The case of the failure of Mexico’s Laguna Verde Nuclear Plant, nestled on the jagged Veracruz seacoast, reveals the need to nix nukes and fortify public right-to-know mechanisms.
With Latin American countries still turned off to nuclear power two years after Japan’s monumental Fukushima meltdowns dispersed radioactive fallout across the ocean to them, events inside a similar facility in Mexico have fueled mounting skepticism over the potential for developing the energy technology.
Fissures, leaks, shutdowns, government secrecy, a failed upgrade, alleged bid-rigging and contract fraud at Mexico’s lone atomic power station, the state-run Laguna Verde Nuclear Plant, were vetted during the 9th Regional Congress on Radiation Protection and Safety held in Rio de Janeiro in April.
The audience of Latin American experts eager to share the information at the professional association forum starred scientists from Argentina and Brazil, which also have nuclear power plants, as well as from Venezuela, Chile and Cuba, which had made tentative moves toward establishing atomic energy stations before the Fukushima catastrophe stymied aspirations.
The irregularities at Laguna Verde came to light thanks to a courageous group of anonymous high-level employees inside the power plant and to the public information requests by their spokesperson, Mexico’s National Autonomous University Physics Professor Bernardo Salas Mar, a former plant employee and valiant whistleblower.
Some of Salas Mar’s most recent research was accepted at the International Radiation Protection Association congress in Brazil, but his university did not provide him with travel expenses to attend in person.
Salas faces high-level attempts to have him fired as a result of his persistent efforts to make public his discoveries of dangerous faults and cover-ups at the Laguna Verde plant. But Salas’ achievements speak for themselves. Were it not for his ceaseless hammering on the doors of the 10-year-old Federal Information Access Institute (IFAI), perhaps no one ever would have known about the latest incidents at Laguna Verde until it was too late.
Based on his freedom-of-information requests to the institute, Salas and Laguna Verde’s own technicians revealed in an April 19 letter to President Enrique Peña Nieto that Mexico has been defrauded to the tune of more than a half-billion dollars by the international companies that won the bid for the federal contract to uprate the two reactors at the plant located near the Caribbean port of Veracruz.
“Uprating” is industry jargon for boosting the capacity of nuclear reactors so they can generate more electricity.
The letter to the President alleges the Federal Electricity Commission purposely botched the bid letting by omitting the usual requirement for a contractor to abide by the Review Standard for Extended Power Uprates. Apparently the CFD did this to favor the Spanish company Iberdrola Ingenería and the French company Alstom Mexico, which lacked the capability to carry out the changes to the nuclear steam supply system according to standard specifications.
Employees in key positions at Laguna Verde had alerted the two previous presidential administrations to the issue as far back as 2006, communicating their “worry over the capacity-boosting work contemplated for this nuclear plant, considering it to be unreliable, risky and overpriced,” according to the letter. Still Iberdrola and Alstom got the $605-million contract to increase the plant’s power output by 20 percent.
Iberdrola announced the successful conclusion of the five-year, $605-million modernization project in February, noting that it overhauled equipment dating back to 1990, in the project that created more than 2,000 jobs.
The president of Alstom in Mexico, Cintia Angulo, was arrested a week after the announcement of the upgrade conclusion on charges of giving false testimony in an unrelated French case of non-payment.
However, the more spectacular fraud for both firms will prove to be the Mexican uprate contract, which not only failed to accomplish the goal of boosting Laguna Verde’s power output, but also left the reactors in worse condition than before, Salas and employees charge.
The Federal Electricity Commission responded to Salas’ inquiries, saying that Reactor Unit 2 would be operating at 100 percent of planned output in April and Unit 1 would be at 100 percent in May.
Nonetheless, after further information requests, Salas revealed that the National Nuclear Safety Commission has denied both reactors the licenses to operate at higher output in the aftermath of the contract, due precisely to the fact that the guidelines for the nuclear steam supply system were not followed.
Employees say the failure to follow the guidelines during the uprate cracked the jet pumps that inject the water to the core of the General Electric boiling water reactors, the same kind that melted down due to a generator system crash at Fukushima.
“The situation of the reactors is not serious yet, but operating with fissures could cause a major problem to the extent that it could endanger national security. (Remember Fukushima and Chernobyl.)” the letter to President Peña Nieto says. The employees consider it “risky and unacceptable for both reactors to continue operating with the fissures that have been encountered.”
Simultaneous suspension of operations at both reactors in September 2012 and related confusing news releases, some blaming the pump fissures, caused alarm in the communities around the installation.
Authorities first said a diesel generator breakdown was at fault for the interruption in service of one reactor, while fuel-cell restocking was the reason for a stoppage at the other.
The next day they said a clogged seawater intake was part of the reason for removing both reactors from service. An escape of hydrogen gas from a condenser was posited. And finally, officials stated to the public that the fissures in both reactors’ water pumps were to blame.
Government secrecy about details surrounding the event accentuated longstanding worries in the population near the plant. The fear of accidents and serious concerns over the ongoing situation was highlighted by an NGO’s court appeal arguing that people should be exempted from paying their light bills due to the fact that their civil rights had been violated by the lack of safety measures and accountability at Laguna Verde.
In response to Salas’ information requests, the Energy Secretariat, in charge of the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) and the National Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSNS), said it didn’t have the answers to his questions.
Its commissions presented incongruous replies. The vagueness of the answers provided by the Federal Electricity Commission prompted the researcher to appeal to the IFAI to require revised responses.
After his second round of questioning, he was able to deduce that the cooling water intake channel had indeed filled with sediment and it had been dredged, so it did not present a hazard and did not cause the reactor operations’ interruption.
He also then could determine that the hydrogen had been released from the ductwork into the cooling water of the main generator, during the month of August. While the amount of gas was unknown, the escape was not to the atmosphere, and neither presented a danger nor was cause for halting operations.
The CSNSNS responded that the diesel generator failed when a piston stuck due to lack of lubrication resulting from a bearing problem on Sept. 12. The event did not endanger life and limb, according to Salas.
Simultaneous reloading of fuel cells at both reactors was the most likely reason for the concurrent stalling, Salas concluded after the numerous freedom-of-information requests.
While the main present dangers appear to be the fractures in the cores’ water pumps, a Jan. 11, 2013 scram (emergency reactor shutdown) remains to be inspected under the looking glass of the IFAI.
The institute created by decree in 2002 has provided important tools for shedding light on the machinations of the nuclear plant, among other formerly opaque federal operations.
Yet, as this case underscores, IFAI should strengthen its own processes in order to avoid the kind of inconsistent and self-belying responses that ensnared this most recent of many investigations into the lack of security at Laguna Verde.
Even so, that won’t protect the population from the specter of accidents or deteriorating health and safety in the advent of air and water pollution from the facility, which is located on a part of the coast with only poorly maintained roads to offer escape routes.
If Peña Nieto and company are to be more responsive to community needs than their predecessors, one way to show good intentions would be to comply with demands for conducting an emergency public evacuation drill, something that never has been done in the history of the 17-year-old nuclear plant. Another would be to take the irresponsible parties to court to establish accountability.
- A sad week for the nuclear industry: 6 reactors to go
- Nuclear station insider says San Onofre should stay closed
- Fukushima decommissioning to last for up to 40 years – IAEA
- Potential Cost Of A Nuclear Accident? So High It’s A Secret!
- ‘Irreparable’ safety issues: All US nuclear reactors should be taken out of commission
A proposal in the U.S. Senate has advocates concerned that Illinois could become a leading contender for storing nuclear waste from around the nation.
