Tags: daichi, fuel rods, fukushima, harvey wasserman, iaec, nuclear, nuclear disaster, nuclear energy, radioactive water, roger hollander, tepco
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Roger’s note: I posted a few days ago a similar article by the same author. Frankly, what is happening at Fukushima scares the hell out of me, and it seems that nobody is listening. This should cause you to lose sleep: “As former Ambassador Mitsuhei Murata has put it: full-scale releases from Fukushima “would destroy the world environment and our civilization. This is not rocket science, nor does it connect to the pugilistic debate over nuclear power plants. This is an issue of human survival.”
More than 48,000 global citizens have now signed a petition at www.nukefree.org asking the United Nations and the world community to take charge of the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant. Another 35,000 have signed at www.rootsaction.org. An independent advisory group of scientists and engineers is also in formation. The signatures are pouring in from all over the world. By November, they will be delivered to the United Nations.
The corporate media has blacked out meaningful coverage of the most critical threat to global health and safety in decades.
The much-hyped “nuclear renaissance” has turned into a global rout. In the face of massive grassroots opposition and the falling price of renewable energy and natural gas, operating reactors are shutting and proposed new ones are being cancelled.
This lessens the radioactive burden on the planet. But it makes the aging reactor fleet ever more dangerous. A crumbling industry with diminished resources and a disappearing workforce cannot safely caretake the decrepit, deteriorating 400-odd commercial reactors still licensed to operate worldwide.
All of which pales before the crisis at Fukushima. Since the 3/11/2011 earthquake and tsunami, the six-reactor Daichi site has plunged into lethal chaos.
For decades the atomic industry claimed vehemently that a commercial reactor could not explode. When Chernobyl blew, it blamed “inferior” Soviet technology.
But Fukushima’s designs are from General Electric (some two dozen similar reactors are licensed in the US). At least four explosions have rocked the site. One might have involved nuclear fission. Three cores have melted into the ground. Massive quantities of water have been poured where the owner, Tokyo Electric (Tepco), and the Japanese government think they might be, but nobody knows for sure.
As the Free Press has reported, steam emissions indicate one or more may still be hot. Contaminated water is leaking from hastily-constructed tanks. Room for more is running out. The inevitable next earthquake could rupture them all and send untold quantities of poisons pouring into the ocean.
The worst immediate threat at Fukushima lies in the spent fuel pool at Unit Four. That reactor had been shut for routine maintenance when the earthquake and tsunami hit. The 400-ton core, with more than 1300 fuel rods, sat in its pool 100 feet in the air.
Spent fuel rods are the most lethal items our species has ever created. A human standing within a few feet of one would die in a matter of minutes. With more than 11,000 scattered around the Daichi site, radiation levels could rise high enough to force the evacuation of all workers and immobilize much vital electronic equipment.
Spent fuel rods must be kept cool at all times. If exposed to air, their zirconium alloy cladding will ignite, the rods will burn and huge quantities of radiation will be emitted. Should the rods touch each other, or should they crumble into a big enough pile, an explosion is possible. By some estimates there’s enough radioactivity embodied in the rods to create a fallout cloud 15,000 times greater than the one from the Hiroshima bombing.
The rods perched in the Unit 4 pool are in an extremely dangerous position. The building is tipping and sinking into the sodden ground. The fuel pool itself may have deteriorated. The rods are embrittled and prone to crumbling. Just 50 meters from the base is a common spent fuel pool containing some 6,000 fuel rods that could be seriously compromised should it lose coolant. Overall there are some 11,000 spent rods scattered around the Fukushima Daichi site.
Dangerous as the process might be, the rods in the Unit Four fuel pool must come down in an orderly fashion. Another earthquake could easily cause the building to crumble and collapse. Should those rods crash to the ground and be left uncooled, the consequences would be catastrophic.
Tepco has said it will begin trying to remove the rods from that pool in November. The petitions circulating through www.nukefree.org and www.moveon.org , as well as at rootsaction.org and avaaz.org, ask that the United Nations take over. They ask the world scientific and engineering communities to step in. The Rootsaction petition also asks that $8.3 billion slated in loan guarantees for a new US nuke be shifted instead to dealing with the Fukushima site.
