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Nuclear -     1 - Duke Energy Employee Advocate

Nuclear - Page Eleven

“But after the Sept. 11 attacks, some worry that nuclear sites could look like gigantic
bombs to terrorists who hijack airplanes.” - Brian Costner, former DOE senior policy adviser

NUCLEAR WASTE, TERROR and INTRIGUE - Colin Woodard – October 17, 2001

The Industry That Promised Energy

Most of the Maine Yankee Atomic Power Station is cold, dark, and empty. Our footsteps echo in the warren of barren concrete chambers that, a few short years ago, were filled with pipes and machinery, noise and activity. Here and there an area is roped off with bright yellow tape or signs warning of radiological contamination, but for the most part Maine Yankee looks like what it is: a large industrial site awaiting demolition.

My guide opens a door to reveal a small, well-lit room and a uniformed guard with a sidearm and metal detector. The guard frisks us and we proceed through a security door into a chamber that, unlike its neighbors, is warm, noisy, well lit. At the top of a flight of metal stairs another guard confronts us to make sure we leave our bags, hardhats, and other easily dropped objects behind as we approach what is now the heart of Maine Yankee's operations: the spent fuel pool.

We peer over the railing and there it is, the source of all the controversy: 1,434 spent nuclear fuel rods standing at the bottom of an enormous pool of crystal clear water. Here sits Maine Yankee's total nuclear fuel output, from the first atom it split in 1972 until the reactor finally shut down in 1997. The pumps humming around us circulate demineralized water through the pool, keeping the radioactive rods cool and absorbing radiation so effectively that Oddell and I can have a short look at them in our street clothes.

Within three years Maine Yankee itself will be gone, completely demolished and carted away to landfills and out-of-state low-level waste facilities. But the spent fuel will be staying here in the seaside town of Wiscasset, in the midst of Maine's "mid-coast" tourism region. The most contaminated parts of the reactor vessel and other plant components will also remain. There's nowhere else for it to go.

That's because no one has yet solved the nuclear industry's most intractable problem: how to safely dispose of the more than 40,000 metric tons of highly-radioactive wastes that the Nuclear Energy Institute says the industry has produced to date, nor the estimated 65,000 tons that will soon come. Now -- even while the Bush administration promotes more nuclear power -- the issue has become urgent. Many aged plants are closing down for good. And all of the 81 commercial nuclear power stations across the country are reassessing their vulnerability to terrorism.

Take a look at the situation in Wiscasset. Like the other nuclear plants in the United States, Maine Yankee stored all of its spent fuel at the plant itself, pending the completion of a federal high-level nuclear waste disposal site. Now time has run out for Maine Yankee.

"But for the spent fuel, we'd be able to turn out the lights, go out of business, and dissolve the corporation," says attorney Jerry Stouck of Spriggs and Hollingsworth, who represents Maine Yankee and two other decommissioned plants that are suing the Department of Energy for not taking their spent fuel.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when nuclear advocates promised power too cheap to meter, the problem of discarding the dangerous and long-lasting waste was delegated to the marvels of future technology. The future is upon us, but the technology is not. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1983, DOE was to take possession of all of the nation's spent nuclear fuel by January 31, 1998.

Yet despite spending 14 years and more than $4 billion on its prospective repository, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the project remains embattled and the federal government hasn't even begun construction on a long-term disposal site. It's failure to do so has forced Maine Yankee to build a new $60 million "dry cask" storage facility so it will have somewhere to put its spent fuel before it demolishes the rest of the plant and its cooling pool. Over the next two years, spent fuel will be taken from the storage pool, placed in 64 transportable casks, and interred in a fence-lined yard where they will be attended to at a cost of $4 million a year. And there the waste will sit for at least a decade waiting for the federal government to find a more suitable place to keep it. About 50 such sites will dot the country by 2005 as more of the nation's reactors close or run out of space in their storage pools.

Terrorist Fears

For years, the industry has pressured the federal government for a solution. After Sept. 11, that pressure is likely to get stronger. In the past, concerns in Wiscasset were mostly focused on the economic effects of not being able to develop the site and worries that, over time, the site might attract more high-level waste from other facilities outside of Maine. But the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers have moved basic security concerns front and center.

