What to do with 'those dangerous uranium stones'
By Helena Kingwill, free-lance journalist and independent film-maker
Nuclear Energy is the government’s choice as “the cleaner, more eco-friendly” solution to South Africa’s increasing energy crisis. Industrialists promoting this technology use the argument that it is more environmentally friendly because in comparison to the monstrous CO2 emissions being pumped into our atmosphere by South Africa’s dinosaur coal powered power stations, the apparently slick, dinky high-tech Pebble Bed Modular reactors (PBMRs) look cleaner (in theory—they have not been built yet.) Even the controversial existing Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) at Koeberg doesn’t look like it’s contributing to global warming at the rate of her smoke-bellowing coal counterparts. However there is much more to the process of creating nuclear energy than meets the eye. The mining and processing of nuclear fuel does in fact create CO2 emissions, but that is almost beside the point. Media reports about global warming, important as they are, have given the spin doctors for nuclear energy a way to use the public’s own fear to pull wool over their eyes. What about the nuclear waste?
If Eskom's nuclear plan goes ahead, tons of nuclear waste will be produced every year. A whole radioactive industry will be built around it, from the mining of uranium to the processing of the fuel, all of which produce forms of waste. Anything that comes into contact with radiation is regarded as nuclear waste. It all has to be transported along our roads to the SA’s main nuclear waste-dump – Vaalputs near Springbok, from the city highways to the slippery gravel tracks of Namaqualand, where it is very easy for trucks to overturn.
Components of spent nuclear fuel (High-Level Waste) remain toxic for millions of years. Although we have been making it for over 20 years, South Africa still has no official plan for the safe disposal of this waste. Billions of Rands have already been spent on developing the P.B.M.R. yet the safe disposal of the waste it will produce, not to mention the decommissioning of the actual plant, have not fully been accounted for. Obviously this is much longer than any company or government can account for.
If this waste is buried, it could leak into the underground water and poison the ecosystem around it, spreading radiation like a cancer. The earth is constantly moving and shifting. According to paleontologist Dr. John Anderson, “continents drift at the rate of the growth of your fingernails.” One drop of nuclear waste can cause cancer, so by planting nuclear waste in the earth, we could be said to be planting a malignant tumor in the earth’s skin. This is the central metaphor of my documentary: “Buried in Earthskin” which has been screened at the Earthnotes Festival.
The community who are the focus of the film, and which the film constantly returns to, is a group of Namakhoi women whose husbands are workers at the nuclear waste dump Vaalputs in Namaqualand. They live in a village (Nourivier) about 100 km away from the waste dump but are extremely worried about the effects of the radiation on their health. Their greatest concern is that the nuclear waste could be seeping into the underground water supply. They are disappointed by false promises made by the apartheid government who deceived them into believing that the place was going to be a game reserve. They are surprisingly well informed about radiation and its possible effects on the environment and their health.
The Namakhoi people of Nourivier live in grass-domed homes and follow many old ways in their lifestyle. They are aware of which plants to pick for medicine and are very close to the earth. The women bake bread once a week in wood fired ovens made of clay. According to the Namaqualand Recreation and Education Centre (NAMREC) based in Springbok, although white farmers were moved off land near the dump, many "coloured" communities were not taken into account when the nuclear waste storage facility, Vaalputs, was planned. All around the world, the earth’s first peoples have been the most scarred victims of nuclear technology. In South Africa nuclear workers have suffered health problems due to being exposed to radiation, but have not been compensated due to the fact that they have not been able to prove, nor been in a position to sue or prove that their health problems are due to being exposed to radiation. “The distances are too large and the politics too big,’ one worker told me. This particular character, an ex-Vaalputs worker living in Nourivier, confided that he was never given the results of blood-tests taken one day. He felt that his body was un-naturally worn down by his work at the waste dump. (He died within a year of the interview.)
In comparison to nuclear technology, the government has paid far less interest in researching sustainable renewable alternative technologies such as solar and wind power. The reason given for this is that they will not be as reliable for big industry as centralized power stations. If they were given a chance, researchers developing this technology could find ways to store the energy generated by solar and wind technologies. More focus should be put on ways to reduce our wasteful consumption of energy. (Recent loose screws at Koeberg plunged half the Cape into darkness last year and forced us into a new awareness regarding reducing our energy consumption.)
Respected economist author and academic Patrick Bond puts us in the picture about the history of government spending with regards to energy, with the figures he has at his fingertips: “The problem of priorities appears to be getting worse, not better.” He said “Expenditure on renewable energy was less than 0.5% of the DME budget in 2002/03…. Indeed, perhaps the greatest waste remains in the area of nuclear research and development.”
He explains that historically the nuclear industry has always consumed more than its share of the national energy budget. Ironically it was started during the apartheid era, when the National Party secretly built 6 nuclear bombs. (These were officially dissembled when the A.N.C. came into power. However this new surge of interest in the technology makes one wonder if there may be a second agenda.)
“First considered in the 1960s, South Africa’s nuclear industry began in 1974 with the construction of the Koeberg nuclear station“, Bond explains. “The plant was commissioned a decade later. Nuclear development consumed two-thirds of the DME’s annual budget but only generated about 3% of South Africa’s primary energy supply and 5% of electricity in 1997”, explains Bond. “Eskom has been working on the PBMR since 1993, and therefore has a strong financial interest in keeping the programme going”, he says.
