July 2, 2001 7:04 am
Let's avoid a future that's this 'glowing'
Date published: Sun, 07/01/2001
PURCELLVILLE--To grow up in southern Pennsylvania was to live in the shadow of what might have been. After the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear-reactor accident--during which a small amount of radiation entered the atmosphere and a complete meltdown was narrowly avoided--the fear of contamination from a radioactive release became a constant for those living around the reactor.
While the entire country shared similar fears under the specter of Soviet nuclear attack, the collective mind of these residents assumed an intimate understanding: That thing almost killed us, and still can.
Studying in Russia years later, I began to fully realize how complete the devastation from a meltdown might have been. On a Moscow street, a somber parade of protesters slowly filed past me one afternoon, carrying placards demanding long-past-due reparations for the victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident.
Many of the signboards bore photos of those living with the effects of radiation contamination, and others were inscribed with name after name in remembrance of those who had lost their lives.
Back stateside, we cling to the belief that superior reactor design and site monitoring now preclude such tragedy here. With 20 percent of our current domestic energy supply generated by just over 100 nuclear power plants, the Bush administration has suggested a deeper devotion to nuclear energy.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham explained before a recent congressional subcommittee hearing that "the investments that the Department of Energy proposed to make in nuclear energy, science, and technology are driven by the recognition that nuclear technology serves the national interest for reliable, affordable, and environmentally sustainable electricity."
Yet if the administration is truly seeking environmentally safe and affordable electricity generation, increased nuclear-power production is a horrible strategy to achieve these goals.
One of the main reasons that nuclear energy has re-entered the national debate is because it has been characterized by its proponents as a nongreenhouse-gas-emitting form of energy production. True, actually splitting atoms releases no carbon dioxide. But the processes involved in extracting the uranium used in nuclear reactors release large amounts of carbon dioxide, and the plants that refine uranium also emit greenhouse gases.
That's not all some uranium-enrichment plants release into the air. According to the Environmental Protection Agency's 1999 toxic release inventory, miles of leaky pipes at the U.S. Enrichment Corporation's plants in Kentucky and Ohio released 818,000 pounds of the chlorofluorocarbon CFC-114. This accounts for 88 percent of the national total emissions of the ozone-destroying chemical from all industrial sources.
The CFC is released despite being banned by the Montreal Protocol and the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. Loopholes allow existing supplies to be used until they run out, even though adequate technology exists to stop these discharges.
Still more troubling is what's left over after atoms have been split. Since nuclear-power generation started in this country, we have amassed tons of nuclear waste, even though no long-term disposal technique or storage location has ever been decided.
When dealing with some of the most lethal substances known to man--substances that last for 20,000 years--addressing this hazard is of no small importance. Since 1982, Congress has put its faith, and $4 billion of taxpayer money, in just one possible permanent underground burial site, the Yucca Mountain repository on the land of the Western Shoshone in Nevada.
Until the recent defection of Vermont Sen. James Jeffords from the Republican Party, Congress seemed ready to push to formally open Yucca Mountain to shipments of nuclear waste, despite overwhelming evidence that the site was unsafe.
Early site analysis revealed that fractures in the rock surrounding the repository would allow radioactive gases to be released as waste decayed, but the site was subsequently exempted from EPA release standards. Then the Department of Energy found in 1998 that water moved rapidly through Yucca Mountain's rock, and should containment fail, groundwater could easily be contaminated.
Despite being a clear violation of DOE's own site-suitability guidelines, Yucca Mountain remained under consideration, with Congress questioning the suitability guidelines instead of the site.
Over 30 fault lines also run near Yucca Mountain, and more than 600 earthquakes have struck within 50 miles of the site during the past 20 years. And a line of volcanic cinder cones stretches to the west of the site, suggesting an underground magma pocket that could trigger a violent explosion at any time.
With the leading carbon alloy intended to be the first line of defense against leakage from the site for the next 10,000 years recently failing simulated-conditions tests, it becomes clear why the Nevada state Senate just approved $4 million to fight the site.
Legislative attention and rhetoric will now likely turn to initiatives calling for increased reprocessing or "recycling" of radioactive waste. The only problem with such efforts is that most attempts at reprocessing radioactive waste so far have ultimately resulted in simply more concentrated waste, which now still awaits permanent disposal.
The foremost recycling process, which uses mixed-oxide fuel, hinges on unproven experimental technology. There are so many serious questions surrounding mixed-oxide fuel recycling that only one of the 15 public utilities approached about the program by DOE, Duke Power, would even enter into it.
Until a permanent disposal strategy for nuclear waste is developed, it will continue being amassed in dry casks sunken in large containment pools on the grounds of operational reactors. While never intended to be anything but a temporary storage technique, dry casking has proven dangerous at several sites where containment has already begun to fail, including several in the Southeast.
Dry casking also elevates the threats of terrorism and proliferation by rogue nations. These concerns are heightened by chronic security lapses at reactor sites. The head of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service's Reactor Watchdog Project, Paul Gunter, reported that half of the operational reactors in the United States failed security tests, in which covert teams tried to breach reactor sites.
Yet the public is still expected to believe that nuclear energy is safe. Why then, we should all ask, is the administration pushing so hard for renewal of the Price-Anderson Act? Originally passed in 1957 to help the fledgling nuclear industry get off the ground, Price-Anderson limits the liability of the nuclear industry to just over $9 billion should an accident occur.
Estimates have placed the amount of liability that could befall the industry in the event of a severe accident at well over $300 billion--exposing taxpayers to assumption of the difference.
It is hidden costs such as those in Price-Anderson--as well as the expenses of plant construction, maintenance, decommissioning, and waste disposal--that expose the falsehood in the nuclear industry's claims of affordable power generation.
"Pennies-per-kilowatt/hour," one of the industry's most common slogans, falls flat when true costs are calculated.
The Bush administration's devotion to our national nuclear investment would not be so galling if it was proposed only to buy time until lesser-polluting and truly sustainable energy programs could take root. But the administration's budget concurrently proposes cuts in research and development for fuel efficiency, renewable energy sources, and conservation programs, while boosting the role of heavily polluting fossil fuels.
Atop being a negligent investment in our future, these moves ignore the lessons of history. Let's hope the fallout is only political.