What’s Left for Nuclear?

War is one driver of innovation. After WWII scientists who developed nuclear weapons hoped to redeem the technology in peacetime by bringing us electricity too cheap to meter. That never quite materialized, and now the real cost is becoming impossible to deny.

From the Financial Times via CNN–

(Financial Times) — Nuclear power is so expensive compared with other forms of energy that it has become “really hard” to justify, according to the chief executive of General Electric, one of the world’s largest suppliers of atomic equipment.

“It’s really a gas and wind world today,” said Jeff Immelt, referring to two sources of electricity he said most countries are shifting towards as natural gas becomes “permanently cheap”.

“When I talk to the guys who run the oil companies they say look, they’re finding more gas all the time. It’s just hard to justify nuclear, really hard. Gas is so cheap and at some point, really, economics rule,” Mr Immelt told the Financial Times in an interview in London at the weekend. “So I think some combination of gas, and either wind or solar … that’s where we see most countries around the world going.”

This would have developed faster if we had not had huge economic and political investment in nuclear power– artificially protecting and subsidizing a technological dead end. Diversification and smart technology are obvious answers that are becoming harder to ignore.

It was in the 70’s that I sat in a circle of Clamshell Alliance activists while a kid from Brown read us an industry financial report– in his translation of the technical terms, “the economics really suck too.”

Nearly forty years later, despite the power of a massive industry and the politicians it owns, the arguments against nuclear power are being made on the highest levels.

Natural gas will not solve the problem of carbon emissions, and mining it is a dirty process. Moving away from centralized energy and an economy based on endlessly expanding demand for more things is inevitable one way or another. We are already leaving a nuclear waste hazard for future generations. It will be good if we don’t create more.

A Target for Terrorists

One of the theoretical disadvantages of building more nuclear power plants may have become more real…

(CNN) — Security has been heightened at Sweden’s nuclear power plants after explosives were discovered on a vehicle entering a protected nuclear site, authorities said Thursday.

The truck was stopped at the Ringhals nuclear power plant on Wednesday afternoon, the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority said.

The suspicious material was discovered before the vehicle had entered the protected area, it said.

Police are now investigating suspected sabotage, said the plant’s owner, Vattenfall.

The “explosive paste” was uncovered by sniffer dogs during a routine security check, the company said in a statement.

This story is new, we’ll hear more in the next few days.

Since 9/11, security in the US has been upgraded. From the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission…

One of the most important components of security programs at nuclear power facilities is the security force. Over the past five years, the NRC has required power plants to add more training and higher qualification standards for security personnel, while substantially increasing the number of officers on the force. Plant security officers, for example, must now be trained under more realistic conditions and against moving targets. In order to minimize security personnel fatigue and ensure a vigilant and effective security force, the NRC has instituted additional fitness-for-duty requirements and work hours controls.

In accordance with the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the NRC has also strengthened requirements for fingerprinting and background checks for various types of licensees and certificate holders. On Jan. 4, 2006, the NRC entered into an agreement with the federal government’s Terrorist Screening Center to review records of individuals with unescorted access to nuclear power reactor facilities. This collaborative effort automated and streamlined the collection and dissemination of information used to determine the trustworthiness of individuals who have unescorted access to certain vital areas of nuclear power plants. It also enhances the process of identifying anyone with access to these areas who may pose a threat to national security.

If you read closely, government is depending on industry to do its part. Japan seemed to have a well-run and transparent nuclear industry before Fukushima, but it has emerged that political and industry corruption suppressed efforts to maintain a level of safety that might have spared the people of Japan from a man-made disaster in the wake of the Tsunami. We don’t usually think of Japan as being eroded by organized crime, but that’s a factor too…

After the arrest of a yakuza boss for his alleged role in supplying workers to TEPCO’s Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Plant, we are learning the details of how Japan’s nuclear industry relied on organized crime. Since July of last year, a few months after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami resulted in a triple meltdown at the Fukushima plant, investigators have been probing possible yakuza links to TEPCO and the nuclear industry under the guidance of the National Police Agency.

When we look at the situation of workers generally, and the inadequacy of government oversight in other areas, and add corruption and crime, it’s clear that there’s an expectation that the nuclear industry will operate on a higher and more pure level than any other. Have they earned this faith?

