The Brief Wondrous Life (and Long Dangerous Half-Life) of Strontium-90

Tooth to Science button2At roughly 5:30 in the morning on July 16, 1945, an implosion-design plutonium device, codenamed “the gadget,” exploded over the Jornada del Muerto desert in south-central New Mexico with a force equivalent to about 20,000 tons of TNT. It was the world’s first test of an atomic bomb, and as witnesses at base camp some ten miles away would soon relay to US President Harry Truman, the results were “satisfactory” and exceeded expectations. Within weeks, the United States would use a uranium bomb of a different design on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and three days after that, a plutonium device similar to the gadget was dropped on Nagasaki, about 200 miles to the southwest.

Though Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the only instances where atomic weapons were used against a wartime enemy, between 1945 and 1963, the world experienced hundreds upon hundreds of nuclear weapons tests, the great majority of which were above ground or in the sea–in other words, in the atmosphere. The US tested atom and hydrogen bombs in Nevada, at the Nevada Test Site, and in the Pacific Ocean, on and around the Marshall Islands, in an area known as the Pacific Proving Grounds. After the Soviet Union developed its own atomic weapon in 1949, it carried out hundreds of similar explosions, primarily in Kazakhstan, and the UK performed more than 20 of its own atmospheric nuclear tests, mostly in Australia and the South Pacific, between 1952 and 1958.

Though military authorities and officials with the US Atomic Energy Commission initially downplayed the dispersal and dangers of fallout from these atmospheric tests, by the early 1950s, scientists in nuclear and non-nuclear countries alike began to raise concerns. Fallout from atmospheric tests was not contained simply to the blast radius or a region near the explosion, instead the products of fission and un-fissioned nuclear residue were essentially vaporized by the heat and carried up into the stratosphere, sweeping across the globe, and eventually returning to earth in precipitation. A host of radioactive isotopes contaminated land and surface water, entering the food chain through farms and dairies.

The tale of the teeth

In order to demonstrate that fallout was widespread and had worked its way into the population, a group of researchers, headed by Dr. Barry Commoner and Drs. Louise and Eric Reiss, founded the Baby Tooth Survey under the auspices of Washington University (where Commoner then taught) and the St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Information. The tooth survey sought to track strontium-90 (Sr-90), a radioactive isotope of the alkaline earth metal strontium, which occurs as a result–and only as a result–of nuclear fission. Sr-90 is structurally similar to calcium, and so, once in the body, works its way into bones and teeth.

While harvesting human bones was impractical, researchers realized that baby teeth should be readily available. Most strontium in baby teeth would transfer from mother to fetus during pregnancy, and so birth records would provide accurate data about where and when those teeth were formed. The tooth survey collected baby teeth, initially from the St. Louis area, eventually from around the globe, and analyzed them for strontium.

By the early ’60s, the program had collected well over a quarter-million teeth, and ultimately found that children in St. Louis in 1963 had 50 times more Sr-90 in them than children born in 1950. Armed with preliminary results from this survey and a petition signed by thousands of scientists worldwide, Dr. Commoner successfully lobbied President John F. Kennedy to negotiate and sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty, halting atmospheric nuclear tests by the US, UK and USSR. By the end of the decade, strontium-90 levels in newly collected baby teeth were substantially lower than the ’63 samples.

The initial survey, which ended in 1970, continues to have relevance today. Some 85,000 teeth not used in the original project were turned over to researchers at the Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP) in 2001. The RPHP study, released in 2010, found that donors from the Baby Tooth Survey who had died of cancer before age 50 averaged over twice the Sr-90 in their samples compared with those who had lived past their 50th birthday.

But the perils of strontium-90–or, indeed, a host of radioactive isotopes that are strontium’s travel companions–did not cease with the ban on atmospheric nuclear tests. Many of the hazards of fallout could also be associated with the radiological pollution that is part-and-parcel of nuclear power generation. The controlled fission in a nuclear reactor produces all of the elements created in the uncontrolled fission of a nuclear explosion. This point was brought home by the RPHP work, when it found strontium-90 was 30- to 50-percent higher in baby teeth collected from children born in “nuclear counties,” (PDF) the roughly 40 percent of US counties situated within 100 miles of a nuclear power plant or weapons lab.

Similar baby teeth research has been conducted over the last 30 years in Denmark, Japan and Germany, with measurably similar results. While Sr-90 levels continued to decrease in babies born through the mid 1970s, as the use of nuclear power starts to spread worldwide, that trend flattens. Of particular note, a study conducted by the German section of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (winner of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize) found ten-times more strontium-90 in the teeth of children born after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster when compared with samples from 1983.

While radioactive strontium itself can be linked to several diseases, including leukemia and bone cancers, Sr-90, as mentioned above, is but one of the most measurable of many dangerous isotopes released into the environment by the normal, everyday operation of nuclear reactors, even without the catastrophic discharges that come with accidents and meltdowns. Tritium, along with radioactive variants of iodine, cesium and xenon (to name just a few) can often be detected in elevated levels in areas around nuclear facilities.

Epidemiological studies have shown higher risks of breast and prostate cancers for those living in US nuclear counties. But while the Environmental Protection Agency collects sporadic data on the presence of radioactive isotopes such as Sr-90, the exact locations of the sampling sites are not part of the data made available to the general public. Further, while “unusual” venting of radioactive vapor or the dumping of contaminated water from a nuclear plant has to be reported to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (and even then, it is the event that is reported, not the exact composition of the discharge), the radio-isotopes that are introduced into the environment by the typical operation of a reactor meet with far less scrutiny. In the absence of better EPA data and more stringent NRC oversight, studies like the Baby Tooth Survey and its contemporary brethren are central to the public understanding of the dangers posed by the nuclear power industry.

June and Sr-90: busting out all over

As if to underscore the point, strontium-90 served as the marker for troubling developments on both sides of the Pacific just this June.

In Japan, TEPCO–still the official operator of Fukushima Daiichi–revealed it had found Sr-90 in groundwater surrounding the crippled nuclear plant at “very high” levels. Between December 2012 and May 2013, levels of strontium-90 increased over 100-fold, to 1,000 becquerels per liter–33 times the Japanese limit for the radioactive isotope.

The samples were taken less than 100 feet from the coast. From that point, reports say, the water usually flows out to the Pacific Ocean.

Beyond the concerns raised by the affects of the strontium-90 (and the dangerously high amounts of tritium detected along with it) when the radioactive contamination enters the food chain, the rising levels of Sr-90 likely indicate other serious problems at Fukushima. Most obviously, there is now little doubt that TEPCO has failed to contain contaminated water leaking from the damaged reactor buildings–contrary to the narrative preferred by company officials.

But skyrocketing levels of strontium-90 could also suggest that the isotope is still being produced–that nuclear fission is still occurring in one or more of the damaged reactor cores. Or even, perhaps, outside the reactors, as the corium (the term for the molten, lava-like nuclear fuel after a meltdown) in as many as three units is believed to have melted through the steel reactor containment and possibly eroded the concrete floor, as well.

An ocean away, in Washington state, radiological waste, some of which dates back to the manufacture of those first atom bombs, sits in aging storage tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation–and some of those tanks are leaking.

In truth, tanks at Hanford, considered by many the United States’ most contaminated nuclear site, have been leaking for some time. But the high-level radioactive waste in some of the old, single-wall tanks had been transferred to newer, double-walled storage, which was supposed to provide better containment. On June 20, however, the US Department of Energy reported that workers at Hanford detected radioactive contamination–specifically Sr-90–outside one of the double-walled tanks, possibly suggesting a breach. The predominant radionuclides in the 850,000-gallon tank are reported to be strontium-90 and cesium-137.

The tank, along with hundreds of others, sits about five miles from the Columbia River, water source for much of the region. Once contamination leaks from the tanks, it mixes with ground water, and, in time, should make its way to the river. “I view this as a crisis,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge, “These tanks are not supposed to fail for 50 years.”

Destroyer of worlds

In a 1965 interview, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project’s science director who was in charge of the Los Alamos facility that developed the first atomic bombs, looked back twenty years to that July New Mexico morning:

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

“We knew the world would not be the same.” Oppenheimer was most likely speaking figuratively, but, as it turns out, he also reported a literal truth. Before July 16, 1945, there was no strontium-90 or cesium-137 in the atmosphere–it simply did not exist in nature. But ever since that first atomic explosion, these anthropogenic radioactive isotopes have been part of earth’s every turn.

Strontium-90–like cesium-137 and a catalog of other hazardous byproducts of nuclear fission–takes a long time to decay. The detritus of past detonations and other nuclear disasters will be quite literally with us–in our water and soil, in our tissue and bone–for generations. These radioactive isotopes have already been linked to significant suffering, disease and death. Their danger was acknowledged by the United States when JFK signed the 1963 Test Ban Treaty. Now would be a good time to acknowledge the perspicacity of that president, phase out today’s largest contributors of atmospheric Sr-90, nuclear reactors, and let the sun set on this toxic metal’s life.

 

A version of this story previously appeared on Truthout; no version may be reprinted without permission.

The Long, Long Con: Seventy Years of Nuclear Fission; Thousands of Centuries of Nuclear Waste

From here to eternity: a small plaque on the campus of the University of Chicago commemorates the site of Fermi's first atomic pile--and the start of the world's nuclear waste problem. (Photo: Nathan Guy via Flickr)

From here to eternity: a small plaque on the campus of the University of Chicago commemorates the site of Fermi’s first atomic pile–and the start of the world’s nuclear waste problem. (Photo: Nathan Guy via Flickr)

On December 2, 1942, a small group of physicists under the direction of Enrico Fermi gathered on an old squash court beneath Alonzo Stagg Stadium on the Campus of the University of Chicago to make and witness history. Uranium pellets and graphite blocks had been stacked around cadmium-coated rods as part of an experiment crucial to the Manhattan Project–the program tasked with building an atom bomb for the allied forces in WWII. The experiment was successful, and for 28 minutes, the scientists and dignitaries present observed the world’s first manmade, self-sustaining nuclear fission reaction. They called it an atomic pile–Chicago Pile 1 (CP-1), to be exact–but what Fermi and his team had actually done was build the world’s first nuclear reactor.