If only the present Government in its position of power on this decision about the future of our country’s energy sources would remember Nelson Mandela’s words when he spoke at the opening to the 5th session of the World Commission on the Ocean: "Our policy must rest on the solid moral foundation of dedication to the primacy of people and their long-term well being. We have to be on guard against temptations of short-term benefits and pressures from powerful forces at the expense of long-term interests of all. We cannot afford to bargain away the birthright of future generations."
The fate of future generations hangs in the balance, especially those poverty stricken communities living near the places where they will be mining, processing, burning and burying the waste from those “dangerous uranium stones’’ as Namakhoi elder, Oom Japie Dekeurs, calls them. Why not invest in even cleaner solar and wind energy projects which could be run by the communities themselves, generating revenue by selling excess power into the grid when weather is favourable, and creating far less hazardous employment for locals? Such decentralized projects would really bring power to the people thus preventing the burning of the last few trees and cutting down on lung diseases such as TB agitated by smoke, not to mention the tragic runaway fires that we see too often. Why I wonder, are we so stuck in the nuclear rut?
For more information about Buried in Earthskin, please contact Helena Kingwill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Buried in Earthskin:
A young female journalist sets off on a road trip to Namaqualand to see where the nuclear waste is buried. She meets a group of Namakhoi women living near the nuclear dump. In an attempt to understand the government’s decision to invest in nuclear as apposed to renewable energy, Helena visits experts and Nuclear facilities all over South Africa in what becomes a spiritual as well as picturesque physical journey which takes place over two years.
Credits: Helena Kingwill 2004 South Africa 56min
Friday, February 8, 2008
Earthlife Africa Cape Town
Tel/Fax: 27 21 447 4912
7 February 2008
Press Release: Small independent film upsets the powerful nuclear industry
The South African nuclear industry has lodged a complaint with the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC) over the screening on M-Net’s Carte Blanche of a documentary about the country’s nuclear industry.
Earthlife Africa is extremely concerned that this is an attempt by the powerful nuclear lobby to silence any dissenting voices.
A hearing date has been set for February 20 at the BCC’s offices in Johannesburg. The hearing is open to the public.
Entitled Uranium Road the documentary is about the history of the nuclear industry in South Africa as well as the present status of nuclear power in the country. It was screened on Carte Blanche, M-Net’s current affairs programme, in early November 2007. It sparked debate and clearly upset the powerful nuclear industry lobby. The Broadcasting Complaints Commission has received a complaint from NIASA (Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa).
“For many years now, the government of South Africa has been running headlong into a nuclear future despite the dangers and high costs of this technology and the availability of better alternatives. It is perhaps time for energy policy in South Africa to be decided upon, not by the Cabinet, but by its citizens. For this to be possible, the public needs to be informed. Clearly the nuclear industry cannot afford for an informed public to involve itself in energy choices because then the many myths and legends of nuclear power would be exposed”, said Earthlife Africa Cape Town spokesperson Maya Aberman
Earthlife Africa is staunchly against the roll-out of nuclear power and welcomes any debate that broadens the awareness about the impact of nuclear power on our environment. “We’ve spent millions of rands on researching nuclear power in the last decade but it has not been fully discussed with South African citizens.” Most South Africans are still unaware of the impact of nuclear power. The industry itself is constantly marketing ideas that nuclear power is a clean, safe and is even a renewable energy source. Nothing could be further from the truth if one considers:
· its contribution to climate change: the complete nuclear fuel chain is extremely energy intensive and dirty. The nuclear fuel cycle releases CO2 during mining, fuel production, transport, plant construction and decommissioning
· the poor economic track record of nuclear projects worldwide and in South Africa
· the fact that we are fast approaching uranium (nuclear fuel) peak
· the dangers posed by even low doses of radiation to human and environmental health
· the risk of catastrophic accident
· the fact that nuclear waste remains active and a threat to animal and human health for millions of years to come.
In addition, renewable energy can create about 27 times as many jobs as nuclear energy and jobs in the renewable energy generation sectors, like wind power, already have local people making up about 60% of their work force, and is increasing.
There are viable, safer and cleaner alternatives to nuclear power. There are sufficient renewable energy resources in South Africa to provide for 13% of the electricity demand by 2020, and easily 70% or more by 2050.
The film raises some of these concerns and has helped educate many South Africans who have little or no information about nuclear or renewable energy sources.
These developments beg the question; “Is the nuclear industry so vulnerable to open and informed debate that it finds it necessary to shut down any dissenting voices?”
For more information contact:
Earthlife Africa Cape Town
Tel: 021 447 4912
Cell: 076 754 6327
Earthlife Africa Johannesburg
Tel: 011 339 3662
Cell: 084 250 2434
Posted by Mitchell Krog at 9:40 AM
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
The hoax of eco-friendly nuclear energy
By Karl Grossman
Nuclear advocates in government and the nuclear industry are engaged in a massive, heavily financed drive to revive atomic power in the United States-with most of the mainstream media either not questioning or actually assisting in the promotion.
"With a very few notable exceptions, such as the Los Angeles Times, the U.S.
media have turned the same sort of blind, uncritical eye on the nuclear industry's claims that led an earlier generation of Americans to believe atomic energy would be too cheap to meter," comments Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. "The nuclear industry's public relations effort has improved over the past 50 years, while the natural skepticism of reporters toward corporate claims seems to have disappeared."
