Dependence on foreign oil has proven to be a slippery slope. Fossil fuels create pollution. Renewable energy sources haven’t received the necessary mainstream attention and funding to create viability.
Among the list of power players, nuclear energy stands out to industry supporters as a clean, cheap source of electricity.
But how safe is it?
President George W. Bush ranks among atomic cheerleaders who believe nuclear power can be considered a safe solution to America’s energy needs. He strongly advocates the construction of new plants, and in 2002 he designated Yucca Mountain, in the heart of a Nevada desert, as the legal repository for much of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel, a highly lethal radioactive substance.
No new building permits have been issued for nuclear plant construction in the United States since the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, but that might all change soon, according to industry insider Stephen Rosen, a nuclear engineer currently serving as a consultant for Comanche Peak nuclear power plant in Texas. He also receives a pension from another plant, South Texas Project.
Rosen, 64, is also a member-at-large of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS), established in 1957 by Congress. Any matter related to safety in both existing and proposed nuclear facilities passes through the ACRS.
Still, Rosen made it clear he was speaking from a personal perspective, not on behalf of his powerful committee or the NRC.
“If I was king of the world,” said Rosen, “I would put the spent fuel in a concrete vault.”
While Rosen believes storage at Yucca Mountain would be safe, he doesn’t think bunkering the spent fuel so deeply is the wisest plan.
“One hundred years from now, enlightened people might want access to the fuel,” Rosen said. “It’s not waste. It’s an enormous resource for the future. We have enough fuel for all our future needs right there.”
The spent fuel, Rosen said, can be utilized in “fast-breeder reactors.” Japan, France and Russia currently use this technology, but it was banned in the United States by President Jimmy Carter, who also mandated emergency evacuation plans in 1980 after the accident at Three Mile Island.
“The world should have more nuclear power,” Rosen said, citing global warming as one of the reasons.
Spent fuel, he said, isn’t a “safety” problem, but rather an economic one. Spent fuel rod pools, he said, are “very safe,” and the casks used to store spent fuel when the pools fill up are equally safe, “like vaults.”
The facilities built for storage will last long enough to keep the public protected, Rosen said. He cited the duration of the Pyramids in Egypt, constructed thousands of years ago, as proof that even before the benefit of sophisticated technology and engineering, humans were capable of building structures that could withstand the pressure of millennia.
“The only way to hurt those casks is with torches or bombs,” Rosen said. “They are guarded night and day. I can’t imagine what could hurt the casks short of [an attack], but we’re not talking about that.”
In February, 1986, a magazine called Soviet Life included a special section on nuclear power in the Soviet Union, in which Ukraine’s top energy official touted safety and assured citizens the “odds of a meltdown are one in 10,000 years.”
Two months later, the worst accident in the history of the nuclear industry took place at Chernobyl, when a routine safety test took a deadly turn.
“The first thing pro-nuclear people say is that what happened in Chernobyl can’t possibly happen here,” said Maryann De Leo, who won an Academy Award for her documentary film, Chernobyl Heart.
The film follows Executive Director of the Chernobyl Children’s Project, Adi Roche, as she visits countless children born with severe deformities, such as holes in their hearts, stunted limbs and brains outside their heads.
Kofi Annan, secretary general for the United Nations, said in 2001 the “legacy of Chernobyl will be with us, and our descendants, for generations to come. At least three million children require physical treatment.”
A report entitled, “The History of the United Nations and Chernobyl,” was released this year. According to this report, 31 people died immediately and 600,000 “liquidators,” involved in fire fighting and clean-up operations, were exposed to the high doses of radiation.
Based on the official reports, near 8,400,000 people in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, many of whom are now of childbearing age, were exposed to the radiation.
Radioactive meat and milk are still being consumed in various regions of the former Soviet Union, De Leo said, and objects in uninhabitable regions, such as school desks and chairs, have been looted and resold to unwitting consumers, further spreading radiation.
Instances of certain types of cancer and defects have skyrocketed in the wake of the devastation.
A 20-mile radius around Chernobyl was rendered uninhabitable, and many fear an accident of similar scale at the Indian Point nuclear power plants in Buchanan could have equally disastrous consequences, especially since midtown Manhattan is 35 miles away from the facility.
A paper jointly written by a number of prominent scientists, published in Science and Global Security in 2003, states spent fuel rod disaster at a plant like Indian Point could cause contamination problems “significantly worse than those from Chernobyl.”
While the reactors are protected by overhead containment structures at Indian Point, the spent fuel rod pools are not.
The Safety Culture
Becoming a whistleblower comes with risk, but also, ideally, with rewards.
But has the industry managed to strike up a balance so the employees themselves feel safe stepping forward?
Times have changed, according to Rosen.
In 1957, Rosen’s interest in pursuing a career in science was ignited by the release of Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit earth only to incinerate upon reentry early the next year. He studied chemical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic University and graduated in 1962, at which time the “dangling digit of destiny” reached out to him when he stuck his head into one of the cubes at a job fair to ask why Atomics International was looking for a chemical engineer to work in the field of nuclear science.
Tired of being “poor and cold,” in New York, Rosen couldn’t resist the lure of southern California, so off he went to start his career. Eventually, he received a full scholarship and earned a Master’s Degree in
Among Rosen’s many roles in the industry, safety, his current focus, has become the most prominent. He is the one who seems to have modernized the concept of “safety culture,” an attitude envisioned for plant administrators, staff and employees, in which safety is prized above all else.
To accomplish this, NRC would have to regulate not just the rules, but the managerial culture at nuclear power plants, an unfamiliar role for a regulatory agency to play.
“We have no insight into the safety culture of the utilities,” noted Rosen at a 2003 meeting with ACRS and NRC. At that meeting, a former NRC regional administrator, Thomas E. Murley, reportedly noted in the 1980s, NRC forbid use of the term “safety culture.”