The discussion draft of a Senate bill released April 25 and open for public comment until May 24 launches a process to create a “centralized interim storage” site (CIS) for nuclear waste that is currently stored at reactors nationwide.
And a June 2012 study [PDF] by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory using spatial modeling suggests that northern Illinois would be among the top possibilities.
Many nuclear energy critics oppose the concept of centralized interim storage, saying that the long-distance transport of nuclear waste to such sites would pose serious risks, and that interim storage sites could become financial and safety burdens especially if a long-term waste repository is never created.
“It would be a radioactive waste shell game on roads, rails and waterways,” said Kevin Kamps of the Maryland-based watchdog group Beyond Nuclear, talking by teleconference with anti-nuclear activists in Chicago gathered at the Nuclear Energy Information Service office last week. “We could have de facto permanent parking lot dumps.”
The draft bill, the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013, is meant to carry out the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future [PDF], convened by the Department of Energy in 2010. Sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the bill deals with various nuclear waste issues including, centralized interim storage.
Public comments are also being accepted on additions proposed by Feinstein and Alexander specifically regarding centralized interim storage.
“There is no question that Illinois generally and Chicago specifically would see a high volume of [nuclear waste] traffic if the nation opts for centralized interim storage facilities,” said Dave Kraft, executive director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service in Chicago. “We’re not merely at risk, we’re the bullseye.”
A ‘flawed plan’?
Currently most nuclear waste is stored on-site at plants, in the form of rods housed either in dry casks or pools. Critics say the pools pose serious potential danger in the case of a natural disaster, terrorist attack or accident, including a loss of electric power.
Kamps and other nuclear watchdogs advocate improving waste storage at the site of nuclear plants, including removing fuel rods from pools and storing them in dry casks.
“Waste needs to stay as close to the point of origin as possible, as safely as possible,” said Kamps. “There is no easy answer.”
Eventually, Kamps and other activists want to see a long-term storage site created in a geologically and geographically appropriate place. That was the idea behind the proposed long-term repository at Yucca Mountain, but that plan collapsed in the face of political opposition and complaints that it was not a suitable location.
Many industry critics see the interim storage plan pushed forth in the draft bill as a distraction, rather than a step in the process of finding a satisfactory long-term repository.
In a statement about the draft bill, the national watchdog group Public Citizen stated it “does little to correct the fundamental flaws in our country’s approach to nuclear waste management…Consolidated interim storage is an old plan that didn’t work when it was first introduced 30 years ago, or any of the myriad times it’s been proposed, because it does nothing to address broader storage and disposal issues.”
But Feinstein, in a statement released by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the bill “establishes a desperately needed nuclear waste policy, employing a consent-based approach that will expedite waste removal from at-risk locations and decommissioned plants.”
While Yucca Mountain appears to be off the table, government and industry actors have long been exploring the idea of long-term storage at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River, South Carolina site or at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico, where defense industry radioactive waste is currently stored.
The push for centralized interim storage is driven in part by the risks and public concerns posed by waste stored onsite at reactors. Sen. Wyden’s constituents are particularly concerned about risk from nuclear plants along the Columbia River, including the closed-down Hanford site upstream in Washington.
The Blue Ribbon Commission’s January 2012 report proposed legislative changes which are enshrined in the proposed act. The commission noted that under current law one interim storage facility can be built, and only after a long-term repository is licensed. A similar provision was included in the 2012 Nuclear Waste Administration Act, which did not pass. The current proposal calls for multiple interim sites to potentially be built, and does not require a long-term repository be in the pipeline.
The discussion draft of the bill lays out a process for choosing a site, including creating evaluation criteria for sites, holding public hearings and “solicit[ing] states and communities to volunteer sites,” as noted in a Department of Energy summary. Sen. Alexander called for additions to the draft including a requirement the government issue a request for proposals for pilot storage sites within 180 days.
The Oak Ridge study includes various maps with proposed storage locations based on different factors including population along routes and transportation distance. In every scenario, northern Illinois is a likely contender.
The bill notes that consent from local officials, communities and Native American tribes is mandatory; and that any plan must be approved by Congress. Kamps said, however, that the definition of consent is vague, and the industry is known to have much influence with Congress.
“At least there’s some talk of consent,” he said. “But nuclear power is one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington.”
The bill would also create a new federal agency, the Nuclear Waste Administration, that would take responsibility for the waste. Utilities with nuclear plants would continue paying into a capital fund meant to finance nuclear waste storage. Currently, about $765 million annually is paid into the fund, according to the Nuclear Energy Information Service.
However, if no long-term repository is identified by 2025, utilities could be released from the capital fund obligation.
In Kamps’ words, this means that “[utility] ratepayers and taxpayers, otherwise known as the American people,” will be paying for the waste storage for many years to come.
“The nuclear industry has a few lawyers on its team,” Kamps said. “If they can get out of paying into the capital fund, I think they will.”
- Hanford nuclear waste tanks at risk of explosion (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Congress needs to focus on how nuclear waste is stored now (thehill.com)
Industry leaders will have no problem closing nuclear reactors that don’t generate expected profits. Exelon, the Chicago-based company that owns 17 of the 104 U.S. reactors, recently saw its stock price drop below $30 a share, the same level as mid-2003, and a whopping 70% below its peak of over $92 a share in mid-2008.
The standard explanation for this reversal is cost. In particular, electricity from growing natural gas and wind sources costs less to produce than that from nuclear reactors. The famous 1954 promise by Atomic Energy Commission head Lewis Strauss that the atom would create energy “too cheap to meter” has failed miserably. But while cost is the reason why utilities will be closing reactors, most reports fail to look beneath the surface and understand WHY nukes are so expensive.
The answer is that nuclear power poses great danger to safety and health. This danger means that reactors must comply with numerous safety regulations; must be built with many safety features; and must be manned by a large and highly trained work force – each a high-ticket item. In addition, the fleet of 104 U.S. reactors in operation is aging – most over 30 years old – requiring that corroding parts be replaced, pushing costs even higher.
Another element in the high cost of nukes won’t be faced until they are decommissioned (after closing). Decommissioning costs run hundreds of millions of dollars per reactor. Utilities are forced by federal law to keep a large decommissioning fund while operating reactors, to prevent them from simply closing reactors, not securing them, and sticking taxpayers with the bill.
Even with all these extensive and expensive efforts to protect the public, nukes still aren’t safe. The chance of a meltdown exists every day, from human error, natural disaster, or terrorist act. The disasters at Chernobyl in 1986 and at Fukushima last year remind us that catastrophic meltdowns that affect thousands to millions are a sobering reality. In addition to meltdowns, there is the matter of routine emissions from reactors and elevated cancer rates near reactors, demonstrated in many studies. Finally, the U. S. and other nations still have no long-term plans to store the massive amounts of hazardous nuclear waste.
Dominion Nuclear recently announced that the Kewaunee reactor in Wisconsin will permanently shut down in the spring. This action is a milestone. Not only will this be the first U.S. reactor closed since 1998, but it will likely be followed by numerous other shutdowns. An October 23 New York Times article was headlined “Reactors Face Mothballs.”
Kewaunee’s closing also represents a turning point. For over a decade, nuclear leaders steadily proclaimed an era of a revival, after years of no growth. But the word “renaissance” has vanished, and nuclear power is now in full retreat.
So which reactors will join Kewaunee and be the next to close? Nobody knows for sure, but there are a number of reactors that are faring poorly, and are candidates for shutdown:
- Crystal River (Florida), closed for over three years, needs considerable funds to replace defective parts
- San Onofre (California, two reactors), closed for nearly one year due to faulty steam generators, will require millions to repair.
