Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A miracle or a meltdown... one or the other...

March 24th, 2010

Dear Readers,

Tonight in Dana Point, California, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will be holding its annual hearing on the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station's recent performance, which has been lousy. They'll give San Onofre an overall "B" where it should be getting a failing grade. San Onofre should never have opened, and should be closed for good immediately. For safety. For economics. Forever.

At the hearing, the public will be allowed to speak for two, maybe three minutes each. Nothing said by the public will be considered. Nothing will be under oath. Nothing will be officially recorded. Only a few reporters will show up, who will dutifully interview the spokespeople for San Onofre and the NRC, and perhaps one or two of the most staid activists, and then they'll report whatever platitudes are said as if they are facts. The plant is safe, they'll say.

But the plant isn't safe. Not even close. A trillion-dollar accident, costing America a million lives, waits quietly for the perfect opportunity... The plant is a nightmare, and numerous workers from the plant have come forward in recent months, to myself, to other activists, to the media, and to the NRC, at great risk to their careers (in fact, usually knowing ANY exposure will mean the end of their careers) to say that THEY are scared.

Right now at San Onofre, one reactor, Unit Two, is down for a major overhaul that's taking much longer than expected, and the remaining reactor, Unit Three (Unit One was shut down in the early 1990s) is conserving fuel for the summer by operating at half power. After months and months of projected start dates (all missed), suddenly the expected start date for Unit Two has become "proprietary."

One cannot help but think they do not expect to have Unit Two up and running reliably anytime soon, and they are hoping they can keep Unit Three running until Unit Two is restarted, because there is nothing they fear more than to have both reactors down for extended periods of time. People might get used to it, especially since the lights would probably stay on. And later, epidemiological studies can more easily use those times to show that YES, nuclear power plants DO harm children and other living things even when they don't have an accident.

The overhaul project was supposed to take six to ten weeks, but it's been over six months. They were about to start the reactor without an unfueled water test. They ALMOST skipped that final test, they were so sure of themselves. They almost went straight to running the reactor with fuel in it!

But people within the company complained. Despite the fear of retaliation, they complained.

And the company relented, and did the test. And it didn't work right!

Even so, one of the San Onofre executives recently told a local activist that he expects the plant will continue running for 60 MORE years -- a total of one hundred years!

This in a state which banned NEW reactor construction decades ago, until a solution to the waste problem has been found. Instead, the utilities just keep rebuilding the old reactors, to get around the state law! At the time the ban was enacted, the nuclear waste was supposed to be removed soon after it was taken out of the reactor. But it wasn't. Virtually all the waste from all of California's reactors is still in California.

And what of the federal government's ACTUAL attempts at nuclear waste management? Utter failures: Yucca Mountain would be a disaster if it ever got built (it's currently "on hold"). Hanford, Washington, the nation's main military nuclear waste dump and the only high level waste dump America has, is considered by many to be the most polluted place on earth, and if it isn't, God help those who live near whatever is.

To keep a nuclear reactor designed for 20 years of operation -- perhaps 40 -- operating for one hundred years will be very difficult, if not impossible. Parts unknown to anybody fail imperceptibly. Constant vigilance would seem to be the order of the day, but true vigilance is impossible: Not only is much of the reactor off-limits for months at a time during operation, and difficult to get at in any case, but vigilance costs money. At San Onofre, every old pipe they tap on falls apart. So to as great an extent as possible, they simply don't tap.

What about old wiring? Nobody at the plant is worried about it! When a transformer or breaker or something explodes or shorts out, they figure they can just emergency-shut-down the reactor and replace whatever is damaged. The fire department will come put out the (non-nuclear) fire -- like last time (which bent the turbine shaft, and took five months to fix).

Old pipes? No worries! Even if they don't actually know where all the pipes are (they don't) or what condition they're in, they don't care. If tritium leaks into the ground, nobody will notice until they dismantle the reactor (like what happened with Unit One). And if the deadly tritium leaks out, but instead of accumulating in the ground it evaporates into the air, no one will notice at all! (And since tritium is usually found as part of an otherwise-normal water molecule, it is excessively good at simply evaporating, thus destroying the evidence of its escape from the facility.)

