Renew Fight Our Efforts Against New Nuclear Power

My Past Experiences with the Clamshell Alliance and the Need to Renew Fight Our Efforts Against New Nuclear Power

My first tasks when I started working at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in January 1986 were to support the Clamshell Alliance in two ways. One was to help set up the Whistleblower Center to reach out to and assist workers at Seabrook with safety concerns about the atomic reactor construction which was underway. The Government Accountability Project provided good training on how to listen and determine with the workers how to use their information in a way that protects them from being identified and retaliated against, while revealing the reactor dangers that put the public at risk. Whistle-blowers are still not adequately protected under federal law. My other job was to help research the rules and realities of Emergency Planning Zones (EPZs) around nuclear power reactors to be used to document and publicize the futility of escaping invisible but deadly radioactive plumes from potential reactor accidents which supposedly could never occur. Then Chernobyl melted down. Massachusetts, which is within the 10 mile radius of the Seabrook Emergency Planning Zone, refused to support the evacuation plan. So, of course, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) changed the regulation that had required state and local government cooperation in emergency planning. NRC even considered reducing the Emergency Planning Zone to 2 miles instead of 10 to get around Massachusetts’ resistance. We barraged NRC with demands for 100 mile EPZs. Remember the radioactivity from Chernobyl circled the globe and has been associated with problems with birds at Point Reyes in northern California not to mention hotspots all over Europe and the dead zone around Chernobyl.

We were told Chernobyl had no containment, only to discover that Chernobyl in fact did have a containment system and it is similar to those of nearly half the US reactors (“pressure suppression systems”). Further, no US reactor containments are even designed to withstand meltdown conditions.

Supporting the Clams meant learning and teaching others about utility economics and then wondering how the NRC could give a bankrupt utility, Public Service Company of New Hampshire, an operating license to let Seabrook 1 start up in 1990. Seabrook 2 was cancelled as were dozens of other reactors across the country. Those that did open cost billions of dollars, far more than originally projected. We can expect the same with the more than 30 new atomic reactors that threaten to be built now. A major reason there is any consideration of new nuclear reactors on this 30th anniversary of the Clamshell Alliance is due to taxpayer subsidies and loan guarantees authorized in the 2005 energy bill that passed the heavily utility-lobbied and funded US Congress.

We still can and must fight to stop the actual Congressional appropriation of our taxdollars to subsidize new nuclear reactors. The loan guarantees are especially outrageous—if a utility invests to build a new nuke but it doesn’t operate, taxdollars reimburse the whole investment! So, the first few nukes could be risk-free investments for the utility, if the money gets appropriated.

The nuclear industry has been paving the way for its effort to build new reactors largely in the southeastern US from Texas around to Maryland with others threatened in NY, WI, ID, CA and elsewhere. For a while the industry kept economically alive by building in other countries less able to resist. Now in the US, with a favorable administration, the previously existing procedures for licensing have been streamlined to a one-step construction and operating licensing process and the ability for the public to intervene has been dramatically curtailed. Forcing the federal government to take liability for onsite storage of high level waste may have reduced some industry costs but permanent disposal is not available. That is why some of the enormous foreign and domestic nuclear companies are pushing in California for an initiative to overturn the 1976 state law prohibiting new nuclear reactors until the waste problem is solved.

Industry and government persist with their efforts to save money by deregulating or letting so-called “low-level” nuclear waste out of control into regular trash landfills and commercial recycling but that tug-of-war continues with the public interest prevailing largely. Getting subsidies authorized in federal energy law is paving a path and foreign and domestic nuclear companies are lining it with high powered deceptive ad campaigns.

False claims are made in nuclear industry ads that nuclear power generates no greenhouse gasses completely ignoring the routine emission of ionizing radioactivity, a known carcinogen. It further ignores the reality that new reactors rely on carbon-based fuels to produce nuclear fuel thus adding to climate change. Importantly it would take far too long to build enough reactors to impact climate change in the short time frame we must meaningfully address it. Instead we need strengthened programs that truly implement greater energy efficiency, now. As Michael Mariotte, Director of Nuclear Information and Resource Service, has put it, “We can solve the climate crisis with efficiency and renewables or we can build new nukes—we can’t do both.”

A technical description of reactors and waste:

My main motivation to stop new nuclear reactors has been to prevent production of long-lasting high level and so-called “low-level” radioactive waste that cannot be isolated for the length of their hazard. In addition to the waste, ionizing radiation is released routinely at every step of the nuclear fuel chain from mining, grinding and milling uranium to converting it to uranium hexafluoride gas and concentrating the uranium-235 to make nuclear fuel to go into the reactor core. There the Uranium-235 is hit by neutrons, splits or fissions and gives off energy that heats water to steam that turns turbines to make electricity. When the uranium splits it breaks into new radionuclides like strontium and cesium that are biologically active. The fuel becomes millions of times more radioactive—we call it “irradiated;” the industry calls it “used” or “spent.” In addition, plutonium and other very long-lasting radioactive elements that emit alpha particles are formed. Plutonium in the fuel rod is high-level waste—if it leaks out into the cooling water or into a filter or resin it begomes so-called “low-level” radioactive waste.

Atomic reactors are elaborate radioactive waste generators that routinely emit deadly radioactivity into the air, water, workers and wastes. The reactors themselves become nuclear waste although utilities try to save money by sending them into regular trash. Clamshell co-founder Paul Gunter describes them as “pre-deployed weapons of mass destruction.”

There is a relatively new Department of Energy and Congressional push (Global Nuclear Energy Partnership-GNEP) to reprocess or extract the uranium and plutonium from irradiated fuel and use it to make more nuclear fuel. But it could be diverted for nuclear weapons production. In addition, the government continually tries to cut spending on cleaning up the only commercial reprocessing that operated in the US – the leaking West Valley nuclear site that closed in the 1970s. It still threatens my western New York family home, the Seneca Indian Reservation, the Great Lakes watershed and Canada.

Reactors and their waste at every reactor site threaten those regions but increase the threat even more once it starts being transported on our roads, rails and waterways.

The Clams got it right 30 years ago—don’t make it in the first place. Now the rest of the world must learn that lesson and act quickly to prevent another round of contamination and wasted energy dollars.

Diane D’Arrigo is Radioactive Waste Project Director at Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Takoma Park, MD. Written July 26, 2007