Any proposed new nuclear plant must factor in the cost of providing security, basically forever. Long after the plant has stopped producing power, the toxic waste will have to be kept from terrorists and criminals who could use it for weapons. That’s in addition to human error and whatever changes may come in the future that would make us relax our vigilance. There are dirty sites all over the world from decades of Cold War politics, from industrial and medical use of radioactive materials.

The incident in Sweden might not turn out to be a real threat, but the real threat is always a possibility– a curse we are handing down to future generations.

Nuclear Safety

This story caught my eye because I’m a nurse now, but years ago worked as a motel maid. I can easily imagine a pregnant, minimum-wage worker making beds or sorting laundry in a motel, with no one aware there might be a hazard. Here’s from Associated Press…

WASHINGTON – Reports of thyroid cancer patients setting off radiation alarms and contaminating hotel rooms are prompting the agency in charge of nuclear safety to consider tighter rules.
A congressional investigation made public Wednesday found that patients sent home after treatment with radioactive iodine have contaminated unsuspecting hotel guests and set off alarms on public transportation.
They’ve come into close contact with vulnerable people, including pregnant women and children, and trash from their homes has triggered radiation detectors at landfills.

My objection to nuclear power is that radioactive material causes cancer and birth defects, is difficult to detect, is lethal in tiny amounts and stays around forever. Radioactive iodine is an old treatment, and patients used to stay in the hospital long enough for the radioactive elements to wash out of their system. But now we kick people out of the hospital asap, and no one was considering the danger to the public.

• A patient who had received a dose of radioactive iodine boarded a bus in New York the same day, triggering radiation detectors as the bus passed through the Lincoln Tunnel heading for Atlantic City, N.J., a casino Mecca. After New Jersey state police found the bus and pulled it over, officers determined that the patient had received medical instructions to avoid public transportation for two days, and ignored them. The 2003 case highlighted that NRC rules don’t require patients to stay off public transportation.

• About 7 percent of outpatients said in the survey they had gone directly to a hotel after their treatment, most of them with their doctors’ knowledge. Hotel stays are a particular concern, since the patient can expose other guests and service workers. In 2007, an Illinois hotel was contaminated after linens from a patient’s room were washed together with other bedding. The incident would probably have gone unreported but for nuclear plant workers who later stayed in the same hotel and set off radiation alarms when they reported to work.

That is terrifying. The nuclear plant workers stayed in a hotel where a patient had stayed, maybe slept on sheets that were washed in the same washer with the patient’s sheets, and they set off alarms. What about the maid who stripped the bed? What about the laundry workers? What about other guests in the hotel?

One thing to learn from this is that financial pressure to discharge people from hospitals as soon as they are medically stable has to be countered by a consideration for what happens in the real world.

Another thing to consider is that it’s human nature to cut corners and do the expedient thing. Radioactive material is long-lived, and unforgiving. Despite all the assurances that nuclear power will always be handled safely, mistakes will be made and humans will make errors. This stuff is too dangerous to be an answer to our energy needs.

Chernobyl Today

This is a link to a short post on Common Dreams.

It’s been 24 years since the catastrophic explosion and fire occurred at Chernobyl in the Ukraine. The accident required nearly a million emergency responders and cleanup workers. According to a recent report published by the New York Academy of Medicine nearly one million people around the world have died from Chernobyl fallout.

Now we are finding that threats to human health and the environment from the radioactive fallout of this accident that blanketed Europe (and the rest of the world to a lesser extent) will persist for a very long time. There is an exclusionary zone near the reactor, roughly the size of Rhode Island (1000 sq kilometers), which because of high levels of contamination,people are not supposed to live there for centuries to come. There are also”hot spots” through out Russia, Poland Greece, Germany, Italy, UK, France, and Scandinavia where contaminated live stock and other foodstuff continue to be removed from human consumption.

My friends tell me that a growing number of Ukrainians are immigrating to Youngstown, OH ( where I grew up),Cleveland, Chicago, and other Ukrainian-American enclaves because of Chernobyl contamination threats.

The photo of the abandoned city of Pripiat says more than a thousand words. The statement that mammals in the surrounding wilderness are declining, instead of multiplying in the absence of humans points to a future that must be prevented.

Check out Common Dreams for the rest of the story.