By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood.
A rock, glittery gold and slate colored, has been placed on a table next to a chip of old Fiestaware and a Big Ben clock inside a brightly lit classroom at Southern California Edison’s San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, the power plant whose twin containment domes define the coastline below San Clemente. Ray Golden, a spokesperson who conducts plant tours for schoolchildren, foreign diplomats and anyone else he can interest in the magic of nuclear fission, is telling me how radiation — in the form of the clock’s glow-in-the-dark radium or uranium oxide that gives the plate its deep reddish-orange hue — has been used for nearly a century in manufactured goods. But it’s the rock, a roughly elliptical piece of solid uranium ore, small enough to fit in my hand but able to throw off radioactive particles as it slowly decays into unstable thorium, radium and, eventually, lead, that attracts me. And when Golden turns his back to write some diagrams on the classroom’s whiteboard, I quickly pick up the rock, cradling it in one hand. Small doses of alpha, beta and even penetrating gamma rays begin to bombard my skin, and I savor the transmutation of elements happening under my very nose. Just about 10 seconds pass before I put the rock back where I got it, unnoticed by Golden.
In practical terms, the chunk of ore is no more dangerous than any other stone I might have held. Still, when Golden runs a pale green plastic box, a dosimeter, across the surface of the rock to measure its radioactivity, the machine emits high-pitched beeps with each pass — sometimes slowly, like a moderate pulse, other times in rapid succession like a jammed letter on an old computer keyboard. Each beep represents 200 counts per minute; 2,000 counts makes a millirem, which is atomic science’s metric for absorbed radiation. Holding the rock for 10 seconds, I may have absorbed a millirem of radiation in various forms, which is not so bad: The average person gets about 360 millirems a year just from the radiation that beams down from the sun and occurs naturally in the Earth’s rocks and soil; mile-high Denver residents get nearly twice that. It would take much more to hurt me.
“Fifty-thousand millirems would cause a slight change on your body chemistry,” Golden explains. “Five hundred thousand, if you got it in a few hours, would bring on burns, vomiting, sickness, hair loss and, for about half the population, death.”
It would be impossible to get that kind of dose from a rock even 100 times the size of this one, and relatively easy to avoid getting any dose at all. Although it usually takes lead or concrete to block gamma radiation, the rock is so small and its gamma rays so weak that it’s mostly sending out alpha and beta particles, and when Golden places a piece of paper between the rock and the dosimeter, the beeping fades. A sheet of Plexiglas stops the beeping altogether.
Even plutonium, one of the world’s most toxic materials, emits only alpha particles, which can be blocked by paper, a thin sheet of aluminum or even your skin. “As long as you don’t ingest or inhale [them],” Golden says, “alpha particles can’t hurt you.” Or, in the words of Elena Filatova, the intrepid Ukrainian motorcyclist who documented Chernobyl’s dead zone in photographs, “You can play billiard balls with pure plutonium. Just don’t swallow it by mistake.”
Like every magical property of nature that man has harnessed, radiation, Golden insists, is neither good nor bad. But what about nuclear power? Is it good or bad for the Earth? Neither? Five years ago, few of us would have bothered to ask. You were either for or, more likely, against nukes — if you thought about them at all.
But nuclear energy is seeping back into our public consciousness here in 2005, which may go down in history as the year in which global warming went from debunkable theory to indisputable fact for a significant part of the population, not simply because of our record-breaking hurricane season or the record-high temperatures in many cities around the world, but the reality that we regularly wake up to find evidence in our mainstream newspapers of an ecology gone awry due to warming seas and blistering droughts — disappearing cold-water plankton and starving seabirds in the Shetland Islands, the Russian ship that sailed to the North Pole in August without the aid of an icebreaker, the sudden disappearance of certain butterfly species in Baja. In light of these conditions, almost anything seems better than burning more coal, which for every megawatt of power blasts a ton of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the skies. This is one reason why nuclear has reemerged as a viable source of energy for new power plants — not just among George W. Bush and his business buddies (who like the idea of more nuclear and more coal), but even among futurists, environmentalists and Democrats in the U.S. Senate, from quasi-Republican Joe Lieberman to new hope Barack Obama.
“Nuclear power is the only green solution,” began a spring 2004 editorial in London’s Independent by James Lovelock, the progenitor of the Gaia theory of the Earth as a self-correcting, self-regenerating organism. “We cannot continue drawing energy from fossil fuels, and there is no chance that the renewables, wind, tide and water power can provide enough energy and in time . . . we do not have 50 years.”
