Playing with Nuclear Fire: Bush Turns Blind Eye to Number One Threat on American Soil
By Cheryl Seal
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This article was first published on 2/4/2002 in Unknown News and also appeared in NewsInsider this week. The information contained here, which has been reported by many experts, including the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientsts, has been consistently minimized or completely ignored by the Bush Administration. Now this week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission admits in a report demanded by Sen. Edward Markey, a Dem from Mass., that NOT ONE of the nation's 103 nuke plants could withstand an impact with an airliner.
A cornerstone of the Bush energy plan is revitalization of the nuclear fuel industry, an industry which has earned the public's suspicions for good reason. But even more problematic than bad image (that fear has never stopped an oil or coal baron, so why should it stop a nuke king?) is the practical problem of what to do with the industry's chief demon: nuclear wastes, most especially spent fuel rods. No one on the planet has figured out a permanent, truly safe way to dispose of this high level (level 4) nuclear waste.. So, for years, the spent rods have been accumulating in special pools and/or special metal and concrete "dry" casks at the facilities where they were used.
To make the nuke business profitable, the reactor folks need to do two main things: Relicense aging plants (which are now almost paid for after 30 years, but starting to deteriorate) and get rid of existing and future spent rods cheaply. Thanks to Bush, relicensing is going ahead rapidly even as I write this -- despite unanticipated problems found at the plants. Just fix 'em up sometime (wink wink) and we'll slap a seal of approval on it so you can crank 'er back up, is the Bush "oversight" method. One nuclear plant manager said he was frankly amazed at how quickly plants were being sped through the relicensing process -- in fact, in some cases, surrounding communities aren't being notified of relicensing until it is too late.
Now Bush is helping his nuke baron friends solve problem number 2: spent fuel. Here's the plan:
The industry will load the most dangerous materials on Earth onto everyday freight trains and send them rumbling across 43 different states, past 109 cities with populations greater than 100,000 and off to Nevada -- to a holding area beneath Yucca Mountain that may ultimately leak radiation, according to many geologists and nuclear experts. This transport plan does not call for a few shipments once in a while. Not even once every month or so. Nope -- we are talking about (all totalled) 96,300 shipments of spent nuclear fuel moving in a daily procession from civilian nuclear power plants and from the Department of Energy's weapons facilities. At all hours. In all conditions. Over rails that could never be rendered 100% secure. All in all, 70,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste (mostly spent rods) will pass within one mile of 60 million Americans.
Sound too incredible to be true -- like exaggerated "environmentalist hysterics?"
I only wish it was. But no, these are just the facts, ma'am. And they are taken from technical sources, chief among them the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a publication originally started by Albert Einstein and several other of the planet's most advanced thinkers and scientists (you notice I did not make those two things mutually inclusive). These guys know their stuff. Certainly a whole lot better than a pack of over-the-hill white guys with MBAs and law degrees who currently call themselves our "leaders."
So just what is high-level nuclear waste and, in particular, spent nuclear fuel rods?
The uranium used as fuel in nuclear reactors comes in the form of long (at least a few meters) rods. Once in the reactor, these rods undergo fission, the breaking down of the uranium atoms through intense bombardment with other particles. The energy release is intense -- when a rod is removed, the material is up to one million times more radioactive than it was before being used. In fact, spent fuel rods are the most dangerously radioactive substances on the face of the Earth and account for more than half of all the radioactivity generated since the bomb was dropped in Hiroshima. Anyone standing anywhere near a rod without protection will receive a fatal dose of irradiation with a few seconds.
Spent fuel rods are immediately placed in pools that are 40 feet deep and enclosed by concrete and steel walls at least 4 feet thick. Incredibly, most of these pools are above ground, and far more vulnerable to attack and accidental disasters, such as a fire, than the reactors themselves. If the rods are exposed to the air, which could happen if a crack caused enough water to leak from the pools, the rods would emit a blast of heat that would exceed 1,000° C. A catastrophic fire would be ignited that would trigger a nuclear disaster far worse than Chernobyl. Worst of all, a spent rod-induced fire cannot be extinguished by any known means and would roar on for days.
Fuel ponds contain a byproduct in the form of the isotope cesium-137, an intensely radioactive material that, once leaked, is absorbed into the food chain. Security experts at the NRC say that in a spent fuel building fire with just one pond involved, more cesium-137 would be released than the sum total of all the cesium-137 released by all the atmospheric nuclear weapons tests ever conducted in the Northern Hemisphere. An area of at up to 29,000 square miles around the site of such a fire at the largest pools would be rendered uninhabitable, according to a senior physicist for the Institute for Resources and Security studies. Among the events that could lead to a pool fire: leakage, evaporation, siphoning, pumping of the water, aircraft impact, earthquake, the dropping of a dry cask (a concrete and steel container used to store rods once they are removed from the pools), reactor accidents, or an explosion in or near the pool building.
