Would you pay for insurance to cover another man’s liability in case he damages you – with a special provision making it unlikely you could ever collect a penny? You think not? You already are doing just that.
By act of Congress, if an atomic power plant (there are 14 in operation) has an accident – say a billion dollar explosion – the insurance is paid by you and us. Up to a limit of 560 million dollars. Any damage beyond that point goes uncompensated, by act of Congress.
This special legislation was passed because private insurance companies, after investigating the potential risks of atomic power plants, refused to insure them. Unable to buy insurance against potential liabilities, power companies refused to build or use nuclear plants. So the government pitched in to eliminate the risk; not the risk of damage but the risk of having to pay for it. Your homeowner’s policy won’t help out, either, as Richard Curtis and Elizabeth Hogan are quick to point out in their scientifically documented book, Perils of the Peaceful Atom, written for the lay reader. If your policy contains a Nuclear Clause, it reads something like this: “This policy does not cover loss or damage caused by nuclear reaction or nuclear radiation or radioactive contamination, all whether directly or indirectly resulting from an insured peril under this policy.” So there you are – uninsured against a risk that is becoming more and more ominous as government and industry pool their resources to meet the growing need for electric energy by constructing additional atomic power plants.
The necessity for greater sources of power is certain and the objective of replacing the dwindling natural fuels with new kinds of fuels is good. Electric power is clean, a safe and desirable end product to be used in homes and industry.
But is nuclear power – at its present stage of development today’s right answer to tomorrow’s energy problems? In other words, are the risks, possible consequences and costs involved with today’s atomic plants justified by the power produced? These questions must be answered becauseby-products of nuclear power are as deadly as its end product, electricity, is safe.[pagebreak]
Safety Standards Are Not Adequate
In this fast-moving age, nuclear power can no longer be considered something new. What we question is whether safety standards and the reduction of hazards to the populace have kept up with technological progress. Evidence points out that just the opposite has been allowed to occur.
The government program to develop “the peaceful atom” has been under way since the late 1940’s. Promoted by the Atomic Energy Commission, it has gathered tremendous momentum in recent years. In fact, most people would be shocked to learn how far the country has gone in committing its future industrial life to this most dangerous of all sources of energy.
Atomic reactors, fueled by uranium, are now generating electricity, and also radioactive wastes, in 14 power plants in 11 states. More than 100 are expected to be in operation in the 1970’s.
We cannot afford the minimal safety standards that have been set and reset to accommodate experimentation rather than to save lives and protect property. Every atomic power plant is a potential nuclear blast. The possibility of manmade accidents increases with time and with the growing numbers and greater sizes of plants. Natural disasters such as earthquakes could destroy a plant and devastate a community. As plants become more widespread, hurricanes and tornadoes join the list. But worst of all, nuclear power plants threaten our environment with by-products that Carry consequences as frightening as any blast. The deliberate allowance of contamination into our environment exists right now, today. The present buildup of radioactive wastes in the air and water, plus the added problem of thermal pollution of water, make an immediate reassessment of our peaceful atomic energy program imperative. Earnest requests for safeguards That would curb environmental pollution are answered by accusations that questioning safety blocks progress, and that everything is already in good hands and taken care of by whomever runs the program.
