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To Open The Sky

The Front Pages of Christopher P. Winter

Accidents Involving Nuclear Energy

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The era of nuclear power is now more than 70 years old, if we take its birth as the detonation of the first nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945.1 Begun in pain and death, suckled on the bitterness and suspicion of the Cold War, tainted by the extravagant promises and careless implementations of its purveyors, the "peaceful atom" has had a rough seven decades. The general public distrusts nuclear power.2 One need only review the nuclear power industry's record of inadequate facility design, shoddy construction, fraudulent record-keeping, careless operation, negligent management, indifference to worker health and safety, and lackluster emergency planning to understand why.

But now there are signs that the onus is fading. Three factors contribute to that change in attitude: Improved standards and practices imposed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an agency not "in bed with" the industry it regulates (as was its predecessor the AEC); better and safer3 reactor designs; and the increasing economic and environmental impacts of fossil fuels.

It is also worth noting that the near total rejection of nuclear power technology after the meltdown at Three Mile Island in the U.S. occurred only in the U.S. France gets 80% of its electric power from nuclear plants. Japan is bent on moving in that direction. True, Germany and Sweden are bent on moving in the other direction; but both nations were among the hardest hit by the fallout cloud from Russia's Chernobyl disaster, the Green Party has considerable clout in Germany, and Sweden has long had a politically liberal outlook.

My purpose in setting up these pages is to encourage another look at the benefits of nuclear power. A nuclear reactor does not require petroleum from the Middle East, and produces no greenhouse gases. Nor does it have a smokestack that spews mercury, sulfur and tons of fly ash. But I also want to make clear the drawbacks. The power of the atom can be a boon only if we do not forget the virulence of the substances that produce it. I speak of course of atomic ash, spent fuel, nuclear waste. After they have been used in a reactor, unshielded fuel rods become capable of killing anyone nearby invisibly and silently. They must therefore be shielded by thick walls. They must also be continuously cooled for years until the short-lived radioisotopes — a relatively small percentage of the rods' total volume — decay and produce little heat.

That unparalleled lethality underlies the negative image nuclear power has in this country. Too many people have been exposed to those damaging emanations through carelessness of one sort or another over the years. The sad fact is, it could have been different. Unfortunately, the builders and operators of many power reactors shot themselves in the proverbial foot. I present a chronology of those mistakes here in hopes that it will inspire some caution. We must demand that all reactors in this country be well designed and competently operated. Otherwise we are asking for a repeat of the backlash that began after Three Mile Island. Since, in my considered opinion, we need nuclear power, I think this would be a bad thing.

Yet even with the best designs, dedicated operation and thorough maintenance, nuclear waste will remain a very serious problem. There are currently 104 commercial reactors in the U.S.4 They produce a total of 4,000 tons of waste each year. More reactors will only compound the problem. There are only two solutions to the problem of nuclear waste: recycling and direct disposal. (Theoretically, any radioisotope can be rendered harmless by bombardment with neutrons of the proper energy; but at present this is wildly impractical.)

The great promise of recycling is that a properly designed reactor (called a "breeder") will produce as much fuel as it consumes. That new fuel is in the form of plutonium, an artificial element. France is going the recycling route: the rods are ground up behind thick walls by remote control and dissolved in acid; various chemical processes are used to separate the plutonium and other isotopes; the plutonium is then recycled into new fuel rods.

There are three problems with recycling:

  • The process is complex.
    Many more steps are involved in recycling than in direct deposit. There are thus many more people involved, and many more chances for accidents.
  • The process is costly.
    A complex process is an expensive process. Greater risk of worker injury means higher liability insurance premiums. The breeder reactor also costs more to build than a conventional reactor. Raw uranium would have to be six to ten times more expensive than it is to make recycling economical.5
  • The process is diversion-prone.
    With large quantities of reactor-grade plutonium in storage or in transit to nuclear plants, the chance that a terrorist might obtain some is greatly enhanced.

For these reasons, the U.S. has chosen direct disposal. This choice means it has to prepare a repository to store its vast volume of waste for thousands of years, and guard that place for generation after generation. The task is immense. Few structures but the pyramids scattered around the world in jungle and desert have survived for thousands of years in anything like their original condition. No institutions but the world's great religions have been able to maintain stewardship at a site for anything like such a span of time. Indeed, nothing built or even planned in human history compares with the permanence and integrity required of nuclear waste repositories. And currently we cannot even agree on where to build them.

