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Green to the Core? — Part 1

Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood.

—Marie Curie

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 radio­active 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.”

 

“It’s all lies.” Dr. Helen Caldicott throws back her red-streaked blond bob, flashes her blue eyes — really, she does — and stares across the table at me as if she’s about throw a punch. “They say they’re clean, do they? Nuclear power plants? Well, let me tell you: Millions of curies of radioactive gases are released in an unregulated way every year from nuclear power plants. And isotopes into the water. And we haven’t even talked about the radioactive waste.” (A curie, by the way, differs from a rem in how it measures radiation — by the activity of the material instead of the absorbed dose. One curie is the amount of radiation given off by one gram of radium. The 12 radium dots on the old Big Ben dial at San Onofre emit three one-thousandths of a curie of radiation.)

Stewart Brand, whom Caldicott has not heard of, “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” James Lovelock, “to use a crude Australian expression, has his head . . . somewhere. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about; I really resent him.” And Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense Fund, his fence-sitting on nuclear notwithstanding? “He’s really a front for the nuclear industry. They all have fronts. So in order to do your reporting well, you have to investigate who these people are, and what connections they have, and if they’re biologists or not. And if they’re not, just discount what they say.”

It’s true that almost all of Caldicott’s fellow firebrands who have come out in favor of nuclear power have some ties to the energy industry, be they financial or merely philosophical: Brand’s Global Business Network, for instance, secures funding via corporate members who pay $40,000 a year for a suite of services; among them are nuclear-power providers PG&E, Southern California Edison and Duke Power. GBN co-founder Peter Schwartz, who co-authored a pro-nuclear article in Wired magazine last winter, was once head of scenario planning at Royal Dutch Shell. And Lovelock serves as an informal adviser to the French-based Association des Ecologistes Pour le Nucléaire (Environmentalists for Nuclear).

Yet while Krupp earns a controversial salary — over $300,000 a year according to tax records available on EDF’s Web site — there’s no evidence that he’s a “front” for anybody. He is not, however, a biologist, a physician or a geneticist, but a lawyer. Which means, spits Caldicott, he lacks all qualifications to opine about nuclear energy. “You might as well unleash him into the operating theaters and let him operate on patients. It’s as serious as that.”

On a furnace-hot day in late May outside a San Pedro theater, Caldicott awaits her turn to rally opponents of liquefied-natural-gas terminals in Long Beach. For the occasion, she is dressed in a buttonless blue suit with a fluiddrape that emphasizes the fact that she almost never stops moving. Her elegant hands flail, she shifts in her chair, she shakes her head in exasperation. Her perpetual apoplexy is charming, even lovable, but not quite likeable — a distinction I hadn’t thought to make before I met her. Like a televangelist, she expects personal admissions of sin and shame in her presence; I make sure to tell her I traveled here by public transportation, then foolishly add that I’m grateful for the air-conditioning in city buses. “But you’ve got no right to run air-conditioning,” she chides. “You’re pouring HCFCs into the atmosphere. You shouldn’t do it.”

Throughout most of the 1970s and ’80s, the Australian-born Caldicott was the center of the international anti-nuclear vortex. She wrote books, fought off the French effort to conduct atmospheric testing in the South Pacific, linked arms with Australian uranium miners who were dying of lung cancer. She has been lauded for her precisely targeted fury, but also ridiculed for her seemingly nuttier pronouncements. In the wake of the accident at Three Mile Island, Caldicott asserted that Hershey’s chocolate, made from the milk of cows that graze near the Pennsylvania plant, had been tainted with strontium-90. “We don’t know the ground measurements where the cows graze because they kept that secret,” she admits. “But I’ve been saying it for years: Don’t eat Hershey’s chocolates. They haven’t sued me. You shouldn’t eat them.”

These days, Caldicott spends 50 percent of her time raising funds for the Nuclear Policy Research Institute, a D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to “creating consensus for a nuclear-free future.” She opposes nuclear technology in all its forms — from nuclear weapons to fission-generated electricity, it’s all the same to her. “The nuclear industry,” she says, “is a cancer industry. Nuclear power is going to induce millions of cases of cancer, particularly in children who are so radiosensitive. And it causes genetic disease, not just in humans but in other creatures. So it’s an evil industry, medically speaking.”

