Rachel's Democracy & Health News #837, 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 open.

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 weapons.

** 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.