We have other stewardship problems. I mentioned the carelessness in building and operating some commercial nuclear power plants. Military programs in the U.S also have a checkered history. For example:

  • Of the 925 open-air and underground atom-bomb tests conducted by America after World War II, 204 were secret. That means the public was never informed about them beforehand. Fallout from such tests was and remains a burden for those living downwind from the Nevada test sites. Similar burdens were imposed on the natives of the Marshall Islands, a U.S. Trust Territory.
  • The Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee used mercury to purify lithium for thermonuclear weapons. Some 750,000 tons of mercury were lost on plant grounds and into the Poplar River during this processing. Today we know that mercury compounds are virulent poisons. Ingesting them can bring physical deformity, mental impairment, death. We regulate the amounts of mercury coal-burning plants release, and monitor fish for mercury compounds, forbidding catching and eating of contaminated stocks. We even have a name for the ailment: Minamata Disease, after the Japanese bay of that name where citizens routinely ate shellfish contaminated by 27 tons of methyl mercury released by a local fertilizer plant early in the twentieth century. True, the mercury from Y-12 is the element, not the chemical compound. But bacteria in surface waters are known to convert the element to methyl mercury, and given the massive quantity lost from Y-12, that region of Tennessee has a serious problem.6
  • Every site where America built or tested its atomic weapons is contaminated. Hanford in Washington state has tanks holding thousands of tons of waste both chemically and radiologically noxious. Rocky Flats lost at least hundreds of kilograms of plutonium into its immediate environs. The Idaho reactor test site has a buried reactor core which is still hot. Radiological contaminants from Georgia's Savannah River plant have seeped into the local aquifer.7
  • To learn the biological effects of radiation, our military performed medical experiments on approximately 800 American citizens, and their informed consent was not always of a quality we would deem sufficient today.

I am not trying to be alarmist here. I am not against nuclear power; in fact I am on record as favoring its use, as long as it is used competently. I think we need it. Here's why. But the history of its use contains many mistakes, many cases of outright carelessness. They may not be well known, but they did occur. I raise the issue for two reasons: We still live with the consequences of some of those mistakes today; and if we forget the tendency to make such mistakes, we increase our risk of repeating them. Nothing is perfect; no equipment or industrial process is free from defect. I do not expect perfection. What I do expect is that lessons learned from the past will inform future design of processes and equipment.

To that end, I am assembling a record of accidents involving radioactive materials. There already are such on the Web, and of course libraries hold many books on the subject. (See the Selected References list linked below.) But having multiple sources is never wrong, and it may be that the format I employ will prove useful.

1 This date is arguable, of course. The operation of the first nuclear pile by Enrico Fermi and colleagues in a former squash court at the University of Chicago in December 1942 is another possibility. The true origins of nuclear power coincide with the development of the relevant theory, and that predates any demonstration by years if not decades. That development is piecemeal, and gives no single signpost to point to. Also, public discussion of a new era becomes easier when that era begins with some dramatic event; and the destruction of a city by a single weapon of revolutionary type certainly qualifies.
2 There are exceptions to the general public distaste for nuclear technology, of course. Nuclear medicine, the use of radioisotopes for diagnosis and treatment, is the prime example.
3 An example is Argonne National Laboratory's Advanced Fast Reactor, which can use more of each fuel load, resist proliferation, and survive a loss of coolant.
4 Down from 109 in 1996, with 17 applications for new reactors on file with the NRC.
5 However, just as with fossil fuels, there are costs that may not be folded into the picture of reactor economics. The cost of disposing radioactive waste is one. If advanced breeder designs reduce waste volume by a factor of 10 and also cut sequestered storage time by millennia, the economics equation changes considerably.
6 See The Watts Bar N-Waste Reservoir (Obed Watershed Community Assn., Oct. 2008) and USGS Fact Sheet #146.
7 Other nuclear nations have similarly dubious records. The old USSR is probably the worst offender, with its Chernobyl reactor accident and its Kyshtym waste site event.
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This page was last modified on Saturday, 14 November 2015.