Global warming has suddenly put nukes back on the agenda — but there’s a lot the industry isn’t telling you
By Amanda Witherell
Patrick Moore’s presentation isn’t as slick as Al Gore’s. The slides he shows lack a certain visual panache and don’t compare to the ones in An Inconvenient Truth. Moore himself seems a little frumpy, particularly as he peers out across the audience recently gathered in the Warnors Theatre in Fresno.
But attendees paid $20 to hear the former Greenpeace leader extol the benefits of nuclear energy as a clean, safe, reliable, economic, and — perhaps most important to the current political and media focus on global warming — emissions-free source of power.
It’s hard to imagine Moore at the helm of an inflatable boat steering into the line of a whaling ship’s fire, but that iconic Greenpeace image is exactly what he wants you to associate with him. The Vancouver, British Columbia, native is quick to tell you he’s a former leader of one of the most effective international activist organizations ever. But he said he’s older now and wants to be for things instead of against them.
What’s Moore for? Warding off the warming of the world. What does he think will do it? More nuclear power plants.
If there’s any great and unifying issue thrumming through the national psyche, defying political party lines and flooding the media filters these days, it’s global warming. While leaders argue left and right about nearly every issue that comes before them, there is at least consensus that something must be done about climate change.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger jumped on that bandwagon last September when he signed into law Assembly Bill 32, mandating a 25 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020.
Thirty-one states recently agreed to join a voluntary greenhouse gas emissions registry similar to California’s, 10 northeastern states are creating a cap-and-trade market, and already half the country has laws requiring that a certain percentage of local power portfolios come from renewable energy.
The alternative-energy troops who’ve long been waiting in the trenches have stepped up to fight, armed with the tools they’ve been honing for years: solar panels, wind turbines, tidal power, and biofuels. They say new options and innovations abound for weaning the country off its fossil fuel habit.
But there are already critics who say those approaches aren’t going to be enough — and that we need to go nuclear against this planetary threat. And now they have some unlikely new allies.
Maybe you’ve seen the headlines touting the new nuclear push, running in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and all the daily syndicates. They all claim the same questionable facts: Nuclear power is clean and emissions free. It’s safe, reliable, and cost-effective. It isn’t contributing to global warming — and these days even the environmentalists like it.
James Lovelock, the renowned Gaia theorist, thinks nuclear energy will be essential to power the developing world. On a Sept. 13, 2006, airing of KQED’s Forum, he told host Michael Krasny, “I would welcome high-level nuclear waste in my backyard.”
During the hour-long program he said the dangers of radiation were exaggerated; there wasn’t that much waste generated; and in order to mitigate the increasing effects of climate change, we should “look at nuclear as a kind of medicine we have to take.”
Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, thinks nothing is more doomsday than global warming and told the Guardian he advised Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to start touting nuclear power as a solution.
“The nuclear industry needs a new green generation,” he told us. “My fellow environmentalists ought to be grateful to the nuclear industry for supplying 20 percent of our electricity.”
And then there’s Moore, the 15-year Greenpeace veteran who once put his body in the way of a seal hunter’s club and wrote in an April 16, 2006, Washington Post op-ed, “My views have changed and the rest of the environmental movement needs to update its views, too, because nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change.
“Nuclear energy is the only large-scale, cost-effective energy source that can reduce these emissions while continuing to satisfy a growing demand for power. And these days it can do so safely.”
The bio for the Post piece identifies Moore as cochair of “a new industry-funded initiative, the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, which supports the use of nuclear energy.”
It’s one of the few articles that make such a disclosure, although more probably should. A survey by Diane Farsetta, a senior researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy, came across 302 recent articles mentioning Moore and nuclear power as a possible option for mitigating the effects of global warming.
Only 37 — a mere 12 percent — said he’s being paid to support nuclear power by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a national organization of pro-nuke industries that’s hired Moore to front its nuclear renaissance.
Only the Columbia Journalism Review has drawn the further connection that Hill and Knowlton has been paid $8 million to help the NEI spread the word that the nukies have the silver bullet for solving global warming.
Hill and Knowlton knows a little something about pushing dangerous products. The company created the tobacco industry’s decades-long disinformation campaign about the effects of smoking. Veterans of that campaign then helped ExxonMobil try to bury the truth about global warming.
Before laughing these folks out of the reactor room, consider this: Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein, who’ve been against nukes in the past, are now suggesting nuclear energy needs to be considered in light of global warming.
Al Gore and Hillary Clinton have also made similar recent murmurings. Of all the major 2008 presidential candidates, only Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards have offered up energy plans that don’t include more nukes.