- Oyster Creek (New Jersey), which must shut down by 2019, may close sooner according to Exelon executives who cite costs and market forces
- Vermont Yankee (Vermont), up for sale (and like Kewaunee with no buyers), along with stiff opposition from local citizens and elected officials
- Clinton (Illinois), another Exelon reactor, has been hit hard by cheaper alternatives
- Indian Point (New York, two reactors), faced considerable citizen and political opposition ever since a plane hijacked by terrorists on 9/11 flew directly over it on its way to the World Trade Center.
This autumn has been the worst period for U.S. nuclear reactors in a long time. Hurricane Sandy caused six reactors to close temporarily, while others were shut to change fuel, and others closed due to mechanical problems. From mid-October to late November, U.S. reactors operated at just 70-75% of capacity, down sharply from the 90% figure of the past decade.
Shrinking nuclear power is even more pronounced overseas. In Japan, nearly two years after Fukushima, only 2 of 54 reactors are operating, and the majority of Japanese are fiercely opposed to restarting any reactors. Soon after Fukushima, governments in Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland announced plans to phase out nuclear power, and Germany has already closed half a dozen reactors.
The business troubles facing reactors are nothing new – historical construction costs far exceeded original estimates, and Wall Street executives stopped lending money for new reactors in the 1970s. Fewer reactors will mean reduced threats to health but also reduced costs – proving what’s good for the environment is also good for business.
Joseph Mangano, MPH MBA, is an epidemiologist, and Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project (www.radiation.org).
Janette Sherman, MD is an internist and toxicologist. (www.janettesherman.com).
- ‘A huge setback for, if not the end of, the American nuclear renaissance’ (alethonews)
- EDF Falls in Paris on Rising Costs for Normandy Nuclear Reactor – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)
- Even France can’t build a nuclear reactor economically, and in the planned time (nuclear-news.net)
- South Korea Shuts Down 2 Nuclear Reactors (blogs.voanews.com)
Chinese and French investors have dealt a blow to the British nuclear projects pulling out of a bid for buying a company that will be constructing two nuclear power reactors in Britain.
French nuclear engineering group Areva said it is no longer interested in buying into Horizon Nuclear Power that was supposed to build Wylfa reactor in Wales and Oldbury reactor in Gloucestershire.
Areva added that its Chinese partner the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group (CGNPC) has also withdrawn its bid for the contract.
“Areva and CGNPC have suspended their interest in the planned sale of Horizon Nuclear Power and did not submit a bid,” an Areva spokeswoman said.
The news is a blow to the British government as Areva has the latest technology in line with European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) regulations needed for the project.
The withdrawals come amid other reports that another Chinese company China National Nuclear Power Corporation, which is the main backer of a US engineering group also bidding for the contract, is no more interested in the project.
The situation leaves London with a single bidder that is a consortium led by the Japanese Hitachi.
Horizon Nuclear Power was formerly run by German utilities E. ON and RWE that suddenly announced they want to drop out of their contracts on a short deadline last week.
- United Kingdom: British nuclear plans suffer blow as Chinese investors pull out (guardian.co.uk)
- New UK nuclear power station plans suffer setback (guardian.co.uk)
- AREVA drops out of race for Britain’s Horizon nuclear project after 3 months (enformable.com)
Germany’s environment minister has admitted that the government faces an uphill climb if it is to achieve the targets it has set out for reducing carbon emissions while simultaneously stopping nuclear energy production.
Germany’s environment minister raised eyebrows on Sunday by conceding that some of the targets that are part of the government’s policy of phasing out the use of nuclear energy, while at the same time cutting emissions of greenhouse gases, may not be achievable.
“It has to be questioned whether we’ll really succeed in reducing electricity use by 10 per cent by 2020,” Peter Altmaier said in an interview with the Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
“If we are going to somehow achieve this, it will take tremendous effort, ” he said.
Altmaier also admitted that the government had a long way to go in efforts to convince a large number of Germans to switch from vehicles powered by internal combustion engines to electric cars.
There may be “significantly fewer” electric cars on the road by 2020 than the government had previously assumed, the minister said.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right coalition had previously said that it was on track to put a million electric cars on the road by 2020. Official figures put that number at just over 4,500 at the start of 2012.
Rising consumer costs a possibility
Altmaier also warned of the danger of rising energy costs for consumers.
“If we aren’t careful, the energy reforms could develop into a social problem,” he said, admitting that in efforts to replace nuclear energy with renewables, “the question of energy affordability had been overlooked.”
He also said that turning off a number of nuclear plants meant that power shortages could not be ruled out in the coming winter.
“Last winter there were a few critical moments, which we have learned from,” he said, adding that preparations were underway to ensure this doesn’t happened again. … Full article
- German Environment Minister Peter Altmaier – ‘We Can’t Allow Electricity To Become A Luxury’ (freeinternetpress.com)
The Folly of Nuclear Drones and Other Mad Schemes
The crash last week of a U.S. drone on the Seychelles Islands—the second crash of a U.S. drone on Seychelles in four months—underlines the deadly folly of a plan of U.S. national laboratory scientists and the Northrop Grumman Corp. for nuclear-powered drones.
The drone that “bounced a few times on the runway” at Seychelles International Airport on April 4 “before ending” up in the sea, according to a statement from the Seychelles Civil Aviation Authority, was conventionally powered. So was the drone which had a similar accident on Seychelles in December. From the Indian Ocean island nation the U.S. flies drones over Somalia and over waters off East Africa looking for pirates.
But the use of nuclear power on U.S. drones was “favorably assessed by scientists at Sandia National Laboratories and the Northrop Grumman Corp.,” revealed Steven Aftergood of the Project on Government Secrecy of the Federation of American Scientists.
Their report said that “technology and systems designs evaluated… have previously never been applied to unmanned air vehicles” and “use of these technologies” could provide “system performance unparalleled by existing technologies.” It acknowledged, however, that “current political conditions will not allow use of the results.” Thus “it is doubtful that they will be used in the near-term or mid-term future.”
Just consider if the two drones which crashed on the Seychelles used nuclear power—and the impacts if the radioactive fuel they contained was released. [...] Drones, not too incidentally, have a record of frequently crashing.
The nuclear-powered drone scheme is ostensibly not going anywhere now—because of “current political considerations.” But other schemes to use nuclear power overhead—which also threaten nuclear disaster—are on the planning table and some are moving ahead.
- A new U.S. Air Force plan which supports “nuclear powered flight.” Titled Energy Horizons, issued in January, it states that “nuclear energy has been demonstrated on several satellite systems” and “this source provides consistent power…at a much higher energy and power density than current technologies.” It does admit that “the implementation of such a technology should be weighed heavily against potential catastrophic outcomes.” Indeed, the worst accident involving a U.S. space nuclear system occurred with the fall to Earth in 1964 of a satellite powered by an RTG, the SNAP-9A. It failed to achieve orbit and fell to Earth, disintegrating upon hitting the atmosphere causing its Plutonium-238 fuel to be dispersed as dust widely over the Earth. Dr. John Gofman, professor of medical physics at the University of California, Berkeley, long linked the SNAP-9A accident to a global rise in lung cancer. The Air Force report sees nuclear power as an energy source that would assist it in taking the “ultimate high ground” which would provide it with “access to every part of the globe including denied areas.”
