missing plutonium
may have been buried in landfills in the town of Los Alamos, or
perhaps it was shipped to a salt mine for burial, without any records
of the shipment having been kept, or perhaps it was stolen. If a gold-
plated national atomic laboratory can lose 600 pounds of one of the
deadliest substances on earth, what chance does the nuclear industry
have of operating reliably or safely -- given that it cannot weld
metal reliably, or keep illegal aliens from entering the plant?

** Mysteries continue to crop up at nuclear power plants. In
December, 2005, federal regulators confirmed that radioactive water
was showing up in storm sewer lines and in recently-dug wells near
the Indian Point 2 nuclear plant on the Hudson River upstream from New
York City. The plant's routine radioactive releases into the Hudson
River are deemed "acceptable" by regulators, but the source of the
underground radioactive water remained a mystery.

** The larger question of radiation safety came into focus in June
with the publication of the BEIR VII report by the National Research
Council. BEIR stands for Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation and
this seventh report in the series said there is no amount of
radiation that can be considered safe. In other words, all radiation
carries with it some risk of causing cancer, said BEIR VII.

This report put the kibosh on a favorite theory of some in the nuclear
industry, called hormesis. According to the hormesis theory, a little
radiation is actually good for you. According to the conclusions
reached by BEIR VII, this theory can now be permanently put to rest.
All radiation must now be considered harmful, and to be avoided
whenever possible. (Naturally, this includes medical radiation, so
make sure you actually need that next x-ray or CAT scan your dentist
or doctor offers you.)

** Nuclear waste disposal has still not been solved even though
nuclear power plants have been producing super-hot, extremely
dangerous radioactive waste since 1956 when the first plant went on-
line (and the federal weapons program has been producing radioactive
wastes since about 1940).

The federal government has committed to solving the waste problem on
behalf of the private nuclear power industry, but so far without
success. The feds have put all their eggs in a basket called Yucca
Mountain in Nevada, but the project is mired in scientific, technical
and management disputes and may never accept any waste. The
Philadelphia Inquirer probably spoke for tens of millions of
Americans when it editorialized April 17, "Before the U.S. can grow
more reliant on [nuclear] reactors, it must solve the problem of
disposing of nuclear waste."

It was revealed mid-year that some of the technical data supporting
the Yucca site may have been falsified by project scientists; the FBI
is still investigating.

The U.S. so far produced 59,000 tons (54,000 metric tonnes) of high-
level radioactive waste, most of it sitting in pools of water close to
the reactors that produced it. Earlier this year the National Academy
of Sciences confirmed what nuclear critics have maintained for years
-- that these "spent fuel pools" are sitting ducks for terrorist
attack and, if the water were simply drained out of such a pool, a
ferocious fire could ensue, spreading large quantities of highly
dangerous radioactivity into the air.

Independent analysts also revealed this year that even if the Yucca
Mountain waste repository were opened by 2012 -- the most optimistic
projection for getting it open -- it will by that time be too small to
accommodate the waste it was meant to sequester. Dr. Frank von Hippel
of Princeton University calculated that the nuclear industry could
move about 3000 tons of waste to Yucca Mountain per year, but the
industry creates 2000 new tons each year, so the inventory of waste
held at power plant sites would only be reduced by about 1000 tons per
year. At this rate it would take over 50 years to get rid of the
"spent fuel" hazard at existing power plants. These calculations do
not take into account any wastes created by the dozens of new nuclear
plants that President Bush hopes will be built to, as he insists,
reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

Actually the problems with high-level wastes go deeper still. In
April the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a stinging
report accusing the nation's nuclear power companies -- and their
watchdog, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- of failing to safeguard
wastes now held at nuclear power plants -- or even to keep track of
them accurately. "NRC inspectors often could not confirm that
containers that were designated as containing loose fuel rods in fact
contained the fuel rods," the report said. Inadequate oversight and
gaps in safety procedures have left several plants unsure about the
whereabouts of all their spent fuel, the GAO said.

Because Yucca Mountain is in deep trouble and may never open, eight
utilities formed their own private waste disposal company and struck
a deal with the Skull Valley band of Goshute Indians, who live 50
miles from Salt Lake City, Utah. The Goshute tribe agreed to provide
"temporary" storage of spent fuel from reactors, and in September the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave the plan its official OK. No one
is saying how long "temporary" might be if Yucca Mountain fails to

Even though this is an excellent example of the free market working
its magic, the state of Utah has promised to sue in federal court, to
try to stop the Bureau of Indian Affairs from approving the contract,
and to try to prevent the federal Bureau of Land Management from
allowing construction of a needed rail spur to transport waste to the
site. So it's not yet a done deal. When it comes time to transport
wastes, several states may try to prevent shipment on their highways,
and it is not clear that utilities want to spend the money to ship
wastes first to Utah, then, later, to Yucca Mountain in Utah.

Yucca Mountain and the Skull Valley Goshute project are intended to
handle "high-level" waste -- the super-hot, super-radioactive spent
fuel from reactors.

But even the problem of "low level" radioactive wastes has mired the
industry and government in controversy. For several years the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission (NRC) has been trying to "solve" the low-level
radwaste problem by allowing them to be buried in municipal landfills.
As part of its proposal, the NRC had proposed that certain radioactive
metals could simply be sold to scrap dealers and recycled. The scrap
dealers of the nation wanted no part of it, fearing that all metallic
scrap would get a bad name because it might be (legally) radioactive
after the government plan went into effect. No one wanted their
child's braces made out of radioactive metal; no one wanted their
forks and spoons to be slightly radioactive; no one wanted a
radioactive hammer or saw. And no town wanted radioactivity in the
local dump.

