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The Crisis at Fukushima 4 Demands a Global Takeover

7:38 pm in Uncategorized by solartopia

We are now within two months of what may be humankind’s most dangerous moment since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Smoke rises in an aerial view of Fukushima

Harvey Wasserman argues Fukushima is dangerously close to causing a global catastrophe.

There is no excuse for not acting. All the resources our species can muster must be focussed on the fuel pool at Fukushima Unit 4.

Fukushima’s owner, Tokyo Electric (Tepco), says that within as few as 60 days it may begin trying to remove more than 1300 spent fuel rods from a badly damaged pool perched 100 feet in the air. The pool rests on a badly damaged building that is tilting, sinking and could easily come down in the next earthquake, if not on its own.

Some 400 tons of fuel in that pool could spew out more than 15,000 times as much radiation as was released at Hiroshima.

The one thing certain about this crisis is that Tepco does not have the scientific, engineering or financial resources to handle it. Nor does the Japanese government. The situation demands a coordinated worldwide effort of the best scientists and engineers our species can muster.

Why is this so serious?

We already know that thousands of tons of heavily contaminated water are pouring through the Fukushima site, carrying a devil’s brew of long-lived poisonous isotopes into the Pacific. Tuna irradiated with fallout traceable to Fukushima have already been caught off the coast of California. We can expect far worse.

Tepco continues to pour more water onto the proximate site of three melted reactor cores it must somehow keep cool.Steam plumes indicate fission may still be going on somewhere underground. But nobody knows exactly where those cores actually are.

Much of that irradiated water now sits in roughly a thousand huge but fragile tanks that have been quickly assembled and strewn around the site. Many are already leaking. All could shatter in the next earthquake, releasing thousands of tons of permanent poisons into the Pacific. Fresh reports show that Tepco has just dumped another thousand tons of contaminated liquids into the sea ( http://www.alternet.org/environment/ ).

The water flowing through the site is also undermining the remnant structures at Fukushima, including the one supporting the fuel pool at Unit Four.

More than 6,000 fuel assemblies now sit in a common pool just 50 meters from Unit Four. Some contain plutonium. The pool has no containment over it. It’s vulnerable to loss of coolant, the collapse of a nearby building, another earthquake, another tsunami and more.

Overall, more than 11,000 fuel assemblies are scattered around the Fukushima site. According to long-time expert and former Department of Energy official Robert Alvarez, there is more than 85 times as much lethal cesium on site as was released at Chernobyl.

Radioactive hot spots continue to be found around Japan. There are indications of heightened rates of thyroid damage among local children.

The immediate bottom line is that those fuel rods must somehow come safely out of the Unit Four fuel pool as soon as possible.

Just prior to the 3/11/11 earthquake and tsunami that shattered the Fukushima site, the core of Unit Four was removed for routine maintenance and refueling. Like some two dozen reactors in the US and too many more around the world, the General Electric-designed pool into which that core now sits is 100 feet in the air.

Spent fuel must somehow be kept under water. It’s clad in zirconium alloy which will spontaneously ignite when exposed to air. Long used in flash bulbs for cameras, zirconium burns with an extremely bright hot flame.

Each uncovered rod emits enough radiation to kill someone standing nearby in a matter of minutes. A conflagration could force all personnel to flee the site and render electronic machinery unworkable.

Read the rest of this entry →

Nuclear Power’s Green Mountain Grassroots Demise

4:42 am in Uncategorized by solartopia

In the wake of Fukushima, grassroots citizen action is shutting the worldwide nuclear power industry.

A Solartopian tipping point is upon us in the US, Europe and Japan which will re-define how the human race gets its energy.

States rights and local democracy are at the core of the battle. The definitive breaking point looms in Vermont. By mid-March a state board is likely to deny the Yankee reactor licenses to operate or to create radioactive waste.

If that happens, a Vermont shutdown could mark a critical moment in establishing state power over an atomic reactor. A critical domino would fall—as it has in Japan and Europe—and we will begin taking down old reactors all across the US. Four new reactors barely under construction will go down with them, making inevitable the end America’s age of atomic power.

In Vermont, the New Orleans-based Entergy bought the Yankee reactor in 2002. Entergy agreed to shut it if the state’s Public Service Board denied it a Certificate of Public Good to continue to operate and generate radioactive waste. That decision is due by March 21, the forty-year anniversary of the reactor’s 1972 opening.

Entergy has horrified many of its staunchest Green Mountain supporters. One of its cooling towers has simply collapsed from ancient rot and basic negligence. It has leaked tritium and other radioactive isotopes from pipes the company has said—under oath—do not exist. Entergy sued Vermont after the legislature voted (26 to 4) to shut the reactor. When its lawyers won in federal court, Entergy demanded the public pay it $4 million in legal fees.

But the company miscalculated. It welcomed federal Judge Garvin Murtha’s ruling that the legislature could not shut Yankee (the state is appealing). But Murtha also upheld the right of the Public Service Board to deny Entergy those operating and waste production permits. Read the rest of this entry →

Obama’s Atomic Blunder

10:15 pm in Uncategorized by solartopia

Obama’s Atomic Blunder

By Harvey Wasserman

As Vermont seethes with radioactive contamination and the Democratic Party crumbles, Barack Obama has plunged into the atomic abyss.

