"Nukes Now!"

By Damien Cave

Published December 13, 2001 8:30PM (EST)

Read the story

Damien Cave's article about the supposed renaissance of commercial nuclear power left me shaking my head in amazement. These "new" safety features he discusses, such as gravity-fed coolant and control rods, are not new at all. Most of them have been incorporated into U.S. Navy reactors since the 1960s. The reason they were not incorporated into civilian reactors, was, quite simply, the added cost.

I served in the Navy as a nuclear reactor technician during the 1980s. As part of our training, we were required to read the official (i.e., classified) NRC incident reports about various accidents at civilian nuclear power plants, among them Three Mile Island. What I read made my blood run cold, not because of what happened but because of what I learned about how civilian reactors are built. After I got over my shock at learning that the safety features I had come to think of as indispensable didn't exist in civilian reactors, I came away with the profound feeling that safe nuclear power simply isn't cost-effective.

Navy reactors are overengineered to a degree inconceivable in the commercial world because they must survive being shot at in wartime. They generally have a coolant-to-power ratio that is many times higher than any civilian reactor (a higher ratio means a lower chance of a meltdown because there's more coolant to absorb the excess heat). Every single part that goes into a Navy reactor, down to the most basic nuts and bolts, is subjected to X ray examination for possible defects. The Navy can do this because its reactors aren't selling their electricity and the operating costs are paid by the taxpayers. Civilian reactors, on the other hand, are of no use unless they turn a profit, and any honest engineer will tell you that profit and safety are inescapably competitive concerns.

Rather than focusing on all these false "advances" in power plant design, Cave should have asked whether the utilities are willing to even talk about relaxing the decades-old federal liability exemption for nuclear power plant accidents. The answer -- of course not -- will tell you whether they really think they can build safe reactors cost-effectively.

-- Tom Overton

As a nuclear engineer, I share Professor Waltar's concerns -- will my grandchildren complain that I didn't try hard enough to build more nuclear power plants and help mitigate global warming? I suspect future generations will see nuclear safety and nuclear waste as trivial concerns compared to the measurable and foreseeable impacts of dumping billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Frankly, our long-term energy problem is not where we get fossil fuels but that we don't have a big enough atmosphere to dump the waste products into. The energy business is ultimately built on physics -- no amount of wishful thinking will change the fact that uranium can deliver the juice and windmills, solar and all the assortment of "alternatives" just can't beyond hobbyist scale. Why are the "environmentalists" barking up the wrong tree?

As to nuclear technology, our first generation of nuclear power plants were much like Ford's first Model T automobile -- they needed a bit of work. No seat belts, no antilock disk brakes, no drivers' education, plus little history of failures to base rational improvements upon. I know personally since I helped design some of the first batch of big nukes and have spent much of my career since in making improvements. The next generation of reactors will have fundamental advantages built into the design -- most of us in the nuclear industry are eager to get to work on them -- for ourselves and for our posterity.

-- Joseph Somsel

In Damien Cave's article "Nukes Now!" I was surprised to see the debate about the damage done by Chernobyl framed simply in terms of how many people were killed at the time, and how many human deaths in the near future can be attributed to the emissions from the Chernobyl accident. That's actually an extremely conservative estimate of the damage. The underlying problem, and the reason for the deaths, is radiation contamination to the region around the Chernobyl disaster. A more circumspect assessment of the damage would include both the physical extent of contaminated land, water and air, and the duration of time for which the air, water and land will be radiation-contaminated. Even from a human-centric viewpoint, we are talking about land that should not be farmed for tens of thousands of years, water that should not be drunk or allowed to escape the region for tens of thousands of years, and a region of a country that should remain uninhabited for over 20,000 generations -- far longer than all of written human history so far. We don't even know how to construct something that would mark the spot that long. The per-kilowatt-hour costs listed in the article for nuclear power also do not include costs for TMI or for future accidents. Cleanup costs will be paid by taxpayers, and other social and environmental costs -- deaths, illness, disruption and loss of reproductive capability -- by the unlucky regions of the U.S. where the next large nuclear power plant leak occurs. In that light, nuclear power does not look competitively priced with other power sources.

-- L. Durbeck

It was nice to see a balanced article about the nuclear power industry for a change.

The anti-nuclear lobby has always puzzled me. They continually oppose efforts to find safe ways to dispose of the waste, yet it is at the top of their list when the complaints start. It needs be pointed out that a nuclear power plant -- even one built 20 years ago, much less today -- produces less radiation than a coal plant, and results in a small amount of solid waste rather than the thousands of tons that coal plants spew into the atmosphere, or the considerable pollution accompanying the production of fuel for gas plants.

