Troubles Growing for New Nukes
On June 19 John McCain called for 45 new nuclear plants to be built in the U.S. by 2030. McCain also said his ultimate goal of 100 new nukes is "as difficult as it is necessary." McCain’s statement parroted the U.S. nuclear industry’s Vision 2020 Program, which called for 50 new nuclear plants in the U.S. by 2020. The Bush administration’s Nuclear Power 2010 Program set a similar goal—one whose costs would be heavily subsidized by the federal government. Barack Obama’s endorsement of new nukes has been less enthusiastic, stating in his acceptance speech: "As president, I will tap our natural gas reserves, invest in clean coal technology, and find ways to safely harness nuclear power."
The nuclear industry, the Bush administration, and the mainstream media have been touting new nuclear power plants as green energy and the salvation of the energy crisis. This propaganda ignores several facts, including:
- vast amounts of greenhouse gases are released in the mining, milling, and production of nuclear fuel
- nuclear plants constantly release toxic radiation that causes harm to the environment and human health
- high level nuclear waste, which remains lethal for generations, is piling up at nuclear plants across the nation, with no solution for its safe disposal in sight
- after nukes permanently shut down, large amounts of greenhouse gases are released during their dismantlement and disposal
Money Trail Going Cold
Though new nukes utilities have been lined up at the public trough for years, they haven’t been able to persuade Congress to guarantee them all the loans they claim to need to make their "nuclear renaissance" a reality. Last year their goal was to get $50 billion in loan guarantees from the feds to cover the next two fiscal years. But strong public opposition helped cut that amount down to $18.5 billion. Veteran DC-based anti-nuclear groups like the Nuclear Information & Resource Center and Public Citizen mobilized opponents to lobby against the measure. In this battle they allied with Nuke Free, a reincarnation of the No Nukes Movement, led by Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, and Graham Nash who were joined by next generation stars Ben Harper and Keb Mo.
Together they started a website (nukefree.org), recorded an updated version of the 1960’s classic "For What It’s Worth" as a music video, and organized an online petition campaign, opposing the $50 billion giveaway.
Slowdowns, Gridlock, & Snags
The first new nukes application, though a partial one, was filed in July 2007 by Constellation/Unistar to build a new nuke at its Calvert Cliffs site on Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. The NRC received four more applications through 2007.
But after Congress cut the $50 billion loan guarantee by more than half late last year, and the new nukers’ attempt failed in the Climate Security Act as well, the pace of applications slowed. So, as of the end of July, the NRC had received 11 applications to build 18 new nuclear reactors. All in all the industry has stated there will be 23 applications to build 34 reactors. The plan is to have the first new reactors operating in the mid to latter half of the next decade.
But there are other complicating factors besides cost. A January 8 Chicago Tribune story reported on "fears of an approaching bottleneck caused by a stressed global supply chain" for new nukes. The article focused on Japan Steel, "the only company in the world that forges…reactor pressure vessels." The vessels are key components in nuclear reactors, since they keep its radioactivity from escaping. Each operating nuclear reactor produces amounts of radiation many times in excess of that released by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Tribune reported that Japan Steel "already has a three year backlog." The company can only make four vessels a year.
Faced with a potential shortage of this essential component, some U.S. new nuke companies, such as Exelon, are already placing orders for the vessels—and are putting down $100 million deposits.
The Tribune story also included this quote from an April 2007 study by the NEI: "In addition, no U.S. company has the capability to produce large forgings necessary for manufacturing steam generators and large turbine generators for nuclear plants." These are other key nuke components.
One more complicating factor is the nuclear industry’s decision to build most nukes in the southeastern U.S. Of the 23 applications expected by the NRC, only 5 are for locations outside the South. Powerful Southern utilities such as Charlotte, North Carolina-based Duke Energy and New Orleans-based Entergy are at the forefront of the new nukes initiative.
But they already have "dozens of gas-fired plants" that "sit idle most of the year," according to Reuters and some Southerners are still paying for old nuke cost overruns, the report also stated. For example, Entergy customers in Mississippi pay an extra $12 a month for cost overruns at its Grand Gulf nuclear power plant. Now Entergy, the nation’s second largest nuke plant company, wants to build a new nuclear plant there.
Southern Opposition Heats Up
The North Carolina Waste and Reduction Network (NC WARN) is opposing plans by Progress Energy to build two new reactors at its Harris nuclear site, located ten miles from Raleigh in central North Carolina. One reactor has been operating there since the mid-1980s.
The nukes industry has touted the "advanced reactors" it wants to use in new nuke plants as of cookie cutter design, identical enough to be virtually snapped into place. In the past almost every U.S. nuclear power plant had a significantly different design, which proved to cause a host of maintenance and other problems.
