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#317 - The Year In Review: Nuclear, 22-Dec-1992

The year 1992 was momentous for the nuclear industries (bombs, and
electric power plants). Here are some of the highlights:

Weapons Phase-Out

The U.S. government announced in July it will stop making plutonium and
highly-enriched uranium for weapons. Production of plutonium had, in
fact, been halted since 1988 because of mechanical and environmental
problems. However, President Bush declared a ban on these materials as
official U.S. policy in July. (N.Y. TIMES 4/30/92, pg. A14 and 7/14/92,
pg. A18.) In September the U.S. announced it had canceled a $6-billion
tritium plant planned for Savannah River, near Aiken, Ga.; tritium is
needed for weapons triggers. (N.Y. TIMES 9/12/92, pg. 5.)

* * *

The House of Representatives voted a year-long ban on nuclear weapons
tests June 4--the first ever in the U.S.. The U.S. conducted 7
underground tests in 1991 and had scheduled 6 for 1992. (N.Y. TIMES
6/5/92, pg. A8.) The Senate in August voted a nine-month moratorium on
testing and voted to end all nuclear testing in 1996. (N.Y. TIMES
8/4/92, pg. A7.)

Weapons Proliferation

Concern about the spread, or proliferation, of nuclear weapons
increased dramatically when it was revealed in June that Iraq was using
a 50-year-old low-tech method called a calutron to produce highly-
enriched uranium. An atomic bomb can be made from 45 pounds of enriched
uranium or from 7 pounds of plutonium. The international community of
"safeguard" specialists (people who worry about how to keep nuclear
weapons out of the hands of the wrong people) was thrown into disarray
by the revelations in Iraq. The basis of international controls had
been to restrict high-tech methods of enriching uranium. No one had
expected anyone to use the low-tech method. "It's cataclysmic," said
Leonard S. Spector, an expert on the spread of nuclear weapons at the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "All this was
being done in Iraq without anybody knowing it. So who else is doing it?
Everybody in the [safeguard] community knew this kind of thing was a
possibility. But to be confronted by an example is devastating." (N.Y.
TIMES 7/15/92, pg. A1.)

* * *

The U.S. and the former Soviet Union agreed to retire 40,000 nuclear
warheads over the next decade or so. These nuclear devices must be kept
safe from black marketeers and terrorists for the duration of the
hazard, which is forever. In both east and west, the ultimate fate of
hundreds of tons of plutonium and enriched uranium remains undecided.
The former Soviet Union alone is reported to have over 1200 tons of
enriched uranium that it would now like to sell to the west for reactor
fuel. (N.Y. TIMES 7/6/92, pg. A1, and 9/11/92, pg. A8.)

* * *

A brisk international trade in black-market enriched uranium developed
this year in Europe. Evidently the breakup and impoverishment of the
Soviet bloc has created opportunities to steal radioactivity from
nuclear reactors, or from weapons complexes. In October, German
authorities arrested seven people who were reportedly trying to sell
the makings for nuclear weapons. German authorities said they had
investigated 100 cases of international smuggling of radioactive
material during the first 10 months of 1992, whereas they had
investigated 29 cases during 1991. (NY TIMES 10/20/92, pg. A8.)

Legacy of Waste

The soviets revealed that they have been dumping radioactivity into the
Kara Sea, which connects to the Arctic Ocean, for three decades.
Besides 4 nuclear-powered submarines lost at sea, the soviets said they
dumped four decommissioned naval nuclear reactors in 1965 and 1966,
three reactors from the icebreaker LENIN in 1967, a barge carrying a
submarine reactor sunk in 1972, and a nuclear-powered submarine
jettisoned in 1982. Dr. Charles Hollister of the Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institution calculates that the soviets dumped about 600
million Curies of radioactivity into the ocean, or roughly seven times
as much radioactivity as was in the Chernobyl reactor that melted down
April 26, 1986. (N.Y. TIMES 5/4/92, pg. A1, and 11/24/92, pg. C9.)

* * *

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a report in April
indicating there may be as many as 45,000 sites in the U.S.
contaminated with radioactivity. Twenty thousand of the sites belonged
to the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. The report
included sketchy information on 29 accidents involving nuclear warheads
that occurred between 1950 and 1980. No agency of the federal
government has yet set standards defining what is an acceptable level
of cleanup for radioactively-contaminated sites. (N.Y. TIMES 4/9/92,
pg. A14.)

* * *

Nuclear Power Hits the Skids

In 1992, economics seemed to be killing the nuclear power industry. In
February, owners of the 32-year-old Yankee Rowe nuclear power plant
decided to shut it down rather than seek a license to extend its useful
lifetime. The metal reactor vessel had become brittle from years of
atomic bombardment, and it would have required a major investment to
fix. Southern California Edison made a similar judgment about the 24-
year-old San Onofre I reactor near San Clemente. During 1991 the
Sacramento Municipal Utility District decided to shut the Rancho Seco
plant as uneconomic at age 15. The U.S. currently has 108 operating
nuclear power plants, producing 20 percent of the nation's electricity.
As many as 10 of these could be shut by the end of this decade, mostly
for economic reasons.

