A recipe for nuclear disaster

September 1, 2011

Chris Williams, author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis, explains what a recent earthquake taught us--again--about nuclear power.

"AS FAR as we know, everything is safe," said Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesperson David McIntyre. He talking about the effects of the recent 5.8 magnitude earthquake in Virginia, the largest on the East Coast for 67 years, which caused two nuclear reactors at the North Anna power plant near the epicenter to lose power and go to immediate shutdown.

Coming from a government agency that presidential candidate Barack Obama called "moribund" and a "captive of the industry it regulates" in a 2007 interview, that is hardly a very reassuring statement.

Coming on top of the Fukushima catastrophe in Japan, this latest incident is further evidence that nuclear plants are more akin to ticking time bombs--time bombs planted in densely populated areas waiting for the right combination of "unforeseen circumstances" to set them off.

Just like the reactors at Fukushima, as soon as the North Anna reactors lost grid power, they went to immediate shutdown and switched to back-up diesel generators. Even when nuclear reactors are offline, it is essential in preventing a potential meltdown that the reactors are kept cool by a continuous flow of water--as well as the still highly radioactive spent uranium fuel rods held underwater in huge pools at the plant.

The nuclear reactors at the North Anna power plant in Virginia
The nuclear reactors at the North Anna power plant in Virginia

It was the loss of grid power at Fukushima and the subsequent failure of the diesel generators--which were submerged underwater after the tsunami--that triggered the meltdowns, explosions and massive release of radioactivity into the surrounding environment.

At North Anna, four generators kicked in--though one failed--as the plant declared an "alert" status, the second-lowest of four emergency states. Thankfully, there was no leak of radiation from North Anna, and the other 12 nuclear reactors in the region continued with normal operation while declaring an "unusual event," the lowest of the four states.

Nevertheless, most of the reactors in the area are only designed to withstand earthquakes of magnitude 5.9 to 6.1, which makes the recent 5.8 quake--with an epicenter just 15 miles from North Anna--very close to its safety tolerance limits. As Union of Concerned Scientists spokesperson Edwin Lyman commented: "It was uncomfortably close to design basis...If Fukushima wasn't a wake-up call, this really needs to be to get the NRC and industry moving to do seismic reviews of all the nuclear power plants in the country."

WHILE PLANTS are designed with large margins of error, private utilities operate under the strictures of capitalist competition. As such, they are always on the lookout for cost savings. The need to cut every financial corner possible whenever it might lead to an increase in profits applies even with a technology as inherently dangerous as nuclear power.

To take just one example, earthquake sensors were removed from the North Anna plant in the 1990s due to cuts by Dominion Resources, the utility that owns and operates the reactors. The NRC, the government body that has oversight responsibility for regulating the U.S. nuclear industry, has come under repeated criticism for lax oversight and the weakening of safety rules.

While seismologist's ability to predict the timing, location and impact of earthquakes is still an evolving science, there has been a steady increase in our understanding that is not being taken into account by the NRC, according to Victor Gilinsky, the former NRC commissioner at the time of the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in 1979:

It is important to review the seismic design of the plant in terms of current knowledge...Instead, the NRC has been re-licensing plants without any real safety review--they do not question any of the original licensing conditions, they only check to see whether the plant has a program to deal with old equipment. It's an irresponsible approach.

While apologists for the nuclear industry like to cite multiple independent backup systems and rigorous design and safety features, Fukushima and the recent East Coast earthquake highlight both how innately perilous nuclear power is, as well as the fact that there is no level of planning possible that eliminates all risk.

In the case of nuclear power, the threat of widespread radiation leaks that can lead to long-term risks of cancer and permanent contamination of the surrounding land is of such a scale that it is a societal risk that must be avoided, particularly in a society that is run along capitalist lines.

The Japanese government has finally admitted what nuclear experts have been saying for months: large areas around the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant--which is still not fully under control months after the initial accident and continues to leak radioactive particles--will have to be permanently abandoned. Some 80,000 people may never be able to return to their homes.

Twenty-five years after the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Ukraine, 600 square kilometers are still off-limits. In 2003, 17 years after the initial explosions, a further two towns in Belarus had to be evacuated as radiation was detected at unacceptably high levels.

IN JAPAN, more evidence is emerging of the scale of the cover-up and is leading many Japanese to stage protests as part of a growing anti-nuclear movement that has already forced the government to backtrack on the proposed expansion of nuclear power.

In the immediate aftermath of the accident, Namie, a town close to Fukushima, didn't receive any information from Tokyo about evacuating, even though a government computer system designed explicitly to track radiation clouds from nuclear accidents predicted the town was in the path of such a radioactive plume.

The mayor of Namie, Tamotsu Baba, likened this act of government incompetence or negligence to "murder"--children were left to play outside, and townspeople continued to use water from a mountain stream to wash rice.

The Japanese government's desire to limit the number of evacuations and downplay the extent of the radioactive leak to minimize compensation claims and the dilemma of where to house thousands more evacuees also likely played a part in the decision not to release the critical data until three months later.

Seiki Soramoto, a former nuclear engineer and adviser to the prime minister during the crisis, placed the blame squarely on the government:

In the end, it was the prime minister's office that hid the [computer] data...Because they didn't have the knowledge to know what the data meant, and thus, they didn't know what to say to the public, they thought only of their own safety, and decided it was easier just not to announce it.

It is likely that the residents of Namie--particularly the children exposed to thyroid irradiation, will be paying for this cynical decision for many years to come. A recent survey of the evacuation zone by the Japanese government recorded radiation levels at more than 500 millisieverts per year, which is 25 times the government's annual limit.

