A nuclear threat to our health

Nicole Colson reports on the crisis at an Illinois nuclear plant--and why claims that there was "no threat" to public health ring hollow.

Steam pours from a cooling tower at the Byron nuclear plantSteam pours from a cooling tower at the Byron nuclear plant

YOU MIGHT have missed it if you were watching the mainstream news.

In a story that made few headlines, U.S. nuclear officials admitted last month that radioactive steam had been released from an Illinois nuclear plant to cool the reactor during a shutdown.

But don't worry, officials said. According to them, the amount of radioactive tritium released into the atmosphere wasn't enough to present a danger to the public.

The release occurred at the Byron Generating Station, which is run by energy giant Exelon Corp. According to the company, the plant, which is located in northern Illinois, about 110 miles west of Chicago, has two units that are capable of "producing enough electricity to power more than 2 million average American homes."

On its website, Exelon touts the plant's "commitment to safety": "Byron Generating Station, like all U.S. nuclear energy facilities, is based on a 'defense-in-depth' design, which means there are redundant layers of safety. There are multiple layers of safety systems to provide water to the reactor core."

But "redundant layers of safety" weren't enough to stop the release of radioactive steam from the plant's Unit 2 after what's known as a "scram"--an unexpected shutdown of a nuclear reactor.

According to reports, an electrical insulator at the plant's switchyard--which delivers power to the plant from the electrical grid--either failed or fell off of a metal structure it was attached to. Power was then shut off to one of the plant's two reactors. Although emergency backup diesel generators were used to supply power, officials were forced to release radioactive steam to cool the reactor from the part of the plant where turbines produce electricity (though not from within the nuclear reactor itself).

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THIS ISN'T the first time the Byron plant--one of 11 nuclear plants in the state of Illinois--has had operational problems.

In 2007, according to the New York Times, workers at the Byron nuclear power plant used a wire brush to clean one of the corroded steel pipes that circulate cooling water to essential emergency equipment. The brush broke through the pipe--causing both reactors to be shut down for 12 days. As the Times reported:

The plant's owner, the Exelon Corporation, had long known that corrosion was thinning most of these pipes. But rather than fix them, it repeatedly lowered the minimum thickness it deemed safe. By the time the pipe broke, Exelon had declared that pipe walls just three-hundredths of an inch thick--less than one-tenth the original minimum thickness--would be good enough.

Though no radioactive material was released, safety experts say that if enough pipes had ruptured during a reactor accident, the result could easily have been a nuclear catastrophe at a plant just 100 miles west of Chicago.

According to the Times, Exelon's decisions about pipe thickness took place "under the noses" of Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) inspectors at the site. There were apparently no inspections of the pipes by any NRC official for at least eight years before the leak, and the agency failed to note that Exelon was lowering its standard of pipe thickness.

For nearly causing a public catastrophe Exelon was subjected to a "reprimand for two low-level violations."

In March 2008, the plant also had a problem with its electrical transformers--and the power to one of the units was interrupted, leading to an investigation by nuclear regulatory officials. And last April, the NRC conducted inspections of backup water pumps at both the Byron and Braidwood Exelon plants after officials questioned whether the pumps would be able to cool the reactors if the normal systems weren't working. Exelon later admitted that the pumps would not have worked.

Officials from the nuclear industry insist the amount of radiation released on January 30 is so minimal that it poses no threat to the public or to workers at the plant. NRC spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng told CBS News that the radiation released was less than 0.001 percent of the commission's annual dose limit of 100 millirems, and monitors around the plant did not show ongoing increased levels of radiation.

But as Truthout's Gregg Levine noted, the assurance by nuclear officials there's nothing to worry about rings hollow: "[T]hese emergency shutdowns are not subtle, quiet events. They are like slamming the breaks on a speeding car, and they cause all kinds of stresses and strains on reactor systems."

Robert Alvarez of the Institute for Policy Studies agreed:

Keep in mind that when these large reactors scram, it's like a jumbo jet making a quick forced landing. The sudden insertion of control rods creates unexpected stress on the reactor. This is why when a reactor is normally shut down for refueling, it is done gradually. If a reactor experiences several scrams during a year, this should raise a red nuclear safety flag.

While working in [the Department of Energy], I was involved in energy emergency planning, and electricity blackouts, NRC staff were definitely concerned about the safety of increased scrams caused by forced power outages.