Eight states are working on pro-nuclear legislation, and although a bill to lift the moratorium on new plants in California was shot down in the Assembly’s Committee on Natural Resources, its sponsor, Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine), told us he intends to introduce it again and again until it passes.
In the meantime a private group of Fresno investors has signed a letter of intent with a nuclear power company to put a 1,600-megawatt nuclear plant in the San Joaquin Valley. So far the only thing stopping the group is the state’s 30-year-old moratorium, which says no new nuclear power plants may be built in California until a permanent solution to the waste is established. The investors are already working on a November 2008 ballot measure to end the ban and allow new nuclear plants.
A new nuclear plant hasn’t been built in the United States since 1978, when concerns about safety, cost, and the long-term waste management challenge (nuclear rods will still be deadly hundreds of thousands of years from now) overwhelmed the industry.
But if there were ever an opportunity for a nuclear renaissance, the threat of climate change has created one. And the poster child is Moore, a relatively innocuous Greenpeace exile who’s traveling around the country with a B-movie version of Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary, speaking to communities and drumming up what he calls a grassroots coalition of mayors, business leaders, and community activists. He’s steadily convincing them we need more nuclear power by trading the classic doomsday scenario of a massive radioactive explosion for the creeping killer global warming.
“I’m aghast,” Dr. Helen Caldicott, an Australian who helped found Physicians for Social Responsibility and is one of the most prominent international critics of the dangers of nuclear energy, told us.
Caldicott, who’s authored several books on the subject, most recently Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer (2006), said, “I’ve never seen a propaganda exercise which is so fallacious. Both the politicians and the media are buying it.”
She and other nuclear watchdogs who’ve been patrolling the industry for more than 30 years say it’s anything but a safe, reliable, economic, and emissions-free silver bullet.
Let’s look at the facts.
When it comes to safety, Moore told us, “US nuclear power plant employees enjoy the so-called healthy worker effect: people employed at the plants have lower mortality rates from cancer, heart disease, or other causes and are likely to live longer than the general population.”
To support this claim, he cited a 2004 Radiation Research Society study of 53,000 workers. After reviewing it, Caldicott said, “I’m very suspect. There’s nothing here about people who are living with cancer.”
Caldicott admits there’s a void of data about the health of nuclear workers and people who live near plants. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission doesn’t mandate baseline studies of cancer rates in areas surrounding the sites of nuclear facilities.
But people living near Three Mile Island, the Pennsylvania plant that came within minutes of a catastrophic meltdown in 1979, demanded studies, which found evidence of increases in thyroid cancer in the region. And Caldicott, in her recent book, pointed out that there are a number of things the government doesn’t want to admit. “To this day there is no available information about which specific isotopes escaped nor the actual quantity of radiation that was released,” she wrote, going on to detail how, for lack of sufficient data about the distance the radiation may have spread, scientists studied the rates in the livestock of nearby fields and found supporting evidence that the plume of poison spread as far as 150 miles away.
And of course, there’s Chernobyl, where a 1986 nuclear-plant disaster caused lasting health problems and contaminated a huge swath of what was then the Soviet Union.
The unavoidable fact is that the industry thus far has had two terrible, nightmarish accidents, one of which was catastrophic and the other very nearly so.
And every part of the nuclear-power cycle involves serious health risks.
“You want to get really sad?” asked Molly Johnson, a lifelong environmental justice activist and San Luis Obispo County resident. “Go to New Mexico, go to Arizona, see the families that are dying because of the uranium mining. Their water is irradiated from the uranium tailings that are still there…. Why would we continue that?”
These days intentional attacks are even more of a concern. But Moore isn’t sweating. He said he thinks a plane colliding with a power plant is unlikely, even though the 9/11 Commission Report found that al-Qaeda operatives at one point considered aiming for the Indian Point reactor in New York.
Even if a jet hit a plant, Moore insists, the plant would be strong enough to withstand a collision. “If you drove an airplane into that, it would just be one messed-up airplane you’d have to deal with,” he said.
Not exactly, say the critics.
“He is just dead wrong about reactor security. Breathtakingly misinformed,” said Dan Hirsch of Committee to Bridge the Gap, a public interest group that’s been studying nuclear power and proliferation issues for nearly four decades. “Virtually no reactor containment in the US was designed to withstand a hit by a jumbo jet. Significant parts of the plant essential to preventing a meltdown are outside containment anyway.”
Hirsch is speaking of power lines, which transmit electricity from the plant and also carry electricity to it — power that’s used to keep dangerous components cool and safe. If that power were cut off for any length of time, a meltdown could occur in the pools where explosive spent fuel is kept.
