Small Steps Toward Monumental Future Disasters: Bush Tries to Revive Nuclear Power
By Herb Denenberg
May 30, 2001
WARNING: George W. Bush is about to launch a national policy that is so ridiculous, so outrageous, so outlandish, and so irrational that any five-year old child would know better.
To put this proposed national policy into perspective, consider this hypothetical. Would you take off in a new kind of airplane before anyone had figured out how to land it? Would you be willing to soar through the skies, while aeronautical engineers worked diligently to figure out a way to land the plane? After more than 50 years, we still have no way to store nuclear waste safely and permanently.
Or take another hypothetical. Would you buy into a regulatory system that thinks it can engineer a storage facility for deadly waste that will last 10,000 years or more? That’s what the Department of Energy thinks it can do.
Too ridiculous to be true? That is precisely what is going on with nuclear waste and nuclear power. We’ve had it around for well over half a century and we still don’t know how to store the nuclear waste. So it’s in temporary storage on the site of nuclear power plants, while we figure out what to do with this nuclear waste that remains dangerous for tens of thousands of years. In fact, Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, an anti-nuclear group, says nuclear waste is in fact dangerous virtually forever.
The depleted uranium that comes out of nuclear power plants is still being stored on the plants’ sites while they try to figure out where and how to store it safely for the thousands of years it remains hazardous. It poses a hazard where now stored, and will continue to pose a hazard wherever stored. Depleted uranium poses both a radioactive danger as well as a chemical toxicity, according to a recent monograph of the World Health Organization.
Now there’s a new push for nuclear power to solve our energy crisis. But that means the method of permanent storage has to be perfected. So guess what? Public hearings are scheduled by the US Department of Energy over a proposed deep-underground waste site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, which is about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. They’ve been working on this matter for 20 years, and now say it could be ready for operation by 2010. The nuclear industry is poised to ram the Yucca Mountain project through. That’s because nuclear plants now in operation will start running out of temporary storage space within a few years, and will have to find a dumping ground or close down.
The Yucca Mountain Storage site would cost $57.5 billion according to latest estimates. That’s up 26 percent just since 1998, and in the tradition of the nuclear industry that means it will cost perhaps $100-$200 billion by the time they’re done (if they’re ever done). One of the reasons for sky-high energy prices right now is the exorbitant cost of nuclear power plants that have been built in Pennsylvania and across the country. Billions of dollars invested in nuclear power plants are now being charged to electricity ratepayers.
Don’t rejoice over the location for permanent nuclear storage in the far West, namely, Nevada. We’ll all be endangered by the hazard. That’s because this radioactive-chemically-toxic substance will have to be shipped from nuclear power plants located in 31 states across the land. That means there will have to be 30,000 shipments of this deadly waste over 30 years through 43 states that will put 50,000 Americans at risk. Lisa Gue of the Critical Mass Energy and Environmental Program, an anti-nuclear organization, told me that is why her organization is launching a nationwide publicity campaign to prevent this transportation nightmare from becoming reality.
Even if completed, there’s no assurance of safety. For example, the Department of Energy says ground water contamination would be unlikely. That sounds like unlikely really means quite possible. Remember that the nuclear power industry has a long history of downplaying its risks and problems. Remember the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. This is an industry that can’t even keep its control room operators from sleeping on the job, as in the notorious incident at a Philadelphia Electric plant a few years ago, but it has no trouble making safety assurances whenever asked. Gue of Critical Mass also told me the regulatory timeframe for the Yucca Mountain storage site is 10,000 years. No one is smart enough, and certainly not the EPA, to mastermind that kind of facility. The 10,000 years comes closer to how long it takes the EPA to design and launch a program than to how long its approved work may last.
Despite the sorry history of the whole attempt to store the unstorable, the only thing in the way of Yucca Flats is EPA an EPA regulations that defines how leak-proof the site must be. When something stands in the way of nuclear power, such as safety, it is now likely to be swept away by the EPA. A Senator from Nevada, Harry Reid (D.) says the EPA will be asked to lower the leakage standard to make it easier to bury nuclear waste. The EPA usually lowers standards to meet the operating requests of the industry rather than raise standards to meet the safety requirements of the public.
In view of the present headlong rush to more energy production, especial y from oil, gas, coal, and nuclear, the most environmentally unfriendly, the EPA is likely to open the way to nuclear storage at Yucca Flats. That’s bad enough, but the nuclear revival raises bigger issues.
