WASHINGTON–When Richard Nixon was promoting the safety of nuclear power plants before the Associated Press editors last month, he asserted reassuringly that his San Clemente residence was only a few miles from one such nuclear facility. What he didn’t tell the editors is that this plant at San Onofre, California, had closed down for several months on October 21 due to a serious and costly accident.
The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was notified that day of the damage by Southern California Edison but, contrary to regulations, kept the matter secret. Public disclosure came on November 22 through a story in The Los Angeles Times Reporter Lee Dye asked an AEC official why the secrecy. He replied: “I just don’t have an answer for that.”
Not having answers to key questions about nuclear plants, as well as the transportation and disposal of their deadly wastes, is nothing new at the AEC. In recent months, about the agency has learned more/ how its vaunted standards were either inadequate or unobserved by the reactor manufacturers or utilities who build these “nukes”.
AEC internal memoranda and reports refer to “near misses” or the presence of “good luck” to describe how design defects or operating errors were closer to causing a catastrophic chain reaction which would release radioactivity into the environment.
Here are some recent plant hazards acknowledged by AEC officials:
1) The critical emergency core cooling system (ECCS) in these plants (39 are now operating with varying degrees of unreliability) is deficient. The ECCS is the fail-safe system that is supposed to prevent the doomsday class melt-down accident and the massive civilian casualties, property damage and the cancerous contamination of an area the size of Pennsylvania.
2) A uranium fuel densification (shrinkage) problem took the AEC by surprise and led it to admit that such a defect can seriously aggravate accidents. This risk illustrates how much remains to be understood about reactor operation by those officials who so glibly assure the public about nuclear power safety.
3) Earthquake risks, which are slowing licensing of “nukes” in California, have presented themselves in Virginia where a nearly completed $1 billion nuclear plant 45 miles from Richmond was belatedly discovered by a “Who us worry?” AEC to be right over a geological fault. The agency also discovered that the Millstone Plant in Connecticut and other plants contained inoperative equipment designed to control excessive vibrations in the event of an earthquake.
4) Another recently discovered defect affects certain reactors manufactured by General Electric and the adequacy of reactor cooling.
5) The AEC’s regulatory staff has issued a report casting doubt even on the reliability of the emergency shutdown systems at nuclear plants.
Add to these troubles the warnings to the AEC by the General Accounting Office which reported laxness in the AEC’s supervision of the transportation of nuclear waste materials. More recently the GAO told Congress that it found little security at three commercial facilities handling special nuclear materials which could be stolen or diverted to make nuclear weapons. The AEC had previously given these plants ok ratings.
More radioactive wastes–in the thousands of gallons–have leaked from their temporary storage sites in Richland, Washington.,Nuclear power plant wastes must be contained from the environment for nearly a half million years. An amount of the lethal Plutonium 239 not exceeding twenty pounds could, if efficiently dispersed, give lung cancer to everyone on earth. In calling for a nuclear fission plant phase-out, a leading cost benefit economist, Allen Kneese of Resources for the Future,called it a “moral problem” and “one of the most consequential that has ever faced mankind.”
In the light of these and other developments, more scientists are favoring short term energy alternatives through pollution controlled fossil fuels, the reduction of vast energy waste in our economy and the development of solar, geothermal and other clean,
inexhaustable forms of energy for the longer future.
Is any of this penetrating the AEC hardliners? Certainly not Chairperson Dixy Lee Ray who fervently advocates with all the force of ignorance an even more dangerous and uneconomical design–the breeder reactor.
What of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy in Congress? Ridicule of the nuclear critics pours from the uninformed lips of Congressmen Holifield and Hosmer who equate doubts about the “nukes”, which they have nourished with 30 billion taxpayer dollars, with blasphemy. Committee Chairman Melvin Price has delayed announcing hearing dates for the critics to present their case. After twenty years such hearings may be described as overdue.