Old thinking? Who cares? The NRC actually believes that nuclear power is still good "baseline" power for America, even though offshore wind turbines combined with hydro-energy storage ("pumped storage") works perfectly well at no significant risk to the environment. Solar power is far cheaper than nuclear power (even ignoring all of nuclear's subsidies and hidden costs) in a very reasonable time frame. There are energy systems available for use, well-studied by qualified scientists, just waiting for the funding breaks that nuclear gets every day, let alone what it got in its heyday. But they don't need as much, since renewable energy doesn't even NEED a "Price-Anderson Act" insurance fraud to operate. Simple business insurance will do. Renewables don't need the unkept waste management promises. They certainly don't need to "mitigate" their cost to the environment, since they ARE the preferred mitigation! I'm referring specifically to things like Atmospheric Vortex Engines, Wave and Tide Energy systems, and other things the NRC doesn't know about and won't learn about. After all, you can't be an expert in everything, and they aren't.

And the Department of Energy? They support nuclear power, as always. Their standard line is that, since the NRC says the plants are safe, they assume they are safe, and see the plants as a benign source of energy. No consideration of all the issues the NRC won't even consider, such as renewable energy alternatives, or the science of radiation damage to fetuses. These are beyond the NRC's, and the DOE's, areas of expertise (the NRC has NO medical doctors on their staff, and certainly no pediatricians specializing in radiation damage to infants, for instance).

San Onofre is a tremendous risk to the environment, and every day it operates, it leaks deadly, carcinogenic radioactive effluent into our air, soil, and water. It piles even more of these carcinogens up on our coast, with nowhere on earth to put the waste. It just piles up, waiting for a disaster. Most years, San Onofre's owners make billions of dollars from this criminal arrangement. This year things aren't going so well.

Right now, San Onofre is limping along at 25% of capacity. The plant could even be shut down by its owners due to economic reasons (that's what shut down Unit One). Their employees are expensive, their new equipment, which cost about a billion dollars to install, doesn't work because it wasn't built or assembled properly, the employees at the plant -- even the hordes of new ones -- falsify records, they are intimidated and intimidating, they poison the atmosphere with their lies about being a clean energy source, as well as with radioactive particles.... San Onofre is costing their parent company, Edison International, a fortune just to stay in business in the hopes they can get things squared away for another 20 years of high-risk, dirty, dangerous operation... or maybe 60.

Is it worth it? They've tried everything to cut costs, from delaying virtually all maintenance until the last possible minute, or until a failure has actually occurred, to forcing every employee who wins a lawsuit against them for a radiation-induced cancer to sign a promise not to talk to anyone about their agreement -- these things cost money!

In short, San Onofre can't even operate at a profit when the government promises both to pay for any catastrophic accident damage that might occur (reducing their insurance costs from prohibitive to piddling) and further promises to take all the waste off San Onofre's hands somehow, someday. San Onofre is even suing the government over the waste issue, since it's costing them money to build semi-permanent and highly-dangerous dry-cask storage systems in the meantime.

Other cost-cutting measures have occurred at San Onofre besides fix-on-fail, such as giving up on finding a permanent home for the Unit One Reactor Pressure Vessel, which sits on the crowded site spewing radiation to the universe right off of Interstate I-5, as do Unit Two's old steam generators. Nobody wants this crud, and the cost of disposal is only going up. So instead, such things just sit there. And they aren't one ten-millionth as radioactive as the so-called "spent" fuel, which, pound-for-pound, is the deadliest stuff on earth.

If they can't get the new steam generators in Unit Two to work properly any time soon, or at all, they may not get permission to replace the leaky steam generators in Unit Three. Despite the federally-funded push for new reactors, and new reactor designs, nuclear power is not working out for the corporations who bought up reactors across the country. Generically they are financially unstable corporations. For example, the owner of Vermont Yankee is trying to create a new limited-liability corporation to avoid upcoming decommissioning costs for Vermont Yankee and half a dozen other nuclear power plants, and to avoid other liabilities. It's not very profitable to be a nuke operator these days, even with all the additional "gimmes" many reactors enjoy, such as rate guarantees and stifled competition.

Of course, the NRC doesn't see it that way. They think "SONGS" is singing a fine tune, humming along at quarter power. The NRC thinks the managerial / behavioral / team player problems that San Onofre is experiencing can be solved by showing minor improvements in their human performance metrics charts. Any improvement is considered proof that the problem is solvable, and to just keep going. Any decline just shows that "more needs to be done."

The NRC doesn't see that there is a culture of defiance and cover-up, of lies to the public and lies to each other, of peer pressure and hidden fears and doubt at ALL nuclear power plants, and even within their own staff! They try to hire smart people. But smart people ask: What if the activists are right? Why ARE so many highly respected scientists dead-set AGAINST nuclear power? Sure, there are a few highly qualified nuclear power supporters. But they are almost invariably specialists associated with nuclear energy. For the most part, nuclear supporters are NOT geneticists, epidemiologists, microbiologists, physicians.... humanitarians, philosophers, poets, artists... And they are not "Generalized Thinkers" who try to assess the "Big Picture." They are specialists who have, intentionally or unintentionally, MISSED the big picture.

