James Houle: No Making Peace With Atoms?

Redwood Valley

In May 1955, less than ten years after the United States had cremated 150,000 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in a raid that ended WWII and led to the eventual death from radiation of a total of 300,000, President Eisenhower introduced the still staggering Japanese nation to “Atoms for Peace”. A delegation of American industrialists, financial gurus and scientists brightly explained how this atom that had decimated their people just ten years ago was actually a wonderful gift. The delegation was disrupted during their presentation at Tokyo’s Hibya Park by protesters more concerned with the continuing plutonium poisoning and other still lethal gifts of nuclear fission. Atoms for Peace seemed a cruel joke in a country where hundreds of thousands still faced a slow death from radiation. The Japanese Diet did not see the humor in this cruel joke: it immediately established the Japan Atomic Energy Commission which eventually approved 55 nuclear power stations spread up and down the coasts in the world’s most earthquake hazardous country. (Will Parrish, Nuclear Chickens)

Approvals were streamlined, inspections waved, and technological short cuts introduced to reduce costs, bury problems and accelerate Japan’s industrial recovery. Will Parrish points out that: “One of the primary reasons the US decided to promote civilian nuclear power development in the first place was that these atoms for peace power plants could produce, as a byproduct, Plutonium, an essential fissionable material for advanced nuclear weapons. Plutonium, the most toxic substance on earth, does not exist in nature but is only available as a result of nuclear fission.” So, even in those very early days of the nuclear age, the US was not merely thinking warm and fuzzy thoughts about “peaceful atoms” but was developing sources of materials for use in its program to achieve global dominance over the Soviet Union.

Don’t Light a Fire You Cannot Put Out
Splitting the atom unleashes a primordial force beyond all our ability to control. We have seen, after the Chernobyl meltdown, that we cannot cool down that molten mass of radioactive material slowly and inexorably eating its way into the ground beneath the now-deserted plant site. Jonathan Schell has concluded that: “a stumbling, imperfect, and probably imperfect-able creature like ourselves is unfit to wield the stellar fire released by the split or fused atom. Surely the earth is provided with enough primordial forces of destruction without our help in introducing more, such as Plutonium.” In reference to the Trinity test in New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was detonated, J. Robert Oppenheimer famously recalled the Bhagavad Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one. Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” We have lit a fire we cannot possibly quench and yet we have proceeded to build nuclear plants on hazardous sites, comfortable with our faith in science and technology and our arrogant belief that we can overcome all problems, control the physical world, use nature to our benefit and guarantee our corporations a healthy profit.

What Did We Learn From Chernobyl and Three Mile Island?
In 1979, just three months after start-up, the nuclear reactor at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania overheated when two cooling water pumps failed and their valves stuck closed. Half the reactor core melted. Fortunately, the outer reactor enclosure held and only small quantities of radioactive nuclides were released. The shock of this failure halted all new nuclear power licensing in the US, but did not stop work on the many already in construction. Then, in 1986, the Chernobyl power plant in the Ukraine went critical. This older graphite-cooled reactor, one of four at the site, was undergoing a test of its ability to withstand a 60 second loss of cooling water. It flunked the test, overheated and ruptured. The plant had been operating for several years even while the operators knew that with a loss of primary coolant, it would take too long for the backup diesels to get into full operation to prevent meltdown. The graphite moderator, once exposed to air, ignited releasing an enormous cloud of poisonous materials. The plume of death circled the world twice before dissipating. Eventually one-third of a million people had to be relocated. We were told by the IAEA and WHO that only 4000 had died as a result of this exposure, but a new study now estimates the death toll from 1986 to 2004 at 985,000 from radioactive releases worldwide. As outlined by Physicians for Social Responsibility, the radio nuclides released in the plume of death include Iodine 131 which migrates in the air and causes thyroid cancers especially in children, Cesium 137 which concentrates in bones and causes leukemia, Strontium 90, and Plutonium 239 which causes lung cancer and can kill instantaneously if inhaled in any sizable dose. The book in which this has now been reported, 25 years after the accident, concludes by quoting President John F. Kennedy’s call in 1963 for an end to atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Yablokov then comments: “The Chernobyl catastrophe demonstrates that the nuclear industry’s willingness to risk the health of humanity and our environment with nuclear power plants that will result, not only theoretically, but practically, in the same level of hazard as with nuclear weapons.” (Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, New York Academy of Sciences, 2010: Yablokov & Nesterenko). “I am not optimistic about the situation at Fukushima. It’s especially dangerous if plutonium is released as inhalation of plutonium results in a high probability of cancer. A release of plutonium will contaminate that area forever and it is impossible to clean up. Plutonium is deadly for 240,000 years.” Fukushima Reactor #3 is fueled by a mixture of uranium mixed with recycled plutonium. (www.BeyondNuclear.org)