- “A ground-breaking Russian nuclear space travel propulsion system will be ready by 2017 and will power a ship capable of long-haul interplanetary missions by 2025,” the Russian state news agency, Ria Novosti, reported last week. The April 3 article, headlined “Plutonium to Pluto: Russian nuclear space travel breakthrough,” said, “The megawatt-class nuclear drive will function for up to three years and produce 100-150 kilowatts of energy at normal capacity.” It is “under development at Skolkovo, Russia’s technology innovation hub, where nuclear cluster head Dennis Kovalevich confirmed the breakthrough.” It said, “Scientists expect to start putting the new engine through its paces in operational tests as early as 2014.” Earlier, Ria Novosti reported that the director of Roscosmos , the Russian space agency, believes the “development of megawatt-class nuclear power systems for manned spacecraft was crucial if Russia wanted to maintain a competitive edge in the space race, including the exploration of the moon and Mars.” It also said the Russian rocket company, Energia, is “ready to design a space-based nuclear power station with a service life of 10-to-15 years, to be initially placed on the moon or Mars.” The worst accident involving a Soviet or Russian nuclear space system was the fall from orbit in 1978 of the Cosmos 954 satellite powered by a nuclear reactor. It also broke up in the atmosphere spreading radioactive debris which scattered over 77,000 square miles of the Northwest Territories of Canada.
- The U.S. is moving again to produce Plutonium-238 for space use. In recent years, the U.S. stopped making Plutonium-238. It is 270 times more radioactive than the more commonly known Plutonium-239, used as fuel in atomic bombs, and thus its manufacture has resulted in significant radioactive pollution. Instead, it obtained Plutonium-238 from Russia. RTGs powered by Plutonium-238 had been used by the U.S. as a source of electricity on satellites—as the Energy Horizons report noted. But that was until the SNAP-9A accident which caused a turn to generating electricity with solar photovoltaic panels. Now all satellites are powered by solar panels, as is the International Space Station. But RTGs using Plutonium-238 have remained a source of on board electricity for space probes such as Cassini which NASA launched to Saturn in 1999. The Department of Energy plans to produce Plutonium-238 at both Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory. “Over the next two years, Oak Ridge National Laboratory will carry out a $20 million pilot project to demonstrate the lab’s ability to produce and process Plutonium-238 for use in the space program,” reported the Knoxville News Sentinel last month.
- The U.S. is also developing nuclear-powered rockets. NASA Director Charles Bolden, a former astronaut and U.S. Marine Corps major general, is a booster of a design of a Houston-based company, Ad Astra, of which another former astronaut, Franklin Chang-Diaz, is president and chief executive officer. “He launched Ad Astra after he retired from NASA in 2005, but the company continues a close association with the U.S. space agency,” the U.S. government’s Voice of America noted in its article on the project last year. The Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket or VASMIR could be energized by solar power but, the article relates, “Chang-Diaz says replacing solar panels with a nuclear reactor would provide the necessary power to VASMIR for a much faster trip.” It quotes him as saying “we could do a mission to Mars that would take about 39 days, one way.” And, although “such a mission is still many years away, Chang-Diaz says his rocket could be used much sooner for missions to the International Space Station or to retrieve or position satellites in Earth orbit.”
Challenging what is going on is the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space. Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the group, comments:
“Who can deny that the nuclear power industry isn’t working overtime to spread its deadly product onto every possible military application? The recent disclosure that the Pentagon has been strongly considering sticking nuclear engines on-board drones is dangerously ‘more of the same.’”
“Nuclear-powered devices flying around on drones or on-board rockets that frequently blow up on launch is pure insanity,” says Gagnon. “The people need to push back hard.”
What is happening has deep roots. A key rationale by Sandia and Northrop Grumman for nuclear-powered drones was, as the British newspaper, The Guardian, reported last week, long—very long—flight times. “American scientists have drawn up plans for a new generation of nuclear-powered drones capable of flying over remote regions of the world for months on end without refueling,” it reported. The same rationale, noted Gagnon, was behind the U.S. development in the 1940s and 50s of nuclear-propelled bombers.
The strategy was for these nuclear-powered bombers to stay up in the air for extensive periods of time. There would thus be no need to scramble crews and have bombers take off to drop nuclear weapons on the Soviet Union—they’d already be airborne waiting for the command. The Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft or NEPA project was begun in 1946 and involved the conversion of two B-36 bombers for nuclear propulsion. The first operation of an aircraft engine using nuclear power occurred in 1956. The U.S. national laboratories—a string of facilities that got their start in the crash program to build atomic weapons, the Manhattan Project—were integral to the scheme. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, then run by the since disbanded U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, did much of the research work. Much of the testing was done at what is now Idaho National Laboratory where today two nuclear aircraft engines are on public display and there is also still remaining a gargantuan hangar built for nuclear aircraft. General Electric was a major contractor.
The plan for nuclear-powered bombers was finally scuttled because of the problem of providing heavy lead shielding to protect the crew from radiation and, as then U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told Congress in 1961, an atomic airplane would “expel some fraction of radioactive fission products into the atmosphere, creating an important public relations problem if not an actual physical hazard.”
A subsequent program linking nuclear power and weapons was the Star Wars program under President Ronald Reagan. It was “predicated,” as Gagnon notes, “on nuclear power in space.” Reactors and also a “Super RTG” to be built by General Electric were to provide the energy on orbiting battle platforms for lasers, hypervelocity guns and particle beam weapons.
In my book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet,” and TV documentary, Nukes in Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens, I noted the 1988 declaration of Lt. General James Abramson, first head of the Strategic Defense Initiative, that “without reactors in orbit [there is] going to be a long, long light cord that goes down to the surface of Earth” bringing up power. He stated: “Failure to develop nuclear power in space could cripple efforts to deploy anti-missile sensors and weapons in orbit.”
As to nuclear-propelled rockets, the U.S. has a long history of seeking to build them from the 1950s onward. There was a program called Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application or NERVA followed by Projects Pluto, Rover and Poodle. And in the 1980s, the Timberwind nuclear-powered rocket was developed to loft heavy Star Wars equipment into space and also for trips to Mars. Most recently, the Project Prometheus program to build nuclear-powered rockets was begun by NASA in 2003. Through the years there have been major concerns over a nuclear rocket blowing up on launch or crashing back to Earth.
The Soviet Union, Russia, conducted a parallel space nuclear program—including nuclear-powered satellites, development of a nuclear bomber and nuclear-powered rockets.
Now, meanwhile, nuclear power above our heads has been shown as unnecessary.
NASA has persisted in using Plutonium-238-powered RTGs on space probes claiming there was no choice. But last year it launched the Juno space probe which is now on its way to Jupiter—getting all its on-board electricity only from solar photovoltaic panels. It’s to arrive in 2016 and make 32 orbits around Jupiter and perform a variety of scientific missions. As NASA stated last week on its website for Juno: “As of April 4, Juno was approximately209 million miles from Earth… The Juno spacecraft is in excellent health.” This is despite NASA claiming for decades that only nuclear power could provide on-board power in deep space.
Likewise, the European Space Agency in 2004 launched a space probe it calls Rosetta, also using solar energy rather than nuclear power for on-board electricity. It is to rendezvous in 2014 with a comet named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and send out a lander which will investigate the comet’s surface. At that point it will be 500 million miles from the Sun, a small ball in the sky at that distance, yet Rosetta will still be harvesting solar energy.
As to propulsion in space, a highly promising energy source are the ionized particles in space that can be utilized in the frictionless environment with what are being called solar sails.
In May 2010, the Japan Exploration Agency launched an experimental spacecraft, Ikaros, that seven months later reached Venus—propelled only by its solar sail. The Planetary Society is readying a similar mission using a spacecraft named LightSail-1 powered by solar sails and planning for two more ambitious solar sail flights of LightSail-2 and LightSail-3.