The New York Times continues to be, as it was a half-century ago when nuclear technology was first advanced, a media leader in pushing the technology, which collapsed in the U.S. with the 1979 Three Mile Island and
1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant accidents. The Times has showered readers with a variety of pieces advocating a nuclear revival, all marbled with omissions and untruths. A lead editorial headlined "The Greening of Nuclear Power"
Not so many years ago, nuclear energy was a hobgoblin to environmentalists, who feared the potential for catastrophic accidents and long-term radiation contamination. . . . But this is a new era, dominated by fears of tight energy supplies and global warming. Suddenly nuclear power is looking better.
Nukes add to greenhouse
Parroting a central atomic industry theme these days, the Times editors declared, "Nuclear energy can replace fossil-fuel power plants for generating electricity, reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute heavily to global warming." As a TV commercial frequently aired by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the nuclear industry trade group,
states: "Nuclear power plants don't emit greenhouses gases, so they protect our environment."
What is left unmentioned by the NEI, the Times and other mainstream media making this claim is that the overall "nuclear cycle"-which includes uranium mining and milling, enrichment, fuel fabrication and disposal of radioactive waste-has significant greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.
As Michel Lee, chair of the Council on Intelligent Energy & Conservation Policy, wrote in an (unpublished) letter to the Times, the
dirty secret is that nuclear power makes a substantial contribution to global warming. Nuclear power is actually a chain of highly energy-intensive industrial processes. These include uranium mining, conversion, enrichment and fabrication of nuclear fuel; construction and deconstruction of the massive nuclear facility structures; and the disposition of high-level nuclear waste.
She included information on "independent studies that document in detail the extent to which the entire nuclear cycle generates greenhouse emissions."
Separately, Lee wrote to a Times journalist stating that the "fiction" that nuclear power does not contribute to global warming "has been a prime feature of the nuclear industry's and Bush administration's PR campaign"
that "unfortunately . . . has been swallowed by a number of New York Times reporters, op-ed columnists and editors."
Greens for hire
In "The Greening of Nuclear Power," the Times, like other mainstream media touting a nuclear restart, also spoke of environmentalists changing their stance on nuclear power. "Two new leaders" have emerged "to encourage the building of new nuclear reactors," according to the editorial. They happen to be Christine Todd Whitman, George W. Bush's first Environmental Protection Agency administrator, and Patrick Moore, "a co-founder of Greenpeace." The Times heralded this as "the latest sign that nuclear power is getting a more welcome reception from some environmentalists."
However, "both Whitman and Moore . . . are being paid to do so by the Nuclear Energy Institute," noted the Center for Media and Democracy's Diane Farsetta (PRWatch.org, 3/14/07). In her piece "Moore Spin: Or, How Reporters Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nuclear Front Groups," Farsetta also
A Nexis news database search on March 1, 2007 identified 302 news items about nuclear power that cite Moore since April 2006. Only 37 of those
pieces-12 percent of the total-mention his financial relationship with NEI.
Whitman and Moore were hired as part of NEI's "Clean and Safe Energy Coalition" in 2006, which is "fully funded" by the institute, Farsetta noted. As for Moore and Greenpeace, his "association . . . ended in 1986,"
and he "has now spent more time working as a PR consultant to the logging, mining, biotech, nuclear and other industries . . . than he did as an environmental activist."
According to Harvey Wasserman, senior advisor to Greenpeace USA and co-author of Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America's Experience With Atomic Radiation (Brattleboro Reformer, 2/24/07), "Moore sailed on the first Greenpeace campaign, but he did not actually found the organization."
Wasserman went on to cite an actual founder of the organization, Bob Hunter, describing Moore as "the Judas of the ecology movement."
Scarce high-grade fuel
Insisting that "there is good reason to give nuclear power a fresh look,"
"The Greening of Nuclear Power" further claimed, "It can diversify our sources of energy with a fuel-uranium-that is both abundant and inexpensive."
This, too, was bogus. The uranium from which fuel used in nuclear power plants is made-so-called "high-grade" ore containing substantial amounts of fissionable uranium-235-is, in fact, not "abundant." As Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation told BBC News (11/29/05), another "dirty little secret" of nuclear power is that "startlingly, there's only a few decades left of the proven high-grade uranium ore it needs for fuel." This has been the projection for years.
Indeed, this limit on "high-grade" uranium ore is why the industry projects that, in the long-term, nuclear power will need to be based on breeder reactors running on manmade plutonium. But use of plutonium-fueled reactors has been stymied because they can explode like atomic bombs-they contain tons of plutonium fuel, while the first bomb using plutonium, dropped on Nagasaki, contained 15 pounds. Because it takes only a few pounds of plutonium to make an atomic bomb, they also constitute an enormous proliferation risk.
Blaming Jane Fonda
"The Jane Fonda Effect" (9/16/07), a Times Magazine column by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, blamed nuclear power's stall on the 1979 film The China Syndrome, starring Jane Fonda, which opened days before the Three Mile Island partial meltdown. "Stoked by The China Syndrome," it caused "widespread panic," wrote Dubner and Levitt, even though, they maintained, the accident did not "produce any deaths, injuries or significant damage."