If people were truly serious about reducing pollution they would push for far more nuclear plants to replace the current crop of coal and gas-burners. Until the pipe dreams of solar, tidal or wind power become economical (and these won't work everywhere), nuclear is the best and cleanest alternative.

-- James Ellis

In the article "Nukes Now", Damien Cave discusses claims that nuclear power is cost-effective by considering how much it would cost the power companies. In fact, nuclear power only appears cost-effective due to massive federal subsidies, including liability limitations and cheap waste storage. These costs are attached to our tax return instead of our energy bill, but we'll still be paying for them for the next 10,000 years.

-- Christopher Hapka

Your nuke article describes Chernobyl in the most interesting terms I've yet heard. "Only 31 people" were killed. Hmm. That's not so bad. Never mind that millions of tons of topsoil were removed for miles in every direction, or that the place remains a ghost town today, and will remain a ghost town for centuries.

-- David Sexton

Nuclear waste. Nuclear waste. Nuclear waste. It's the same old argument that "scientists" are tired of hearing about, but it's a simple fact that exists about nuclear power. You can't just bury something and expect future generations to deal with it. One scientist was worried about his children and global warming -- how about how their generation is going to deal with nuclear waste that is leaking out of poured concrete storage bins. And furthermore, mountains weren't put on this earth to house nuclear waste containment facilities. We've got a sun, we've got wind, and they still work. Also, there have been vast improvements in fuel cells and fly wheels. It's the same old argument, but there is a reason this argument is still around.

-- Jay B. Johnson

North Anna Power plant has also experimented with solar and hydroelectric power. The facility created Lake Anna by damming the North Anna River. (There is a parallel South Anna River, but they never meet, there is no Anna River.) Making use of Lake Anna, land values of a county in the boondocks became a rural retreat popular with the south D.C. crowd. Emissions for all electrical generation at North Anna is near zero and lots of jobs have been brought to the area employing a good mix of skilled labor and Ph.D./engineering experts. While the methods of mining and disposal are still up in the air, the power generation facility has been a definite gain to the community.

Zero emissions, good employment, positive community job growth and increasing land values.

-- Tobi

I am afraid that the article makes the mistake that many articles on nuclear power make: They ignore the cost of decommissioning a nuclear power plant when adding the total cost. Even if the plants are safe and there are no accidents, the costs will be huge to store the radioactive material safely for thousands of years. Since a plant is only good for perhaps 50 years at the most, is it right to dump our nuclear wastes into the hands of future generations?

The nuclear power industry used to say that the odds of a nuclear power accident are the same as being hit by lightning. Well, people do get hit by lightning every year, and the industry has not been totally honest about the safe operation of their reactors. That's another story for those who take the time to study the history.

-- Robert Adjemian

I, like many liberals, always reacted vociferously to any mention of the benefits of nuclear power. Green ooze, the image of a hazardous-waste symbol and Chernobyl meant that nuclear power was obviously negative and frightening -- it was never a question in my mind. While at the same time admonishing others for their inability to have an "open mind" about social issues I, like many liberals, reacted to nuclear power with rancor and prejudice. But there is a rational argument that favors fission-generated nuclear energy over other sources for environmental, economic and scientific reasons. Of course, many can argue against it for other equally persuasive reasons, but fear should not be one of them. If you are afraid of it then explain clearly why. In his article, Damien Cave has done an excellent job of showing that you may need to have an open mind.

-- Scott Lewis

As a researcher on Wall St. looking at the business case for environmental management, I came across a lovely little document, kept on microfilm at the Science & Technology library on 5th Ave. entitled "Radioactive Releases From Nuclear Power Plants." This document, compiled by the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission), detailed the total amount of curries of radioactivity (usually in steam releases from the cooling system) that each plant in the U.S. released each year. The NRC ceased compiling this document in 1994, and when I called them to request an update was told that there were "data problems" with the document, but that if I wanted this information I could submit Freedom of Information Act requests to all 100 plus plants nationwide. I think the problem with the data in this case is the data itself and what it says about the industry. Mr. Cave ought to ask why the industry doesn't want this information released to the public, and also why if nuclear power is such a good idea the insurance industry wants nothing to do with it and the taxpayers have to pick up the tab?

-- Marc Brammer

As a former resident of one of the states considered ideal for dumping nuclear waste, New Mexico, I must say that the cavalier treatment given to the issue of where to dispose of this radioactive garbage never fails to enrage me. Articles on the supposed safety of nukes give the barest mention to the fact that there isn't much plan for disposal beyond "stick it in some cave where sparse population and poverty make political dissent less likely." That is because we are so very far from having a workable solution that it's not even possible to lie about it. Such articles also uniformly fail to mention that the Germans recently decided to discontinue their extensive nuclear program, based in a large part on the difficulty they had in finding anyplace to put waste. Why don't we learn from their experience and refrain from creating an unsolvable mess in the first place?

