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#63 - Problems Mounting For Nuclear Power, But Advocates Press On, 07-Feb-1988

It was a bad week for nuclear power. Consider these facts:

The Public Service Company of New Hampshire, a publicly owned electric
utility with assets of $2.7 billion, declared bankruptcy because of
high costs of constructing the Seabrook nuclear power plant. The $5.2
billion plant has never operated because state and local governments in
New Hampshire and Massachusetts refuse to take part in devising
emergency evacuation plans, a step necessary for the facility to gain a
commercial operating license. Public Service of New Hampshire is the
fourth largest American corporation ever to declare bankruptcy. [NY
TIMES 1/29/88, pgs. 1, D3.]

Nuclear power plants that were abandoned before completion, or finished
at excessive expense, will cost the American economy $100 billion,
according to a report in the NEW YORK TIMES. Abandoned plants will cost
$30 billion (not counting the Seabrook plant, whose future is
uncertain). The other $70 billion represents the cost of operating
nuclear plants versus the cost of competing technologies, mainly coal.

During the past decade, 66 nuclear power plants were canceled; thirty
other plants were completed. Since 1978, no new nuclear power plants
have been ordered in the U.S. Nuclear power now generates 17% of U.S.
electricity. [NY TIMES Feb. 1, 1978, pgs. D1, D9.]

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) "have quietly initiated a study
of cancer deaths among populations near nuclear power plants," because
of recently discovered "leukemia clusters around the Pilgrim power
plant in Massachusetts and several plants in the United Kingdom,"
according to the NY TIMES Feb. 5, A11.

Findings of excessive leukemia [cancer of the blood-forming cells]
"have led us to initiate a large-scale evaluation of cancer deaths
occurring among persons living near the over 100 rectors operating in
the United States," said Dr. James Wyngaarden, director of the NIH. The
studies were not announced publicly but were revealed in a letter to
Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.).

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the agency charged with
setting rules for the nation's nuclear plants and enforcing those
rules, came under criticism itself for failing to investigate alleged
misconduct by various nuclear plant operators. The NRC set up an Office
of Investigations in 1982 specifically to look into allegations of
wrongdoing, as distinct from actual technical problems. Today the
Office has a backlog of 127 open cases and has had to drop 39 other
cases because it could not get to them in a timely fashion. Fifty of
the open cases "are not being worked on because of a lack of
resources," according to Ben B. Hayes, director of the Office.

The matters supposedly under investigation are not trivial. For
example, former workers at the Farley nuclear plant in Dothan, Alabama,
told the NRC that plant managers repeatedly falsified radiation
readings, thus hiding evidence of problems that would otherwise have
caused an expensive safety shutdown. The charges were made three years
ago but the NRC's Office of Investigations is just now beginning to
look into it and appears to be months, or years, away from determining
the veracity of the allegations.

A lawyer who for seven years handled prosecutions in the Justice
Department on behalf of the NRC and other agencies, recently testified
before Congress, saying "I know of no other regulatory or investigative
agency where senior agency officials have taken as many bizarre and
seemingly deliberate actions intended to hamper the investigation and
prosecution of individuals and companies in the industry the agency
regulates." The lawyer, Julian S. Greenspun, said, "The NRC will bend
over backwards to avoid finding problems.

The Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs reported on an
investigation by NRC officials of the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant
85 miles southwest of Dallas, TX. The NRC's own inspectors found
breakdowns in quality control, and engineering problems, "but their
superiors challenged them, suggesting that findings be deleted or
weakened, and some senior managers harassed and intimidated field
inspectors," the TIMES reports. [NY TIMES Jan. 31, 1988, pg. 30.]

The nation's first major underground nuclear waste repository, which is
supposed to start accepting military plutonium wastes next October, has
water leaking into it at a rate that some scientists argue will make it
unacceptable as a waste repository. The waste dump is a huge
underground cavern drilled into rock-like salt formations 2150 feet
below the desert in southern New Mexico, at a cost of $700 million so
far.

"How serious these [water] leaks are has enormous implications for the
nation's nuclear industry, the Government's nuclear weapons program,
and for New Mexico. Also at stake, scientists and lawmakers agree, is
the reputation of the [federal] Department of Energy which has searched
for a method of safely disposing of radioactive wastes since the 1950s,
when it was known as the Atomic Energy Commission," says the NEW YORK
TIMES [Feb. 1, 1988, pg. A18.].

Plutonium is lethally radioactive for 240,000 years. The government is
planning to put 13,466 pounds of pure plutonium-239 (mixed with other
wastes) into the ground in New Mexico during the next 30 years.
According to scientists at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, 100
micrograms of plutonium constitutes a lethal dose for a human. Thus the
nation's first radioactive waste site will hold 160 billion lethal
doses of radioactivity--by far the most dangerous dump ever
constructed. It was designed to remain bone dry. Now it is found to be
filling up with water. Water will corrode the canisters, turning the
radioactive waste into deadly soup. The tremendous weight of earth
above the waste will create great pressure. Future humans trying to tap
the natural gas and petroleum reserves already know to exist beneath
the site may penetrate the site with a drill rig. The pressurized
radioactive soup could gush to the surface, releasing millions or
billions of lethal doses of plutonium into earth's evnironment,
geologist and geochemists at University of New Mexico and elsewhere
argue.

But who among us believes that, in the face of a $700 million
investment, and in the face of perhaps the largest embarrassment ever
suffered by a federal agency, that the government will be persuaded by
mere science that they are making what is perhaps the biggest mistake
humans have ever made?

A bad week indeed.

--Peter Montague

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Descriptor terms: nuclear power; radiation; nh; electricity; seabrook
nuclear power plant; ma; siting; nih; disease; health; health
statistics; cancer; leukemia; death statistics; death; james
wyngaarden; ted kennedy; congress; nuclear regulatory commission;
investigations; ben hayes; farley nuclear power plant; al; lawyers;
julian greenspun; comanche peak nuclear power plant; military;
landfilling; repositories; plutonium; leaks; doe; laboratories; los
alamos, nm;