Sierra Club’s Summit for a Nuclear Free Future (longer version of Newsletter article)
Author: Nuclear Committee Chair
(longer version of article that appeared in L.I. Sierra Club's Newsletter, Spring 2015)
On November 14-16, 2014 I attended the Summit for a Nuclear Free Future, organized by Sierra Club’s Nuclear Free Campaign. The main topics were: Why end nuclear power? What are the obstacles to that goal? and What are some recent successes and lessons learned for future action?
But why should we Long Islanders care? After all, thanks to the efforts of earlier activists, there is no nuclear power on Long Island. However, we are threatened by five old reactors that surround us: Indian Point 2 & 3, Millstone 2 & 3, and Oyster Creek (the oldest in the country).
Indian Point (IP) is close to NYC and the densely populated west end of Long Island. Unless you own a boat, evacuation would be both dangerous and nearly impossible.
IP’s owner is fighting to run the two operating reactors for another 20 years. Governor Cuomo and former NRC head Jaczko both want IP shut. Economics are also in our favor: Nuclear is proving to be extremely expensive, especially when disposal and disasters and are included.
Top reasons to shut IP ASAP:
“Spent Fuel”: IP’s on-site storage pools of highly radioactive “spent fuel” rods are dangerously overcrowded with 1500 tons from 40 years of operation. The pools require cooling pumps which require electric power, either from the grid or emergency backup power. If both fail, the water boils off and the rods overheat and catch fire, sending radiation into the air to land as fallout. IP’s pools have over five times as much dangerous Cesium-137 as in all above-ground nuclear bomb tests combined. (See Cesium inventory chart and references on our Nuclear Issues page.
Earthquake: In 2010, the NRC concluded that IP is the most likely nuke plant in the U.S. to experience core damage due to an earthquake. According to Columbia U., IP is just north of two newly discovered fault lines and a 7.0 earthquake is “quite possible”. IP can handle only a 6.1 magnitude quake.
Safety: The NRC has granted IP so many safety exemptions in the last ten years that an NRC spokesman says he couldn’t possibly recount them all. Proponents claim that nuclear power has “defense in depth” with redundant safety backups. Nevertheless, the world has averaged one nuclear reactor disaster every seven years, and there have been many more leaks and close calls.
March 11, 2015 marks four years since the latest disaster, at Fukushima, began. Radioactive isotopes continue to pour into the Pacific, and Japan is overwhelmed by radioactive waste. Thyroid cancer in Fukushima province is 40 times what it was. And the disaster is probably worse than we know: The Japanese utility TEPCO has been repeatedly caught hiding negative information. The Japanese government enacted a State Secrets Law in 2013; it prohibits doctors from attributing any illness to Fukushima radiation and restricts news to that which the State approves.
Evacuation: A New York State report concluded that the evacuation plan for IP is based on shaky assumptions and won’t protect the public. A subsequent federal study also found serious problems, especially the risk of a terror attack on the spent fuel pools. And the plan (per NRC rules) only covers people living within ten miles. By comparison, after the Fukushima disaster, the NRC told Americans within 50 miles to evacuate. Within 50 miles of IP live twenty million Americans. Where would we go? How would we live?
Money: Homeowner’s insurance does not cover radioactive contamination.
Water: New York City’s most important drinking water reservoir lies fifteen miles from IP.
Health: Normal operations release over 100 different man-made radioisotopes into the air. Several studies worldwide have linked “unexplained” rises in childhood leukemia and cancer with proximity to a nuclear power plant. Independent studies of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima reveal significant health consequences, extending beyond cancer to include birth defects, infant mortality, hypothyroidism, lower IQ and heart disease.
Environmental Justice: Women and children are much more sensitive to health effects from radiation than men; yet the “permissible” dose is based on the “Reference Man”, a healthy 20-30 year old white male. For a given dose, newborn girls face seven times the cancer risk of the Reference Man. Note that “permissible” does not mean “safe”, as there is no safe exposure level of radiation (the “Linear No Threshold” model). Tens of thousands of abandoned uranium mines in the Southwest continue to sicken Native Americans.
