Meltdown, USA: Nuclear Drive Trumps Safety Risks and High Cost

Wednesday, 06 January 2010 14:15 By Art Levine, t r u t h o u t | News Analysis | name.

Meltdown, USA: Nuclear Drive Trumps Safety Risks and High Cost
(Photo: Matthew Strmiska; Edited: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t)

The pro-nuclear Department of Energy is set to offer this month the first of nearly $20 billion in loan guarantees to a nuclear industry that hasn't built a plant since the 1970s or raised any money to do so in years. But although the industry is seeking to cash in on global warming concerns with $100 billion in proposed loan guarantees, environmentalists, scientists and federal investigators are warning that lax oversight by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) of the nation's aging 104 nuclear plants has led to near-meltdowns along with other health and safety failings since Three Mile Island - including what some critics say is a flawed federal health study apparently designed to conceal cancer risks near nuclear plants.

Also See: Part II: Energy Department, NRC Back Nuclear, Ignore Industry’s Dirty Little Secrets

All that is joined by the dangers and risks posed by at least 30 tons yearly of radioactive, cancer-causing, nuclear waste produced at each 1,000 megawatt plant; projected costs of $12 billion to $25 billion for any new plants (built largely through taxpayer support); and their ongoing vulnerability to terrorist attacks at sites like Indian Point, 35 miles from New York.
 
For instance, a meltdown of the two reactors at Indian Point, dubbed "Chernobyl on the Hudson," could quickly kill nearly 50,000 people with radiation poisoning in a 50-mile radius and cause over 500,000 cancer deaths within six years, according to research by the Union of Concerned Scientists and other experts.
 
"Nothing's changed," said Paul Gunter, director of Reactor Oversight for the Beyond Nuclear reform group, about nuclear plants. "They're still dirty, dangerous and expensive."
 
But such concerns stand in sharp contrast to wave of a positive PR about the nuclear industry as the "clean air energy" solution to global warming, driven by ads, campaign donations and lobbying - and abetted by media outlets too often willing to accept industry and Nuclear Regulatory Commission spin at face value.
 
Even so, there's little reason to have confidence in the NRC's ability to protect the public or successfully monitor the current nuclear plants, let alone any new ones. In fact, with the bulk of its funding coming from nuclear utility industry fees, the agency appears to be literally asleep at the wheel, allowing everything from near meltdowns in a Toledo plant to ignoring internal reports of rent-a-cops at vulnerable nuclear plants sleeping on the job - until the negative publicity became too overwhelming. Ultimately, the agency gave that Exelon company a mild $65,000 fine last year. Meanwhile, researchers for the Project on Government Oversight and Union of Concerned Scientists found that the utility, the Wackenhut Security Firm and the NRC all knew well before the scandal broke publicly that guards were sleeping on the job at the Peach Bottom facility in Pennsylvania.
 
As one researcher pointed out in 2008 testimony, "Neither Wackenhut nor Exelon nor NRC acted upon the security allegations to correct the problem."
 
The NRC's coziness with industry extends to some of its own commissioners. As its own inspector general reported, before a Bush-appointed commissioner left in mid-2007, he made decisions that could benefit financially three firms he was negotiating with for jobs - including a ruling that apparently helped loosen regulatory requirements for an emergency cooling system in a Westinghouse plant.
 
Obama's latest proposed appointee to the agency isn't necessarily any less pro-industry. As Mother Jones reported about Peter Magwood: "Both before and after his time in government, he has worked as an enthusiastic advocate for nuclear interests in the private sector-including for at least one company likely to have business before the NRC in the near future."
 
Indeed, there are few limits, no matter how absurd, to how far the NRC is willing to go to cut the industry plenty of slack, no matter how dangerous to the public. Take the case of the noncombustible foam that the agency ordered nuclear plants to buy in the late 1990s as a sealant to help prevent the spread of fire from room to room in a plant. It turned out that there was a small problem with this well-meaning plan: the brand of silicone foam bought by most of the nuclear power companies turned out to be, well, combustible. So, did the NRC then promptly order the dangerous, potentially life-threatening foam removed? No, of course not: it just revised its regulations to drop the phrase and requirement of "noncombustibility" for the foam.
 
