Green to the Core? — Part 2

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“I really believe that people go to work at that plant saying I have a huge responsibility to make sure this plant is safe,” says Rochelle Becker, the tireless executive director of the San Diego–based Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility. “But you can be running that plant with the best of intentions and the best of employees, and guess what? Nature bats last.” In recent years, Becker, a small woman with a slightly turned-up nose and straight, light-brown-to-graying hair pulled back in a ponytail, has focused almost all of her energy fighting the impending re-licensing of California’s two remaining nuclear power plants on the grounds that no safe solution exists for long-term storage of nuclear waste. Becker has read the National Academy of Sciences report on those storage pools and, like that report’s authors, she worries about terrorist attacks. But she worries as much about a 7.5-magnitude earthquake on the Hosgri Fault, which runs two and a half miles from Diablo Canyon’s door. She admits that an earthquake of such power has never hit that fault, but neither had a storm surge sufficient to submerge New Orleans ever hit the Gulf Coast. Geological time, like radioactive decay, is not measured in the tens of years, but in hundreds and thousands. “Earthquakes,” she says, ”don’t happen in 30-year time frames.” Both plants have been built to withstand, as PG&E’s literature puts it, “the largest earthquake deemed credible from the nearest earthquake fault.” The utility employs a full staff of seismic experts to assess the risk from nearby faults. Becker doesn’t care. “How many structures fell in the Northridge earthquake that were supposed to have been seismically sound? Freeway overpasses, buildings, all kinds of things. Look at where San Onofre is compared to the ocean. It’s pretty much right there. What happens if the coast shifts? And what happens if an earthquake hits at one of those plants while they’re moving fuel into the pools? Worst-case scenario: The fuel rods could come in contact with each other, initiating a chain reaction and subsequently starting a fire.” Cancer deaths from such an accident could soar into the five digits. And if it doesn’t kill you, rest assured your beach house will be rendered worthless, says Becker. “Oceanfront property,” she says, “will be pretty darn cheap.” Diablo Canyon’s spent-fuel pools will reach capacity in 2006, which is why PG&E has plans to institute on-site dry-cask storage at its facility, a decision Becker prefers to trucking waste across California. In March of 2004, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted PG&E a 20-year license to begin storing spent fuel in steel canisters packed in concrete and steel and anchored to concrete pads. There was only one problem: The license didn’t say anything about protecting the storage facility against a terrorist attack. The Sierra Club and Mothers for Peace, with the backing of California Attorney General Bill Lockyear, have appealed the NRC’s approval in the Ninth Circuit Court. But if both nuclear plants shut down when their licenses run out, how will California meet its energy needs without compounding global warming? Becker gave her official answer to the California Energy Commission at a Sacramento workshop: “Four thousand megawatts is a considerable amount of energy,” she said, “but we don’t believe it’s substantial. Hundreds of millions of California’s dollars have gone into a hole in the Nevada desert called Yucca Mountain. If the same investment in dollars were made in renewable, we would go from being the laughingstock to a leader in renewable energy.” Then again, she tells me over lunch one day, “I don’t really feel like it’s up to me to address how we replace that power. I do feel like it’s up to me to be questioning how much radioactive waste California wants to store on our earthquake-active coast. For years, we have been talking about these as energy-generation plants. All they do is produce energy. We’re acting like we don’t have over 6,000 tons of radioactive waste sitting on our coast. Well, we do. And there’s 200 more tons every year.” Even storage facilities for low-level waste have begun to tighten restrictions: Barnwell, South Carolina, will close its doors to out-of-region waste as of 2008; Richland, Washington, already has. “So when does California go, ‘This is enough’” asks Becker. “Why aren’t we making the Department of Energy, the NRC, the federal government deal with these problems like they promised? And why do we continue to produce more waste when we haven’t solved the problem of what we’ve got?” The answer to some of Becker’s questions can be found about 100 miles north of Las Vegas at Yucca