These missions do not present threats to life on Earth—as does the use of nuclear power overhead. And the threats of nuclear power overhead can be enormous. For example, consider the projection in NASA’s Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Mission about the impacts if there were an “inadvertent reentry” of Cassini into Earth’s atmosphere during one of its two “flybys”—whips around the Earth but a few hundred miles high to increase its velocity so it could get to Saturn. If it fell to Earth, broke up in the atmosphere and its 72.3 pounds of Plutonium-238 were released, “5 billion… of the world population… could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure,” projected NASA.
Moreover, the production of nuclear fuel on Earth for use in space—or in the atmosphere for drones—constitutes danger, too. Facilities that had been used earlier by the U.S. to produce Plutonium-238, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Mound Laboratory, ended up as hotspots for worker contamination and radioactive pollution.
James Powell, executive director of the organization Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free, which has been opposing the restart of Plutonium-238 production at nearby Idaho National Laboratory, comments: “Aside from the looming danger of nuclear powered craft above Earth, we should also realize that the nuclear material is to be produced in our backyards with 1960′s era nuclear reactors and then transported back and forth from [Oak Ridge National Laboratory in] Tennessee to Idaho. Every single part of this process deeply concerns us.”
Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College of New York, is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet (Common Courage Press) and wrote and presented the TV program Nukes In Space: The Nuclearization and Weaponization of the Heavens (www.envirovideo.com). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.
- The Toxic Crash of Phobos-Grunt (alethonews.wordpress.com)
A year after the nuclear catastrophe began at the Fukushima Daiichi station in Japan, the world has a historic chance to put an end to one of the biggest frauds ever played on the global public to promote a patently unsafe, accident-prone, expensive and centralised form of energy generation based upon splitting the uranium atom to produce heat, boil water, and spin a turbine. Candidly, that’s what nuclear power generation is all about.
The lofty promise of boundless material progress and universal prosperity based on cheap, safe and abundant energy through “Atoms for Peace”, held out by US President Dwight D Eisenhower in 1953, was mired in deception and meant to temper the prevalent perception of atomic energy as a malign force following the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Eisenhower was a hawk committed to building up the US nuclear arsenal from under 1,500 to over 20,000 warheads and sought to “compensate” for this by dressing up nuclear energy as a positive force. “Atoms for Peace” camouflaged the huge US military build-up in the 1950s.
The nuclear promise was also based on untested, unrealistic assumptions about atomic electricity being safe and “too cheap even to meter”. The projection sat ill at ease with the subsidies, worth scores of billions, which nuclear received. The US navy transferred reactor designs developed for its nuclear-propelled submarines to General Electric and Westinghouse for free. The US also passed a law to limit the nuclear industry’s accident liability to a ludicrously low level.
Fifty-five years on, the world has lost over $1,000 billion in subsidies, cash losses, abandoned projects and other damage from nuclear power. Decontaminating the Fukushima site alone is estimated to cost $623 billion, not counting the medical treatment costs for the thousands of likely cancers.
All of the world’s 400-odd reactors are capable of undergoing a catastrophic accident similar to Fukushima. They will remain a liability until decommissioned (entombed in concrete) at huge public expense, which is one-third to one-half of what it cost to build them. They will also leave behind nuclear waste, which remains hazardous for thousands of years, and which science has no way of storing safely.
All this for a technology which contributes just two percent of the world’s final energy consumption! Nuclear power has turned out worse than a “Faustian bargain” – a deal with the devil. Even the conservative Economist magazine, which long backed nuclear power, calls it “the dream that failed.”
Nuclear power experienced decline on its home ground because it became too risky and “too costly to hook to a meter”. The US hasn’t ordered a single new reactor since 1973, even before the Three Mile Island meltdown (1979). Western Europe hasn’t completed a new reactor since Chernobyl (1986). As a former member of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission put it: “The abiding lesson that Three Mile Island taught Wall Street was that a group of NRC-licensed reactor operators, as good as any others, could turn a $2 billion asset into a $1 billion cleanup job in about 90 minutes.”
Nuclear power is now on the run globally. The number of reactors operating worldwide fell from the historic peak of 444 in 2002 to 429 this past March 1. Their share in global electricity supply has shrunk from 17 to 13 percent. And it’s likely to fall further as some 180-plus 30 years-old or older reactors are retired. Just about 60 new ones are planned.
After Fukushima, nobody is going to build nuclear reactors unless they get a big subsidy or high returns guaranteed by the state – or unless they are China, India or Pakistan. China’s rulers don’t have to bother about democracy, public opinion, or safety standards.
Nor are India’s rulers moved by these considerations. They are desperate to deliver on the reactor contracts promised to the US, France and Russia for lobbying for the US-India nuclear deal in the International Atomic Energy Agency. Manmohan Singh has even stooped to maligning Indian anti-nuclear protesters as foreign-funded, as if they had no minds of their own, and as if the government’s own priority wasn’t to hitch India’s energy economy to imported reactors. Pakistan’s nuclear czars are shamefully complacent about nuclear safety.
Nuclear power is bound up with secrecy, deception and opacity, which clash with democracy. It evokes fear and loathing in many countries, and can only be promoted by force. It will increasingly pit governments against their own public, with terrible consequences for civil liberties. A recent BBC-GlobeScan poll shows that 69 percent of the people surveyed in 23 countries oppose building new reactors, including 90 percent in Germany, 84 percent in Japan, 80 percent in Russia and 83 percent in France. This proportion has sharply risen since 2005. Only 22 percent of people in the 12 countries which operate nuclear plants favour building new ones.
Nuclear reactors are intrinsically hazardous high-pressure high-temperature systems, in which a fission chain-reaction is barely checked from getting out of control. But control mechanisms can fail for many reasons, including a short circuit, faulty valve, operator error, fire, loss of auxiliary power, or an earthquake or tsunami.
No technology is 100 percent safe. High-risk technologies demand a meticulous, self-critical and highly alert safety culture which assumes that accidents will happen despite precautions. The world has witnessed five core meltdowns in 15,000 reactor-years (number of reactors multiplied by duration of operations). At this rate, we can expect one core meltdown every eight years in the world’s 400-odd reactors. This is simply unacceptable.
Yet, the nuclear industry behaves as if this couldn’t happen. … Full article
- No Nuclear Nirvana (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Japanese officials ask KEPCO to break away from nuclear energy (enformable.com)
- How Fukushima is leading towards a nuclear-free Japan (guardian.co.uk)
Last April 20 the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published an on-line article entitled “Short-term and Long-term Health Risks of Nuclear-Power-Plant Accidents” by Dr. Eli Glatstein and five other authors. The article was riddled with distortions and misinformation, and overall was very poor research. As the NEJM is a peer reviewed journal and has a significant letters section, I wrote a letter pointing out some of the errors committed by the authors, and a longer piece containing a comprehensive critique.
The NEJM demands that letters to the journal contain material that has not been submitted or published elsewhere, so I had to refrain from submitting my longer piece anywhere until the NEMJ made a decision on my letter. When my letter did not appear after a couple of weeks I inquired, and was told that the article would soon appear in the printed version of the Journal, and that no letters about the article could be published until after the print version came out. The printed version finally appeared on June 16.
However, on July 1,1 was notified by the NEMJ that they would not publish my letter due to “space constraints.” The four letters that they did publish in response to the article were at most only mildly critical and missed the glaring short-comings of the report. In other words, NEMJ sat on my letter and effectively stifled my critique of what can only be described as industry propaganda for almost three months until public attention had moved on to other matters. However, with attention once again focused on the still-out of control Fukushima reactors on the first anniversary of the accident, my expose on how the media and academia have joined together to downplay the dangers of nuclear power is a poignant as ever.
