Friday, April 17, 2009

A Radioactive Extension for Aging Nuclear Plants

For 10 years now, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been busily extending the operating license of nuclear power plants—designed to run for 40 years—another 20 years.

Imagine driving down a highway in a 60-year-old car.

But safety concerns are minimized by the NRC, a lapdog of the nuclear industry. Just as the NRC has never denied a construction or operating license for a nuclear plant anywhere, anytime in the U.S., it has rubber-stamped every application for a 20-year extension for now 52 nuclear plants.

That’s half the 104 nuclear plants in the U.S. and, as the 40-year licenses of the rest get set to expire, watch the NRC extend their licenses to run for another 20 years, too.

And it may end up to be more than 20 years. The New York Times in a report April 2 on the NRC extending the operating license to 60 years of the oldest nuclear plant in the U.S., Oyster Creek in New Jersey, noted that “some commission officials have even discussed the possibility of a second round of extensions that would allow reactors to operate for up to 80 years.”

Imagine driving down a highway in an 80-year-old car.

Consider how trustworthy that 1929 antique would be racing down the interstate.

“This decision is radioactive. To keep open the nation’s oldest nuclear power plant for another 20 years is just going to lead to a disaster,” said Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club. “We could easily replace the plant with 200 windmills that will not pose a danger.”

At the NRC hearings on the re-licensing of Oyster Creek, evidence was presented that the critical drywell liner—the shell that encases the reactor and is supposed to suppress radioactive steam during an accident—is too corroded to deal with a mishap. Major deterioration was also found in other areas of the plant 60 miles south of New York City.

Even an avid nuclear power booster, William Tucker, who recently published a pro-nuclear book, is calling for no operating license extensions for Oyster Creek and the Indian Point nuclear plants, 28 miles north of New York City which the NRC is also soon to rule on re-licensing. “Veterans of the nuclear industry I talk to say they are very concerned that relying on aging reactors like Oyster Creek and Indian Point is eventually going to lead to an accident which will kill nuclear power in this country forever,” said Tucker in a statement last week.

But many, many people would be killed, too.

The NRC working with Sandia National Laboratories did an analysis in the 1980s on the consequences of a meltdown with breach of containment at every nuclear plant in the United States—including Oyster Creek and the two operating Indian Point plants.

Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences for U.S. Nuclear Plants (acronymed CRAC-2) projected, for Oyster Creek: 16,000 “peak early fatalities;” 10,000 “peak early injuries;” 23,000 “peak cancer deaths;” and $79.8 billion in “scaled costs” in terms of property damage—and that was in 1980 dollars. For Indian Point 2, in a more densely populated area with more valuable real estate that would be rendered uninhabitable for millennia, it would be: 46,000 “peak early fatalities;” 141,000 “peak early injuries;” 13,000 “peak cancer deaths” and $274 billion in “scaled costs.” And for the slightly larger Indian Point 3 plant, it would be 50,000 “peak early fatalities;” 167,000 “peak early injuries;” 14,000 “peak cancer deaths;” and $314 billion in “scaled costs.” Again, those are 1980 dollars; it would be triple that today.

The World Nuclear Organization notes how “most of today’s nuclear plants…were originally designed for 30 or 40-year operating lives…Some components simply wear out, corrode or degrade to a low efficiency…The properties of materials may degrade with age, particularly with heat and neutron irradiation.”

But operators of nuclear power plants want to wring out as much from their investments as they can—and not only do they want them to operate beyond their expected lifetimes, they are seeking to run them hotter and harder in order to generate more power. And the NRC has been obliging the industry on this, too.

The first nuclear facilities the NRC gave permission to operate another 20 years were the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plants in Maryland 45 miles southeast of Washington, D.C. That was in 1999.

“The public has been closed out of the process,” said Paul Gunter, then with the Nuclear Information & Resource Service. He added: “The whole term ‘nuclear safety’ is an oxymoron. It’s an inherently dangerous process and an inherently dangerous industry that has been aging.”

Last week Gunter, now director of the Reactor Oversight Program of the organization Beyond Nuclear, said the NRC re-licensing program is “blind to how these machines are breaking apart at the molecular level…they embrittle, crack and corrode.” The agency in its “rigged game” is driving the nation toward a nuclear disaster, he said.

Can the NRC be stopped before disaster occurs?

The U.S. Congress finally became so disgusted with the Atomic Energy Commission and its nuclear boosterism—it, too, never denied a construction or operating license for a nuclear plant anywhere, anytime in the U.S..—that it abolished the AEC in 1974. Congress then created the NRC to ostensibly properly regulate the nuclear industry.

That has never happened.

It’s time that the NRC be abolished, too, along with the toxic technology that it promotes—nuclear power—before it is too late. Safe, clean renewable energy technologies are here today making dangerous nuclear power unnecessary.

Meanwhile, by extending the licenses of nuclear plants by 20 and now perhaps 40 years, the NRC has gone beyond tempting fate. It is asking for it, the it being an atomic catastrophe which would kill tens of thousands and render a part of the United States a dead zone.

(Published on CounterPunch April 13, 2009)

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