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What The Power Companies

What The Power Companies image What The Power Companies image
Parent Issue
Day
12
Month
July
Year
1974
OCR Text

The nuclear power plants that Richard Nixon used to buy off governments in the Mideast are the same kind of plants that are multiplying in this country at a rate that poses a doomsday threat to the future life of this planet. The power companies, and their friends in the Federal Government, have tried to minimize the dangers of nuclear fission. But last month the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) slipped out a report that documents 861 "abnormal occurences" at nuclear power plants in just the past year -- including 12 leaks of deadly radiation into the environment And by the AEC's own reekoning there have been more than 300 major accidents with nuclear reactors since 1945. In one case three workers were killed, and in another, 10 thousand gallons of radioactive water were dumped into the Mississippi River. What the future may hold is even more chilling. Based on AEC figures, the Union of Concerned Scientists have calculated that if 20% of the radioactive gas in a small (650 million watt) plant were to escape, it could form a cloud that would kill people as far as 100 miles from the reactor. If the winds dispersed the cloud, an area the size of Pennsylvania could be contaminated. Imagine a half million people fleeing from clouds that could cripple them, blind them or kill them. Where would these refugees go? Unfortunately, this scenario is not as implausible as it once seemed. Nuclear experts have been forced to admit that nuclear power plants still contain many defects, both in the way they were built and the way they're being operated. Consider, for instance, Consumer Power's Pallisades Nuclear Plant at South Haven, about 150 miles from Ann Arbor. The plant there was shut down last August after the AEC found that it was leaking radiation through its exhaust pipes and through hundreds of tiny pinholes in the steam generating pipes. Earlier it had been discovered that Consumer's was dumping gallons of radioactive waste into Lake Michigan. The public, as it turned out, had to find out much of this on its own. Consumer's, which is now under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, ignored the law that requires it to report all leakage incidents and tried to solve the leaks without informing the AEC. It is a tribute to luck, rather than to the ability of the nuclear experts, that thousands of people were not contaminated by the South Haven plant. The SUN learned, for instance. that Consumer's officials would sometimes shut off the radioactive alarm system because the alarms were being set off "too often." With the alarms off, massive leakage could have gone undetected for weeks. Consumer's has also had similar problems at its other nuclear plants, and Consumers' problems are typical of those at the other 30 plants scattered across the U.S. Take the most basic reactor safety-system, the ECCS (Emergency Core Cooling System). lts function is to restore cooling water to the hot nuclear core in case a pipe ruptures and spills all the water that normally cools the reactor. But IF this backup cooling system would also fail, the result would be a "meltdown" - a catastrophic leak. Right from the beginning the fail-safe nature of the ECCS has been in doubt. In 1965, at a point when larger nuclear reactors were first used. the Aerojet Nuclear Company at ' the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho found several mechanical failures in the ECCS. Again in 1970-71, the ECCS failed to pass six-out-of-six tests conducted by Aerojet. The reactor community was stunned. But the Aerojet report was suppressed by the AEC. Only recently have investigative reporters and consumer groups been able to dig it out. The possibility of still worse accidents, such as the bursting of the reactor vessel or boiler, is also more real than the AEC has been willing to acknowledge. The recent hearings on emergency cooling safety have shown that some of the AEC data on vessel safety is unreliable. The AEC thus far has not considered this a possible event and thus has not asked reactor manufacturers to take it into account in their designs. Yet this type of incident would also cause catastrophic meltdown. Peter Morris, Director of AEC Regulalory Operations, made the AEC position clear in February of 1973. "...Within the AEC it has been the policy that designs should not be required to provide protection against pressure vessel failure. So the question of whether or not such an event was credible did not arise. The reason is very simple - no design was available for a building which could withstand the consequences of pressure vessel failure, so it was decided to accept the risk." THE SAFETY RECORD SO FAR The Atomic Energy Commission has a habit of pointing with pride to its safety record. Bui the actual record has included fuel-rod leaks, control-rod failures, explosions, radioactive gas release, fuel meltdown, and plugged cores. Plus there have been these highlights: -In 1961 , a plant in Idaho experienced a "nuclear excursión" -- a sudden uncontrolled fission reaction and it spread radioactive contamination over the station. -Northern States Power Company nuclear plant had an accident that dumped 10,000 gallons of radioactive water into the Mississippi River, causing Minneapolis to close its water intake gates. -In 1961 , an accident at the SL-1 reactor in Idaho killed three workers. -At Big Rock Point Nuclear Plant near Charlevoix, Michigan, control rods stuck in position, studs failed or cracked, screws jostled out of place and into machinery, a valve maltunctioned, foreign material lodged in critical moving parts, I and weids cracked at 16 points. -In Illinois, the Advanced TRIGA reactor was humming, I along at 1 .5 million watts when someone flushed a toilet which dropped the main water pressure. This stopped a - 'm 'M Leukemia and other blood cancers rose 70% between 1957 and 1967 in Beaver County, Penn., the home of a nuclear power plant which began operation in 1957. Y et despite this and other documentation of the high danger of nuclear powei technology, construction of more plants by the $40 billion a year nuclear industry continúes unabated, and with strong Government support. pump which stopped another pump, triggering a safety device and shutting down the entire reactor. Some