Mountain in the bleak expanse of Nye County, Nevada. Should it seem for any reason an inappropriate place to deposit several generations of America’s atomic detritus, Department of Energy spokesman Allen Benson is here to convince you otherwise. In his arsenal of evidence is the fact that Yucca Mountain gets only seven inches of rainfall a year and that the area surrounding the proposed repository is chronically underpopulated, on the edge of the Nevada Test Site, where atomic scientists working for the U.S. government sat at perilously close range while their mystical ordnance exploded 1,500 feet over the desert. If that isn’t enough, consider this: “Nye County,” observes Benson, “is shaped like a mushroom cloud.” It is impossible not to be awestruck by the sheer scale of the Yucca Mountain project, by the five-mile horseshoe-shaped tunnel that has been drilled through the mountain, by the railroad that runs through that tunnel, by the 450-foot-long drill that made that tunnel, the “Yucca Mucker” that still stands at the tunnel’s far end, because it’s too expensive to move. “If you know anyone who’s interested, it’s for sale,” Benson says, staring up at the beast-like machine. “$10 million.” “But it needs some work,” I offer. Benson laughs. “It needs some work. It’s only got five miles on it, though.” Inside the tunnel, thousands of note cards litter the cavern’s rock walls, engraved with the names of prominent scientists from Los Alamos, Sandia and Livermore laboratories — scientists who have taken samples of Yucca Mountain’s volcanic rockfor independent analysis of its density, its mineral content and, most of all, its porosity: Water is the thing that defines whether a nuclear waste storage facility will withstand the test of time and weather. It’s unfortunate, then, that on the day I take Benson’s tour, with two other journalists and a geologist named John Hartley, the desert is bursting with greenness fed by unusually plentiful spring rains. I expected Yucca Mountain to be dry and barren; instead, it’s a stunning stretch of high Western desert. It seems a heartbreaking place for a waste dump. “Get this straight,” says Benson. “We don’t dump anything. And that really is important if you’re going to report on this. It is not dumped. It is disposed of in a scientific and responsible manner to protect public health and safety.” But can’t that science change? What happens if global warming gives Yucca Mountain annual monsoons? “First of all, we’re dealing with solid material,” says Benson, “in specially designed canisters, in an engineered facility designed to enhance the natural geology. You’ve probably heard talk in some quarters that the mountain itself was supposed to protect the canisters. That’s not true.” The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, says Benson, clearly indicates that engineered facilities would be used in conjunction with natural geology to protect against radiation exposure. “So we’re following the law very clearly here, very precisely.” Benson has cause to be defensive: Nevada Senator Harry Reid calls it a “dump” nearly every time he mentions it; Shelley Berkley, the local congresswoman, calls it a “fiscal black hole.” This week Congress slashed the project’s funding by $127 million. Eight billion dollars have so far gone into the project, which was last scheduled to open in 1998. Victor Gilinsky, who formerly served on the NRC, has blasted DOE management for shrouding the project in secrecy. “It’s hard to have confidence in an agency that acts in such a secretive way.” Last winter, a series of e-mails exchanged by employees of the U.S. Geological Survey who worked on the project suggested that research on the site had not been as meticulous as it could have been, and in some cases may have been falsified. “We’re not talking about the e-mails,” Benson reminded us more than once. “The e-mails are part of an ongoing investigation, and we’re not going to do anything to compromise that ­investigation.” After a few hours at Yucca Mountain, it becomes clear why, despite a desperate need for a solution to the nuclear waste problem (there is already enough waste in temporary storage to fill it), the site has not opened: No one is absolutely sure what will happen if it does. If all the regulatory hurdles are cleared, if Nevada loses its political battle and Yucca Mountain’s license — which Benson says will be measured in “linear feet,” not pages — is finally approved, the waste that goes into it will last for hundreds of thousands, even millions of years. “We don’t know what will happen in 10,000 years,” Benson admits. “Will people speak English? There probably won’t be a United States.” He talks about the difficulty of establishing a warning system that will matter to creatures of the future, who