Paul Gunter, then with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, found himself in the Kafkaesque position of having to argue in regulatory comments against the logical insanity of dropping the word "noncombustible" in requirements for fire-preventing foam. In bold letters, he wrote, "NRC PROPOSED ACTION INCREASES THE RISK OF A NUCLEAR ACCIDENT RESULTING FROM THE REDUCTION OF DEFENSE-IN-DEPTH OF FIRE PROTECTION SYSTEMS...." He then attempted to reason with the NRC, noting, "the material in question is designated as a fire-barrier seal." He and other critics did not prevail, and the NRC continues to allow nuclear companies to buy combustible foam as fire prevention sealants. "The shit burns, it's combustible and it leaves charring," Gunter now pointed out, asking, reasonably, how it could possibly meet fire protection standards.
 
The NRC also uses technicalities in other ways to advance industry interests. As Beyond Nuclear and other critics point out, there's an important reason that so little is known about the dangers of radiation for those living near nuclear plants in America: there's very little well-designed research that has been done on the issue.
 
There are some exceptions: a Massachusetts Department of Public Health study in the late 1980s, though, found a 400 percent increase in leukemia for those living downwind from the Pilgrim plant, and a recent German government study found that children under five living less than five kilometers from a nuclear plant had twice the risk of contracting leukemia of those living more than five kilometers away.
 
Yet, one of the most influential American studies on the topic was released in 1990 by the National Cancer Institute at the behest of the NRC - and it found, by studying the overall cancer incidence of those living in surrounding counties, nuclear power plants posed no apparent radiation risk for those living in the area. Yet, while hailed by the nuclear industry and the NRC, scientific and medical critics of nuclear power had strong doubts about the study's design and its failure to measure the impact on those living nearby.
 
As The New York Times reported:
But Daryl Kimball, associate director for policy of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a national organization of medical professionals concerned with nuclear war and other dangers from nuclear power, said the study ''raises more questions than it answers.''
 
Mr. Kimball said the study diluted the risks of exposure to radiation from nuclear plants by examining entire counties instead of areas where people were directly exposed to radiation. He cited the Fernald weapons plant near Cincinnati, where over 500,000 pounds of uranium were released into the atmosphere. This uranium may have fallen on only a small area, he said, but the study includes all the people in the surrounding counties.
Because of questions about conflict of interest and research integrity, Beyond Nuclear, among others, is asking the NRC to take a hands-off position in commissioning a new academic study. "The NRC receives about 90 percent of its funding from nuclear power reactor licensing fees," said Cindy Folkers, radiation and health specialist with Beyond Nuclear. "As such, NRC clearly stands to gain from more reactor construction.
 
Therefore, it should not be doing cancer studies or directly hiring people to conduct such studies. This is a flagrant conflict-of-interest and puts a scientifically rigorous, non-biased study at great risk." In response, a spokesperson for the NRC said the agency is using a peer-review panel of experts drawn from the National Cancer Institute and other agencies to oversee the research. "The panel will provide comments on the proposed methodology before the study is done, and it will review the study's results, ensuring a scientifically sound project that uses the latest available data," spokesman Scott Burnell said in an emailed response.
 
On top of all the safety concerns, recent problems with nuclear plants in France raise even more questions about the value of nuclear power as an essential tool in the fight against global warming. As noted by Greenpeace in its mocking year-end round-up:
France - one the world's leaders in nuclear power, let us not forget - was having to import electricity during the summer because its nuclear reactors couldn't function in the hot weather. That might pose a few problems in the face of rising global temperatures. And they say nuclear power can help save us from global warming?
 
(Then it was announced that France was having to import electricity during the winter as a significant number of the country's reactors would be out of action during those months as well.)
 
Nuclear power - reliably unreliable.  
Yet, despite all these problems, a seemingly benign solution for global warming - nuclear energy - has boundless, if simplistic, appeal, even if it could take years to build and threatens public health and safety, while undermining with billions devoted to nuclear bailouts genuine renewable energy.
 
Still, the pro-nuclear pitch is especially welcomed by media outlets when it advances the seemingly fresh story line of environmentalists embracing nuclear power, as delivered by the likes of ex-Greenpeace activist Patrick Moore, whose financial ties to a Nuclear Energy Institutefront group are rarely disclosed.
 
For instance, as the Center for Media and Democracy has noted, Moore has recently placed op-eds extolling nuclear power in such reputable publications as The Philadelphia Inquirer, while being paid by the front organization The Clean and Safe Energy Industry Coalition (CASE). This flack outfit, nominally headed by former Gov. and EPA Director Christine Todd Whitman, was actually established by the PR firm Hill and Knowlton at the behest of the Nuclear Energy Institute.
 
