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#145 - Some Lessons From The Nuclear Age, 04-Sep-1989

Scientists no longer argue whether the "greenhouse effect" will heat up
the earth's atmosphere and disrupt climate on a global scale. It now
seems certain to happen, and the major remaining question is when the
effects will first become visible: was the heat wave last summer an
effect? Was the midwest drought? What about the wet spring this year on
the east coast?

Ordinarily, sunlight streams in from outer space, strikes the surface
of earth, turns into heat and is reradiated back into outer space as
heat energy. The energy in the incoming sunlight equals the energy in
the outgoing heat, so earth's average temperature remains constant.
However, carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases" like methane are
building up in the atmosphere, primarily because of burning fossil
fuels (oil, coal, natural gas). Greenhouse gases have a peculiar
property: they let sunlight pass through, but they act as a mirror to
radiated heat energy, so sunlight striking the earth is radiated back
but strikes the "mirror" of these gases in the atmosphere and can't
escape into outer space. As a result, the heat is trapped and the
average temperature of the earth is now increasing. (The glass in a
greenhouse has the same effect, which is why greenhouses are warmer
than the outside air, and why global warming is called the "greenhouse

The only real solution to the "greenhouse effect" is to reduce our
dependence on fossil fuels. One way would be to generate electricity by
some means other than burning coal, oil and natural gas. (Changing to
some other fuel besides gasoline and diesel oil in cars and trucks
would be another important step.)

The "greenhouse effect" is fueling a revival of nuclear power because
nuclear power doesn't produce any greenhouse gases. Unfortunately,
nuclear power produces other problems.

Advocates of nuclear energy are now hoping to convince the American
public that the problems of nuclear power have been solved, and that a
new generation of "inherently safe" reactors should be built.
Respectable publications like the NEW YORK TIMES now use the phrase
"inherently safe" nuclear plants as if the "inherent safety" of these
new plants had been proven. It has not. The concept of an inherently
safe nuclear plant exists only on paper.

Existing nuclear plants have the following problems:

1) Nuclear power plants are exceptionally difficult to operate because
they are the most complex machines humans have ever invented; the
nation's 88 existing nuclear reactors have only operated at 55% of
capacity because of problems with turbine generators, steam generators,
pumps, valves, control-rod drives and cracked pipes.

2) The design and construction of nuclear plants has been carried out
by humans, with the following kinds of problems resulting: (a) in the
Ohio Zimmer plant, the control panel could possibly catch fire because
the panel lights were put too close together; (b) at San Onofre,
California, the reactor was installed backwards; (d) reactor supports
were 45 degrees out of line at Comanche Peak, Texas; (c) some operators
at the Peach Bottom plant in Pennsylvania routinely slept at the
operating console, while others played video games; (d) the wrong
drawings were used in assessing the earthquake response of steel beams
at the Diablo Canyon reactor in California. Humans are simply prone to
errors, and the humans designing, building and operating nuclear plants
are no exception.

3) The federal agency that regulates nuclear was (and is) staffed by
people whom it is difficult to trust. A recent history of nuclear power
portrays these individuals as blundering, fumbling bureaucrats whose
arrogance is surpassed only by their ineptitude. (See Luther Carter,
[Baltimore, MD: Resources for the Future, 1987.]) Even this view may be
overly optimistic. The revelations of the last six months, about
serious coverups at almost every nuclear weapons facility in the
country, suggest that those in charge of regulating nuclear operations
in the U.S. are not simply arrogant and incompetent; they also seem to
be criminals.

4) There is still no way known to handle radioactive wastes safely. In
1985, commercial reactors had produced 12,450 tons of highly
radioactive wastes (wastes that would radioactively cook you to a crisp
if you stood next to them unshielded for just a few seconds). By the
year 2000 the total will have risen to 41,500 tons.

One way to judge the hazard of any waste is to calculate how much water
it would take to dilute the waste down to a concentration that meets
federal drinking water standards. In the case of the 30 tons of high-
level radioactive wastes produced by one year's operation of one
typical (1000 megawatt) nuclear power plant, after the wastes had
cooled off (through radioactive decay) for 1000 years, it would still
take ten times the annual flow of the Hudson River to dilute them down
to the level officially regarded as "safe". No one knows what to do
with existing radioactive wastes.

5) The production of nuclear fuel requires the mining and processing of
large quantities of uranium. The mining of uranium has produced an
epidemic of lung cancer among two generations of miners, and it has
resulted in mountain-sized piles of uranium "tailings" (radioactive
sand) heaped on the desert, left free to blow around, in New Mexico,
Arizona, Colorado and elsewhere.

There are two designs for "inherently safe" nuclear power plants on
paper, the HTGR (high temperature gas cooled reactor), and the PIUS
(process-inherent ultimate safety). Each of these designs is supposedly
better than today's reactors because they would be less subject to
catastrophic failure (core meltdown) leading to massive releases of
radioactivity. However, both designs would still be subject to human
error during design, construction, and operation. Both designs would be
regulated by the incompetents and miscreants who oversee today's
nuclear plants. Both designs would require mining uranium in the same
amounts as today's reactors; both would produce the same amounts of
radioactive wastes as today's reactors. Reactors of the new types, like
today's reactors, would themselves have to be disposed of as
radioactive waste when they were ready for the scrap heap--presenting a
disposal problem that the nation has grappled with unsuccessfully since

Neither of the new reactor designs could be proven safe except by
building a lot of them and operating them for many years (in other
words, by trial and error)-the same way we learned about the flaws in
today's reactors. In short, what we should learn from nuclear power is
not that marginally better plant designs deserve to be termed
"inherently safe," but that (a) humans have a strictly limited capacity
to operate complex machines reliably; and (b) before you make a lot of
hazardous materials, you'd better have in mind a safe place to put
them, to keep them safely away from living things for the duration of
the hazard (in this case, 100,000 years or longer). Inherently safe?
Hardly. Inherently uncontrollable seems more correct.

See: Russ Manning, "The Future of Nuclear Power," ENVIRONMENT Vol. 27
(May, 1985), pgs. 12-17, 31-37. See also: UNION OF CONCERNED
SCIENTISTS, THE NUCLEAR FUEL CYCLE. Revised edition. (Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press, 1975).

--Peter Montague



The rally to protest the re-inhabiting of Love Canal takes place Friday
September 15 at 6 p.m. in Capitol Plaza Park in Albany, NY.

For more information, contact Sandy Fonda (518) 725-7788, Lois Gibbs
(703) 276-7070, or Pat Brown (716) 284-0026.

-- Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: radioactive waste; nuclear power; energy; nuclear
regulatory commission; doe; greenhouse effect; global environmental
problems; atmosphere; uranium;