Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Toxic waste: the fatal flaw of nuclear power

I've long marveled at the inanity of "realists" like Seattle Times editorial page editor Jim Vesely, who foolishly believe we should turn to nuclear power to extract ourselves from dependence on foreign oil:
Bringing back nuclear power to the Pacific Northwest has been such a taboo subject in political circles that you would think the rivers would have to run dust-dry before the topic is accepted at wine parties in Magnolia.
Wine parties in Magnolia? Now there's a revealing reference. You've been to quite a few of those over the years, haven't you, Jim?

The reason the topic is "taboo" is because nobody has managed to come up with a good answer for the question of what to do about the toxic waste generated by nuclear fission. The general attitude since the dawn of the Atomic Age has been, Well, let's just leave that problem unresolved for now. Future generations can figure out a way to deal with it.

Until - and if - humankind comes up with an answer to the question of nuclear waste (and deals with the problem of nuclear proliferation, for that matter), it is completely irresponsible for us to even talk about constructing new nuclear facilities, whether for electrical generation or for military use.

Those who fought to stop the disaster that was WPPSS can undoubtedly remember what a mess we got ourselves into when we made the calculation that nuclear power was the future:
Planners expected that the demand for electricity in the Northwest would double every 10 years, beyond the capacity of hydropower.

WPPSS made plans for a nuclear plant at Hanford, called Plant 2, and in 1971 utilities signed up to share costs and benefits. Plant 1, also at Hanford and Plant 3 near Satsop, Grays Harbor County, Washington, were proposed the following year.

The costs of all these plants would be repaid through the sale of the power that they produced. WPPSS planned Plant 4 at Hanford and 5 at Satsop which would be "twinned" with 1 and 3.

In this way, system planners thought, the experience and resources from the first plants would benefit the twin plants.
In addition to having a growth at any cost mindset, the brilliant managers at WPPSS also demonstrated how easy it is to waste money.

They didn't know what they were doing and the people of Washington, who they were supposed to serve, paid the price.
Several factors combined to ruin construction schedules and to drive costs to three and four times the original estimates.

Inflation and design changes constantly plagued all the projects. Builders often got ahead of designers who modified their drawings to conform to what had been built.

Safety changes imposed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission increased costs too, but the biggest cause of delays and overruns was mismanagement of the process by the WPPSS. The directors and the managers of the system had no experience in nuclear engineering or in projects of this scale.

System managers were unable to develop a unified and comprehensive means of choosing, directing, and supervising contractors. One contractor, already shown to be incompetent, was retained for more work. In a well-publicized example, a pipe hanger was built and rebuilt 17 times. Quality control inspectors complained of inadequate work that went unaddressed.
And in the end:
In January 1982, the WPPSS board stopped construction on Plants 4 and 5 when total cost for all the plants was projected to exceed $24 billion. Because these plants generated no power and brought in no money, the system was forced to default on $2.25 billion in bonds.

This meant that the member utilities, and ultimately the rate payers, were obligated to pay back the borrowed money. In some small towns where unemployment due to the recession was already high, this amounted to more than $12,000 per customer.

The bond holders sued and the matter wound it way through courts for the next 13 years. Plants 1 and 3 were never finished either, but their costs were backed by the Bonneville Power Administration and the power it generated from the Columbia River Dams.

Unfortunately, some people are willing to forgo the lessons of history:
But times change, and so do the requirements of power. Nukes are the fact of electrical life in this state and others, often in the nonspoken world of, "they are there but we don't talk about them."
Requirements of power? Try requirements of people.

If we made conservation of electricity a priority, we'd have no problem sustaining ourselves with the power generated by facilities we've already got. Now there's a concept from the "nonspoken world". Why don't we spend more time talking about conservation? Is it because living more simply isn't sexy?

Conservation, coupled with the construction of renewable sources like wind farms and solar plants (which don't produce radioactive waste) are the answer to our energy needs. Before we conclude that we need more megawatts, we should invest in efficiency first...for our homes, factories, devices, businesses, and electric grid. But these possibilities are seemingly lost on development-centric minds like Vesely, who has the audacity to state this later in his column:
If America returns in full sunlight to nuclear power, which I think eventually it must, it has to do so with federal authority — perhaps a single design for all plants, perhaps with borrowed technology from the Europeans, the Canadians and the Japanese. To let such power stay idle is going to be too much waste for future generations.
Emphasis is mine.

