The Nuclear Phoenix

The Bush Administration is Pushing Ahead with a Full-Scale Revival of Atomic Power

The last time anyone ordered a new nuclear power plant in the United States was in 1978, but if you think that means nukes are dead forever, guess again. The Bush Administration and the nuclear industry are making an intense push to rehabilitate nuclear power in the U.S. "It’s like reviving Frankenstein—this is the sequel," says Robert Alvarez, executive director of the Standing for Truth About Radiation (STAR) Foundation and co-author of Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation.

Diane D"Arrigo of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) uses another word when describing the Administration’s work. Says D"Arrigo: "It’s the push to relapse."

Workers at the West Valley Demonstration Project in New York sort and package low-level nuclear waste for shipment by truck to a storage facility in Utah.AP Photo

Ever since the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl shattered public trust in atomic power, advocates in government and industry have been laying the groundwork for a nuclear energy comeback. An unbridled drive has started under George W. Bush in what "may be the most ardently pro-nuclear power Presidency in U.S. history," says Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based NIRS. The Bush Administration’s stance is aggressive, and it minimizes the dangers of nuclear power. As Bush’s Secretary of Treasury, Paul O"Neill, told The Wall Street Journal, "If you set aside Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the safety record of nuclear power really is good."

In Bed with the Industry

The Bush Administration struck a close working relationship with the nuclear industry well before taking office. The administration’s energy "transition" advisors included Joseph Colvin, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), which describes itself as "the policy organization of the nuclear energy and technologies industry"; J. Bennett Johnston, who as a U.S. Senator was a leading pro-nuclear power figure in Congress and who now runs a consulting firm that assists the nuclear industry; Thomas Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, former head of the American Nuclear Energy Council (forerunner of NEI) and a reported "Bush buddy" going back to their days together at Yale; and representatives of four nuclear utilities. There were no advisors representing renewable energy or environmental organizations.

Two weeks after being sworn in, Bush set up a "National Energy Policy Development Group" and appointed as its chairman Vice President Dick Cheney. Its members included O"Neill and other top administration officials. Ten weeks after it was organized, the group issued a report declaring its support for "the expansion of nuclear energy in the United States as a major component of our national energy policy." The plan would substantially increase the use of nuclear power both by building new nuclear power plants—many to be constructed on existing nuclear plant sites—and extending the 40-year licenses of currently operating plants each by another 20 years.

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in San Diego provides electricity to 2.75 million homes in Southern California. The Bush Administration wants to dramatically expand American dependence on nuclear power by building more plants.J. Blank / H.Armstrong Roberts

"Many U.S. nuclear plant sites were designed to host four to six reactors, and most operate only two or three; many sites across the country could host additional plants," says the energy policy group’s report. "Building new generators on existing sites avoids many complex issues associated with building plants on new sites." It could also greatly amplify the impacts of an accident, notes Paul Gunter, head of NIRS" Reactor Watchdog Project. If one nuclear plant in a cluster of facilities undergoes a catastrophic accident, there is the potential, says Gunter, for a "cascading loss amplifying the release of radiation."

According to the policy report, "the licensing of as many as 90 percent of the currently operating nuclear plants may be renewed." There are 103 nuclear plants now in the U.S. They are, on average, 19 years old. Of the longevity of nuclear plants, "No one foresaw them running for more than 40 years," says Alvarez of STAR, who was also senior policy advisor at the Department of Energy (DOE) from 1993 to 1999. The effects of intense radioactive bombardment, especially on metals, have been seen as limiting the operating life of nuclear plants. And then there’s the standard deterioration that occurs when any machine gets old. "These reactors are just like old machines, but they are ultra-hazardous," says Alvarez. By pushing their operating span to 60 years, he says, "disaster is being invited."

New Nukes?

In 1990, four years after the near-meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the then-Soviet Union, these young victims were still hospitalized with serious intestinal ailments.AP Photo

The Bush Administration’s policy also supports "advanced" nuclear power plants—supposedly new-and-improved nukes. "Advanced reactor technology promises to improve nuclear safety," it says. One example the report provides is "the gas-cooled, pebble bed reactor, which has inherent safety features." In fact, says Gunter, the pebble bed reactor is not new; it’s just "old wine in a new bottle." It’s a hybrid of the gas-cooled, high-temperature design that "has appeared and been rejected in England, Germany and the U.S." And far from being "inherently safe," a reactor of similar design, a THTR300 in Germany’s Ruhr Valley, spewed out substantial amounts of radioactivity in a 1986 accident, leading to its permanent closure.

David Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), says that the pebble bed reactor uses blocks of graphite to slow neutron action, although "graphite is a form of carbon, which can ignite in a reactor fire. It was the graphite that kept burning at Chernobyl for 10 days, releasing much of the radiation."

Also, the pebble bed would produce 10 times more high-level waste per amount of electricity generated as compared to existing plants, says Lochbaum, who worked in the nuclear power industry for 17 years and became a whistleblower before coming to UCS. Further, Exelon, the builder of the pebble bed reactor, wants five such units operated from a single control room, which is a dubious proposition, says Lochbaum. He also notes that the pebble bed systems" designers "reduced costs by eliminating a key safety feature—the reactor containment building."

