The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, March 28, 1979, involved the loss-of-coolant, the melting of half its fuel, a hydrogen explosion in the “containment” building,(i) the uncontrolled, frightening buildup of explosive hydrogen in the reactor vessel, the venting of radioactive gases, and the dumping of contaminated water into a major source public drinking water. The accident caused such a scare that it ended the expansion of nuclear power in the US. Today, reactor builds can’t keep up with closures.
Yet the human health consequences of TMI aren’t well known, and official cover-ups, propaganda and ignorance of radiation-induced illnesses have led to trivialization of the disaster. As Gar Smith notes in his 2012 book Nuclear Roulette, public officials issued one false statement after another for days, like: there were no radiation releases; radiation releases were “controlled”; radiation releases were “insignificant”; there was no melting of the reactor fuel; there was never any danger of an explosion; there was no need to evacuate close communities. In fact, TMI’s failed containment released a plume of radiation “about 100 times more significant than the initial estimates offered” by the industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — which still doesn’t know how much radiation was released or where it went.
David Lochbaum of the Union of Concern Scientists estimates between 40 million curies and 100 million curies escaped during the accident. President Carter’s Kemeny Commission estimated about 15 million curies of radioactive gas was vented from the containment building, including 43,000 curies of krypton-85(ii) — which stays in the environment for 100 years — and 15-to-24 curies of radioactive iodine-131.(iii) (A curie is a huge amount of radiation — 37 billion disintegrations per second.) The NRC later admitted to several “deliberate but uncontrolled releases” of the cancer-causing gases. Estimates of these airborne releases are mere guesses, because half of the outside radiation monitors were not working, and of those that worked, a large number of them went off-scale.(iv)
Approximately 400,000 gallons of highly radioactive cooling water leaked from the reactor into “containment” areas. This water was secretly dumped into the Susquehanna River, a source of drinking water for nearby communities.(v) Later, about 2.3 million gallons of radioactively contaminated cooling water were allowed to be “evaporated” into the atmosphere.(vi)
On the third day of the venting and dumping, half the population within 15 miles — 144,000 people — fled the area. By this time the bulk of the airborne radiation gusher had already been spewed and was drifting on the wind. Yet the Kemeny Commission ignored all data on the effects of wind-borne radiation, even though the wind blew 6-to-9 mph toward upstate New York and western Pennsylvania.(vii)
“Nobody died at Three Mile Island” — unless you count babies
In 1980, Pennsylvania State Health Department authorities reported a sharp rise in hypothyroidism in newborn infants in the three counties downwind from the reactor. Late in 1979, four times as many infants as normal were born with the disease. The NRC said the increase was unrelated to radiation released by TMI.(viii) Upwind incidence of the disease had dropped to below the national average.
Eric Epstein, Chair of Three Mile Island Alert had noted that in March 1982, the American Journal of Public Health reported, “During the first two quarters of 1978, the [newborn] mortality rate within a 10 mile radius of Three Mile Island was 8.6 and 7.6 per 1,000 live births, respectively. During the first quarter of 1979, following the startup of accident-prone Unit 2, the rate jumped to 17.2; it increased to 19.3 in the quarter following the accident at TMI, and returned to 7.8 and 9.3, respectively, in the last two quarters of 1979.” (Dr. Gordon MacLeod, Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Health.)
A June 1991, Columbia University Health Study’s findings (Susser-Hatch) were published in the American Journal of Public Health. The data actually shows more than a doubling of observed cancers in areas near the partial meltdown, including lymphoma, leukemia, colon and the hormonal category of breast, endometrium, ovary, prostate, and testis. For leukemia and lung cancers in the six-to-12 kilometer distance from TMI, the number of observed cases was almost four times greater. In the zero-to-six kilometer range, colon cancer was 4 times greater. The study found “a statistically significant relationship between incidence rates after the accident and residential proximity to the plant.”
In the county where TMI is located, infant mortality (deaths of kids under one) soared 53.7% in the first month after the accident; the rate rose 27% in the first year after the accident. As originally published, the federal government’s own Monthly Vital Statistics Report shows a statistically significant rise in infant and over-all mortality rates shortly after the accident.
Studying 10 counties closest to TMI, Jay Gould and Benjamin Goldman, in their 1990 book Deadly Deceit, found that childhood cancers, other infant diseases, and deaths from birth defects were 15% to 35% higher than before the accident, and those from breast cancer 7% higher. These increases far exceeded those elsewhere in Pennsylvania.(ix) Gould suggests that between 50,000 and 100,000 excess deaths occurred after the TMI accident.