"In light of what's happened, it's even more important for the federal government to decide what they want to do with this stuff," says state senator Marge Kilkelly who lives in Wiscasset and has been closely involved with Maine Yankee's decommissioning. "Do we really want this material stored in small amounts all over the country next to watersheds and waterbodies and large populations or do we want it in one site with the protection it deserves?"

In the aftermath of September 11, a great deal of attention has been paid to nuclear power plants themselves, which are vulnerable to a World Trade Center type of attack. Like the Twin Towers, reactor containment buildings were designed to withstand hurricanes, floods, or accidental aircraft collisions of a certain scope. They were not designed with homicidal 767 operators in mind. "If you postulate the risk of a jumbo jet full of fuel, it is clear that their design was not conceived to withstand such an impact," International Atomic Energy Agency spokesman David Kyd told reporters in Vienna, Austria. Such a strike could disrupt a plant's cooling systems, triggering a steam explosion and releasing a radioactive cloud.

But spent fuel facilities are far softer targets. They are generally located outside the containment structure, and are thus more vulnerable to attack. A recent report by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says that the consequences of a serious spent fuel pool accident "could be comparable to those for a severe reactor accident." The NRC analysis, published in February, also assumed that in the event of an accidental direct hit by an aircraft, there was a 45 percent chance it would breach a five-foot thick containment structure. Dry-cask storage facilities -- like the one under development at Wiscasset -- are probably even more vulnerable. There are 16 such facilities already in operation and many more planned or under construction. They are usually unenclosed and, in the case of decommissioned plants, are not subject to the same level of security. Each has guards, fences, and motion detectors to repel an infantry-style assault or an attempt to steal waste; but the two-story tall casks stand in even rows under the open sky. Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the industry-funded Nuclear Energy Institute, said dry cask facilities are "fairly robust sites" but that questions about their vulnerability to terrorist attack were "a bit ahead of the curve."

"These facilities are designed to survive more serious events than the average building, but they haven't been designed to survive a direct hit from a large commercial airplane," says Kelley Smith, spokesperson for two other decommissioned power plants -- Connecticut Yankee and Yankee Row -- which are also building dry cask sites. All the more reason, she says, for the government to take the waste to Yucca Mountain.

"If this fuel was a mile underground at Yucca, towns like Haddam [site of Connecticut Yankee] would not be faced with the burden of having to store it in the town, says Kelley Smith, "especially in connection with [Sept. 11th's] terrorism.

A Mountain of Trouble

But Yucca Mountain has plenty of problems of its own.

Early on, Congress doomed the government's effort to find the safest possible storage site for the nation's nuclear waste. In 1986, the Department of Energy was comparing three sites: Yucca Mountain in Nevada, Deaf Smith County in Texas, and Washington's Hanford Nuclear Reservation. A final decision was to be based on in-depth scientific evaluation of all three. But that's not what happened.

In a cynical political move, Congress passed a legislative amendment directing the Department of Energy to study the merits of only one site: Yucca Mountain. Not coincidentally, the speaker of the House at the time was Texas' Jim Wright and Washington's Tom Foley was House majority leader. Nevada (which has no nuclear reactors and has already hosted a nuclear weapons test site) is unenthusiastic about its potential role as the country's nuclear landfill. "Congress acted on political, not scientific criteria in choosing this site," says Robert Loux, head of the Agency for Nuclear Projects at the Governor of Nevada's office in Carson City. "We really haven't looked at any site other than Yucca Mountain, and it's not a good site."

High level wastes must be isolated from the environment for 10,000 years, otherwise highly-radioactive material could be transported long distances in the wind, rivers, and aquifers, rendering large areas toxic. Since our civilization may not be around several thousand years from now, scientists concluded that the repository should rely on geologic characteristics rather than human engineering. But after nearly two decades of analysis, DOE has found that, geologically speaking, Yucca has little to recommend it.

