21 February 2011

Risky Nuclear Experiments on a Global Collision Course -- It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Radioactive World!

By Dvija Michael Bertish

New reactor being built next to old style reactor in Georgia,  
Pictured here at the Vogtle plant near Savannah, Aug. 2010

It’s like watching Planet of the Apes from the 1970’s, where Charleton Heston’s bloodied hand weakly presses a crystal button that controls a nuclear bomb on a planet gone genetically wrong. All around us there are signs that long-term thinking, protecting the future generations 100-200 years from now, is not being thoroughly considered when placed in the context of nuclear energy production. All around us there are serious warning signs that nature, the world as we know it, is being tragically impacted by this lack of conscious thought. It’s a disturbing paradigm of ignorance and calculated misrepresentation of the truth, weakly justified by our need for expanded energy resources, jobs, and profit.

As a conscious human being, I often wonder how anyone with a heart and a mind can, without trepidation, gamble and dabble with nuclear radiation at the cost of countless lives. And yet, the proliferation of dangerous problems linked exclusively to the nuclear industry is quickly gathering momentum. It’s a legacy that mars our time, and reaches tens of thousands of years into the future.

Gerry Pollet, Executive Director of Heart of American Northwest, sent me information from Friends of the Earth and an article from the Tri-City Herald that was so disturbing, I had to think about it for a few days. The implications brought out in these items are huge, and I’ve tried to weave them into context in this blog. Here are my thoughts from developments in the nuclear industry over the past month.

The consortium of Pacific Northwest public electric utilities, Energy Northwest – formerly known as WPPSS, with the apparent blessing of the US Department of Energy, plans to haul fuel mixed with weapons-grade plutonium back to Hanford so it can be fed into a nuclear reactor in an experiment. No mention of what might be spewed into the air during this process, or if there is an accident. This plan was discovered on the tail of another plan to reformulate the experimental Hanford Vitrification Plant so that it would allow “controlled explosions” of radioactive gas while trying to turn high grade radioactive sludge into glass for long term storage.

Once again, the Pacific Northwest is being targeted as a guinea pig. Clearly, the public would be more than concerned about trucking in radioactive waste from around the country [after we worked so hard to have it removed from Hanford as part of cleanup efforts] so it can be burned up in a nuclear reactor. Moreover, this reactor sits near a plant that experts warn could explode with radioactive gas. Radioactive fuel combined with nearby explosions can’t be a good thing. And radioactive groundwater under the site continues to leak into the Columbia River to poison the drinking water source for downstream cities. And all of this is experienced so that energy can be developed to be sold out of state or even internationally for corporate profit. No, this would not make sense to the general public, so no wonder this controversial plan was kept secret and had to be exposed by watchdogs. Energy Northwest is a publc utilitiy consortium, not a private company- which makes the coverup even more egregious.

Internal emails reviewed by Freinds of the Earth and Heart of America Northwest via a Public Records Act request reveal that Energy Northwest officials feared that their plans to use Plutonium fuel at the Columbia Generating Station (formerly called the WPPSS 2 reactor) at Hanford would become public knowledge. These are “public officials” at public agencies hiding safety and financial risks and how they plan to spend your tax dollars. The nuclear waste mess has been building since World War II, and there isn’t a clear plan in sight to deal with the toxic aftermath of nuclear weapons, or the ongoing operations of existing nuclear power plants that have been in operation since the 1980’s. The waste stream is growing ever larger without safe and reliable long term storage. The nuclear salesmen say they will “reprocess’ the waste – which creates more liquid High-Level Nuclear Waste that will go to into tanks until who knows when? With an afterlife of thousands of years, it’s hard to imagine how nuclear regulators are thinking the solution is to put radioactive waste in tanks or drums to last 20-40 years. What happens after that? One associate of mine theorized that new space shuttles will haul our radioactive waste to be buried on the dark side of the moon. Out of sight, out of mind? The scheme to use Plutonium fuel is revealed in the documents as politically motivated to prove that melting down fuel from reactors and extracting the Plutonium for reuse is acceptable. But, the officials strive to keep the plan secret and never mention what happens to the liquid High-Level Nuclear wastes from this “reprocessing.”

The Key Lake facility produces U3O8 uranium, which is then shipped to
Refineries for the manufacture of fissile fuel rods used in nuclear reactors

Doesn’t civilization have to consider the long-term implications of nuclear waste before launching into a revival of nuclear energy? After the BP Oil spill, the once shouted slogan “Drill Baby, Drill!” isn’t as loud. The Fracking debate to pull natural gas out of the ground by pressurized pumping of toxic chemicals into groundwater is generating hefty opposition, as well as exploding natural gas lines that incinerate neighborhoods with failing infrastructure. Americans are definitely giving a huge thumbs down to mountaintop removal coal mining and coal-fired power plants, but there are attempts to ship American coal to be burnt up in China so we can all breathe the mercury spewed by China that blows back across the ocean. Dams are killing off rivers and streams. The masses are wondering if electric cars cure dependence on foreign oil, but where is the electricity going to come from to charge the batteries, and where are the rare earth minerals going to come from to make these technological wonders work when the mining of such elements causes severe contamination to the environment? Even China has decided mining these rare minerals is too dangerous and has curtailed exports, sending US automakers into a frenzy for new sources. Afghanistan is ripe for the picking.