Joseph Mangano studied the three counties closest to TMI — Daupin, Lancaster, and York. He found that between 1980 and 1984, “death rates in these three counties were considerably higher than 1970-74 (before the reactor opened) for leukemia, female breast cancer, thyroid and bone and joint cancers.” Cancer deaths among kids fewer than 10 years of age (between 1980 and 1984) nearly doubled compared to the national rate.
The death and disease associated with TMI’s radiation releases were foretold by Roger Mattson, a Director of the Systems Safety Division at the NRC at the time. Mattson told the NRC’s members during the accident: “I’m not sure why you are not moving people. I don’t know what we are protecting at this point.”(x)
John LaForge is a co-director of Nukewatch, a nuclear watchdog group in Wisconsin, and edits its Quarterly.
1. Daniel Ford, Three Mile Island, Viking Press, 1982, p. 237-238
2. Nuclear Regulatory Commission: <http://www.nrc.gov/POA/gmo/tip/tip10.htm>
3. John May, The Greenpeace Book of the Nuclear Age, Pantheon, 1989, p. 82
4. Dr. John Beyea, study for the National Audubon Society, 1984, in John May, above, pp. 220-221
5. Allen Hedge, Cornell University, “Systems Thinking,” August 2007, <ergo.human.cornell.edu/studentdownloads/DEA325/pdfs/systems.pdf> Stephen Pople, Oxford, Explaining Physics, GCSE Edition, Sec. 8, Electrons and Atoms, 1990, p. 323; and Report of the President’s Commission on the Accident at TMI, October 30, 1979
6. The Washington Post, March 28, 1989
7. Jay Gould and Benjamin Goldman, Deadly Deceit: Low Level Radiation, High Level Cover-Up, New York, Four Walls Eight Windows, 1990, p. 59
8. Boston Globe, February 23, 1980
9. Joseph Mangano, Low-Level Radiation and Immune System Damage: An Atomic Era Legacy, Lewis Publishers, New York, 1999, p. 65
10. Ford, Three Mile Island, p. 234
Given that Japan’s authoritarian regime of Shinzo Abe has cracked down on the information flow from Fukushima with a repressive state secrets act, we cannot know for certain what’s happening at the site.
We do know that 300 tons of radioactive water have been pouring into the Pacific every day. And that spent fuel rods are littered around the site. Tokyo Electric power may or may not have brought down all the fuel rods from Unit Four, but many hundreds almost certainly remain suspended in the air over Units One, Two and Three.
We also know that Abe is pushing refugees to move back into the Fukushima region. Thyroid damage rates—including cancer—have skyrocketed among children in the region. Radiation “hot spots” have been found as far away as Tokyo. According to scientific sources, more than 30 times as much radioactive Cesium was released at Fukushima as was created at the bombing of Hiroshima.
Some of those isotopes turned up in at least 15 tuna caught off the coast of California. But soon after Fukushima, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration stopped testing Pacific fish for radiation. The FDA has never fully explained why.
But now a small amount of Fukushima’s radiation has turned up in green tea shipped from Japan to Hong Kong. This is a terrifying development, casting doubt on all food being exported from the region.
According to the New York Times:
“A sample of powdered tea imported from the Japanese prefecture of Chiba, just southeast of Tokyo, contained traces of radioactive cesium 137, the Hong Kong government announced late Thursday evening, but they were far below the legal maximum level.
The discovery was not the first of its kind. The government’s Center for Food Safety found three samples of vegetables from Japan with “unsatisfactory” levels of radioactive contaminants in March 2011, the month that nuclear reactors in Fukushima, northeast of Tokyo, suffered partial meltdowns following a powerful earthquake and tsunami.”
Should every meal you are served now be accompanied with a radiation monitor?
Another radioactive water leak in the sea has been detected at the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, the facility’s operator TEPCO announced. Contamination levels in the gutter reportedly spiked up 70 times over regular readings.
The sensors are connected to the gutter that pours rain and ground water from the plant to a bay adjacent to the facility.
The levels of contamination were between 50 and 70 times higher than Fukushima’s already elevated radioactive status, and were detected at about 10 am local time (1.00 am GMT), AFP reported.
After the discovery, the gutter was blocked to prevent leaks to the Pacific Ocean.
Throughout Sunday, contamination levels fell, but still measured 10 to 20 times more than prior to the leak.
“We are currently monitoring the sensors at the gutter and seeing the trend,” a company spokesman said.