Stewart Brand, the visionary founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, followed Lovelock this year in Technology Review: “The only technology ready to fill the gap and stop the carbon dioxide loading of the atmosphere is nuclear power,” he wrote. “The industry is mature, with a half-century of experience and ever improved engineering behind it.”
Later came Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace (although he quit the group a decade ago), the recently deceased Reverend Hugh Montefiore of Friends of the Earth in England and Fred Krupp, the notoriously well-paid head of Environmental Defense, who stopped short of endorsing new plants but conceded that “we all should have an open mind” about nuclear power.
At first I was tempted to treat these statements as curiosities, extreme positions meant to stir controversy. But all this year I’ve met serious environmentalists, from Randy Udall of the Aspen-based Community Office for Resource Efficiency to a Bay Area friend who runs an energy efficiency company, who share Krupp’s “open mind” sentiment. Even Jared Diamond, author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail, recently made his support for nuclear power explicit when he appeared with Brand before an audience in San Francisco. Is it possible that we have come to this: a choice between a catastrophic warming trend and the most feared energy source on earth?
Back in the learning laboratory at San Onofre, where I’ve come on my own open-minded journey to test my assumptions about nuclear power, Golden holds up a small vial of yellow powder: uranium oxide, or yellowcake uranium, milled and refined — the substance at the heart of the current CIA leak investigation. Before its atoms’ energy can be harnessed, uranium oxide has to be enriched, by centrifuge or by being turned into a gas and passed through a series of membranes, a process called “gaseous diffusion.” Uranium comes out of the ground only .7 percent uranium-235 (or U-235); fueling a light-water reactor like San Onofre’s requires a concentration of 4.7 percent U-235. Using a mock-up of a reactor core that stands at the front of the room — a contraption that looks like the inside of a miniature pipe organ — Golden demonstrates how uranium pellets the size of baby fingertips fill the core’s 236 zirconium tubes, which are then bundled together in a fuel assembly.
The few times I’ve seen the stout, easygoing Golden at public meetings and on this tour, his face has had the look of a perennial mild sunburn, and his reddish-blond hair always looks bleached by the sun. He has worked in public relations for the nuclear industry 23 of his 45 years on Earth — his own nuclear half-life. He accuses the nuclear industry of “falling down on the job” by keeping so many secrets about its world, and holds that if the American public, like the more nuclear-friendly French, knew all the facts — what happens when atoms split, how unstable nuclides decay, how uranium is enriched and waste is transported — nuclear energy might be more popular with the American public. “Most Americans think they know about radiation because of Chernobyl, science fiction or the three-eyed fish in The Simpsons,” he says. “So as a country, we are phobic about radiation.”
Of course, the U-235 that fuels San Onofre is highly fissile: When one of its atoms absorbs an extra neutron, its nucleus splits and forms other nuclides, including radioÂactive versions of strontium, cesium and iodine, along with plutonium. It also lets loose more neutrons to hit other U-235 atoms, provoking a chain reaction of fission events. Fission generates heat, which in a light-water reactor turns water into steam. Maintaining the right balance of fission events — keeping the reactor at a “critical” state — is a tricky process. If too many neutrons fly around splitting atoms, the core gets too hot, in which case operators insert control rods made of boron and silver into the fuel assembly to slow or stop the chain reaction and avert a meltdown. If it doesn’t stay hot enough, the core loses power, provoking a different set of events that can lead to an equally disastrous loss of control. If the reactor drifts in either direction, or if for some reason the core loses too much water — which cools the core at the same rate it transfers heat — a partial or complete meltdown could result. In the early days of nuclear power, many people feared that once a meltdown was in process, it would continue to melt through the Earth’s core from North America all the way to China: the “China Syndrome” of the movie’s title.
On the face of it, nuclear power seems like a lot of trouble just for a little steam to run a few turbines to produce a few thousand megawatts of electricity. The Rocky Mountain Institute’s Amory Lovins, a steadfastly anti-nuclear advocate of conservation and green power, has likened nuclear power to cutting butter with a chain saw. But the flip side of that excess is nuclear’s other great advantage: how small a uranium pellet it takes to power the world. The fission of one uranium atom releases 200 million electron volts of energy.
“Our core is only a 12-foot cube,” Golden says, “yet it powers 1.2 million homes for four years before you ever need to refuel.” The trillions of fissile atoms in one tiny uranium pellet yield enough energy to replace 150 gallons of gas, 1,780 pounds of coal, 16,000 cubic feet of natural gas and two and a half tons of wood. And they do so without adding an ounce of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. It is widely accepted that one nuclear power plant spares the atmosphere the emissions of 93 million cars.
