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The Nuclear Juggernaut

Last week’s granting by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission of combined construction and operating licenses for two nuclear plants to be built in Georgia—both Westinghouse AP1000s—is the culmination of a scheme developed by nuclear promoters 20 years ago.

There have been huge changes in energy since. The consequences in death and illness of of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster have become manifest. Wind energy has become cheaper than nuclear—thus is the fastest growing new energy source—and solar is well on its way. The two troubled giants of nuclear power, Westinghouse and General Electric, sold out to the Japanese in 2006: Toshiba took over Westinghouse’s nuclear operations and GE partnered with Hitachi. And then there’s been the catastrophe at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant complex.

Still, as if a runaway train, the nuclear juggernaut has roared on.

The strategy for what happened last week was set with the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 1992. The vote in the House of Representatives was 381-to-37. “As the bill wound its way through the Senate and the House, the nuclear industry won nearly every vote that mattered, proving that Congress remains captive to industry lobbying and political contributions over public opinion,” reported the Nuclear Information & Resource Service then. (The same could be said about Congress now.) The New York Times said, “Nuclear lobbyists called the bill their biggest victory in Congress since the Three Mile Island accident.”

The measure, signed into law by the first President Bush, provided for “one-step” nuclear plant licensing. Previously, there were hearings held in the area where a nuclear plant would be built—one on granting a construction license and, later, a second on whether to issue an operating license.

This presented a big problem for the nuclear industry—not that the Atomic Energy Commission or its successor, the Nuclear Energy Commission, ever turned down an application for a construction or operating license. But at the hearings for a construction license major issues arose—such as, with the proposed Shoreham nuclear plant on Long Island, New York, the impossibility of evacuation off the crowded island in the event of a major accident, important in the eventual stoppage of Shoreham. And at operating license hearings, whistle-blowers would emerge, often engineers and others involved in the construction of the plant, going public with testimony about faults, defects and dangers.

Under the Energy Policy Act of 1992, instead of these hearings, the NRC, sitting in Washington far from the areas and people to be impacted, would be authorized to grant in one move a construction and operating license. That’s what the NRC did last week for the two AP1000 nuclear plants that the Southern Company plans to build at its Vogtle site near Augusta.

Westinghouse said in the 90s that with this “one-step” process, it would take but five years after NRC approval for an AP1000 to be completed. Indeed, that was what the nuclear industry was saying last week about the Georgia project.

Westinghouse also, before the Energy Policy Act of 1992, touted its AP1000 as an “advanced” nuclear power plant. The act specifically greased the skids for “advanced” nuclear power plants. It featured a section titled “Subtitle C-Advanced Nuclear Reactors” that stated: “The purposes of this subtitle are (1) to require the Secretary [of Energy] to carry out civilian nuclear programs in a way that will lead toward the commercial availability of advanced nuclear reactor technologies; and (2) to authorize such activities to further the timely availability of advanced nuclear reactor technologies.”

To push the new system along, NuStart, which calls itself “a consortium for new nuclear energy development,” was formed. NuStart, says further on its website (www.nustartenergy.com), that it has been “formed to respond to a Department of Energy issued solicitation to demonstrate the NRC’s COL [Construction and Operating License] process.” NuStart has been working closely with utilities for them to utilize the one-step licensing process and build new “advanced” nuclear plants. As to its funding, its website says that “NuStart is participating in a 50-50 cost sharing program” with the Department of Energy.

Thus U.S. tax dollars have been and are being used for a system all but eliminating public input to get new “advanced” nuclear power plants up and running—and fast.

NuStart lists 10 corporate “members.” These include the Southern Company, Exelon, Entergy and other utilities committed to nuclear power as well as Westinghouse and GE. The president of NuStart “since its inception,” says the NuStart website, is Marilyn Krey. “Marilyn is also Vice President, Nuclear Project Development for Exelon,” it states. Exelon owns the most nuclear power plants of any U.S. utility. “Prior to joining Exelon, Marilyn was a reactor engineer and project manager for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” it goes on. Yes, the nuclear power-revolving door.