In fact, the utility that owned Three Mile Island has for years been quietly paying people whose family members died, contracted cancer or were otherwise impacted by the accident. While settlements range up to $1 million, the utility company continues to insist this does not acknowledge fault. The toll of Three Mile Island is chronicled in my television documentary Three Mile Island Revisited (EnviroVideo, 1993) and Wasserman's book Killing Our Own (which includes a devastating chapter, "People Died at Three Mile Island"), among other works.
But Dubner and Levitt continue undeterred, declaring, "The big news is that nuclear power may be making a comeback in the United States." They acknowledge the Chernobyl accident, stating that it "killed at least a few dozen people directly." They admit that it "exposed millions more to radiation," but keep silent about the consequences of this in terms of illness and death. This atomic version of Holocaust denial flies in the face of voluminous research on the disaster that puts the number of dead in the hundreds of thousands.
"At least 500,000 people-perhaps more-have already died out of the 2 million people who were officially classed as victims of Chernobyl in Ukraine," said Nikolai Omelyanets, deputy head of the National Commission for Radiation Protection in Ukraine (Guardian, 3/25/06). Dr. Alexey Yablokov, president of the Center for Russian Environmental Policy, calculates a death toll of 300,000. In the book Chernobyl: 20 Years On, which he co-edited, Yablokov writes, "In 20 years it has become clear that not tens, hundreds of thousands, but millions of people in the Northern Hemisphere have suffered and will suffer from the Chernobyl catastrophe."
The New York Times Magazine also published "Atomic Balm?" (7/16/06), by Jon Gertner; the subhead read, "For the first time in decades, increasing the role of nuclear power in the United States may be starting to make political, environmental and even economic sense." Gertner used the term nuclear "renaissance," and again forwarded the claim that "the supply [of uranium] is abundant."
Gertner told of how the "lifespan" for nuclear plants was set at 40 years because this was considered "how long a large nuclear plant could safely operate." This has "proved a conservative estimate," he states-without providing a factual basis. So the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been "granting 20-year extensions" to the 103 U.S. nuclear plants so they "can run for a total of 60 years." (Consider the safety and reliability of 60-year-old cars speeding down highways.)
"Even with such licensing renewals, though, it's doubtful the current fleet of plants will run for, say, 80 years," he continued, and "that means the industry, in a way, is in a race against time." It needs to build new plants because the "absence" of nuclear power "would probably pose tremendous challenges for the United States."
The New York Times also allows its nuclear advocacy to slip into its news stories. In an article (11/27/07) about the French nuclear power company Areva signing a deal with a Chinese atomic corporation, Times reporter John Tagliabue wrote of Areva chief executive Anne Lauvergeon's "long path from dirty hands to clean energy." The "dirty hands" referred to a youthful interest in archaeology; that nuclear power is "clean energy" appears to require no explanation.
Another story, datelined Fort Collins, Colorado (11/19/07), reported on two energy projects proposed for what the paper calls "a deeply green city."
Describing the plans as "exposing the hard place that communities like this across the country are likely to confront," Times reporter Kirk Johnson
Both projects would do exactly what the city proclaims it wants, helping to produce zero-carbon energy. But one involves crowd-pleasing, feel-good solar power, and the other is a uranium mine, which has a base of support here about as big as a pinkie. Environmentalism and local politics have collided with a broader ethical and moral debate about the good of the planet, and whether some places could or should be called upon to sacrifice for their high-minded goals.
Other media promoting a nuclear revival-their words prominently featured on NEI's website-include USA Today (3/5/06): "The facts are straightforward:
Nuclear power . . . creates virtually none of the pollution that causes climate change and delivers electricity cheaper than other forms of generation do." And the Augusta Chronicle (8/21/06): "Nuclear power-for decades perceived as an environmental scourge-is emerging as the cleanest and most cost-efficient source of energy available, a fact conceded even by environmentalists." And Investor's Business Daily (12/1/06): "We can worry about imaginary threats of nuclear energy or the real dangers of fossil fuel pollution."
Glenn Beck of CNN Headline News also joined the chorus of support (5/2/07):
"Look, America should embrace nuclear power, even if it's [just] to get off the foreign oil bandwagon." This is also common nuclear disinformation, that nuclear power is needed to displace foreign oil. The only energy produced by nuclear power is electricity-and only 3 percent of electricity in the U.S.
is generated with oil.
There are a few exceptions in the mainstream media, notably the other Times, the Los Angeles Times. "The dream that nuclear power would turn atomic fission into a force for good rather than destruction unraveled with the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 and the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986," the paper stated (7/23/07) in an editorial headlined: "No to Nukes: It's Tempting to Turn to Nuclear Plants to Combat Climate Change, but Alternatives Are Safer and Cheaper." Those who claim nuclear power "must be part of any solution" to global warming or climate change "make a weak case," said the L.A. Times, citing
the enormous cost of building nuclear plants, the reluctance of investors to fund them, community opposition and an endless controversy over what to do with the waste. . . . What's more, there are cleaner, cheaper, faster alternatives that come with none of the risks.
As to the risks, the mainstream media's handling-or non-handling-of the U.S.
government's most comprehensive study on the consequences of a nuclear plant accident is instructive. Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences 2 (known as CRAC-2) was done by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the 1980s. Bill Smirnow, an anti-nuclear activist, has tried for years to interest media in reporting on it-sending out information about it continually.