These spent-fuel storage areas — essentially big swimming pools where radioactive waste is kept underwater until a long-term storage facility is built — rely on a steady pumping of water to cool the superheated waste. All you’d have to do is stop that water pump, and there’d be a meltdown. And the storage areas don’t necessarily have the same fortified structures as the reactors.
Hirsch said, “A successful attack on a nuclear plant or, even worse, a spent-fuel pool would be the worst terrorist event to ever occur on earth by far, capable of killing over 100,000 people immediately and hundreds of thousands of latent cancers thereafter, contaminating an area the size of Pennsylvania for generations.”
There’s no immediate solution in sight for long-term storage, so these pools of deadly waste will likely remain on reactor sites for many years.
San Luis Obispo County’s Mothers for Peace recently sued the NRC over the newly established laws regarding protection against terrorist attacks, which only require plants to be able to ward off five potential external terrorists on the ground. It took 19 people to pull off the Sept. 11 attacks. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that power plant operators must also consider the possibility of an air attack when designing spent-fuel storage tanks.
Mothers for Peace is fond of noting that existing security measures aren’t what you’d call foolproof. During a recent earthquake, 56 of 131 sirens in the San Luis Obispo area — designed to alert residents of a possible accident at the plant — didn’t go off because the power was out and they aren’t backed up by generators or batteries.
When Mothers for Peace and the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility brought the failure to the attention of the NRC, the agency said that nothing is perfect and that the sirens over the course of 1,000 hours worked 99 percent of the time.
“Except the five hours you’d actually want them to work,” David Weisman of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility said.
Nuclear power is either a creeping killer or a sitting bomb. Wind farms and solar-panel arrays are not leaching poisons into the environment. They’re not direct targets for terrorist attacks, and if they were, the result wouldn’t be all that horrible. Imagine cleaning up a bombed wind farm versus a nuclear power plant.
“Wind farms are on nobody’s list of targets,” Weisman added. “If a windmill falls and there’s no one there to hear it, do you need an emergency evacuation plan?”
A centerpiece of the pro-nuke argument is that nuclear power is a baseload source, meaning it can generate energy all day, every day. Solar and wind, of course, rely on the cruel (and unpredictable) forces of nature to generate power.
But one could argue the same about nuclear power plants. They’re run by people — and the record of those operators isn’t encouraging.
Moore expressed great confidence in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission: “They have very, very stringent requirements and regulations. It’s all there for anybody to see. All of these reactors are inspected regularly. There is no reason in my estimation to suspect the NRC of anything other than being a responsible watchdog agency. If you want to take the time to dig into it, you can find out what’s going on.”
David Lochbaum does take that time — and he’s found out a lot. After working for 17 years as a consultant to the NRC, he joined the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) as a nuclear-safety engineer. He spends his days combing NRC reports and documents and compiling studies on the safety of the industry. His experience and research have caused him to conclude that the commission can’t stay on top of the 103 plants in the country.
“We get a lot of calls from workers in the plants, and NRC employees that have safety issues they’re afraid to raise,” he said. “We had three calls last week. That’s a little more than usual, but we usually get 50 to 60 whistleblower calls a year.” He said sometimes the workers have already raised the issue internally but need an ally to force a remedy at the plant. Other times they’re afraid to speak about what they’ve seen without fear of retaliation.
Lochbaum authored a September 2006 study for the UCS titled “Walking the Nuclear Tightrope” on the issues of safety and reliability. It’s a chilling read; it carefully outlines how regulators have been complicit in allowing plants to operate far longer than they should and how these overstressed plants eventually have to be shut down for years to restore safety standards. He found that in the last 40 years plants have ground to a halt for a year or more on 51 occasions. In most cases it wasn’t a spontaneous incident but an overall decaying of conditions that compromised safety.
“Some observers have argued that the fact no US nuclear power reactor has experienced a meltdown since 1979 (during which time 45 year-plus outages have occurred) demonstrates the status quo is working successfully,” Lochbaum wrote. “That’s as fallacious as arguing that the levees protecting New Orleans were fully adequate prior to Hurricane Katrina by pointing to the absence of similar disasters between 1980 and 2004.”
One of the most recent and chilling examples is the 2002 outage of the Davis-Besse plant near Toledo, Ohio, where a hole the size of a football was discovered in the vessel reactor head. Only a half inch of steel remained to prevent a massive nuclear meltdown. The plant was overdue for a shutdown and an inspection and had been granted the extension by the NRC.
When asked what he thought about that close call, Moore said, “I didn’t think it was a close call. I thought it was a mechanical failure that should have been caught sooner. It was caught long before it became an accident or anything like that.”