The chairman of the NRC, Gregory Jaczko, voted against the licensing on February 9. He cited the need to “learn the lessons from Fukushima.” Jaczko stated: “I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima had never happened.”

But the other four NRS commissioners—nuclear power zealots all—voted for the licensing. “There is no amnesia individually or collectively regarding the events of March 11, 2011 and the ensuing accident at Fukushima,” wrote Commissioner Kristine Svinicki for the four. No, not amnesia—they all know of the Fukushima disaster, but with their staunch allegiance to nuclear power, they don’t give a damn.

There will be challenges to the licensing—which beyond being the first issuance of combined construction and operating licenses is the first time since the 1970s that the NRC has given approval for a new nuclear power plant. There were no applications to build new nuclear plants as atomic energy, rightfully, went into a deep eclipse for decades.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy announced: “Our challenge maintains that the NRC is violating federal laws by issuing the license without fully considering the important lessons of the catastrophic Fukushima accident.” It will also raise various safety issues involving the AP1000.

And there are many. Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts—one of the few members of Congress not in the pockets of the nuclear industry or a national nuclear laboratory in their district—earlier in the year wrote Jaczko, “These concerns include those raised by one of the [Nuclear Regulatory] Commission’s most long-serving staff that there is a risk that an earthquake at, or aircraft impact on, the AP1000 could result in a catastrophic core meltdown.”  In a statement last week, he re-emphasized the finding made in a report to the NRC by its staffer  Dr. John Ma, a structural engineer, that theAP1000’s “containment structure could”—in Ma’s words, “ shatter like a glass cup”— because of “flaws in the design of the shield building if impacted by an earthquake or commercial aircraft.”

Of the NRC’s licensing move, Markey said: “Today, the NRC abdicated its duty to protect public health and safety, just to make construction faster and cheaper for the nuclear industry.”

As to finances, not only was—and is—taxpayer money being used to facilitate the new nuclear plant licensing scheme, it is the basis for their construction. Wall Street is wary of nuclear power. So the Department of Energy is providing the Southern Company with $8.3 billion in taxpayer-based loan guarantees for its new nuclear plants, part of a multi-billion dollar loan guarantee fund that has been established for new nuclear power plants.

In a sales brochure for the AP1000—online at www.AP1000.westinghousenuclear.com

—Westinghouse trumpets it as “Simple, Safe, Innovative.” Throughout the brochure is also the line: “The Nuclear Renaissance Starts Here.”  But although the AP1000 might be of a different design, even the brochure acknowledges severe accidents can happen. “The AP1000 is designed to mitigate a postulated severe accident such as a core melt,” says the brochure. Mitigate, not eliminate.

It also includes a “Probabilistic Risk Assessment” by the NRC on the possibility of “Core Damage Frequency” and “Large Release Frequency” at an AP1000. For both, the odds are given as very low, reminiscent of the very low odds NASA once set for a catastrophic accident involving one of its space shuttles—until the Challenger blew up.

“It follows,” says Westinghouse, “that the AP1000 also improves upon the probability of large release goals for advanced reactor designs in the event of a severe accident scenario to retain the molten core within the reactor vessel.” Improves upon—not eliminates the release of catastrophic amounts of radioactivity.

If Americans are anxious about a disaster involving the AP1000—and want wind and solar and other safe, clean, renewable energy technologies which they can live with instead—well, under the new system, that’s too bad.  With the new nuclear licensing system—devised 20 years ago and now moving ahead despite Chernobyl and Fukushima and the availability of energy alternatives that render nuclear power unnecessary—the citizenry and what they want are to be excluded.

The NRC, meanwhile, is expected to next month issue combined construction and operating licenses to South Carolina Electric & Gas Company to also build and run a pair of AP1000s.

As anti-nuclear crusader Dr. Helen Caldicott, president emeritus of Physicians for Social Responsibility, has been saying: “People must rise up.” Indeed, they must.

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, is a long-time investigative reporter and author of the book Power Crazy: Is LILCO Turning Shoreham Into America’s Chernobyl? (Grove Press, 1986). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. 

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Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, and is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.

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