It’s a call with mixed blessings. The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency is notoriously pro-nuclear, charged with promoting atomic power as well as regulating it. Critics have found the IAEA to be secretive and unresponsive.
But Tepco is a private utility with limited resources. The Japanese government has an obvious stake in downplaying Fukushima’s dangers. These were the two entities that approved and built these reactors.
While the IAEA is imperfect, its resources are more substantial and its stake at Fukushima somewhat less direct. An ad hoc global network of scientists and engineers would be intellectually ideal, but would lack the resources for direct intervention.
Ultimately the petitions call for a combination of the two.
It’s also hoped the petitions will arouse the global media. The moving of the fuel rods from Unit Four must be televised. We need to see what’s happening as it happens. Only this kind of coverage can allow global experts to analyze and advise as needed.
Let’s all hope that this operation proves successful, that the site be neutralized and the massive leaks of radioactive water and gasses be somehow stopped.
As former Ambassador Mitsuhei Murata has put it: full-scale releases from Fukushima “would destroy the world environment and our civilization. This is not rocket science, nor does it connect to the pugilistic debate over nuclear power plants. This is an issue of human survival.”
Crisis at Fukushima Continues to Spiral With Hole in Radiation Barrier September 26, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Energy, Environment, Japan, Nuclear weapons/power.
Tags: andrea dgermanos, fukushima, fukushima crisis, fukushima radiation, harvey wasserman, nuclear, nuclear contamination, nuclear disaster, nuclear power, nuclear radiation, roger hollander
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Roger’s note: I sit here at my desk and wonder when someone is going to do something about an impending disaster of possibly unprecedented magnitude. Maybe a couple of hundred people will read this post, which makes me feel quite impotent. Please pass this on to someone who has access to someone with power in government. Anywhere!!!
Fence made of silt that sits in harbor has been breached, TEPCO admits, sparking further concern of ocean contamination
In the latest in a series of mishaps to hit the crisis-stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant, a radiation-stopping “fence” around the reactors has developed a hole, plant operator TEPCO admitted on Thursday.
Fences made of earth and sand sit in the harbor next to the plant and were erected to help contain radioactive material from flowing into the ocean. They “are suspended from floats and anchored with weights on the seafloor,” the Japan Times explains.
One of the fences that sits next to still-intact reactors five and six was found to be breached, sparking further worry about the amount of radioactive contamination heading into the ocean.
TEPCO has struggled to contain the “emergency without end” at Fukushima since the disaster began to unfold in March of 2011. An unsustainable contaminated water-storage system plagued by a series of leaks, soaring radiation levels in groundwater that head into the ocean, and high levels of radiation found in fish have catalyzed widespread resistance to nuclear power and raised international alarm.
As out of control as the situation seems, one expert has warned that it may actually be “much worse” than claimed. Also, long-time anti-nuclear activist Harvey Wasserman warned last week that a plan to “remove more than 1300 spent fuel rods from a badly damaged pool perched 100 feet in the air” risked putting the “hand of global nuclear disaster… painfully close to midnight.”
Humankind’s Most Dangerous Moment: Fukushima Fuel Pool at Unit 4. “This is an Issue of Human Survival.” September 21, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Environment, Japan, Nuclear weapons/power.
Tags: fukushima, harvey wasserman, nuclear, nuclear disaster, nuclear fuel rods, nuclear meltdown, radioactivity, reactor cores, roger hollander, tepco, tokyo electric
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ROGER’S NOTE: I AM NO SCIENTIST, BUT IF THE ANALYSIS CONTAINED IN THIS ARTICLE IS CREDIBLE, THEN IT SHOULD BE FRONT PAGE NEWS ON EVERY NEWSPAPER IN THE WORLD. FRIGHTENING, TRULY FRIGHTENING.
OpEdNews Op Eds 9/21/2013 at 15:08:52
We are now within two months of what may be humankind’s most dangerous moment since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
There is no excuse for not acting. All the resources our species can muster must be focussed on the fuel pool at Fukushima Unit 4.
Fukushima’s owner, Tokyo Electric (Tepco), says that within as few as 60 days it may begin trying to remove more than 1,300 spent fuel rods from a badly damaged pool perched 100 feet in the air. The pool rests on a badly damaged building that is tilting, sinking and could easily come down in the next earthquake, if not on its own.