He did not specify the cause of the leak.
It has proved difficult for TEPCO to deal with plant decommissioning. Postponed deadlines and alarming incidents occur regularly at the facility.
Earlier this week, the UN nuclear watchdog (IAEA) said Japan had made significant progress, but there is still a radioactive threat, and a “very complex” scenario at Fukushima.
About a month ago, TEPCO announced it would miss their toxic water cleanup deadline, suspending it until the end of May, after earlier pledges it would be done by March.
The discovery of over 16,000 cracks in two Belgian reactor vessels may have global implications for nuclear safety, says the country’s nuclear safety chief. He and independent experts are calling for the immediate checks of nuclear reactor vessels worldwide.
Thousands of cracks have been found in the steel reactor pressure vessels in nuclear reactors Doel 3 and Tihange 2 in Belgium – vessels contain highly radioactive nuclear fuel cores.
The failure of these components can cause catastrophic nuclear accidents with massive release of radiation.
The pervasive – and entirely unexpected – cracking could be related to corrosion from normal operation, according to leading material scientists Professor Walter Bogaerts and Professor Digby MacDonald.
Speaking on Belgian TV, Professor MacDonald said:
“The consequences could be very severe … like fracturing the pressure vessel, loss of coolant accident. This would be a leak before break scenario, in which case before a fracture of a pipe occurred … you would see a jet of steam coming out through the insulation.
“My advice is that all reactor operators, under the guidance of the regulatory commissions should be required to do an ultrasonic survey of the pressure vessels. All of them.”
Professor Bogaerts added:
“If I had to estimate, I would really be surprised if it … had occurred nowhere else … I am afraid that the corrosion aspects have been underestimated.”
Jan Bens, Director-General of the Belgian nuclear regulator the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC), has said that this could be a problem for the entire nuclear industry globally – and that the solution is to begin the careful inspection of 430 nuclear power plants worldwide.
An unexplained embrittlement
The problem was discovered in the summer of 2012. Both the Doel 3 and Tihange 2 reactors have been shut down since March 24th, 2014 after additional tests revealed an unexplained advanced embrittlement of the steel of the test sample.
At the time the reactors’ operator, Electrabel, dismissed the cracks as being the result of manufacturing problems during construction in the late 1970’s in the Netherlands – but provided no supporting evidence.
FANC also stated that the most likely cause was manufacturing – but added that it could be due to other causes. Following the further tests FANC has now issued a statement confirming that the additional 2014 tests revealed 13,047 cracks in Doel 3 and 3,149 in Tihange 2.
“In carrying out tests related to theme 2 during the spring of 2014, a fracture toughness test revealed unexpected results, which suggested that the mechanical properties of the material were more strongly influenced by radiation than experts had expected. As a precaution both reactors were immediately shut down again.”
As nuclear reactors age, radiation causes pressure vessel damage, or embrittlement, of the steel mostly as a result of the constant irradiation by neutrons which gradually destroys the metal atom by atom – inducing radioactivity and transmutation into other elements.
Another problem is that hydrogen from cooling water can migrate into reactor vessel cracks. “The phenomenon is like a road in winter where water trickles into tiny cracks, freezes, and expands, breaking up the road”, says Greenpeace Belgium energy campaigner Eloi Glorieux.
“It appears that hydrogen from the water within the vessel that cools the reactor core is getting inside the steel, reacting, and destroying the pressure vessel from within.”
He adds that the findings mean that “the safety of every nuclear reactor on the planet could be significantly compromised … What we are seeing in Belgium is potentially devastating for nuclear reactors globally due to the increased risk of a catastrophic failure.”
Immediate action needed to prevent another catastrophe
On February 15th the nuclear reactor operator, Electrabel (GDF / Suez parent company) announced that it would be prepared to “sacrifice” one of its reactors to conduct further destructive tests of the reactor pressure vessel in order to study this poorly understood and extremely concerning damage phenomenon.
Electrabel’s findings will be submitted to FANC which will organize a new meeting of the international panel of experts to obtain their advice on the results of the new material tests and on the new data.
According to Electrabel, the findings constitute a “Level 1 occurrence on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES)” but the company emphasises that the event “has no impact whatsoever on the wellbeing or health of the employees, the local residents, or the surrounding area.”
But Glorieux dismisses such complacency: “As we approach the fourth anniversary of the Fukushima-daiichi nuclear disaster, evidence has emerged that demands immediate action to prevent another catastrophe. Thousands of previously unknown cracks in critical components of two reactors point to a potentially endemic and significant safety problem for reactors globally.
