Rhode Island’s Nuclear Fatality Part IV Who Pays?

United Nuclear was welcomed into Rhode Island in 1963 with hopes of 1000 good jobs and a chance to get in on the cutting edge of a new industry. The plant closed in 1980 for lack of profits. Rhode Island was left with a contaminated industrial site. Robert Peabody’s family was left to carry on without him…

EVEN AS PEABODY was admitted to the hospital, United Nuclear was working to discredit him, blaming “human error” and “ineptitude” in newspaper accounts of the accident. In addition to assuring the public that any radiation released into the atmosphere was insignificant, company officials said that Peabody had violated plant safety procedures by pouring the contents of the 11-liter “safe” bottle into the “unsafe” chemical tank.
But Atomic Energy Commission reports on the accident show that operational problems at United Nuclear, lax record keeping, and inadequate training created an environment that was ripe for an accident. Chain Reaction, Providence Journal, 3/11/90

So the family sued, right?

Anna Peabody still lives in the house that she and her husband bought in the Columbia Heights section of Shannock, an old mill town on the Pawcatuck River. The Peabody house is one of the shabbiest in the neighborhood. On a recent winter day, the oil furnace was belching fumes into the living room, junk cars were in the yard, and siding was peeling off the house to reveal layers of rotting shingles underneath.

Because tumors have blocked off her breathing passage, Mrs. Peabody, 61, breathes through a hole in her throat. To talk, she places her finger over the hole, and then releases her finger to draw a breath. Mrs. Peabody says she owes nearly $50,000 in medical bills, for laser surgery on her throat, and is in danger of losing her house.

As for financial reimbursement, Mrs. Peabody received little after her husband’s death. [Legal fees] left Mrs. Peabody with $22,631.15.

“Everybody thinks I’m a millionaire because of all the papers saying how much money I was going to get,” Mrs. Peabody says. “Everybody keeps saying, ‘Oh, come on, Ann, dig it out. Dig it out.’ I wish I did have it.” Providence Journal, 3/11/90

There’s a reason for the shabby treatment of Robert Peabody’s widow. To acknowledge the dangers of working in or living near a nuclear plant would leave the industry vulnerable. A nuclear power plant is an enormous investment. No business would ever take the risk without special protection, not only from liability, but from financial risk

Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the industry already is getting an estimated $12 billion in tax breaks and other largess. The Price-Anderson Act, a law dating from the 1950s, caps the industry’s liability at about $10 billion in the event of an accident, even though studies show that a major nuclear meltdown could easily run 50 times that.
Now, the Senate version of a new energy bill includes a provision that could provide tens of billions of dollars more in federal-loan guarantees. On Tuesday, the Energy Department announced it would provide up to $2 billion in federal risk insurance for the first six new nuclear-plant projects, protecting them against losses from regulatory or legal delays.

Once built, a nuclear plant creates a special waste-disposal problem…

In all cases these materials and equipments become too irradiated (and thereby themselves radiating) for normal industrial disposal, dismantlement or recycling. If these otherwise normal equipments and materials were disposed of as their non-nuclear radiation exposed industrial counterparts were (say liquid industrial pumps for example), there would quickly develop sources of non-nuclear industry borne radiologic hazards throughout industrial civilization. Low to moderate levels of ionizing radiation would begin to appear in recycled metals, plastics, tools and equipments, all over the industrial economy, posing a general health hazard to human and animal populations. Since these materials and equipments cannot ever be released back into the normally recycling industrial economy, some process and means needed to be found to isolate these irradiated materials and equipments, to isolate them from civilization, for what is effectively forever.

So who pays for that?

The cost of DOE’s commercial high-level nuclear waste disposal activities is paid for by the Nuclear Waste Fund, which receives roughly $600 million in annual funding provided by a fee on commercial nuclear power, and interest earned by the fund itself. Additional funding is appropriated annually by Congress to pay for defense high-level waste disposal.

The Nuclear Waste Fund money comes from ratepayers and taxpayers, so we get to pay whether we use any of the electricity or not, for any accident at a nuclear power plant anywhere in the country…

For accidents at nuclear power plants, the money to cover any damages comes from two sources. First, each power plant must carry $200 million in liability insurance for each reactor. Second, any damages over $200 million and up to $9.43 billion are assessed equally against all operating reactors, in annual installments of $10 million or less. As of 1998, there were 103 operating reactors in the U.S. For an incident or precautionary evacuation involving a shipment to the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain, the money to cover damages comes from the Nuclear Waste Fund, which is paid for by utility ratepayers. Payments for damages are also limited to $9.43 billion.