Some 400 tons of fuel in that pool could spew out more than 15,000 times as much radiation as was released at Hiroshima.
The one thing certain about this crisis is that Tepco does not have the scientific, engineering or financial resources to handle it. Nor does the Japanese government. The situation demands a coordinated worldwide effort of the best scientists and engineers our species can muster.
Why is this so serious?
We already know that thousands of tons of heavily contaminated water are pouring through the Fukushima site, carrying a devil’s brew of long-lived poisonous isotopes into the Pacific. Tuna irradiated with fallout traceable to Fukushima have already been caught off the coast of California. We can expect far worse.
Tepco continues to pour more water onto the proximate site of three melted reactor cores it must somehow keep cool. Steam plumes indicate fission may still be going on somewhere underground. But nobody knows exactly where those cores actually are.
Much of that irradiated water now sits in roughly a thousand huge but fragile tanks that have been quickly assembled and strewn around the site. Many are already leaking. All could shatter in the next earthquake, releasing thousands of tons of permanent poisons into the Pacific.
The water flowing through the site is also undermining the remnant structures at Fukushima, including the one supporting the fuel pool at Unit Four.
More than 6,000 fuel assemblies now sit in a common pool just 50 meters from Unit Four. Some contain plutonium. The pool has no containment over it. It’s vulnerable to loss of coolant, the collapse of a nearby building, another earthquake, another tsunami and more.
Overall, more than 11,000 fuel assemblies are scattered around the Fukushima site. According to long-time expert and former Department of Energy official Robert Alvarez, there is more than 85 times as much lethal cesium on site as was released at Chernobyl.
Radioactive hot spots continue to be found around Japan. There are indications of heightened rates of thyroid damage among local children.
The immediate bottom line is that those fuel rods must somehow come safely out of the Unit Four fuel pool as soon as possible.
Just prior to the 3/11/11 earthquake and tsunami that shattered the Fukushima site, the core of Unit Four was removed for routine maintenance and refueling. Like some two dozen reactors in the US and too many more around the world, the General Electric-designed pool into which that core now sits is 100 feet in the air.
Spent fuel must somehow be kept under water. It’s clad in zirconium alloy which will spontaneously ignite when exposed to air. Long used in flash bulbs for cameras, zirconium burns with an extremely bright hot flame.
Each uncovered rod emits enough radiation to kill someone standing nearby in a matter of minutes. A conflagration could force all personnel to flee the site and render electronic machinery unworkable.
According to Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer with forty years in an industry for which he once manufactured fuel rods, the ones in the Unit 4 core are bent, damaged and embrittled to the point of crumbling. Cameras have shown troubling quantities of debris in the fuel pool, which itself is damaged.
The engineering and scientific barriers to emptying the Unit Four fuel pool are unique and daunting, says Gundersen. But it must be done to 100% perfection.
Should the attempt fail, the rods could be exposed to air and catch fire, releasing horrific quantities of radiation into the atmosphere. The pool could come crashing to the ground, dumping the rods together into a pile that could fission and possibly explode. The resulting radioactive cloud would threaten the health and safety of all of us.
Chernobyl’s first 1986 fallout reached California within 10 days. Fukushima’s in 2011 arrived in less than a week. A new fuel fire at Unit 4 would pour out a continuous stream of lethal radioactive poisons for centuries.
Former Ambassador Mitsuhei Murata says full-scale releases from Fukushima “would destroy the world environment and our civilization. This is not rocket science, nor does it connect to the pugilistic debate over nuclear power plants. This is an issue of human survival.”
Neither Tokyo Electric nor the government of Japan can go this alone. There is no excuse for deploying anything less than a coordinated team of the planet’s best scientists and engineers.
For now, we are petitioning the United Nations and President Obama to mobilize the global scientific and engineering community to take charge at Fukushima and the job of moving these fuel rods to safety.
You can sign the petition at: http://www.nukefree.org/crisis-fukushima-4-petition-un-us-global-response
If you have a better idea, please follow it. But do something and do it now.
The clock is ticking. The hand of global nuclear disaster is painfully close to midnight.
Nuclear’s Demise, From Fukushima to Vermont August 31, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Energy, Environment, Japan, Nuclear weapons/power, Vermont.