Moore outlined recently the selling points that the nuclear industry - and its allies in Congress - are promoting to sprinkle eco-friendly fairy dust around the grim nuclear industry that Wall Street and private investors won't touch
Old Foes Welcome Clean Fuel 
Rising demand for emission-free energy is spurring a nuclear rebirth.
 
By Patrick Moore
 
Nuclear energy, a prime source of electricity for Pennsylvania, is finally getting the respect it deserves.
 
It's not hard to see why: America's power needs continue to grow, and meeting them without harming the environment calls for every available nonpolluting energy source.
 
Nuclear energy is the most dependable and cost-effective such option.
It isn't the only solution, of course. Wind, geothermal, and other renewable energy sources will likely become a bigger part of Pennsylvania's energy portfolio, and America's. But nuclear energy will be expected to shoulder the biggest load.
 
Because nuclear energy is virtually emissions-free, America's 104 nuclear reactors already account for nearly 75 percent of the country's clean energy, and 93 percent of Pennsylvania's.
 
Nuclear energy has maintained a strong record of safety, reliability, and efficiency for decades, and Americans increasingly appreciate its environmental and economic benefits. A recent Gallup poll showed that 59 percent of Americans support using nuclear energy to meet the country's energy needs. Support is even higher in Pennsylvania, reaching 82 percent of residents polled last year for the Pennsylvania Energy Alliance.  
Unfortunately for Moore and fellow spinmeisters, nuclear energy isn't the clean, harmless, renewable resource it's portrayed here and by nuclear propaganda. The "clean air energy" meme comes complete with lovely images of the nuclear icon surrounded by leaves and flowers, or as in the Nuclear Energy Institute's web site, features a happy family cavorting in a flowery green field. In fact, as Greenpeace, among others, has pointed out:
Let's be blunt here. This isn't just misleading. This isn't just misinformation. This is a lie.
 
Nuclear energy is not clean energy. One need only look at the environmental destruction caused by uranium mining. In his book ‘Wollaston: People Resisting Genocide’, Miles Goldstick details the damage brought to the lives of the people living around the uranium mines in Canada's Saskatchewan province. The accumulation of radioactive isotopes in edible plants. The lead, arsenic, uranium and radium found downstream from the mines. The spills that J.A. Keily, then Vice President of Production and Engineering for Gulf Minerals Rabbit Lake, described in 1980 as “probably too numerous to count.”
 
These are stories found wherever uranium mining takes place. The ruined lives, the contamination, the cover-ups, and the deception. And that's before we even consider what happens to the waste produced by generating nuclear energy.
 
As for ‘nuclear is non-emitting’, it takes just five seconds to Google for ‘nuclear power’ and ‘emissions’ to show that statement for the ridiculous falsehood that it is. 
The full lifecycle of a plant, from mining uranium through building a plant and shipping to "decommissioning" a facility, generates extensive greenhouse gases that essentially outweigh any carbon reductions at the plant itself. Moreover, when compared to quickly built renewables such as wind "farms," as Rocky Mountain Institute Chairman Amory Lovins told Truthout, "Building nuclear plants retards climate protection. It's so expensive and so slow, it save much less energy than renewables." As he's pointed out in his challenge to pro-nuclear economic myths and in his blunt analysis, "Forget Nuclear":
 New nuclear power is so costly that shifting a dollar of spending from nuclear to efficiency protects the climate several-fold more than shifting a dollar of spending from coal to nuclear. Indeed, under plausible assumptions, spending a dollar on new nuclear power instead of on efficient use of electricity has worse climate effect than spending that dollar on new coal power!" 
And that's exactly what the proposed $100 billion or more in nuclear subsidies being tacitly accepted, so far, by environmental groups such as Sierra Club as part of a climate bill would do: "All the money to go into nuclear power, 15 billion dollars per power plant, is being stolen from the solutions to fix the earth - solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, conservation," Dr. Helen Caldicott told protesters at the Copenhagen 15 conference.
 
In addition, funds spent on renewable energy can produce more jobs than nuclear construction will, assuming a nuclear plant even gets built, with delays as long as ten years. After initial construction spending for a nuclear plant, relatively few workers are needed for the largely automated plant, while renewables - such as solar and wind power - and energy efficiency projects, such as “cash for caulkers,” keep generating construction, upkeep and management jobs.
 