In June the NRC abandoned its proposal.

The fight against this proposal was led by the Nuclear Information
Resource Service in Washington, D.C., and by the Committee to Bridge
the Gap in Los Angeles. Dozens of small anti-nuclear groups around
the country told the NRC what a dumb idea this was, and in June the
NRC abandoned its plan, saying the idea wasn't dead and might be
revisited at a later date. In any case, it was a great victory for
citizen activism -- and yet another sign that the nuclear industry is
desperate to solve its growing waste problem but clueless as to how to
go about it.

In sum, the radioactive waste problem remains unsolved -- indeed it
seems further from solution at the end of 2005 than it did at the end
of 2004 -- and it continues to provoke extremely heated debate. So it
is with all things nuclear.

** The nuclear industry's biggest problem remains the inseparable
connection between nuclear power plants and nuclear bombs.

Nuclear power can always provide a determined nation with the know-
how, the technology, and the means to make atomic bombs. This is what
Iran is allegedly up to as we speak. This is how North Korea developed
the bomb. India and Pakistan joined the nuclear club by first
acquiring nuclear power plants. Nuclear power plants and nuclear bombs
are inextricably linked. If for some perverse reason you wanted to put
nuclear weapons into the hands of people who presently don't have
them, the best first step to take would be to help them acquire a
nuclear power plant.

On November 14, 2005, the former 9/11 Commission members issued a
report card on the Bush Administration's efforts to keep nuclear
weapons out of the hands of terrorists. The Commission noted that
President Bush himself has said nuclear weapons in the hands of
terrorists are "the gravest threat our nation faces... at the
crossroads of radicalism and technology."

The Commission went on to say, "We know that al Qaeda has sought
weapons of mass destruction for at least ten years. Bin Ladin [sic]
clearly -- and he has said this -- would not hesitate to use them. We
have no greater fear than a terrorist who is inside the United States
with nuclear weapons. The consequences of such an attack would be
catastrophic -- for our people, for our economy, for our liberties,
and probably for our way of life."

Then the Commission went on to evaluate the Bush Administration's
response to this problem, pointing out that...

** about half the nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union "still
have no security upgrades whatsoever."

** Some forty countries have the essential materials for nuclear

** Well over 100 research reactors around the world have enough
highly-enriched uranium present to fashion a nuclear device.

** Too many of these facilities lack any kind of adequate protection.
The terrorists are smart. They will go where the security is weakest.

The Commissioners said they were alarmed that so little had been done
by the Bush administration to reduce the dangers of a terrorist
nuclear bomb going off in a U.S. city -- like New York or Chicago or
San Francisco.

They summarized the Bush administration's nearly-total failure this
way: "The most striking thing to us is that the size of the problem
still totally dwarfs the policy response," said Thomas H. Kean, the
Republican former chair of the Sept. 11 commission.

So, to summarize:

President Bush says nuclear terrorism is the nation's biggest threat
and everyone else seems to agree. But the Bush administration is not
doing nearly enough to prevent this catastrophe from happening.

Meanwhile everyone acknowledges that the best way for rogue states to
"join the nuclear club" is to acquire a nuclear power plant first,
then make a few weapons. The U.S. is aggressively promoting a new
generation of nuclear power plants and Vice-President Cheney is
personally trying to convince the Chinese (and others?) to purchase
new nuclear power plants from Westinghouse. Thus it seems clear that
this administration is committed to getting more nuclear power
technology into the hands of more people around the world.

In addition, in discussing the proliferation of nuclear weapons around
the world, the bi-partisan 9-11 Commission members noted that
"widespread reports of abuse and even torture of Muslim suspects by
American captors had served as a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda." "The
flames of extremism undoubtedly burn more brightly when we are the
ones who deliver the gasoline," said Richard Ben-Viste, a Democratic
member of the Sept. 11 Commission.

In sum, the U.S. is working hard to revive the moribund nuclear power
industry and export the technology abroad, where everyone knows it
forms the basis for weapons programs in the hands of any nation
determined to join the nuclear club. Meanwhile the Bush administration
is dragging its feet, not taking the necessary steps to secure
weapons-grade nuclear materials that are poorly-secured in 100
countries. And, finally, the administration has thumbed its nose at
international treaties against abuse and torture of prisoners -- thus
creating an inferno of white-hot hatred against the U.S. among Al
Qaeda and its suicide-bomber followers. Does anyone besides me think
this is a sure recipe for trouble ahead?

No, it has not been a good year for the nuclear industry. One of
these days, after a small A-bomb goes off in New York or Chicago,
the nuclear era will draw to a close definitively. But so, too, most
likely, will the world's 200-year-long era of experimenting with
democratic self-governance.

It must be apparent to almost everyone involved -- though few will
venture to say so -- that nuclear technologies are simply too complex
and unforgiving to be controlled by mere mortals. We humans are simply
not up to the task of managing this hydra-headed monster.

If we earthlings are anywhere near as smart as we seem to think we
are, we would learn from the nuclear fiasco and declare a world-wide
policy of No Nukes. Then we would declare a moratorium on further
deployment of the products of synthetic biology, nanotechnology
and biotechnology -- all of which are far more powerful and far
less-easily controlled than nuclear power and nuclear bombs.