Tags: amy goodman, chernobyl, denis moynihan, energy corp, fukushima, japan nuclear, nuclear, nuclear catastrophe, nuclear disaster, nuclear energy, nuclear plants, nuclear power, peter shumlin, radiation leaks, radioactive water, roger hollander, tokyo electric, vermont, vermont government, vermont senate, vermont yankee
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Fukushima showed us the intolerable costs of nuclear power. The citizens of Vermont show us the benefits of shutting it down
Welcome to the nuclear renaissance.
Entergy Corp, one of the largest nuclear-power producers in the US, issued a surprise press release Tuesday, saying it plans “to close and decommission its Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station in Vernon, Vermont. The station is expected to cease power production after its current fuel cycle and move to safe shutdown in the fourth quarter of 2014.” Although the press release came from the corporation, it was years of people’s protests and state legislative action that forced its closure. At the same time that activists celebrate this key defeat of nuclear power, officials in Japan admitted that radioactive leaks from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear catastrophe are far worse than previously acknowledged.
“It took three years, but it was citizen pressure that got the state Senate to such a position”, nuclear-energy consultant Arnie Gundersen told me of Entergy’s announcement. He has coordinated projects at 70 nuclear plants around the country and now provides independent testimony on nuclear and radiation issues. He explained how the state of Vermont, in the first such action in the country, had banned the plant from operating beyond its original 40-year permit. Entergy was seeking a 20-year extension.
The legislature, in that 26-to-4 vote, said: ‘No, we’re not going to allow you to reapply. It’s over. You know, a deal’s a deal. We had a 40-year deal.’ Well, Entergy went to first the federal court here in Vermont and won, and then went to an appeals court in New York City and won again on the issue, as they framed it, that states have no authority to regulate safety.
Despite prevailing in the courts, Entergy bowed to public pressure.
Back in 2011, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, who called Entergy “a company that we found we can’t trust”, said on “Democracy Now!“:
We’re the only state in the country that’s taken power into our own hands and said that, without an affirmative vote from the state legislature, the public service board cannot issue a certificate of public good to legally operate a plant for another 20 years. Now, the Senate has spoken … saying no, it’s not in Vermont’s best interest to run an aging, leaking nuclear-power plant. And we expect that our decision will be respected.
The nuclear-power industry is at a critical crossroads. The much-touted nuclear renaissance is collapsing, most notably in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, compounded by the global financial crisis. In a recent paper titled “Renaissance in Reverse”, Mark Cooper, senior fellow for economic analysis at the Vermont Law School, writes, “The problem for old nuclear reactors has become acute.” The costs to operate, and to repair, these plants have prompted operators to shutter five of the 104 operating power generating reactors in the US this year alone, leaving 99. Cooper has identified 30 more that he estimates will be shut down, because “the economics of old reactors are very dicey”.
The profound consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power accident are still unfolding, as this week the Japanese Nuclear Regulatory Agency increased its assessment of the situation there to “level three”, or serious, on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. The original accident in March 2011 was rated a “seven” on that scale, the highest, most severe, threat. The nuclear fuel rods there require constant cooling by water. The spent cooling water is highly radioactive. The Tokyo Electric Power Co, which ran Fukushima and which has been responsible for all the cleanup, has been storing the radioactive water in hastily-constructed water tanks, which are now leaking. Gundersen said:
The surveys of the area determined that the radiation coming from the ground was five times more in an hour than a normal person would get in a year. Radioactive water is leaking out of this plant as fast as it’s leaking in. So, you’ve got something on the order of 400 tons to maybe even as much as a thousand tons of water a day leaking off of the mountains around Fukushima into the basement of this plant. Well, the basement is highly radioactive because the containment has failed and radioactive material is leaking out from the nuclear core into the other buildings. That’s being exposed to this clean groundwater and making it extraordinarily radioactive. … And the problem is going to get worse.
The Fukushima disaster has been compared to the catastrophe in Chernobyl, where a nuclear plant exploded in 1986, making the surrounding region uninhabitable. The radiation is spilling out of Fukushima into an ever-growing radioactive plume in the Pacific Ocean.