We are assured by AEC chairman Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg, that opponents of the reactors program are guilty of “irrational thinking and activity based on misinformation and unfounded fears.” These were his words, quoted in the June 10, 1969, New York Times when he spoke to the annual convention of the Edison Electric Institute, Portland, Oregon, and “urged the nation’s utilities to aid the AEC in its battle against opponents of nuclear power.” Such nuclear authorities as David Lilienthal, former AEC chairman,. and Edward Teller, leading nuclear scientist, think otherwise.[pagebreak]
How likely are the chances of nuclear explosion in a reactor plant? They are slim. But there is distinctly some possibility that explosions can occur. Is it worth the gamble? When you consider that one explosion can devastate an entire area, could kill or harm thousands of people and do damage amounting to billions of dollars, it becomes apparent that if there’s any chance at all, even one in 10,000 that an explosion will occur, then too much risk is being taken. There have already been some scares – reactor accidents in which the atomic fuel melted and the threat of disaster hung over the surrounding community. The most frightening of these occurred in October 1966, at a reactor at the Enrico Fermi Power Plant on the outskirts of Detroit. According to Irving Lyon, reporting in the Fall, 1969 Bennington Review, AEC and Detroit Edison officials called the accident “incredible” because “a number of fail-safe devices, controlling the flow of the liquid sodium coolant in the primary circuit, failed to operate. A catastrophic accident was averted only because a worker happened to notice the erratic behavior of a dial needle and was able to shut down the plant manually.” Even after that incident, it took more than 17 months to inspect the vessel. Lyon relates that “the delay was inspired by fear that the meltdown might have created a critical mass of nuclear fuel, in this instance plutonium …. if it had formed, the act of probing could very well have set off an explosion with the release of unknown amounts of highly dangerous. radioactivity over this heavily populated area.”
A closer look inside a typical nuclear power plant will help clarify the near-accident at Fermi. The generation of power in a nuclear plant starts with tubed uranium fuel which is inserted into the core of the reactor along with control rods. A chain reaction takes place within the core, and as control rods are removed from there, the reactions produce an intense heat. A coolant circulating through the core takes the heat to the heat-exchange systems, where it boils water, producing steam that turns the electricity–generating turbines. However, radioactive by-products are produced along’ with the heat.
In the Fermi plant reactor, the liquid sodium coolant was temporarily blocked, and in seconds the sudden rise in temperature in the core twisted the fuel rods out of alignment and hindered further cooling all the more. The flow stoppage seems to have been caused by pieces of metal which broke loose from the bottom of the containment vessel. Nobody could explain how they got there until an engineer remembered that they had been inserted as a safety pre-caution after the construction plans were drawn.
Seventeen months is a long time to wait for anything to become safe enough to inspect. Yet so heedless of hazards are the promoters, that it was only after intense local opposition in 1961 that plans to erect a nuclear power plant in an active earthquake area near San Francisco were discarded by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.
Sheldon Novick, who is Associate Editor of Environment magazine, reports in its January-February, 1969, issue that cancelled plans for building a nuclear power plant alongside Manhattan and Queens are being revived. The new proposed site is Welfare Island, which lies in the East River between Manhattan and Queens.
The reactor is to be one of a new breed of very large plants, the type whose cooling system, the greatest protective measure in keeping reactors safe, could be disrupted indefinitely by accident or natural disaster. If that happens, the intense heat built up in the reactor is enough to melt through the reactor and whatever casing surrounds it, and allow radioactive gases to escape into this thickly populated district.
Novick points out that underground construction might multiply the consequences of a leakage by allowing gases to diffuse underground and seep out at ground level. Perhaps the most frustrating and most likely type of accident, he says, could be caused by many different small accidents occurring simultaneously. The danger of incorrect on-the-spot “corrective” measures could be the final, and fatal, step in a series of malfunctions. Doctor Edward Teller, often called the “Father of the H-bomb,” and certainly no alarmist about the development of atomic energy, warns against the hazards of atomic plants. In the May, 1965, Journal of Petroleum Technology, he said, “In principle, nuclear reactors are dangerous . . . by being careful, and also by good luck, we have so far avoided all serious nuclear accidents . . . in my mind, nuclear reactors do not belong on the surface of the earth. Nuclear reactors ‘belong underground.” So far none of the accidents and scares have led to a major disaster. But the list, unfortunately, can be expected to grow. There have been other mishaps reported that were the result of neglect or malfunctions or both .. As long as people are human, mishaps will continue to occur. Must we wait until a devastating blast jogs officials into action against these potential threats before they recognize the fallibility of existing safety controls? We cannot afford to wait. Besides, there are other risks beyond explosions.[pagebreak]
Radioactive Waste Disposal A Growing Menace
The buildup of stored radioactive wastes from each reactor constitutes a growing, and undisposable menace. The permissible levels of radiation with which the reactor may pollute the environment seem safe only to the Atomic Energy Commission, never to the people who live close by, nor to the scientists who are aware of the biological damage that radiation can cause.