Old Problems Overlooked
Today, at least five of Japan’s arsenal of 55 nuclear reactors have experienced severe damage from the earthquake and tsunami of March 11th and are leaking radioactive wastes including cesium and iodine into the atmosphere. All are of General Electric BWR (boiling water reactor) design and have all been in service close to 40 years. These units have several inherent weaknesses.

1.Metallurgical failures of the nickel based super-alloys in the reactor cores were first identified in the 1960s. These involved embrittlement and inter granular stress corrosion cracking. TEPCO’s (Tokyo Electric Power) attempts to repair cracks in reactor vessel shrouds in 13 units were reviewed and accepted by the Japanese Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). NISA assigned responsibility for future inspections of the reactor shrouds to TEPCO.(WSWS Mike Head 3/17/11) and washed their hands of the problem. There is an acknowledgment in Japan that regulatory agencies have no right or authority to impede the actions of private companies.

2.The design of the GE reactors has been a matter of controversy for 35 years. Dale Bridenbaugh and two colleagues at GE resigned in 1976 when they became convinced the design, not withstanding the threat of cracks, was so flawed it would lead to a devastating accident. Harry Denton, an officer of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission asserted in the mid-1980s that there was a 90% probability of these reactors bursting in a few hours, should fuel rods overheat and melt.

3.A major earthquake is likely to cause, as it did at Fukushima, a region-wide power failure and that would shut down the main electric-driven cooling pumps. Because of this possibility, the backup diesels-driven pumps must always be instantly operable. This has seldom been the case however, due to lack of periodic testing, poor maintenance and no recognition that this was really a serious problem. Furthermore, diesel engines are often located in basement areas where tsunami flooding would render them inoperable.

4.Spent fuel pools, exposed to the atmosphere, are densely packed with as many as 20 years accumulation of fuel rods awaiting an ultimate disposal site that has never been found. The result is often overcrowding in the ponds, poor water circulation and damage to the older but still very radioactive rods. In the event of a loss of coolant accident, an exposed zirconium rod will react with water and release hydrogen, causing fires and explosions. The Germans have now put all their nuclear wastes in vitreous (dry cask) containers which no longer need cooling and can no longer ignite. The cost of these casks is high and few operating utilities have bothered with them unless forced by a lack of space. However, even these casks must find another home eventually, since their life is only 100 years and the half-life of Plutonium is 24,000 years.

In a cruel twist, Fukushima #1 was approved in Feb 2011 for another 10 years of operation after it had reached its design limit of 40. TEPCO has now admitted that they failed to inspect 33 pieces of equipment at the Fukushima Daiichi complex and another 24 at the nearby Fukushima Daini complex. These include cooling system electric pumps and diesel back up units. Earlier, TEPCO withheld data on cracks in the shrouds over the reactor enclosure that had first been reported in 2000 and never repaired. TEPCO now admits having falsified inspection reports and hidden equipment flaws for 16 years. (NYT 3-22-11). At the Kashiwazaki Kariwa plant 117 inspections were also missed. The March 2nd, 2011 report by Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Agency said that the missed inspections did not present an immediate risk to safety and gave TEPCO until June 2nd to respond. Eisaku Sato, a former governor of Fukushima Prefecture explained how the system works: “The Ministry of Energy, Trade and Industry, and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency all share cozy ties with TEPCO and other operators. Some of these operators offer lucrative jobs to former ministry officials in a practice known as “amakudari or descent from heaven.” . (NYT 3-22-11) “They are all birds of a feather” said the retired Dr. Sato philosophically.