Fukushima shows us the intolerable costs of nuclear power. The citizens of Vermont show us the benefits of just saying no.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
Tags: andrea germanos, environment, fukushima, japan nuclear, nuclear, nuclear waste, radioactive contamination, radioactive waste, radioactive water, roger hollander, tepco
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Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority taskforce says TEPCO’s “sense of crisis is weak”
“Right now, we have an emergency.”
This was the warning given on Monday by Japan’s nuclear regulatory body, the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA), describing the radioactive water seeping into the ocean from the crisis-stricken Fukushima nuclear plant.
The emergency shows “why you can’t just leave it up to [plant operator] TEPCO alone,” Shinji Kinjo, head of an NRA task force, told Reuters.
Kinjo slammed TEPCO, which created a “temporary solution” of an underground barrier to stop water contamination, for having a “sense of crisis [that] is weak.” That underground barrier has been breached, allowing the radioactive water to be released, and could accelerate the flow of radioactive discharge from the plant into the ocean.
In July, TEPCO admitted for the first time that contaminated groundwater was leaking from the Fukushima plant into the ocean, and on Sunday gave its first estimate to the public on the amount of radioactive tritium that has leaked into the ocean since the disaster began in March of 2011.
NRA chief Shunichi Tanaka told reporters earlier last month, however, that his agency ‘strongly suspected’ that Fukushima was leaking radioactivity into the ocean and has been for two years.
Last month, former head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission Dale Klein was among other foreign nuclear experts at a panel in Tokyo blasting TEPCO’s handling of the crisis including cover-ups of the extent of the damage. “These actions indicate that you (TEPCO) don’t know what you are doing,” he said. “You do not have a plan and that you are not doing all you can to protect the environment and the people.”
Tags: fukushima, helen caldicott, japan, japan nuclear, michael kelley, nuclear power, radiation, radiation exposure, roger hollander
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There are about 360,000 Fukushima residents who were 18 or younger in March 2011.
Of more than 38,000 children tested from the Fukushima Prefecture in Japan, 36 percent have abnormal growths– cysts or nodules – on their thyroids a year after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, as reported by ENENews.
The shocking numbers come from the thyroid examination section of the “Sixth Report of Fukushima Prefecture Health Management Survey,” published by Fukushima Radioactive Contamination Symptoms Research (FRCSR) and translated by the blog Fukushima Voice.
Shunichi Yamashita, M.D., president of the Japan Thyroid Association, sent a letter to members in January with guidelines for treating thyroid abnormalities. In 2001 Yamashita co-authored a study that found normal children in Nagasaki to have 0 percent nodules and 0.8 percent cysts.
The introduction of the letter, written by Fukushima Voice, states that the results in Fukushima show a “much faster progression compared to Chernobyl” as research done around Chernobyl showed the rate of thyroid nodules in children 5 to 10 years after the accident to be 1.74 percent.
In March 2011 a massive earthquake triggered a tsunami that led to series of nuclear meltdowns and releases of radioactive materials at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, leading to the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
The introduction of the letter notes that Australian pediatrician Helen Caldicott said that is”not at all normal for children to have thyroid nodules or cysts and that early appearance of thyroid abnormalities, less than one year, meant the Fukushima children received a very high dose of radiation.
ENENews also reported a specific case in which three children in a family who lived 60 miles from the Fukushima nuclear plant were found to have multiple cysts on their thyroids.
Inside Fukushima August 20, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in Nuclear weapons/power.
Tags: anti-nuclear, fukushima, fukushima cleanup, kazuma obara, nuclear, nuclear disaster, nuclear power, nuclear reactor, roger hollander
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How the “Peaceful Atom” Became a Serial Killer March 26, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in Energy, Environment, Nuclear weapons/power.
Tags: chernobyl, chip ward, fuel rods, fukushima, meltdown, nrc, nuclear, nuclear energy, nuclear industry, nuclear meltdown, nuclear power, nuclear reactors, nuclear watchdogs, radiation, radioactive, roger hollander, three mile, uranium
Thursday 24 March 2011
When nuclear reactors blow, the first thing that melts down is the truth. Just as in the Chernobyl catastrophe almost 25 years ago when Soviet authorities denied the extent of radiation and downplayed the dire situation that was spiraling out of control, Japanese authorities spent the first week of the Fukushima crisis issuing conflicting and confusing reports. We were told that radiation levels were up, then down, then up, but nobody aside from those Japanese bureaucrats could verify the levels and few trusted their accuracy. The situation is under control, they told us, but workers are being evacuated. There is no danger of contamination, but stay inside and seal your doors.