The study estimates the impacts from a meltdown at each nuclear plant in the U.S. in categories of "peak early fatalities," "peak early injuries," "peak cancer deaths" and "costs [in] billions." ("Peak" refers to the highest calculated value-not a "worst case scenario," as worse assumptions could have been chosen.) For the Indian Point 3 plant north of New York City, for example, the projection is that a meltdown would cause 50,000 "peak early fatalities," 141,000 "peak early injuries," 13,000 "peak cancer deaths," and
$314 billion in property damage-and that's based on the dollar's value in 1980, so the cost today would be nearly $1 trillion. For the Salem 2 nuclear plant in New Jersey, the study projects 100,000 "peak early fatalities,"
70,000 "peak early injuries," 40,000 "peak cancer deaths," and $155 billion in property damage. The study provides similarly staggering numbers across the country.
"I've sent the CRAC-2 material out for years to media and have never heard a thing," Smirnow told Extra!:
Not anyone in the media ever even asked me a question. There's no excuse for this media inattention to such an important subject, and it shows how they're falling flat on their faces in not performing their purported mission of educating and informing the public. Whatever their reason or reasons for not informing their readers and listeners, the effect is one of helping the nuclear power industry and hurting the public. If the public was informed, this new big pro-nuke push would never happen.
Also in the way of sins of omission is the media silence on "routine emissions"-the amount of radioactivity the U.S. government allows to be routinely released by nuclear plants. "It doesn't take an accident for a nuclear power plant to release radioactivity into our air, water and soil,"
says Kay Drey of Beyond Nuclear at the Nuclear Policy Research Institute.
"All it takes is the plant's everyday routine operation, and federal regulations permit these radioactive releases. Rarely, if ever, is this reported by media." The radioactive substances regularly emitted include tritium, krypton and xenon. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission sets a "permissible" level for these "routine emissions," but, as Drey states, "permissible does not mean safe."
Another lonely voice amid the media nuclear cheerleaders is the Las Vegas Sun, which recently has been especially outraged by $50 billion in loan guarantees for the nuclear industry to build new nuclear plants included in the 2007 Energy Bill. The Sun demanded (8/1/07): "Pull the Plug Already."
In reporting on the economics of nuclear power, mainstream media virtually never mention the many government subsidies for it, while continuing to claim that it's "cost-effective" (Augusta Chronicle, 8/21/06). One such giveaway is the Price-Anderson Act, which shields the nuclear industry from liability for catastrophic accidents. Price-Anderson, supposed to be temporary when first enacted in 1957, has been extended repeatedly and now limits liability in the event of an accident to $10 billion, despite CRAC-2's projections of consequences far worse than that.
Writing on CommonDreams.org (9/11/07), Ralph Nader explored the economic issue. "Taxpayers alert!" he declared:
The atomic power corporations are beating on the doors in Washington to make you guarantee their financing for more giant nuclear plants. They are pouring money and applying political muscle to Congress for up to $50 billion in loan guarantees to persuade an uninterested Wall Street that Uncle Sam will pay for any defaults on industry construction loans. . . .
The atomic power industry does not give up. Not as long as Uncle Sam can be dragooned to be its subsidizing, immunizing partner. Ever since the first of 100 plants opened in 1957, corporate socialism has fed this insatiable atomic goliath with many types of subsidies.
Yet another claim by mainstream media in pushing for a nuclear revival is the "success" of the French nuclear program. 60 Minutes (4/8/07) did it in a segment called "Vive Les Nukes." (See FAIR Action Alert, 4/18/07.) Correspondent Steve Kroft started with the nuclear-power-doesn't-contribute-to-global-warming myth:
With power demands rising and concerns over global warming increasing, what the world needs now is an efficient means of producing carbon-free energy.
And one of the few available options is nuclear, a technology whose time seemed to come and go, and may now be coming again. . . . With zero greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. government, public utilities and even some environmental groups are taking a second look at nuclear power, and one of the first places they're looking to is France, where it's been a resounding success.
Though she was totally ignored, Linda Gunter of Beyond Nuclear told 60 Minutes of radioactive contamination in the marine life off Normandy where the French reprocessing center sits, leukemia clusters in people living along that coast, and massive demonstrations in French cities earlier in the year protesting construction of new nuclear power plants.
The Union of Concerned Scientists was upset by 60 Minutes' downplaying of alternative energy technologies such as wind and solar. UCS's Alden Meyer wrote to 60 Minutes:
In fact, wind power could supply more energy to the U.S. grid than nuclear does today, and when combined with a mix of energy efficiency and other renewable energy sources, could provide a continuous energy supply that would help us make dramatic reductions in global warming.
Dismissal of renewable energy forms is another major facet of mainstream media's drive for a nuclear power revival. As the St. Petersburg Times put it (12/08/06), "While renewable sources of energy such as solar power are still in the developmental stage, nuclear is the new green." Renewables Are Ready was the title of a 1999 book written by two UCS staffers. Today, they are more than ready. "Wind is the cheapest form of new generation now being built," wrote Greenpeace advisor Wasserman (Free Press, 4/10/07). He pointed to an "array of wind, solar, bio-fuels, geothermal, ocean thermal and increased conservation and efficiency."
Wasserman has also written about another element ignored by most mainstream media (Free Press, 7/9/07): "The switch to renewables defunds global terrorism. Atomic reactors are pre-deployed weapons of radioactive mass destruction. Shutting them down ends the fear of apocalyptic disaster by both terror and error." He stressed, again, that safe, clean energy is here and "we could replace everything with available technology that could easily supply all our needs while allowing a sustainable planet to survive and thrive."