“Nuclear regulators worldwide must require reactor inspections as soon as possible, and no later than the next scheduled maintenance shutdown. If damage is discovered, the reactors must remain shut down until and unless safety and pressure vessel integrity can be guaranteed. Anything less would be insane given the risk of a severe nuclear accident”
There are 435 commercial nuclear reactors worldwide, with an average age of 28.5 years in mid 2014. Of these, 170 reactors (44 percent of the total) have been operating for 30 years or more and 39 reactors have operated for over 40 years. As of 2015, Doel 3 has been operating for 33 years; Tihange 2 for 32 years.
Now the plant’s owners are asking the Ohio Public Utilities Commission to force the public to pay billions of dollars over the next 15 years to subsidize reactor operations.
But Davis-Besse’s astonishing history of near-miss disasters defies belief. Its shoddy construction, continual operator error and relentless owner incompetence would not be believed as fiction, let alone as the stark realities of a large commercial reactor operating in a heavily populated area.
Time and again Davis-Besse has come within a fraction of an inch and an hour of crisis management time. Today its critical shield wall is literally crumbing, with new cracks opening up every time the northern Ohio weather freezes (like this week).
The company’s owners have blacked out the entire Northeast including 50 million customers—the largest such disaster in world history.
They allowed boric acid to eat within 3/16th of an inch of a Chernobyl-scale disaster that would’ve permanently irradiated the Great Lakes region. They have set the record for fines by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and continue to drain billions of ratepayer dollars from Ohio’s bleeding economy.
Now they want those ratepayers to fork over billions more to keep this reactor running beyond the brink.
Hear about Davis-Besse’s astonishing story, by listening to this incredible hour-long interview with local attorney Terry Lodge and Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear, along with Tim Judson of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, three of the key expert activists working to get Davis-Besse shut down.
Many wild stories have been told about atomic power over the decades, but it’s hard to top the true tales from Davis-Besse. In this case, hearing is believing—and holding your head in dismay:
If you want Davis-Besse shut write the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio at email@example.com. Use this label in the subject line of the email, as well as the body of the email message, so PUCO can route the public comments to the correct proceeding: OPPOSITION COMMENT UNDER CASE # 14-1297-EL-SSO.
A high-level radioactive waste “parking lot” — proposed for West Texas — poses both terrible and unnecessary risks for people throughout the country — Texas in particular — and should not be built.
That’s the position of a coalition of public interest groups that declared its opposition to the plan February 9.
The proposal was announced by Waste Control Specialists (WCS) which currently operates a low-level radioactive dump at the site near Eunice, New Mexico. The plan is for WCS, and the French nuclear giant AREVA, to accept high-level radioactive waste.
About 70,000 tons of such waste fuel–other rad waste is called “low-level”– is now stored at about 70 reactor sites around the country. The waste is some of most long-lived, deadly and dangerous material known to science, radioactive for over half-a-million years.
“It was irresponsible even to generate high-level nuclear waste without a plan for how to dispose of it,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, in a press release. “It would be doubly so to ship it across the country, with no serious plan to protect it in transit or in its new temporary destination. Hiding the problem of high-level nuclear waste in West Texas doesn’t make it go away, it makes it worse.”
Diane D’Arrigo, radioactive waste project director at Nuclear Information and Resource Service, said, “Moving nuclear waste to a supposedly temporary consolidated storage place gives the delusion of ‘a solution’ when in fact it will at least double the risks and create a de facto permanent dump near one of the largest aquifers in the country.”
D’Arrigo called the plan part of an elaborate, unnecessary shell game. “WCS is really volunteering to make the US nuclear problem worse by putting the deadliest radioactive wastes from nuclear power on the same highways, railways and waterways we all use every day,” she said. The government said 20 years ago that the waste could safely be kept at reactor sites for 100 years.
“This plan is all risk and no reward for the state of Texas,” said Tom Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas Office. “It poses transportation and accident risks around the country. We don’t need Fukushima Freeways,” he said. […]
“The federal government has made a mess of nuclear waste policy,” said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. “The highly radioactive spent fuel from nuclear reactors should be stored on-site, in hardened configurations while Washington sorts it out. Putting the deadliest nuclear waste on the roads needlessly increases risks.” he said.
The only plausible rationale for moving high-level waste away from reactor sites has come from those warning about tsunami risks on the West Coast, and from environmental justice advocates who note that radioactive waste is often placed — as with Xcel’s Prairie Island reactors in Minnesota — near Native American communities.