The First Atomic Snow Job
The bureaucratization of horror into bland and reassuring pronouncements was to be expected, especially from an industry where misinformation is the rule. Although you might suppose that the nuclear industry’s outstanding characteristic would be its expertise, since it’s loaded with junior Einsteins who grasp the math and physics required to master the most awesomely sophisticated technology humans have ever created, think again. Based on the record, it’s most outstanding characteristic is a fundamental dishonesty. I learned that the hard way as a grassroots activist organizing opposition to a scheme hatched by a consortium of nuclear utilities to park thousands of tons of highly radioactive fuel rods, like the ones now burning at Fukushima, in my Utah backyard.
Here’s what I took away from that experience: the nuclear industry is a snake-oil culture of habitual misrepresentation, pervasive wishful thinking, deep denial, and occasional outright deception. For more than 50 years, it has habitually lied about risks and costs while covering up every violation and failure it could. Whether or not its proponents and spokespeople are dishonest or merely deluded can be debated, but the outcome — dangerous misinformation and the meltdown of honest civic discourse — remains the same, as we once again see at Fukushima.
Established at the dawn of the nuclear age, the pattern of dissemblance had become a well-worn rut long before the Japanese reactors spun out of control. In the early 1950s, the disciples of nuclear power, or the “peaceful atom” as it was then called, insisted that nuclear power would soon become so cheap and efficient that it would be offered to consumers for free. Visionaries that they were, they suggested that cities would be constructed with building materials impregnated with uranium so that snow removal would be unnecessary. Atomic bombs, they urged, should be used to carve out new coastal harbors for ships. In low doses, they swore, radiation was actually beneficial to one’s health.
Such notions and outright fantasies, as well as propaganda for a new industry and a new way of war — even if laughable today — had tragic results back then. Thousands of American GIs, for instance, were marched into ground zero just after above-ground nuclear tests had been set off to observe their responses to what military planners assumed would be the atomic battlefield of the future. Ignorance, it turns out, is not bliss, and thousands of those soldiers later became ill. Many died young.
Unwary civilians who lived downwind of America’s western testing grounds were also exposed to nuclear fallout and they, too, suffered horribly from a variety of cancers and other illnesses. Uranium miners exposed to radiation in the tunnels where they wrestled from the earth the raw materials for the nuclear age also became ill and died too soon, as did workers processing that uranium into weapons and fuel. Many of those miners were poor Navajos from my backyard in Utah where a new uranium boom, part of the so-called nuclear renaissance, was — before Fukushima — set to take shape.
How Unlikely Risks Become Inevitable
In the future, today’s low-risk claims from industry advocates will undoubtedly seem as tragically naïve as yesterday’s false claims. Yes, the likelihood that any specific nuclear power plant reactor will melt down may be slim indeed — which hardly means inconceivable — but to act as though nuclear risks are limited to the operation of power plants is misleading in the extreme. “Spent fuel” from reactors (the kind burning in Japan as I write) is produced as a plant operates, and that fuel remains super hot and dangerous for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. As we are learning to our sorrow at the Fukushima complex, such used fuel is hardly “spent.” In fact, it can be even more radioactive and dangerous than reactor cores.
Spent fuel continues to pile up in a nuclear waste stream that will have to be closely managed and monitored for eons, so long that those designing nuclear-waste repositories struggle with the problem of signage that might be intelligible in a future so distant today’s languages may not be understood. You might think that a danger virulent enough to outlast human languages would be a danger to avoid, but the hubris of the nuclear establishment is equal to its willingness to deceive.
A natural disaster, accident, or terrorist attack that might be statistically unlikely in any year or decade becomes ever more likely at the half-century, century, or half-millennium mark. Given enough time, in fact, the unlikely becomes almost inevitable. Even if you and I are not the victims of some future apocalyptic disturbance of that lethal residue, to consign our children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren to such peril is plainly and profoundly immoral.