The one green thing
What are the causes of the media nuclear dysfunction? The obvious problem is media ownership. General Electric, for one, is both a leading nuclear plant manufacturer and a media mogul, owning NBC and other outlets. (For years, CBS was owned by Westinghouse; Westinghouse and GE are the Coke and Pepsi of nuclear power.) There have been board and financial interlocks between the media and nuclear industries. There is the long-held pro-nuclear faith at media such as the New York Times. (See sidebar.)
There is also the giant public relations operation-both corporate, led by the NEI, and government, involving the Department of Energy and its national nuclear laboratories. "You have the NEI and the nuclear industry propagandizing on nuclear power, and journalists taking down what the industry is saying and not looking at the veracity of their claims,"
Greenpeace USA nuclear policy analyst Jim Riccio told Extra!.
And then there's lots of money. FAIR recently exposed (Action Alert,
8/22/07) how National Public Radio, which broadcasts many pro-nuclear pieces, has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from "nuclear operator Sempra Energy" and Constellation Energy, "which belongs to Nustart Energy, a 10-company consortium pushing for new nuclear power plant construction."
The only thing green about nuclear power is the nuclear establishment's dollars.
Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury. Books he has written about nuclear technology include Cover Up: What You ARE NOT Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power. He has hosted many television programs on nuclear technology on EnviroVideo.com
Posted by Mitchell Krog at 9:15 PM
Monday, February 4, 2008
Rachel's Democracy & Health News #936, December 6, 2007
ATOMIC BALM: NUCLEAR REVIVAL IGNORES CASUALTIES
[Rachel's introduction: In the U.S., atomic bombs are no longer being tested. However, 104 nuclear power reactors still operate here, producing the same radioactive elements found in bomb test fallout, and people living downwind are routinely exposed to low levels of radioactivity.]
By Joseph J. Mangano
Nuclear power plants employ a controlled atomic fission reaction, splitting uranium atoms to create heat to boil water to make steam to turn a turbine to generate electricity. Because nuclear power is so complex, it is accident-prone and unforgiving -- small errors can have large consequences. Because of these important disadvantages, for the past three decades it has looked as if nuclear power were a dying industry.
But now the nuclear industry has seized on global warming to promote atomic power plants once again as necessary and safe. >From politicians to corporate executives and conservative pundits, we hear that reactors are "clean" or "emission free" -- with no evidence offered to support the claims. Unfortunately, this baseless promotion emanates from a long-standing culture of deception that has plagued the industry since its beginnings. Earlier this year the British magazine, the Economist, characterized the U.S. nuclear industry as "a byword for mendacity, secrecy and profligacy with taxpayers' money.
Half a century ago, as America produced and exploded hundreds of atomic bombs (1054 nuclear tests in all, 331 in the atmosphere), public officials assured everyone that low-dose radiation exposures were harmless. But after the Cold War ended, barriers to the truth gave way. Government-funded research found that nuclear weapons workers and those exposed to fallout from atomic bomb tests in Nevada suffered from cancer in large numbers. The BEIR VII study. published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2005, ended the debate on this question: it is now firmly established that any amount of radioactive exposure carries some risk of harm. The only safe dose is zero.
In the U.S., atomic bombs are no longer being tested. However, 104 nuclear power reactors still operate here, producing the same radioactive elements found in bomb test fallout, and people living downwind are routinely exposed to low levels of radioactivity. Government regulators have established "permissible limits" for radioactive reactor emissions, declaring the resulting exposures "safe" -- contrary to the findings of the National Academy's BEIR VII study.
The U.S. nuclear power industry stopped growing in the mid-1970s. Until this year, no new reactors have been ordered in the U.S. since 1978, and several dozen reactors have been closed permanently. But fears of global warming and an ardently pro-nuclear Administration in Washington have laid the groundwork for an industry revival.
The industry's revival plan has four parts:
1) Enlarging the capacity of existing reactors;
2) Keeping old reactors running beyond their design lifetime;
3) Operating old reactors more hours per year; and
4) Building new reactors.
To help promote the so-called nuclear renaissance, health risks from low-level radiation are once again being ignored or denied -- even though evidence of harm exists.
1. Expanding Existing Reactors -- Vermont Yankee
Since March 1993, utilities have submitted 99 requests to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for licenses to expand reactor capacity, and the NRC has approved all 99. The added capacity of 4400 megawatts is the equivalent of four large reactors. The NRC is considering 12 more applications, totaling another 1100 megawatts.
Most expansions have been small, but 10 of the 99 have raised capacity by 15 to 20%. Almost all sailed through with little public opposition. One exception was the Vermont Yankee reactor on the Connecticut River where Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire converge. It is the 11th oldest of the U.S.'s 104 reactors, and at 510 megawatts electrical, the 5th smallest.
Entergy Nuclear of Jackson, Miss. acquired Vermont Yankee in 2002 as part of its campaign to buy aging reactors to maximize their output and profit potential. Entergy wanted more than a 510 megawatt reactor, so it requested a 20% upgrade for Vermont Yankee -- the oldest U.S. reactor considered for an upgrade. The estimated cost was $60 million.