There is a huge mass of radioactive wastes that have to be transported and stored in shielded tanks until they have lost their radioactivity – for all practical purposes, forever. Carbon 14, one of the long-lived radioisotopes,has a half-life of 5,600 years. How can we possibly build containers that will keep the human species safe from such a brew? David Lilienthal, first chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and a severe critic of the AEC’s reactor program commented on this aspect of the radioactive wastes in an article in McCall’s, October, 1963:
“These huge quantities of radioactive wastes must somehow be removed from the reactors, must without mishap – be put into containers that will never rupture; then these vast quantities of poisonous stuff must be moved either to a burial ground or to reprocessing and concentration plants, handled again, and disposed of, by burial or otherwise, with a risk of human error at every step.”
In his book, The Careless Atom, Sheldon Novick, Program Administrator of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, Washington University in St. Louis, tells us: “Ihe wastes in these tanks pose a singularly difficult problem. The quantities of radioactivity in them are simply staggering. For instance, the maximum permissible concentration of strontium 90 in drinking water is a few billionths of a curie per gallon. Yet the wastes in storage contain an average of about 100 curies per gallon. There are now something like 65 million gallons of hot waste in storage in the AEC’s ‘tank farms,’ or atomic graveyards, more than enough to poison all the water’ on earth.”
Accidents during transport by train or truck happen “routinely and predictably,” according to Novick. Most of them resu1t in the release of relatively small quantities of radioactivity. But as the volume of shipment increases, so does the risk of serious accidents on the road.
Yet the most frightening threats from nuclear power stem, oddly enough, not from the accidents which may occur but from the steady releases of radioactive materials and other by-products which could upset the balance of nature by their very presence. Why? Because the present Atomic
Seven Johns Hopkins professors appearing at a hearing on a proposed nuclear power plant on the Chesapeake Bay, “maintained that Federal standards on how much radiation may be safely discharged into water were written in ignorance of how the radiation affects specific marine species,” as reported in the May 14, 1969, Washington Post. They charged that tritium, the radioisotope expected to be released in the largest quantity, would be absorbed and concentrated in the Bay’s seafood and, when eaten by pregnant women, would create a risk of genetic deformities in their offspring.
Doctor LaMont Cole, professor of ecology and zoology at Cornell University and president of theAmerican Institute of Biological Sciences is appalled by the way the AEC ignores the escape of tritium into the atmosphere, as the radioactive isotope seeks out and becomes part of all living things. “It gets built into the organic compounds of living plants and animals,” he says, “including the nucleic acids which carry genetic information to the next generation. The emission of tritium is a feeble little beta ray, but if that feeble little ray is being emitted right inside your genes, the consequences could be disastrous.”
Death 8 Years Sooner
One of the top 5 nuclear scientists in the United States, Dr. Arthur R. Tamplin of the University of California, says, “The eventual outcome of discharge at present levels will be to reduce the average life span of Americans by 8 years – and: that is a conservative estimate.” A specialist in radiological problems, Dr. Tamplin also said, “There is no question that the levels of radioactive discharge permitted by the AEC should be substantially reduced.”