And a person trying to collect damages probably won’t end up better off than Anna Peabody…

If there is a release of radiation, or a precautionary evacuation, one would have to sue to recover damages… If someone has a strong case, the DOE might settle. Otherwise, the case would go to court, and the person bringing the lawsuit would need attorneys and expert witnesses. Based on experience to date with Price- Anderson, a person can realistically expect compensation only in the most clear-cut cases.

It is seldom possible to prove that a cancer is the result of a specific exposure. There are many carcinogens in the environment, and heredity influences an individual’s vulnerability. The only way to get real information is to conduct an epidemiological study. It’s complicated and expensive, and opens a can of worms for the industry and the government. No study — no evidence.

It’s a case of public risk and private benefit. We have to end our dependence on fossil fuels, especially on foreign oil. We are going to have to invest in research and building better energy sources and we are going to have to change our patterns of energy use. Nuclear power is not just ‘so twentieth century’, it’s ‘so nineteenth century’. Huge centralized dynamos boiling water to turn steam turbines. You think we can’t do better than that?

We’re the country that put a man on the moon. New strategies for conservation, new developments in solar, wind and hydro power are just waiting for funding. Without a set of special incentives, protections and tax breaks dating back to the 1950’s nuclear power would never even be competitive. If we let ourselves be railroaded into building more nuclear plants we will pay every step of the way and future generations will deal with the consequences of our shortsightedness.

Rhode Island’s Nuclear Fatality Part III An Acceptable Level

Nuclear contamination is a particularly nasty problem. Undetectable except with instruments, low-level nuclear emissions can raise the risk of cancer and birth defects. When United Nuclear closed for lack of profits in 1980, leaks of radioactive water into the soil and groundwater had polluted the site of the plant. This put the site under the authority of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

The potential danger of nuclear waste depends on the elements present. Some decay and lose their radioactivity very fast. Others remain poisonous for thousands of years. The Providence Journal reported that it was fourteen years from the time the plant closed until the NRC was ready to release the land from Federal jurisdiction…

United Nuclear moves closer to sale of land
Hill, John. Providence Journal. Providence, R.I.:Dec 5, 1994. p. 1

…NRC staff say the site is within safe limits for radioactivity, but there is still an underground swath of non-radioactive nitrates polluting ground water beyond the state’s safe-drinking limit.

The nitrates stretch out in a narrow plume about 1,500 feet to the northwest, toward the Pawcatuck River. It is that plume, and the question of who will monitor it, that has concerned state and federal environmental regulators. The NRC and the company argue that because the plant is within safe limits for radio activity, the NRC has no business overseeing it.

… in the late 1970s, the state Department of Environmental Management detected radioactive materials and the nitrate plume, which had leaked from trenches outside the plant.

“Radiologically it’s finished,” said John Austin, the NRC’s chief of low-level waste and decontamination projects. “The outstanding issue now is nitrates in the ground water, and the NRC does not have jurisdiction over nitrates.”

DEM and the company reached a testing agreement last month that calls for the company to pay for monitoring wells that will track the nitrate pollution.

I wonder what it took to get United Nuclear to agree.

The Providence Journal article Chain Reaction, 3/11/90, the main source for this series, has a photo of the groundbreaking ceremony for the opening of United Nuclear in 1963. Gov. John H. Chafee, Sen. Claiborne Pell and Sen. John O. Pastore are holding shovels. They had great hopes for what the plant would do, create 1000 good jobs for Rhode Islanders in an exciting and growing industry.

The plant never hired more than 80 workers and left a nightmarish cleanup problem…

For two years the UNC Disposal Site [Oak Ridge, Tennessee] accepted and disposed of waste from the decommissioning of a UNC uranium recovery facility in Wood River Junction, Rhode Island. Between June 1982 and November 1984, the UNC Disposal Site received 11,000 55-gal drums of sludge fixed in cement, 18,000 drums of contaminated soil, and 288 wooden boxes of contaminated building and process demolition materials. (link)

A massive and expensive effort. Two years of trucks carrying nuclear waste across the country. Who paid? The NRC is a Federal agency. One thing is clear — making Rhode Island a depot for spent nuclear waste did nothing good for our economy and left one of the most pristine and beautiful areas in the state contaminated for years after the closing of United Nuclear.

Public risk, private profit. Taxpayers stuck with the bill–Part IV.