Nuclear Follies Continue

As the first anniversary of the Fukushima disaster approaches, recent developments in the nuclear power world at locales thousands of miles apart once again teach us the high prices societies pay for depending on atomic power to generate their electricity.

Fukushima: Nearly a year after a devastating earthquake and catastrophic tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northeastern Japan:

  • tens of thousands are still unable to return to their homes
  • children in the city of Fukushima are largely prohibited from going
    outside last summer
  • radioactive contamination has been found in local beef, rice, milk,
    vegetables, and tea

Most recently, the January 28 Mainichi Daily News reported, “Radioactive testing facilities have been inundated with requests to check gravel after it was revealed on January 15 that high radioactive levels were detected in gravel quarried near Fukushima Unit 1 and used in construction projects across [Fukushima] prefecture.”

Last September, on the 6-month anniversary of the calamity, 60,000 marched in Tokyo to “end Japan’s addiction to nuclear power,” ABC radio Australia reported on September 12.

On January 19, Reuters reported, the Japanese government would introduce a bill into parliament to allow a “60-year lifespan” for nuclear reactors. The report explained that Japan is “keen on bringing existing nuclear plants back into operation to avert a power crunch and ease the impact on the economy” and “has to import more fossil fuels to bridge the gap.”

Most of Japan’s nuclear reactors are currently shut down and undergoing “stress tests” to assure the public they are safe. Only 5 of the nation’s 54 reactors are operating. Protests broke out when the government announced it wants to restart the two Ohi rectors in Fukui prefecture. In Japan, the life of a nuclear power rector has been considered 40 years, but the new law would “allow plant operators to apply for one extension of up to 20 years per reactor in keeping with U.S. standards,” Reuters reported. Almost 20 of Japan’s 54 reactors date back to the 1970s, including all 6 at Fukushima Daiichi.

At the end of January the Japanese Environment Ministry announced a plan to decontaminate areas of Fukushima prefecture contaminated by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. According to The Yomiuri Shimbun, in less contaminated areas, those “where the annual level of radiation exposure is 20 millisieverts or less, decontamination work will begin this spring and residents perhaps will be allowed to return sometime next year.”

For zones with “restricted residency,” where annual exposure is 20- 50 milliesiverts, “residents are expected to be able to return in a few years.” But for “zones where residency is prohibited for an extended period,” areas where the yearly exposure is 50 millisieverts or more, “the ministry did not present a concrete plan,” other than to term the return time “more than 5 years.”

In reality, this plan will be using the population in one gigantic ghastly experiment. Established scientific organizations such as the U.S. Academy of Sciences have concluded that there is no risk free dose of ionizing radiation (the type released by nuclear weapons detonations and nuclear power operations). And the more exposure over a lifetime, the greater the risk.

Vermont Yankee: In the U.S., the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has thus far granted 20-year license extensions to 72 of the nation’s 104 nuclear power reactors. It has denied none. The 20-year license extensions are one of the key strategies the U.S. nuclear industry is using to keep itself alive, even as it potentially jeopardizes many thousands of lives.

The industry’s much-hyped “nuclear renaissance” to build new nukes has been set back due to its inability to attract financing or to get the federal government to hand over taxpayer guaranteed loans into the billions to pay for them. Only one new nuclear plant has been funded by Congress—and it has yet to break ground.

At the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in New England, a battle over that plant’s aging reactor is coming to a head. Incredibly, but typically, the NRC granted its license extension within days after Fukushima’s multiple meltdowns last year. But, alone among the states, Vermont has a provision providing that a license extension for the nuclear plant must be approved by the state legislature. That approval was not forthcoming after the NRC’s rubberstamp. However, Vermont Yankee’s owner and operator, New Orleans-based Entergy, filed suit in federal court, challenging Vermont’s authority to deny the extension. Entergy bought Vermont Yankee on the cheap, as nuclear plants go, and has been pushing it as hard as it can ever since.

Entergy infamously let its New Orleans subsidiary go broke after the Katrina disaster. More recently, in Vermont, after a radioactive lake was discovered under Vermont Yankee (which sits on the Connecticut River), Entergy claimed that underground pipes carrying such radioactive substances did not exist. But it soon emerged that they did. Entergy also refused to shut down the plant while the radioactive leaks were searched for and subsequently fixed. Nevertheless, on January 19, Judge J. Garvin Murtha of U.S. District Court ruled that the Vermont law “violated an earlier federal law,” according to the Associated Press on
January 24.

Entergy lawyers argued that public safety was the “primary concern” of Vermont legislative officials in acting to deny Vermont Yankee’s license extension. According to Entergy’s Orwellian logic, only the federal government, through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has the authority to decide matters of public safety in nuclear power matters. Thus, the NRC’s decision to allow Vermont Yankee to operate for another 20 years, issued in the wake of the Fukushima meltdowns, should stand. And Judge Murtha agreed.