Yes, we have to think of something to produce our needed energy. Wind, solar, and tidal wave energy are in the upswing of the energy revolution, touted as sustainable and green resources. But in the midst of this chaos, we are being fed stories that nuclear energy is clean, green, and ready to safely fulfill our every need and desire. Really? Remember the commercials from just 2 years ago where an actor wearing a costume of a giant piece of coal was gathering hordes of followers, walking hand in hand from coast to coast, demonstrating the friendly support for “clean coal,” a controversial theme that many cry out to be an oxymoron. Those commercials are long gone with public outcry. The term “nuclear energy” may also prove to be an absurdist thought, but that hasn’t put a damper on a resurgence of planned nuclear facilities. Where is the public outcry over radiation and nuclear pollution?

Four new nuclear reactors are currently proposed in the US, in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. One facility started construction 30 years ago and is being resurrected after a 20 year hiatus. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing 20 additional applications for nuclear power plants. There are 60 nuclear reactors being built in foreign countries. Some call it a nuclear “Renaissance”, with a new uranium rod fabrication plant now operating in New Mexico with three others planned in the US. Currently, 50% of US nuclear fuel is created from decommissioned Russian warheads, and that source will only last until 2013.

Thus, new sources of enriched uranium will be on a fast track for development. Scientific American reports: “With 436 reactors worldwide consuming 65,000 metric tons (one metric ton equals 1.1 U.S. tons) of enriched uranium per year, demand for this nuclear reactor fuel outstrips available supply, which has caused uranium prices to jump from a low of $10 per pound a few years ago to more than $130 per pound in 2007 and still more than $50 per pound today.” The UK Guardian reports that uranium prices have reached $63.88 per pound in 2011 due to fast increases in nuclear consumption in China and Korea.

The landscape is being scoured for new sources of uranium to satisfy the fast growing need for reactor fuel. Since 2003, foreign companies have filed 2,215 claims to prospect for unranium on the edge of the Grand Canyon, where mining has been banned since 1908. The Guardian reports: “Denison Mines, based in Canada, already operates one mine in the [Grand Canyon area] with plans to reopen three further mines that were approved in the 1980s without being subject to the environmental review. Denison recently told investors that it will increase production by at least 10 million pounds a year by 2020, some of which will be destined for a new nuclear plant in the United Arab Emirates.” Mining operations could cause uranium to leach into springs and aquifers that then feed into the Colorado river, the drinking water source for 18 million people in Los Angeles, and this contamination could remain for decades.

The Associated Press reported on Feb 15, 2011 that The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will allow a French company, Areva Inc. to pursue a uranium enrichment plant in Eastern Idaho without “significant risks to the environment,” and that a new license will be granted to the Eagle Rock Enrichment Facility because it won’t harm the environment, public or worker health or safety.

Dozens of shuttered uranium mines in Colorado may reopen, and new mines and mills may be built, planners promising thousands of new jobs in a downed economy. These mines would produce and the mill could process 500 tons of uranium daily, second only to the other existing uranium mill in SE Utah. Meanwhile, a Canadian power company has been permitted to use the Great Lakes to ship 1600 tons of radioactive equipment and waste from a decommissioned nuclear plant for recycling in Sweden. The Great Lakes are the drinking water source for 40 million people, and officials throughout the region fear what could happen in case of a nuclear accident during shipment.

The upsurge in nuclear energy production will create an enormous radioactive waste stream without plans for how to deal safely with the waste. Furthermore, waste streams from nuclear production over the past 50 years continue to be a major pollution source that has yet to be remedied. The former Nevada Test Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, has received 40.8 million cubic feet of low level radioactive waste in many thousands of shipments from all over the country since 1999. The Energy Department estimates 1.6 trillion gallons of groundwater is contaminated with radiation at the site, but nuclear waste continues to be buried there… and the Energy Department continues to plan to use Hanford as a national radioactive waste dump for those weapons and reactor program wastes which it can’t send to Nevada (Heart of America Northwest is suing to overturn that US Department of Energy decision).

Semi truck leaving the Nevada storage site after delivery of radioactive waste.

