The year 1992 was momentous for the nuclear industries (bombs, and electric power plants). Here are some of the highlights:
The U.S. government announced in July it will stop making plutonium and highly-enriched uranium for weapons. Production of plutonium had, in fact, been halted since 1988 because of mechanical and environmental problems. However, President Bush declared a ban on these materials as official U.S. policy in July. (N.Y. TIMES 4/30/92, pg. A14 and 7/14/92, pg. A18.) In September the U.S. announced it had canceled a $6-billion tritium plant planned for Savannah River, near Aiken, Ga.; tritium is needed for weapons triggers. (N.Y. TIMES 9/12/92, pg. 5.)
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The House of Representatives voted a year-long ban on nuclear weapons tests June 4--the first ever in the U.S.. The U.S. conducted 7 underground tests in 1991 and had scheduled 6 for 1992. (N.Y. TIMES 6/5/92, pg. A8.) The Senate in August voted a nine-month moratorium on testing and voted to end all nuclear testing in 1996. (N.Y. TIMES 8/4/92, pg. A7.)
Concern about the spread, or proliferation, of nuclear weapons increased dramatically when it was revealed in June that Iraq was using a 50-year-old low-tech method called a calutron to produce highly-enriched uranium. An atomic bomb can be made from 45 pounds of enriched uranium or from 7 pounds of plutonium. The international community of "safeguard" specialists (people who worry about how to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of the wrong people) was thrown into disarray by the revelations in Iraq. The basis of international controls had been to restrict high-tech methods of enriching uranium. No one had expected anyone to use the low-tech method. "It's cataclysmic," said Leonard S. Spector, an expert on the spread of nuclear weapons at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "All this was being done in Iraq without anybody knowing it. So who else is doing it? Everybody in the [safeguard] community knew this kind of thing was a possibility. But to be confronted by an example is devastating." (N.Y. TIMES 7/15/92, pg. A1.)
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The U.S. and the former Soviet Union agreed to retire 40,000 nuclear warheads over the next decade or so. These nuclear devices must be kept safe from black marketeers and terrorists for the duration of the hazard, which is forever. In both east and west, the ultimate fate of hundreds of tons of plutonium and enriched uranium remains undecided. The former Soviet Union alone is reported to have over 1200 tons of enriched uranium that it would now like to sell to the west for reactor fuel. (N.Y. TIMES 7/6/92, pg. A1, and 9/11/92, pg. A8.)
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A brisk international trade in black-market enriched uranium developed this year in Europe. Evidently the breakup and impoverishment of the Soviet bloc has created opportunities to steal radioactivity from nuclear reactors, or from weapons complexes. In October, German authorities arrested seven people who were reportedly trying to sell the makings for nuclear weapons. German authorities said they had investigated 100 cases of international smuggling of radioactive material during the first 10 months of 1992, whereas they had investigated 29 cases during 1991. (NY TIMES 10/20/92, pg. A8.)
Legacy of Waste
The soviets revealed that they have been dumping radioactivity into the Kara Sea, which connects to the Arctic Ocean, for three decades. Besides 4 nuclear-powered submarines lost at sea, the soviets said they dumped four decommissioned naval nuclear reactors in 1965 and 1966, three reactors from the icebreaker LENIN in 1967, a barge carrying a submarine reactor sunk in 1972, and a nuclear-powered submarine jettisoned in 1982. Dr. Charles Hollister of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution calculates that the soviets dumped about 600 million Curies of radioactivity into the ocean, or roughly seven times as much radioactivity as was in the Chernobyl reactor that melted down April 26, 1986. (N.Y. TIMES 5/4/92, pg. A1, and 11/24/92, pg. C9.)
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a report in April indicating there may be as many as 45,000 sites in the U.S. contaminated with radioactivity. Twenty thousand of the sites belonged to the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. The report included sketchy information on 29 accidents involving nuclear warheads that occurred between 1950 and 1980. No agency of the federal government has yet set standards defining what is an acceptable level of cleanup for radioactively-contaminated sites. (N.Y. TIMES 4/9/92, pg. A14.)
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Nuclear Power Hits the Skids
In 1992, economics seemed to be killing the nuclear power industry. In February, owners of the 32-year-old Yankee Rowe nuclear power plant decided to shut it down rather than seek a license to extend its useful lifetime. The metal reactor vessel had become brittle from years of atomic bombardment, and it would have required a major investment to fix. Southern California Edison made a similar judgment about the 24-year-old San Onofre I reactor near San Clemente. During 1991 the Sacramento Municipal Utility District decided to shut the Rancho Seco plant as uneconomic at age 15. The U.S. currently has 108 operating nuclear power plants, producing 20 percent of the nation's electricity. As many as 10 of these could be shut by the end of this decade, mostly for economic reasons.