Nuclear proponents have long wanted to limit the discussion of risk to plant operation alone, not to the storage of dangerous wastes, and they remain eager to ignore altogether the risks inherent in transporting nuclear waste (often called “mobile Chernobyl” by nuclear critics). Moving those spent fuel rods to future repositories represents a rarely acknowledged category of potential catastrophe. Just imagine a trainload of hot nuclear waste derailing catastrophically along a major urban corridor with the ensuing evacuations of nearby inhabitants. It means, in essence, that one of those Fukushima “pools” of out-of-control waste could “go nuclear” anywhere in our landscape.
Risk is about more than likelihood; it’s also about impact. If I tell you that your chances of being bitten by a mosquito as you cross my yard are one in a hundred, you’ll think of that risk differently than if I give you the same odds on a deadly pit viper. As events unfold in Japan, it’s ever clearer that we’re talking pit viper, not mosquito. You wouldn’t know it though if you were to debate nuclear industry representatives, who consistently downplay both odds and impact, and dismiss those who claim otherwise as hysterical doomsayers. Fukushima will assumedly make their task somewhat more difficult.
Hidden Costs and Wasted Subsidies
The true costs of nuclear power are another subject carefully fudged and obscured by nuclear power advocates. From its inception in federally funded labs, nuclear power has been highly subsidized. A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that “more than 30 subsidies have supported every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle from uranium mining to long-term waste storage. Added together, these subsidies have often exceeded the average market price for the power produced.” When it comes to producing electricity, these subsidies are so extensive, the report concludes, that “in some cases it would have cost taxpayers less to simply buy the kilowatts on the open market and give them away.”
If the nuclear club in Congress, led by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, gets its way, billions more in subsidies will be forthcoming, including massive federal loan guarantees to build the next generation of nuclear plants. These are particularly important to the industry, since bankers won’t otherwise touch projects that are notorious for mammoth cost overruns, lengthy delays, and abrupt cancellations.
The Obama administration has already proposed an additional $36 billion in such guarantees to underwrite new plant construction. That includes $4 billion for the construction of two new nuclear reactors on the Gulf Coast that are to be operated in partnership with Tokyo Electric Power Company — that’s right, the very outfit that runs the Fukushima complex. Yet when I debate nuclear advocates, they always claim that, in cost terms, nuclear power outcompetes alternative sources of energy like wind and solar.
That government gravy train doesn’t just stop at new power plants either. The feds have long assumed the epic costs of waste management and storage. If another multi-billion dollar project like the now-abandoned Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada is built, it will be with dollars from taxpayers and captive ratepayers (the free market be damned). Industry spokesmen insist that subsidizing such projects will be well worth it, since they will create thousands of new jobs. Unfortunately for them, a definitive 2009 University of Massachusetts study that analyzed various infrastructure investments including wind, solar, and retrofitting buildings to conserve energy placed nuclear dead last in job creation.
Finally, the recently renewed Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act limits the liability of nuclear utilities should a catastrophe like the one in Japan happen here in the United States. The costs of recovery from the Fukushima catastrophe will be astronomical. In the U.S., nuclear utilities would be off the hook for any of those costs and you, the citizen, would foot the bill. Despite their assurances that nothing can go wrong here, nuclear industry officials have made sure that in their business risk and reward are carefully separated. It’s a scenario we should all know well: private corporations take away profits when things go well, and taxpayers assume responsibility when shit happens.
Finally, nuclear power boosters like to proclaim themselves “green” and to claim that their industry is the ideal antidote to global warming since it produces no greenhouse gas emissions. In doing so, they hide the real environmental footprint of nuclear energy.
It’s quite true that no carbon dioxide comes out of power-plant smokestacks. However, maintaining any future infrastructure to handle the industry’s toxic waste is guaranteed to produce lots of carbon dioxide. So does mining uranium and processing it into fuel rods, building massive reactors from concrete and steel, and then behemoth repositories capable of holding waste for 1,000 years. Radiation from the Fukushima meltdown is now entering the Japanese food chain. How green is that?
The Watchdogs Play Dead
Over the course of nuclear power’s history, there have been scores of mishaps, accidents, violations, and problems that, chances are, you’ve never heard about. Beyond the unavoidable bad PR over the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, and now the Japanese catastrophe, the industry has an excellent record — of covering up its failures.