The Manhattan Project’s goal was a bomb, but soon after the end of the war, scientists, politicians, the military and private industry looked for ways to harness the power of the atom for civilian use, or, perhaps more to the point, for commercial profit. Fifteen years to the day after CP-1 achieved criticality, President Dwight Eisenhower threw a ceremonial switch to start the reactor at Shippingport, PA, which was billed as the first full-scale nuclear power plant built expressly for civilian electrical generation.

Shippingport was, in reality, little more than a submarine engine on blocks, but the nuclear industry and its acolytes will say that it was the beginning of billions of kilowatts of power, promoted (without a hint of irony) as “clean, safe, and too cheap to meter.” It was also, however, the beginning of what is now a, shall we say, weightier legacy: 72,000 tons of nuclear waste.

Atoms for peace, problems forever

News of Fermi’s initial success was communicated by physicist Arthur Compton to the head of the National Defense Research Committee, James Conant, with artistically coded flair:

Compton: The Italian navigator has landed in the New World.
Conant: How were the natives?
Compton: Very friendly.

But soon after that initial success, CP-1 was disassembled and reassembled a short drive away, in Red Gate Woods. The optimism of the physicists notwithstanding, it was thought best to continue the experiments with better radiation shielding–and slightly removed from the center of a heavily populated campus. The move was perhaps the first necessitated by the uneasy relationship between fissile material and the health and safety of those around it, but if it was understood as a broader cautionary tale, no one let that get in the way of “progress.”

A stamp of approval: the US Postal Service commemorated Eisenhower's initiative in 1955.

A stamp of approval: the US Postal Service commemorated Eisenhower’s initiative in 1955.

By the time the Shippingport reactor went critical, North America already had a nuclear waste problem. The detritus from manufacturing atomic weapons was poisoning surrounding communities at several sites around the continent (not that most civilians knew it at the time). Meltdowns at Chalk River in Canada and the Experimental Breeder Reactor in Idaho had required fevered cleanups, the former of which included the help of a young Navy officer named Jimmy Carter. And the dangers of errant radioisotopes were increasing with the acceleration of above-ground atomic weapons testing. But as President Eisenhower extolled “Atoms for Peace,” and the US Atomic Energy Commission promoted civilian nuclear power at home and abroad, a plan to deal with the “spent fuel” (as used nuclear fuel rods are termed) and other highly radioactive leftovers was not part of the program (beyond, of course, extracting some of the plutonium produced by the fission reaction for bomb production, and the promise that the waste generated by US-built reactors overseas could at some point be marked “return to sender” and repatriated to the United States for disposal).

Attempts at what was called “reprocessing”–the re-refining of used uranium into new reactor fuel–quickly proved expensive, inefficient and dangerous, and created as much radioactive waste as it hoped to reuse. It also provided an obvious avenue for nuclear weapons proliferation because of the resulting production of plutonium. The threat of proliferation (made flesh by India’s test of an atomic bomb in 1976) led President Jimmy Carter to cancel the US reprocessing program in 1977. Attempts by the Department of Energy to push mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication (combining uranium and plutonium) over the last dozen years has not produced any results, either, despite over $5 billion in government investments.

In fact, there was no official federal policy for the management of used but still highly radioactive nuclear fuel until passage of The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. And while that law acknowledged the problem of thousands of tons of spent fuel accumulating at US nuclear plants, it didn’t exactly solve it. Instead, the NWPA started a generation of political horse trading, with goals and standards defined more by market exigencies than by science, that leaves America today with what amounts to over five-dozen nominally temporary repositories for high-level radioactive waste–and no defined plan to change that situation anytime soon.

When you assume…

When a US Court of Appeals ruled in June that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission acted improperly when it failed to consider all the risks of storing spent radioactive fuel onsite at the nation’s nuclear power facilities, it made specific reference to the lack of any real answers to the generations-old question of waste storage:

[The Nuclear Regulatory Commission] apparently has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository. . . . If the government continues to fail in its quest to establish one, then SNF (spent nuclear fuel) will seemingly be stored on site at nuclear plants on a permanent basis. The Commission can and must assess the potential environmental effects of such a failure.

The court concluded the current situation–where spent fuel is stored across the country in what were supposed to be temporary configurations–“poses a dangerous long-term health and environmental risk.”

The decision also harshly criticized regulators for evaluating plant relicensing with the assumption that spent nuclear fuel would be moved to a central long-term waste repository.

A mountain of risks

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act set in motion an elaborate process that was supposed to give the US a number of possible waste sites, but, in the end, the only option seriously explored was the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada. After years of preliminary construction and tens of millions of dollars spent, Yucca was determined to be a bad choice for the waste:

[Yucca Mountain's] volcanic formation is more porous and less isolated than originally believed–there is evidence that water can seep in, there are seismic concerns, worries about the possibility of new volcanic activity, and a disturbing proximity to underground aquifers. In addition, Yucca mountain has deep spiritual significance for the Shoshone and Paiute peoples.

Every major Nevada politician on both sides of the aisle has opposed the Yucca repository since its inception. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has worked most of his political life to block the facility. And with the previous NRC head, Gregory Jaczko, (and now his replacement, Allison Macfarlane, as well) recommending against it, the Obama administration’s Department of Energy moved to end the project.

Even if it were an active option, Yucca Mountain would still be many years and maybe as much as $100 million away from completion. And yet, the nuclear industry (through recipients of its largesse in Congress) has challenged the administration to spend any remaining money in a desperate attempt to keep alive the fantasy of a solution to their waste crisis.

Such fevered dreams, however, do not qualify as an actual plan, according to the courts.

The judges also chastised the NRC for its generic assessment of spent fuel pools, currently packed well beyond their projected capacity at nuclear plants across the United States. Rather than examine each facility and the potential risks specific to its particular storage situation, the NRC had only evaluated the safety risks of onsite storage by looking at a composite of past events. The court ruled that the NRC must appraise each plant individually and account for potential future dangers. Those dangers include leaks, loss of coolant, and failures in the cooling systems, any of which might result in contamination of surrounding areas, overheating and melting of stored rods, and the potential of burning radioactive fuel–risks heightened by the large amounts of fuel now densely packed in the storage pools and underscored by the ongoing disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Indeed, plants were not designed nor built to house nuclear waste long-term. The design life of most reactors in the US was originally 40 years. Discussions of the spent fuel pools usually gave them a 60-year lifespan. That limit seemed to double almost magically as nuclear operators fought to postpone the expense of moving cooler fuel to dry casks and of the final decommissioning of retired reactors.

Everyone out of the pool

As disasters as far afield as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and last October’s Hurricane Sandy have demonstrated, the storage of spent nuclear fuel in pools requires steady supplies of power and cool water. Any problem that prevents the active circulation of liquid through the spent fuel pools–be it a loss of electricity, the failure of a back-up pump, the clogging of a valve or a leak in the system–means the temperature in the pools will start to rise. If the cooling circuit is out long enough, the water in the pools will start to boil. If the water level dips (due to boiling or a leak) enough to expose hot fuel rods to the air, the metal cladding on the rods will start to burn, in turn heating the fuel even more, resulting in plumes of smoke carrying radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere.

And because these spent fuel pools are so full–containing as much as five times more fuel than they were originally designed to hold, and at densities that come close to those in reactor cores–they both heat stagnant water more quickly and reach volatile temperatures faster when exposed to air.

A spent fuel pool and dry casks. (Both photos courtesy of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

A spent fuel pool and dry casks. (Both photos courtesy of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

After spent uranium has been in a pool for at least five years (considerably longer than most fuel is productive as an energy source inside the reactor), fuel rods are deemed cool enough to be moved to dry casks. Dry casks are sealed steel cylinders filled with spent fuel and inert gas, which are themselves encased in another layer of steel and concrete. These massive fuel “coffins” are then placed outside, spaced on concrete pads, so that air can circulate and continue to disperse heat.

While the long-term safety of dry casks is still in question, the fact that they require no active cooling system gives them an advantage, in the eyes of many experts, over pool storage. As if to highlight that difference, spent fuel pools at Fukushima Daiichi have posed some of the greatest challenges since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, whereas, to date, no quake or flood-related problems have been reported with any of Japan’s dry casks. The disparity was so obvious, that the NRC’s own staff review actually added a proposal to the post-Fukushima taskforce report, recommending that US plants take more fuel out of spent fuel pools and move it to dry casks. (A year-and-a-half later, however, there is still no regulation–or even a draft–requiring such a move.)

But current dry cask storage poses its own set of problems. Moving fuel rods from pools to casks is slow and costly–about $1.5 million per cask, or roughly $7 billion to move all of the nation’s spent fuel (a process, it is estimated, that would take no less than five to ten years). That is expensive enough to have many nuclear plant operators lobbying overtime to avoid doing it.

Further, though not as seemingly vulnerable as fuel pools, dry casks are not impervious to natural disaster. In 2011, a moderate earthquake centered about 20 miles from the North Anna, Virginia, nuclear plant caused most of its vertical dry casks–each weighing 115 tons–to shift, some by more than four inches. The facility’s horizontal casks didn’t move, but some showed what was termed “cosmetic damage.”

Dry casks at Michigan’s Palisades plant sit on a pad atop a sand dune just 100 yards from Lake Michigan. An earthquake there could plunge the casks into the water. And the casks at Palisades are so poorly designed and maintained, submersion could result in water contacting the fuel, contaminating the lake and possibly triggering a nuclear chain reaction.

