The response to the Soviet atomic power plant accident by U.S. government and nuclear industry officials has been curiously self-righteous. We are told that Soviet safeguards for nuclear plants are weaker than those applying to the 100 licensed nuclear plants in the U.S. Then we learn that five plants used for producing weapons grade material and two other plants in the U.S. are, like the Soviet plant, without a containment structure.
We also are informed that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s own reports show that 1985 was the worst year for nuclear power plant safety since 1979 when Three Mile Island was minutes from a catastrophe. This near miss has cost consumers over $8 billion in closedown, cleanup and, at similarly designed plants, retrofit expenses.
Last year ten percent of the atomic power plants experienced “significant” mishaps or management lapses. Three of the plants — one in Ohio (the Davis-Besse plant) and two in California (the San Onofre and Rancho Seco plants) underwent harrowing malfunctions. The Ohio accident was described by Jesse Ebersole, a federal atomic-safety adviser, as “40 minutes of chaos and fast-approaching disaster.”
The seeds for future atomic power disasters are being sowed by Ronald Reagan’s drive to deregulate the safety controls over industry. His appointees now control the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) which has steadily weakened safety standards and has moved to restrict citizen participation in licensing hearings. Dissenting NRC Commissioner James K. Asselstine says that “The memory of Three Mile Island has faded, and complacency about safety has set in.”
Looking through the numerous dissents of Commissioner Asselstine and the many reports and critical public letters of Congressman Edward Markey (D-MA) whose House Subcommittee monitors the NRC and the industry, one is persuaded that nuclear power is simply too much for management to handle. Quite apart from major unsolved problems such as (1) where to store the deadly radioactive waste, (2) how to decommission the ‘hot’ power plants when they wear out after about 35 years, and (3) what to do about constant ‘surprises’ of corrosion, pipe cracks and numerous other officially acknowledged puzzles, the sheer blunders, incompetence, carelessness, secrecy and delays are startling.
After the $250 million fire, started by a plant technician with a 25 cent candle, shut down the two giant TVA nuclear plants at Browns Ferry, Alabama, the NRC ordered fire protection changes in all nuclear plants. Now more than ten years later, there are plants without such changes. One NRC official told reporters that fire fighting systems cannot reach all areas of some plants. Last year the TVA shut down all its nuclear plants due to a miasma of technical and economic problems.
Conscientious quality control inspectors have been harassed by their superiors for pointing out defects during construction or operations. Coverups of welding inadequacies and deficient personnel qualifications are not rare. Even the industry-indentured NRC proposed fining last week Texas Utilities Co. $120,000 for intimidation and harassment of quality control inspectors and $250,000 for violating quality control rules at its troubled Comanche Peak nuclear power construction site.
Daniel Ford, author of the book, Cult of the Atom (Simon & Shuster, 1983) predicted correctly that there would be a meltdown sometime during the following three years. It happened in the Ukraine. He wants to phase out nuclear plants in the U.S. that are dangerously located or in flagrant violation of safety standards.
Back in 1972 I urged the closedown of the 30 odd nuclear plants in the U.S. which were then supplying about 4 percent of our electricity. Now the 100 licensed plants, when they are operating, supply about 15 percent of our electricity. Our nation wastes about 50 percent of its electricity, as many studies have pointed out in the middle and late Seventies.
The choice facing the American people is the same now as it was in 1972. Either we close down these nuclear disasters-in-waiting before a catastrophe occurs (which could make an area the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable) or we close them down after the radiation deaths, the genetic damage, the poisoned food and water are relayed day after day over the mass media.
The NRC itself has told Congress that there is a 50/50 chance of a meltdown in the U.S. during the next twenty years. Still this agency is chronically downplaying the dangers and costs of atomic power. That leaves the task to those Americans who live within range of these plants — over half the population — to start the drive to make their country free of nuclear power and its awesome perils.