I remark that several credible nuclear-safety advocates I have interviewed so far, including Rochelle Becker of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, Michael Marriott of the Nuclear Information Resource Service (NIRS) and Dave Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists, have declined to make any proclamations about the health risks of living near nuclear power plants; the studies, say all three, are just not complete. Caldicott glares at me. “There are many studies. If they don’t know they should know. They’ve got no right not to know. Around Sellafield in Britain, which is also a reprocessing plant and a nuclear reactor, there are large clusters of cancers there. There are clusters of cancers in Wales, on the Irish Sea, which is the most polluted sea in the world, polluted by Sellafield.

“In fact,” she says agitatedly, “the literature is replete with malignancy in people who live near reactors. But because of the latent period of carcinogenesis, the incubation time for cancer is five to six years. You have to wait for a while and do a decent epidemiological study to assess what’s going on.”

In 1991, the National Cancer Institute in the U.S. conducted what might be considered a “decent epidemiological study” of deaths from 16 types of cancer, including leukemia, in 107 U.S. counties “containing or closely adjacent to 62 nuclear facilities,” all of which had been built before 1982. The survey compared cancer death rates before and after the facilities went online with similar data in 292 counties without nuclear facilities. After four years of research, the team of epidemiologists found no general increased risk of death from cancer near nuclear facilities. In some counties, the relative risk for childhood leukemia from birth through 9 years dropped a statistically insignificant few hundredths of a point after the startup of a local nuclear facility. The areas surrounding four facilities, including San Onofre, showed significantly lower rates for leukemia in teenagers compared with the rest of the country. A University of Pittsburgh study of the area within a five-mile radius of Three Mile Island showed no statistically significant increase in cancer rates 20 years after the accident at the reactor in 1979. What’s more, neither soil nor air samples in the area around Three Mile Island have been kept from the public. According to the Carter-era EPA, close to 10 percent of some 800 milk samples from local dairy farms the month after the accident showed trace amounts of radioactive contamination. But the highest concentration was still 40 times less than what showed up in milk after the fallout from Chinese nuclear testing in October 1976 that passed across the United States.

None of which placates Caldicott. “If you look at my book, Nuclear Madness, I cite many studies. But they’re not government studies, because the government doesn’t do the studies. A, they’re difficult to do. You have to wait until people actually die, and there’s a mobile population. B, it’s expensive — you have to do autopsies on all of them, and C, you have to compare them to an unexposed group, and D they don’t want to find out.”

At this point, I can only gaze across the table with a quizzical smile as Caldicott, in all her fired-up glory, rants on about all the things Americans “have no right” to do — drive cars, farm large tracts of land, spew 25 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide. “This country,” she says, “is quite obscene.” As an activist, she is magnificent. Inside the theater, she gives a speech so vivacious and funny no one seems to mind that she doesn’t have much to say about liquefied natural gas.

But she won’t talk about children with asthma in the shadow of Tennessee’s coal-firedpower plants, or whether hurricanes have grown more intense because the climate is changing, or whether it’s possible to engineer safer models of nuclear reactors.

“Listen to me,” she says. “You’re trying to balance both sides on this, and you can’t. There are no two sides to this issue. It’s like having a factory full of polio virus. And when the virus reproduces it makes heat and you turn the steam into electricity. But, by the way, millions of people might get polio. It’s exactly the same thing.

“Promise me you’ll read my book Nuclear Madness before you write your article, okay? Promise me? Because then you won’t be confused anymore. Then you’ll know.”

Look, you don’t want to go out and build a plant, spend all the money, and have the license jerked at the last minute. [Laughter.] Nobody’s going to spend money if that’s the case.