The nuclear industry has always been dedicated to secrecy, as if the public could not possibly comprehend such a complex technology and must only be fed meager bites of well-laundered information that will not cause unnecessary fear or panic. With radiation being invisible and its results not immediate, secrecy was easy. After 1945, the United States did not want the public to realize the extent of the cruelty and inhumanity we had inflicted upon the Japanese with the nuclear bombs. During our 40 year cold war standoff with the Soviet Union, the public was not aware of how close we came to another nuclear war. With the arrival of Atoms for Peace, we were seldom informed of the risks taken in design of nuclear power stations nor advised of the instances when they came dangerously close to meltdown. It was years before Three Mile Island’s threat was revealed and only in the past year have data on the true death toll from Chernobyl been published. The Atomic Energy Commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Agency have always downplayed dangers of radiation and have told us repeatedly that these low level exposures represented no human threat. (Truthout: What is the Meaning of Safe 3/22/11)

Where Were The Whistleblowers?
The laxity of safety standards in the design, maintenance and operation of nuclear power plants in Japan and the United States is startling. The owners of these plants were repeatedly informed of the dangers and chose to ignore the risks without penalty. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an arm of the United Nations, said in 2008 that safety rules were out of date and a strong earthquake would pose a serious problem in Japan. These fears were also expressed at the 2008 G-8 Nuclear Safety and Security Group meeting in Tokyo (The Telegraph, 3/16/11). The Japanese government responded by building an emergency response center at Fukushima, a facility immediately put out of action when the 9.0 tremor hit, Wikileaks cables disclose how in 2006 the Japanese Government opposed a court order to shut down nuclear power stations in western Japan because “the plants were built to out-of-date specifications and could only withstand a 6.5 magnitude earthquake”. The Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency responded: “We believe the reactors are safe and that all safety analyzes were appropriately conducted.” The government successfully overturned the court order in 2009.

The costs of cleanup at Fukushima will be fatal to many of the workers now involved. The Chernobyl experience is chilling to recall: It is estimated that between 600,000 and one million people participated between 1986 and 1992 in cleanup work at Chernobyl. They were called “Liquidators” by the Russians. According to Vyacheslavslav Grishin of the Chernobyl Union, 60,000 have died from their exposure and 165,000 are permanently disabled. (Wikipedia 3-23-11)

Can Nuclear Power Have A Future After All This?
Apparently so. On March 2nd, just nine days before the 9.0 Richter earthquake and tsunami struck Fukushima, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a proposal by Nuclear Innovation North America (NINA) to build and operate two new reactors for the South Texas Project in Matagorda County, 90 miles southwest of Houston. President Obama provided $8.5 billion in loan guarantees for the project, a partnership of American investors with the already hapless TEPCO of Japan. This are part of Obama’s recently announced plan for a “Nuclear Renaissance” involving $36 million in loan guarantees for 6 nuclear plants in the US. No private financial institutions will finance nuclear plants in the US without such guarantees, knowing as they do the incredible risks involved. The Price Anderson Act of 1957 already takes corporations off the hook for any 3rd party liability in the event of major nuclear disasters. Nevertheless, movements are currently underway to shut down the two large West Coast nukes at Diablo Canyon and San Onofre in California. These plants house 4 very large reactors that have already operated 30 years. They were designed for 7.5 and 7.0 Richter earthquakes respectively in a region crisscrossed by geologic faults and a history of large quakes. The San Francisco of 1906 itself was a 7.7. The Fukushima Complex was designed for a 7.9 Richter. Our arrogant faith in technology and blind trust in our corporations continues.