And though each cask contains far less fissile material than one spent fuel pool, casks are still considered possible targets for terrorism. A TOW anti-tank missile would breach even the best dry cask (PDF), and with 25 percent of the nation’s spent fuel now stored in hundreds of casks across the country, all above ground, it provides a rich target environment.

Confidence game

Two months after the Appeals Court found fault with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s imaginary waste mitigation scenario, the NRC announced it would suspend the issuing of new reactor operating licenses, license renewals and construction licenses until the agency could craft a new plan for dealing with the nation’s growing spent nuclear fuel crisis. In drafting its new nuclear “Waste Confidence Decision” (NWCD)–the methodology used to assess the hazards of nuclear waste storage–the Commission said it would evaluate all possible options for resolving the issue.

At first, the NRC said this could include both generic and site-specific actions (remember, the court criticized the NRC’s generic appraisals of pool safety), but as the prescribed process now progresses, it appears any new rule will be designed to give the agency, and so, the industry, as much wiggle room as possible. At a public hearing in November, and later at a pair of web conferences in early December, the regulator’s Waste Confidence Directorate (yes, that’s what it is called) outlined three scenarios (PDF) for any future rulemaking:

  • Storage until a repository becomes available at the middle of the century
  • Storage until a repository becomes available at the end of the century
  • Continued storage in the event a repository is not available

And while, given the current state of affairs, the first option seems optimistic, the fact that their best scenario now projects a repository to be ready by about 2050 is a story in itself.

When the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was signed into law by President Reagan early in 1983, it was expected the process it set in motion would present at least one (and preferably another) long-term repository by the late 1990s. But by the time the “Screw Nevada Bill” (as it is affectionately known in the Silver State) locked in Yucca Mountain as the only option for permanent nuclear waste storage, the projected opening was pushed back to 2007.

But Yucca encountered problems from its earliest days, so a mid-’90s revision of the timeline postponed the official start, this time to 2010. By 2006, the Department of Energy was pegging Yucca’s opening at 2017. And, when the NWPA was again revised in 2010–after Yucca was deemed a non-option–it conveniently avoided setting a date for the opening of a national long-term waste repository altogether.

It was that 2010 revision that was thrown out by the courts in June.

“Interim storage” and “likely reactors”

So, the waste panel now has three scenarios–but what are the underlying assumptions for those scenarios? Not, obviously, any particular site for a centralized, permanent home for the nation’s nuclear garbage–no new site has been chosen, and it can’t even be said there is an active process at work that will choose one.

There are the recommendations of a Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) convened by the president after Yucca Mountain was off the table. Most notable there, was a recommendation for interim waste storage, consolidated at a handful of locations across the country. But consolidated intermediate waste storage has its own difficulties, not the least of which is that no sites have yet been chosen for any such endeavor. (In fact, plans for the Skull Valley repository, thought to be the interim facility closest to approval, were abandoned by its sponsors just days before Christmas.)

Just-retired New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman (D), the last chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, tried to turn the BRC recommendations into law. When he introduced his bill in August, however, he had to do so without any cosponsors. Hearings on the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2012 were held in September, but the gavel came down on the 112th Congress without any further action.

In spite of the underdeveloped state of intermediate storage, however, when the waste confidence panel was questioned on the possibility, interim waste repositories seemed to emerge, almost on the fly, as an integral part of any revised waste policy rule.

“Will any of your scenarios include interim centralized above-ground storage?” we asked during the last public session. Paul Michalak, who heads the Environmental Impact Statement branch of the Waste Confidence Directorate, first said temporary sites would be considered in the second and third options. Then, after a short pause, Mr. Michalak added (PDF p40), “First one, too. All right. Right. That’s right. So we’re considering an interim consolidated storage facility [in] all three scenarios.”

The lack of certainty on any site or sites is, however, not the only fuzzy part of the picture. As mentioned earlier, the amount of high-level radioactive waste currently on hand in the US and in need of a final resting place is upwards of 70,000 tons–already at the amount that was set as the initial limit for the Yucca Mountain repository. Given that there are still over 100 domestic commercial nuclear reactors more or less in operation, producing something like an additional 2,000 tons of spent fuel every year, what happens to the Waste Confidence Directorate’s scenarios as the years and waste pile up? How much waste were regulators projecting they would have to deal with–how much spent fuel would a waste confidence decision assume the system could confidently handle?

There was initial confusion on what amount of waste–and at what point in time–was informing the process. Pressed for clarification on the last day of hearings, NRC officials finally posited that it was assumed there would be 150,000 metric tons of spent fuel–all deriving from the commercial reactor fleet–by 2050. By the end of the century, the NRC expects to face a mountain of waste weighing 270,000 metric tons (PDF pp38-41) (though this figure was perplexingly termed both a “conservative number” and an “overestimate”).

How did the panel arrive at these numbers? Were they assuming all 104 (soon to be 103–Wisconsin’s Kewaunee Power Station will shut down by mid-2013 for reasons its owner, Dominion Resources, says are based “purely on economics”) commercial reactors nominally in operation would continue to function for that entire time frame–even though many are nearing the end of their design life and none are licensed to continue operation beyond the 2030s? Were they counting reactors like those at San Onofre, which have been offline for almost a year, and are not expected to restart anytime soon? Or the troubled reactors at Ft. Calhoun in Nebraska and Florida’s Crystal River? Neither facility has been functional in recent years, and both have many hurdles to overcome if they are ever to produce power again. Were they factoring in the projected AP1000 reactors in the early stages of construction in Georgia, or the ones slated for South Carolina? Did the NRC expect more or fewer reactors generating waste over the course of the next 88 years?

The response: waste estimates include all existing facilities, plus “likely reactors”–but the NRC cannot say exactly how many reactors that is (PDF p41).

Jamming it through

Answers like those from the Waste Confidence Directorate do not inspire (pardon the expression) confidence for a country looking at a mountain of eternally toxic waste. Just what would the waste confidence decision (and the environmental impact survey that should result from it) actually cover? What would it mandate, and what would change as a result?

How long is it? Does this NRC chart provide a justification for the narrow scope of the waste confidence process? (US Nuclear Regulatory PDF, p12)

How long is it? Does this NRC chart provide a justification for the narrow scope of the waste confidence process? (US Nuclear Regulatory PDF, p12)

In past relicensing hearings–where the public could comment on proposed license extensions on plants already reaching the end of their 40-year design life–objections based on the mounting waste problem and already packed spent fuel pools were waived off by the NRC, which referenced the waste confidence decision as the basis of its rationale. Yet, when discussing the parameters of the process for the latest, court-ordered revision to the NWCD, Dr. Keith McConnell, Director of the Waste Confidence Directorate, asserted that waste confidence was not connected to the site-specific licensed life of operations (PDF p42), but only to a period defined as “Post-Licensed Life Storage” (which appears, if a chart in the directorate’s presentation (PDF p12) is to be taken literally, to extend from 60 years after the initial creation of waste, to 120 years–at which point a phase labeled “Disposal” begins). Issues of spent fuel pool and dry cask safety are the concerns of a specific plant’s relicensing process, said regulators in the latest hearings.

“It’s like dealing with the Mad Hatter,” commented Kevin Kamps, a radioactive waste specialist for industry watchdog Beyond Nuclear. “Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today.”

The edict originated with the White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, but it is all too appropriate–and no less maddening–when trying to motivate meaningful change at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC has used the nuclear waste confidence decision in licensing inquiries, but in these latest scoping hearings, we are told the NWCD does not apply to on-site waste storage. The Appeals Court criticized the lack of site-specificity in the waste storage rules, but the directorate says they are now only working on a generic guideline. The court disapproved of the NRC’s continued relicensing of nuclear facilities based on the assumption of a long-term geologic repository that in reality did not exist–and the NRC said it was suspending licensing pending a new rule–but now regulators say they don’t anticipate the denial or even the delay of any reactor license application while they await the new waste confidence decision (PDF pp49-50).

In fact, the NRC has continued the review process on pending applications, even though there is now no working NWCD–something deemed essential by the courts–against which to evaluate new licenses.

The period for public comment on the scope of the waste confidence decision ended January 2, and no more scoping hearings are planned. There will be other periods for civic involvement–during the environmental impact survey and rulemaking phases–but, with each step, the areas open to input diminish. And the current schedule has the entire process greatly accelerated over previous revisions.

On January 3, a coalition of 24 grassroots environmental groups filed documents with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (PDF) protesting “the ‘hurry up’ two-year timeframe” for this assessment, noting the time allotted for environmental review falls far short of the 2019 estimate set by the NRC’s own technical staff. The coalition observed that two years was also not enough time to integrate post-Fukushima recommendations, and that the NRC was narrowing the scope of the decision–ignoring specific instructions from the Appeals Court–in order to accelerate the drafting of a new waste storage rule.

Speed might seem a valuable asset if the NRC were shepherding a Manhattan Project-style push for a solution to the ever-growing waste problem–the one that began with the original Manhattan Project–but that is not what is at work here. Instead, the NRC, under court order, is trying to set the rules for determining the risk of all that high-level radioactive waste if there is no new, feasible solution. The NRC is looking for a way to permit the continued operation of the US nuclear fleet–and so the continued manufacture of nuclear waste–without an answer to the bigger, pressing question.

A plan called HOSS

While there is much to debate about what a true permanent solution to the nuclear waste problem might look like, there is little question that the status quo is unacceptable. Spent fuel pools were never intended to be used as they are now used–re-racked and densely packed with over a generation of fuel assemblies. Both the short- and long-term safety and security of the pools has now been questioned by the courts and laid bare by reality. Pools at numerous US facilities have leaked radioactive waste (PDF) into rivers, groundwater and soil. Sudden “drain downs” have come perilously close to triggering major accidents in plants shockingly close to major population centers. Recent hurricanes have knocked out power to cooling systems and flooded backup generators, and last fall’s superstorm came within inches of overwhelming the coolant intake structure at Oyster Creek in New Jersey.

The crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi facility was so dangerous and remains dangerous to this day in part because of the large amounts of spent fuel stored in pools next to the reactors but outside of containment–a design identical to 35 US nuclear reactors. A number of these GE Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactors–such as Oyster Creek and Vermont Yankee–have more spent fuel packed into their individual pools than all the waste in Fukushima Daiichi Units 1, 2, 3, and 4 combined.

Dry casks, the obvious next “less-bad” option for high-level radioactive waste, were also not supposed to be a permanent panacea. The design requirements and manufacturing regulations of casks–especially the earliest generations–do not guarantee their reliability anywhere near the 100 to 300 years now being casually tossed around by NRC officials. Some of the nation’s older dry casks (which in this case means 15 to 25 years) have already shown seal failures and structural wear (PDF). Yet, the government does not require direct monitoring of casks for excessive heat or radioactive leaks–only periodic “walkthroughs.”

Add in the reluctance of plant operators to spend money on dry cask transfer and the lack of any workable plan to quickly remove radioactive fuel from failed casks, and dry cask storage also appears to fail to attain any court-ordered level of confidence.

Interim plans, such as regional consolidated above-ground storage, remain just that–plans. There are no sites selected and no designs for such a facility up for public scrutiny. What is readily apparent, though, is that the frequent transport of nuclear waste increases the risk of nuclear accidents. There does not, as of now, exist a transfer container that is wholly leak proof, accident proof, and impervious to terrorist attack. Moving high-level radioactive waste across the nation’s highways, rail lines and waterways has raised fears of “Mobile Chernobyls” and “Floating Fukushimas.”

More troubling still, if past (and present) is prologue, is the tendency of options designed as “interim” to morph into a default “permanent.” Can the nation afford to kick the can once more, spending tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars on a “solution” that will only add a collection of new challenges to the existing roster of problems? What will the interim facilities become beyond the next problem, the next site for costly mountains of poorly stored, dangerous waste?

Hardened: The more robust HOSS option as proposed in 2003. (From "Robust Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel: A Neglected Issue of Homeland Security" courtesy of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service)

Hardened: The more robust HOSS option as proposed in 2003. (From “Robust Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel: A Neglected Issue of Homeland Security” courtesy of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service)

If there is an interim option favored by many nuclear experts, engineers and environmentalists (PDF), it is something called HOSS–Hardened On-Site Storage (PDF). HOSS is a version of dry cask storage that is designed and manufactured to last longer, is better protected against leaks and better shielded from potential attacks. Proposals (PDF) involve steel, concrete and earthen barriers incorporating proper ventilation and direct monitoring for heat and radiation.

But not all reactor sites are good candidates for HOSS. Some are too close to rivers that regularly flood, some are vulnerable to the rising seas and increasingly severe storms brought on by climate change, and others are close to active geologic fault zones. For facilities where hardened on-site storage would be an option, nuclear operators will no doubt fight the requirements because of the increased costs above and beyond the price of standard dry cask storage, which most plant owners already try to avoid or delay.

The first rule of holes

Mixed messages: A simple stone marker in Red Gate Woods, just outside Chicago, tries to both warn and reassure visitors to this public park. (Photo: Kevin Kamps, Beyond Nuclear. Used by permission.)

Mixed messages: A simple stone marker in Red Gate Woods, just outside Chicago, tries to both warn and reassure visitors to this public park. (Photo: Kevin Kamps, Beyond Nuclear. Used by permission.)

In a wooded park just outside Chicago sits a dirt mound, near a bike path, that contains parts of the still-highly radioactive remains of CP-1, the world’s first atomic pile. Seven decades after that nuclear fuel was first buried, many health experts would not recommend that spot (PDF) for a long, languorous picnic, nor would they recommend drinking from nearby water fountains. To look at it in terms Arthur Compton might favor, when it comes to the products of nuclear chain reactions, the natives are restless. . . and will remain so for millennia to come.

One can perhaps forgive those working in the pressure cooker of the Manhattan Project and in the middle of a world war for ignoring the forest for the trees–for not considering waste disposal while pursuing a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Perhaps. But, as the burial mound in Red Gate Woods reminds us, ignoring a problem does not make it go away.

And if that small pile, or the mountains of spent fuel precariously stored around the nation are not enough of a prompt, the roughly $960 million that the federal government has had to pay private nuclear operators should be. For every year that the Department of Energy does not provide a permanent waste repository–or at least some option that takes the burden of storing spent nuclear fuel off the hands (and off the books) of power companies–the government is obligated to reimburse the industry for the costs of onsite waste storage. By 2020, it is estimated that $11 billion in public money will have been transferred into the pockets of private nuclear companies. By law, these payments cannot be drawn from the ratepayer-fed fund that is earmarked for a permanent geologic repository, and so, these liabilities must be paid out of the federal budget. Legal fees for defending the DoE against these claims will add another 20 to 30 percent to settlement costs.

The Federal Appeals Court, too, has sent a clear message that the buck needs to stop somewhere at some point–and that such a time and place should be both explicit and realistic. The nuclear waste confidence scoping process, however, is already giving the impression that the NRC’s next move will be generic and improbable.

The late, great Texas journalist Molly Ivins once remarked, “The first rule of holes” is “when you’re in one, stop digging.” For high-level radioactive waste, that hole is now a mountain, over 70 years in the making and over 70,000 tons high. If the history of the atomic age is not evidence enough, the implications of the waste confidence decision process put the current crisis in stark relief. There is, right now, no good option for dealing with the nuclear detritus currently on hand, and there is not even a plan to develop a good option in the near future. Without a way to safely store the mountain of waste already created, under what rationale can a responsible government permit the manufacture of so much more?

The federal government spends billions to perpetuate and protect the nuclear industry–and plans to spend billions more to expand the number of commercial reactors. Dozens of facilities already are past, or are fast approaching, the end of their design lives, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to reject any request for an operating license extension–and it is poised to approve many more, nuclear waste confidence decision not withstanding. Plant operators continue to balk at any additional regulations that would require better waste management.

The lesson of the first 70 years of fission is that we cannot endure more of the same. The government–from the DoE to the NRC–should reorient its priorities from creating more nuclear waste to safely and securely containing what is now here. Money slated for subsidizing current reactors and building new ones would be better spent on shuttering aging plants, designing better storage options for their waste, modernizing the electrical grid, and developing sustainable energy alternatives. (And reducing demand through conservation programs should always be part of the conversation.)

Enrico Fermi might not have foreseen (or cared about) the mountain of waste that began with his first atomic pile, but current scientists, regulators and elected officials have the benefit of hindsight. If the first rule of holes says stop digging, then the dictum here should be that when you’re trying to summit a mountain, you don’t keep shoveling more garbage on top.

A version of this story previously appeared on Truthout; no version may be reprinted without permission.

NRC Halts License Approvals Pending New Guidelines on Nuclear Waste

A nuclear spent fuel pool. (photo: NRCgov)

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced Tuesday it would suspend the issuing of new reactor operating licenses, license renewals and construction licenses until the agency crafted a plan for dealing with the nation’s growing spent nuclear fuel crisis. The action comes in response to a June ruling by the US Court of Appeals that found the NRC’s “Waste Confidence Decision”–the methodology used to evaluate the dangers of nuclear waste storage–was wholly inadequate and posed a danger to public health and the environment.

Prior to the court’s ruling, the Commission had evaluated licensing and relicensing with the assumption that spent fuel–currently stored on site at nuclear power plants in pools and dry casks–would soon be moved to a central long-term waste repository. As previously noted, that option was once thought to be Yucca Mountain, but after years of preliminary work and tens of millions of dollars wasted, Yucca was found to be a poor choice, and the Obama Department of Energy and the NRC ended the project. The confirmation of new NRC Chair Allison Macfarlane–considered a nuclear waste expert and on record as a Yucca Mountain critic–focused even more attention on the country’s lack of realistic plans for safe, permanent waste storage.

The release from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission [PDF] put it this way:

Waste confidence undergirds certain agency licensing decisions, in particular new reactor licensing and reactor license renewal.

Because of the recent court ruling striking down our current waste confidence provisions, we are now considering all available options for resolving the waste confidence issue, which could include generic or site-specific NRC actions, or some combination of both. We have not yet determined a course of action.

In recognition of our duties under the law, we will not issue licenses dependent upon the Waste Confidence Decision or the Temporary Storage Rule until the court’s remand is appropriately addressed.

What this means in real terms remains to be seen. No licenses or renewals were thought imminent. Next up were likely a decision on extending the life of Indian Point, a short drive north of New York City, and a Construction and Operation License for Florida’s Levy County project, but neither was expected before sometime next year. Officially, 19 final reactor decisions are now on hold, though the NRC stressed that “all licensing reviews and proceedings should continue to move forward.”

Still, this should be read as a victory for the originators of the suit that resulted in the June ruling–the Attorneys General of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Vermont in coordination with the Prairie Island Indian Community of Minnesota and environmental groups represented by the National Resources Defense Council–and most certainly for the millions of Americans that live close to nuclear plants and their large, overstuffed, under-regulated pools of dangerous nuclear waste. Complainants not only won the freeze on licensing, the NRC guaranteed that any new generic waste rule would be open to public comment and environmental assessment or environmental impact studies, and that site-specific cases would be subject to a minimum 60-day consideration period.

While there is still plenty of gray area in that guarantee, the NRC has (under pressure) made the process more transparent than most similar dealings at the agency. The commission has also, at least for the moment, formally acknowledged that the nation’s nuclear reactor fleet faces a very pressing problem.

The US has 72,000 tons of radioactive waste and generates an additional 2,000 tons every year. Spent fuel pools at individual sites are already so full they pose numerous threats, some eerily similar to the ongoing disaster at Fukushima. Dry cask storage poses other problems and much additional expense. And regional interim waste storage facilities, an idea possibly favored by Macfarlane, is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that no sites have yet been designated or built.