 

—George W. Bush, speaking at the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, June 22, 2005

 

No new orders for nuclear plants have been submitted in the U.S. since 1974, and none have been built since 1985. This is in part due to the accident at Three Mile Island, which happened 12 days after the popular movie The China Syndrome hit the theaters, and in part because of economics — many of the early plans were “turnkey” operations, so named because the manufacturer — General Electric, Westinghouse or Bechtel — paid for their construction (all the utility had to do was “turn the key”). When subsidies for new reactors disappeared, so did plans to build them.

Nevertheless, nuclear fission still generates a full fifth of the country’s power. And to replace that energy with the other most readily available source, coal-fired power, would add 600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year. But either we replace it or lose it, because those 103 light-water reactors are fast closing in on the end of their natural lives. Thirty-two of the original licenses the Atomic Energy Commission (later the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC) granted to nuclear plants have already expired and been renewed; applications are pending on another 16, and many more will run out in the next 20 years, including licenses granted to the 2,200-megawatt San Onofre Units 2 and 3 and the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, whose two reactors power some 2 million homes. Like many other aging plants around the country, both San Onofre and Diablo Canyon will require extensive repairs to continue operating to the end of their licensing periods: Southern California Edison claims that the tubes in San Onofre’s steam generators are up to 11 percent cracked (the NRC allows 21 percent cracking before replacement) and has set the regulatory gears in motion to replace them for nearly $700 million; Pacific Gas & Electric already has preliminary approval from the California Public Utilities Commission to repair Diablo Canyon.

But it isn’t enough to repair the old plants. “Without new construction,” explains the Department of Energy’s Rebecca Smith-Kevern at a workshop at the California Energy Commission during the second week in August, “nuclear capacity will fall off rapidly in the mid 2030s and be nonexistent by 2056.” If that happens, she warns, “the crucial challenge of capping and ultimately reducing U.S. and world greenhouse gas emissions would be considerably more difficult.”

Eleven countries around the world are now constructing 30 nuclear power reactors, including India and China, which has plans for, literally, dozens more in the next half century — not necessarily to save the planet but because oil won’t last forever. Uranium, by contrast, is abundant, inexpensive and not controlled by any cartel.

The Department of Energy’s “Nuclear Power 2010” program aims to jump-start the process of building new reactors — to explore new sites, speed the regulatory process and streamline licensing. At the August workshop, Smith-Kevern unveils a raft of new reactor designs — “evolutionary, not revolutionary” reactors, such as GE’s “simplified boiling water reactor,” and Westinghouse’s “advanced passive” pressurized water reactor. Next in line are the “Generation IV” technologies, such as gas-cooled fast reactors, lead-cooled reactors and molten-salt reactors. All reduce waste, have the potential to burn existing waste and produce economically competitive electricity, says Smith-Kevern, at 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour (electricity from coal-fired plants costs just over 2 cents per kilowatt hour; gas-fired electricity runs upward of 3 cents a kilowatt hour, according to the Utility Data Institute). They feature passive safety systems — controls that kick in without operator action — and address proliferation concerns by never separating plutonium from the waste.

With the help of the new energy bill President Bush signed August 8, nuclear ambitionsmay actually have a prayer. Bipartisan efforts on nuclear power’s behalf secured benefits for the industry ranging from generous tax credits for new nuclear generation to a 15-year extension of the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries IndemnityAct — a controversial 1957 law limiting the industry’s liability in the event of major accident. The energy bill also directs the NRC and the DOE to develop a strategy for licensing a “Next Generation” nuclear reactor that will produce hydrogen for transportation. The first Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) is scheduled to be online at the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory by 2021.

One of the more popular Next Generation designs is the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), a compact gas-cooled reactor with fuel assemblies the size of tennis balls filled with pellets of 10 percent U-235. Westinghouse plans to pitch a PBMR to the U.S. this year; South Africa’s Eskom Energy already has PBMRs in development. Unlike light-water reactors that use water and steam, the PBMR cools its core and drives its turbines with pressurized helium. Because the reactor’s 400,000 “pebbles” are fed into the reactor core little by little, a meltdown, at least in the conventional sense, is almost impossible. The PBMR is thought to be so safe, in fact, that it doesn’t require the four-foot-thick concrete containment building common to light-water reactors. Neo-nuclear environmentalists consider it a significant improvement in safety. Stewart Brand wrote last spring that “problematic early reactors like the ones at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl can be supplanted by new, smaller-scale, meltdown-proof reactors like the ones that use the pebble-bed design.”