As for whether it was incompetence or economic considerations that stayed the government's hand, more sinisterly, the New York Times reported:

A wider evacuation zone would have meant uprooting hundreds of thousands of people and finding places for them to live in an already crowded country. Particularly in the early days after the earthquake, roads were blocked, and trains were not running. These considerations made the government desperate to limit evacuations beyond the 80,000 people already moved from areas around the plant, as well as to avoid compensation payments to still more evacuees, according to current and former officials interviewed.

In a major victory for the Japanese people over irresponsible nuclear corporations such as TEPCO, the last act of the Prime Minister Naoto Kan, before he was forced to resign due to his performance in the nuclear crisis, was to see through the passage of a law that pays above-market rates--a so-called feed-in tariff--for solar, wind and geothermal power to stimulate the renewable energy sector, which was tiny in Japan due to the focus on nuclear energy.

With TEPCO still resisting the release of all the information it has collected on the stricken nuclear plants, we still don't know if it really was the tsunami that caused the meltdowns by knocking out the backup generators--or whether, as some experts suspect, the earthquake itself damaged the reactors even before there was a coolant failure. If so, this further compromises the idea that the nuclear containment vessels are safe and able to withstand the effects of a big earthquake.

NORTH ANNA is not that close to large population centers. However, the 36-year-old Indian Point nuclear plant in New York state--which has been highlighted as the most at risk of an earthquake by the NRC, though the agency is still open to re-licensing the plant for another 20 years--is within 50 miles of almost 20 million people, and a mere 30 miles from midtown Manhattan.

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Indian Point is designed to withstand a 5.8 magnitude earthquake with an epicenter anywhere within 50 miles of the plant.

The NRC only requires evacuation plans for areas up to 10 miles away. So what happens if an earthquake with a larger magnitude hits? And what if it comes with other ramifications that further limit any organized emergency response, as would undoubtedly accompany any large-scale natural disaster, like the one in Japan?

The idea that 20 million people could be evacuated is a fantasy, especially as many millions of those people live on islands separated from the mainland by bridges and tunnels that are traffic-clogged messes at the best of times.

Furthermore, reactor buildings and containment vessels are the only buildings covered under earthquake-design parameters. In other words, the backup safety systems needed in an emergency aren't covered, nor are the structures for spent fuel pools or miles of underground pipes.

The kind of "cascading failures" that are likely to occur after a major natural disaster such as an earthquake--such as widespread power failures in the surrounding area; disruptions and damage to critical infrastructure such as roads, bridges and tunnels; and panic and mass migrations of people living nearby --will all inhibit an effective response.

Consider the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf, where oversight was essentially left in the hands of the oil, or the federal government's inept response during the Hurricane Katrina disaster six years ago. These don't exactly give one confidence in the U.S. government's response in the event of a major disaster involving a nuclear reactor.

Earthquakes such as the one in Virginia aren't supposed to happen--or will happen so rarely that the likelihood of a high-magnitude one can be discounted--because Virginia is nowhere near the edge of a tectonic plate, where most earthquake activity takes place. But one seismically active area is near the New Madrid fault line, an area in between plates in the border region of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi.

Coincidentally, in May of this year, the federal government ran National Level Exercise 2011--a simulation with 9,000 National Guard troops and thousands of other personnel from various government agencies to examine the effects and preparedness if a major earthquake hit the New Madrid fault. The simulation was based on a repeat occurrence of a an earthquake in 1811 estimated at 7.7 on the earthquake scale. The simulation assumed the deaths of 100,000 people and the forced displacement of 7 million.

The results of the simulation haven't been released to the public. However, Paul Stockton, the Defense Department's senior homeland security official, said this at a security forum assessing the simulation:

Electric power would go out, not for days, but for weeks and months in the four-state region...Municipal water systems, they all run on electricity, don't they? Well, people are gonna get thirsty. You need water for firefighting, don't you? Second, all gasoline pumps run on electric power. Same with diesel fuel. So in terms of road mobility, of getting the relief forces in, and evacuating people out--no gasoline? The cascading failures go on and on.

The area covered by the simulation is home to 15 nuclear reactors.

ONE ONLY needs to look at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March to recognize that we must build a movement that fights to close down nuclear power plants across the U.S.--as governments in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and now Japan have been forced to do as a result of mass protest--and begin to replace electricity generated from nuclear fission with clean, renewable power from solar plants and wind farms.

We should heed the words of acclaimed Japanese writer and Nobel laureate, Kenzaburō Ōe, who wrote in response to Fukushima:

This disaster unites, in a dramatic way, two phenomena: Japan's vulnerability to earthquakes and the risk presented by nuclear energy. The first is a reality that this country has had to face since the dawn of time. The second, which may turn out to be even more catastrophic than the earthquake and the tsunami, is the work of man...

Nuclear disaster seems a distant hypothesis, improbable; the prospect of it is, however, always with us. The Japanese should not be thinking of nuclear energy in terms of industrial productivity; they should not draw from the tragedy of Hiroshima a "recipe" for growth.

Like earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural calamities, the experience of Hiroshima should be etched into human memory: it was even more dramatic a catastrophe than those natural disasters precisely because it was man-made. To repeat the error by exhibiting, through the construction of nuclear reactors, the same disrespect for human life is the worst possible betrayal of the memory of Hiroshima's victims.

Nuclear power is unnecessary, expensive and dangerous. It is long past time we moved to a clean-energy future free from nuclear waste and pollution from fossil fuels. A national series of anti-nuclear rallies will be taking place throughout the country on October 1 to call for an end to nuclear power and a transition to a clean energy future--one without the fear of a nuclear meltdown turning a natural disaster into a full-blown radiological catastrophe.

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