“At long last, safety culture is back from the graveyard of forbidden lexicon in this country,” Murley said at the meeting.
Among Rosen’s many achievements is the honor of having been the first utility employee to work for The Institute of Nuclear Power (INPO), a self-regulating organization set up by the utilities after the accident at Three Mile Island.
The mission, he said, was to find “precursors before they find us.” Significant events are evaluated and information is gathered worldwide. INPO then writes to various power plants, Rosen explained, to let them know what they should learn, and then sends teams to plants to be sure they followed up on the lessons.
The key, he said, is to maintain a “safety-conscious work environment,” meaning workers must be encouraged to come forward with concerns.
But what about the harassment and persecution of some whistleblowers who attempt to rectify safety violations?
“We’re not proud of the record of whistleblower treatment,” Rosen conceded.
NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said “safety culture” is usually only an issue when an incident at a particular nuclear plant warrants further investigation and the NRC works with the plant to develop a heightened emphasis on safety.
“We don’t get involved with the day-to-day management of a plant unless we see a decline in performance,” Sheehan said, “but if that happens, we have a number of ways we can do that. It’s evolving. Our hands are not tied.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists is considered the lead watchdog looking out at the nation’s 103 nuclear power plants at the NRC. UCS nuclear safety engineer David Lochbaum has said safety risks might well be minimized by the NRC’s regulatory power, if only it was correctly enforced and executed.
“An aggressive regulator consistently enforcing federal safety regulations provides the best protection against these risks. Sadly, America lacks such protection. Since UCS began its nuclear safety project nearly three decades ago, we have engaged the NRC…countless times. We advocated enforcement of existing regulations far more often than for adoption of new regulations. By failing to consistently enforce the regulations, the NRC exposes millions of Americans to greater risk than necessary.”
An incident at the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio, dubbed by Lochbaum as “the reactor with a hole in its head,” is an illustration of this concern.
Accidents Do Happen
For years, Lochbaum has been compiling data to support the tenuous nature of nuclear mishaps, accidents and incidents. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl occupy the top slots in public memory, but other events also demonstrate the ease with which accidents sometimes occur, despite all efforts at prevention.
On June 17, 1970, an operator at the LaCrosse nuclear plant in Georgia was cleaning the control room with a dust cloth when it became snagged on a key switch, and shut the plant down. A feather duster became the preventive future tool.
A year later, an Air Force B-2 bomber crashed 20 seconds short of Michigan’s Big Rock nuclear plant, killing all nine crew members.
UCS is vigilant not only in monitoring the nation’s 103 nuclear plants, but also the NRC, keeping an eye on perceived “failure of regulators to take effective action.”
“We are effective,” Lochbaum said. “Our actions have resulted in safety regulations being upgraded, in plants being shut down, and in important modifications to plant emergency systems and procedures. But there is much more work to do.”
Sometimes accidents span a heartbeat, and sometimes the slow erosion of mechanical equipment takes shape without notice.
“The Davis-Besse plant is a classic example of a plant that went bad,” Rosen said.
The reactor core at the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio sits within a metal pot. What happened to the reactor vessel is considered one of the worst accidents in the history of the nuclear industry. Water routinely leaked onto the reactor vessel’s outer surface, which lacked a protective stainless steel coating. Boric acid ate its way through the carbon steel wall until it reached the backside of the inner liner. High pressure inside the reactor vessel pushed the stainless steel outward into the cavity formed by the boric acid.
In March 2002, the problem was officially recognized, but warning signs had been ignored for years. The mess cost $600 million to clean up.
“Davis-Besse didn’t happen overnight,” Rosen said. “There were lots of warnings, missed by everybody. We’ve analyzed the data, and my answer is not universally accepted by everybody. Their safety culture degraded. No matter how many safety regulations are thrown at the plants, they still have to do the right thing when challenged.”
The Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania was the site of the worst American nuclear plant disaster when it experienced a loss of coolant accident in March 1979. Emergency pumps automatically started to replace the water flowing from the leak. Operators turned off the pumps because instruments falsely indicated too much water in the reactor vessel. Within two hours, the reactor core overheated and partially melted, triggering the evacuation of nearly 150,000 people.
Westchester residents have become familiar with emergency shutdowns at Indian Point, sparked by a range of causes from a fire to a blown steam tube.
Riverkeeper Senior Policy Analyst Kyle Rabin said there are several important issues dogging Indian Point, resulting in 400 public officials signing up to demand closure. Low employee morale, fearful employees keeping safety hazards secret and a backlog of maintenance are troubling, he said.
Small screens over the sump pumps could be a disaster, Rabin said. Riverkeeper filed a petition with NRC last September to seek a remedy, because, Rabin contended, a “loss of coolant accident could lead to sump pumps being clogged with debris, ultimately leading to a meltdown.”
NRC denied the petition for plant closure and gave Indian Point’s parent company, Entergy, a 2007 deadline for rectifying the hazard.
“So the public has to live with this for several more years,” Rabin noted, “because NRC doesn’t want to burden Entergy with the cost.”
“You don’t change the light bulbs in your house before they stop working,” Rosen said, adding that is also the case for routine equipment and parts at nuclear plants while other, more crucial aspects of operation, are “replaced before they fail.”
Three separate consortiums have formed, Rosen said, with plans to construct three new nuclear plants by 2010, helping to fulfill President Bush’s “Nuclear Power 2010” program, which entails the government and industry sharing the costs of getting new plants online in the next six years.
The new plants, Rosen said, will be “much safer.”
“The future of the industry is very exciting, if you’re a nuclear person,” Rosen said. “Nuclear power can power the future of the world.”“