THE RETURN OF THE NUCLEAR GHOST
By SY SCHECHTMAN
On March 16, l979 the picture, The China Syndrome, was released for nation wide public viewing. The timing was indeed most fortuitous! Our nation’s most unsettling nuclear near disaster occurred just 16 days later at an obscure site called Three Mile Island. The picture graphically and very compellingly depicted a near melt down of the core of a nuclear powered electric utility. An all star cast headed by Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Bridges won many Oscar awards that year and was very popular. The title is based on a casual remark of one of the players that the heat of the impending melt down of the reactor core would go all the way down through the earth to China. The actual, real life events at Three Mile Island have been studied carefully—then and now--- and the consensus among health experts is that no permanent damage has resulted because of the low level radiation that did escape into the atmosphere at the time of the accident. The fear factor, however, did become communal and national emotional baggage from then on.
In l986 in a remote place in the Soviet Union called Chernobyl the worst nuclear disaster, however, did occur. During a period of planned turbine slowdown for a routine maintenance procedure the poorly trained operative crew caused an explosion that was not contained because of the inadequate external shielding of the facility, allowing large amounts of radioactive cloudlike material to escape into the surrounding atmosphere. The plume of smoke drifted over parts of the western Soviet Union, eastern and northern Europe, and above the arctic circle. Large areas in the Ukraine, Belarus, and Soviet Russia were contaminated, and an estimated 336,000 people had to be resettled elsewhere. The World Health Organization reported 56 deaths in the immediate area. In the neighboring region WHO estimated about 4,000 deaths in the neighboring 600,000 population and about 5,000 fatalities the surrounding 6 million population .
Three years later, in 1989, in Shoreham, Suffolk County, Long Island, a culminating act in the love hate nuclear power relationship occurred. The six billion dollar Shoreham Nuclear General Electric boiling water reactor adjacent to the Wading River in East Shoreham was closed without generating any power, due mainly to protests of local environmentalists and citizens concerned about the lack of sufficient “escape routes” in case of a Chernobyl type episode. This despite many delays in construction to insure that the Shoreham Plant had passed every conceivable safety contingency. The new New York Governor, Mario Cuomo, was an ardent nuclear plant abolitionist, and announced, almost gleefully, a plan for adding a three percent surcharge for thirty years to utility bills to help pay for the decommissioning costs in deactivating the Shoreham nuclear facility. Long Islanders were now able to sleep more soundly from an environmental standpoint but now have the fourth highest power rates in the country!
But that was almost 20 years, and the nuclear ghost is out of its coffin again and apparently alive and well, completely resuscitated by the price of oil at 100 dollars plus a barrel! And everyone is rehearsing the litany of alternative fuels prayerfully.
Such as those school boy (and girl) whimsies as solar, windmill and hydroelectric power, which are only stop gap and not more than useful band aids in our struggle to contain the spiraling price of energy. And the pious wish that this time we go for real gas conservation (also more drilling for oil)! This time we will show those Arab cartel people we can discipline ourselves and sustain a viable life with less car travel. And have those damn manufacturers raise miles per gallon standards to at least 40 miles per gallon! (Natural gas, unfortunately, is off the table. While it hs been discovered in great abundance in Russia and the Middle Eastll it is difficult to transport overseas. It will be very beneficial to Russia, China, India, and Europe, but not for us.)
Almost 20 years after the “Shoreham Follies” our conception of nuclear power has become much more realistic. No other nuclear accident has occurred. The nuclear industry now consists of 103 reactors which are in use 90 percent of the time. There are four new reactors submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for immediate construction and incipient orders are being readied. And it is a very profitable business. In Connecticut, indeed, a windfall profits tax is being sought on their profits. One major stumbling block is that only one steel company worldwide exists—in Japan-- to cast the very large 42 foot long egg shaped reactor containers at the core of the new reactors. Therefore the company now has a four year back order delivery date. The United States, which was once dominant in nuclear technology, has fallen behind in the nuclear production of energy field. France, Japan and Russia are going ahead of us and even selling their technology to smaller, developing countries. As I have tried to show, fear is a great inhibatory factor. Starting with a very dramatic, fine movie, The China Syndrome, which unfortunately resonated too deeply in one’s physic core of disaster modes, and the few incidents of over twenty years ago, we have erroneously lagged in this vital energy domain. Indeed, since l977, when President Carter decided, foolishly, to outlaw all nuclear cycling, and ordered all nuclear wastes to be stored in deep repositories, such as Yucca mountain in Nevada, we have lost the rhythm inherent in wise nuclear waste management. Over 95 percent of these so called wastes are harmless uranium 235 and 238, which France and other producers reuse. Some residue, however, just a few percent, of cesium-137 and strontium-90, have half lives of 30 percent, and have to be stored in places like Yucca mountain in Nevada. Most of the recycled uranium, however, has very useful isotopes needed for radiological medicine and advanced chemotherapy.
Of course, we should “Make haste slowly”. While nuclear energy has many benefits, such as being a non polluter of our environment (no fossil fuel carbon emission) the fact that there are some important lethal contaminants should make for extreme caution and further study so that we return to mother earth as few toxic wastes as possible. Much work on this front is ongoing. France, which has produced 80 percent of its electricity with nuclear power for the last quarter of a century, supposedly is able to store all of its current high level wastes in a single repository room in Le Havre. Ultimitely this waste will be combined with other substances to make it as inert as possible, usually with glass, a process known as vitrification, and buried deep underground in rocky, secure vaults. And thus continue to render the nuclear frightening ghost more like the white knight of clean and very affordable power.