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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Is There A Nuclear Blast In Your Future?

The struggle over the dangers of nuclear power plants throughout the United States centers on a collision of invincible hazards against immovable investments.
After two decades of assurances by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and private utilities that nuclear power is acceptably safe, the evidence to the contrary has become undeniably impressive during the last three years. As the true range of risks becomes public from behind the massive curtain of secrecy long surrounding matters dealing with nuclear energy, Americans should become informed and involved. With thirty plants now in operation (many very near major metropolitan areas), growing to 100 by 1980 and to a projected 1000 by the year 2000, (according to the AEC), few people will be more than a few miles from a potential radioactive holocaust.

There are several compelling situations that frame the need for deep public concern:

1. The emergency core coolant systems (ECCS) in contemporary muclear plants are defective or, at the very least, unacceptably unpredictable. Some plants are being de-rated (reduced in power) on AEC orders. The ECCS are the fail-safe back-up systems to prevent a reactor core meltdown and the resulting escape of radioactive gases from the plant into the environment where people live and work. Should such a “big accident”, as it is called, occur in one plant near a city, acute radiation poisoning will produce tens of thousands of fatalities, many more injuries, damage to the genetic pool and billions of dollars in property damage.

2.The AEC has acknowledged no present technical or economically feasible way to permanently dispose safely the hot radioactive wastes. These wastes are now transported and temporarily stored in a manner both precarious and vulnerable, given their lethal persistence for thousands of years.

3. Low level radiation hazards from these power plants are more serious than the AEC was willing to admit four years ago before two of their own scientist, Gofman and Tamplin, produced controversial but credible estimates of the casualty levels if radiation dose permitted under the then AEC standards for allowable radiation were delivered.

4. The proposed breeder reactors, slated for construction in the 1980’s and produce well beyond the deadly Plutonium 239 and other potential perils greater than present day reactor design. With a millionith of a gram sufficient for a fatal dose, the consequences of a mistake or theft of nuclear materials should be intolerable.

5. The exposure of widely dispersed and decentralized nuclear technology to sabotage poses uncontrollabel risks and costs on these power systems and the government. Nuclear materials have been lost or mislaid in the past by the AEC. Imagine the potential for such losses or appropiation for nefarious purposes when many companies are in control of such materials.

6. Even utility company executives are grumbling publicly over defective reactor design, lower than planned utilization levels of these plants and their excessive repair costs and breakdown delays. One plant, the Fermi breeder reactor outside of Detroit, ex­perienced a serious accident about six years ago and is shut down permanently. The spiral of operating costs may yet prove to be the condition which makes the utilities rethink their future energy plans.

7. From the beginning, insurance companies have avoided nuclear plants like the plague. By law, there is a strict liability ceiling of $560 million per accident, of which the government will cover up to $490 million. Back in 1957, the AEC estimated property damage of $7 billion from one big accident when reactors were much smaller. If the insurance industry has not wanted the business at any price, the public has a right to know why.

Statements by prominent scientists questioning the unrealistic assumptions of perfect safeguards and societal stability underlying the nuclear power drive are increasing. Many within the AEC are having strong doubts about such great government reliance on nuclear fission as the nation’s main future energy source. Presently, nuclear plants supply lessthan 4% of the nation’s electric power.

There have also been numerous scientific articles and symposia drawing attention to other practical, safer and abundant sources of energy. These sources include solar energy (available now for space and hot water heating) geothermal energy, gasification of coal, fuel cell, and available cleaner combustion processes for conventional coal burning plants. What is needed is federal research and implementation, as proposed in a bill sponsored by Senator Warren Magnuson. Tragically, most government funds now go into nuclear fission development.

Something else is needed. More nuclear energy scientists and government officials should heed Alfred North Whitehead’s dictum about keeping open “options for revision.” Such wisdom might also apply to the neglectful Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy and the new AEC Chairwoman, Dixie Lee Ray.