But nuclear plant operators, already burdened by the spiraling costs of a poorly maintained and aging inventory, are desperate to have the federal government take the waste problem off their backs–and off their books. Whether that is even technically feasible, let alone politically of fiscally possible, remains to be seen. But the NRC has at least recognized–or at least been forced to recognize–that the nuclear industry should not be allowed to create waste indefinitely without a plan to safely secure what is already on hand.

Does the Netroots Care about Nuclear Power?

Van Jones speaking to the faithful at this year’s Netroots Nation conference in Providence, RI – June 9, 2012.

On Thursday, June 7, as hundreds of online journalists and activists gathered in Providence, Rhode Island for the seventh annual Netroots Nation conference to discuss what were deemed the most pressing issues of the day, a smaller group made up of nuclear industry representatives and officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the US Department of Energy got together 400 miles south to discuss matters they thought even more urgent. While the attendees in the Ocean State were getting training on “how to navigate the action-packed schedule at Netroots Nation [and] survive on two hours sleep (and still be alert for a day of panels!),” owners of the nation’s aging nuclear facilities pursued doubling the length of new operating licenses, floating the possibility that reactors will be allowed to run into their 80th year–twice the original design life of most plants.

As bloggers, organizers, pundits and politicians were discovering the charms of the Beehive of Industry (yes, that is one of Providence’s nicknames), inspectors at Davis-Besse, the oft-discussed, always troubled nuclear power plant near Toledo, Ohio were reporting what they termed a “pinhole” leak releasing about a gallon of radioactive coolant every 10 minutes. The reactor had been shut down for refueling, maintenance and safety inspections, but was supposed to restart last week. . . before the leak was discovered in a pipe weld. (Though the reason behind the leak has yet to be determined, FirstEnergy, Davis-Besse’s owner, has now resumed the restart. . . without so much as a raised eyebrow from regulators.)

This incident at Davis-Besse comes not so very long after the Ohio primary, where the safety of the plant and trustworthiness of its owners and regulators was an issue in the race between two sitting Democratic members of Congress–Representatives Dennis Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur. Forced to run against each other because of redistricting, the plight of Davis-Besse became a defining issue between the two, with Kucinich calling for the plant to remain off-line until the cause of cracks in the containment structure was determined, while Kaptur affirmed her faith in FirstEnergy. Kaptur argued that the failing facility meant jobs for the struggling district–a district that was drawn to favor Kaptur’s old base–and in the end, beat Kucinich for the Democratic nod.

Following this latest breach in safety, Representative-for-another-six-months Kucinich has petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Inspector General (PDF) for an investigation into the NRC’s lax supervision of Davis-Besse.

As the netroots community and representatives of organized labor pondered in Providence whither the union movement in the wake of the Wisconsin recall results, 250 actual union workers, locked out of their jobs at Massachusetts Pilgrim nuclear plant (a short drive from the Rhode Island Convention Center), some for as long as 10 weeks, were filing a five-point grievance with the National Labor Relations Board. The union accused Pilgrim’s operator, Entergy, of coercive and threatening behavior leading up to a June 2 vote on a new labor contract. The workers overwhelmingly rejected the contract a week after the NRC granted Entergy a 20-year license extension for the plant–and 10 days after Pilgrim had to scram because of reduced vacuum in the plant’s condenser.

That there would be problems at a plant where replacement workers have been complaining that they are being asked to do jobs outside their expertise hardly seems surprising. That an ongoing labor action, safety concerns and licensing fight happening just two counties away from Providence would not be an issue at the Netroots Nation convention is a bit more vexing.

While conventioneers in Providence listened to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman explain his relative lack of action on the foreclosure fraud crisis as somehow part of what he called a “transformational moment,” members of Pilgrim Watch, a citizen’s group opposed to the Massachusetts nuclear plant, were in court demanding that regulators do more to require post-Fukushima lessons learned be incorporated in required upgrades to Pilgrim’s GE Mark I boiling water reactor (the exact same design as those at Fukushima Daiichi). Activist groups have mounted similar (and additional) legal challenges to the relicensing of Vermont Yankee, another ancient Mark I reactor well into its break-down phase. And in New York, public activism mounts as the Indian Point reactors approach their relicensing hearing.

In fact, Friday, as Netroots Nation attendees wondered why there was a 90-minute gap in the midday schedule (word is conference organizers were hoping to bag the president or vice president as a lunchtime keynote, and the extra time was allotted for additional security. In case you missed it, the closest the conference got to any high-level White House official was a new campaign video, introduced on tape by Obama), the DC Court of Appeals handed down an important decision that could have broad implications for the future of domestic commercial nuclear power. A three-judge panel unanimously ruled that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was negligent in the way it evaluated plant safety because regulators assumed a solution to the country’s long-term radioactive waste storage crisis when none currently exists.

If you were watching your twitter feed, you might have caught this. If you were sitting in on any of Friday afternoon’s Netroots panels, this ruling probably didn’t come up.

Indeed, throughout the three-plus days of panels, training sessions, caucuses and keynotes, attendees quite likely heard no mention of nuclear power, its persistent threats to safety, its drastic drain on the budget, its onerous oppression of workers or its brazen gouging of rate-payers. For, while there were well over 100 panels, and dozens of other training sessions and caucuses, nothing on the schedule even made a passing attempt to address nuclear energy here in the United States or the ongoing (and growing) crisis of radioactive contamination from Fukushima spreading across the globe.

It would be one thing if this were purely fodder for wonks and science geeks, but as demonstrated above, and in over a year’s worth of columns, nuclear power touches on many (if not most) of the issues considered to be core concerns of the netroots movement. Corporate greed, captured government, worker rights, environmental justice, and a lazy legacy media–its all part and parcel of the nuclear narrative.

And it might not be worth a few precious hours of conference schedule if the fight against nuclear power and its acolytes were a lost cause, but in this post-Fukushima moment (and, yes, we are still in it), the country and the world stand at a crossroads. While the US government seems hell-bent on backstopping a failing, flailing industry, other countries are using this crisis to step back from the next potential nuclear nightmare and commit to a cleaner, renewable energy future. Meanwhile, here in the United States, engaged communities of activists and concerned citizens are organizing to fight on the local level for the protections their federal government has failed to deliver.

The appeals court decision on Friday is a monument, really, to the years of hard work put in by individuals and organizations across the country–and it is a monumental opportunity to learn from this success and build the future of the anti-nuclear movement.

It is a movement that could benefit greatly from the online organizing tools that have breathed so much life into the netroots, but the netroots, too, could learn a few things from the anti-nuclear movement. Providence, with its physical proximity to Pilgrim, and its temporal proximity to so many developments on the nuclear front, would have seemed like a golden opportunity. But the organizers of Netroots Nation appeared to have other priorities.

While the good folks at NIRS–the Nuclear Information and Resource Service–where awarded a booth in the exhibition hall at the Providence convention center, veterans of the conference know there is quite a different level of engagement when it comes to the booths, versus what happens at panels and speeches. (This is to take nothing away from NIRS, which had a table filled with great information, much of which can also be found on their website.)

Fired up?

Some noise was made, quite publicly, as a matter of fact, about this year’s Netroots convention being friendlier to the Obama administration. “I think people are generally on board [with Obama's reelection effort],” said Raven Brooks, the executive director of Netroots, as he explained to Talking Points Memo that this year’s convention would be relatively free of the confrontation that met White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer at the 2011 conference.

“People are fired up about 2012,” said Mary Rickles, who is communications director for Netroots, noting in the same TPM article that she expected an administration presence at this year’s conference. (Again, unless you count Schneiderman, there was none.)

Inside the convention center, Van Jones–briefly part of the Obama administration until driven out by a rightwing witch-hunt, and cofounder of Rebuild the Dream–headlined the last night of speeches. Jones, himself a longtime advocate for renewable energy, instead turned to a theme he has hit often in recent years: that while some might be disappointed with the pace of progress, in the end, it is not Obama’s failing, it is ours. But this time, it being an election year, and everyone thusly “fired up,” Jones put it this way: “We have two tasks: to re-elect the president and re-energize the movement to hold the president accountable.”

Quoting Jones in an email announcing next year’s convention, Brooks underscored the point:

After November has come and gone, our job of pushing for the strongest possible progressive policies will begin in earnest. In short, we’ve got to step up our game.

Inspiring thoughts, perhaps, but ones completely contrary to the way electoral politics has worked in this country about as far back as anyone can remember. Making demands of office-seekers after you’ve pledged your vote is not just cart-before-the-horse, it’s asinine and ass-backwards.

The netroots played a roll in the election of Barack Obama in 2008, though in the eyes of the now-POTUS, not an overly large one. After the election, Team Obama moved quickly to rein in the less-predictable elements of its grassroots campaign while one-by-one riding roughshod over most of the issues that mattered to left-leaning bloggers and online activists. Previous NetNat attendees had a right to boo Obama surrogates, and the folks charged with re-electing the president should be taught to fear that wrath–if not through activism, at least by way of apathy.

Mitt Romney would no doubt make a dismal president–but that is not the point. This election will be decided by turnout, and the Obama campaign will need to motivate parts of his base such as the netroots with reasons to get out and vote for his second term. If online activists want something from Obama in return for going to the polls, the time to demand that, the time to get that on paper–or in pixels–is before election day, not after.

After, Obama doesn’t need you anymore. It’s called a lame duck term for many reasons, but one of them is that the president can easily duck any kind of obligation some might feel he should have to his blandly loyal netizens.

Which brings us back to nuclear power and Netroots Nation. It is not a secret that one of Obama’s great benefactors in past elections has been Exelon, the nuclear giant that not only gave heavily to the 2008 campaign, but once employed both former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, once a senior Obama advisor and now Communications Director for his 2012 campaign. Obama’s steadfast support for nuclear power–making the point, not once, but twice, in the first weeks after the Fukushima crisis began, to publicly assure that the US commitment to nuclear was strong–now puts him at odds with many countries in the industrialized world, but, more important here, it has always put him at odds with many in the online progressive community. It would be sad to think that conference organizers decided against any anti-nuclear content in an effort to keep this year’s Netroots Nation “onboard” with and “fired up” about a possible administration presence.