Since the nuclear disaster in Fukushima started in March, the media has been full of misinformation about the dangers posed by the nuclear accidents and the damage caused by past accidents such as those at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Whether it is Jay Lehr on Fox News1 or George Monbiot on Democracy Now,2 the story line is the same: there were only dozens of deaths from the Chernobyl and none from TMI, the health consequences for the general population are negligible, and all things considered nuclear power is among the safest forms of energy. In some cases the lines are spoken by industry hacks whose true motive is to protect profits, while other times the spokesperson is a global warming tunnel visionist who has lost sight of the fact that we as humans have ingeniously devised a multitude of ways to mess up our planet, including nuclear wars and disasters.
Lehr and Monbiot both made reference to a 2005 report commissioned by the United Nations that included the participation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the World Health Organization (WHO) and several other UN-linked agencies. Oddly enough, the official press release by the UN announcing publication of the report starts off with the following sentence: “A total of up to four thousand people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (NPP) accident nearly 20 years ago, an international team of more than 100 scientists has concluded.”
The reference to 50 deaths pertained to those “directly attributed” to radiation from the disaster. Moreover, this report represents the most conservative of studies from credible sources, with other estimates reaching as high as almost one million Chernobyl deaths.
Lehr works for a public policy think-tank and Monbiot is a journalist. Perhaps we should expect writers from those professions to misleadingly cite sources in order to promote a preset agenda in the hope that no one will check their sources. However, it comes as a shock that medical doctors writing in a prestigious medical journal like the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) would resort to the same practice. On April 20 the NEJM published an article by six doctors entitled: “Short-term and Long-term Health Risks of Nuclear-Power-Plant Accidents.” I will not presume to know what the motives of the authors were or what led them to their erroneous conclusions, but I do feel the need to point out the errors that somehow the NEJM’s peer review process failed to notice.
The authors prominently cite two International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) studies in downplaying the deaths from Chernobyl. The authors state that “[a]lthough the Three Mile Island accident has not yet led to identifiable health effects, the Chernobyl accident resulted in 28 deaths related to radiation exposure in the year after the accident. The long-term effects of the Chernobyl accident are still being characterized, as we discuss in more detail below.” What is the reader intended to take from this statement? First of all, that the TMI accident in its totality did not cause any health effects that have been identified, which is itself a problematic statement. Secondly, that the total deaths from Chernobyl were the 28 in the first year plus whatever would be discussed later in the paper. As it turns out, the rest of the paper only mentions fatalities one other time, and that is that 11 of 13 plant and emergency workers that underwent bone marrow transplants died, and it is not clear whether or not these eleven are included in the above mentioned 28 fatalities. So the reader is left with the impression that the studies that the NEJM authors are citing conclude that the Chernobyl accident in its totality produced only a few dozen fatalities.
However, just as with Lehr and Monbiot, the NEJM authors start with the most conservative studies and then are misleading in their citations. They ignore the existence of high-profile studies that draw very different conclusions, omit the more damning parts of the studies they do cite, and then quote statements that were not intended to portray the totality of the accidents as if they were bottom line conclusions.
For instance, in making the assertion that Chernobyl caused 28 deaths in the first year, the NEJM authors cited an IAEA report that actually said: “The accident caused the deaths within a few days or weeks of 30 ChNPP employees and firemen (including 28 deaths that were due to radiation exposure).”
Notice that the IAEA statement is limited to power plant employees and fireman, whereas the authors imply the entire population. In fact, that IAEA study focused on the “600 emergency workers who were on the site of the Chernobyl power plant during the night of the accident,” and not the exposed population at large or the hundreds of thousands of “liquidators” who worked to contain the plant over the next couple years. Moreover, the IAEA study did not preclude the possibility that some of the liquidators or general public could have been killed due to radiation exposure in the first year, not to mention subsequent years. While the authors only mention a handful of cancer deaths in subsequent years, the second IAEA study acknowledges that among the one million or so most exposed, several thousand Chernobyl-caused cancer deaths would be “very difficult to detect.” The study states the following:
The projections indicate that, among the most exposed populations (liquidators, evacuees and residents of the so-called ‘strict control zones’) total cancer mortality might increase by up to a few per cent owing to Chernobyl related radiation exposure. Such an increase could mean eventually up to several thousand fatal cancers in addition to perhaps one hundred thousand cancer deaths expected in these populations from all other causes. An increase of this magnitude would be very difficult to detect, even with very careful long term epidemiological studies.
Clearly, the content of these two IAEA studies was not accurately reflected in the NEJM article. Moreover, the IAEA is not necessarily the best source of information. It was never intended to protect the public from the dangers of nuclear power plants. That is not part of its mission. The statute of the IAEA states that:
[t]he Agency shall seek to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world. It shall ensure, so far as it is able, that assistance provided by it or at its request or under its supervision or control is not used in such a way as to further any military purpose.
Thus, the IAEA was created to PROMOTE nuclear power (while checking the proliferation of nuclear weapons). It therefore cannot be assumed to be an unbiased or authoritative source of information on the health risks of nuclear power.
The NEJM article is misleading or inaccurate in other instances. For instance, its discussion is weighted too much towards whole body radiation, which is really only relevant to the emergency workers. The article acknowledges that it is not whole body radiation, but rather internal contamination that is “the primary mechanism through which large populations around a reactor accident can be exposed to radiation.” So why emphasize whole body radiation if it is not the mechanism through which populations are endangered?
They then launched into a long discussion about acute radiation sickness, which is largely a red herring since the threat to the general public is mainly from cancer. The NEJM article further obfuscates the issue with a table that compares the effective doses of radiation that a resident near a nuclear accident is exposed to with what someone is exposed to from something mundane like an airplane ride or a chest x-ray. This is like comparing the force of a cool breeze to the force of a knife slicing the jugular. The knife is lethal because it allows a very small amount of force to be concentrated on a vulnerable target. Similarly, the risk to Fukushima residents is not radiation spread out over their entire body, but rather radioisotopes like iodine 131 being concentrated by biological processes into a vulnerable target like the thyroid.
The NEJM authors mislead in other ways. They write “After Chernobyl, approximately 5 million people in the region may have had excess radiation exposure, primarily through internal contamination.” They cite the second IAEA study. The reader is likely to assume that up to 5 million people in the countries in Europe and Asia where the fallout from Chernobyl may have reached could have been exposed to excess radiation (i.e. radiation in excess of normal), and that this is the limit of exposure to internal radiation.
However, the IAEA study is only referring to the contamination region designated by the former USSR (a small area in the corners of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia) and does not imply that excess radiation exposure (internal or otherwise) was limited to this area. In fact, they do not use the word “excess,” but rather specify a particular level of radioactive cesium. The actual wording of the IAEA report was as follows:
More than five million people live in areas of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine that are classified as ‘contaminated’ with radionuclides due to the Chernobyl accident (above 37 kBq m-2 of 137Cs).
On the same page, the report also states that “The cloud from the burning reactor spread numerous types of radioactive materials, especially iodine and caesium (sic) radionuclides, over much of Europe.” It added that radioactive cesium-137 “is still measurable in soils and some foods in many parts of Europe.” Thus, there certainly were people outside of this narrow region of 5 million inhabitants who also were exposed to Chernobyl radiation through their environment and food. Indeed, the authors discuss the move by Polish authorities to administer potassium iodide to 10 million Polish children. Obviously Polish officials feared radiation exposure to these people.
