From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #837, Jan. 12, 2006
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
** 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
** 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
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
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
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.