Sunday, April 05, 2009

Unhappy anniversary

I missed an important anniversay last week, but better late than never and all that.

Last Saturday, March 28, was the 30th anniversary of the meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant. As Democracy Now! described it,
[i]n the pre-dawn hours of March 28, 1979, the cooling system of Three Mile Island’s Unit Two reactor malfunctioned, causing temperatures inside to skyrocket. Without water to cool them, more than half of the reactor’s 36,000 nuclear fuel rods ruptured.

Lieutenant Governor William Scranton first appeared on local TV and told residents there was no need to evacuate but advised all citizens within ten miles of the plant to stay indoors with their windows closed. Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh then evacuated pregnant women and small children living within five miles of the plant. Some estimate that well over 100,000 people fled Harrisburg and the surrounding areas.
The breakdown, exacerbated by human error, lead to a situation that was much more serious than officialdom initially admitted. As the New York Times noted,
[w]hen the accident occurred, movie theaters nationwide were showing the movie "China Syndrome" about a nuclear plant meltdown. After engineers finally got inside the stricken Three Mile Island Unit 2 after the accident, they learned how closely reality had closed in on fiction.

With the initial loss of cooling water, portions of the 100 tons of radioactive uranium fuel quickly began to heat up. A chain reaction of multiple equipment failures and control room operators' mistakes followed. Before the damage was brought under control, nearly half of the reactor core with its fuel had melted down. A bubble of hydrogen gas exploded inside the reactor, and fears of another explosion gripped the Harrisburg area for several days.
It was very nearly a death blow to the nuclear power industry in the US. But while nuclear power was certainly was put into a coma, it didn't die and even today some people remain too willing to swill the swill the industry puts out about the accident. One such is Marc Levy of AP, who wrote last week that
[n]o one was seriously injured in the accident, in which a small amount of radiation was released into the air above the Susquehanna River island 12 miles south of Harrisburg. Studies of area residents have not conclusively linked higher rates of cancer to radiation exposure.
But as Harvey Wasserman has pointed out,
stack monitors were saturated and unusable, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission later told Congress it did not know - and still does not know - how much radiation was released at Three Mile Island, or where it went. [Emphasis in original.]
He told Democracy Now! that
there’s just been two new studies released in Harrisburg this week. One indicates that as much as a hundred times more radiation escaped than the government and the industry have been willing to admit. And the other is that the statistics clearly show ongoing problems of cancer, leukemia, other radiation-related diseases.
(Video about those reports is available here.)

But that doesn't matter to the PR flacks of the industry.
"There's a lot of support for nuclear now, and most of that support is borne out of a concern for the desire to have emissions-free energy sources," said [nuclear industry economist Doug] Biden, who still advocates for power companies as the president of Electric Power Generation Association in Pennsylvania.
And the propaganda, driven in part by a bizarre notion that nuclear power is an "answer" to global warming, appears to be having an effect.
Policymakers in numerous states are warming to nuclear power, even in states where the facilities are banned. Nuclear reactors generate one-fifth of the nation's power. Some see nuclear as a stable, homegrown energy source in light of last year's oil price spikes. Others see it as a way to meet carbon-reduction goals.

Public interest is emerging, too: A Gallup Poll released in recent days shows 59 percent favor the use of nuclear power, the highest percentage since Gallup first asked the question in 1994. ...

In the last two years, 26 applications for new reactors been submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which expects to issue a license no earlier than 2011. No such application was filed in the 28 years following the Three Mile Island accident.
Levy is misleading about nuclear's contribution: It provides about 20% of the US's electricity supply, not its power supply; the latter should include elements such as the heat supplied to homes and businesses by fossil fuels and solar panels as well as electricity.

More importantly, this push for more nukes is not happening without opposition. For one example, the original economic stimulus bill contained $50 billion for the nuclear power industry. It was stripped out in the Senate and attempts to reinsert it failed, all as the result of the efforts of a coalition of environmental groups and the work of some Congressional leaders. (Wasserman credited Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid for their help; assuming that's true and not just political game-playing, good for them and credit where it's due.)

And yes, that is to the good because despite the claims and the hype and the desperation of some environmentalists, nuclear power is not the answer - or even an answer - to global warming. From Greenpeace:
The promotion of nuclear power as the answer to climate change is a dangerous diversion from the real solutions: a massive uptake of renewable energy and the adoption of energy efficiency are the only effective ways to combat climate change. They are available now; they are clean, cheap and have the added benefit of providing energy security.

Nuclear power belongs in the dustbin of history; it is a target for terrorists, and a source of nuclear weapons. The future can be nuclear free. Renewable energy is peaceful energy and it is available today. ...

Nuclear power has not suddenly become safer or cleaner. The legacy of the nuclear waste remains unsolved and accidents happen across the world daily. ...

The environmental, social, security and proliferation problems that have always plagued the nuclear industry continue to do so, despite over half a century of attempts to find solutions. We should not be conned into accepting one environmental threat on the premise that it will avert another when a future free of both nuclear and dangerous climate change is possible through the speedy deployment and development of renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency.
But perhaps the most telling point with regard to global warming is this:
Even if it were climate-friendly, nuclear power could do little or nothing in the fight against global warming. Nuclear power is used only to generate electricity. It represents a mere 16% of the world’s electricity. Electricity itself only accounts for approximately one third of greenhouse gases.
It's generally agreed by environmental scientists that a worldwide reduction in greenhouse gases on the order of 50% by 2050 is needed to head off the worst effects of global warming. That means that even if we were to more than sextuple the use of nuclear power in the next 40 years (even if that were possible, which it very likely isn't) so that all the world's electricity came from nuclear, we still would fall well short of what we need to do - even as we multiply the issues of the health effects of mining, milling, living near tailings piles, and the still-unsolved problem of waste disposal (as well as drastically driving up the price of uranium - already five times what it was a few years ago).

A "dangerous diversion" indeed.

Footnote: Another question about nuclear power is just how long the uranium for fuel will last. According to Steve Fetter, dean of the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy, known and suspected uranium resources are enough to supply nuclear power for roughly 230 years at today's rate of consumption. If we max out nuclear power build enough plants to more than sextuple their total power output, those resources then would last only about 40 years. Yes, we could build fewer in order to stretch the supplies, but that would only reduce the nukes' already-insufficient contribution to adequately cutting greenhouse gases.

No matter how we cut it, it doesn't work.

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