Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Book Review: Max S. Powers' America's Nuclear Wastelands (2008)

Dear Readers,

Two weeks ago on a conference call between half a dozen long-time activists working for safer storage of the vast pile of nuclear waste at San Onofre (3.5 million pounds, approximately, of spent reactor fuel) Mike Aguirre, the lawyer who had just settled a nothingburger with Southern California Edison that took his law firm out of the running to help local residents fight against SoCalEd's cost-saving plan to store the waste in flimsy thin-walled so-called "stainless" steel cans, on the promise that SCE would keep on trying to find someone else to take the waste (which they had been trying to do for decades anyway and were going to continue to try to do) Mike recommended a book he had read, and -- after misnaming the author several times -- said it's where he figured out the solution to the problem, and he wanted us all to read it. Did not offer to send copies.

I found a used library copy on the Internet, and paid more for the shipping than for the book. Under 200 pages, in small type but with lots of pictures, I read it cover-to-cover yesterday. This is (or will be shortly) a book review.

Worse than merely agreeing to help SCE find a better home for the nuclear waste -- something we all want to do, actually, since it's in an earthquake zone, a tsunami zone, a high-population area, and exposed to the crack-inducing salty air 24/7 -- Aguirre & Company (including Ray Lutz and Patricia Borchmann, two local activists) agreed to help SCE dump their liability for the waste once it gets beyond the fence at SanO, and they also agreed, in writing, to support SCE's application to the California Public Utilities Commission seeking to have ratepayers pay for SCE's search for a new home for the waste -- up to $4,000,000, which is a pitifully small amount (SCE spends nearly that much just holding four "Community Engagement Panel" meetings each year), and SCE only has to search for a "commercially reasonable" location, whatever THAT means. One thing it definitely means is that they can reject even a plan that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approves, if they don't like the financial terms.

And the #1 financial term they are seeking is to dump the liability for whatever happens to the nuclear waste on someone else.

That's why, immediately after the "agreement" was publicized (the negotiations had been held secretly for several months), Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona announced that they, for one, would NOT take the waste. Naturally: They didn't want the added cost and liability. They'd be fools to want it.

America's Nuclear Wastelands certainly has an intriguing title, and a picture of several atomic bomb craters on the cover. The subtitle is "Politics, Accountability, and Cleanup" but while accountability is discussed several times in the book, liability isn't mentioned at all. It's mainly about politics, which the author thinks is the main reason nuclear waste is a problem at all.

Max Powers is a word twister. He uses inappropriate terms to make his points, like "low energy" for the alpha emissions from plutonium (pg.42), and "in concentrations large enough to harm people" (pg.9), which indicates he doesn't believe in the Linear, No Threshold ("LNT") theory of radiation damage, which has been accepted by the vast majority of unbiased scientists for years -- including the government's own Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR) committee -- as the best estimate. Further proof that he believes there is a threshold is his claim that Columbia River fish "no longer contain potentially dangerous levels of radioactivity" (pg 79). But perhaps the best proof is when he talks about "Hormesis" (though he doesn't use the term): "There are, however, scientists who argue that low doses have no effect, or even beneficial effects..." (pg28). Powers assumes the Hiroshima studies were accurate (pg26). Actually, they are an excellent case study -- in how to bias a study! (For example, babies who were born and died to Hiroshima survivors were simply not counted if they died before the age of five.)

It's interesting to note that the first time any activist is mentioned in Powers' book, he (the activist) is described as "accost[ing]" and "berating" the author. (The activist, from Idaho, had ample justification, since the author had, in official testimony at a hearing, just complimented the cleanup job the Idaho National Labs was doing. (A job which, a decade later (August, 2017), the LA Times said is still "causing the federal government deepening political, technical, legal and financial headaches.))

Powers' book does have some interesting facts: The government had estimated it would take over $200 billion and at least 70 years to clean up 113 nuclear radiological environmental wastelands. He listed more than half a dozen states which have been considered at some point for hosting a high-level nuclear waste dump: Kansas, Washington, Nevada, Louisiana, Mississippi, the Carolinas, "upper New England" (Vermont or Maine) and states in the midwest (pg54).

But mostly, he just sides with those who believe that the nuclear waste problem is "political" and that concerned citizens are overly-worried because they can't balance the threat from smoking cigarettes or driving cars against the threat from nuclear waste accidents. He says "Not In My Back Yard syndrome" (NIMBYism) isn't based on science (pg. 97), and doesn't realize it might also be based on past failures of cleanup agencies.

Powers calls the bribes that have been offered to local communities around proposed nuclear waste dumps "monetary awards" (pg. 100). He says that nuclear waste can be transported safely, but politics gets in the way (pg.110). He thinks the "wildlife refuge" they made out of Rocky Flats is a successful clean-up job (pgs70&71; pg 170). In reality, they wouldn't spend the money to make the area around the main complex clean enough to release it back to the public for unrestricted use, so they fenced it off, let mule deer propagate within, and called it a wildlife refuge. There is still a much more highly contaminated zone in the middle of the refuge.

Powers mentions, but does not discuss the problems with, rocketing nuclear waste to the sun, or dropping it in the deep blue sea near a subduction zone (pgs76&77). He calls Yucca Mountain a "carefully crafted process" (pg 99) and said it would be operating by 2019 (pg.42). He says the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) is a complete success (pgs 5&44 and elsewhere, though in his defence, his book was written before the explosion and plutonium release). Powers asserts that mixed-oxide ("MOX") fuel made from nuclear bombs would be a good way to get rid of the plutonium (pg65) (it hasn't worked out). He believes only about 50 people died because of Chernobyl, plus "heightened levels of leukemia" among cleanup workers and thyroid cancer in children (pg10), but doesn't provide estimates for either group.

He claims states have "significant" say over nuclear waste regulations, then admits they don't, then asserts they do again (pgs.33&34). Correct answer: They don't.

Perhaps the most odd thing about Mike Aguirre recommending this awful book is that, coming off a treaty negotiated in secrecy, the book recommends "openness and trust" (pg158). It recommends "trust funds" be set up, but SCE has no plans to do that for the spent fuel. It recommends...wait for it...TOURISM to pay for managing long-term stewardship of nuclear waste where possible, such as at Hanford, Washington (often cited by others as the most polluted place in America), his example being the B Reactor Museum there, which he endorsed and which has since opened.

The current estimated price tag for cleaning up Hanford is nearing $20 billion. By comparison, the budget for the entire Smithsonian complex of approximately 30 museums (which does not include the B Reactor Museum) is currently about $100 million/year.

Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, California

B-reactor museum web site:

LA Times article on INL cleanup:

This book review was also published at MWCNEWS:


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
Carlsbad, CA
Email: ace [at] acehoffman.org


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