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This Planet is a series of short video stories that draw on the best new videos, awesome graphics, and surprising facts about climate, energy and innovation.

Why Reviving the Nuclear Zombie Could be Trump’s Worst Decision Ever

This Planet Chronicle

Why Reviving the Nuclear Zombie Could be Trump’s Worst Decision Ever

Evelyn Messinger

Because nukes always live to kill again.

chernobyl.jpg

IMAGE: PAR SYSTEMS INC.   Chernobyl under wraps: Thirty years after the reactor exploded, the large dome is being placed to seal off the smaller dome, which seals off the reactor, which is still leaking.

 Jan 26, 2017

In early December, there was a media stir when a memo from Trump’s transition team surfaced, asking the Department of Energy to name employees who participated in climate meetings. In the very same memo were questions that might turn out to be even more significant: Can the nuclear power industry be brought back to life, they asked, so that aging nuclear reactors can keep “operating as part of the nation’s infrastructure?”

Only one week earlier, nuclear market watchers were advising their industry to make radical changes – not to their business model but to their PR strategy – in order to survive the Trump era.

An article in Power Magazine titled Trump: Bad News for U.S. Nuclear Power? put it this way:

“While new nukes are horrendously expensive, the industry’s argument has been…the value of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.” But the Trump folks don’t believe that CO2 is warming the climate, so “the nuclear industry may have to find a new political peg on which to hang its business hat.”

What a difference a week makes!

Under the oil-loving, solar-hating Trump regime, nuclear power looks set to rise again.

The conservative The Daily Caller noted that nuclear energy experts “suspect Trump will be extremely pro-nuclear,” and the Fiscal Times speculated that, “With Trump at the helm,” a “new era” of nuclear power is dawning. The website breathlessly predicted a nuclear industry that “no longer bows to fear…”

Ah, fear. Not a popular emotion but it sure gets your attention. Researching this article led inevitably to a fearful conclusion: nuclear technologies may be useful for a limited time but their deadliness lasts, in effect, forever. The fatal flaw at the core of the nuclear industry is this: even if the life-destroying, land-poisoning accidents can be prevented, the nuclear zombie lives on. Nuclear waste, much like the undead, does not lie easy in its grave, but is rising up to kill and kill again. Such as:

 

FUKUSHIMA

Oh, did you think that the Fukushima meltdown was over? Well, think again. Not only is it not over, it won’t be over in your, or your children’s, or your grandchildren’s, lifetimes.

 

tepco ice wall.jpg

CREDIT: TEPCO   A well extracts clean groundwater before it gets to the radioactive Fukushima plant, and another extracts poisoned groundwater leaving the plant before it gets to the ocean. But don’t be fooled by the size of the arrows: hundreds of tons of radioactive water are still reaching the Pacific ocean.

Some 60,000 tons of highly radioactive water sit in the basements of the leaking buildings, and the best we can hope for is to contain the relentless leakage of poison into the Pacific Ocean. That’s why the plant’s operator TEPCO decided to build a wall of ice around the complex, to divert the hundreds of tons of groundwater that passes through the damaged buildings every day.

So how’s that working out? In a word, NOT. In July TEPCO admitted that the ice wall wasn’t stopping the water, and in September a typhoon simply melted the ice away.

 

WIPP

How about repositories of nuclear waste having their own accidents? Yes, it not only happened but it was all the fault of kitty litter, as This Planet reported last year.

The one and only official US nuclear waste site, New Mexico’s WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) handles mostly low-level radioactive waste. Casks of the stuff are stored in caverns underground, and the casks are packed with kitty litter, because the clay stabilizes the waste. In 2014, someone at the WIPP decided to “go green,” using organic kitty litter which, it turns out, has some very unhealthy properties for nuclear waste. Here are the key finding from the Department of Energy’s fact sheet:

Key Judgment 1. The contents of Drum 68660 were incompatible. The nitrate salt residues, organic sorbent (Swheat Scoop®), and neutralization agent (triethanolamine) known to be present represent a potentially reactive chemical mixture of fuels and oxidizers.

In other words, the addition of Swheat Scoop® caused Drum 68660 to go boom. Even though it was a teeny tiny mistake, it resulted in 21 workers being contaminated with low-level doses of radiation, the shut down of WIPP and a cost (to date) of $640 million, “among the costliest in U.S. history.” And that’s not counting “the complete replacement of the contaminated ventilation system or any future costs of operating the mine longer than originally planned.” And oh yeah, the contract for future waste clean-ups skyrocketed by 70% after the accident.