Former Texas State Rep. Lon Burnam of Ft. Worth said, “The site isn’t even dry — a minimum safety prerequisite for safe storage or disposal of radioactive waste. Recently, 22 percent of test wells at the existing low-level radioactive waste site had water present. … WCS admits the Ogallala Aquifer is nearby. What would happen if radioactive waste contaminated water that lies beneath eight states?”
Texas must not be allowed to risk answering that question. – Full article
John LaForge works for Nukewatch and lives on the Plowshares Land Trust near Luck, Wisc.
“US, India Move Forward on Nuclear Energy Deal” read the headline at the top of USA Today’s front page (1/26/15). Moving forward–that sounds good, doesn’t it? The subhead was “Obama makes progress on the 1st day of his 3-day visit”–making progress also generally being seen as a good thing.
Online, the headline was “Obama, India’s Modi Cite Nuclear Investment Breakthrough” (1/25/15). And who doesn’t like a “breakthrough”?
The article itself had the same positive spin, beginning with its lead:
President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Sunday they reached “a breakthrough understanding” in freeing up US investment in nuclear energy development in India, as Obama began a three-day visit to India.
Not only is it a “breakthrough understanding,” it’s also going to be “freeing up” investment. In these word choices, USA Today is saying it wants you to know that this is good news.
But what is the news? Here’s how the paper’s Mandakini Gahlot summarizes the agreement:
Picking up from a stalled 2008 civil nuclear agreement between the two countries, the deal would allow US firms to invest in energy in India. It also resolves a dispute over US insistence on tracking fissile material it supplies to the country and over Indian liability provisions that have discouraged US firms from capitalizing on the agreement.
“Indian liability provisions”–what does that mean? The only further explanation USA Today gives is a paraphrase of the White House view that the agreement “resolves the US concerns on both tracking and liability.” In other words, it doesn’t explain much.
You get a much fuller picture from a story in the Mumbai-based newspaper Indian Express (1/26/15), which explains that the problem is with Indian law:
India’s Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010, has a simple purpose: to make sure that victims of a nuclear accident can get quick compensation, without having to prove the plant operator was negligent, and irrespective of who was at fault…. Section 17b of CLiNDA says the plant operators…can claim compensation from their equipment suppliers if the accident resulted as a result of “equipment or material with patent or latent defects.” And Section 46 makes both suppliers and operators liable to be sued by accident victims.
This is in conflict with the international rules that the US nuclear industry has arranged for itself when marketing its products abroad:
In the US, the law allows victims to file damages claims against operators, suppliers and designers. However, when US firms started selling abroad, they pushed for the concept of legal channeling, which left only operators liable.
These corporations–who have the political backing of the US government–have succeeded in getting international conventions to agree that “no one other than operators can be held responsible” in the event of a nuclear catastrophe. The suppliers want assurances that these international conventions, and not Indian law, will be applied in the wake of such an event.
The “breakthrough” between Obama and Modi seems to be an agreement that the law will be “tweaked” to let US corporations off the hook in case of a devastating accident. For example, suppliers of nuclear equipment could be redefined as “contractors” and therefore not be liable under Indian law.
Of course, if USA Today explained that Obama had gotten the Indian prime minister to find a loophole that would allow US corporations to avoid having to compensate victims of nuclear disasters that they contributed to, that would be harder to present as a “good news!” story.
Austria plans to take the European Commission to court over its approval of state subsidies to the $24-billion nuclear power plant Hinkley Point C, which is set to become the UK’s first new nuclear reactor in two decades.
Last October, the EU approved a UK state subsidy request for the project, a deal between French-owned nuclear developer EDF and the UK government.
Though the project was met with skepticism by some commissioners, four of whom voted against the decision, the commission decided that the UK’s plans to subsidize the construction and operation of the plant are in accordance with EU state aid regulations.
Construction has already begun on the plant, which is expected to replace a fifth of Britain’s aging nuclear power and coal plants, and provide 7 percent of the UK’s electricity by 2023.
Austria, a fully non-nuclear nation, considers nuclear energy to be both economically and environmentally unsustainable. The country will launch its appeal within two months after the publication of the official Hinkley decision in the EU journal, Austria’s environment ministry director Andreas Molin told the Guardian. The journal is to be released in two weeks.
The appeal will argue that the UK’s loan guarantees for the project constitute illegal state aid.