There is no doubt that the nuclear reactor program affects our environment as well as ourselves. “Any time radioactive waste is dumped into a stream,” Novick reminds us, “or is dropped into the ocean, discharged into the air, or otherwise released from human control, it passes into the complex world of living things. It will pass from living thing to living thing, sometimes becoming concentrated, at other times being dispersed, with an efficiency, and ingenuity which man has not yet come to understand. At unpredictable times and places, this radioactive waste will reappear in man’s food, air or water. It will not go away, for decades or centuries or even millennia.” In the words of Dr. Dean A. Abrahamson, professor of anatomy at the University of Minnesota, “We are dealing with a probability of risks to human health and the entire environment. The risks to human health from chronic exposure to low doses of ionizing radiation in the air and water are cancers, leukemia, shortening of life, genetic changes and a host of lesser-understood effects. Somebody dies; we don’t know why. No one may be killed directly, but just because we can’t identify the little girl whose leukemia results from nuclear pollution doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
Doctor Abrahamson is chairman of the Minnesota Committee for Environmental Information, which is composed mostly of faculty from the University of Minnesota. Also in Minnesota, a nationally recognized consultant, Ernest C. Tsivoglou, professor of sanitary engineering at Georgia Tech, was called in by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to study the radioactive discharges that might be expected from the nuclear generating plant now under construction near Monticello some 35 miles upstream from the water intakes for the “Twin Cities” of St. Paul and Minneapolis. As a result of his findings, it was reported in the March 7, 1969 issue of Science, the state agency will limit radioactive discharges from nuclear reactors to levels considerably below those currently allowed by the AEC.
This is a move that could have National repercussions, the Science article points out. “If the proposed state restrictions are put into effect, as seems likely, and if they survive a possible court test, the action taken by Minnesota could serve as a precedent and catalyst for further efforts to crack down on radioactive contamination at the state level.”[pagebreak]
Thermal Pollution of Water
An even more immediate problem and one about which there is no doubt whatsoever, is existing and growing water pollution by discharge of heat into the local waters. This thermal pollution upsets the natural balance of aquatic life and weakens the living organisms by suddenly changing their habitat. Since these underwater species are dependent on the water to provide their environment, the change can wipe out the natural population in a body of water. Heated water also reduces the amount of oxygen available to aquatic creatures. Irving Lyon, writing in the Fall, 1969, Bennington Review, says “Heat can cause internal functional changes in respiration, cardiovascular activity, rate of digestion …..and growth. Death from a reduced oxygen supply is followed by disruption of the food chain. Furthermore, there is increased susceptibility of toxic substances and pathogenic organisms. Interference with migration, distribution and spawning behavior and other critical activities of the life cycle follows disruption of biological rhythms and biochemical changes.”
He reminds us, too, that a rise in water temperature will influence the taste and odor of a body of water, making it unpotable in short order. The next step is increased deposits of bacteria, fungi and sludge. Within a generation, he adds, the body of water can become useless and uninhabitable. Thermal water pollution is not only a threat -to the future. It is also a reality with which we are already living.
Heat pollution is by no means unique to atomic plants. Other industrial plants are equally guilty. For example, the October, 1969, Sport Fishing Institute Bulletin, reports that the Northern Ohio Sugar Company paid an indemnity of $3,241.09 to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources after hot water from that plant killed fish in the Sandusky River in January, of 1967 and again in January of 1968. The company has since installed a condenser water cooling system, and expects no more fish deaths from heat. But nuclear reactors pour out Heat much more intense than regular industrial disposals. Tests have shown that the Haddam, Connecticut power plant discharges hot water that raises the temperature of the Connecticut River 14 degrees in some places. Scientists have warned that the major salmon spawning ground at the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River Basin is being affected by changes in temperature that could lead to the extinction of the river’s salmon population.
Warmer waters there encourage the growth of a bacterial fish disease that kills salmon swimming upstream on their way to the spawning grounds. Laboratory tests putting young salmon in water 10.5 degrees warmer than river temperatures left half of them dead.
Thermal pollution can kill indirectly, too. In 1963, more than 10,000 striped bass were found dead in the Hudson River. They had been attracted by the warm water discharging from the Indian Point, New York, nuclear power Plant. They died when they became trapped in the wharf and water intake structures of the plant.[pagebreak]
Power Needs Can Wait
Against all these risks, the one great argument for proceeding with atomic power plants is that a growing demand for electric energy will be impossible to supply any other way. How much truth is there to this point of view? Is the need for electricity so great that the natural fossil fuels cannot provide for it much longer? Not according to Curtis and Hogan, who write in the March, 1969 issue of Natural History that the current reserves could take us into the next century, and that secondary sources aside from nuclear fuels could give us further time to improve the technology and safety standards for atomic power plants. Doctor Abrahamson adds, “There is no need for hurry in the construction of nuclear plants. There as yet is no shortage of coal or other standard fuels and there is no evidence that nuclear plants are more reliable or provide cheaper electricity.”