The Bush National Energy Policy, with its reliance on more nuclear power and greater fossil fuel generation, comes at a time when safe, clean, renewable energy sources have arrived. The need is for broad-scale implementation. Wind power, solar energy, hydrogen fuel technologies including fuel cells, among other renewable energy sources, are more than ready after years of dramatic advances. Coupled with energy efficiency, they can be tapped and widely used.

A coalition of renewable, safe-energy advocates—including the Safe Energy Communication Council, Greenpeace USA, Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program, Global Resource Action Center for the Environment and NIRS—says of the National Energy Policy: "The Bush/Cheney Administration is recklessly promoting the building of new nuclear plants to address an energy crisis that in large part is being manufactured by the energy corporations that will benefit from building new power plants
.We believe that instead of promoting dangerous and dirty forms of energy, the United States should be a world leader in promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency. Let us not sell our children’s future.&quot


But the Bush Administration is not to be turned around. As Cheney, in one speech, said of nuclear power: "If we are serious about environmental protection, then we must seriously question the wisdom of backing away from what is, as a matter of record, a safe, clean and very plentiful energy source."

Or, as he declared in another speech, "We’re now at about 20 percent of our electricity being generated by nuclear. We’d like to increase that
.If you’re really concerned about global warming and carbon dioxide emissions, then we need to
aggressively pursue the use of nuclear power, which we can do safely and sanely, but for 20 some years [it] has been a big no-no-politically."

Not surprisingly, the nuclear power industry stands solidly alongside President Bush. Says NEI President Colvin, "The administration’s support for nuclear power as a proven energy technology that protects our air quality is a tremendously positive development for our nation
.The industry looks forward to working with the White House and Congress to make this long-term vision a reality."

Nuclear waste from a federal laboratory in Idaho rolls down I-285 on its way to the Waste Isolation Pilot Program in New Mexico. Such interstate trucking of nuclear waste has engendered fierce opposition in traversed states.AP Photo / Carlsbad Current-Argus / Alfred J. Hernandez

Pushing Ahead

To fast track its vision of our radioactive future, the Bush Administration advocates a "one-step" licensing process for nuclear plants. It was part of an Energy Policy Act bill overwhelmingly approved by Congress in 1992 and signed into law by the former President George Bush. "One-step" licensing allows the NRC to hold a single hearing for a "combined construction and operating license." No longer can nuclear plant projects be slowed down or stopped at a separate operating license proceeding, at which evidence of construction defects can be revealed. As the New York Times described the passage of the 1992 Energy Policy Act, "Nuclear power lobbyists called the bill their biggest victory in Congress since the Three Mile Island accident."

That Energy Policy Act was approved by a Democratic-controlled Congress. As NIRS reported in its Nuclear Monitor in 1992: "As the bill wound its way through the Senate and House, the nuclear industry won nearly every vote that mattered, proving that Congress remains captive to industry lobbying and political contributions over public opinion."

That remains the situation today. Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program documents how the NEI regularly showers Congress—including members of both major parties—with political contributions. And when the nuclear industry gives, members of Congress act, notes Public Citizen, which charts the record of politicians on key nuclear issues. Likewise, nuclear industry money pours into Presidential campaigns.

The Republican Bush-Cheney posture on nuclear power is hard-line, but that doesn’t mean the Democratic alternative was (or is) much different. The NEI’s website includes a page of "Endorsements of Nuclear Energy," and among those quoted are Al Gore: "Nuclear power, designed well, regulated properly, cared for meticulously, has a place in the world’s energy supply," he reportedly said in a speech at the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev in 1998. And Gore’s former running mate, Senator Joseph Lieberman, is quoted as saying at a Senate hearing in 1998: "I am a supporter of nuclear energy. I believe it can be part of the solution to solving the world’s energy, environment and global warming problems."

Basically, there is a difference in degrees and rhetoric between the politicians from the major parties, says Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. And "the Clinton Administration is by no means blameless" in the push to revive the moribund nuclear industry, she says, especially because of its support for development of "advanced" nuclear plants.

The Bush National Energy Policy says that because of "one-step" licensing, which it terms the "reformed licensing process," getting new nuclear plants built and operating will now be streamlined. And, to make sure public involvement is minimal in the process, the NRC is now seeking to undo the public’s right to formal trial-type hearings on nuclear plant licensing. It plans to "deformalize" the hearings by eliminating due process procedures. Documents would be restricted to what the NRC staff and company deem relevant. Instead of cross-examining witnesses, interested parties will have to submit written questions as suggestions for the NRC’s presiding officers to ask at their discretion at a hearing. Says Mariotte, "The administration should learn from Seattle, Prague and Quebec that when people are shut out of public policy pro-cesses, the streets are their only alternative."

Redefining Safety

Also to help in a nuclear power comeback is the effort to alter the standards for radiation exposure. As more has been learned about radioactivity, the realization has come that there is no "safe" level. This is called the "linear no-threshold theory," and it has been adopted by the NRC and other U.S. government agencies.

Now nuclear advocates in government and industry want to alter the standards premised on a contention that low doses of radiation are not so bad after all. They are "engaged in an all-out assault on radiation protection standards," says D"Arrigo. There is even interest in a long-rejected notion called "hormesis," which claims that a little radiation is good for people and helps exercise the immune system. The instrument for this change is a new Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR) panel of the National Academy of Sciences, which is to make recommendations to the federal government. "The only way to convince the public that additional radiation is acceptable is to put together a skewed panel," says D"Arrigo. The new BEIR panel, she says, is thus stacked with high-level radiation advocates.

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.