At press time, the nuclear crisis in Japan is out of control: three reactors are in partial meltdown, two are leaking radiation, at least one pool full of eighty tons of “spent” uranium fuel rods may be burning, two other such pools are getting very hot. Three major explosions have destroyed much of the Fukushima plant’s basic infrastructure, like cranes, monitors and mechanical controls.
Japanese officials have prevaricated, fumbled and have now largely retreated; the distressed plant is just too hot. Their understanding of the crisis is fragmentary. What they tell the public is even more limited. In total desperation they bombed the site with water dropped from helicopters but aborted that plan when radiation exposure proved too dangerous. Radioactive fallout is already sickening people. And this is just the beginning.
Fukushima is a grave warning. The message is clear: systems fail; the unthinkable happens. Yet even in the face of this catastrophe a gang of pro-nuke zealots, like Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Republican Congressman Devin Nunes of California, are saying the crisis will actually be good for the much-hyped but elusive “nuclear renaissance.”
Nunes wants the United States to build 200 new nuclear plants! But that figure, while stunning, is largely meaningless. Why not call for 301 or 517 new plants? The fact is that the amount of private capital required to build new plants is nowhere on the horizon. Wall Street is rightly scared of such investments; nukes go over cost and present huge risks. Only governments in places like China and India—unconcerned about making a profit on investments—build new nuclear plants.
So, never mind the blather about “new” nukes. It is the old ones we must focus on. The United States has a fleet of 104 old and rickety nuclear reactors. Twenty-three of them are the same General Electric design as the Fukushima plant. Perhaps more dangerous than our old and brittle equipment is the arrogance and overconfidence of our regulators and managers. The culture of the industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is pathologically cavalier. The mix of technological hubris with the profit motive has produced a track record of slipshod management, corner-cutting and repeated lying.
As former NRC commissioner Peter Bradford put it, “The phrase ‘it can’t happen here’ is an invitation to disaster.” But remarkably, that is what the pro-nuke crew are saying. Three days into the crisis in Japan, the Nuclear Energy Association put out a statement that read, “The events at Fukushimaâ€¨Daiichi show that nuclear power’s defense-in-depth approach to safety is appropriate and strong.”
The nuclear power industry is setting our country up for disaster by quietly pushing the NRC to relicense and extend the operation of our existing fleet of old reactors. Worse, they are getting “power-up rates” that allow the plants to run at up to 120 percent of their originally intended capacity. That means their systems are subject to unprecedented amounts of heat, pressure, corrosion, stress and embrittling radiation. Many of these “up-rated” and relicensed plants are leaking or have leaked radioactive, carcinogenic, tritium-polluted water. A quarter of all US reactors have such leaks.
So far more than half of America’s commercial nuclear reactors have received new twenty-year operating license renewals. In fact, the NRC has not rejected a single license-renewal application. Vermont Yankee is one of the plants up for relicensing, and it has a tritium leak that no one can seem to find or stop. At first company officials from Entergy of Louisiana just lied about the problem, telling state regulators and lawmakers that the plant did not have the sort of underground pipes that could leak tritium into groundwater. But it does.
Another problem is the accumulation of spent fuel rods that sit in pools onsite, next door to the reactors they once fed. Unlike the reactors, spent fuel rod pools are not housed in any sort of hardened or sealed containment structure. Their name—especially “spent” and “pool”—conveys calm dissipation. But the uranium in the spent fuel rod pools is highly radioactive, very unstable, extremely dangerous and, compared with reactors, not well supported, contained or looked over. When exposed to air for a day or two, the fuel rods begin to combust, giving off large amounts of radioactive cesium-137, a very toxic, long-lasting, aggressively penetrating radioactive element with a half-life of thirty years. In the environment, cesium-137 acts like potassium, and is taken up by plants and animals.
At Fukushima each reactor has between sixty and eighty-three tons of spent fuel rods stored next to it. At Vermont Yankee, with its GE reactor of the same design as the Fukushima plant, there are a staggering 690 tons of spent fuel rods onsite. What’s worse, spent fuel rod pools at Vermont Yankee are not equipped with backup water-circulation systems or even backup generators for the existing water-circulation system.
A regime of constant, careful inspection coupled with elaborate and expensive maintenance could make these old nuclear plants safer, but unfortunately the NRC’s requirements fall far short of that. During his campaign, Barack Obama called the NRC “a moribund agency…captive of the industry it regulates.” But as president he has been an utter disappointment on this front. The NRC, now run by Obama appointee Gregory Jaczko, is carrying on willy-nilly relicensing plants.
The NRC needs an overhaul—now. And our fleet of leaky old plants needs to be decommissioned. We get less than 9 percent of our total energy needs from nuclear power, so with proper conservation, we can make up that loss. Fukushima is trying to tell us something. We must heed its warning.