Â By Bonnie Pfister
Sunday, August 19, 2007The renewed push for nuclear energy may be an economic boon to Western Pennsylvania, as reactor designer Westinghouse Electric Co. hires hundreds of high-end staffers. But for many people, serious doubts about the technology remain.
Reactors cost billions to construct and insure, with taxpayers picking up a large share of tab. They burn cleaner than coal-fired plants and with a smaller volume of waste, but issues surrounding transport and long-term storage of radioactive material remain unresolved. Some fear that terrorists could target domestic reactors — or divert nuclear waste abroad for weapons. And fires and shutdowns last month in Japan and Germany underscore safety concerns about the reactors themselves.
A July 16 earthquake on Japan’s western coast sparked a reactor transformer fire and leak of radioactive water. Officials say the 22-year-old facility may have been unknowingly been built atop an active seismic fault. Regulatory records show at least four other serious incidents worldwide, including a radiation release, since 2001: in Bulgaria, Hungary, Sweden and Taiwan.
“Even in Japan, with a very mature nuclear industry, these problems exist,” said Josh Dorner, spokesman for the Sierra Club. While some environmental groups are taking a second look at nuclear because of concerns about global warming, the Sierra Club remains opposed. Subsidies to U.S. companies help them expand abroad where, Dorner said, regulation is often lax and lines are more easily blurred between civilian and military uses of nuclear material.
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“Imagine the kind of oversight you will have with, say, 50 new reactors in Africa, or in other less-stable parts of the world,” he said.
Closer to home, the worst case of reactor corrosion on American soil came five years ago at a plant just 200 miles from Pittsburgh.
FirstEnergy Corp.’s Davis-Besse plant near Toledo was closed for two years, through March 2004, after workers found boric acid had eaten through a nearly 7-inch carbon steel reactor cap. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined that the radioactive steam could have burst through the remaining 1/2-inch stainless steel lining within as little as two months.
Instead of fully investigating whether leaking acid was causing underlying damage, FirstEnergy workers for years had simply cleaned up the leak as best they could during routine refueling shutdowns, said David Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ nuclear safety program. The group does not oppose nuclear power, but monitors reactor safety. “But when it came time to restart the reactor they’d stop that job — whether they were finished or not — and start the thing back up.”
FirstEnergy, which operates the twin-reactor Beaver Valley plant in Shippingport, was fined $5.45 million for failing to properly maintain the reactor head over several years, as well as $28 million for covering up the leak in its NRC reports. It spent more than $600 million to replace the lid, upgrade safety and replace power promised to the grid.
Spokesman Todd Schneider said safety is the top priority at all of the Akron, Ohio-based company’s facilities.
“The bottom line is (Davis-Besse) shut down safely,” Schneider said. “The reactors are built with redundant systems in place so that if something does occur, there is another system to back it up and shut the plant down safely, if needed.”
The United States is home to 104 of the world’s 439 nuclear reactors, and 20 percent of the nation’s electricity comes from atomic energy. The last U.S. reactor was licensed in 1978 — one year before a partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg.
Storage of nuclear fuel is another concern. To date, spent nuclear fuel is cooled for at least five years in 40-foot pools of water at plant sites. After that time it may be stored in dry casks — large steel and concrete containers that have been in use at 39 facilities, some for more than 20 years. That’s because proposals from the 1980s to keep waste in a federal facility near Yucca Mountain about 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas are stalled amid resistance by Nevadans, and others.
“Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania would be a major transportation route for nuclear waste — by rail, by river, by all sorts of sources,” said Dr. Daniel Fine, a retired kidney specialist from New Kensington and officer with the local chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Low levels of radiation can impair fertility and fetal growth, and lead to leukemia and other cancers, he said. High-level exposure can severely damage the immune system, bone marrow and brain, or cause death.
“From the public health perspective we view it as being both dirty and dangerous,” Fine said. “There is no medical treatment for the effects of radiation, whether it’s low-level or leaked.”
Fine theorized that nuclear waste transports could become targets for terrorists. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, some elected officials have called for nuclear plants to be made aircraft-proof. But while reactors are designed with several feet of concrete around them, Lochbaum said control facilities, switchyards and emergency generators are far more lightly protected — even in new plant designs.
Nuclear waste produced by overseas power plants could be attractive to those looking to build weapons of mass destruction. While President Jimmy Carter halted the reprocessing of nuclear waste domestically as an anti-proliferation move, agencies in Britain, France and Russia have continued reprocessing, said Judi Greenwald, director of Innovative Solutions at the Pew Center On Global Climate Change.
Reprocessing spent fuel reduces its radioactivity, easing storage and disposal, Greenwald said — but it also makes it easier to strip out the weapons-grade plutonium for troubling uses. Citing reports of involvement by residents of Kazakhstan in black-market sales of nuclear technologies, four anti-proliferation groups are opposing the planned sale by Toshiba Corp. of 10 percent of Westinghouse to that nation’s state-run energy company, expected to be completed in September.
“To some extent, people are more concerned in a post-9/11 world about this than they were before,” Greenwald said. “I don’t know the details of the controls in Kazakhstan, but I’m certainly among those who are nervous about reprocessing technology.”
Bonnie Pfister can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7886.
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