But it would be even sadder to think that the fault lies not in these self-anointed stars, but in ourselves. While chances are if you are reading this you have at least some degree of interest in nuclear issues, is it possible that what once was called the “blogosphere” (but now should be considered something more) does not see nuclear power, the looming environmental catastrophe and financial sinkhole it presents, as relevant? Is it that the almighty and always invisible atom is just not as juicy as, say, fracking, or anything with the word “occupy” in it?

That would be a shame–and a mistake–for it is all part of a piece. The work of occupiers across this country over the last year is to be applauded, but some of the things central to the protests, a broken system, a captured government filthy with corporate cash, are central to the fight against nuclear power, as well. And while hydrofracking represents a tremendous threat to our water supply and our climate, and so should be protested full bore, its current profitability might make it less sensitive to activism than nuclear power at this point in its history.

Without government support–without the federal loan guarantees, the Price-Anderson indemnity, state and local tax breaks and rate subsidies–the commercial nuclear power industry would collapse. There would be few demands for license renewals because few plants would turn a profit.

And without a government-run long-term waste repository, the nuclear industry faces even more safety and financial concerns. The lack of storage options is actually a crisis for nuclear operators–and a threat to the safety of a majority of Americans. What this country does with its atomic waste has always been a political issue, too–and it has played out on the political stage throughout this past year. It is an issue that is very sensitive to old-time, easy to grasp, electoral politics, and so it is one sensitive to the newfangled tools of internet organizing.

So, between environmentalists and budget wonks, between regulatory hawks and electoral junkies, and between old-line environmental activists and 21st Century online organizers there is much to discuss. Let’s hope that no matter who is running for whatever office next year, the netroots, and the Netroots Nation conference, find the time and space–and the political will–to engage the dirty, dangerous and expensive threat of nuclear power.

*  *  *

[Full disclosure: I had submitted a panel proposal for the 2012 Netroots Nation conference, and though it was given consideration and, I am told, was in the running till the end, it was not included in the final schedule. The panel was to be called "Clean, Safe, and Too Cheap to Meter? Countering Nuclear's Lies in a Post-Fukushima Landscape," and while I was disappointed at not having this opportunity, the far bigger concern for me was that conference organizers chose not to include any sessions on nuclear issues at all. One year's personal slight is not really a big deal; ignoring the obvious and broad importance of this topic, however, signals a bigger problem.]

Power Play: Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Jaczko Resigns after Push by Industry

Outgoing NRC Chmn. Jaczko testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last year.

The Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, submitted his resignation Monday morning. Chairman Jaczko, a former aid to Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) and Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) who holds a PhD in particle physics, was originally appointed to the NRC in 2005, and elevated to chairman in 2009. Jaczko said he will relinquish his post upon confirmation of a replacement.

Jaczko’s announcement is hard to separate from pressing questions about the safety of commercial nuclear power in the United States–especially in the context of the ongoing crisis in Japan–the debate over the future of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, signs of shifting power dynamics in Washington, and, perhaps most importantly, the influence of wealthy and well-connected private industry on public policy.

As has been discussed here before, Greg Jaczko has been at the center of an orchestrated controversy for much of the last year, with nuclear industry lobbyists, Republican members of Congress, and other NRC commissioners pressing for the chairman’s ouster. Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), head of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has been an especially dogged critic of Jaczko, holding hours of hearings and serving as the driving force behind two inspector general reports on the allegedly hostile workplace environment at the NRC.

Issa, it must be noted, represents a district that includes the extremely troubled San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). The plant is currently offline as regulators try to determine the root causes of radiation leaks and rapid degradation of copper tubing used to move radioactive steam in and out of the reactors. The Orange County Republican has received copious campaign contributions from the companies that operate and maintain San Onofre.

Issa called hearings (while calling for Jaczko’s head) last year after the four other commissioners made public their letter to the White House complaining about Jaczko’s managerial style. The complaint revolved around a handful of issues that help explain the apparent urgency behind the anti-Jaczko putsch.

First, critics were upset about the way that Jaczko helped end work on the Yucca Mountain nuclear storage site. Yucca had proven problematic for a number of reasons–environmental, economic, security, and social–and had long been the target of Nevada politicians (most notably, Senate Majority Leader Reid), who felt their state had been dealt with unfairly in the original selection process.

The Obama administration had seemed to agree, and had the Department of Energy withdraw a request for the licensing of Yucca Mountain. In addition, very little money remained in Yucca’s budget, and no more has been approved.

But the nuclear industry desperately needs an answer to the problem (crisis, really) of long-term nuclear waste storage, and Yucca Mountain is the only site that has even been started. (It is nowhere near finished.) Without a place to move “spent” fuel and the other dangerous detritus of the process, nuclear power cannot realistically expand the number of rectors in the US, nor can it long continue to maintain and refuel those already in operation.

The nuclear industry, through its proxies in Congress and on the NRC, has complained that Jaczko didn’t allow advocates for Yucca to perpetuate the process. Most recently, a fight went public when President Obama nominated NRC Commissioner Kristine Svinicki for another term over the vocal objections of Senator Reid and his colleague Barbara Boxer (D-CA). Of special contention, the role Svinicki played in drafting the documents that called for the construction of the Yucca repository.

Second, the dissenting NRC commissioners complained that Jaczko used his emergency powers as chairman to guide US policy in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that caused a triple-meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility. Complainants seem especially upset that Jaczko recommended evacuation of American citizens from a 50-mile radius around the crippled nuclear plant–a call he made with the support of NRC experts and in coordination with the State Department. Radioactive contamination from Fukushima has, of course, been found across Japan, even beyond the 50-mile limit. (In the US, 65 percent of the population lives within 50 miles of a nuclear plant, and late in December, federal regulators moved to scale back requirements for evacuations and emergency drills around commercial reactors.)

In the wake of the initial accident, Jaczko sought recommendations for US nuclear safety. The Near-Term Task Force (NTTF) Review of Insights from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Accident produced a collection of basic (and, as discussed here, rather weak) recommendations last summer. Chairman Jaczko tried to start the process of turning those recommendations into rules–a process that could stretch beyond five years–but met objections from each of the other four commissioners. Jaczko also wanted lessons learned from Fukushima included in construction and licensing permits granted to four AP1000 reactors (two to be built in Georgia, two in South Carolina), but the chairman was outvoted four-to-one by his fellow NRC members.

The third (and most often referenced) complaint fired at Jaczko was that he had created a “hostile work environment,” especially for women. Though Svinicki, the only woman on the commission, lamented Jaczko’s tone, the specific “charge” (if it can be called that) was brought by Commissioner William Magwood. Magwood said there were female staffers that Jaczko had brought to tears, though none of those women personally came forward (because, it was said last year, they did not want to relive the humiliation).

The story gained extra prominence when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY; Kentucky, by the way, home to a nuclear waste nightmare called Paducah) attempted to use this alleged incident to disrupt the rising narrative of the Republican “war on women.” McConnell and others from his side of the aisle took to the microphones to denounce the administration’s treatment of whistleblowers and praise the apparently brave and much put-upon Svinicki.

In what seems to be a rare case where the public’s relative lack of interest in nuclear regulation can be called a positive, McConnell’s gambit failed. . .

. . . at least in derailing the “War on Women” story. (It also probably owes much to the GOP actually continuing its war on women.)

But when it came to serving the nuclear industry, McConnell’s contribution to the ouster of Jaczko will likely be rewarded. . . with industry contributions of the monetary kind.

Chairman Jaczko’s resignation comes just before issues of his workplace demeanor would likely again dominate headlines (if, again, any story regarding nuclear regulation can be imagined to dominate this year’s headlines), as a second IG report on the NRC work environment is due next month, and Issa had already promised more hearings. But Jaczko’s announcement would likely not have come without the intervention or, at least, tacit blessing of Senator Reid. As mentioned, Reid has been Jaczko’s best friend on the Hill, and Jaczko has helped Reid and the Obama administration move away from making Nevada the final resting place for a country’s worth of hazardous nuclear waste.

After President Obama defied Reid’s private and public requests, and nominated Kristine Svinicki for another term as NRC commissioner, the Senator had a choice to make–and some political calculations to do.

While, to the nuclear industry, Jaczko represented an insufficiently pliant regulator–be it concerning NTTF recommendations, fire safety rules, or waste storage–to Harry Reid, the NRC chairman is most importantly a staunch opponent of the Yucca project. And Jaczko is the only one of the five NRC commissioners who meets that description. With Jaczko’s public image under attack and his ability to function as chairman challenged by the other commissioners and nuclear-friendly forces in Congress, questions of how much longer he could survive would have continued throughout the year. With that baggage, and with Senator Reid’s Democratic majority and possibly even his leadership position up in the air come November, there seems little chance that Obama would have shown Jaczko the same deference he did Svinicki and offered to nominate him for another term when the chairman’s current one expired in 2013.

As it is custom for NRC commissioners to be nominated in pairs–one from the Democrats, one from the Republicans–to smooth their paths to confirmation, Reid likely looked at Jaczko’s predicament, Svinicki’s nomination, and his own future and saw this as a moment to make some lemonade out of a crate of rotting lemons.

Act now, and Reid would play a prominent role in choosing Jaczko’s replacement–who could theoretically get confirmed alongside Svinicki for a full, five-year term–wait, continue to back Jaczko and fight the administration and the GOP on Svinicki, and the best Reid could hope for is a year of controversy over NRC personnel and an uncertain amount of influence in shaping the future of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Indeed, current reporting is that the White House will move quickly to nominate Jaczko’s replacement (and rumors are it will be a woman), and that the administration is in consultation with Reid to choose someone he will help move through the Senate confirmation process. It is hard to believe Reid will look kindly upon any nominee interested in re-starting the Yucca Mountain process.