“It has some good features,” says Dave Lochbaum at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Studies have shown that even if a [PBMR] cooling line breaks, it won’t melt down.

I’ve come to Lochbaum, who works out of a tiny, barely ventilated office in Washington, D.C., because he has a reputation among anti-nuclear activists and industry advocates alike for limiting his assertions to what he knows to be true. And his organization is as nervous about climate change as it is about the perils of nuclear power plants.

“By not using water you’ve significantly reduced the amount of low-level waste you generate,” Lochbaum says, and then pauses. “On the other hand, there is no free lunch. While it may not melt down, it could catch on fire. The pebble bed is like the Chernobyl reactor in that it uses an awful lot of graphite. None of our reactors operating in the United States use graphite in the core. Graphite’s just carbon. If the carbon catches on fire, it’s pretty hard to put out. It’s particularly hard if you’re using airflow to cool the reactor, which the pebble bed does. If you have a fire and you stop the airflow, you also stop the heat removal. So you may stop the fire and start the meltdown.

“You may not be able to get ‘fireproof’ and ‘meltdown proof,’” Lochbaum says. “You may have to pick one or the other.”

Which one is worse?

“I don’t know,” he says. “The Three Mile Island accident was a meltdown. It released a lot of radioactivity into the environment. We’ve never been sure how much. Chernobyl was a fire. Smoke carried the radioactivity into the environment. I guess they’re pretty much the same.”

There’s one other problem with the pebble-bed reactor, one that’s less a safety issue than a logistical one: “Because the pebble-bed doesn’t have the same power density, or octane rating, as our current plants do, it generates about 10 times as much spent fuel for the same amount of electricity.” In other words, 10 times the waste.

It is another unnaturally hot spring day when I visit Lochbaum, who cools his office with a small fan. The son of a nuclear engineer, Lochbaum worked in the nuclear industry for 14 years before the owner of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna Nuclear Generating Station ignored his warning about a potentially deadly design flaw in the plant’s spent-fuel pools. Frustrated, Lochbaum submitted a lengthy report to the NRC, from which he received no response. Only much later, when another plant owner, concerned about the same problem at his plant, requested the report, did Lochbaum learn that in his haste to submit the report, he’d made one-sided copies of two-sided pages: Every other page was blank. “It’s evidence to me that the NRC never actually read my report,” he says.

Lochbaum eventually went to Congress with his concerns, where safety improvements were mandated for Susquehanna and other plants with the same issue. He worked in the industry for three more years before joining the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1996.

Lochbaum describes himself, and UCS, as “neither for nor against nuclear power — we’re just safety advocates, and we’re concerned about global warming, too.” But he is clearly not optimistic about nuclear energy’s future. It’s not so much the technology itself; Lochbaum believes it can be made to work, and made to work safely. But as the electricity market around the country becomes increasingly deregulated and competitive, plant owners have more cause to put profit above reliability and safety. And the NRC is not working the way it’s supposed to: According to a 2003 report by the NRC’s inspector general and the Government Accountability Office, 47 percent of NRC employees don’t feel comfortable raising safety issues. “We get more calls from NRC employees than from employees of all the plants combined,” says Lochbaum.

He shows me a “bathtub curve” diagram from UCS’ ­literature: All the major accidents associated with nuclear power happened toward the beginning of each light-water reactor’s break-in phase, on the left-hand slope of the chart’s curve. “Our concern now is that all our nuclear power plants are in the wear-out phase,” he says. Lochbaum points to the right-hand, upward slope of the tub. “Left unchecked, we’ll start putting names on this side.”

Thank you most of all for nuclear power, which is yet to cause a single, proven fatality, at least in this country.

 

—Homer Simpson, saying grace in the Simpsons episode “Oh, Brother Where Are Thou”

To read the second part of the article Green to the Core? click here.

And to discuss this story, visit Judith Lewis' blog, Another Green World.


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