Nuclear power is still an unsafe technology that is not economically viable. If you doubt that, look at your insurance policies. An auto policy says it will not pay for loss to your auto “due to or as a consequence of radioactive contamination.” An auto medical payments policy doesn’t cover bodily injury caused by nuclear radiation. The homeowners policy says that loss to your home or personal property due to a nuclear hazard is not covered. Insurance industry experts know an unsafe technology when they see it, and they don’t want to insure nuclear hazards. There is a government program to provide some protection, but the way the law is written there is no guarantee all losses will be paid and there’s a good chance, in the event of a catastrophe, they won’t be paid.
If that picture isn’t grim enough, Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service tells me that nuclear power is becoming more dangerous by the hour. That’s because nuclear power plants are getting older and more worn out, and hence are more subject to accidents and malfunctioning. In addition, Gunter notes the trend is to run the plants harder to produce more power, while cutting down on the number of shutdowns for inspections and maintenance.
In addition, nuclear power is not only unsafe, but it is not viable economically. If it were not for research and special subsidies and special treatment of its liability, the industry could not operate because it would then have to pay its way including full liability for the risk it poses to the economy. Remember Three Mile Island came close to contaminating the whole state of Pennsylvania. Who would have paid for that? You can be sure it would not have been the nuclear power industry. Many critics say capitalism, not the clear catastrophe risk, killed the growth of nuclear power. Bankers and investors came to see nuclear power as an unsound technology and an unsound investment. That’s why nuclear growth stopped in the US back in the 70s and has virtually stopped worldwide.
The new interest in nuclear power proves we don’t learn much from history. Nuclear power, the unsafe and discredited technology, the industry that brought us Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and is still looking for a way to safely store nuclear waste for tens of thousands of years is on the verge of a government orchestrated comeback. The Director of Critical Mass, Wenonah Hauter, whose organization has studied nuclear power for decades, says that nuclear power is totally discredited and should be phased out, not ramped up. Americans were taken in by nuclear power in the 1970s, but surely we won’t fall for it again. But remember that nuclear power is a multi-billion dollar industry, and such industries usually get what they want when they’re willing to buy enough politicians to get majority votes.
As insurance commissioner of Pennsylvania in the early 1970s, my department concluded that nuclear power hazards were not insurable then, and everything I’ve see since affirms that conclusion. In 1973, as Pennsylvania Insurance Commissioner, here’s the way I put it:
“Remember: We’re talking about millions of lives and billions of dollars in property damage from a possible nuclear accident. It may be that nobody but God could write the insurance policy we need on nuclear power plants.
“Unless the nuclear establishment can prove infinite perfection, the only adequate insurance against catastrophic loss from nuclear accidents is to stop building more nuclear power plants and to begin closing down the ones we have now.
“It’s that simple.”
That’s what I wrote then, and it’s still that simple. It’s that simple perhaps to everyone but the nuclear power industry and the politicians now in charge of making our national energy policy.
What can you do? If you are for or against nuclear power, you may want to take a position on the “Nuclear Energy Supply Assurance Act of 2001” (Senate Bill 472). That is a bill introduced by Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) to give the nuclear industry a free hand. Here is there summary which is a perfect summary for this whole topic:
“The bill falsely claims that nuclear power is ‘essentially’ emissions-free by ignoring the significant carbon emissions from uranium mining, milling, enrichment and nuclear fuel fabrication. Nuclear power generates both high-level and low-level nuclear waste, which have been historically mismanaged. Daily reactor operation results in routine releases of long-lived and bioaccumulating radioactivity to the air and the water along with chemical contaminants and destructive thermal pollution. Accidental releases of radiation are an increasing risk with reduced regulations, human error and age-related deterioration of reactor safety systems. Eventually a mountain of contaminated materials from the reactor parts to the radioactive soil beneath closed nuclear power stations must be managed as toxic nuclear waste. Without continued federal aid, the failed nuclear power technology would collapse.”
What makes this more outrageous and incredible is that George W. Bush is cutting the budget for renewable energy while opening the floodgates for nuclear power, a technology clearly discredited, dangerous, and disastrous.
Herb Denenberg is a former Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner and Wharton School professor. He is now an adjunct professor of information science and technology and insurance at Cabrini College and consumer reporter for PBS affiliate WLVT. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more of his commentaries at http://thedenenbergreport.org or http://denenbergsdump.org