. . . timing

It is said that, in life, timing is everything. In politics, money probably keeps timing from cornering the be-all-end-all market, but timing has played a part in the NRC’s saga. As Reid hopes to use this moment to keep his objectives on course, the nuclear industry is trying to desperately to turn back time to an era where the term “nuclear renaissance” wasn’t said with a smirk and a glance eastward toward Japan.

As with Yucca Mountain, where atom-loving electeds and regulators scramble to get the federal government to take their waste–with its risks and expense–off of the nuclear industry’s hands, the threat of new safety rules (and their perceived expense) emerging from the post-Fukushima review also motivated a profit-centric industry to step up their efforts to remake the NRC in their own image.

As noted here in December, Darrell Issa’s public release of the commissioners’ letter complaining about Jaczko was oddly timed:

[T]hough the commissioners’ complaint was written and delivered to the White House in October, it was only made public by Rep. Issa last Friday. A slot usually reserved for news dumps seems like bad timing if Issa and his allies wanted to create a splash, unless you consider that Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) had planned to release a report on Monday showing how NRC commissioners had coordinated with pro-nuclear legislators to slow or stop post-Fukushima safety reforms. Markey’s report (PDF) includes emails revealing commissioner Magwood and staffers for pro-nuclear Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) worked together to discredit Jaczko for taking the lead on the US regulatory response to Fukushima.

And as reported in October, this behavior was not new for Magwood. During his time at the Department of Energy, Magwood held private meetings with top nuclear industry lobbyist Marvin Fertel. In December, Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post detailed–in a scenario eerily similar to what culminated this week–how Magwood and his industry friends worked behind the scenes to oust his superior at DoE.

It also deserves mentioning that between his time in the George W. Bush Energy Department and his appointment to the NRC by President Obama, Magwood formed the consulting firm Advanced Energy Strategies, whose clients included not only TEPCO, the nominal owner of Fukushima Daiichi (until the Japanese government finishes its bailout/buyout), but a veritable who’s who of the Japanese nuclear elite.

As discussed above, Jaczko was the only NRC commissioner who voted to include future post-Fukushima rules in the licensing requirements for new reactors in Georgia and South Carolina. Both those projects are still wanting for full financing, and Georgia’s reactors are already behind schedule and, as revealed recently, nearly $1 billion over budget. The last thing the industry wants to see are demands for pricy safety upgrades or reminders of all that can go wrong at a nuclear plant. Jaczko’s desire for inclusion of Fukushima “lessons learned” held out a threat (however weak) of both.

Weak in review

But it was the rather weak recommendations, the glacial pace of change, and the seemingly futile lone votes against four other commissioners in the nuclear industry’s hip pocket that also helped end Jaczko’s run as NRC chair.

Theoretically, election cycles are when elected officials are most responsive to public pressure, but what part of the public felt particularly compelled to fight on Jaczko’s behalf? As stated during an earlier act in this power play, the nuclear industry and its acolytes were never going to see Jaczko as anything but the enemy, but the chairman’s “moderate” response to the Fukushima moment, along with the continued granting of license extensions to aging nuclear plants, and his oft-repeated statements of faith in the broken regulatory process left Jaczko with no strong allies in the anti-nuclear movement. Between the ongoing Fukushima disaster and the dynamics of an election year, the timing could have been favorable for a regulator bold enough to dare to regulate.

Instead, Chairman Jaczko, who no doubt saw his split-the-middle path as a reasonable one, was left alone to watch as his colleague, Bill Magwood, helped orchestrate a coup, and as his benefactor, Harry Reid, moved to cut his losses. For America, however, losses have not been cut–nuclear power is still a perpetual economic sinkhole and a looming ecological disaster–and no matter how the politicians try to massage the regulatory process, the science that makes nuclear power so untenable remains constant.

Constant, too, is the global trend–most of the industrialized world is turning away from this dirty, dangerous, and exorbitantly expensive way to boil water. Jaczko’s chairmanship of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may be at its dénouement, but that does nothing to magically create a nuclear renaissance. The good and bad news here is that all of nuclear power’s problems are just as real and just as pressing, with or without Greg Jaczko.

The Thing That Couldn’t Die: Yucca Battle Continues in Congress and in the Courts

(low resolution movie poster reproduction via wikipedia)

In the 1958 cult horror classic The Thing That Couldn’t Die, a young lass out water-witching (of all things) discovers a curious and ancient box–one that, whether you follow the conventions of the genre or the entreaties of the film’s internal expert, should obviously remain closed.

But, as these things are wont to go, greed and ambition get the better of a few mere mortals, and the box is breached, revealing the intact–and living!–head of a sorcerer executed hundreds of years earlier. The wayward wizard then uses his telepathic powers to manipulate some of the more foolish, godless humans to unearth the rest of his body so that it might be reunited with the head and realize the full force of its destructive powers.

It is hard not to think of this black and white bubbe meise while reviewing the most recent chapters in the battle over the future of the partially excavated, purportedly moribund Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in southwestern Nevada.

As noted here last month, the life and death of the Yucca project was at the center of a public face off between President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who just happens to hail from–and represent–the Silver State. Although the administration has sided with Reid on cancelling work on Yucca Mountain, Obama’s move to re-appoint Kristine Svinicki to another term on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission–over the vocal objections of the Majority Leader–registered with Yucca watchers like stirrings from the grave. Svinicki, after all, has been a staunch proponent of the Yucca project since she worked at the Department of Energy. . . writing the support documents for the Yucca nuclear waste repository. This week’s official re-nomination of Svinicki by the White House seems to say that rumors of Yucca’s demise are somewhat exaggerated.

Or at least that is what the nuclear industry and its army of lobbyists, captured regulators, and purchased politicians would have you believe.

As Republican members of Congress try to exert pressure on Reid and Senator Barbara Boxer (whose committee has jurisdiction over the NRC) to quickly confirm Svinicki, two states with heaping helpings of nuclear waste have gone to court to make sure that the Yucca repository is kept, if not on track, at least on life support.

Last week, lawyers for South Carolina and Washington State went before a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, arguing that while the government hadn’t allocated any more money for Yucca, there was still some money in the project’s budget, and even though it wasn’t going to get anything anywhere close to finished, the NRC and the Department of Energy were obligated to spend it. Congress had, after all, passed measures designating Nevada as the future home of the country’s high-level radioactive waste, and the law is the law.

The government, in turn, has argued that not only would it be throwing “good money after bad,” since the DoE has withdrawn the licensing request for Yucca Mountain and the White House has not put any funding for completing the facility in the next budget, the roughly $10 million remaining would not be enough to again wrap up the project when no more money is allocated.

The leftover $10 million, it should be noted, is not only a drop in the bucket when compared with the $90 billion projected cost of developing Yucca Mountain or the $10 billion already spent, it is only half the $20 million it cost to fund the project each month it was active.

As previously examined, the nuclear industry desperately needs Yucca Mountain, or some answer to long-term waste storage, if it ever hopes to expand, or, realistically, even continue to operate its existing fleet of antique reactors. Current moves reveal the strategy of atomic energy advocates to try to keep Yucca alive, however tenuously, in expectation that the political climate might change enough to revivify the cash-hungry corpse that is not just the Nevada dump, but the entire US nuclear power industry.

House Republicans–and some Democrats, too–are playing their part. In April, a majority of the House Appropriations Committee concluded that the Obama administration’s moves to shutter Yucca were “counter to the law,” and then they put your money where their mouths were:

The committee bill [provides] DOE with $25 million to work on a solution to storing commercial nuclear waste, but only if it is directed at Yucca Mountain. Also, the bill would bar DOE from spending any funds to eliminate the option of Yucca Mountain as a waste site.

So, you’re saying you want the radioactive waste to go where now?

Interesting little side note: the Appropriations Committee is chaired by Hal Rogers of Kentucky, the state that is home to the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, the nation’s only operating uranium enrichment facility providing fuel for commercial nuclear reactors (oh, and a contaminated, toxic mess). And the Ranking Democrat on the committee (who also supported the Yucca provision) is Norm Dicks, whose great state of Washington is a litigant in the Yucca Mountain lawsuit (described above) and the address of Hanford, the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States.

The Senate, as those who have read this far might have guessed, has a different take on the Yucca line item. California Democrat Dianne Feinstein’s Energy and Water Development Subcommittee didn’t include Yucca Mountain in its appropriations bill. Instead, Feinstein’s language directs the DoE to explore moving nuclear waste to temporary, aboveground storage sites.

Of course, the porous, dank Yucca repository and unstable, vulnerable aboveground casks are both unsuitable solutions to the existing and long-term high-level radioactive waste storage crisis, but with the House in GOP hands and the Senate under Democratic control, the assumption might be that neither option will ever come to fruition. And the assumption might be that the story ends there.

But it doesn’t. Not even temporarily.

Again, the so-called “nuclear renaissance” depends on a place to move the tens of thousands of tons of nuclear waste generated every year. The way it is stored now is expensive, the way it is stored now is dangerous, and, perhaps most urgent to the industry, the way it is stored now is pretty much full. Something has to give.

While some states hit the courts and the House moves to restart Yucca, the president has picked a fight with Harry Reid on what is generally recognized as the Senator’s signature issue. And House Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa (R CA-49, a district that includes the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station) continues to fan the flames under Gregory Jaczko, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman who was once a Reid staffer and has sided with the Senator and the White House (at least as its position was delineated prior to last month) in the battle to close Yucca Mountain.

Should attempts to unseat Jaczko succeed, he will almost certainly be replaced by a commissioner more friendly to the industry and, thus, to the Yucca site. Should the Democrats lose control of the Senate in November, Reid will lose his Majority Leader post, and with that will go the power to control the budget and the fate of Yucca Mountain. But even if the Democrats hold on to a Senate majority, Reid’s position as its leader is not guaranteed, and Obama’s willingness to challenge him on the Svinicki nomination underscores that uncertainty.