of these incidents could have produced a radiation "rainstorm" that would have had effects on the planet for generations. "There is no large disagreement about the biological harmfulness of radiation. A single "curie" of lethal strontium 90, with a radioactive half-life of about 30 years, will spit out 37 billion high-speed particles per second, and each emitted partiële has enough energy to smash about a quarter of a million chemical bonds in human tissue. Both cáncer and genetic defects can start with radiation injury to a single cell...Radioactivity is the ultímate pollutant. " - Environmental Protection Agency Despite all this, the whole process involved in generating nuclear power, from the mining of uranium to the "perpetual guardianship" of millions of nuclear waste gallons, is unsafe. URANIUM MINING AND M1LLING The whole nuclear fuel cycle for nuclear power plants is one that generates radioactive wastes at each step. The cycle begins in the uranium mine. Here radium and its decay products, such as radon gas, emit radiation. Radium-induced lung cáncer doesn't show up for 10 to 15 years, but when it does there is virtually nothing that can be done. It is a particularly virulent form of lung cáncer, resistant to all traditional cliemical and x-ray treatments. Nobody warned the miners in the 1 ,000 uranium mines across the west during the '40's and '50's and it was only in 1967 that any safety standards were enforced for them. Now, of 6,000 uranium miners, hundreds are already dead and hundreds more will die no matter what is done for them. One AEC report projects an estimated 1200 deaths by 1985. A virtual eipdemic of lung cáncer has begun among uranium miners. A particularly glaring example not included in the Environmental Health Department statistics above, was brought to liglit by journalist Amanda Spake, who received a grant to research the cases of 100 Navajos hired to work the Kerr-McGee uranium mines near Cove, Arizona in 1954. Twenty-one years later, 18 miners are dead and another 2 1 are ill, with the familiar initial symptoms of their dead coworkers. Up until now, lung cancers were rare among the Navajos. About 90 million tons of waste ore, or tailings, are piled up outside uranium milis from Texas to Oregon. Ground to a sandlike consistency to remove the uranium, these tailings contain radium-226, which has a half-life of 80,000 years. (This means that it takes radium-226 80,000 years to lose half of its radioactivity.) Radium and thorium, like strontium-90, are absorbed by the bones. Radium from tailings decays into radon gas and its byproducts -- the same cause of lung cáncer in radium miners. Also, gamma radiation emitted from the tailings can cause leukemia. Of 26 uranium milis operating in 1 963, ten discharged liquid waste into streams. In 1958-59, the Animas River below uranium milis in Durango, Colorado, contained almost 3007r of the safe maximum daily intake for radium. Crops raised on farms irrigated by the Animas River had twice as much radium-226 as other crops. Radium from the tributarles of the Colorado mixed with sediment and moved downstream to Lake Mead. Studies of --■Lake-Mead-wtth-tvtTtbtrtaTTes --tr-rrrapr drinking-water and irrigation source for seven states -- showed radium concentration in bottom sediments three times the normal le vel. By 1966, the U.S. Public Health Service was checking tailing piles. El Paso Natural Gas Company's uranium tailings in Tuba City, Arizona - on Navajo land -- showed radium radiation levéis up to 1 ,000 times the average background readings. Gamma radiation was 12 times background level. After the uranium ore is milled it goes to a refining plant where it is refined and enriched with additional uranium-235, by gaseous diffusion. The fuel is then converted to a metal, uranium di-oxide, and is formed into small pellets which are in turn encased in long metal tubes, or cladding. Large numbers of these tubes are assembled as bundies; the basic fuel elements within the core of the nuclear reactor consists of many bundies combined. NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS Although a nuclear reactor does not produce smoke, fly ash or sulfur dioxide, it does produce three types of radioactive pollutants: solid, liquid, and gaseous. Solid wastes consist of such items as clothing, reactor parts and tools -- which may be higlily radioactive - depending on their use. Such wastes are customarily buried in cement drums either in trenches in land or at sea. One obvious hazard of sea dumping would be containers breaking and releasing their radioactive contents, which might wash upon crowded beaches. Contamination of food chains, concentration of wastes on continental shelves, movement by underwater currents - these are all likely possibilities. Some liquid wastes, such as cobalt-58 and chromium-52, on the assumption that they are "low-level" are discharged into surrounding water sources. (Keep in mind that the National Academy of Sciences has recommended the lowering by 100% of the permissible radiation levéis.) Steam, vented through the stacks of nuclear power plants, contains Krypton-85 (which adds seriously to the exposure burden of radioactivity); Tritium (combines with water and accumulates in the food chain all the way up to man); Iodine-131 (has been found concentrated in cattle thyroids in Nevada and other western states - severely damages the thyroid and can cause harmful biological changes -- including cáncer); lodine-129 (has a halflife of 17 million years and is accumulating in the áreas around nuclear plants). What does all this mean for people? According to Dr. E. J. Sternglass of the University of Pennsylvania, leukemia and other cancers of the lymphatic and blood forming systems rose 70% between 1957 and 1967 in Beaver County Pennsylvania. Beaver County is the home of the Duquesne Light Company's nuclear power plant, which began operation in 1957. In the county, cáncer in all forms rose to a peak of 30% above levéis before the operation of the plant. In comparison, the state's cáncer rate rose 9% during the same period. REPROCESSING PLANTS The biggest problem lies in disposing of the actual fission products of the nuclear power plant. After having undergone controlled fission in the core, the fuel elements are extremely radioactive. They are removed and shipped in specially cooled and shielded containers to a fuel reprocessing plant. And accidents in transportaron have oc conTtTTtretTöTTpagG' 26 ■