“Austria strictly rejects any kind of direct or indirect subsidies to nuclear power, arguing for the complete internalization of all external costs based on the polluter pays principle,” Austrian environment ministry Julia Puchegger told Interfax Energy.
“Austria also doesn’t consider nuclear power to be eligible for the European Fund for Strategic Investments [EFSI],” she added.
The lawsuit could delay an investment decision for over two years “as this is going to be a more complicated and fundamental case,” Molin said.
The EU’s 2014-2020 environment and energy guidelines don’t include specific rules for nuclear energy subsidies, which are to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Though the EDF had planned to sign a funding agreement with its Chinese partners in March, an essential step for securing a final investment plan, an Austrain lawsuit may put these plans on the backburner.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has called on Bulgaria to end its dependence on Russia for energy.
Kerry made the remarks on Thursday in meetings with Bulgaria’s president, prime minister and foreign minister in the capital Sofia.
Bulgaria must move toward “diversifying supplies and distribution and increasing connectivity with neighbors,” Kerry told a news conference with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.
He said Washington is interested in helping the country take “practical steps to enhance energy security in Bulgaria and across Europe.”
Kerry also talked about the possible construction of a natural gas pipeline from Greece and moving ahead with a stalled contract with Westinghouse Electric Co. to build a nuclear power plant.
“We hope very much that the issues that (the government and Westinghouse) are discussing can be quickly resolved,” Kerry said.
Kerry, however, stressed that the US push is not aimed at Russia.
“That is not directed against any one country,” Kerry said. “It is simply a reality. No country in the world should be totally dependent for its energy supply on one other country. We need diversified supplies across the world.”
He said the US will send its special energy envoy to Sofia to look into how the US Export-Import Bank could finance the country.
Bulgaria relies on Russia for 85 percent of its gas and 100 percent of its nuclear power.
On security issues, Kerry said the US is determined in its commitment to defend NATO member Bulgaria if it is attacked.
The US would increase joint military exercises with Bulgaria and also help the country modernize its defenses, Kerry said.
The recent crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and explosion on launch three days earlier of an Antares rocket further underline the dangers of inserting nuclear material in the always perilous space flight equation—as the U.S. and Russia still plan.
“SpaceShipTwo has experienced an in-flight anomaly,” Virgin Galactic tweeted after the spacecraft, on which $500 million has been spent for development, exploded on October 31 after being released by its mother ship. One pilot was killed, another seriously injured. Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic founder, hoped to begin flying passengers on SpaceShipTwo this spring. Some 800 people, including actor Leonard DiCaprio and physicist Steven Hawking, have signed up for $250,000-a person tickets to take a suborbital ride. SpaceShipTwo debris was spread over the Mojave Desert in California.
Three days before, on Wallops Island, Virginia, an Antares rocket operated by Orbital Sciences Corp. blew up seconds after launch. It was carrying 5,000 pounds of supplies and experiments to the International Space Station. The cost of the rocket alone was put at $200 million. NASA, in a statement, said that the rocket “suffered a catastrophic anomaly.” The word anomaly, defined as something that deviates from what is standard, normal or expected, has for years been a space program euphemism for a disastrous accident.
“These two recent space ‘anomalies’ remind us that technology frequently goes wrong,” said Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. www.space4peace.org “When you consider adding nuclear power into the mix it becomes an explosive combination. We’ve long been sounding the alarm that nuclear power in space is not something the public nor the planet can afford to take a chance on.”
But “adding nuclear power into the mix” is exactly what the U.S. and Russia are planning. Both countries have been using nuclear power on space missions for decades—and accidents involving their nuclear-powered space devices have happened with substantial amounts of radioactive particles released on Earth.
Now, a major expansion in space nuclear power activity is planned with the development by both nations of nuclear-powered rockets for trips to Mars.
One big U.S. site for this is NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “NASA Researchers Studying Advanced Nuclear Rocket Technologies,” announced NASA last year. At the center, it said, “The Nuclear Cryogenic Propulsion team is tackling a three-year project to demonstrate the viability of nuclear propulsion technologies.” In them, a “nuclear rocket uses a nuclear reactor to heat hydrogen to very high temperatures, which expands through a nozzle to generate thrust. Nuclear rocket engines generate higher thrust and are more than twice as efficient as conventional chemical engines.”
“A first-generation nuclear cryogenic propulsion system could propel human explorers to Mars more efficiently than conventional spacecraft, reducing crew’s exposure to harmful space radiation and other effects of long-term space missions,” NASA went on. “It could also transport heavy cargo and science payloads.”