The decision to shut Yankee Rowe raised new questions about the cost of decommissioning a power reactor. In June the owners of Yankee Rowe estimated it would cost $247 million to close the plant permanently--twice as much as had been predicted earlier, and three times as much as the company has so far set aside to cover shutdown costs. (N.Y. TIMES 6/3/92, pg. D4.)
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Ever optimistic, Westinghouse and General Electric both rolled out designs for a new generation of nuclear power plants. These plants are termed "inherently safe" because they cannot melt down. However, they produce the same amount of radioactive waste and plutonium as the older, inherently dangerous, plants. (N.Y. TIMES 6/28/92, pg. 21, and 7/12/92, pg. F-12)
Justice & Injustice
1992 saw the first criminal prosecution of a federal contractor found guilty of violating environmental laws at an atomic weapons manufacturing plant. Rockwell International pleaded guilty to 5 felonies and 5 misdemeanors June 1 and was fined $18.5 million for illegally dumping hazardous wastes at the Rocky Flats plant near Denver, Colo. Rockwell operated the plant from 1975 to 1989, creating enormous waste and contamination that will cost taxpayers billions of dollars to clean up.
In another first, Rockwell was required to pay the $18.5 million fine out of its own pocket. In 20 previous instances when government contractors were fined for illegalities, the Department of Energy paid the fines on behalf of its contractors. (N.Y. TIMES 6/2/92, pg. A12.)
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The Inspector General of the Department of Energy (DOE) revealed in June that DOE routinely gathers and disseminates "intelligence information" on U.S. citizens, in violation of a Presidential order issued in 1982. (N.Y. TIMES 6/14/92, pg. 37)
Thyroid cancer rates were reported to be "soaring" among children exposed to radiation released by the Chernobyl reactor disaster in 1986. According to Dr. Vasily S. Kazakov, writing in the British journal NATURE, thyroid cancer rates began rising in 1990. The World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed the reports. WHO scientists expressed surprise that the cancers were showing up so soon; normally there is a delay of 10 years or more between the time of exposure and the time a thyroid cancer appears. The WHO group wrote, "We believe that the experience in Belarus suggests that the consequence to the human thyroid, especially in fetuses and young children, of the carcinogenic effects of radioactive fallout is much greater than previously thought." (N.Y. TIMES 9/3/92, pg. A9).
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Two research groups, in England and the U.S., reported discovering a new form of delayed injury from radiation. In one study, researchers exposed mouse cells to alpha particles (a type of radiation produced by plutonium and by radon gas) and found that abnormalities of the chromosomes appeared in some descendant cells several generations of cell-division later. The research was carried out by Dr. Eric G. Wright at the British Medical Research Council Radiobiology Unit in Didcot, Oxfordshire, England.
Dr. John D. Little and colleagues at the Harvard University School of Public Health in Boston found a similar "delayed mutation" effect using X-rays to irradiate hamster cells.
The delayed effect is different from the immediate genetic damage scientists have observed previously. Usually radiation alters the genetic makeup of a cell, causing its immediate descendants to take on new characteristics. In the new findings, some of the cells that survive radioactive assault appear normal through several divisions. Damage eventually appears in a descendant cell several generations later.
Both research groups said that if the effect is confirmed by further research, it will mean radiation is more dangerous than previously believed. (N.Y. TIMES 2/20/92, pg. A-12.)
A Reason for Hope
The chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) credited citizen activists with shutting down two nuclear facilities in 1992. Ivan Selin said Native Americans for a Clean Environment (NACE) and the Cherokee Nation helped shut the Sequoyah Fuels Plant in Gore, Oklahoma; and, he said, the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, helped shut the Yankee Rowe nuclear power plant. In both instances, the NRC shut the facilities temporarily after citizens had raised safety and environmental concerns, and the owners then shut them permanently. (N.Y. TIMES 6/23/92, pg. A13.)
In sum, not a bad year.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: nuclear power; us; plutonium; nuclear weapons; enriched uranium; savannah river; ga; aiken; tritium; radioactive waste; remedial action; superfund; landfilling; llw; hlw; westinghouse; ge; doe; rockwell international; thyroid cancer; carcinogens; children; health; radiation; nace; nrc; sequoyah fuels; native people; native americans;