IMAGES:DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY, THE HAPPY BEAST Left: Inside the WIPP, one of many teams must go in to discover the problem. Center: the problem, a single canister that exploded, causing untold damage, because they used the wrong kitty litter, right.

 

ALL THE OTHER LEAKS, EVERYWHERE, ALL THE TIME

A small news story in March reported that two US reactors leaked radioactive tritium in 2016. If you didn’t hear about it, that’s because it happens all the time. In 2011 an Associated Press investigation discovered that over 75% of commercial US nuclear plants have leaked tritium, often into the water supply, usually from old corroded waste tanks. Tritium is both odorless and colorless like water, and it enters the cells of a body, where it can cause cancer, as easily as water.

Even though every gram of radioactive material put into the biosphere kills, the regulatory agencies have been weakening the rules for years. By simply changing the words of a regulation, tritium accidents are magically transformed into routine events, neither penalized nor newsworthy beyond the local communities affected.

And that brings us to a true anomaly - one with a universal lesson.

 

HANFORD

hanford men.jpg

CREDIT: DEPT. OF ENERGY

The workers at Hanford had respirators when the most recent leaks happened. Then the clean-up contractor decided they weren’t needed - based on an illegitamate study.

A funny thing happened on the way to developing the US nuclear arsenal: 586 square miles of Washington state got contaminated with radioactive waste. The Hanford plant, a key bomb-building site, was closed at the end of the cold war, leaving behind 56 million gallons of the most toxic nuclear waste on earth. They’ve been cleaning it up ever since.

But guess what happened? A newish, double-walled tank leaked radioactive liquid into the space between its two walls. Seattle’s KING TV, no stranger to this story, covered the leak in April. In July, KING reported that workers cleaning up the leak were being sickened by fumes. In August, KING’s excellent investigative story summarized the whole sorry episode, revealing that the contractor being paid to clean up the leaks decided to cut back on worker’s gear that protected them against the deadly fumes. Sixty workers ended up sick.

 

DON’T DO IT, DONALD!

Nuclear regulations have surely prevented many accidents, but as the Hanford story reveals so clearly, the amount of money anyone is willing to spend on cleanups is not endless, and the sense of corporate and governmental responsibility has severe limitations. What never dies is the damage that the nuclear power zombie causes. So here are some cautions and a suggestion for the new President:

IMAGES CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER LEFT: PIXABAY.COM; ENERGY.GOV; REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE; DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY

• Nukes are not “green” except when they use the wrong kitty litter. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) asked the Trump administration “to use its purchasing power” to change the wording of government mandates. An article entitled NEI Asks for Assistance to Make 2017 a Happy Nuke Year, describes the lobbyist asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to replace “mandates requiring renewable energy purchases with mandates that require clean energy purchases.” Once again, the idea is to simply change the words, magically putting “emission free” nukes in the same category as wind and solar. Will anyone notice that calling nuclear energy clean is like, well, calling the undead alive?

• Extending licenses on old nuclear plants is giving zombies a new lease on life. Energy companies that manage a mess of messy old nuclear plants, most built in the early 1970s, feel put upon because their operating licenses run only until the 2030s. They think another 20 years for these outdated, increasingly accident-prone clunkers would be just fine and they want you, President Trump, to think so too.

• Don’t try this in your homeland. Industry boosters and some environmentalists who are worried about global warming are talking up new types of power plants that have mechanism they claim will prevent meltdowns. Even if we could afford building these new designs (orders of magnitude more expensive than solar or wind) their waste will end up in the zombie graveyard. Do we really want to keep making more of them?

• OK try something new in waste management and storage. Fast. Like it or not, the nuclear zombies are already among us. So what can be done? There are processes to encase waste in glass, or concrete, such as have been going on at another weapons clean up site, Savannah River. But that program started in 1990 and aims to get it done in 2036. Forty-six years is a long time, so shouldn’t getting a move on the waste problem be the most important thing for the new Secretary of Energy to do?

And then there is Yucca Mountain, the long-planned and long-delayed repository for US nuclear waste. The Trumpers seem interested in reviving this too, and it does have one advantage: the hundreds of thousands of poisonous waste containers scattered across the US in casks and caves, in the earth and the seas, can all be put in one place. Of course getting them there opens loads of opportunities for zombie escapes – but it’s a chance we need to take.

Last word: if you want to fight the zombies, Greenpeace and the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) are the places to start.