Since 1972, when Vermont Yankee first generated power, Vermont has become an increasingly liberal state, especially on environmental issues. Hundreds of local residents opposed the expansion by packing auditoriums at several public meetings, making their fury known. Ira Helfand, a local emergency room physician, spoke up at one of them:
"My emergency room cannot deal with the casualties that would be produced by an accident at this plant... Now Entergy wants to make this plant even more dangerous by upgrading its production beyond what it was supposed to tolerate?.. . This plant should not be uprated. It shouldn't be allowed to operate. It should be shut down."
Residents of Windham County, Vt., where the reactor is located, are well educated. The county poverty rate is low, and the mostly rural county of 44,000 has few polluting industries. Along with world class medical care in nearby Boston, these factors suggest that no unusually high rates of disease should exist. However, from 1979-2004 the county death rate was 7.2% below the U.S. -- except for cancer, which was 1.6% higher. These figures are age-adjusted, so the excess cancers are not attributable to an aging population. And the anomaly in Windham appears to be growing; most recently (1999-2004), the cancer death rate in Windham county has risen to 5.7% above the national average.
The NRC refused to consider that radioactive emissions from Vermont Yankee might be contributing to the rise in cancer deaths in Windham county. In March 2006, the NRC approved the expansion, and an appeal by the New England Coalition Against Nuclear Power was turned down by the state Supreme Court in September 2007. Entergy is now operating an expanded Vermont Yankee reactor.
2. Keeping Old Reactors Running -- Oyster Creek, New Jersey
With Wall Street refusing to finance new reactors after the accident at Three Mile Island, utilities decided to increase profits by operating old reactors longer than originally planned. The NRC eased regulations and in this decade has approved 47 of 47 applications to allow reactors to operate past the initial 40-year design period up to a total of 60 years. Dozens more applications are expected.
One exception to the federal rubber-stamping of license extensions is the Oyster Creek reactor in Lacey, New Jersey, about 60 miles from both Philadelphia and New York City. Oyster Creek is the oldest of the 104 U.S. reactors and one of the smallest (636 megawatts electrical). In the 1990s, the New Jersey-based GPU Corporation planned to close the reactor. This changed when AmerGen (a subsidiary of Exelon, the largest U.S. reactor operator) bought Oyster Creek and requested a license extension in 2005.
The fight is going on now. Public hearings have been well attended by supporters and opponents of license extension. Local media has taken an interest; the Asbury Park Press, the most widely read newspaper in central New Jersey, has published numerous editorials opposing re- licensing. Governors James McGreevey and Jon Corzine have both publicly opposed re-licensing, as have many state and local elected officials. Governments in 19 local towns have passed resolutions of opposition. Legal interventions allowed by the NRC were filed by a coalition of citizen groups and by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Information on radioactive contamination and local health became part of the Oyster Creek dialogue. A well publicized study (partly funded by the state legislature) of more than 300 baby teeth of New Jersey children, many living near Oyster Creek, found that average levels of radioactive Strontium-90 (Sr-90) had doubled from the late 1980s to the late 1990s. More importantly, increases in Sr-90 near Oyster Creek were followed by similar increases in childhood cancer rates several years later.
Ocean County, where the reactor is situated, has a population of nearly 600,000, up from 108,000 in 1960. Its residents are relatively well off, and have access to good medical care locally and in nearby major cities. But the low death rate for all causes other than cancer from 1979-2004 (8.4% below the U.S.) has been offset by an unexpectedly high cancer death rate (8.8% above the U.S. average). With 39,000 county residents dying in the past quarter century, the number of "excess cancer deaths" exceeds 6,000.
The fate of Oyster Creek remains uncertain. In July, Exelon funded a group led by heavy-duty New Jersey lobbyists to ensure the application is pushed through. Local activist Janet Tauro reacted to the new group's formation by declaring,
"Exelon is putting its money into creating a bogus environmental group designed to lure the public's attention away from safety issues and scare us into believing that Oyster Creek's closure would hurt the region economically."
3. Operating Old Reactors More Often -- Indian Point, New York
As recently as the late 1980s, U.S. reactors only ran at 63% of capacity; they were shut down 37% of the time for maintenance and repair. But larger corporations buying old reactors in the 1990s made it their mission to boost productivity, and now U.S. reactors run 90% of the time. This is good news for the balance sheet, but running old reactors more hours per year raises safety and health concerns.
The two reactors at Indian Point, 35 miles north of New York City, represent a good example of this change. Until the mid-1990s, they only operated 57% of the time. But after Entergy Nuclear bought Indian Point, it raised the current productivity rate to 95%.
Indian Point is in Westchester County, a wealthy area with a population of nearly one million. In the period 1979-2004, the cancer death rate in the county was just slightly below the national average (-1.8%), but well below the U.S. average for all other causes (-12.9%). If the cancer death rate in Westchester had been as far below the national average as deaths from all other causes (-12.9%), there would have been about 6,000 fewer cancer deaths in Westchester during the period.
Unlike reactor upgrades, license extensions, and new reactor orders, there are no mandated public hearings when a nuclear utility simply raises productivity. Thus, this issue has largely been ignored, at Indian Point and elsewhere.