likely won’t read our signs. But the very idea that such a system is possible seems absurd. In early August, the EPA proposed upgrading its 10,000-year safety standard for radiation exposure to humans near Yucca Mountain to 1 million years. As if the EPA will be around in 1 million years to enforce it. People in the nuclear industry, including San Onofre’s Ray Golden, respond to the problem of nuclear waste by advocating reprocessing. It sounds like a good idea to me, too, so I ask Dave Lochbaum about it. “On paper, it sounds good,” he says. “Everybody likes recycling. But we’ve tried reprocessing three times in this country and we’re 0 for 3.” Why? “General Electric spent a lot of money on a reprocessing facility in Morris, Illinois. They got it finished, but they never could get it to work. Once Ford and Carter issued nonproliferation executive orders, [closing] it was less face loss than admitting it didn’t work.” “So why,” I want to know, “don’t we just bring a bunch of French guys over here to show us how?” “Well,” Lochbaum hesitates, “the French don’t really follow our safety rules. I’m not sure that technology could be licensed in the United States unless we just waived our existing regulations. We have a little bit more concern about effluent. I’m not going to say the French are ‘no blood no foul,’ but they’re not quite as concerned about effluents as we are. They tend to believe more in ‘the solution to pollution is dilution.’ They have high releases, but they figure it’s going into the North Sea or the English Channel. That’s a big ocean. So there are certain beaches on the North Seawhere you can get a suntan at night.” Indeed, according to Britain’s Environmental Protection Agency, concentrations of technetium-99, an isotope produced in reprocessing, were four times higher in the coastal waters of Belgium and the Netherlands down-plumefrom France’s Cap de la Hague reprocessing plant. Shortly after I return from Yucca Mountain, I look over a map I got from Rochelle Becker showing my office in Los Angeles, just 4.7 miles away from the nearest nuclear waste transport route, along which waste would travel on its way from Diablo Canyon to Yucca Mountain. I find myself mentally running through the process of loading cats in their carriers, dogs on their leashes and cherished belongings unboxed in the car — and planning escape routes. The 101 freeway out of Hollywood would be jammed; the 5 freeway in either direction would be worse. I think of all those drivers stuck on the highways out of Houston, fleeing Hurricane Rita. “It would most likely evolve over days, not hours,” says Ray Golden of a nuclear accident. He takes me into the war room at San Onofre, a high-ceiling barracks filled with long tables lined with telephones. The phones have assignments: FEMA sits here, the local sheriff there, the plant manager over there. The NRC has a spot, too. “Yeah, they’d be here bossing us around,” says Golden, as though he’d rather handle any emergency by himself, with his trusted co-workers. As though he could. As my nuclear anxiety accelerates, I finish Caldicott’s Nuclear Madness: What You Can Do. I find in it Caldicott’s gloss narratives of nuclear energy’s accidents and horrors, a fairly familiar litany of the disasters that have happened and others that probably will. But I also find in the book a comprehensive summary of all the radioactive substances that have already been released into the environment — information I first learned from the federal EPA’s Web site: A fine dust of plutonium-239, discovered in 1941 but kept secret as a national security threat until seven years later, has accumulated over the world like a toxic blanket. Writes Caldicott more specifically: “Five metric tons were thinly dispersed over the Earth as a result of nuclear bomb testing, satellite re-entries and burnups, effluents from nuclear reprocessing plants, accidental fires, explosions, spills and leakages.” One-millionth of a gram is enough to cause cancer. And as far as living organisms on the Earth are concerned, plutonium is forever. It has a half-life of just under 25,000 years. As Caldicott points out, it can’t even be destroyed. “Plutonium does not simply vanish at the death of a contaminated organism. If, for example, someone were to die of a lung cancer induced by plutonium, and were then cremated, contaminated smoke might carry plutonium particles into someone else’s lungs.” Caldicott wrote the book in the same voice with which she speaks, and as I read I pictured her staring me down. This time, I take her seriously. To produce enough electricity to keep Yonkers going for a year, a light-water nuclear reactor would make, as a by-product, just about enough plutonium to obliterate Yonkers.

— John McPhee, The Curve of Binding Energy, 1974.

There are, at this point, many persuasive arguments against nuclear power. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute can show you graphs and charts proving it produces less energy for the dollar than wind or solar could, if anyone would implement renewables on a large scale. Wall Street analysts complain that even the current energy bill’s generous subsidies for nuclear energy are not sufficient to spur investment. No one knows what to do with the waste. And while its essential generation may be free of toxic air emissions we associate with smog and greenhouse gas, the process of mining and enriching its most fundamental element — uranium — huffs an astonishing load of Earth-destroying chemicals into the air. Caldicott had warned me of this, but I didn’t believe her until I saw the data on the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory for 2003: The two gaseous diffusion plants at Paducah, Kentucky, and Portsmouth, Ohio, pour almost 10 times the amount of CFC-114 — an ozone-destroying gas banned under the Montreal Protocol — as all other sources in the United States combined. But the most disturbing thing about nuclear power is that fission of any kind, for bombs or watts, creates toxic elements that would not otherwise exist. According to the U.K.’s National Radiological Protection Board, cesium-137 fallout from the Chernobyl accident will likely contribute to 1,000 additional cancers over the next 70 years among the population of Western Europe. Strontium-90, chemically similar to calcium, settles in bones and blood, triggering bone cancer and leukemia. It is perhaps not surprising that cancer clusters can’t be found in the immediate vicinity of nuclear power facilities: According to the EPA, strontium-90 has been so thoroughly dispersed into the atmosphere it is “almost impossible to avoid.” It has been found in milk and ­children’s baby teeth since the late 1950s, most recently by Dr. Jay Gould and a team of researchers in their 2000 study, “Strontium-90 in Deciduous Teeth as a Factor in Early Childhood Cancer,” which reported higher strontium-90 concentrations downwind of certain nuclear power plants. It is not far-fetched at all, then, to imagine that it also turns up in Hershey’s chocolate. Thinking in 10,000-year terms is new to us. We have a long way to go to comprehend even the size of the subject of very long-term responsibility.

—Stewart Brand, The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility — The Idea Behind the World’s Slowest Computer

In 1966, a young Stewart Brand dropped LSD, sat on the top of a building in San Francisco and observed the curvature of the earth. That led him to a campaign of buttons and bumper stickers demanding an answer to the question, “Why haven’t we seen a picture of the Whole Earth yet?” A few years later, an Apollo mission shot a vision of the Earth from space fully lit by the sun — the famous “Blue Marble” — and Brand launched the Whole Earth Catalog with the image as his logo. In some respects he was the original techno-environmentalist: The founder, in 1985 of the Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link (the WELL), a force behind Wired magazine, a philosopher who brought together the nature lovers — the “romantics” in Brand’s view — with the scientists. It was a surprise to many, and dismaying to some, when Brand granted nuclear power an honored place in the world’s energy portfolio. In the months since his article “Environmental Heresies” was published in MIT’s Technology Review, many have tried to persuade him otherwise. Clean-energy expert Joseph Romm tried to convince him that the nuclear industry would do just fine without his support — it’s renewables that need his backing. Environmental journalist Mark Hertsgaard wrote a pointed editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle accusing Brand of being, among other things, naive about nuclear power’s economics. Random bloggers have accused him of shortsightedness — a potent irony, as one of Brand’s affiliations these days is with the Long Now Foundation, which he co-founded with Danny Hillis to promote long-term thinking (among their projects is a clock that measures time in millennial increments). But Brand has held firm. The reason: Nothing — no reactor meltdown, no waste-storage conundrum, no fine dust of plutonium spread around the globe will cause as much damage to the Earth as the carbon-induced changing of the climate. “Amory Lovins bent my ear hard with how the economics don’t work,” Brand tells me over the phone from his office in San Francisco. “And indeed, the economics are problematic, but Amory has not done the economics on climate change.” Even if a nuclear disaster occurs, Brand says it won’t be as bad as losing every coastline to global tsunamis. “A fair question you could put to one of your concerned scientists would be, How many Chernobyls equals one abrupt climate change?” says Brand. “A climate change where we have warmer and warmer oceans and deeper and deeper waters, where Florida goes under, and Bangladesh goes under, and we have more and more New Orleans–type events every year? A climate change where the Gulf Stream turns off, and not only Europe but the whole world gets much colder, drier and windier, and the Earth then drops its carrying capacity by 20 or 40 percent? “And what,” Brand continues, “if you can engineer out any Chernobyl at all?” If there’s a lot Brand hasn’t worked out — he didn’t, for instance, know the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor produced so much waste — no matter; Brand has enormous faith in future engineering and human invention. “It may well be true about the pebble bed and waste,” he allows. “But then, okay, back to the old drawing board! That’s exactly the kind of debate about these designs one would like to see in public. I would like to see Greens engaging in it. Let’s bear down and say this or that or this other thing is a problem. Maybe we should be pushing ‘generation five’ nuclear technology — if we even know what it is. What you want is the back and forth instead of one side yelling ‘yes’ and the other side yelling ‘no.’ In the meantime, we can start building some stuff, bearing in mind that the worst nuclear disaster is still a lot better than the worst climate disaster that rachets us into a world we can’t come back from.” As for the waste that so worries Rochelle Becker, that’s easy, says Brand: Open Yucca Mountain for business. It doesn’t have to be perfect forever, because in time, we’ll figure out a better solution. “I think it’s a swell place to park this stuff for a 100 years while we think about what to do with it. A lot of engineers think we’ll send robots back in a few decades to use what will then be high-grade ore.” The way Brand sees it, the problem with Yucca Mountain is that the U.S. government has been trying to figure out how to store nuclear waste safely for 10,000 years. “And that’s a very expensive, irrelevant question,” he says. “The Canadians asked a different question — what do we do with it right now? They got the Indians involved, who told them seven generations is not a bad time frame. Seven times 25 is 175 — so we have responsibility for this thing for 175 years. After that, it is fair to say that it is the next generation’s problem. Let them deal with it.” Bequeathing subsequent generations nuclear waste is “way, way different than losing species you can’t get back. This is passing on an engineering problem to future generations. And that is fair to do.” But how does that square with the express philosophy of long-term thought, of the millennial clock? “When we went to Yucca Mountain, we took a member of our Long Now board,” says Brand. “And we found ourselves fascinated by the pathology of Yucca Mountain and the billions they were spending to study it. They were doing what we were promoting — they were thinking long term. They were thinking ‘Let’s have an absolute bulletproof determination of all that will happen in 10,000 years and develop an engineering solution for all those problems.’ “But this,” Brand continues, “was a case in which thinking in 10,000-year terms was a mistake.” He laughs. “I really liked it, because up until then we thought 10,000-years-plus is a good way to think about everything, but it isn’t. In this case, it created more problems than solutions. It was very bracing for us to learn that.” But will nuclear power save us from the fate Brand warns about? And just how many nuclear reactors would it take to make an appreciable difference in the carbon collecting in the atmosphere? In 2002, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research did that math and concluded that it would take 2,000 nuclear reactors producing 1,000 megawatts of power to make a dent in carbon emissions from coal-fired plants. At the United Nations, a multinational panel on climate change suggested reversing the carbon trend would require an average of 75 new nuclear reactors every year for the next century. By some estimates, the Earth will run out of uranium before we’d reach that capacity for nuclear generation. Brand, of course, dismisses such estimates as based on old technology and backward data. And this is no time to wring our hands about future uranium supplies and the release of toxic isotopes. We need to stop climate change now. “Chernobyl was local,” insists Brand. “It put a lot of crap into the atmosphere, and people downwind are in bad shape. But climate change is pretty damn universal and inescapable. It’s not like we’re going to go somewhere else.” Most of the world, he argues, will be uninhabitable — not just for humans but for every other species adapted to the seasons as we know them. And perhaps that’s where Brand wins: While climate change has already begun to endanger a diverse range of Earth-bound plants and animals, the consequences of widespread nuclear contamination matter most for humans. The evidence can be found in Chernobyl’s “exclusion zone,” an area 10 kilometers out from the scene of the 1986 fire. A few people have returned to Chernobyl, to the abandoned town of Pripyat and to the formerly Red Forest on the outskirts of the town and reactor, but the exclusion zone remains off-limits to humans, and will remain so for as long as we can imagine. But here’s the twist: In the absence of human impact, the land has reverted to one of the most robust wildlife refuges in the world. According to a report by geneticists Robert J. Baker and Ronald K. Chesser of Texas Tech University, who have conducted 12 research expeditions to the site, moose, roe deer, foxes and river otters frolic within the exclusion zone; 30 kilometers out live wolves, eagles and the endangered black stork. “Diversity of flowers and other plants in the highly radioactive regions is impressive,” wrote Baker, “and equals that observed in protected habitats outside the zone.” Upon his return from the expedition, a government official asked Baker to report on the accident’s consequences to the ecosystem. Baker told him that “the net ecological impact has been positive.” “How it could be possible that the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, releasing between 100 and 200 million curies of radiation into the environment, could produce positive ecological consequences?” the official wanted to know. “The answer was simple,” the men concluded. “Humans have evacuated the contaminated zone.” It’s not that radiation hasn’t harmed the animals — the mice in the freakishly abundant new wilderness show profound genetic mutations — it’s just that “the benefit of excluding humans from this highly contaminated ecosystem appears to outweigh significantly any negative cost associated with Chernobyl radiation.” Nuclear power may change the world after all.

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