In an Op-Ed in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Energy Secretary / pro-nuker Steven Chu admired "Small Modular Reactors" (SMRs) as "affordable" (they aren't) and says they will be "plug and play upon arrival" (I doubt it). He estimated their earliest arrival at ten years in the future, but I wouldn't put money on that time frame (he expects Wall Street to, though). These proposed new reactors will create hazardous fission and activation products just like their big brothers, and there remains no waste solution, because radioactive waste destroys any container you put it in. Even many layers of gold would not suffice forever (though it would be a good start)...

Every nuclear power plant, including Chu's proposed SMRs, are weapons for terrorists and other enemies of humanity. They are prone to failure and even constant vigilance clearly wouldn't be enough -- if it existed.

Sincerely,

Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Chernobyl catastrophe and its effects on language, health, politics, and the environment

March 8th, 2010

Dear Readers,

Nearly 24 years later, Chernobyl is still a dirty place, a dirty word.

Chernobyl has almost surely killed hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps already it is more than a million. And over time, it will kill many more. In fact, many estimates are that the vast majority who will be killed or harmed by Chernobyl were not even born at the time of the accident.

This is the legacy denied by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI, the public relations arm of the American nuclear industry) and other nuclear supporters -- including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Health Organization (WHO, which submits all its regulations to the IAEA for approval).

IAEA and WHO admit to a few thousand dead. The NEI claims that only 38, or "under 50" people were killed due to Chernobyl (their exact guess changes now and then, but never by enough). But the truth, like the poisons, seeps out anyway. A new book about Chernobyl was recently published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. The book's esteemed authors collected several thousand scientific studies about the after-effects of the Chernobyl meltdown. Until now these studies have never seen the light of day in America, mainly because both America and the countries of the former Soviet Union, as well as all the other nuclear nations of the world, do not want this information "scaring" the public.

It IS scary, but it's worth knowing!

The book, painstakingly edited in English by Dr. Janette D. Sherman-Nevinger, is both shocking and depressing (this author had the honor of co-writing an article with Dr. Sherman in 2009, published in Friends Journal). The book is 335 pages long, and nearly every page has about two dozen studies described briefly (more than 33,000 studies of Chernobyl's effects have been done; they could not all be reviewed or included in the book). It's stupefying. One goes numb. One can't believe the figures (and occasionally, in part due to translation errors from the European mathematical conventions to American notation, the figures undoubtedly ARE wrong). But taken as a group, the evidence is overwhelming.

So many numbers to absorb!

But fear not: The authors have thankfully provided dozens and dozens of graphical charts.

After a while, when you turn to a new page and see a new chart, you can put your finger on "1986" virtually every time (some effects are delayed). Things start to go wrong in dozens of countries: Birth rates go down, perhaps due to people being cautious about having children right after Chernobyl, or perhaps due to unrecorded miscarriages, or both. Age at time of death is down, childhood leukemia is up. The list goes on and on and on.

Chernobyl has killed as many as a hundred times more people than the next-biggest industrial disaster in human history, generally considered to be the mass chemical poisoning in Bhopal, India in 1984. Chernobyl has probably killed more people than the atomic bomb blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, including their horrible (and continuing) aftermath.

To this day, the nuclear industry pretends that Chernobyl killed only as many people as might die in a train wreck, or maybe in a bus going over a mountainside. Sad, but nothing substantial.

Chernobyl kills every which way imaginable. But the NEI and other pro-nuclear advocates only count obvious, unmistakable, indisputably-attributable deaths. For every death they acknowledge, their methodologies inevitably miss tens of thousands of deaths that were, in reality, caused by Chernobyl. One could dismiss their estimates out-of-hand as being the work of fools, but the problem with doing that is that a lot of fools believe those estimates.

It's the biggest lie of the 21st Century, since trillions of dollars are being spent based on the idea that nuclear power is "safe" and "clean." In reality, all designs of reactors -- new and old (and old with new names and minor refinements) -- are capable of releasing huge quantities of radioactive isotopes into the environment. Certainly, most designs are different from Chernobyl. But none are perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Perhaps an accident in America is less likely, but there is NO significant evidence of that. There is only evidence that America has been very, very LUCKY not to have experienced a full-blown meltdown yet. (Google Davis-Besse 2002 for one example of a "close call.")

The more reactors we build (if we build ANY more) and the longer we let our old reactors continue to operate, the greater the likelihood that a Chernobyl-size disaster will happen here. Many U.S. reactors are now well beyond their designed-for years of operation, but the old clunkers are kept going by a corrupt regulatory system that refuses to do its job.