Climate Change: … and nuclear power don’t mix. In order for nuclear power to have an impact on Climate Change, we would need to build a reactor per week for the next 30 years. However, Climate Change will bring more extreme weather – more 100-year storms and more floods – making it more difficult to safely operate or shut down a nuclear plant. Nuclear is not carbon free as often claimed. Why consider only the carbon produced by an operating reactor? Hurricanes are not very destructive if we only look at the eye. On both ends of the nuclear fuel cycle, and on both ends of the life cycle of the plant itself, nuclear power produces plenty of carbon... … and other, more fearsome pollutants. Atmospheric carbon is a problem, but it’s manageable. We know how to mitigate carbon, with simple, incremental steps. But we have no clue how to safely store radioactive isotopes. for a million plus years. Any proposed geological repository cannot be tested. The U.S. Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), built to isolate rad-waste for 10,000 years, began leaking into the environment within 15 years. To switch from generating carbon to generating radwaste is like jumping out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire.
Alternatives: We don’t need the juice. Indian Point represents 12.5% of the electricity generating capacity in downstate New York. California conserved more than that in six months. If they can do it, we can too. We have the technology to get all our power from less costly renewables and efficiency.
Unfortunately, not everyone recognizes the dangers and embraces the alternatives. The NRC, our only watchdog, appears to be captured by the industry it regulates.
The nuclear industry is spending millions in PR to resuscitate the “nuclear renaissance”: to restructure policy around nuclear, create preference for outdated “base load” power (flexibility is what matters now), classify nuclear as “clean” and lobby for new subsidies.
IP’s original licenses expired, but the NRC may renew them and meanwhile allows operation without a license. During the relicensing process, the NRC refused to consider earthquake risk or evacuation problems!
The NRC has relicensed 75% of U.S. reactors for 20 years beyond their original 40-year design life. After Fukushima, the NRC proposed safety upgrades for U.S. reactors, but recently delayed their implementation for years.
In 2014, The EPA proposed new rules as part of its “Clean Power Plan” to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. However, due to lobbying from the industry, they count nuclear as “carbon-free generation” and are including other lifelines to the industry.
In 2014, the NRC released a generic Environmental Impact Statement which defined the on-site storage of spent fuel for 160 years as the “long term” solution, even though this waste will be dangerous for far longer and we still don’t have – and may never have – a real long-term repository. It then resumed issuing licenses for reactors.
How activists shut down Vermont Yankee
In 2013, Entergy announced that it would close the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, just 17 months after the NRC granted a 20-year license extension. How did it happen? Death by a thousand cuts. People from many environmental groups put aside their differences and met regularly to strategize. These groups held many different kinds of direct actions; made events fun by including music, food and art; got a good investigative journalist on board; exposed Entergy’s dishonesty; and raised money to hire a lobbyist. They educated the public; got local TV stations to cover the issue; and spread the message about jobs: efficiency and renewable provide many more jobs than nuclear power.
What to do
Join the Sierra Club’s Nuclear Free Campaign: “We envision an energy efficient world, powered by clean, renewable technologies, free from dirty, dangerous, costly nuclear power and its legacy of toxic waste.” Read more at: sierraclub.org/nuclear-free-future-campaign.
Support other groups that are educating the public and suing the government to protect our environment against IP, including Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition (IPSEC) and Riverkeeper. Riverkeeper is suing the EPA over IP’s cooling system, which kills billions of river fish and their eggs each year, and has criticized the NRC for failing to mandate better long-term on-site storage of spent fuel.
Contact the NRC to demand that the spent fuel rods be taken out of the pools and stored more safely in Hardened On-Site Storage (HOSS), in concrete “dry casks”.
Petition the NRC and EPA to change its permissible dose levels to account for the most vulnerable among us, rather than the “Reference Man”.
Write to your representatives.
We can reduce our demand for nuclear and fossil-fuel energy. We can increase efficiency, increase renewable energy, reduce animal agriculture, and reduce our consumption overall. We can counter carbon in common-sense ways: plant more trees, green our rooftops.
We are fortunate to live near such natural beauty as the Long Island beaches, ______ (insert favorite L.I. spot here), the Hudson Valley, and the river that Pete Seeger and others worked so hard to clean up. It would be poor stewardship if they were all declared an Exclusion Zone.