The co-dependent relationship between the nuclear corporations and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the federal agency charged with licensing and monitoring them, resembles the cozy relationship between the Securities Exchange Commission and Wall Street before the global economic meltdown of 2008. The NRC relies heavily on the industry’s own reports since only a small fraction of its activities can be inspected yearly.
A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety in 2010,” which highlights the NRC’s haphazard record of inspection and enforcement, makes clear just why the honor system that assumes utilities will honestly report problems has never worked. It describes 14 recent serious “near miss” violations that initially went unreported. At the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, only 38 miles north of the New York metropolitan area, for instance, NRC inspectors ignored a leaking water containment system for 15 years.
After a leaking roof forced the shutdown of two reactors at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear facility in Maryland, plant managers admitted that it had been leaking for eight years. When Honeywell hired temporary workers to replace striking union members at its uranium refinery in Illinois, they were slipped the correct answers to a test required for those allowed to work at nuclear plants, because otherwise they had neither the knowledge nor experience to pass.
The regulation of Japan’s nuclear industry mirrors the American model. Japan’s legacy of regulatory scandals, falsified safety records, underestimated risks, and cover-ups includes an incident in 1999 when workers mixed uranium in open buckets and exposed hundreds of coworkers to radiation. Two later died. Other scandals involved hiding cracks in steam pipes from regulators in 1989, lying about a fire and explosion at a plant near Tokyo in 1997, and covering up damage to a plant from an earthquake in 2007.
In the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe, we will no doubt discover how there, too, so-called watchdogs rolled over and played dead. In recent years, in fact, the Fukushima complex had the highest accident rate of any of the big Japanese nuclear plants. We’ve already learned that an engineer who helped design and supervise the construction of the steel pressure vessel that holds the melting fuel rods in Reactor No. 4 warned that it was damaged during production. He had himself initially orchestrated a cover-up of this fact, but revealed it a decade later — only to be ignored. During the complex’s construction by General Electric some 35 years ago, Dale Bridenbaugh, a GE employee, resigned after becoming convinced that the reactors being built were seriously flawed. He, too, was ignored. The Vermont Yankee reactor in Vermont and 23 others around the U.S. replicate that design.
Stay tuned, since more examples of reckless management will surely come to light…
Risk Is Not a Math Problem
That culture of secrecy is a logical fit for an industry that is authoritarian by nature. Unlike solar or wind power, nuclear power requires massive investments of capital, highly specialized expertise, robust security, and centralized control. Any local citizen facing the impact of a uranium mine, a power plant, or a proposed waste depository will attest that the owners, operators, and regulators of the industry are remote, unresponsive, and inaccessible. They misinform because they have the power to get away with it. The absence of meaningful checks and balances enables them.
Risk, antinuclear advocates quickly learn, is not simply some complicated math problem to be resolved by experts. Risk is, above all, a question of who is put at risk for whose benefit, of how the rewards, costs, and liabilities of an activity are distributed and whether that distribution is fair. Those are political questions that citizens directly affected should be answering for themselves. When it comes to nuclear power, that doesn’t happen because the industry is undemocratic to its core. Corporate officers treat downwind stakeholders with the same contempt they reserve for honest accountings of the industry’s costs and dangers.
It may be difficult for the average citizen to unpack the technicalities of nuclear power, or understand the complex physics and engineering involved in splitting atoms to make steam to produce electricity. But most of us are good at detecting bullshit. We know when something like the nuclear industry doesn’t pass the smell test.
There is a growing realization that our carbon-based energy system is warming and endangering this planet, but replacing coal and oil with nuclear power is like trading heroin for crack — different addictions, but no less unhealthy or risky. The “nuclear renaissance,” like the “peaceful atom” before it, is the energy equivalent of a three-card monte game, involving the same capitalist crooks who gave us oil spills, bank bailouts, and so many of the other rip-offs and scams that have plagued our lives in this new century.
They are serial killers. Stop them before they kill again. Credibility counts and you don’t need a PhD or a Geiger counter to detect it.
Chip Ward was a founder of HEAL Utah, a grassroots group that has led the opposition to the disposal of nuclear waste in Utah and the construction of a new reactor next to Green River. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West and Hope’s Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Ward discusses the endless legacy of nuclear power, click here, or download it to your iPod here.
Copyright 2011 Chip Ward