And out at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the DUFF project—for Demonstrating Using Flattop Fissions—is moving ahead to develop a “robust fission reactor prototype that could be used as a power system for space travel,” according to Technews World. The laboratory’s Advanced Nuclear Technology Division is running the joint Department of Energy-NASA project. “Nuclear Power Could Blast Humans Into Deep Space,” was the headline of Technewsworld’s 2012 article about it. It quoted Dr. Michael Gruntman, professor of aerospace engineering and systems architecture at the University of Southern California, saying,“If we want solar system exploration, we must utilize nuclear technology.” The article declared: “Without the risk, there will be no reward.”
And in Texas, near NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the Ad Astra Rocket Company of former U.S. astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz is busy working on what it calls the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket or VASMIR. Chang-Diaz began Ad Astra after retiring from NASA in 2005. He’s its president and CEO. The VASMIR system could utilize solar power, related Space News last year, but “using a VASMIR engine to make a superfast Mars run would require incorporating a nuclear reactor that cranks out megawatts of power, Chang-Diaz said, adding that developing this type of powerful reactor should be high on the nation’s to-do list.” Chang-Diaz told Voice of America that by using a nuclear reactor for power “we could do a mission to Mars that would take about 39 days, one-way.” NASA Director Charles Bolden, also a former astronaut as well as a Marine Corps major general, has been a booster of Ad Asra’s project.
Ad Astra and the Nuclear Cryogenic Propulsion project have said their designs would include nuclear systems only starting up when “out of the atmosphere” to prevent, in the event of an accident, “spreading radiation back to Earth.”
However, this isn’t a fail-safe plan. The Soviet Union followed this practice on the satellites powered by nuclear reactors that it launched between the 1960s and 1980s. This included the Cosmos 954. Its on board reactor was only allowed to go critical after it was in orbit, but it subsequently came crashing back to Earth in 1978, breaking up and spreading radioactive debris on the Northwest Territories of Canada.
As to Russia now, “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, giving Russia a head start in the outer-space race,” the Russian news agency RT reported in 2012. “Nuclear power has generally been considered a valid alternative to fossil fuels to power space craft, as it is the only energy source capable of producing the enormous thrust needed for interplanetary travel…. The revolutionary propulsion system falls in line with recently announced plans for Russia to conquer space… Entitled Space Development Strategies up to 2030, Russia aims to send probes to Mars, Jupiter, and Venus, as well as establish a series of bases on the moon.”
This year OSnet Daily, in an article headlined “Russia advances development of nuclear powered Spacecraft,” reported that in 2013 work on the Russian nuclear rocket moved “to the design stage.”
As for space probes, many U.S. and Russian probes have until recently gotten their on board electrical power from systems fueled with plutonium— hotly radioactive from the start.
Also, the U.S. has begun to power Mars rovers with plutonium. After using solar power on Mars rovers, in 2012 NASA launched a Mars rover it named Curiosity fueled with 10.6 pounds of plutonium. NASA plans to launch a Mars rover nearly identical to Curiosity, which it is calling Mars 2020, in 2020.
As devastating in terms of financial damage were last week’s explosions of the Virgin Galactic SpaceshipTwo and Antares rocket, an accident involving a nuclear-powered vehicle or device could be far more costly.
The NASA Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Curiosity (then called Mars Science Laboratory) mission states, for example, that the cost of decontamination of areas affected by dispersed plutonium would be $267 million for each square mile of farmland, $478 million for each square mile of forests and $1.5 billion for each square mile of “mixed-use urban areas.”
Odds of an accident were acknowledged as being low. The EIS said a launch accident discharging plutonium had a 1-in-420 chance of happening and could “release material into the regional area defined… within… 62 miles of the launch pad” on Cape Canaveral, Florida. The EIS said that “overall” on the mission, the likelihood of plutonium being released was 1-in-220. If there were an accident resulting in plutonium fallout that occurred before the rocket carrying Curiosity broke through Earth’s gravitational field, people could be affected in a broad swath of Earth “anywhere between 28-degrees north and 28-degrees south latitude” on Earth, said the EIS.
Gagnon said at the time: “NASA sadly appears committed to maintaining its dangerous alliance with the nuclear industry… The taxpayers are being asked once again to pay for nuclear missions that could endanger the lives of all the people on the planet. Have we not learned anything from Chernobyl and Fukushima? We don’t need to be launching nukes into space. It’s not a gamble we can afford to take.”
Curiosity made it up, and to Mars.