"But this month," NC WARN reported in a June press release, "NRC told owners of the Calvert Cliffs plant in Maryland that the agency must delay its license review until certification of the Areva [French nuclear company] design is complete. NRC also sent a list of site-specific shortcomings ‘that introduce uncertainty into the review schedule.’ At a June 10 NRC meeting near the Harris plant, agency officials admitted to watchdog group NC WARN that the Westinghouse design—declared certified in December 2005 but now in its 16th revision—would not be complete until sometime in 2011."
The press release also reported that the Westinghouse new reactor design included in Harris and other new nuke applications included "172 interconnected Westinghouse documents," of which "only 21 have been certified by the NRC."
Based on these uncertainties, NC WARN "filed a legal motion" with the NRC, "saying public interest groups cannot review ‘moving target’ applications and insisting the 60-day time frame for contesting the Harris application be suspended until the highly complex application is complete."
The press release also included these statements from NC WARN’s executive director, Jim Warren: "The nuclear revival is now a special-order fiasco. The industry has rushed forward with half-baked applications—lining up for taxpayer subsidies during the Bush administration—even as the manufacturers keep trying to redesign the plants to offset soaring cost estimates."
On July 24, NC WARN and Friends of the Earth-South Carolina "filed legal motions calling for revocation of $230 million in preconstruction costs approved by both states’ [North and South Carolina] electricity regulatory commissions in May and June for two new Duke Energy reactors." The groups cited "escalating design problems" that "threaten Duke Energy’s ever completing two new…reactors it wants to build" in South Carolina as the reason for taking legal action.
Elsewhere in the South, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL) and the Southern Alliance For Clean Energy are fighting the Tennessee Valley Authority’s plan to build two new nukes at its Bellefonte site in Alabama. BREDL is also opposing Richmond-based Dominion Resources’ plan to build a reactor at its North Anna site in Virginia and Duke Energy’s plan to construct two nukes in South Carolina.
In 2005 a National Academy of Sciences panel concluded that, contrary to the claims of the nuclear industry and the federal government, there is no safe dose of radiation. "The scientific research base shows there is no threshold of exposure below which levels of ionized radiation [the type produced by nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons] can be harmless or beneficial," stated Richard Monson, a Harvard professor of epidemiology and the panel’s chair.
Monson also said, "The health risks—particularly the development of solid cancers in organs—rise proportionally with exposure. At low dose, the risk of inducing solid cancers is very small. As the overall lifetime exposure increases, so does the risk."
Though the study focused on the connection between exposure to low level radiation and cancer, it also stated, "Other health effects (such as heart disease and stroke) occur at higher doses, but additional data must be gathered before assessment of any possible dose response can be made between low doses of radiation and non-cancer health effects."
A recent study in the International Journal of Epidemiology ("The non-cancer mortality experienced of male workers at British Nuclear Fuel plc, 1946-2005") presented some such additional data, concluding that, "Hundreds of nuclear workers have died of heart attacks and other circulatory illnesses brought on by radiation," according to the March 5, 2008 TimesonlineUK.
The Times also reported, "More than 200 workers at four plants died up to a year earlier than expected because of circulatory problems, while hundreds more are thought to have died at other nuclear sites around the country."
Earlier this year, the study "Excess Infant Mortality After Nuclear Plant Startup In Rural Mississippi" addressed similar questions. The study appeared in the International Journal of Health Services. The paper’s author, Joseph Mangano, is executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP). RPHP has been carrying out the Tooth Fairy Project (see Z, April 2004), testing the teeth of children, especially those who live near nuclear power plants, for the presence of Strontium 90, a long-lived radioactive isotope produced only by nuclear reactor operations and nuclear weapons detonation.
Mangano documents increases in radioactivity in the air and water after Grand Gulf’s 1982 startup. He then demonstrates "that the local death rate for fetuses with a gestation period over 20 weeks rose 57.8 percent (41 to 60 deaths) from 1981-1982 to 1983-1984, significantly different than declines in the nation and two state area…. The local infant mortality rate for persons under one year increased 35.3 percent (55 to 69 deaths)…. Higher infant mortality occurred for both whites (50.0 percent) and blacks (29.3 percent). An especially high 96.6 percent increase was documented for those infants dying in the first 24 hours after birth."
And, Mangano reported, "Mortality in each of the five counties closest to the reactor also demonstrated an unexpectedly large increase in the first 22 years of reactor operations, compared to the two years immediately prior."
Given these findings, the operation of a new nuclear reactor at Grand Gulf, and others across the U.S., promises to cause double trouble and John McCain was only half right when he claimed that building new nukes in the U.S. is "as difficult as it is necessary."
Michael Steinberg is a veteran activist and writer. He is the author of seven books, including Millstone and Me: Sex, Lies and Radiation in Southeastern Connecticut.