And without Reid in power, there is serious question as to how long president Obama would stand by Reid’s protégé Jaczko.

And there is yet another wrinkle–there is actually a second pot of money set aside for development of a radioactive waste storage facility. It is money collected by the nuclear industry in the form of surcharges on electricity consumers’ utility bills. It is estimated to now total about $21 billion (or maybe as high as $29 billion)–again, not enough to finish building the Yucca repository, but more than enough to keep hope alive, as they say.

But if Yucca is not going to be built, then state regulators, in a lawsuit separate from the one previously described, say that the government should stop collecting the surcharge. And Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has introduced legislation to give back to nuclear energy consumers most of the money collected.

It shapes up as a potential win-win for the nuclear industry. On the one hand, it is one more pressure point on the federal government to, shall we say, shit on Nevada or get off the pot–to restart Yucca or lose a good chunk of money needed for any permanent waste facility. On the other hand, if money is refunded, and if future surcharges are cancelled, it is another way to artificially deflate the price of electricity generated by nuclear plants, and another way to hide the true cost of nuclear power.

Hiding the true cost of nuclear power is, of course, essential to perpetuating the myth of a nuclear renaissance–in fact, it is essential to sustaining the industry as it limps along now. The price of long-term high-level waste storage is but one part of the equation–one part almost always ignored by nuclear adherents–but it is a crucial one. The cost of storing waste at the various nuclear power plants is not only noticeable to the industry’s fragile bottom line, the potential dangers inherent in on-site storage are problems plant operators would rather belonged to someone else.

Yucca Mountain would seem the easiest prescription for this headache. One could say the industry needs Yucca to sustain its influence the way the evil sorcerer head needed a body to fully exercise its powers. But unlike the case of the torso-less thaumaturge (spoiler alert!), nuclear waste does not disintegrate when it comes in contact with a crucifix. The roughly 300,000 tons of high-level radioactive garbage that lies scattered across the US will remain deadly dangerous for at least another 100 millennia–and each operating nuclear plant adds to that terrifying total by about 20 tons each year. Without a government-funded waste repository, nuclear power simply could not continue to live–and that is why, to the nuclear industry, Yucca Mountain is something that cannot die.

Fukushima One Year On: Many Revelations, Few Surprises

Satellite image of Fukushima Daiichi showing damage on 3/14/11. (photo: digitalglobe)

One year on, perhaps the most surprising thing about the Fukushima crisis is that nothing is really that surprising. Almost every problem encountered was at some point foreseen, almost everything that went wrong was previously discussed, and almost every system that failed was predicted to fail, sometimes decades earlier. Not all by one person, obviously, not all at one time or in one place, but if there is anything to be gleaned from sorting through the multiple reports now being released to commemorate the first anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami–and the start of the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi–it is that, while there is much still to be learned, we already know what is to be done. . . because we knew it all before the disaster began.

This is not to say that any one person–any plant manager, nuclear worker, TEPCO executive, or government official–had all that knowledge on hand or had all the guaranteed right answers when each moment of decision arose. We know that because the various timelines and reconstructions now make it clear that several individual mistakes were made in the minutes, hours and days following the dual natural disasters. Instead, the analysis a year out teaches us that any honest examination of the history of nuclear power, and any responsible engagement of the numerous red flags and warnings would have taken the Fukushima disasters (yes, plural) out of the realm of “if,” and placed it squarely into the category of “when.”

Following closely the release of findings by the Rebuild Japan Foundation and a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (both discussed here in recent weeks), a new paper, “Fukushima in review: A complex disaster, a disastrous response,” written by two members of the Rebuild Japan Foundation for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, provides a detailed and disturbing window on a long list of failures that exacerbated the problems at Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi facility. Among them, they include misinterpreting on-site observations, the lack of applicable protocols, inadequate industry guidelines, and the absence of both a definitive chain of command and the physical presence of the supposed commanders. But first and foremost, existing at the core of the crisis that has seen three reactor meltdowns, numerous explosions, radioactive contamination of land, air and sea, and the mass and perhaps permanent evacuation of tens of thousands of residents from a 20 kilometer exclusion zone, is what the Bulletin paper calls “The trap of the absolute safety myth”:

Why were preparations for a nuclear accident so inadequate? One factor was a twisted myth–a belief in the “absolute safety” of nuclear power. This myth has been propagated by interest groups seeking to gain broad acceptance for nuclear power: A public relations effort on behalf of the absolute safety of nuclear power was deemed necessary to overcome the strong anti-nuclear sentiments connected to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Since the 1970s, disaster risk has been deliberately downplayed by what has been called Japan’s nuclear mura (“village” or “community”)–that is, nuclear advocates in industry, government, and academia, along with local leaders hoping to have nuclear power plants built in their municipalities. The mura has feared that if the risks related to nuclear energy were publicly acknowledged, citizens would demand that plants be shut down until the risks were removed. Japan’s nuclear community has also feared that preparation for a nuclear accident would in itself become a source of anxiety for people living near the plants.

The power of this myth, according to the authors, is strong. It led the government to actively cancel safety drills in the wake of previous, smaller nuclear incidents–claiming that they would cause “unnecessary anxiety”–and it led to a convenient classification for the events of last March 11:

The word used then to describe risks that would cause unnecessary public anxiety and misunderstanding was “unanticipated.” Significantly, TEPCO has been using this very word to describe the height of the March 11 tsunami that cut off primary and backup power to Fukushima Daiichi.

Ignoring for this moment the debate about what cut off primary power, the idea that the massive size of the tsunami–not to mention what it would do to the nuclear plant–was unanticipated is, as this paper observes, absurd. Studies of a 9th Century tsunami, as well as an internal report by TEPCO’s own nuclear energy division, showed there was a definite risk of large tsunamis at Fukushima. TEPCO dismissed these warnings as “academic.” The Japanese government, too, while recommending nuclear facilities consider these findings, did not mandate any changes.

Instead, both the industry and the government chose to perpetuate the “safety myth,” fearing that any admission of a need to improve or retrofit safety systems would result in “undue anxiety”–and, more importantly, public pressure to make costly changes.

Any of that sound familiar?

“No one could have possibly anticipated. . .” is not just the infamous Bush administration take on the attacks of 9/11/2001, it has become the format for many of the current excuses on why a disaster like Fukushima could happen once, and why little need now be done to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

In fact, reading the BAS Fukushima review, it is dishearteningly easy to imagine you are reading about the state of the American nuclear reactor fleet. Swapping in places like Three Mile Island, Palisades, Browns Ferry, Davis-Besse, San Onofre, Diablo Canyon, Vermont Yankee, and Indian Point for the assorted Japanese nuclear power plants is far too easy, and replacing the names of the much-maligned Japanese regulatory agencies with “Nuclear Regulatory Commission” and “Department of Energy” is easier still.

As observed a number of times over the last year, because of unusual events and full-on disasters at many of the aging nuclear plants in the US, American regulators have a pretty good idea of what can go wrong–and they have even made some attempts to suggest measures should be taken to prevent similar events in the future. But industry pressure has kept those suggestions to a minimum, and the cozy relationship between regulators and the regulated has diluted and dragged out many mandates to the point where they serve more as propaganda than prophylaxis.

Even with the Fukushima disaster still visible and metastasizing, requiring constant attention from every level of Japanese society and billions of Yen in emergency spending, even with isotopes from the Daiichi reactors still showing up in American food, air and water, and even with dozens of US reactors operating under circumstances eerily similar to pre-quake Fukushima, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has treated its own post-Fukushima taskforce recommendations with a pointed lack of urgency. And the pushback from the nuclear industry and their bought-and-paid-for benefactors in the government at the mere hint of new regulations or better enforcement indicates that America might have its own safety myth trap–though, in the US, it is propagated by the generations-old marketing mantra, “Clean, safe and too cheap to meter.”

Mythical, too, is the notion that the federal government has the regulatory infrastructure or political functionality to make any segment of that tripartite lie ring closer to true. From NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko’s bizarre faith in a body that has failed to act on his pre-Fukushima initiatives while actively conspiring to oust him, to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ assuming a regulatory “can opener,” the US may have a bigger problem than the absolute safety myth, and that would be the myth of a government with the will or ability to assure that safety.

Which, of course, is more than a shame–it’s a crime. With so many obvious flaws in the technology–from the costs of mining, importing and refining fuel to the costs of building an maintaining reactors, from the crisis in spent fuel storage to the “near misses” and looming disasters at aging facilities–with so many other industrialized nations now choosing to phase out nuclear and ramp up renewables, and with the lessons of Fukushima now so loud and clear, the path forward for the US should not be difficult to delineate.

Nuclear power is too dirty, too dangerous and too expensive to justify any longer. No one in America should assume that the willpower or wherewithal to manage these problems would magically appear when nothing sufficient has materialized in the last fifty years. Leaders should not mistake luck for efficacy, nor should they pretend birds of a feather are unrelated black swans. They know better, and they knew all they needed to know long before last year’s triple meltdown.

Nuclear is not in a “renaissance,” it is in its death throes. Now is the time to cut financial losses and guard against more precious ones. The federal government should take the $54.5 billion it pledged to the nuclear industry and use it instead to increase efficiency, conservation, and non-fissile/non-fossil energy innovation.

But you already knew that.

* * *

Extra Credit:

Compare and contrast this 25-minute video from Al Jazeera and the Center for Investigative Reporting with what you read in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists report mentioned above. For that matter, contrast it with the two longer but somehow less rigorous videos from Frontline, which were discussed here and here.

Also, there are events all over the globe this weekend to commemorate the first anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and the nuclear crisis it triggered. To find an event in your area, see this list from Beyond Nuclear and the Freeze our Fukushimas Campaign.