About a hundred miles northwest of Las Vegas, Yucca lies between two seismic faults and is only 12 miles from the epicenter of a 1992 earthquake that measured 5.6 on the Richter scale. Scientists have found evidence that the mountain may have flooded from below in the distant past, raising the possibility it might happen again during the project's 10,000-year lifetime. Even barring such events, Yucca has turned out to be far wetter than originally thought. Its volcanic rock is laced with tiny fractures that allow water to move very quickly through the area, possibly transporting radioactive material with it. A computer model developed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory suggests that mineral-laden water will be driven from surrounding rocks by the heat from the nuclear wastes and will drip down or condense on the storage casks, causing them to corrode. If the casks were breached, radioactivity could seep into the groundwater far beneath Yucca Mountain and, within a few centuries, contaminate nearby Amargosa Valley, currently a farming community replete with wells and water pumps. So DOE has looked to human engineering to make up for Yucca's geologic shortcomings. The department plans to dig 100 miles of tunnels under the mountain and fill them with some 15,000 storage canisters, which will themselves be the primary line of defense. The canisters, each about the size of a shipping container, will be made of steel and durable metal alloys and topped with a titanium drip shield. Project engineers say the storage canisters will be effective for as long as 270,000 years. But Loux says that contractors he hired to study the casks believe they could fail in as little as 500-600 years due to the corrosive effects of the dripping water.

Still, the department will likely advise the president to approve Yucca Mountain when they make their official recommendation in the first half of 2002. "We've found nothing so far that would disqualify the site based on the criteria we're looking at," says Allen Benson, DOE's Las Vegas-based spokesman for the project. "There are no show stoppers."

Some question DOE's impartiality, however. In December 2000, the Las Vegas Sun obtained a 60-page draft of a DOE overview on Yucca Mountain declaring the site suitable for nuclear waste storage, even though key studies had yet to be completed. Attached to the report was a memo written by DOE's primary site assessment contractor, TRW Environmental Safety Systems, that suggested the draft report could be used to help the nuclear industry sell Yucca Mountain to Congress. The report triggered outrage in Nevada and a federal investigation, further delaying the process.

There are plenty of other hurdles ahead. The state of Nevada -- whose legislature passed a law in 1989 prohibiting the storage of high-level waste in the state -- will mount every legal challenge available to block the facility. The project has to receive the approval of both the NRC and Congress, which also must come up with the funds for the estimated $50 billion facility. Even under the most optimistic forecasts, Yucca won't be ready to accept waste until 2010. Critics think 2015 or 2020 is more realistic. Transporting tens of thousands of tons of spent fuel to Yucca raises an unprecedented nuclear safety challenge. The wastes have to be transported by barge, truck, and train from nearly 100 locations, most of them more than 1,000 miles from Yucca Mountain. Given the possibility of transportation accidents or terrorist attack, anti-nuclear activists have dubbed them "mobile Chernobyls."

But even if Yucca is approved, built, and safely filled with nuclear waste, the industry's waste problem will still remain unsolved. Yucca Mountain will have a maximum capacity of 77,000 tons of high-level waste. Even if no new nuclear plants are built, existing plants will produce about 105,000 metric tons of wastes by the end of their lifetimes, according to DOE's Allen Benson. They will produce even more if, as the Bush administration has proposed, reactors receive extensions of their operating licenses.

The industry is pushing hard for a new generation of nuclear power stations, highlighting their alleged environmental benefits. The industry association touts nuclear as "the clean air energy" because it doesn't contribute to global warming, acid rain, or smog. Their friends in the White House are helping; the president's energy policy calls for constructing new nuclear plants and extending the lives of those still in operation.

But in Maine, and around the nation, indulging in a new generation of nuclear reactors seems unwise when the hangover from the first round hasn't passed.

"Before we even talk about additional nuclear power plants this issue needs to be solved," says Wiscasset's state senator Marge Kilkelly. "This is an issue that we're leaving to our kids and grandkids, and simply adding more to it is giving them an outrageous burden."

See No Evil, Hear No Evil

Health Board and Terrorist Scenarios

The Charlotte Observer – by Jim Wrinn – October 14, 2001

Officials want to be ready if McGuire is hit or disease is found

STATESVILLE -- A terrorist attack on Iredell County is unlikely, but given the unthinkable events of Sept. 11, Iredell health officials are working to deal with several scenarios.

Iredell County Board of Health members meeting Thursday night said they want to know more about evacuation and decontamination plans in case of an attack on Duke Power's McGuire nuclear power plant across Lake Norman in Mecklenburg County.

"It's going to be difficult to get 10,000 people off Brawley School Road peninsula on a two-lane road," said health board Chairman David Boone.

To deal with the need to inoculate potentially thousands of residents against a biological threat, board members want to come up with a plan to handle those treatments quickly.