Furthermore, there is major omission in the authors’ discussion of radiation. They discuss beta and gamma radiation, but do not mention alpha radiation. They then go on to dismiss the danger of plutonium contamination, which is dangerous precisely because it is an alpha emitter. They state that “Radioisotopes with a … very long half-life (e.g., 24,400 years for plutonium-239) … do not cause substantial internal or external contamination in reactor accidents.” The authors are either lying or ignorant. The danger from plutonium-239 has nothing to do with its half-life (long half-lives indicate slower radioactive decay). Plutonium, if ingested internally, is dangerous because the large and heavy alpha particles it emits are the most damaging to DNA and the most likely to cause cancer. In fact, Plutonium is the most lethal substance known to mankind.
As mentioned above, the IAEA cannot be thought of as an authoritative, unbiased source of health information given its explicit mission of promoting nuclear power. The same can be said for other sources cited by the authors, including the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency and the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. At the same time, the authors ignored prominent studies produced independently of the nuclear industry and affiliated governmental bodies that indicate that there were indeed serious public health consequences from the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accident.
Significantly, the authors failed to mention the seminal work on the consequences of radiation exposure from Chernobyl done by Yablokov, Nesterenko and Nesterenko of the Russian National Academy of Sciences.3 This team of scientists from Russia and Belarus studied health data, radiological surveys and 5,000 scientific reports from 1986 to 2004, mostly in Slavic languages, and estimated that the Chernobyl accident caused the deaths of 985,000 people worldwide. Given the prominence of this report and the fact that its findings are completely at odds with the conclusions reached by the IAEA and other sources cited by the authors, it was intellectually dishonest not to mention the report if only to dismiss it.
Indeed, the Yablokov et al report is hardly the only major study to contrast starkly with the minimalist portrayal of the health consequences from nuclear accidents. Regarding Three Mile Island, there is the June 1991 Columbia University Health Study (Susser-Hatch) of the health impacts from the TMI accident published its findings in the American Journal of Public Health and subsequent work by Dr. Steven Wing of the University of North Carolina. These studies point to increased incidences of cancer in areas close to the reactor or downwind from it.
Another example of minimizing potential health impacts of a nuclear plant accident is this statement in connection with the accident at Fukushima:
Although the radioactivity in seawater close to the plant may be transiently higher than usual by several orders of magnitude, it diffuses rapidly with distance and decays over time, according to half-life, both before and after ingestion by marine life.
Japan has a massive fishing industry because, along with rice, fish is the staple of the Japanese diet. Any release of radiation into coastal fishing grounds will wind up being concentrated through biological processes as it works its way up the food chain and eventually to the Japanese dinner table. The narrow restrictions on commercial fishing near the Fukushima coast may be obeyed by fisherman, but many of the fish they seek are migratory, and there is no way of preventing these fish or their food sources from passing through contaminated water. Moreover, the claim that the radioactivity “decays over time” glosses over exactly how much time. While some of the radioisotopes being spilled into the ocean have half-lives of days, others have half-lives of years and even millennia. The impact on health from releases into the ocean cannot be so lightly dismissed.
Although it will take some time for the dust (or fallout) to settle, it may well turn out that the Fukushima disaster is the worst nuclear accident of all-time, surpassing Chernobyl. The contamination from the Chernobyl accident led to the establishment of a 30-kilometer wide “zone of alienation” to which people are not allowed to return. The current evacuation zone around the Fukushima plant is of comparable size, and with the Fukushima reactors continuing to release contamination for the foreseeable future, the only question is how large will be Japan’s “zone of alienation.” And while greater Tokyo has so far been largely spared due to the prevailing winds blowing so much of the contamination into the Pacific, winds will be changing with the upcoming monsoon season and the summer typhoons. [Note: countless radioactive “hot spots” have since been detected all over greater Tokyo, particularly in places where rain water accumulates.]
It is this proximity to Tokyo, one of the world’s most densely populated metropolises, that could make Fukushima the worst industrial calamity in history. An increase in cancer mortality even of the “difficult to detect” scale referred to by the IAEA study described above could condemn several tens of thousands of people. And that is far from being the worst case. The NEJM authors and others who propagate myths about the minimal casualties from Chernobyl and other accidents feed into a mindset that is leading to disastrous policy decisions. The only way to correct course is to identify the myths and the mythmakers.
- Jay Lehr said that at Chernobyl “the bottom line was that 50 people died in the explosion from radiation from fire…”
- George Monbiot stated that “so far the death toll from Chernobyl amongst both workers and local people is 43.”
- Alexey V. Yablokov, Vassily B. Nesterenko, Alexey V. Nesterenko, “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment“, 2010, Nature – 400. Also available at: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 1181
Titus North is an adjunct professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s Political Science department.
Exposing the “No Harm” Mantra
The myth that Fukushima radiation levels were too low to harm humans persists, a year after the meltdown. A March 2, 2012 New York Times article quoted Vanderbilt University professor John Boice: “there’s no opportunity for conducting epidemiological studies that have any chance for success – the doses are just too low.” Wolfgang Weiss of the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation also recently said doses observed in screening of Japanese people “are very low.”
Views like these are political, not scientific, virtually identical to what the nuclear industry cheerleaders claim. Nuclear Energy Institute spokesperson Tony Pietrangelo issued a statement in June that “no health effects are expected among the Japanese people as a result of the events at Fukushima.”
In their haste to choke off all consideration of harm from Fukushima radiation, nuclear plant owners and their willing dupes in the scientific community built a castle against invaders – those open-minded researchers who would first conduct objective research BEFORE rushing to judgment. The pro-nuclear chants of “no harm” and “no studies needed” are intended to be permanent, as part of damage control created by a dangerous technology that has produced yet another catastrophe.
But just one year after Fukushima, the “no harm” mantra is now being crowded by evidence – evidence to the contrary.
First, estimates of releases have soared. The first reports issued by the Japanese government stated that emissions equaled 10% of 1986 Chernobyl emissions. A few weeks later, they doubled that estimate to 20%. By October 2011, an article in the journal Nature estimated Fukushima emissions to be more than double that of Chernobyl. How anyone, let alone scientists, could call Fukushima doses “too low” to cause harm in the face of this evidence is astounding.
Where did the radioactive particles and gases go? Officials from national meteorological agencies in countries like France and Austria followed the plume, and made colorful maps available on the internet. Within six days of the meltdowns, the plume had reached the U.S., and within 18 days, it had circled the Northern Hemisphere.
How much radiation entered the U.S. environment? A July 2011 journal article by officials at Pacific Northwest National Lab in eastern Washington State measured airborne radioactive Xenon-133 up to 40,000 times greater than normal in the weeks following the fallout. Xenon-133 is a gas that travels rapidly and does not enter the body, but signals that other, more dangerous types of radioactive chemicals will follow.
A February 2012 journal article by the U.S. Geological Survey looked at radioactive Iodine-131 that entered soil from rainfall, and found levels hundreds of times above normal in places like Portland OR, Fresno CA, and Denver CO. The same places also had the highest levels of Cesium-134 and Cesium-137 in the U.S. While elevated radiation levels were found in all parts of the country, it appears that the West Coast and Rocky Mountain states received the greatest amounts of Fukushima fallout.
Radiation in rainfall guarantees that humans will ingest a poisonous mix of chemicals. The rain enters reservoirs of drinking water, pastures where milk-giving cows graze, the soil of produce farms, and other sources of food and water.
Finally, how many people were harmed by Fukushima in the short term? Official studies have chipped away at the oft-repeated claim that nobody died from Fukushima. Last month brought the news that 573 deaths in the area near the stricken reactors were certified by coroners as related to the nuclear crisis, with dozens more deaths to be reviewed. Another survey showed that births near Fukushima declined 25% in the three months following the meltdowns. One physician speculated that many women chose to deliver away from Fukushima, but an increase in stillbirths remains as a potential factor. In British Columbia, the number of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome deaths was 10 in the first three months after Fukushima, up from just one a year before.
