A warning from Japan

As reported in The Nation, the nuclear crisis in Japan is out of control:

Three reactors are in partial meltdown, two are leaking radiation, at least one pool full of 80 tons of “spent” uranium fuel rods may be burning, two other such pools are getting very hot. Three major explosions have destroyed much of the Fukushima plant’s basic infrastructure, like cranes, monitors, and mechanical controls. Japanese officials have prevaricated, fumbled and have now largely retreated; the distressed plant is just too hot. Their understanding of the crisis is fragmentary. What they tell the public is even more limited. In total desperation they bombed the site with water dropped from helicopters but aborted that plan when radiation exposure proved too dangerous. Radioactive fallout is already sickening people. And this is just the beginning.

Yet such pro-nuke zealots as Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Republican Congressman Devin Nunes of California are claiming that the crisis will actually be good for the much-hyped but elusive “nuclear renaissance.” They like to say, over and over again: “It can’t happen here.” According to the Nuclear Energy Association, 3 days into the crisis in Japan: “The events at Fukushima Daiichi show that nuclear power’s defense-in-depth approach to safety is appropriate and strong.”

There are right now 104 old and rickety nuclear reactors, 23 of them are the same General Electric design as the Fukushima plant.

Perhaps more dangerous than our old and brittle equipment is the arrogance and overconfidence of our regulators and managers. The culture of the industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is pathologically cavalier. The mix of technological hubris with the profit motive has produced a track record of slipshod management, corner-cutting and repeated lying.

The nuke industry is quietly pushing the NRC to relicense and extend the operation the old reactors, even lobbying for “power-up rates” to get the plants to run at up to 120% of their originally intended capacity, subjecting the systems to unprecedented amounts of heat, pressure, corrosion, stress, and embrittling radiation. Many of these “up-rated” and relicensed plants are leaking or have leaked radioactive, carcinogenic, tritium-polluted water. In fact, a quarter of all US reactors have such leaks. But the NRC has not rejected a single renewal application.

Another problem is the accumulation of spent fuel rods that sit in pools onsite, next door to the reactors they once fed. Unlike the reactors, spent fuel rod pools are not housed in any sort of hardened or sealed containment structure. Their name—especially “spent” and “pool”—conveys calm dissipation. But the uranium in the spent fuel rod pools is highly radioactive, very unstable, extremely dangerous and, compared with reactors, not well supported, contained or looked over. When exposed to air for a day or two, the fuel rods begin to combust, giving off large amounts of radioactive cesium-137, a very toxic, long-lasting, aggressively penetrating radioactive element with a half-life of thirty years. In the environment, cesium-137 acts like potassium, and is taken up by plants and animals.

At Fukushima each reactor has between 60 and 83 tons of spent fuel rods stored next to it. At Vermont Yankee, with its GE reactor of the same design as the Fukushima plant, there are a staggering 690 tons of spent fuel rods onsite. What’s worse, spent fuel rod pools at Vermont Yankee are not equipped with backup water-circulation systems or even backup generators for the existing water-circulation system.

But back in the 1980s the NRC did an assessment, called “Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences 2” of the potential deaths and injuries that might occur in the U.S. from a reactor accident and containment breach like that now happening in Japan. It projected peak early fatalities, peak injuries, peak cancer deaths, scale cost in billions in terms of property damage, and a large hunk of the earth being rendered uninhabitable for millennia. And just, for example, for the Indian Point 3 nuclear plant, some 35 miles north of New York City: 50,000 peak early fatalities; 167,000 peak early injuries; cancer deaths, 14,000; scale cost of billions, they say $314 billion–all in 1980s dollars, about a trillion in today’s currency. In 1985 the NRC acknowledged that, over a 20-year period, the likelihood of a severe core melt accident to be basically 50/50 among the 100 nuclear power plants—there’s 104 now—in the United States. They’ve known all along here in this country that disaster could come, and there’s a good likelihood of it coming, and they’ve known the consequences. See the interview with investigative journalist Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at SUNY College at Old Westbury and author of several books on the nuclear industry.

Here are more memos from the Atomic Energy Commission in 1971–this and this and this–outlining serious problems with the design of the kind of reactors that are operating, and are failing and melting, in Japan right now. The recommendation the U.S. stop licensing reactors using this “pressure suppression system” was rejected by “safety” officials at the top of the agency. The top safety official, Joseph Hendrie, agreed with the recommendation, but he rejected it anyway, saying that it “could well mean the end of nuclear power.” Our country now has 23 reactors with this design, including Quad Cities and the Dresden plant in Illinois, the Vermont Yankee plant in Vermont, Oyster Creek in New Jersey, Pilgrim in Massachusetts.

Campaigner Barack Obama called the NRC “a moribund agency…captive of the industry it regulates.” But President Obama is himself a captive of that industry, and the NRC head he appointed, Gregory Jaczko, is relicensing willy-nilly.

We need to replace the 9% of our total energy now supplied by nukes with sustainable energy and conservation. Pay attention to the warning from Fukushima.