In the face of fierce green opposition and withering scorn from both liberal and conservative budget hawks, Obama has done what George W. Bush could not—pledge billions of taxpayer dollars for a relapse of the 20th Century’s most expensive technological failure.

Obama has announced some $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for two new reactors planned for Georgia. Their Westinghouse AP-1000 designs have been rejected by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as being unable to withstand natural cataclysms like hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes.

The Vogtle site was to originally host four reactors at a total cost of $600 million; it wound up with two at $9 billion.

The Southern Company which wants to build these two new reactors has cut at least one deal with Japanese financiers set to cash in on American taxpayer largess. The interest rate on the federal guarantees remains bitterly contested. The funding is being debated between at least five government agencies, and may well be tested in the courts. It’s not clear whether union labor will be required and what impact that might have on construction costs.

The Congressional Budget Office and other analysts warn the likely failure rate for government-back reactor construction loans could be in excess of 50%. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu has admitted he was unaware of the CBO’s report when he signed on to the Georgia guarantees.

Over the past several years the estimated price tag for proposed new reactors has jumped from $2-3 billion each in some cases to more than $12 billion today. The Chair of the NRC currently estimates it at $10 billion, well before a single construction license has been issued, which will take at least a year.

Energy experts at the Rocky Mountain Institute and elsewhere estimate that a dollar invested in increased efficiency could save as much as seven times as much energy than one invested in nuclear plants can produce, while producing ten times as many permanent jobs.

Georgia has been targeted largely because its regulators have demanded ratepayers put up the cash for the reactors as they’re being built. Florida and Georgia are among a small handful of states taxing electric consumers for projects that cannot come on line for many years, and that may never deliver a single electron of electricity.

Two Florida Public Service Commission members, recently appointed by Republican Governor Charlie Crist (now a candidate for the US Senate), helped reject over a billion dollars in rate hikes demanded by Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy, both of which want to build double-reactors at ratepayer expense. The utilities now say they’ll postpone the projects proposed for Turkey Point and Levy County.

In 2005 the Bush Administration set aside some $18.5 billion for reactor loan guarantees, but the Department of Energy has been unable to administer them. Obama wants an additional $36 billion to bring the fund up to $54.5 billion. Proposed projects in South Carolina, Maryland and Texas appear to be next in line.

But the NRC has raised serious questions about Toshiba-owned Westinghouse’s AP-1000 slated for Georgia’s Vogtle site, as well as for South Carolina and Turkey Point. The French-made EPR design proposed for Maryland has been challenged by regulators in Finland, France and Great Britain. In Texas, a $4 billion price jump has sparked a political upheaval in San Antonio and elsewhere, throwing the future of that project in doubt.

Taxpayers are also on the hook for potential future accidents from these new reactors. In 1957, the industry promised Congress and the country that nuclear technology would quickly advance to the point that private insurers would take on the liability for any future disaster, which could by all serious estimates run into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Only $11 billion has been set aside the cover the cost of such a catastrophe. But now the industry says it will not build even this next generation of plants without taxpayers underwriting liability for future accidents. Thus the “temporary” program could ultimately stretch out to a full century or more.

In the interim, Obama has all but killed Nevada’s proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump. He has appointed a commission of nuclear advocates to “investigate” the future of high-level reactor waste. But after 53 years, the industry is further from a solution than ever.

Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has reported that at least 27 of America’s 104 licensed reactors are now leaking radioactive tritium. The worst case may be Entergy’s Vermont Yankee, near the state’s southeastern border with New Hampshire and Massachusetts. High levels of contamination have been found in test wells around the reactor, and experts believe the Connecticut River is at serious risk.

A furious statewide grassroots campaign aims to shut the plant, whose license expires in 2012. A binding agreement between Entergy and the state gives the legislature the power to deny an extension. US Senator Bernie Saunders (D-VY) has demanded the plant close. The legislature may vote may vote on it in a matter of days.

Obama has now driven a deep wedge between himself and the core of the environmental movement, which remains fiercely anti-nuclear. While reactor advocates paint the technology green, the opposition has been joined by fiscal conservatives like the National Taxpayer Institute, the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

Reactor backers hailing a “renaissance” in atomic energy studiously ignore France’s catastrophic Olkiluoto project, now $3 billion over budget and 3 years behind schedule. Parallel problems have crippled another project at Flamanville, France, and are virtually certain to surface in the US.

The reactor industry has spent untold millions lobbying for this first round of loan guarantees. There’s no doubt it will seek far more in the coming months. Having failed to secure private American financing, the question will be: in a tight economy, how much public money will Congress throw at this technology.

The potential flow of taxpayer guarantees to Georgia means nuclear opponents now have a tangible target. Also guaranteed is ferocious grassroots opposition to financing, licensing and construction of this and all other new reactor proposals, as well as to continued operation of leaky rustbucket reactors like Vermont Yankee.