A delay obviously would be all to the good. It seems probable that, given the time, American technology can construct plants that will be safe and non-polluting. If we can get along without them for 30-40 years and take time to refine the designing and safeguards, we could then look forward to the future with a great deal more assurance.
Curtis and Hogan, in their Natural History article, Say, “Atomic energy is proving to be quite the opposite of the cheap, everlasting resource envisioned at the outset of the atomic age. The prices of reactors and components and costs of construction and operation have soared in the last few years, greatly damaging nuclear power’s position as the competitor with conventional fuels.
“If insurance premiums and other indirect subsidies were brought into line with realistic estimates of what it takes to make atomic energy both safe and economical, instead of taxing the public to pay the cost, the atom might prove to be the most expensive form of energy yet devised – not the cheapest. In addition. because of our wasteful fuel policies, evidence indicates that sources of low-cost uranium will be exhausted before the turn of the century.” Logically, if an industrial undertaking is so hazardous that it is uninsurable, it should be abandoned or postponed until further safety measures can be developed. Instead. the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy introduced a bill, passed in 1957, called the Price- Anderson Act. It provided $500 million of government insurance for each reactor, stipulating that this amount would be added to whatever private insurance could be bought. Insurance companies then came through with $60 million of insurance, a token amount compared with the taxpayers. The figures have since been adjusted to $74 million from the insurance pool fund and $486 million from the taxpayers’ pockets. But beyond this insurance, both public and private, the law specifically exempts the power companies from any liability for additional damages. Thus, as Sheldon Novick points out in The Careless Atom, the “limitation of liability” clause assures private utilities that no matter how bad an accident is, they will not suffer any financial loss. The usual profit incentive for developing safety procedures has been neatly removed.
The AEC, in a report made in 1957 and reaffirmed in 1965, claimed that informed estimates as to the likelihood of a major accident ranged “from one chance in 100,000 to one in a billion per year for each reactor.” Such a wide divergence in estimates would seem to imply little hard fact for these “educated guesses.” However, in this same report AEC did finally sum up with some specific figures on damage that could be expected from a major reactor disaster, that is, one involving explosion, rupture of the reactor’s protective shielding and consequent dispersal of radioactive elements.[pagebreak]
A Typical Reactor Disaster
Theoretically, said AEC, given a typical reactor, situated near a body of water about 30 miles from a major city, such a disaster could kill 3,400 persons and injure 43,000. Injury could be inflicted as far away as 45 miles, death up to 15 miles of the explosion. Property damage could reach $7 billion. Who then absorbs the $6 billion riot covered by insurance as well as the fantastic cost in human life and suffering?
The Price-Anderson Act of 1957, limiting liability to about half a billion dollars, was extended in 1965 to protect nuclear power plants until 1977. The “coverage” remains a cover up, merely paper protection that delays the enforcement of adequate safety standards needed to offer protection from nuclear hazards, The insurance policy also conveniently ignores the damage that is being inflicted on the populace by the long-term radiation buildup resulting from a steady release of radioactive wastes into the air and water.[pagebreak]
Nuclear Fusion: Worth Waiting For
Yet even while our country is running enormous risks and spending incredible sums of money on atomic fission power plants, a much safer type of plant is in the near offing. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, a revolutionary breakthrough in atomic research has brightened formerly-dim hopes that energy will soon be produced by nuclear fusion instead of fission. If this development pans out, the fusion plants would be safer and far more economical than the present and planned fission plants. Fusion would eliminate the possibility of nuclear accidents, require fewer costly safety measures, and produce no air pollution or radioactive wastes. The plants could be built almost anywhere, according to the article, since fuel transportation and processing are not economic considerations, whereas they are in power plants fueled by coal or uranium. They could be placed far away from population centers.