Since 2000, there have been 5 trucking accidents and dozens of other mishaps like breaches or spills associated with the Nevada storage. Shipments travel through Las Vegas and residential neighborhoods in route. The site houses enough nuclear waste to more than fill the Empire State Building. Government officials claim the waste poses no threat to public health, except in cases of extreme exposure, but low level nuclear waste can cause death or cancer. Sometimes radiocative waste is turned back at the Nevada site, and the shipper has to truck it back to where it came from. Accepted waste is buried in stacked containers, then capped with dirt and vegetation, and the public is generally unaware of these risks and operations. Keep in mind that a recent study in Scotland shows that pregnant women exposed to x-rays or CT scans can increase the chances of childhood cancers. If controlled doses of radiation in a medical facility can cause this harm, what could happen with thousands of truckloads of radioactive waste moving through residential neighborhoods full of children?

The US Energy Department (under the nuclear program) has captured thousands of wild animals since 2009 to test them for radiation poisoning caused by nuclear facilities, including weaponry plants. Test animals include alligators, lizards, ants, rabbits, rodents, insects, turtles and deer. Research estimates cleanup costs of nuclear hazards to exceed $300 billion, and the wildlife is monitored to prevent contaminated animals from reaching human populations. The study cites contaminated rabbits and ants were discovered at the Hanford facility.

Deformity caused by radiation exposure from Chernobyl explosion

Twenty five years after the Chernobyl explosion, studies find the radiation continues to adversely impact wildlife, including visible tumors and decreased brain sizes in birds, yet only half of the money has been raised to date to build a sarcophagus to seal the blown out reactor, and the site is not secure. At least 200 tons of melted nuclear fuel rods remain on site. Studies show that animal diversity and survival of the young continue to decline, birth defects are common, and progress on confinement of the Chernobyl reactor has slowed without funds from the international community.

Meanwhile, back in the US, the states of New York, Connecticut and Vermont have sued the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over a federal policy that allows nuclear waste to be stored at a nuclear power plant for 60 years after it has been decommissioned. The three states challenge this policy because it allows long term storage of nuclear waste without environmental review. Most nuclear plants were developed without sufficient infrastructure for safe long term waste storage. With the millions of gallons of nuclear waste leaking into the ground from failed storage tanks at Hanford, one only wonders how the proliferation of nuclear reactor leaks all around the country will affect our water, our land, and our health.

We are witnessing a hard push at the federal level to advance nuclear energy. Our energy resources and dwindling and something must be done. However, no one seems to know how to deal with the toxic waste stream that could, with a serious accident or spill, cause the evacuations of whole counties or regions and make an area uninhabitable for thousands of years. Shouldn’t there be an exit strategy before we go running full boar down this dangerous path? Can’t we all take a moment to think big picture here, and wonder where we are going to put the radioactive waste that is piling up with the advance of nuclear reactors? Doesn’t it mean anything to our federal officials when no one wants this stuff buried in their state? Its not rocket science to understand there is a collision course about to happen with nuclear energy, and that Chernobyl could recur at any time anywhere on the planet.

I for one don’t think the US Department of Energy intends to really clean up Hanford. They now see it as a cash cow to create some new plutonium fuel hybrid that can be incinerated as a new form of energy. Hanford is no longer a disaster site or mitigation program. It has been transformed into a nuclear factory without complete thought.

What you can do: Heart of America Northwest urges you to write / email your local city electric or Public Utility District (PUD) officials to demand that they put an end to Energy Northwest’s plans to use Plutonium Fuel at Hanford. Our publicly owned utilities make up Energy Northwest – make them listen.

Seattle residents, write Mayor McGinn:

Snohomish PUD customers: email the PUD commissioners at:

Clark County PUD: mailbox@clarkpud.com


Friends of the Earth Press Release, Secret Plan Exposed to Use Surplus Weapons Plutonium in Washington State Nuclear Reactor, Feb 3, 2011

Energy Northwest considers mixed plutonium fuel, Tri City Herald, Feb 4, 2011

Heart of America Northwest Blog “The Hanford Nuclear Reservation Becomes an American Pop-Icon Amusement Park?”, Jan 23, 2011

Is a US Nuclear Revival Finally Underway, Scientific American, Feb 16, 2011

Demand for uranium threatens Grand Canyon biodiversity, UK Guardian, Feb 17, 2011

Uranium Plan Pits Prospect of Jobs Against Health Concerns, kjct Channel 8, Feb 6, 2011

Bruce Power get approval to ship 16 radioactive generators through Great Lakes, Globe and Mail Canadian Press, Feb 4, 2011

Millions of tons of low-level material are buried at the Nevada National Security Site — and the state can do little about it , Las Vegas Sun, Feb 13, 2011

Chernobyl birds are small brained, BBC, Feb 5, 2011

Chernobyl nuclear plant shelter faces cash woes, BBC, Feb 1, 2011

X-rays and CT scans on babies pose cancer risk, study shows, The Scotsman, Feb 11, 2011

3 States Challenge Federal Policy on Storing Nuclear Waste, NY Times, Feb 15, 2011