The decision to shut Yankee Rowe raised new questions about the cost of
decommissioning a power reactor. In June the owners of Yankee Rowe
estimated it would cost $247 million to close the plant permanently--
twice as much as had been predicted earlier, and three times as much as
the company has so far set aside to cover shutdown costs. (N.Y. TIMES
6/3/92, pg. D4.)

* * *

Ever optimistic, Westinghouse and General Electric both rolled out
designs for a new generation of nuclear power plants. These plants are
termed "inherently safe" because they cannot melt down. However, they
produce the same amount of radioactive waste and plutonium as the
older, inherently dangerous, plants. (N.Y. TIMES 6/28/92, pg. 21, and
7/12/92, pg. F-12)

Justice & Injustice

1992 saw the first criminal prosecution of a federal contractor found
guilty of violating environmental laws at an atomic weapons
manufacturing plant. Rockwell International pleaded guilty to 5
felonies and 5 misdemeanors June 1 and was fined $18.5 million for
illegally dumping hazardous wastes at the Rocky Flats plant near
Denver, Colo. Rockwell operated the plant from 1975 to 1989, creating
enormous waste and contamination that will cost taxpayers billions of
dollars to clean up.

In another first, Rockwell was required to pay the $18.5 million fine
out of its own pocket. In 20 previous instances when government
contractors were fined for illegalities, the Department of Energy paid
the fines on behalf of its contractors. (N.Y. TIMES 6/2/92, pg. A12.)

* * *

The Inspector General of the Department of Energy (DOE) revealed in
June that DOE routinely gathers and disseminates "intelligence
information" on U.S. citizens, in violation of a Presidential order
issued in 1982. (N.Y. TIMES 6/14/92, pg. 37)

Radiation Effects

Thyroid cancer rates were reported to be "soaring" among children
exposed to radiation released by the Chernobyl reactor disaster in
1986. According to Dr. Vasily S. Kazakov, writing in the British
journal NATURE, thyroid cancer rates began rising in 1990. The World
Health Organization (WHO) confirmed the reports. WHO scientists
expressed surprise that the cancers were showing up so soon; normally
there is a delay of 10 years or more between the time of exposure and
the time a thyroid cancer appears. The WHO group wrote, "We believe
that the experience in Belarus suggests that the consequence to the
human thyroid, especially in fetuses and young children, of the
carcinogenic effects of radioactive fallout is much greater than
previously thought." (N.Y. TIMES 9/3/92, pg. A9).

* * *

Two research groups, in England and the U.S., reported discovering a
new form of delayed injury from radiation. In one study, researchers
exposed mouse cells to alpha particles (a type of radiation produced by
plutonium and by radon gas) and found that abnormalities of the
chromosomes appeared in some descendant cells several generations of
cell-division later. The research was carried out by Dr. Eric G. Wright
at the British Medical Research Council Radiobiology Unit in Didcot,
Oxfordshire, England.

Dr. John D. Little and colleagues at the Harvard University School of
Public Health in Boston found a similar "delayed mutation" effect using
X-rays to irradiate hamster cells.

The delayed effect is different from the immediate genetic damage
scientists have observed previously. Usually radiation alters the
genetic makeup of a cell, causing its immediate descendants to take on
new characteristics. In the new findings, some of the cells that
survive radioactive assault appear normal through several divisions.
Damage eventually appears in a descendant cell several generations

Both research groups said that if the effect is confirmed by further
research, it will mean radiation is more dangerous than previously
believed. (N.Y. TIMES 2/20/92, pg. A-12.)

A Reason for Hope

The chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) credited
citizen activists with shutting down two nuclear facilities in 1992.
Ivan Selin said Native Americans for a Clean Environment (NACE) and the
Cherokee Nation helped shut the Sequoyah Fuels Plant in Gore, Oklahoma;
and, he said, the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, and the
Union of Concerned Scientists, helped shut the Yankee Rowe nuclear
power plant. In both instances, the NRC shut the facilities temporarily
after citizens had raised safety and environmental concerns, and the
owners then shut them permanently. (N.Y. TIMES 6/23/92, pg. A13.)

In sum, not a bad year.

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: nuclear power; us; plutonium; nuclear weapons;
enriched uranium; ga; aiken, ga; tritium; radioactive waste; remedial
action; superfund; landfilling; llw; hlw; westinghouse; ge; doe;
rockwell international; thyroid cancer; carcinogens; childhood cancer;
health; radiation; native americans for a clean environment; nuclear
regulatory commission; sequoyah fuels; native people; native americans;