“When you say close call, that means that nothing actually happened,” he concluded.
But when there’s a facility where an accident could lead to mass deaths, even close calls are grounds for concern. That’s why we have to hold nuclear plants to such high standards. And the fact that plants have to close so often to avoid disastrous accidents doesn’t say much for the reliability argument.
This may be the issue on which the pro-nukers make the most headway. Moore cites a number of international studies, posted on the NEI’s Web site, that show nuclear plants competing only with hydropower when it comes to emitting the lowest level of carbon dioxide. Even solar panels and wind turbines, when one factors in the entire energy process, emit more greenhouse gases, according to these studies, though all these power sources release significantly less than burning coal or natural gas.
The anti-nuke crowd says a true study has never been completed that quantifies the CO2 emissions from mining uranium and turning it into usable nuclear fuel. Both are heavily energy intensive. Additionally, they argue that transporting waste will incur even more CO2 emissions, whether it’s shipped across the sea for reprocessing in Europe or trucked across the country for burial in Yucca Mountain.
But the waste itself is also a huge issue. Although nuclear power plants don’t have bad breath, they do emit toxins — and it’s an unresolved issue as to where to put them. The current forecast for opening the Yucca Mountain repository is 2021. Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada opposes building the facility, and he’s pushing a bill that would require plants to keep the crud in their backyards.
“They’ve had 50 years to work on the waste issue,” Weisman said. “And the best solution they’ve come up with is, who do we not like enough to send it to?”
Either way, Moore thinks waste is not a problem. If anything, it should be reprocessed — he likes to call it “recycling.” Under that process, spent fuel is bathed in acid to separate out the usable plutonium. That can be followed by vitrification — a complex, energy-intensive process of suspending the highly radioactive and corrosive acid in glass, which is then sealed in expensive trash cans of steel and concrete and buried underground for at least 300 years, after which point he predicts it should no longer be a problem.
“It makes more fuel,” he said.
Actually, Hirsch said, “it makes more weapons-grade plutonium.” He argues that the last thing the nation should do is allow nuclear-plant operators to separate the plutonium and put it on the market, where it can be leaked for bomb making.
Additionally, there are a number of waste sites around the country that are slowly emitting what they’ve been designed — or not designed in some cases — to contain.
The worst is probably in Hanford, Wash., where decades’ worth of reprocessed spent radioactive fuel pushed the area beyond Superfund status into a “national nuclear waste sacrifice zone.
“Hanford is the most contaminated site in North America and one of the most significant long-term threats facing the Columbia River,” Greg deBruler, of Columbia Riverkeeper, wrote in the Fall 2006 issue of Waterkeeper, the group’s quarterly journal. “It’s difficult to comprehend the reality of Hanford’s 150 square miles of highly contaminated groundwater or its 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste sitting in 45-year-old rotting steel tanks.”
Much of that waste includes leftover reprocessed spent uranium fuel, which ate through its casks and poisoned the community’s drinking water.
Moore said, “It’s not as if everyone is dead. The nuclear waste has been contained.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
“The economics of nuclear power are well proven around the world. It is one of the most cost-effective forms of energy,” Moore said.
Just check the record. Of the 103 reactors that were built in the United States, 75 ran a total of $100 billion over budget. India more recently went 300 percent over budget on its 10 reactors. Finland is already 18 months behind and $1 billion over on a reactor.
Given this track record, the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration “Annual Energy Outlook 2005” reported that “new plants are not expected to be economical.” They’re so risky, in fact, that not a single plant could have been built without the 1957 Price-Anderson act, which moves the liability for a nuke plant off its owners and onto US taxpayers. “If they were really economical, they’d be able to get insurance,” Weisman said. The bill was recently renewed.
The nuclear industry forges on unperturbed, claiming that new plants have been streamlined for easier construction. Additionally, the siting and licensing laws for plants have been changed to speed up the process by precluding public input. (Given the industry’s safety record so far, that’s not comforting.) Experts predict it will now take 10 years to build a new nuclear plant. Thirty-four licenses are currently pending at the NRC as utility companies race to secure the $8 billion the federal government set aside for subsidies.
“Imagine how many wind turbines that could buy,” said Harvey Wasserman, a longtime anti-nuke activist who recently authored the book Solartopia, which outlines a plan for completely renewable energy by 2030. In fact, renewables are far cheaper. Building the facilities to create one gigawatt of wind power costs about $1.5 billion; about two gigawatts could replace the Diablo Canyon Power Plant.
THE BOTTOM LINE
In the end, it comes down to money, and that’s where nuclear power may be the most vulnerable.
