It was a bad week for nuclear power. Consider these facts:
The Public Service Company of New Hampshire, a publicly owned electric utility with assets of $2.7 billion, declared bankruptcy because of high costs of constructing the Seabrook nuclear power plant. The $5.2 billion plant has never operated because state and local governments in New Hampshire and Massachusetts refuse to take part in devising emergency evacuation plans, a step necessary for the facility to gain a commercial operating license. Public Service of New Hampshire is the fourth largest American corporation ever to declare bankruptcy. [NY TIMES 1/29/88, pgs. 1, D3.]
Nuclear power plants that were abandoned before completion, or finished at excessive expense, will cost the American economy $100 billion, according to a report in the NEW YORK TIMES. Abandoned plants will cost $30 billion (not counting the Seabrook plant, whose future is uncertain). The other $70 billion represents the cost of operating nuclear plants versus the cost of competing technologies, mainly coal.
During the past decade, 66 nuclear power plants were canceled; thirty other plants were completed. Since 1978, no new nuclear power plants have been ordered in the U.S. Nuclear power now generates 17% of U.S. electricity. [NY TIMES Feb. 1, 1978, pgs. D1, D9.]
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) "have quietly initiated a study of cancer deaths among populations near nuclear power plants," because of recently discovered "leukemia clusters around the Pilgrim power plant in Massachusetts and several plants in the United Kingdom," according to the NY TIMES Feb. 5, A11.
Findings of excessive leukemia [cancer of the blood-forming cells] "have led us to initiate a large-scale evaluation of cancer deaths occurring among persons living near the over 100 rectors operating in the United States," said Dr. James Wyngaarden, director of the NIH. The studies were not announced publicly but were revealed in a letter to Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.).
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the agency charged with setting rules for the nation's nuclear plants and enforcing those rules, came under criticism itself for failing to investigate alleged misconduct by various nuclear plant operators. The NRC set up an Office of Investigations in 1982 specifically to look into allegations of wrongdoing, as distinct from actual technical problems. Today the Office has a backlog of 127 open cases and has had to drop 39 other cases because it could not get to them in a timely fashion. Fifty of the open cases "are not being worked on because of a lack of resources," according to Ben B. Hayes, director of the Office.
The matters supposedly under investigation are not trivial. For example, former workers at the Farley nuclear plant in Dothan, Alabama, told the NRC that plant managers repeatedly falsified radiation readings, thus hiding evidence of problems that would otherwise have caused an expensive safety shutdown. The charges were made three years ago but the NRC's Office of Investigations is just now beginning to look into it and appears to be months, or years, away from determining the veracity of the allegations.
A lawyer who for seven years handled prosecutions in the Justice Department on behalf of the NRC and other agencies, recently testified before Congress, saying "I know of no other regulatory or investigative agency where senior agency officials have taken as many bizarre and seemingly deliberate actions intended to hamper the investigation and prosecution of individuals and companies in the industry the agency regulates." The lawyer, Julian S. Greenspun, said, "The NRC will bend over backwards to avoid finding problems.
The Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs reported on an investigation by NRC officials of the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant 85 miles southwest of Dallas, TX. The NRC's own inspectors found breakdowns in quality control, and engineering problems, "but their superiors challenged them, suggesting that findings be deleted or weakened, and some senior managers harassed and intimidated field inspectors," the TIMES reports. [NY TIMES Jan. 31, 1988, pg. 30.]
The nation's first major underground nuclear waste repository, which is supposed to start accepting military plutonium wastes next October, has water leaking into it at a rate that some scientists argue will make it unacceptable as a waste repository. The waste dump is a huge underground cavern drilled into rock-like salt formations 2150 feet below the desert in southern New Mexico, at a cost of $700 million so far.
"How serious these [water] leaks are has enormous implications for the nation's nuclear industry, the Government's nuclear weapons program, and for New Mexico. Also at stake, scientists and lawmakers agree, is the reputation of the [federal] Department of Energy which has searched for a method of safely disposing of radioactive wastes since the 1950s, when it was known as the Atomic Energy Commission," says the NEW YORK TIMES [Feb. 1, 1988, pg. A18.].
Plutonium is lethally radioactive for 240,000 years. The government is planning to put 13,466 pounds of pure plutonium-239 (mixed with other wastes) into the ground in New Mexico during the next 30 years. According to scientists at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, 100 micrograms of plutonium constitutes a lethal dose for a human. Thus the nation's first radioactive waste site will hold 160 billion lethal doses of radioactivity--by far the most dangerous dump ever constructed. It was designed to remain bone dry. Now it is found to be filling up with water. Water will corrode the canisters, turning the radioactive waste into deadly soup. The tremendous weight of earth above the waste will create great pressure. Future humans trying to tap the natural gas and petroleum reserves already know to exist beneath the site may penetrate the site with a drill rig. The pressurized radioactive soup could gush to the surface, releasing millions or billions of lethal doses of plutonium into earth's environment, geologist and geochemists at University of New Mexico and elsewhere argue.
But who among us believes that, in the face of a $700 million investment, and in the face of perhaps the largest embarrassment ever suffered by a federal agency, that the government will be persuaded by mere science that they are making what is perhaps the biggest mistake humans have ever made?
A bad week indeed.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: nuclear power; radiation; nh; electricity; seabrook; ma; siting; nih; disease; health; health statistics; cancer; leukemia; death statistics; death; james wyngaarden; kennedy; congress; nrc; investigations; ben hayes; farley nuclear power plant; al; lawyers; julian greenspun; senate; comanche peak nuclear power plant; military; landfilling; repositories; plutonium; leaks; doe; laboratories; los alamos scientific laboratory; los alamos;