One of this administration's keystones in their energy policy is a return to the bad old days in nuclear power. Announcing that the nation will need 1900 new power plants over the next two decades, they have decided to make nuclear energy a massive part of those 1900 plants.
Not only do they want to build even more of these ecological time bombs but they also want to extend the service lives of units that are nearly thirty years old. Speaking to an audience of nuclear power executives last spring, Chaney gleefully assured them that the aging plants would be kept on-line by proclaiming, "We can't keep those plants going without relicensing."
The vast majority of these reactors were designed for a twenty year service life. Some, such as the nation's oldest reactor at Exelon's Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey, are already well into their fourth decade of operation. This plant went into service in 1969. Most of the others have been in service since the sixties and seventies and are exhibiting alarming evidence of their age.
Problems range from steam-generator tubes rupturing and releasing radioactive steam at one of Consolidated Edison's Indian Point reactors in 2000, forcing a year long shutdown, to aging and cracked nozzles on the cooling system at Duke Energy's Oconee Nuclear Station in South Carolina in Feb. of 2001. As a wee bit of background, cracked nozzles exactly like these were the cause of the huge release of radioactive steam and near meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in 1979.
The nozzles at Oconee had been the subject of a 1993 NRC notification regarding the likelihood of their cracking and failing and calling it "an important safety consideration". Nevertheless, Duke failed to inspect the nozzles at the same time that it was reporting to the NRC that all maintenance programs were operating as expected. Last year, the NRC issued a 20-year extension on the plant's operating license, only to have the boron residue that indicated the advanced problem being noticed ten months later.
Even the relicensing process has become irrelevant in regards to the safety of these units. The NRC reports that eight reactors have been taken out of service due to age and equipment failure just between March 2000 and April 2001. At the North Anna Unit 2 in Virginia, a cooling system leak caused an emergency shutdown of the reactor just four months before its owner applied to extend its license.
Given the poor track record of the NRC in regulating and inspecting the nation's reactors and its abysmal record of punishing failure to follow federal regulations in safety and maintenance, the situation is only going to deteriorate further now that deregulation is stripping the NRC of even its faint ability to regulate the safety of this industry. In the future, independent inspections will no longer occur. Only the owners of these plants will be expected to provide oversight of their plant's maintenance and safety policies and records.
According to Michael Mariotte, executive director of the nonprofit Nuclear Information and Resource Service, the NRC has adopted an attitude of "We're not interested if the plant meets the safety standard; we're interested in making sure the standards fit the plant." Since the plant can only earn money by being on-line, profit will naturally govern safety and repair issues.
Of course, attentive Americans are already aware that any time that an industry can deflect or eliminate government oversight or regulatory powers, that industry immediately sees only profit as their controlling interests. It has happened in the trucking and airlines industries and the Savings & Loan fiasco and now in California's energy deregulation farce. Without the supervision of federal inspectors and federal regulations, the nuclear power industry will quickly begin ignoring any issue that will affect their bottom lines. Any dangers to the public will be covered-up and forgotten.
If the reality that the nuclear industry is a catastrophe waiting to happen from its own carelessness wasn't enough, we must now acknowledge that these facilities are extremely tempting targets for terrorists, as well. A single engine private plane filled with explosives and a suicidal fanatic can cause devastation unmatched even by the tragedy in New York. Unless these plants are constantly protected by our military, every plant is a sitting duck for a maniac with a few hundred dollars worth of explosives and the ability to pilot a small plane.
Regardless of this administration's sick love affair with oil and nuclear resources, this nation needs to view all of our nuclear power plants as huge, radioactive bombs just waiting for the fuse to be lit by a lunatic with a mission. Frankly, the dangers do not arise solely from outside our borders, either, as Timothy McVeigh so easily demonstrated.
We must look at every issue that we face in a manner that encompasses every possible uncertainty that might intrude upon it. To proclaim nuclear energy to be our savior in the future, we must also respect the enormous dangers that this industry exposes us to. Even if either terrorism or simple age does not destroy the plants, we still have absolutely no safe, long term ability to store the thousands of tons of highly radioactive material that these plants produce over their lifetimes and when they are deactivated.
Until the industry produces an overall plan that embraces all probable dangers and provides a storage solution that will prove safe for the thousands of years that this material remains a danger, then any decision to extend their licenses or to build any more plants must be prohibited by this government. Until the industry can prove that they are capable of equaling even the slight supervisory oversight that the NRC represented, then no deregulation of this industry should be allowed.
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