But in NASA’s history of nuclear power shots, happening since the 1950s, there have been accidents. The worst among the 26 U.S. space nuclear missions listed in the Curiosity EIS occurred in 1964 and involved the SNAP-9A plutonium system aboard a satellite that failed to achieve orbit and dropped to Earth, disintegrating as it fell. Its plutonium fuel dispersed widely That accident spurred NASA to develop solar energy for satellites and now all satellites are solar-powered as is the International Space Station.
And in recent times, solar power has been increasingly shown to be practical even to generate on board electricity for missions far out in space. On its way to Jupiter now is NASA’s Juno space probe, chemically-propelled and with solar photovoltaic panels generating all its on board electricity. When Juno reaches Jupiter in 2016 it will be nearly 500 million miles from the Sun, but the high-efficiency solar cells will still be generating power.
In August, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta space probe, similarly solar-powered, rendezvoused with a comet in deep space, 400 million miles from Earth.
Advances, too, have been made in propelling spacecraft in the vacuum of space. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in 2010 launched what it termed a “space yacht” it called Ikaros which successfully got its propulsion power from the pressure on its large sails of ionizing particles emitted by the Sun.
Among other ways of propelling spacecraft, discussed at a Starship Congress last year in Texas was a system using orbiting lasers to direct beams on to a spacecraft. The magazine New Scientist said “beam sails are regarded as the most promising tech for a starship.”
A scientist long-involved in laser space power research is Geoff Landis of the Photovoltaics and Space Environment Branch at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland who, in a 2002 NASA publication, “The Edge of Sunshine,” wrote: “In the long term, solar arrays will not have to rely on the Sun. We’re investigating the concept of using lasers to beam photons to solar arrays. If you make a powerful enough laser and can aim the beam, there’s really isn’t any edge to sunshine—with a big enough lens, we could beam light to a space-probe halfway to alpha-Centauri!”
A New Generation of Nuclear Reactors, the logical “Solution” for the Climate Scare
George Monbiot – columnist with The Guardian newspaper in the UK, and author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning. “Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.”
Tom Wigley – of Climate-Gate infamy, he’s a senior scientist in the Climate and Global Dynamics Division of the University Corporation of Atmospheric Research. “We need nuclear power to solve this problem … people don’t realise just how bad climate change is.”
James Hansen – author of Storms of My Grandchildren.
Barry W Brook – is the Director of Climate Science at Adelaide University, and Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change, is on the board of the Science Council for Global Initiatives and the International Awards Committee of the Global Energy Prize.
Gwyneth Cravens – novelist and journalist, author of Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy.
Ted Nordhaus – Chairman of the Breakthrough Institute, political strategist and author of Break Through, Why We Can’t Leave Saving The Planet To Environmentalists.
Mark Lynas – author of The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans, also a frequent speaker around the world on climate change science and policy. “Let me be very clear. Without nuclear, the battle against global warming is as good as lost.”
Tom Blees – author of Prescription for the Planet (the seemingly “intractable” problem of nuclear waste is “nothing of the kind”) has “probably done more than anybody to move people to the cause of nuclear power.” Tom also heads the Science Council for Global Initiatives.
Professor Gerry Thomas – of the Imperial College, London, “I am very pro-nuclear as I realise that we have an unwarranted fear of radiation.”
James Lovelock – celebrated father of the Gaia principle.
Fred Pearce – an environment writer with The Guardian newspaper in the UK, and author of The Last Generation: How nature will take her revenge for climate change.
Stewart Brand – a prominent pro-nuclear “environmentalist” and author of Whole Earth Discipline: Why dense cities, nuclear power, transgenic crops, restored wildlands and geoengineering are necessary.
Ken Caldiera – with the Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution, recently co-authored an open letter to the environmental movement urging them to bring their support behind the development of new nuclear power.
Kerry Emmanuel – with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is known for his work on attribution of climate change to hurricane events.
Rachel Pritzker – is the founder and president of the Pritzker Innovation Fund. Rachel currently chairs the advisory board of the Breakthrough Institute.
Suzanne Hobbs-Baker – the brain behind Pop Atomic Studios, an organisation which uses the power of visual and liberal arts to “enrich” the public discussion on atomic energy.
Ed Davey – UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, “When I have listened to the arguments of pro-nuclear Liberal Democrats in recent years, the one argument I found increasingly difficult to answer is the climate-change argument, because climate change poses a real and massive danger to our planet. Not keeping a genuinely low-carbon source of electricity as an option looks reckless when we don’t know the future.”