This article, written by Don Safer, was originally published in the Tennessean. Don Safer is board chairman of the Tennessee Environmental Council.
The toll in human health is much harder to quantify, but the individual stories of the survivors are heartbreaking; many people’s lives have been devastated. Try to imagine the horror of a frantic emergency evacuation from a threat you cannot see, taste, smell or feel but one you know can destroy the health of you and even more, that of your children, both born and yet to be born. The danger is so great that you must leave almost everything behind, even your family’s pets. To make matters much worse there is no insurance covering your losses; no check coming to help you put your life back together the best you can as an evacuee.
The controlled fission process of enriched uranium and plutonium in the reactors creates radiation. The fuel becomes more and more radioactive until it is 1 million to 3 million times more radioactive than when it started and can no longer be used safely. An operating reactor contains the radiation of 1,000 Hiroshima bombs. The “spent” fuel is highly irradiated fuel waste and must be contained practically forever. The radiation released from nuclear reactor accidents contains many different dangerous man-made atoms with distinct characteristics. Some are so similar to essential nutrients that they are brought into our food chain and become part of our bodies. Once a radioactive isotope is taken into our body it irradiates the surrounding tissue with every decay event; sending tiny, invisible bullets which damage our DNA and eventually cause cancer, birth defects, and other health problems.
Two of the most dangerous radioactive isotopes released in a major nuclear accident are iodine-131 and cesium-137. Most of the iodine is taken up by the thyroid gland. There are reports of 44 percent of the children in Fukushima having thyroid abnormalities. Only time will tell how many of these develop into cancer but it is certain that many will. Cesium has contaminated the Japanese food supply. It bioaccumulates in the vital organs of all who consume it but faster in children than adults and with greater damage.
Radiation continues to be released from the molten cores of the three crippled Fukushima reactors which have melted through the steel containment vessels. These need to be continuously cooled with seawater that becomes highly radioactive and then must be stored; 50 million gallons and increasing every day. No one knows how much continues to leak into the Pacific Ocean. An even greater danger still exists in the structurally damaged waste fuel pool at Unit 4 and the nearby common pool which contains 6,000 fuel rods. The collapse of the Unit 4 pool would initiate a cascading planetary disaster which could not be avoided because the intense lethal radiation would make human intervention impossible. Many think much of Japan would have to be evacuated. Another large earthquake could topple the teetering structure.
Despite all of this TVA continues to call nuclear power clean energy and is going full steam ahead with its nuclear division. TVA is currently operating six nuclear reactors, three of which (Browns Ferry) are of the same GE Mark 1 design as the Fukushima reactors. The other three are at Sequoyah and Watts Bar, these are a bizarre ice condenser design which employs 3 million pounds of ice to allow for a thinner containment structure to save construction dollars. The Browns Ferry reactors are currently operating under the most serious safety sanctions that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can impose before requiring them to shut down. The Sequoyah reactors, which TVA is asking for a license extension to 2040, are at risk from flooding in the event of a rain event like the one we experienced in Nashville in May 2010.
TVA is doubling down on its nuclear investment as it is currently attempting to finish the second ice condenser reactor at Watts Bar. The originally announced $2.5 billion cost (on top of the previous nearly $2 billion spent in the first round of construction in the 1970s and 80s) has escalated to $4.5 billion and the project is at least two years behind schedule. TVA still has plans to finish the “zombie” reactor at Bellefonte. It is a zombie because it was abandoned and salvage work begun until TVA decided to bring it back to life. TVA is also working to build the nation’s first small modular reactors. These are touted as cutting edge technology but in reality are the same failed technology as all other fission reactors; they will create the same waste and have many of the same risks of major radiation release accidents.
As in Japan the tension always exists between safety and cost. The nuclear industry is fighting the NRC about Fukushima inspired safety upgrades. Industry usually wins. The result is increased risk of a major accident. Additionally TVA acknowledges that it is woefully behind in replacing components which have exceeded their engineered lifespan, putting cost shaving ahead of safety. TVA has not even implemented fire safety upgrades at Browns Ferry that were required after the 1975 candle fire at that plant.
As nuclear plants age they become far more likely to experience major problems. The only way to prevent the next Fukushima or Chernobyl is to shut them all down. We don’t need them, the Germans have committed to closing all of their nuclear power plants by 2021. They already generate 25 percent of their electricity with renewable energy like solar and wind. Improvements in energy efficiency and conservation can lessen our electricity usage without sacrificing quality of life. To those who say that solar energy can not power our economy, I point to Volkswagen in Chattanooga building fine automobiles with its own solar panel-generated electricity.
The energy mix of the future can have minimum carbon output, no more radioactive waste, no nuclear accidents, no toxic and radioactive emissions, no coal ash, and no fracked natural gas. This dream is now possible. We just have to make it our goal and do it.