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The Nuclear Menace

Guest Column
Brice Smith

Reading Colleen Horin’s response [“Arguing for Burial,” May 7] to the Yucca Mountain article, I must say that I was impressed by how in such a short letter she was able to so easily fit all three of the major myths pro-nuclear advocates have been using for decades. Namely, that underground storage at Yucca is a safe alternative to highly vulnerable on-site storage, that nuclear power is a safe and clean energy source that only the uninformed oppose, and that the “civilian” use of nuclear power can somehow be separated from the “military” use. Each of these myths was constructed by the nuclear industry and their proponents in order to mask the enormous risk nuclear power actually represents to the world.

The problem of current storage is far worse than even Horin realizes. Currently there are 131 storage pools, not 78, spread across 35 states. Many of these contain 10 times the radioactivity of a reactor and are protected by flimsy metal buildings. Although little research is being done on long-term treatment, there are safer ways to store the waste onsite using above-ground dry casks kept in hardened concrete buildings. It is a far more expensive alternative to pools, which explains why it is not currently used, but it is still far safer than transporting the waste and clearing the way for the creation of thousands of additional tons.

Even if a single depository still seems like a good idea, entrusting the oversight to the Department of Energy, which is currently promoting nuclear power like a Madison Avenue PR firm, raises serious questions about their “exhaustive EIS” (Environmental Impact Statement). A General Accounting Office report found 273 outstanding questions, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already ruled that there is enough information for an application. This ruling is despite such major concerns as the unexpected discovery that 12.3 million gallons of water flow through the site every year and that two other current storage sites the DOE promised would be secure for 10,000 years are already leaking waste and may contaminate groundwater in less than 10 years. Allison Macfarlane, director of the Yucca Mountain project here at MIT, told the Los Angeles Times that “there are a lot of issues that remain unresolved” and that “we should not be in a rush.” Finally, the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, an 11-member panel of experts appointed by Congress, concluded in January that the government’s technical case is “weak to moderate.”

Just in case you still think these risks are better than the current situation, in 2036 when Yucca is full, there will still be 44,000 tons of spent fuel at these 131 local sites, 15 percent more than today! Trying to fix the problem of greed and shortsightedness by ramming through an even more shortsighted plan hardly seems like an improvement.

Second, nuclear energy is not the clean, safe, and economical energy source the industry claims it is, and it is far more than some fringe that has realized this. Sweden, Germany, New Zealand, and Italy have all chosen to either phase out or ban nuclear power. In addition, Belgium’s parliament is currently considering legislation to phase out their reactors. Economically, the nuclear industry requires billions of dollars in subsidies to stay afloat. This massive funneling of public money into private pockets doesn’t even take into account the back end cost of decommissioning facilities. In England it is estimated that even if no new reactors are built, it will cost $124 billion to handle the cleanup. In this country, the bill will run closer to $400 billion.

Unfortunately, this column is far too short to even mention a fraction of past nuclear accidents. Everyone has heard of Chernobyl, which contaminated an area roughly the size of Texas and killed up to 30,000 people (some as far away as France), and Three Mile Island, which forced the evacuation of 150,000 people and led to a minimum of 430 infant deaths. Beyond this there are literally hundreds of other serious nuclear accidents that have occurred around the world. To name a few: In October 1957 a plutonium fire at Windscale in England, caused dozens of cancer deaths and forced officials to destroy all milk produced for the next 6 weeks on the surrounding 600 farms. In January 1961, an explosion at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho killed three, leaving them so heavily contaminated that their hands had to be buried with radioactive waste and their bodies interred in lead coffins. In November 1971, the Northern States Power Company dumped 50,000 gallons of radioactive waste into the Mississippi. In January 1983, nearly 208,000 gallons of contaminated water was dumped into the Tennessee River at the Browns Ferry plant. In September 1999, uranium at the Sumitomo Metal Mining Company in Japan went critical, sending radiation levels outside to 15,000 times their normal level and killing at least two workers. Officials told 313,000 people to remain indoors and said locally grown vegetables should not be harvested. It is a testament to the industry’s public relation that anyone could still believe in their self-proclaimed “record of safety.”

Third, we come to the oldest myth of all, that of the “civilian atom.” This “peaceful atom” myth, more creditable to Eisenhower that Einstein, grew out of the post-war atomic boom. Right from the start, nuclear power and nuclear weapons were joined at the hip. Almost all second generation nuclear weapons states have joined the club by using plutonium recovered from reactors. Britain was the first to choose this route since enriching uranium is much more complex and expensive than extracting plutonium. They were soon followed by the French. Nuclear power has also allowed developing countries to join the club with the aid of foreign companies. The plutonium for India’s nuclear tests came from the Tarapur reactors built by U.S. and Canadian companies. The material for Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal came from the French supplied reactor at Dimona. Interestingly, on June 7, 1981, the Israelis chose to invade Iraq and destroy the French built Osirak reactor rather than allow Saddam Hussein access to the plutonium it would provide. Finally, Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of Japan’s liberal party, recently removed all doubt as to this connection when he warned China that, if provoked, they “have enough plutonium at nuclear power plants in Japan to make several thousand such warheads.” Even from this brief introduction, I think that it is clear that there is really no such thing as the “peaceful atom.”

Any column like this will always be incomplete, but I think that it is clear that the concerns about nuclear power and Yucca Mountain are far from alarmist. If as a people we feel any responsibility to future generations, it is vital that we set our sites on a time scale appropriate to the problem and do everything within our power to prevent its growth. The only rational solution is to follow the lead of other countries and immediately move to phase out nuclear power in favor of conservation, to greatly reduce consumerism, and to increase focus on developing renewables. If not, then 30 years from now (if we are extremely lucky that is) we will be having this same discussion, only we will have an immeasurably larger problem to deal with and even fewer options.

Brice Smith is a graduate student in the Department of Physics.