Sam Blakeslee, a Republican Assembly member from San Luis Obispo, introduced a bill last year that calls on the California Energy Commission (CEC) to conduct an in-depth study of the true costs of nuclear power to assess its viability as part of California’s future energy plans. The bill passed unanimously, and Schwarzenegger signed it.
“This will be cradle to grave,” said Weisman, of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, which has focused its scrutiny on the industry’s costs.
The group has long been suspicious of PG&E’s financial woes, which came to a head this past March when the California Public Utilities Commission allowed the company to use $16.8 million from ratepayers to fund its in-house study of relicensing its two nuclear plants. “The licenses won’t be up until 2023 and 2025, so why are they looking at relicensing now — and why does it cost $16.8 million when the state’s study is projected to cost $800,000?” Weisman asked.
Assemblymember Mark Leno (D–San Francisco) is introducing a bill this year that will undercut PG&E’s study before the CEC’s analysis is completed, which is expected to occur around November 2008.
“Our very simple idea here is that before any relicensing of our aging nuclear power plants can proceed, the CEC study be completed,” Leno said. “Clearly, PG&E is very eager to move forward its relicensing process. They have many years to accomplish that task.”
Leno said the stakes are too high and the inherent risks of the toxins already accumulated in seismic zones along the coast need to be carefully weighed against the prospects of generating even more waste. “We should proceed with absolute caution, forethought, and consideration.”
NOWHERE TO RUN
Those risks, that caution, are something that never leaves the minds of the people who live in the plants’ fallout zones, areas as vast as a steady breeze or trickling flow of water can make them. That’s really the problem with nuclear power plants. After 50 years there are still too many unknowns. In Moore’s lectures and during interviews and debates, the former Greenpeace activist likes to say more people are killed by car accidents and machetes than by nuclear power plants, but that mocks the magnitude of a meltdown.
A car accident kills at most a few people. A machete attack might kill one person. A nuclear accident has the potential to inflict casualties in the tens of thousands, maybe even millions, and to render entire cities uninhabitable. And while most of the time, most of the plants may be perfectly problem free, it only takes one accident to wreak environmental havoc.
These days opposition to nuclear energy isn’t about mass protests in the streets. “When KQED calls and asks for the sounds of a protest, I say that’s not how it happens,” Weisman said while showing a DVD of a Jan. 31 San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission meeting that droned on for more than 12 hours. The meeting ultimately resulted in what he’d hoped for: a continuing delay of PG&E’s permit to site new dry-cask storage tanks for thousands of tons of nuclear waste accumulating at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant. He and Rochelle Becker, the group’s director, sat through the whole thing. “That’s what protesting is now,” he said.
Becker, a pert, soft-spoken woman with the aging visage of the youngest grandmother in the room, said correctness is crucial. “Never, ever exaggerate. When they want to talk about safety issues and isotopes, we refer them to someone else because we don’t have that expertise. All we have is our credibility, and if we lose our credibility, we don’t have anything.”
THE PLUTONIUM PAYCHECK
Which makes what Moore is doing look like such a travesty.
“Maybe we should hire Hill and Knowlton,” joked James Riccio, Greenpeace’s nuclear-policy analyst in Washington, DC, on thinking about gearing up for a new wave of anti-nuke activism.
To Riccio, Wasserman, Weisman, Hirsch, Caldicott, and many others who spoke with the Guardian, Moore is nothing but a dangerous distraction who’s getting the wrong kind of attention. Wasserman disputed Moore’s credentials as a Greenpeace founder in the Burlington Free Press article “The Sham of Patrick Moore.”
When questioned by the Guardian, Moore called Wasserman a jerk. Moore said he’s still an activist — and in addition to parroting for the nuclear industry, he runs a sustainability consulting company, Greenspirit Strategies, which advises industries on controversial subjects like genetically modifying organisms, clear-cutting, and fish farming. His clients include hazardous waste, timber, biotech, aquaculture, and chemical companies, in addition to conventional utilities that process nuclear power and natural gas.
Moore insists he’s not hiding anything. “In every interview I do the reporter already knows that I’m cochair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition and that I work for the nuclear industry,” he told us.
But Moore did not identify himself as such during a lengthy interview with us until we asked. The disclosure was also missing during the long biographical presentation given to the folks in Fresno on Feb. 22, which did include pictures of his Rainbow Warrior days. Again, on May 24, Moore didn’t mention his plutonium paycheck during a radio debate on KZYX. Neither did the moderator, and it was only when Hirsch, his debating partner, got a moment to speak that it was revealed. “Let’s be clear here, Patrick,” Hirsch said. “You’re being paid by the industry.”