On December 19, 2011, we announced the publication of the first peer-reviewed scientific journal article examining potential health risks after Fukushima. In the 14 week period March 20 – June 25, 2011, there was an increase in deaths reported to the CDC by 122 U.S. cities. If final statistics (not available until late 2014) confirm this trend, about 14,000 “excess” deaths occurred among Americans in this period.
We made no statement that only Fukushima fallout caused these patterns. But we found some red flags: infants had the greatest excess (infants are most susceptible to radiation), and a similar increase occurred in the U.S. in the months following Chernobyl. Our study reinforced Fukushima health hazard concerns, and we hope to spur others to engage in research on both short-term and long-term effects.
For years, the assumption that low-dose radiation doesn’t harm people has been used, only to fall flat on its face every time. X-rays to abdomens of pregnant women, exposure to atom bomb fallout, and exposures to nuclear weapons workers were all once presumed to be harmless due to low dose levels – until scientific studies proved otherwise. Officials have dropped their assumptions on theses types of exposures, but continue to claim that Fukushima was harmless.
Simply dismissing needed research on Fukushima health consequences because doses are “too low” is irresponsible, and contradictory to many scientific studies. There will most certainly be a fight over Fukushima health studies, much like there was after Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. However, we hope that the dialogue will be open minded and will use evidence over assumptions, rather than just scoffing at what may well turn out to be the worst nuclear disaster in history.
Joseph Mangano is an epidemiologist and Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project.
Janette Sherman is an internist and toxicologist.
- 14,000 U.s. Deaths Tied to Fukushima Reactor Disaster Fallout (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Is the nuclear drought over?
When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently approved two new nuclear reactors near Augusta, Georgia, the first such decision in 32 years, there was plenty of hoopla.
It marked a “clarion call to the world,” declared Marvin S. Fertel, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute. “Nuclear energy is a critical part of President Obama’s all-of-the-above energy strategy,” declared Energy Secretary Chu, who traveled in February to the Vogtle site where Westinghouse plans to build two new reactors.
But it’s too soon for nuclear boosters to pop their champagne corks. Japan’s Fukushima disaster continues to unfold nearly a year after the deadly earthquake and tsunami unleashed what’s shaping up to be the worst nuclear disaster ever. Meanwhile, a raft of worldwide reactor closures, cancellations, and postponements is still playing out. The global investment bank UBS estimates that some 30 reactors in several countries are at risk of closure, including at least two in highly pro-nuclear France.
And Siemens AG, one of the world’s largest builders of nuclear power plants, has already dumped its nuclear business.
Recently, Standard and Poor’s (S&P) credit rating agency announced that without blanket financing from consumers and taxpayers, the prospects of an American nuclear renaissance are “faint.” It doesn’t help that the nuclear price tag has nearly doubled in the past five years. Currently reactors are estimated to cost about $6 to $10 billion to build. The glut of cheap natural gas makes it even less attractive for us to nuke out.
How expensive is the bill that S&P thinks private lenders will shun?
Replacing the nation’s existing fleet of 104 reactors, which are all slated for closure by 2056, could cost about $1.4 trillion. Oh, and add another $500 billion to boost the generating capacity by 50 percent to make a meaningful impact on reducing carbon emissions. (Nuclear power advocates are touting it as a means of slowing climate change.) We’d need to fire up at least one new reactor every month, or even more often, for the next several decades.
Meanwhile, Japan — which has the world’s third-largest nuclear reactor fleet — has cancelled all new nuclear reactor projects. All but two of its 54 plants are shut down. Plus the risk of yet another highly destructive earthquake occurring even closer to the Fukushima reactors has increased, according to the European Geosciences Union.
This is particularly worrisome for Daiichi’s structurally damaged spent fuel pool at Reactor No. 4, which sits 100 feet above ground, exposed to the elements. Drainage of water from this pool resulting from another quake could trigger a catastrophic radiological fire involving about eight times more radioactive cesium than was released at Chernobyl.
Ironically, the NRC’s decision to license those two reactors has thrown a lifeline to Japan’s flagging nuclear power industry (along with an $8.3-billion U.S. taxpayer loan guarantee). Toshiba Corp. owns 87 percent of Westinghouse, which is slated to build the new reactors. Since U.S.-based nuclear power vendors disappeared years ago, all of the proposed reactors in this country are to be made by Japanese firms — Toshiba, Mitsubishi, and Hitachi — or Areva, which is mostly owned by the French government. According to the Energy Department, “major equipment would not be manufactured by U.S. facilities.”
For Southern Co., which would operate the Vogtle reactors, the NRC’s approval is just the beginning of a financial and political gauntlet it must run through. Over the strenuous objections of consumers and businesses, energy customers will shoulder the costs of financing and constructing this $17-billion project, even if the reactors are abandoned before completion. If things don’t turn out, U.S. taxpayers will also be on the hook for an $8.3-billion loan guarantee that the Energy Department has approved.
The Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office estimate that nuclear loan guarantees have a 50/50 chance of default.
Nearly four decades after the Three Mile Island accident, nuclear power remains expensive, dangerous, and too radioactive for Wall Street. The industry won’t grow unless the U.S. government props it up and the public bears the risks.
ROBERT ALVAREZ, an Institute for Policy Studies senior scholar, served as senior policy adviser to the Energy Department’s secretary from 1993 to 1999. www.ips-dc.org
There’s a news article in the Washington Post today that really captures that paper’s view of the way the world works, and how it ought to work. Headlined “After Earthquake, Japan Can’t Agree on the Future of Nuclear Power,” Chico Harlan’s piece begins:
The hulking system that once guided Japan’s pro-nuclear-power stance worked just fine when everybody moved in lockstep. But in the wake of a nuclear accident that changed the way this country thinks about energy, the system has proved ill-suited for resolving conflict. Its very size and complexity have become a problem.
And what exactly is that problem?
Nearly a year after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi facility, Japanese decision-makers cannot agree on how to safeguard their reactors against future disasters, or even whether to operate them at all.
Some experts say this indecision reflects the Japanese tendency to search for, and sometimes depend on, consensus–even when none is likely to emerge. The nation’s system for nuclear decision-making requires the agreement of thousands of officials. Most bureaucrats and politicians in Tokyo want Japan to recommit to nuclear power, but they have been thwarted by a powerful minority–reformists and regional governors.
The obstruction by this “powerful minority,” the Post goes on to say, has “heavy consequences”: “record financial losses for major power companies and economy-stunting electricity shortages.” The story warns that “Japan, once the world’s third-largest nuclear consumer, could be nuclear-free, if it is unable to win approval from local communities to restart the idled units.”
Then, after musing about the “elaborate network of hand-holding” that used to govern Japan’s nuclear infrastructure, Harlan slips in a fact that changes everything:
Since the March 11 accident, just enough has changed to stall that cooperation. Two-thirds of Japanese oppose atomic power. Politicians in areas that host nuclear plants are rethinking the facilities; they hold veto power over any restart. A few vocal skeptics have emerged in the government, and in the aftermath of the accident, Japan has created at least a dozen commissions and task forces for energy-related issues.
So when the pro-nuclear goals of “most bureaucrats and politicians” are “thwarted by a powerful minority,” that’s a sign of the dysfunctional Japanese system, with its “tendency to search for, and sometimes depend on, consensus.” The fact that this “minority” actually represents the large majority of the Japanese public who oppose the technology that has rendered substantial parts of their country uninhabitable–well, that’s just another roadblock that the establishment is going to have to overcome.