Fusion is forcing two atomic nuclei together while fission is splitting one nucleus apart. Hydrogen, the simplest and most common element, is used for the fusion fuel. The trick is to get the two positively-charged nuclei, which repel each other, together in the proper amount for the desired length of time to produce a controlled release of energy which can then be used to generate electricity. Scientists have found that it is as tough as it sounds.
Until recently, fusion experts were unenthusiastic about their achievements. But recent experiments in the United States and Russia may have opened one of the last sets of doors standing between the scientists and their harnessing of fusion for future peaceful energy supplies.
Amasa Bishop, who is in charge of fusion research for the Atomic Energy Commission said, “We have just passed a very significant bench mark on the road to fusion power,” British scientists who double checked Russian experiments in Soviet laboratories echo his optimism. If they are indeed on the right track, then the world’s cheapest source of energy may be close at hand. According to the article, “Scientists and engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the AEC’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee estimated what it would cost to build a fusion plant with a capacity of five million kilowatts, five times as large as the biggest atomic power plants now being built. They calculated the capital cost at about $120 per kilowatt; or $20 to $80 a kilowatt less than present coal and atomic power plants.
The plant would cost less to operate, too, since the fuel would actually be deuterium, or “heavy hydrogen,” which occurs naturally in sea water. Extracting it from the water costs very little and the supply is almost boundless. Tritium, which can be produced at the plant site from lithium, eliminating the cost and hazards of transportation, is yet another source of fusion fuel. The first goal of the scientists is to produce a controlled fusion reaction that would give off more energy than it took to start the reaction. And even then great engineering feats lie ahead in constructing workable power plants. But we are closer than ever to this known form of clean energy supply. It would be worth our while to concentrate more time and appropriate more money for the development of fusion energy. Since there is hope for a cheaper and altogether safer alternative to the uncertainties of nuclear fission plants, now is the, time to rechannel our resources and take advantage of this latest scientific breakthrough. With no power crises existing today, and with every likelihood existing, that safe fusion plants can be developed long before a power crisis could appear, it seems sheer madness to pour into the fast building of fission power plants money that could be used to develop fusion plants for the future. We know that we and our children, and our children’s children through genetic damage run an increased risk of sickness and death with every additional loqe of nuclear pollution. It isn’t important whether it is released by bomb testings, peaceful explosions of the Plowshare variety, accidental explosions or as permitted discharge from day-co-day nuclear operations. It is important to do our utmost to influence our government to reverse its present course. We have learned that an estimated 375,000 babies in this country died before they reached their first birthdays as a result of strontium ln 90 fallout from above-ground nuclear explosions conducted from 1945 until the test-ban agreement of 1963. Doctor Ernest J. Sternglass, Professor of Radiation Physics at the University of Pittsburgh, is the authority for this statement, which he bases on a documented long-range analysis showing direct quantitative correlations between strontium 90 and infant mortality rates. He reported his findings in the scholarly Proceedings of the 9th Annual Hanford Biology, Symposium (1969).
What has this announcement got to do with nuclear power plants? Doctor Charles Huver of the University of Minnesota warns that boiling-water reactors may have the same effects as those that Dr. Stern glass revealed. The allowable 1 per cent defective fuel normally discharges enough radioactive waste gas to contaminate the earth as much as weapons testing. We can expect another upsurge in radioactive pollution, which we thought had been curbed by the test-ban treaty, as peacetime industry gears itself increasingly to the use of atomic energy. Obviously in time there are going to have to be nuclear power plants because fossil fuels in the earth are far from inexhaustible and being used at a rapid rate. But right now it seems an unnecessary and present hazard to human life so great it defies the imagination. To delay nuclear power plants by any means possible and encourage development of improved designs for safety would seem the only sensible course.
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