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Fixing America's Nuclear Waste Storage Problem | The Nation

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Fixing America's Nuclear Waste Storage Problem

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In March 1992 George Galatis, a nuclear engineer at the Millstone nuclear power station in Waterford, Connecticut, became alarmed during a refueling. The reactor had to be shut down and the full radioactive core of the Unit 1 reactor, which held thousands of rods, was removed and then dumped into the spent fuel pool—a blatant violation of Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) safety requirements.

 

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Robert Alvarez
Robert Alvarez, an Institute for Policy Studies senior scholar, served as a senior policy adviser to the Secretary of...

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Washington continues to evade responsibility for forty-seven years of contamination.


GREECE [heart] MACEDONIA

New York City

Dusko Doder's assertion, in "Balkans Breakdown" [April 30], that Greece was against the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia's (FYROM) existence is erroneous and unfounded, especially in light of Greece's continuous support for FYROM during the Balkan crisis. Besides condemning the terrorist attacks against FYROM's northwestern regions, Greece from the beginning firmly reiterated its support for its Balkan neighbor. In his message to FYROM Prime Minister Georgievski, Greek Prime Minister Simitis stressed that "Greece considers the sovereignty and territorial integrity of FYROM within its internationally recognized borders essential for the stability in our region and unequivocally condemns all violent acts aiming at its destabilization."

Simitis assured Georgievski that Greece, in close cooperation with its partners in NATO and the EU on the situation, called on the international community to take appropriate measures to avoid further escalation in that sensitive region. Greek Foreign Affairs Minister George Papandreou, who was among the first to visit Skopje and offer support, said that Greece was prepared to participate in a multinational force aiming at protecting FYROM.

Regarding Greece's position on the use by FYROM of the name "Macedonia," Simitis reiterated that in his recent talks with Georgievski they agreed that this matter must be resolved as quickly as possible.

DIMITRIS GEMELOS
Greek Press and Information Office


DODER REPLIES

Vienna, Va.

As an information official, Dr. Gemelos is paid to have a selective memory. A few facts: In 1992, both Greece and Serbia were engaged in relentless harassment of the new Macedonian state. The Greeks banned the tiny country's access to the port of Thessaloniki, while the Serbs banned export of food to Macedonia. The Serb and Greek leaders, Slobodan Milosevic and Konstantin Mitsotakis, actively considered Macedonia's partition. In April 1992, after Milosevic returned from Athens, he publicly proposed a Greek-Serb confederation. Prime Minister Mitsotakis backed away from this idea when some key people in the ruling New Democracy Party publicly broke away. The grand old man of conservative politics, George Rallis (the former prime minister, whose father and grandfather were also prime ministers) resigned his parliamentary seat protesting Mitsotakis's policy toward Macedonia, which he said was endangering Greece's ties to Europe.

Dr. Gemelos quotes George Papandreou, whose father was elected prime minister in 1993 on a platform denouncing the incumbent Mitsotakis for taking part in UN-sponsored talks to resolve the Macedonian crisis. "Greece cannot and should not accept a nation with the name Macedonia on its borders," Papandreou insisted. In November 1993 he terminated UN-sponsored talks on resolving the Macedonian-Greek conflict. In February 1994, he imposed a total embargo on Macedonia. The Greek government's slogan, which could be seen everywhere, was: "Macedonia has been a part of Greece for 3,200 years."

It is perhaps most telling that Dr. Gemelos does not refer to Macedonia as Macedonia but as FYROM--nine years after that unhappy territory became a fully fledged member of the United Nations.

DUSKO DODER



TAKE THE TOYS AWAY FROM THE BOYS

Washington, D.C.

Bill Hartung, in "Bush's Nuclear Revival" [March 12], asserts a view widely held by the peace community that the Bush Administration's nuclear posture review, and the push for a National Missile Defense (NMD), will rekindle a nuclear arms race. If only it were that simple. In all likelihood, the Bush review has intensified the internal conflict within the military establishment between burgeoning conventional- weapons spending and the enormous costs of supporting excessively large nuclear targeting requirements. There's a good chance that nuclear weapons will be cut further. DOE weapons labs are already looking for a new "niche market" by pushing for new, low-yield precision nuclear "bunker busters." In addition to enormous operations and maintenance costs of deployment, nuclear weapons states are being forced to internalize additional large costs of nuclear material legacies, and to shore up deteriorating and dangerous nuclear weapons facilities. These factors add greatly to the cost of maintaining the roughly 7,500 existing nuclear weapons. Even after significant reductions over the past ten years, the real costs of the DOE's nuclear weapons program have nearly tripled. In effect, the "balloon mortgage" of the nuclear arms race is just coming due.

