The Department of Energy would like to store high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, even though the site is on or near 32 earthquake faults.Department of Energy
Nuclear waste is another obstacle the nuclear proponents in government and industry are seeking to get around. "If we don’t deal with the waste problem," acknowledged Cheney in a speech, "then my guess is we won’t get the investment in new facilities in the nuclear arena
. It’s within our grasp as a government … to move forward, to get the issue addressed and get it off the table so that utilities are prepared to invest in nuclear."
How is this being done? For high-level nuclear waste, there are drives to open Yucca Mountain in Nevada (100 miles northwest of Las Vegas) as a repository and also to use Utah’s Skull Valley Goshute Reservation and possibly other Native American reservations.
The huge problem with Yucca Mountain, which the government began exploring as a repository in the 1980s, is that it is on or near 32 earthquake faults and has a "history and prospects of volcanoes and a likelihood of flooding and leakage," says D"Arrigo. Nevertheless, the Bush Administration is still seeking to "ram through" Yucca Mountain, says Mariotte. Resistance from people in Nevada and their elected representatives is so far blocking the scheme.
In 1997, tribal leaders of the Goshute Reservation "leased land to a private group of electrical utilities for the temporary storage of 40,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel," according to the Goshute’s web
site. But some members of the tribe are fighting the deal in court, demanding to know who got what for what. Utah government officials are also challenging the arrangement. Governor Mike Leavitt says, "We intend to leave no stone unturned to make sure this waste does not come to Utah. The state’s authority and responsibility to protect its citizens and the environment is clear."
But clear to advocates in government and the nuclear industry is that working with ostensibly sovereign American Indian reservations is a way to unload atomic garbage. Critics describe it as a new form of environmental racism—"nuclear racism"—seeking to take advantage of the poverty of Native Americans.
The drive to "recycle" low-level nuclear waste has been percolating for years. In 1980, the NRC first proposed that irradiated metal scrap could be converted, stressing that "radioactive waste burial costs could be avoided, [and] the resulting use of smelted scrap could be made into any number of consumer or capital equipment products such as automobiles, appliances, furniture, utensils, personal items and coins." Some thought the push for radioactive quarters and hot Pontiacs was too crazy to be true.
But now the scheme is coming down the pike full-speed with the DOE, Department of Transportation and the NRC moving to facilitate the "recycling of contaminated metal and other radioactive wastes," as the DOE recently announced. Says D"Arrigo: "Bush wants more nuclear power, and we are being told we"ll have to do our part by accepting atomic waste in our daily use items."
Those behind the nuclear push are moving to extend a key piece of U.S. law that facilitated the nuclear power industry in the first place: the Price-Anderson Act. This law drastically limits the amount of money people can collect as a result of a nuclear power plant disaster. It was originally enacted in 1957 after nervous utilities and insurance companies balked at building nuclear power plants. "The potential for catastrophe is apparently many times as great as anything previously known in industry," said Herbert W. Yount, vice president of Liberty Mutual Insurance, before the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, from which Price-Anderson emerged. The committee was part of the earliest promotion for a nuclear establishment of government and corporations that had grown out of the World War II-era Manhattan Project. With the war over, nuclear scientists, government bureaucrats and corporate contractors involved in the Manhattan Project—like Westinghouse and GE—sought to perpetuate their nuclear activities through electricity generation.
In what was supposed to be a temporary measure to boost the nuclear power industry, the Price-Anderson Act passed, limiting liability in the event of a nuclear plant accident to $560 million, with the federal government paying the first $500 million. It was supposed to last for only 10 years, but Price-Anderson has been repeatedly extended. Now the Bush Administration and the atomic industry are seeking to use it as a financial umbrella for the push to revive nuclear power.
"The renewal of Price-Anderson is only to build new reactors," says Mariotte."That’s the issue. Existing nuclear plants are covered by the present law."
The Bush Administration and nuclear industry are proposing that the current liability limit of $9 billion be extended for another 10 years. The initial $560 million cap rose to, in recent years, $9 billion. Still, notes Alvarez, this is all just a fraction of what the NRC itself has concluded would be the financial consequences of a nuclear plant accident. Those figures are contained in a 1982 report prepared for the NRC by the DOE’s Sandia National Laboratories entitled Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences for U.S. Nuclear Power Plants. It calculates (in 1980s dollars) costs as a result of a nuclear plant disaster as high as $314 billion at the Indian Point 3 nuclear plant north of New York City and $174 billion for the Millstone 3 nuclear plant in Connecticut. The report projects "early fatalities" with figures as high as 100,000 dead for the Salem 1 nuclear plant in New Jersey and 72,000 dead for the Peach Bottom 2 nuclear plant in Pennsylvania.
What are the chances of such a disaster occurring? In 1985, the NRC was asked by a House oversight committee chaired by Congressman Edward Markey (D-MA) to determine the probability of a "severe core melt accident" for reactors now operating and those expected to operate during the next 20 years. The NRC concluded: "The crude cumulative probability of such an accident would be 45 percent."
To that danger now has to be added the possibility of a World Trade Center-style airborne terrorist attack on American nuclear plants. Tom Clements, who heads the Nuclear Control Institute, says existing plants are vulnerable to such an attack, "which would be many times worse than what we’ve seen in New York because it could result in radiation and fallout over a vast area." And so the nightmare of our affair with nuclear power continues.
KARL GROSSMAN, a George Polk Award-winning journalist, teaches investigative and environmental reporting at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury.