United States: A Fukushima-style disaster is waiting to happen

April 9, 2011

“There’s no reason why technologically we can’t employ nuclear energy in a safe and effective way,” United States President Barack Obama told a group gathered at a town meeting in New Orleans in October 2009.

“Japan does it and France does it, and it doesn't have greenhouse gas emissions, so it would be stupid for us not to do that in a much more effective way”

You might think after the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima that Obama would have a reason to back off his support of nuclear energy as a new “clean” energy alternative.

But that wasn’t the case — the Obama administration remains determined to ring in a new “nuclear renaissance”.

In fact, just days after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that caused the disaster in the Japanese reactors, Obama signed an agreement with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera. He offered US help to start a nuclear power program in Chile, where an 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck last year.

The Japanese disaster is being portrayed by government officials and most of the media as the result of a “perfect storm” of factors. But the truth is, it was always a matter of when, not if.

The people who lived and worked near the Fukushima Daiishi plant were in danger of some kind of disaster befalling them from the day the facility was built — and a similar future could be on the cards for people all over the US.
The US is the largest producer of nuclear power in the world, with nearly a quarter of all the world’s reactors. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said 23 US plants have the same reactor and containment design as at the Fukushima plant.

In another parallel to the Fukushima nightmare, nearly half of the nuclear reactors operating in the US are close to major fault lines, including the Diablo Canyon and San Onofre plants near California’s San Andreas Fault.

Some are also within spitting distance of an ocean — San Onofre in San Diego County sits on the beach, with a breakwater as its only defense against a tidal wave.

Many reactors are near densely populated areas. Twenty-nine reactors are within 25 miles of metropolitan areas.

Almost half of US nuclear reactors are within 50 miles of metropolitan areas with more than 500,000 people. Fifty miles is the evacuation zone that the NRC advised for US citizens near the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

The US is just as likely to see a devastating “perfect storm” as Japan.

Another claim is that US nuclear regulators are much more stringent than Japan. But that rings hollow in the face of the facts.

A 2010 study of nuclear plant safety by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found US plants experienced at least 14 “near misses” last year. The report overview explained that “many of these significant events occurred because reactor owners, and often the NRC, tolerated known safety problems”.

One example is the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in Maryland, which on February 18 automatically shut down when rainwater leaked in through holes in the roof and dripped onto electrical equipment.

For months before this, workers said they noticed the leaks. But the plant managers put off repairs — because, as the UCS report summarised, “the roof only leaked when it rained”.

The report said operators at the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant near San Luis Obispo, California didn’t realise that a system to pump water into one of its reactors during an emergency wasn’t working — for 18 months. It had been accidentally disabled by the plant’s engineers.

The UCS report portrayed the NRC’s investigations as “more like a strobe light” than a spotlight, since it audits only about 5% of activities at nuclear plants each year.

One built-in danger of nuclear power is the toxic byproducts it produces, such as spent fuel rods, which contain uranium and radioactive material.

This spent fuel has to be stored at least five years in water-filled cooling pools, and then sometimes sealed in steel-and-concrete casks for longer-term storage. If it isn’t kept cool, the fuel can overheat, releasing harmful radiation.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said the US has generated about 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste — enough to fill a football field more than 15 feet deep.

The GAO projects that there will be more than twice as much — 153,000 metric tons — by 2055.

The US has been unable to find places to “dispose” of this dangerous material, so it’s kept on site. This adds to the dangers of nuclear plants — as the Fukushima disaster has shown.

Thirty-five states have plants that store spent nuclear fuel, including 31 where there are operating reactors, the NRC said.

Robert Alvarez of the Institute for Policy Studies said at a recent press conference: “Unlike the Japanese reactors, in the US, the spent-fuel pools are currently holding, on the average, four times more than their designs intended.”

Existing reactors in the US are decades old. No new reactors have been built since the late 1970s, and for good reason — Three Mile Island. Following a notorious near-meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in 1979, residents near the Pennsylvania plant are still suffering the effects of the radiation poisoning.

A University of North Carolina study showed that in the areas of greatest fallout, lung cancer rates jumped 400% and leukemia rates climbed 700%.

However, in June 1996, a 2000-person class-action lawsuit of victims was dismissed on the grounds that the plaintiffs failed to prove that the Three Mile Island accident had caused their health problems.

At the time of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, the US chastised Russia for its lack of preparedness — but few plans are in place if a disaster happens in the US.

As longtime environmental activist and journalist Jeffrey St Clair chronicles in a recent article about New York’s Indian Point, emergency response drill tests at the plant were rigged so that the facility would be sure to pass.

Despite all this, the Obama administration wants to build more nuclear reactors. This is part of a three-fold energy plan — offshore drilling, “clean” coal and nuclear energy.

After more than 30 years of no new reactors being built in the US, four new reactors — in Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina — are slated to be up and running by 2020.

The energy department has set aside US$36 billion in loans for the construction of 20 new nuclear power plants.

After Fukushima, the Obama administration is still standing behind nuclear energy and expects US workers to pay for it. Nuclear power is a risky investment that Wall Street won’t make, unless taxpayer money subsidises it.

So Obama’s 2011 budget proposes tripling the loan guarantee program for nuclear energy — from the $18.5 billion that Congress has already approved to $54.5 billion.

Nuclear power is neither a safe nor inexpensive alternative to fossil fuel. But for a few CEOs at the top and their partners in Washington, it’s extremely profitable and worth the risk to human life and the environment.

There are safe and less expensive solutions, including solar and wind power.

In Germany, where the government extended the operations of seven ageing reactors by eight years, there have been huge protests in the tens of thousands in response to Fukushima — demanding an end to nuclear power.

Since Japan’s disaster, support for building nuclear power plants dropped slightly lower than it was immediately after the Three Mile Island accident.
A March 22 CBS News poll found only 43% of those polled after the failure of the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan said they would approve building new facilities in the US.

That’s a steep decline from the 57% who said they approved of new plants in 2008.

Joyce Corradi escaped from her home near Three Mile Island with her son after the accident. Her son showed signs of radiation poisoning almost immediately, but doctors told her at the time it was nothing. She became an activist against the plant.

She told the Washington Post in 1989: “There has been a great loss of innocence in this community as far as people in authority having the answers.

“I'm not sure people know what to believe. I hold my breath every time my son goes for a physical. I hold my breath when I think of him having children.”

[Abridged from www.socialistWorker.org.]


This article makes me want to scream out loud and start protests! This is really good, thank you for sharing all the important information that we all should know.

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