Dysfunctional Anti Nuke Waste Strategy Increases Nuclear Risk
Back in the 1970s when he led the anti nuclear movement in the US, Ralph Nader helped conceive the strategy to “constipate” the nuclear industry.
The plan was to convince the public that nuclear waste was impossible to dispose of safely, and therefore, the nuclear power industry should be phased out. This kind of adversarial debate is deemed essential to the functioning of US democracy I don’t criticize Nader for exercising his right to speak freely.
However, the actions of those taking this side of the debate will increasingly be seen as inappropriate in the light of events at Fukushima. People opposed to nuclear power have stopped any and every effort to solve the waste problem, compounding a risk that they say is their greatest fear.
Fukushima brings the result of these actions into sharper focus. That we continue to store accumulating nuclear waste above ground instead of where the industry and scientists involved envisioned it would be safely be by now – underground – is primarily due to the efforts of those who oppose the existence of the nuclear industry.
One “lesson learned” from Fukushima has to be that society finds anti nuclear political strategy that is calculated to increase nuclear risk unacceptable.
Obviously this is the US, where politics has become whoever shouts the loudest, who has spent the most lobbying Congress, and facts don’t matter. This call will go down the drain along with the far more urgent calls to actually reform the financial system, do something about the deficit, or start acting on the climate problem.
But let’s pretend that rationality prevailed for an instant.
The greatest concern at the height of the crisis at Fukushima was “what if” a spent fuel pool went dry. Knowledgeable observers were sanguine about what could possibly happen at one of the reactors, given that Three Mile Island had demonstrated that even a core meltdown of 10 – 20 tonnes in an American designed reactor wasn’t going to so much as penetrate the pressure vessel, never mind getting out of containment to cause a massive release of radioactive fission products into the region surrounding the plant.
But spent fuel pools are not in containments, and as it became clear that the carefully conceived plans for what to do in every eventuality had been swept away by the “beyond design specification” tsunami, people started to ask “what if”. see: NRC Description of a “Loss of Pool Coolant” Event”
Critics had long insisted that there was a credible risk. A highest level “independent expert panel”, i.e. the NAS NRC, which reported in 2006, had been created by Congress precisely to evaluate the nightmare scenarios these people had been publicly waving around. The concern then was “what if” terrorists attacked. When the entire Fukushima multi-reactor installation hit the fan to become world news the media seemed to delight in featuring these anti nuclear “experts” who had no qualms proclaiming their nightmare catastrophe was just about to occur to millions of Japanese very probably in the next instant. At that point I re-read NAS NRC 2006, wondering “what if” a Fukushima pool went dry. It said: “Some” part of these “worse than Chernobyl” scenarios involving the “loss of tens of thousands of square kilometers of land”, “should not be dismissed”.
There were no exact details. No one really knows how likely it is that a particular set of fuel rods in a particular pool, if it goes dry, will undergo a “propagating zirconium cladding fire” and cause a massive release of medium term half life fission products like cesium as a cloud that would blow wherever the wind took it, perhaps “hundreds of miles”. Perhaps there is sufficient computing power and the will to find out now. see: The Fukushima-ing Nuke Industry: Bring it to the Geeks
Even at the height of the crisis experienced voices said all they have to do is keep water in the pools. They managed to do that. So we have had a 1 in 1000 year event hit one of the oldest designs the nuclear industry still has in service that was not executed in this local instance to withstand what hit it, and even as layer after layer of its “defense in depth” was stripped away, the extremely unlikely major catastrophe did not happen.
But what seems clear as the Fukushima dust settles is that the credibility of those who would increase the size of this risk as part of whatever political strategy they have to oppose nuclear power, if they continue to do this, should be at an end.
I found a Nader interview PBS did with him in 1997. His 1970s strategy on waste was all there. He didn’t say he was trying to “constipate the industry”. But his words added up to that.
He objected to dry casks. He opposed Yucca. He doesn’t like nuclear waste where it is, and he doesn’t want it moved anywhere. Eventually the PBS interviewer nailed him down.
After Nader seemed to agree that the best thing to do would be to create a new “temporary, safe depository that maybe fifty, 100 years from now can be recovered and separated in terms of removing the hazards”, the PBS interviewer said: “So you’d support that if a monitored, retrievable site was found, as they wanted to build one, actually, in Yucca Mountain, that would be okay?
Nader: “Well, it would okay, but only if there is an independent core of scientists, geologists, engineers, who would sign off on it, who have no ties, no ambitions, either to join the nuclear industry, to join the government agency.”
PBS: “But that would be okay, even if it allowed the nuclear industry to continue, is my point”
Nader: “No. The first step is to stop it from continuing. But then you deal with the garbage”
PBS: “you don’t want this problem solved until the industry–“
Nader: “No, because it’ll just try to prolong the industry, and expand the second generation of nuclear plants”.
Nader doesn’t want this problem solved. He wants the industry killed first, even if his actions cause above ground nuclear waste to accumulate in US spent fuel pools beyond what the designers originally had in mind. Perhaps he denies the responsibility he would share if the nightmare scenario he says he fears happens as a result.
Decades ago an NAS NRC expert independent panel (i.e. Rethinking High-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal: A Position Statement of the Board on Radioactive Waste Management (1990) ) assessed the issue to that point and told us the way to look at nuclear waste was its either leave it where it is where the risk can only increase, or deal with it by moving it to a better place, i.e. geologic isolation. As long ago as 1990 it was clear that the issue was not technical. The issue was political.
The conclusion of the 1990 NAS NRC report summary had two last paragraphs under a headline “The Risk of Failing to Act”. The report had described the doomed to fail at finding a solution US approach where critics demanded absolute certainty about what would happen in 10,000 years and science could only provide an assurance that long term risk was “minimal”, with consequences that “will be limited”. The panel warned that
“The at-surface alternative may be irresponsible for the long run…”
“In judging disposal options, therefore, it is essential to bear in mind that the comparison is not so much between ideal systems and imperfect reality as it is between a geologic repository and at-surface storage. From that standpoint, both technical experts and the general public would be reassured by a conservative engineering approach toward long-term safety…”
In other words, start the waste stream moving out of the pools toward the long term solution the relevant scientists, worldwide, had a consensus about many decades ago, i.e. geological isolation, and if what could be reused by our descendants is not processed out of it for reuse before deposition, make sure whatever goes in could be recovered by them.
Nader’s “constipation” strategy is no longer ethically acceptable.
Image 2 credit: Geezer Nader Photo by Don Lavange, licensed under “Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic”, hosted by Wikimedia Commons