April, 2008

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.