If past is prologue, George W. Bush will have to contend with the legacy of his father, who after a similar nuclear weapons posture review in 1990 imposed a moratorium on nuclear testing, eliminated battlefield nukes and removed other tactical nukes from deployment, ceased production of fissile materials, initiated a major downsizing of the weapons production complex, entered into an agreement to purchase 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium from Russian nuclear weapons, teed up the ratification of START I and initiated START II negotiations. George W.'s campaign rhetoric was very clear about his promises to take unilateral nuclear disarmament steps.

Specifically for Russia, deployment of NMD could mean serious harm to existing arms agreements, which is bad enough. However, the enormous expense of nuclear weapons is leading Russia to unilaterally slash its nuclear arsenal to pay for more urgent conventional-force requirements. To compensate for the loss of revenues from the Defense Ministry, the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry is actively trying to obtain hard currency by offering Russian sites as nuclear waste dumps for the commercial nuclear industry. A more imminent threat to the world than NMD comes from the spread of excess fissile materials in the former Soviet Union.

The nuclear arms buildup scenario by China is less certain, given China's minimal nuclear deterrent capability. However, the days of huge nuclear buildups based on the concept of "how many times the rubble will bounce" are over. China and other nations merely have to look at the enormous and tragic debacle created by the United States and Russia over the past half-century. Provocative acts not connected to NMD, like pushing for "usable" nuclear weapons, can unleash efforts by China and other countries to do the same.

The NMD program is meant to open the door for a major weaponization of space using an array of next-generation nonnuclear weapons. NMD is just the first step in achieving the Pentagon's long-range objective of US military domination of space, where weapons are envisioned to do things like cripple the electrical infrastructures of entire nations.

The consequences of NMD testing and deployment by other nations are likely to be mixed. They will probably take the form of economic and military acts that will alienate the United States from its historical friends and former enemies at a time of growing global political instability. But these problems should not be confused with a steep new cold war-era buildup of nuclear weapons. That nuclear arms race cannot be restarted.

ROBERT ALVAREZ


HARTUNG REPLIES

New York City

I thank Robert Alvarez for his thoughtful response to my editorial. He has a long and distinguished record of dealing with nuclear issues, both as a nongovernmental expert and at the Energy Department, and I respect his judgment.

My concern about the Bush nuclear posture--at least the variant supported by advisers like Stephen Hadley and Robert Joseph, both of whom participated in the National Institute for Public Policy's hair-raising study on this issue--is not necessarily that it will lead to huge numerical increases in global nuclear weapons stockpiles. My concern is that by pushing a technical solution to nuclear dangers (missile defense) while pressing for a new generation of allegedly more "usable" low-yield nuclear weapons, the Bush Administration will re-legitimize nuclear weapons as an "acceptable" instrument of coercive diplomacy and outright warfare. This in turn could push China to build hundreds or perhaps as many as a thousand or more nuclear-armed missiles to augment its current force of eighteen. Russia would be more inclined to keep its nuclear forces on alert, increasing the possibility of an accidental launch in some future crisis. And all bets would be off in terms of capping the nuclear programs of India and Pakistan or the nuclear ambitions of states like Iran and Iraq. The danger would not be increasing numbers of weapons, but an increased risk that one of them might be used in a regional conflict.