And then there is the spent fuel. A catastrophe just as big or BIGGER than Chernobyl could happen in any spent fuel pool, or any dry fuel storage cask, at any time. These imperfect and inadequate storage methods are subject to earthquake or construction failures, as well as terrorists, tornadoes, tsunamis, even asteroids! No one can rightly claim that our nuclear facilities are secured -- not even against rogue employees. We have built the seeds of our own destruction into our environment. We should be reducing the risk, not increasing it.

But what if we are led to believe that the "disaster" would be minor? What if we are told that wildlife is flourishing in the "exclusion zone" around Chernobyl, now that there are no humans? Would it make us happy? Or would we look for the underlying facts: Birds and other animals can't read signs saying "KEEP OUT!" (in any language). So yes, there is wildlife in the "exclusion zone," but there is strong evidence that many of the creatures are dying when they get there. They don't reproduce properly, and more birds and other animals from the nearby, less-contaminated areas come in to replace them, and this just keeps on happening. Migratory species pass through, eat Chernobyl's plants and animals, which are often highly irradiated, and then leave their droppings (or die) elsewhere, in a continuous, deadly, but gradual cycle.

Chernobyl had a poor design. The operators were running unauthorized experiments without proper safety equipment ready. There was no containment dome. Well, that had pluses, actually. In fact, it saved the day in some sense, since they were able to pour sand, lead, and other materials directly onto the hot reactor from helicopters flying overhead, through the invisible radioactive plume. Otherwise, the reactor might have burnt completely. As it was, "only" about 3 to 5% of the reactor core was dispersed into the environment. The rest sits there to this day, still hot thermally and radioactively, still seeping nuclear poisons into the ecosystem, untouched for the most part. Covered once with a poorly-built concrete sarcophagus, it is soon to be covered again. Right now, water gets in, and then radioactive crud oozes out. Radioactive gasses seep constantly from the numerous cracks in the "vault".

What once were some of the richest agricultural areas in the world are now foraged by scavengers: Poor, uneducated people who drift into the "exclusion zone" that surrounds the plant, where only authorized people taking proper protective measures are supposed to go.

Chernobyl's pollution is still spreading. The soil holds the cesium and the strontium and other radioactive elements, until years of rain bring them down to the roots of deep-root trees, which take them up to the surface again. Then a wildfire burns those trees, and a cloud of radioactive crud is wafted onto some other community downwind from Chernobyl. Of course the dose will be lower, but the damage will be more widespread.

Currently, most of the radiation doses that the residents of the contaminated regions are receiving are from the food they eat and the water they drink (mostly the food), not the air they breathe (although that too is poisoned).

Chernobyl changed the definitions of words and gave us many new phrases which the book discusses.

Perhaps the most well-known new term is: "Children of Chernobyl."

Each year, a few hundred young children, usually with thyroid problems but always with health problems, are brought to "healthy" environments such as Southern California, USA (where this author lives and got bladder cancer a few years ago). There is always a lot of media publicity about the children, which is good for the organizers, fun for the children, and useful for the public, who are thus reminded each year of the horrible events that occurred in Chernobyl 24 years ago next month. The downside is that the public is led to believe that helping these few means the problem is being properly handled. There is, for the most part, no assistance for most of the millions who have been harmed.

Normally, and thankfully, only a small fraction of children are born with health problems. In areas that were heavily contaminated by Chernobyl's invisible poisons (invisible, but relatively easy to measure IF you have the money, the time, and the equipment), 80% of the children are born with health problems. In very heavily contaminated areas, 98% are not healthy. One of the "solutions" recommended in the book -- presumably out of desperation -- is better testing of fetuses, and abortions if the findings are severe enough.

Another new term that came out of Chernobyl is: "Liquidators." Liquidators are the people who went into the reactor to put out the fire, or flew over it -- people who put their lives on the line to save their families, their country, and our environment. There were over 800,000 liquidators. Now they are dying in droves, dying early, of cancer, heart disease, leukemia, and a general degradation of their body organs. (That's what radiation does at the very least: It ages you.)

Another new term that came out of Chernobyl is "Chernobyl AIDS." One of the main ways that radiation damages the body is that it weakens the immune system, leading to death from infectious diseases that the person might have otherwise survived.

"Chernobyl babies" are children who have serious malformations such as organs outside their bodies, shortened limbs, or no brain (only a brain stem, so they breathe, but can never think). Some have essentially no bones -- they are called "jellyfish children" and the only other place they have been seen was on the Marshall Islands after nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s. The children of liquidators are especially likely to be "Chernobyl babies."