But most critically, nuclear power-generated electricity is so much more expensive for consumers and businesses to use than renewables and conservation combined. That means that a new 1,000 megawatt nuclear plant would rob electricity users of $256 million they could have used for everything from making individual purchases to hiring more workers, according to John A. "Skip" Laitner, the director of economic and social analysis for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). “Energy-related sectors don’t support anywhere near the jobs that other sectors of the economy do,” he pointed out. “So going the nuclear route is a net loss to the economy” - except, of course, for the extra spending on hospitals and doctors to treat those residents near nuclear plants and mining facilities who develop cancers or birth defects.
 
Moreover, as Dr. Caldicott and other experts have noted, "Large amounts of the now-banned chlorofluorocarbon gas (CFC) are emitted during the enrichment of uranium. CFC gas is not only 10,000 to 20,000 times more efficient as an atmospheric heat trapper ('greenhouse gas') than CO2, but it is a classic 'pollutant' and a potent destroyer of the ozone layer."
 
In fact, it is the mining of uranium, followed by its "enrichment" - using carbon-polluting, complex ultracentrifuges or gaseous diffusion processes - to separate it into fissionable U-235 isotopes that are the dark truths about nuclear power hidden among the greenery of the industry's propaganda. As Greenpeace pointed out:
Nuclear fuel production - the mining, milling and enriching of uranium - is one of the nuclear industry's dirty secrets. Very little attention is paid to it by industry propagandists and pro-nuclear politicians and for very good reason. It's dirty, dangerous, incredibly damaging to the environment and endangers the health of those people unfortunate enough to live close to uranium mines.
 
To hear some supporters of nuclear energy talk, you'd think the whole process of generating electricity begins with the throwing of a reactor's “on” switch. But there's a long story before we even get that far. It's also a long, sad story that often goes untold in the wider media.
 
Pick any uranium mine around the world and it will invariably be surrounded by stories of pollution, contamination and the exploitation of local communities. Niger, Namibia, Brazil, Canada, Kazakhstan.
 
And Australia. The country's “Environment Minister Peter Garrett has formally approved the new Four Mile uranium mine in South Australia, saying it poses no environmental risks.”  
The article goes on to chronicle ten major spills of radioactive materials in Australia in the last decade at that mine.
 
In fact, the true dangers of this uranium mining and enrichment are becoming tragically and increasingly apparent - and will doubtless spread as more plants could get built worldwide. All this adds to the ongoing, unsolved problem of finding a safe repository in the United States for radioactive waste from nuclear plants still kept at their sites, now that long-delayed plans to use Yucca Mountain in Nevada have finally fallen apart.
 
As Greenpeace asked, “Delays in the construction and opening of Yucca Mountain have been seen as a large obstacle to the expansion of nuclear power in the US. With no viable plan for the safe disposal of nuclear waste in the country how can the go ahead for further nuclear reactors be given?”
 
Moreover, whether in Native-American reservations here or in Niger villages abroad, indigenous, impoverished people live near or work in uranium mines to supply nuclear plants, and suffer the consequences in cancers, birth defects and leukemia.
 
It's a cruel irony that the poisonous levels of radiation in the uranium waste found in Niger villages comes from mining by the French nuclear company AREVA; their trouble-plagued plants and behind-schedule production are somehow seen as a role model for America's proposed next generation of nuclear plants - and slated to be supported by US taxpayer-backed loan guarantees.
 
As Greenpeace asked recently, in awarding the 2009 "Blind Eye” Award:
 For many of us, some of the electricity we use every day comes from nuclear power stations. Those reactors are fuelled with uranium. Do you know where that uranium comes from?
 
Does it come from Namibia where uranium mining has made the traditional lifestyles of the Topnaar Nama people ‘impossible to maintain’. Does it come from Caetite in Brazil where the drinking water has been contaminated with uranium? Does it come from Australia or Canada where there native peoples' ways of life are threatened? Does it come from Niger whose streets where children play are contaminated with radiation?
 Here's what the impact has been on the villagers in a town in Niger, an emblem of the dangers that are downplayed as the nuclear industry increasingly wins more acceptance:
 

Last modified on Thursday, 07 January 2010 11:56