The “atomic renaissance” is still a very long way from going tangibly critical.

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Harvey Wasserman is Senior Advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service. His SOLARTOPIA! OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH is at www.solartopia.org.

Vermont’s Radioactive Nightmare

10:08 pm in Uncategorized by solartopia

Like a decayed flotilla of rickety steamers, at least 27 of America’s 104 aging atomic reactors are known to be leaking radioactive tritium, which is linked to cancer if inhaled or ingested through the throat or skin.

The fallout has been fiercest at Vermont Yankee, where a flood of cover-ups has infuriated and terrified near neighbors who say the reactor was never meant to operate more than 30 years, and must now shut.

In 2007 one of Yankee’s 22 cooling towers simply collapsed due to rot.

Now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has confirmed tritium levels in a monitoring well at Vernon to be 3.5 times the federal safety standard. The leaks apparently came from underground pipes whose very existence was recently denied by VY officials in under-oath testimony at a public hearing. Vermont’s pro-nuclear Republican Governor Jim Douglas has termed the event "a breach of trust that cannot be tolerated."

Yankee is owned by Entergy, a Mississippi-based consortium that also owns New York’s Indian Point reactor, which suffered an internal gusher of radioactive water in May, 2009. Another leak has just been found at Oconee in South Carolina. Illinois’ Braidwood leaked so many millions of gallons of tritium-laced water that its owner, Exelon, was forced to buy a new municipal water system for a nearby town.

Entergy says none of Yankee’s tritium has been found in local drinking water or in the Connecticut River, which supplies the plant’s cooling water. Vernon sits near Vermont’s southeast border with Massachusetts, across the river from New Hampshire. "The existence of tritium in such low levels does not present a risk to public health or safety whatsoever," says the company’s Robert Williams.

But VY is just the latest of more than two dozen U.S. nuclear plants—many built in the 1960s and ’70s—to be found with leaking tritium.

Last year at New Jersey’s Oyster Creek, tritium was reported leaking a second time shortly after Exelon got it a 20-year license extension. Entergy’s Pilgrim reactor, at Plymouth, Massachusetts, has recently leaked tritium into the ground.

The NRC’s Neil Sheehan has confirmed leaks involving 27 of 104 licensed US reactors, and says that probably doesn’t account for all of them. At Yankee, Oyster Creek and elsewhere, rotting pipes are the likeliest culprit, but no one is 100% certain.

The epidemic has escalated public dismay. Vermont state Representative Tony Klein, chair of House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, says that "when you have public officials that the public depends on for their health and welfare making casual statements that a radioactive substance is not harmful to you, I think that’s ludicrous."

For decades the Encylopedia Britannica, National Academy of Sciences and other primary scientific bodies have confirmed that no dose of radiation, no matter how small, can ever be deemed perfectly safe. "There is no threshold of exposure below which low levels of ionizing radiation can be demonstrated to be harmless or beneficial," says Richard R. Monson, associate dean for professional education and professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Thus far the NRC has granted a series of license renewals to aging reactors. But by virtue of a long-standing agreement with Entergy, the Vermont Legislature can deny Yankee’s request for a 20-year extension. In the 1990s local groups like the Citizen’s Awareness Network (http://www.vtcitizen.org/) helped force down the Yankee Rowe plant on the Deerfield River in Massachusetts, about 25 miles southwest of Vernon. The root cause was concern over embrittlement of the elderly reactor’s core, a key to the future of all other aging nukes.

In Vermont, angry debate has also arisen over Entergy’s dwindling decommissioning fund, which has been slashed by a declining stock market. Entergy has proposed spinning off plant ownership to a shell corporation whose assets may be even more dubious. But area residents also fear Entergy may be pushing Yankee operations in an attempt to find the source of its leaks.

With VY operating under duress, Katz and others report an increasing wave of concern among local citizens starting to think seriously about how they might evacuate if Entergy keeps pushing. "This plant appears to be leaking from its reactor piping, but they don’t really know where," she says. "They don’t want to shut down because they’re afraid they’ll never get back up. Entergy is choosing to protect its bottom line rather than the health and safety of our community."

Indeed, a desperate national industry now pushing for massive federal subsidies to build new reactors may not survive a flood of elderly clunkers being forced to close by the weight of their own contamination. "This is an industry trying to build a new fleet of Titanics while the old ones are sinking," says Katz.

Amidst the gusher of tritium leaks, Governor Douglas wants to postpone the legislature’s vote on VY’s license extension. But his term expires in November, and all five Democratic gubernatorial candidates are pledged to a Yankee shutdown.

What happens next will be defined by fierce grassroots activism crashing into a flood of corporate money in support of a rickety old reactor being operated with increasing recklessness.

The highly hyped "reactor renaissance"—and much more—may hang in the balance. Stay tuned.

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Harvey Wasserman is Senior Advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, and Senior Editor of www.freepress.org, where this article first appeared. His SOLARTOPIA! OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH is at www.harveywasserman.com.

Harvey Wasserman is Senior Advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service. His SOLARTOPIA! OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH is at www.solartopia.org.