To get word out early about the spread of a disease, they want to develop a communication system to alert doctors should a disease such as anthrax or smallpox be detected. That could be a secure Web site or an e-mail mailing list.

"We cannot think up all the possible scenarios," said Iredell County Health Director Ray Rabe. "All we can do is prepare to minimize the impact."

Anxiety on Nevada Nuclear Waste Dump

Associated Press – October 14, 2001

Residents in rural Nye County echoed fears of radioactivity tainting groundwater, terrorists striking transportation routes and corroding storage canisters if the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump opens in Nevada.

Resident Sally Devlin said Friday she isn't swayed by government scientists' findings after nine years of study that the nation's 77,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel can safely be contained for at least 10,000 years in a maze of tunnels about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Devlin said during the final formal hearing on the federal government's proposal that Nevada and especially Nye County is unprepared for a nuclear accident.

"I have grandchildren and great-grandchildren," Devlin said. "I don't want them to die from radiation poisoning."

The Department of Energy hearing was the last before Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham recommends to President Bush whether the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository should be built at the western edge of the Nevada Test Site. It is the only site under consideration.

Thirty-one other hearings were held in September and October in each Nevada county and in neighboring Inyo County, Calif. Officials estimate more than 430 people offered comments during the sessions.

Nye County Health Officer Maureen Budahl testified Friday that the Energy Department should extend its studies beyond the geological suitability of the Yucca Mountain site.

"It is imperative the Department of Energy be prepared to assist us," she said.

Outside the meeting, she told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that since Nye County has no hospital, it would take about an hour to set up an emergency response in the event of a nuclear accident. Las Vegas is about 50 miles away.

"That's every bit as important as the geological suitability," Budahl said.

Mary Wilson, vice chairwoman of the Pahrump Town Board, said Nye County's rural communities would be affected most by a Yucca Mountain repository. Nye County is geographically Nevada's largest county -- a sprawling 18,064 square miles. It has about 30,000 residents.

"Pahrump, Amargosa Valley, Beatty, Tonopah, Goldfield and Mercury -- they are all much more affected by Yucca Mountain than is Las Vegas," Wilson said.

She said she also worried about the integrity of nuclear waste shipping casks.

"Events on Sept. 11th proved once and for all that we don't live in a logical world," Wilson said, referring to the terrorist attacks.

Nevada's Paiute and Western Shoshone tribes have staunchly opposed the government's plans to dispose of nuclear waste on their native lands. But a representative of the Prairie Island Indian Community in southeastern Minnesota testified Friday in favor of Yucca Mountain.

Doreen Hagen, a Prairie Island tribal council member, said nuclear waste stored by operators of the Xcel Energy reactor in Minnesota threatens the health and safety of her community.

"We believe that storing nuclear waste in a remote, military secure location, in a facility designed for permanent storage, is a better solution than leaving it where it sits, virtually unguarded and only yards away from a vulnerable community with limited evacuation routes," Hagen said.

General Counsel Lee Otis, the highest ranking Energy Department official at Friday's hearing, said Abraham will review all the comments and responses before his recommendation to the president.

"The secretary will make this decision on what science shows and what he thinks is in the best interest of the country," Otis said.

"Before The Deluge" - by Danny Schechter – October 10, 2001

It was September 23, in the same month that would years later go down in infamy-plus. Battery Park City was a pit of sand then, not from fallen towers as it is today, but because that corner of Lower Manhattan, next door to the World Trade Center, was still a landfill site on which a city within a city would soon rise.

The year was 1979, and 250,000 people converged in the shadow of the Twin Towers for a giant No Nukes rally headlined by Jackson Browne and other musical superstars. That rally was the culmination of five days of the MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) Concerts for a Non-Nuclear Future at a packed Madison Square Garden. Jackson Browne sang his big hit that Sunday afternoon alongside the majestic Hudson River. It was prophetically called "Before the Deluge" and contained the line: "And let the buildings keep our children dry." He and his counterparts had come to sing against the dangers of an energy policy built around nuclear plants. Many others had come to hear the stars sing, to sing along, to stand with them against a corporate threat that seemed to promise only destruction. In those years, there was a strong intersection between popular culture and movements for change. I helped anchor coverage for a national string of commercial FM rock stations, coverage a political rally would never get today.