I do not dismiss Alvarez's extremely important arguments. The economic and environmental costs of sustaining cold war-style nuclear arsenals are coming home to roost. There are obvious incentives for Washington, Moscow and Beijing to reduce these forces, if for no other reason than that they will gobble up resources that could be used for other military purposes. And given the daunting technical obstacles standing in the way of fielding even a modest missile defense system, Bush's dream of a multitiered missile shield is by no means inevitable. Funding priorities that may compete with ballistic missile defense in the Pentagon budget include weaponizing space, building a new generation of lighter, "smarter" weapons and increasing the mobility of US forces--not to mention building all those big-ticket weapons platforms left over from the drawing boards of the cold war. Even if the Pentagon decides not to pursue a major nuclear buildup, the Bush Administration's highly militarized approach to foreign policy is worth opposing in its own right, even if it is accompanied by some reductions in the numbers of nuclear weapons, but that's a longer discussion.

Despite the excellent points made by Alvarez, my fear is that if Bush doesn't hear strong, clear opposition to the more destructive elements of his emerging nuclear doctrine--from the media, the public, Capitol Hill and cooler heads in his own party--he may resist the strong logic favoring denuclearization in pursuit of a deluded and dangerous ideology of nuclear superiority that should have long since been tossed into the dustbin of history. Given his Administration's behavior in its first few months, I'm not inclined to trust the good intentions or common sense of the Bush foreign policy team on a matter as sensitive and dangerous as nuclear weapons policy.

WILLIAM D. HARTUNG

The pool was already quite full. It wasn’t designed to suddenly hold those very radioactive and thermally hot fuel rods, which give off so much radiation that an unshielded person nearby would receive a lethal dose in seconds. In a previous incident around that time, a worker’s boots melted during this procedure. Because the pool could overheat, and possibly cause the pumps and cooling equipment to fail, the NRC had required reactor operators to wait for sixty-five hours before performing this task—with good reason. NRC studies over the past thirty years have consistently shown that even partial drainage of a spent fuel pool that exposed highly radioactive rods could release an enormous amount of radioactivity into the environment. Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer with many years of experience at US nuclear reactors, describes this kind of accident as “Chernobyl on steroids.”

Northeast Utility (which sold the Millstone reactors to Dominion Power in 2000) was standing to lose about $500,000 a day for replacement power if it followed the rules calling for a shutdown that would last more than two months. It had taken this shortcut for many years, while the NRC deliberately looked the other way.

By this time, the corporations that owned the nation’s nuclear reactors were stuffing about four times more spent fuel into storage pools than the pools were designed to accommodate, with the NRC’s blessing. It took several years for Galatis to force the NRC to take action at Millstone, at the expense of his career. His whistleblowing landed him on the cover of Time and embarrassed the NRC into performing a more thorough inspection of the reactor. The agency found a host of problems and ordered Unit 1 closed in 1996. The reactor was permanently shut down in 1998, but the spent fuel remains in a pool while the reactor is still being decommissioned, thirteen years later.

In the tradition of no good deed going unpunished, the Republican-controlled Congress, led by then–Senator Pete Domenici, was outraged over Millstone 1’s closure and made sure that the NRC would never do this again. In his autobiography, Domenici proudly notes that he sought to cut 700 jobs at the NRC in 1999, effectively gutting its regulatory efforts. “While many NRC requirements had questionable impact on safety,” Domenici said, “their impact on the price of nuclear energy was far more obvious. This ‘tough love’ approach was necessary.”

Domenici had his way. By 2000, the NRC sharply curtailed its oversight activities and became more of an enabler of nuclear power than a regulator. To this day, it remains overly dependent on nuclear industry self-reporting of problems.

Nearly twenty years after George Galatis began his lonely struggle to improve safety of spent fuel pools, the Fukushima catastrophe in Japan has once again turned a spotlight on this serious hazard in the United States. The explosions at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi station left the spent fuel pools at three reactors exposed to the open sky, as Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), the company that owns the crippled power station, desperately try to keep them cool with thousands of tons of water. Spent fuel in one pool is believed to have caught fire and exploded. American reactors have generated about 65,000 metric tons of spent fuel, of which 75 percent is stored in pools, according to Nuclear Energy Institute data. No other nation has generated this much radioactivity from either nuclear power or nuclear weapons production.