Meanwhile -- incredibly! -- nuke plant owners, encouraged by Bush, are clamoring for permission to make their spent fuel ponds bigger so they can hold more rods.
Yet, at the same time, almost nothing is being done by the Bush administration to secure these facilities. In France, anti-aircraft missiles are deployed around the fuel ponds, while Germany makes sure its rods are stored in the most advanced dry casks available. Homeland security ought to earn its name and deploy forces around nuclear facilities, not around anti-globalization marchers.
Instead, Bush wants to ram through a plan to truck spent fuel rods across country, very possibly through your community. As one scientist with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service put it, the scheme amounts to playing radioactive Russian roulette on wheels. It may be okay, but then … it might not -- a game the nuclear industry folks call a "low-risk, high-consequence" scenario. The dry casks that the rods are placed in following removal from the pools are sturdy enough -- as long as nothing goes really wrong. They are designed to withstand an "engulfing fire" burning at 1,475 degrees F for 30 minutes.
However, if a train were to have an accident in a tunnel which resulted in a fire, the casks would be useless. In fact, if the train that derailed and burst into flame in the tunnel in Baltimore last summer had been carrying spent fuel rods in dry casks, a large area of Baltimore would be but a soot stain on the map. That tunnel fire burned at at least 1,500 F for many hours -- quite sufficient to have turned the derailment into an event that could have dwarfed the 9/11 disaster. The entire city of Baltimore would have been rendered uninhabitable in the aftermath -- at least for those who survived.
Incredibly enough, although Bush has rammed the Yucca Mountain facility down the throats of everyone in the nation, he has failed to make any provisions for special rail routes or trains. Instead, the present plan calls for all nuclear fuel casks to be shipped in general freight service. Although the casks can survive a variety of crash scenarios, they are not designed to withstand high-temperature tunnel fires -- which account for some of the worst rail disasters over the decades. Instead, Bush's energy plan calls for the trains to be up and running for Yucca Mountain laden with their potentially lethal loads before the final routes are disclosed to the public -- through whose communities the trains will run.
So, does it come as any surprise that Bush is using the press to direct the public's attention away from the nuclear threat he himself is creating and instead direct it to a vague, exotic terrorist threat? The real joke here is that he is doing nothing of any significance to mitigate the threat of a terrorist attack on nuke plants.
As for the Amtrak bankruptcy scam: This is clearly an effort by the administration to railroad through billions in aid to the railroads so that new lines for facilitating the transport of spent rods (and also coal see article) can be put in place without public input, using the public's money (which the public, of course, thinks is being spent in the name of passenger rail services). And of course, anyone who complains will be written off as "undermining national security" or as an "alarmist." Yep, like yelling, "Look out!" as a piano careens from the tenth floor toward a crowd on the sidewalk is being an "alarmist."
I for one find our own nuclear industry and its pals in Washington a lot more threatening than a vague, shadowy figure crouched in a cave somewhere trying to figure out how to put together a "dirty bomb." In fact, his dirty bomb wouldn't do as much damage, if he did figure out how to put it together, as one spent fuel pool fire or one dry cask train tunnel fire.
How on Earth are we supposed to believe that a train crossing hundreds of miles is going to be safe when, as of 1998, not one nuclear facility was able to pass even the most liberal of security tests? To summarize the dismal results of the Operational Safeguards Response Evaluation, even given a half-year's advance notice, and beefing up their security force by over 50%, security at all plants failed. I mean, really failed. It took mock terrorists only 17 seconds to breach the access control barrier at one plant -- the highest score went to Maine Yankee, which held the terrorists off for 45 seconds! But not to worry. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has corrected the problem. Now, any companies failing the tests can now simply test themselves! Yet almost every article that has been written about this horrific lapse of security has been done after Sept. 11. After it could have been too late.
I can summarize this no more elegantly than to quote Daniel Hirsch of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a Los Angeles-based nuclear policy organization: "And why has the NRC not imposed upgraded security requirements? Put bluntly, the NRC is arguably the most captured regulatory agency in the federal government, a creature of the industry it is intended to regulate … The NRC's principal interest is in assisting the industry, keeping regulatory burdens and expenses to a bare minimum, and helping to jumpstart the nuclear enterprise."
And Bush's principle interest is in assisting the NRC's assistance of the industry. In any case, his principle interest is not America's safety.