Likewise, the NRC's repeated claim that the release of radioactive tritium into the air is harmless is also suspect.

In 2010, Paul Gunter, a nuclear reactor oversight specialist with the Beyond Nuclear organization, stated unequivocally that there is "no safe dose" of tritium for human beings.

In fact, Beyond Nuclear points out that there is no such thing as "safe" levels of exposure to radioactivity, tritium or otherwise:

[T]he linear no threshold theory, endorsed by the U.S. National Academies of Science for decades, holds that any exposure to radioactvity, no matter how small, still carries a health risk, and such risks are cumulative over a lifetime. It would be more honest for NRC officials to state that the tritium releases from Byron are "acceptably risky," in their judgment, but not "safe." After all, tritium is a potent radionuclide, a clinically proven cause of cancer, mutations, and birth defects, and if inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin, can integrate anywhere in the human body, right down to the DNA level.

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THE RELEASE of radioactive material from the Byron plant is by no means rare in the U.S. nuclear power industry.

Last year, a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that radioactive tritium had leaked from three-quarters of U.S. commercial nuclear power sites--at least 48 of 65 sites--often into groundwater from corroded pipes and leaky tanks. According to the report, "Leaks from at least 37 of those facilities contained concentrations exceeding the federal drinking water standard -- sometimes at hundreds of times the limit."

Although none of the leaks had been proven to have affected public water supplies, some of the leaks had migrated away from the boundaries of individual plants. According to the Associated Press, "At three sites--two in Illinois and one in Minnesota--leaks have contaminated drinking wells of nearby homes, the records show, but not at levels violating the drinking water standard. At a fourth site, in New Jersey, tritium has leaked into an aquifer and a discharge canal feeding picturesque Barnegat Bay off the Atlantic Ocean."

Not surprisingly, the leaks of tritium are part of a larger symptom of nuclear plants that are, essentially, falling apart--even as the nuclear power industry has been trying to expand.

The GAO report, for example, noted that the nuclear industry has a voluntary initiative to monitor leaks into underground water sources--the Groundwater Protection Initiative--but that the NRC had not evaluated how quickly or well that voluntary system actually detected leaks. "Absent such an assessment," the report stated, "we continue to believe that NRC has no assurance that the Groundwater Protection Initiative will lead to prompt detection of underground piping system leaks as nuclear power plants age," the report's authors concluded.

Even more troubling, the vast number of leaks suggest that the infrastructure of the U.S. nuclear industry is in a dire state. According to the Associated Press:

The tritium leaks also have spurred doubts among independent engineers about the reliability of emergency safety systems at the 104 nuclear reactors situated on the 65 sites. That's partly because some of the leaky underground pipes carry water meant to cool a reactor in an emergency shutdown and to prevent a meltdown. Fast moving, tritium can indicate the presence of more powerful radioactive isotopes, like cesium-137 and strontium-90.

Such evidence of contamination and corrosion is a window into the state of the privately owned and run U.S. nuclear power industry.

Critics of the industry point out that the NRC has continued to promote and grant licenses for the building of new nuclear power plants even as serious problems such as leaks and other malfunctions continue to persist--and that concern about the profits of the nuclear power industry often seem to overshadow concerns about safety and public health.

In fact, in 2010, an NRC report on tritium leaks downplayed the danger to public health, instead calling it "a challenging issue from the perspective of communications around environmental protection."

In other words, the leak of radioactive material was not the primary concern--the resulting anti-nuclear sentiment in the public was.

When it comes to the U.S. nuclear industry, the foxes are in charge of the henhouse--and our health and wellbeing are at risk as a result.

As George A. Mulley Jr., a former investigator with the inspector general's office who led the inquiry into the 2007 Byron plant shutdown, told the Times, "They always say, 'Oh, but nothing happened.' Well, sooner or later, our luck--you know, we're going to end up rolling craps."

And the American public pays twice--once in the form of massive government handouts to the industry in the form of subsidies, tax breaks, loans and liability caps, and then again in the massive risk to public health.

While apologists for the nuclear industry claim it can be made safe, the reality is that--like any industry where profit rules--cost-cutting takes precedence over safety, even when the consequences have the potential to be catastrophic.

The reality of the U.S. nuclear industry--which has become especially clear in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster--is that while the profits are entirely privatized, the risks are entirely socialized.