Nearly 40 percent of the radioactivity in US spent fuel is cesium-137. The 4.5 billion curies of radioactive cesium-137 in US spent reactor fuel is roughly twenty times more than what was released by all worldwide atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. American spent fuel pools hold about fifteen to thirty times more cesium-137 than the 1986 Chernobyl accident released. For instance, the pool at the Vermont Yankee reactor, a BWR Mark I (a boiling-water reactor, the same design as the four crippled reactors in Fukushima), currently holds nearly three times the amount of spent fuel stored at Dai-Ichi’s Unit 4 reactor. The Millstone reactors, which have the largest spent-fuel inventory in the United States, hold over five times more radioactivity than the combined total in the pools at the four wrecked Dai-Ichi reactors.

Even though they contain some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet, US spent nuclear fuel pools are mostly contained in ordinary industrial structures designed to merely protect them against the elements. Some are made from materials commonly used to house big-box stores and car dealerships.

The United States has thirty-one boiling water reactors with pools elevated several stories above ground, similar to those at Dai-Ichi. As in Japan, all spent fuel pools at nuclear power plants do not have steel-lined, concrete barriers that cover reactor vessels to prevent the escape of radioactivity. They are not required to have back-up generators to keep used fuel rods cool if offsite power is lost.

For nearly thirty years, NRC waste-storage requirements have remained contingent on the opening of a permanent waste repository that has yet to materialize. Now that the Obama administration has canceled plans to build a permanent deep-disposal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, spent fuel at the nation’s 104 reactors will continue to accumulate and is likely remain onsite for decades to come.

Domenici and the nuclear industry have often said that spent nuclear fuel could be stacked on a football field ten feet deep. There’s a problem with this assertion. First, it’s not remotely feasible and, most certainly, ill advised to squeeze the largest concentration of radioactivity on the planet onto a field. This would unleash chain reactions involving enough plutonium to fuel about 150,000 nuclear weapons, and could ignite a radiological fire that would cause long-term land contamination that would make Chernobyl and Fukushima look like pimples on a pumpkin. It would deliver lethal radiation doses to thousands if not millions of people hundreds of miles away. In other words, storing the entire nation’s spent fuel in one place would be a mistake.

The nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl illustrated the damage cesium-137 can wreak. Nearly 200,000 residents from 187 settlements were permanently evacuated because of contamination by cesium-137. The total area of this radiation-control zone is huge. At more than 6,000 square miles, it is equal to about two-thirds the area of the State of New Jersey. During the following decade, the population of the region declined by almost half because of migration to areas of lower contamination.

On June 7 the Japanese government reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency that the amount of radioactivity released into the atmosphere during the first week of the accident was twice its previous estimate. The government failed to mention that an equally large amount was discharged into the sea, indicating that the Fukushima accident may have released more radioactivity into the environment than was released at Chernobyl. Around the same time, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan reported that cesium-137 contamination from the accident had rendered an area about seventeen times bigger than Manhattan uninhabitable.

I co-authored a report in 2003 that explained how a spent fuel pool fire in the United States could render an area uninhabitable that would be as much as sixty times larger than that created by the Chernobyl accident. If this were to happen at one of the Indian Point nuclear reactors—located about twenty-five miles from New York City—it could result in as many as 5,600 cancer deaths and $461 billion in damages.

The US government should promptly take steps to reduce these risks by placing all spent nuclear fuel older than five years in dry, hardened storage casks—something Germany did twenty-five years ago. It would take about ten years and cost $3.5–7 billion to accomplish. If the cost were transferred to energy consumers, the expenditure would result in a marginal increase of less than 0.4 cents per kilowatt-hour for consumers of nuclear-generated electricity. Despite the destruction wreaked by the earthquake and tsunamis in Japan, the dry casks at the Fukushima site were unscathed.

Another payment option is available for securing spent nuclear fuel. Money could be allocated from $18.1 billion in unexpended funds already collected from consumers of nuclear-generated electricity under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to establish a disposal site for high-level radioactive wastes.

After more than fifty years, the quest for permanent nuclear waste disposal remains illusory. One thing, however, is clear, whether we like it or not: the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet will remain in storage at US reactor sites for the indefinite future. In protecting America from nuclear catastrophe, safely securing the spent fuel by eliminating highly radioactive, crowded pools should be a public safety priority of the highest degree.

With a price tag of as much as $7 billion, the cost of fixing America’s nuclear vulnerabilities may sound high, especially given the heated budget debate occurring in Washington. But the price of doing too little is incalculable.

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