Back then, years before we'd heard the term globalization, the World Trade Center was considered a symbol of greed. "Do you lie down and let those corporations roll over you?" Browne asked, "Can you leave your life in the hands of those people?"

That 1979 event, and events like it, slowed (and some think stopped) the momentum of nuclear plant construction. The nuclear industry was put on the defensive and lost billions in the following years after some of the problems critics warned against surfaced in places like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

Oil's Role

None of us then could have foreseen the events of September 11, 2001, or how the politics of energy and oil would become the backdrop for conflicts and wars to come. Many of us still don't recognize that the "new war" most Americans support as a just campaign to wipe out a band of evil terrorists may morph quickly into a war to control the oil fields dominated by Iraq and the Saudis, whose society produced Bin Ladin and funds Islamic extremism as a counterweight against political radicalism and democratic change. As the world economy shrinks and corporate profits decline, there will be pressures for more intervention in other lands in a fight over resources.

For many in the desperately poor and developing world, the America they hate or call the great Satan is experienced through the presence of the oil and energy industries. Many of their opposition movements are aware of the power and influence of multinational corporations as the wedge of U.S. influence, even if they aren't much investigated or reported either abroad or here. I have so far seen only one thorough-going analysis, for example, about the oil aspect of this conflict in an American newspaper, a report by Frank Viviano in the San Francisco Chronicle. "The hidden stakes in the war against terrorism can be summed up in a single word: oil," he writes. ""Rather than a simple confrontation between Islam and the West, [these energy sources] will be the primary flash point of global conflict for decades to come."

Most Americans are not exposed to much coverage of the interests that shape our policies or the problems they exacerbate. At the same time, the people who rally against our country overseas are not terribly well informed about the Other America. Their media are rarely objective nor do they feature the views of critics and dissenters. This is a shame because it is important to know that the interests of the majority of working people are often at odds with those in control. How many readers and viewers in other countries know that an attack on a symbol of financial power also took the lives of 1,000 members of trade unions? Unhappily, the media in many countries keep their cultures in a bubble of insularity and ignorance.

As Benjamin R. Barber makes clear in his thoughtful study, "Jihad vs. McWorld", much of the world is locked in a battle between two fundamentalisms that are equally at odds with the spirit and demands of democracy. Islamic fundamentalism and global market capitalism share more in outlook than is commonly recognized, he says. Both want to silence the voices of ordinary people and impose forms of control from above; both use media shamelessly and all too effectively to promote their ideological mission and values.

Flashing Forward

Today, Jackson Browne is still at it, this time joining as many as 200 other artists, athletes and others in recording another musical anthem, "We Are Family," a song that originally came out in the year of the No Nukes rally at the World Trade Center. "We Are Family" has been remade by one of its original producers, Nile Rodgers, as an anthem of our common humanity, a song to help promote a sense that we are all part of a global family that has to stand up against the intolerance and hate crimes that have crawled out of the rubble of September 11. I documented the 10-day production and recording sessions for a "making of and meaning of" film, Spike Lee is producing the music video.

Other artists have been very visible in this crisis. A telethon broadcast on 35 U.S. networks and in 156 countries featured top musicians singing powerful songs of social concern (and raised $150 million for disaster relief). A long-scheduled John Lennon tribute was also turned into a fund-raiser. Both events featured renditions of Lennon's anthem "Imagine," which was on the list of songs that Clear Channel communications seemed to want to censor from the radio. Music still has the power to do what journalism does so rarely: reinforce empathy, caring and a sense of a world with other possibilities.

Ten years ago, on the eve of the Gulf War, I produced a documentary on the making of another message song, a remake of "Give Peace A Chance" by John Lennon's son Sean and Lenny Kravitz, with 37 other artists from every musical genre. That song was powerfully done but totally suppressed by the media at the start of the Gulf War. No outlets would play a peace song then. It was considered traitorous. Today, Yoko Ono has posted a billboard with the words "GIVE PEACE A CHANCE" on a billboard affixed to our office building in Times Square. It is not signed or identified in any way.

Today, as what CNN calls "America's New War" cranks up, as the flags fly in the news and on the sets of newscasts, will the loving vibe of "We Are Family" get a proper hearing? Let's hope so, even as we seem to be in for a new period of censorship, self-censorship and the muzzling of dissent. It is a message we need more than ever as bombs and missiles crash down on their targets.

Nuclear - Page Ten