Vermont had 30 days from that decision to appeal. Vermont’s Public Safety Board still has to give final approval to the license extension. But, according to an AP report, “Entergy’s lawyers sought in court to sharply narrow grounds on which the board could prevail.” Vermont Yankee’s current operating license will expire on March 21 of this year. In another slap in the face to Vermont, if the plant continues to operate, Entergy will sell all its electricity out of state, according to the AP. Vermont Yankee has been operating since 1972. Its reactor design is the same as those that melted down at Fukushima.

San Onofre: Vermont is not alone among U.S. nuclear plants that have leaked tritium. A recent report by the California Public Interest Group (Calpirg) stated, “75 percent of U.S. nuclear plants have leaked tritium.” Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen that can persist in the human body and cause cancer and genetic damage. (Calpirg’s report, “Too Close to Home: Nuclear Power and the Threat to Drinking Water,” came out in January.)

The San Onofre nuclear plant in Southern California is another one of those tritium leakers. The report found “for nearly 2.3 million people in Southern California, drinking supplies are located within 50 miles of San Onofre.”

“That’s a concern because, as we learned from last year in Fukushima, drinking water sources can be contaminated in the event of an accident or underground leak,” said Emily Rusch, of Calpirg.

San Onofre was Number 6 among the top 10 nuclear plants for size of population with water intakes within 50 miles of a plant. In addition, the report found that the City of San Diego, with a population of 1.26 million, was number 5 among the 10 largest water systems within 50 miles of a nuclear plant. Like the Fukushima plant, San Onofre is located on an ocean coastline where earthquakes and tsunamis are possible. Unit One at San Onofre permanently shut down in 1992. But Units 2 and 3 are still operating. Both units’ current operating licenses run out in 2022.

San Onofre’s majority owner, Southern California Edison, has not yet said whether it will apply for license extensions for 2 and 3. If it does, and if the NRC grants them, both would be licensed to operate until 2042. This would make the possibility of serious problems at the aging nukes all the greater. For example, as metal parts age, fatigue sets in and they become more liable to malfunction.

Nationwide, according to the Calpirg report, “12 million draw drinking water within 12.4 miles (20 kilometers, the radius of a nuclear power plant evacuation zone in Japan)” and “49 million receive drinking water from surface sources located within 50 miles of a nuclear plant.” 

The report added, “The structural integrity of the Unit 4 reactor building has long been a major concern among experts because the collapse of its spent fuel (which caught fire after the disaster) could cause a disaster greater than the three disaster meltdowns.” CBS reported that officials also admitted “cold weather caused pipes to freeze elsewhere in the plant causing leaks in at least 30 locations.”

Meanwhile, in Vermont, Entergy was pushing the Public Service Board to hurry up and give final approval to the 20-year license extension for its Vermont Yankee nuke by issuing a “state certification of public good.” However, the anti-nuke group The New England Coalition, on February 3, urged the board to restart the process, which was suspended in 2009 pending resolution of the federal lawsuit brought by Entergy. The Coalition pointed out that since that time a few very significant things have occurred, including the revelation that Entergy lied about the radioactive pipes under the plant that caused a tritium lake to form underneath it; and the Fukushima disaster, which involved reactors with “a similar design and age as Vermont Yankee’s.” The Coalition also pointed out that Entergy’s lead attorney during the federal case said, “We think we would have to go back to the Public Service Board with a fresh docket and a fresh start.”

Back in Southern California, Unit 3 at the San Onofre nuke was shut down on January 31 after it likely released radioactive gas from the reactor building into the adjacent turbine building. The cause was said to be a defective steam generator tube. KPBS reported that the leak might have spread to the atmosphere, according to the NRC. Owner SoCal Edison said more than one tube might be damaged. The cost of the shutdown was put at $600,000 to $1 million per day. As of February 3, the unit was still shut down.

On February 3 the Los Angeles Times reported that San Onofre Unit 2 had “dozens of relatively new” steam generator tubes that carry radioactive water in its steam generator that “showed ‘many, many years’ of wear,” according to an NRC spokesperson.

The Orange County Register reported that “more than 8,000 tubes are old and thinning” in Unit 2, despite the fact that 4 new steam generators were installed in Units 2 and 3 by Mitsubishi just in 2010, at a cost of $674 million. Each reactor has 9,700 such tubes, the Register reported. The steam generators are supposed to last 30-40 years.

Bernaddo Del Chiaros of Environment California remarked, “This is further evidence that California should move beyond nuclear power. California should plan for the orderly phase out of aging nuclear plants, including San Onofre, and shift to clean energy, efficiency, and renewable power.”

Also at Unit 2, which is shut down to replace part of its nuclear fuel and for other maintenance, a “contract worker slipped into a pool to retrieve a flashlight,” the Register reported. That would be the unit’s spent fuel pool where the commercially spent, but highly radioactive, fuel rods are stored for lack of any other place to put them. The paper also reported his bosses said he “might have ingested mildly radioactive water, but no internal contamination was found.”

Everybody into the pool.


Michael Steinberg, a former San Diego resident, writes on nuclear power issues for Z Magazine and other publications. He is the author of Millstone and Me: Sex, Lies, and Radiation in Southeast Connecticut.