What a thing to look forward to if YOUR nuclear power plant melts down, or if its spent fuel burns up, or if some other catastrophe causes another massive spill! Or if your local nuclear power plant just leaks too much tritium, like so many do.

If you live in the northern hemisphere (as most of us do), Chernobyl is blamed for about 2% of what is now called your "natural background radiation." But one should not be too encouraged to hear that it is "only" 2%. For one thing, it is reasonable to believe that the background radiation, which is unavoidable, is also the root cause of many cancers which have no other obvious cause. Second, the actual value for some places may be much higher than the "average" for the whole planet (or a little lower). There are millions of hectares of farmland which still have significantly higher radiation levels as a result of Chernobyl.

Monitoring what is being fed to people who already live in contaminated zones is one of the most important tools for protecting them from the damages of radiation. Needless to say, it's expensive and is rarely done. Another problem is that companies which know they are "over the limit" with some of their supplies mix the contaminated food with less radioactive food so the average dose is legally permissible. But the same amount of radionuclides are being dispersed into the population. It's an inexcusable crime that happens all the time.

More new phrases and meanings:

The "Red Forest" is the area immediately surrounding Chernobyl -- hundreds of square miles -- where the trees have turned color for some unknown reason.

The "Chernobyl effect" is an increased thyroid cancer rate. There is also an increased mortality rate if you do get the disease (perhaps because your entire body is already degraded by the radioactive poisons).

We all are degraded by Chernobyl. Chernobyl's radioactive isotopes continue to invade us all. The general term for what Chernobyl has done is "geobotanical catastrophe."

Like the "Children of Chernobyl," "Physicians of Chernobyl," "Widows of Chernobyl" and "Liquidators Unions" are large groups of people who have been adversely affected by the tragedy.

"Chernobyl limbs" are deformities of the arms and/or legs, more common in the more contaminated zones.

"Chernobyl heart" is a malformed heart which does not do its job properly.

"Radiation in utero" is the poisoning of a fetus in the womb, also an ongoing problem.

Other new medical terms arising from the Chernobyl disaster include "vegetovascular dystonia," a nervous system breakdown, "incorporated long-life radionuclides," and "acute inhalation lesions of the upper respiratory tract" which are mainly seen in liquidators, and include a combination of: "rhinitis, throat tickling, dry cough, difficulty breathing, and shortness of breath, owing to the effect of inhaled radionuclides, including 'hot particles'."

Chernobyl illnesses are no fun. "Typical complaints from liquidators" include: "severe headaches, not relieved by medication, impaired memory of current events, general weakness, fatigue, diminished capacity for work, generalized sweating, palpitations, bone and joint pains and aches that interfere with their sleep, sporadic loss of consciousness, sensation of fever or heat, difficulty in thinking, heart seizures, flashes, loss of vision, and numbness in hands and feet."

Chernobyl's tendrils of poison have only begun to spread. Inadequate containment measures ensure that more of the original reactor core will leak out of the site, into the environment, and into our bodies. Chernobyl's radiation has damaged hundreds of millions of people, if not billions, and continues to do so.

The truth about the Chernobyl catastrophe is being systematically hidden from the people, especially in every country with nuclear power, by their governments and by their nuclear industries. It is good to read the truth, but it hardly feels like a breath of fresh air.

Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA

Hoffman is an educational software developer and the author of The Code Killers, a technical guide to the nuclear industry. The Code Killers is available as a free download from the author's web site: www.acehoffman.org .

URL to obtain a copy of Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment (unfortunately, the cost is ~$150!):

http://www.nyas.org/Publications/Annals/Detail.aspx?cid=f3f3bd16-51ba-4d7b-a086-753f44b3bfc1

Written by Alexey V. Yablokov (Center for Russian Environmental Policy, Moscow, Russia), Vassily B. Nesterenko, and Alexey V. Nesterenko (Institute of Radiation Safety, Minsk, Belarus). Consulting Editor Janette D. Sherman-Nevinger (Environmental Institute, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan).
Volume 1181, December 2009, 335 Pages

Ralph Nader: No Nukes (includes comments about the book):
http://www.commondreams.org/view/2010/02/13

Karl Grossman talks about the book (a more complete review from Karl will be forthcoming):
http://www.counterpunch.org/grossman02172010.html

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Ace Hoffman
Author, The Code Killers:
An Expose of the Nuclear Industry
Free download: acehoffman.org
Blog: acehoffman.blogspot.com
YouTube: youtube.com/user/AceHoffman
phone: (800) 551-2726; (760) 720-7261
address: PO Box 1936, Carlsbad, CA 92018
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