When the pellets have been depleted down to 1 percent U-235, specially trained plant workers replace them with fresh fuel. Some other countries, France and England among them, take this waste and reprocess it, separating out the remaining U-235, as well as the plutonium, cesium and other useful nuclides, reducing the remaining waste by 75 percent. In the U.S., the spent fuel rods go into storage pools on site until they’ve cooled enough to be moved into dry-cask storage.
And that’s the problem. Like everyone in the nuclear industry, Golden is acutely aware that no such dry-cask storage for those fuel rods exists. The spent fuel at San Onofre has been sitting in its cooling pools since the first refueling of Unit 1 in the early 1970s.
“It’s an issue,” admits Golden. The U.S. had two reprocessing facilities, one in West Valley New York that operated for only a short time and another in Morris, Illinois, that never actually recycled any fuel. Both were shut down when Presidents Ford and Carter declared moratoriums on the technology out of concern for proliferation. The country’s only candidate for long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste, which includes spent fuel rods, is a five-mile-long tunnel bored through the rock at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, an endeavor that has been fought at every turn by the state of Nevada. The Department of Energy has missed its contractual deadline for receiving commercial high-level waste by more than seven years. Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric, which owns the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant near San Luis Obispo, have sued to recover costs of storing the fuel themselves. This past spring, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report warning that the spent-fuel cooling pools have been inadequately protected and could be targets for terrorists.
If the matter of where to put nuclear waste makes reasonable people uncomfortable about the continuing use of nuclear energy, the prospect of a nuclear accident has turned many others more hysterically against it. The history of commercial nuclear power in the United States is full of mishaps — the 1959 meltdown of the Sodium Reactor Experiment in Santa Susana, 30 miles north of downtown L.A.; the 1975 control room fire at Browns’ Ferry in Athens, Alabama, and, more recently a significant cooling system leak at the Davis Besse plant in Ohio. The most famous of those accidents, the partial meltdown in 1979 at Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has been blamed for turning the American public against nuclear reactors for good, even though the electricity market had already begun to cool toward a technology that simply cost too much to start up. Whatever remnant of pro-nuclear public sentiment remained was finally erased shortly after April 25, 1986, when the graphite core of Chernobyl Unit 4 in then-Soviet Ukraine caught fire while workers were testing the reactor to see whether its safety systems could run without backup power. Thirty-one people died as a direct result, and a cloud of poison gas drifted across Ukraine, Belarus and much of Europe, contaminating the soil for millennia to come. The surrounding area was dubbed “the Red Forest” after its irradiated pine trees turned a deep red.
But nuclear’s proponents argue that by all accounts, the Soviet RBMK reactor at Chernobyl was a backward design with no containment and large amounts of flammable graphite; poorly trained operators were executing a flawed experiment in running the reactor on its own power when it got so hot they could no longer control it. Accidents in the United States have so far simply not amounted to much: It’s useful to remember that no one died at Three Mile Island — at least not officially. And, while opinions of the incident’s effects differ, no one has proved that any radioactivity that might have escaped into the atmosphere during the meltdown endangered anyone’s health.
California’s two remaining nuclear plants have, by industry standards, stellar safety records — in part, some say, because the state’s powerful cadre of anti-nuclear activists has ridden herd on them since they were built, forcing state and local authorities to police every misstep — but also because they have been well run by large public utilities that, at least until the deregulation of California’s electricity market, had the resources to prioritize safety. “Every day we manage complacency,” says Golden. “Every day we re-dedicate ourselves to safety. Every employee here who complains has their complaint taken seriously, even if it’s just about the food in the cafeteria. We want everyone to feel comfortable blowing the whistle if they have to.”
The plant’s record is not spotless: In 1980, the Nuclear Regulatory Commssion, the federal agency charged with monitoring plant safety, fined Southern California Edison $100,000 after 66 workers received higher-than-acceptable doses of radiation while fixing leaky steam tubes; four years later, Edison paid the same fine after some fuel rods disintegrated during refueling. Unit 1 was shutdown for good in 1992 when its cracks cost too much to fix, and in 2001, an electrical fire on Unit 3 forced a four-month shutdown of that reactor. Just this summer, a plant worker failed a breathalyzer test and spent 30 days in rehab.
But most of San Onofre’s safety violations are far more ordinary. Outside the building that houses the reactor itself is a sign registering the number of days since a such an event occurred. The day I visit, the sign says it’s been 28 days since the last incident.
“What happened?” I ask Golden.
He points to a short flight of stairs.
“Someone tripped,” he tells me, “and broke his ankle. A compound fracture.”