-- Beth Morgan

Before we start designing new nuclear reactors, some investigative journalism needs to be done to explore rumors that Flight 93 was aiming at Three Mile Island rather than some undisclosed target in Washington. A departure delay at Newark Airport allowed the passengers of Flight 93 to learn about the death and destruction at the Trade Towers during their hijacking, and to take heroic action against the hijackers. If this twist of fate was all that stood between us and a successful nuclear attack, U.S. citizens need to be fully informed as they formulate or vote on energy policy.

-- Margot Corrigan

Near the end of the article you have the phrase "But are we prepared enough?"

Well that's hardly the point isn't it? Prepared against a government that withholds the truth, the facts or any meaningful information about anything as a matter of standard operating procedure? How can we be safe against an administration that simply does not understand the difference between ruling and governance, between commonwealth and special interests? If there is a severe accident in a new nuke plant can we expect to even be warned sufficiently by the government to save ourselves, or will it, like almost everything else, be blocked off from public information at worst, or at best pooh-poohed as not getting with the program? Be afraid.

-- Stephen Rifkin

OK, it's like this:

Anyone with half a brain knows that nuclear power plants aren't "safe." Neither are any other sort of power plant. The only real comparison of safety would be to do a calculation of deaths/kilowatt-hour, including mining (or drilling, or whatever), plant construction, waste disposal, etc.

Given the hazards involved in mining and transport of the large amounts of coal needed to generate power and given the disposal problems for the toxic waste generated, I find it hard to believe that coal-fired plants are safer than nuclear plants.

-- John Kasper

While the article of Dec. 10 that addressed nuclear energy and its value to society as well as its risks seemed thorough, the author left out one important consideration. In fact, this one consideration has been left out of the equation from the very start of our fascination with nuclear energy. I refer to the fact that the uranium needed to run the nuclear power plants is located on the lands of our American Indian population. Since the 1940's, when the mining of uranium began in earnest, it has been our indigenous people who have borne the brunt of the nuclear industry. It was the Navajo people who were tantamount in the stockpiling of this nation's nuclear arsenal and the Navajo people who have suffered tremendous incidences of cancer because of this stockpiling.

Capitalizing on the poverty-stricken conditions, the mining companies, with their promise of a crust of bread and a smidgen of butter to spread on top, hired a work force of Native people to do their dirty work. Men were sent into inadequately ventilated mines, exposed to 100 to 1,000 times the dosage of radon gas now thought to be acceptable, ate their lunches in the shadow of radioactive waste piles and drank it down with radioactive tainted water. Told that what they did was safe, while the industry moguls had evidence to the contrary, these people slowly but assuredly began to suffer and die in outstanding number.

The author of the article mentioned the Three Mile Island scare, but neglected to mention the Rio Puerco incident in July of 1979. At 5 a.m. on July 16 a dam owned by the United Nuclear Corp. developed a crack and spewed 1,100 gallons of uranium "tailings" (the waste from mining) and radioactive water into the Puerco River, the primary water source of the people of this high desert location. By 8 a.m. radioactivity levels were monitored in Gallup, NM, 50 miles away, and were found to contain 7,000 times the allowable standard for drinking water. The livestock population of this area drank from this source and soon began giving birth to deformed offspring, began dying in huge numbers. Meager warnings were issued, but numbers of Navajo people at the time did not read English, nor did they have electricity to power televisions and radios. As such, their contamination was assured. And, as can be deduced, this land and this water will never be the same.

The radioactivity from such a disaster takes thousands of years to dissipate. The media at the time were lax in covering the story, though it was the largest nuclear accident in the history of the United States. In addition to this travesty, large mountains of tailing blows through Navajo lands, settling on towns and villages, settling on water sources. There has been extensive documentation of the extreme dangers of this radioactive dust as it relates to the incidence of cancer. The statistics of lung cancer alone in the Navajo people are staggering. Currently it is estimated that 75 to 80 percent of our uranium resources are located on Native American lands. Who will mine this uranium and what will happen to the poisons that result from this mining? And while the author mentioned the questionable safety of the proposed Yucca mountain site as a repository for nuclear waste, there was no mention of this mountain as a sacred site for the Native peoples of the area.

In case the author and your readers are not aware, the Native American culture is a land-based culture, holding great regard for a spiritual connection to the land and for the physical connection to the bounty the land has to offer. The U.S. government has continually and systematically stripped and strapped the resources of the Indigenous Tribes, relegating the people to the back burner, forgotten and left to burn. Will we continue in this vein, neglecting the fact that people's lives and way of life are at stake? With other options to choose from for our energy needs, specifically wind as a viable and clean energy option, there is no good reason to reintroduce new nuclear energy into the mix.

-- Jean Roman

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------