4. Ordering New Reactors -- Calvert Cliffs, Maryland.
In 2005 the Bush Administration convinced Congress to enact billions in loan guarantees for new reactor construction because of continued disinterest from Wall Street; billions more in federal subsidies are currently under discussion now on Capitol Hill. With the loan guarantees put in place in 2005, utilities got serious about ordering new reactors. Over 30 have been discussed, and the dry spell of no orders since 1978 ended on July 31, 2007 when Unistar Nuclear submitted an application to the NRC for a new reactor at Calvert Cliffs, Md.
Unistar was formed when Constellation Energy of Baltimore failed to secure funds from Wall Street financiers for its new Calvert Cliffs reactor. The 2005 federal guarantees would only back 90% of costs, and private bankers have flatly refused to put up the other 10%. Constellation teamed up with the French company Areva to form Unistar. Areva put up $350 million in cash, promising to up the ante to $625 million. With financing secured, the new reactor was ordered.
Unistar proposes to build a $4 billion, 1600 megawatt reactor at Calvert Cliffs. There is no precedent for a reactor this size; the average for the current U.S. reactors is about 1000 megawatts, with the largest being 1250. At the very earliest, assuming a fast, smooth regulatory review, rapid construction, and no legal holdups, the reactor would begin operating in 2014.
The Calvert Cliffs plant is on the west bank of the Chesapeake Bay, 45 miles southeast of Washington. Since the mid-1970s, two reactors have operated at the site. Until recently, the area was sparsely populated; but the Calvert County population has swelled from 16,000 to 90,000 since 1960. The county enjoys a high living standard, with a low poverty rate and good access to medical care in Washington.
Calvert County is a healthy place -- with the exception of cancer. From 1979-2004, the death rate was 9.2% above the U.S. for cancer, but 3.0% below the nation for other causes. Most recently (1999-2004), the cancer rate rose to 13.8% above the national average.
All local leaders support the new nuclear plant at Calvert Cliffs. Wilson Parran, the chair of the Calvert Board of Commissioners, sounded the clarion call that the promise of economic gain trumps any possible health hazards:
"From a national perspective, nuclear energy is our largest source of clean energy and a critical piece of our nation's energy strategy. It is imperative to reverse the growth of greenhouse gas emissions and Calvert County stands ready to share in our nation's responsibility to provide resources that produce energy."
Putting Health First is Essential in Energy Policy
Unusually high cancer rates in counties like Windham, Ocean, Calvert, and Westchester should be taken seriously; they are not what you would expect among relatively well-off populations. Even if a large scale reactor accident never occurs in this country, nuclear plants will still continuously emit about 100 different radioactive chemicals. The number of casualties is difficult to estimate, but it may well be in the thousands. And any expansion of nuclear power would only increase radioactive emissions.
Furthermore, threats to human health are not the only problem associated with the nuclear power industry. As we know from the recent history of India, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa, North Korea, and Syria, a nation that aims to build an atomic bomb begins by building a nuclear power plant. This is where they develop the expertise, the techniques, and the experience needed to build a bomb. The only sure way to minimize the proliferation of nuclear weapons would be to shut down the nuclear power industry world-wide. So long as the civilian nuclear power industry exists, there will be a well-worn path from nuclear power to nuclear weapons, accompanied by a growing threat of terrorist attack beyond anything we have yet imagined.
Fortunately, we do not need nuclear power at all. There are many alternatives readily available. Many of these were discussed recently in Arjun Makhijani's thorough study, "Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy." Nuclear power is simply too dirty, too dangerous, and too unnecessary to warrant further support.
Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research and educational organization based in New York.
 U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, www.nrc.gov.
 Matthew L. Wald. Safety of Adding to Nuclear Plants' Capacity is Questioned. New York Times, January 26, 2004.
 Eesha Williams, Hundreds Attend Hearing on Vermont Yankee. Transcript of New Hampshire Public Radio broadcast, April 1, 2004.
 National Center for Health Statistics, Mortality -- underlying cause of death. Includes ICD-9 cancer codes 140.0-239.9 (1979-1998) and ICD-10 cancer codes C00-D48.9 (1999-2004). http://wonder.cdc.gov/mortSQL.html
 Mangano J.J. and others. An unexpected rise in Strontium-90 in US deciduous teeth in the 1990s. The Science of the Total Environment Vol. 317 (2003), pgs. 37-51.
 Mangano J.J. A short latency between radiation exposure from nuclear plants and cancer in young children. International Journal of Health Services Vol. 36, No. 1 (2006), pgs. 113-135.
 Janet Tauro, But Safety Issues at Oyster Creek Can't Be Ignored. Asbury Park Press, September 9, 2007.
 Division of Planning, Budget, and Analysis. Information Digest. NUREG-1350. Washington DC: Nuclear Regulatory Commission, annual volumes.
 Dan Morse. Agency Describes Process to License Calvert Cliffs Plant. Washington Post, August 15, 2007.
 U.S. Bureau of the census, 2000 census, state and county quick facts. The national average of U.S. residents living below the poverty levels was 12.7%, which is higher than the average for Windham County, Vt. (9.0%), Ocean County, N.J. (7.6%), Westchester County, N.Y. (8.9%), and Calvert County, Md. (5.4%). The national average percent of residents over age 25 who graduated from high school was 80.4%, but was higher for Windham County, Vt. (87.3%), Ocean County, N.J. (83.0%), Westchester County, N.Y. (83.6%), and Calvert County, Md. (86.9%). http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/index.html
Posted by Mitchell Krog at 11:05 AM