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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.