"Too much waste for future generations"? That's supposed to be the consequence of not going nuclear with nuclear power!? As opposed to, gee, I don't know, further contaminating our environment with spent uranium and plutonium?

It's hard to find richer irony than this.

Does Vesely even understand the mess we've already got on our hands?
High level waste (HLW) is produced by nuclear reactors. It contains fission products and transuranic elements generated in the reactor core. It is highly radioactive and often thermally hot. LLW and ILW accounts for over 95% of the total radioactivity produced in the process of nuclear electricity generation.

The amount of HLW worldwide is currently increasing by about 12,000 metric tons every year, which is the equival to about 100 double-decker buses or a two-story structure built on top of a basketball court
And that doesn't include the higher volumes of low or intermediate levels of waste, which are also dangerous. The effects of toxic waste are still not entirely understood, though we have learned a lot over the past fifty years.

Given what we do know, it would be unwise, even immoral, to start building more nuclear facilities. It's impossible for us to guarantee that future accidents won't occur, no matter how many safety controls we build into our systems, because there is always a risk of a calamity due to human error.

If we don't rely on fission for electricity, we'll end up with far less toxic waste to deal with. And that's a good thing.

Jim Vesely is free to daydream, but it must be the policy of the United States of America to invest in safer, cheaper, cleaner, and more aesthetic alternatives to fossil fuels and nuclear power - including conservation.


Blogger ChristinaMac said...

Mon dieu, Andrew!
You have the nerve to mention cheaper and cleaner means of energy production than nuclear!
And you go further - you're even suggesting that we all conserve energy, that there's something wrong with undridled growth, rampant materialism and ever more squandering of energy!
if that were not enough. you've even suggested that aesthetics matter! That would mean that we don't need great gaping horrors like Olympic Dam in South Australia, or those hdeous nuclear installations, and great waste-holding cylinders, all guarded by barbed wire fences and armed men!
These are radical ideas that will not be tolerated in this "nuclear renaissance" era
Then again - maybe it's just going to be a "nuclear stillbirth"
Christina Macpherson

May 25, 2008 7:25 PM  
Blogger Kendall said...

Oo, oo, oo. I have an idea. We could reprocess the spent fuel and turn 97% of it back into useful fuel instead of burying it forever. That's what they are doing in Europe.

All that wind power and solar power is so cheap that it's bound to put nuclear power completely out of business any day now. Now if only people wouldn't throw hissy-fits when you put a windmill where someone might see it.

May 26, 2008 9:54 PM  
Blogger Rod Adams said...

There is little doubt that the early days of nuclear fission power resulted in inexperienced people leading very large projects that they did not understand.

There is also little doubt that the state of Washington experienced more than its share of problems both from WPPS and from the casual way that the wartime projects stored liquid waste created during the weapons manufacturing process.

Those early lessons, however, should not cause people to close their minds to new information or to recognize that there is no such thing as perfect power.

The power sources that you have right now in the Pacific Northwest are not as benign as you imply by your willingness to stop all new power plants and simply depend on the continued production from the existing plants. According to the Energy Information Agency statistical web site ( in 2006 Washington and Oregon together burned 5.5 million tons of coal, 141 Billion cubic feet of natural gas and 132 thousand barrels of petroleum all for electrical power generation.

Where did the waste products from those sources go? How much did the consumers spend to purchase those fuels? What will there cost be five, ten or twenty years into the future?

Of course, you also have those wonderful hydroelectric dams that the rest of the country paid to install so many years ago when we did not think much about destroying salmon runs or flooding valleys. They provide large quantities of good clean power as long as there is plenty of rainfall. (Those fuel figures that I quoted were for a pretty good year - there are drought years that are much worse.)

I happen to have a rather progressive view that believes that electrical power is an enabler for people to live better lives. It makes them less dependent on other people to perform chores that can be done with appliances and power tools. It allows them to live in a safe, comfortable environment and have plenty of lighting, mass transportation, heating and cooling.

Nuclear power technology is no longer in its infancy and the leaders and managers are tough, seasoned veterans that understand most of the lessons from the first Atomic Age. I am nearly 50 and I have spent most of my adult career involved in the operation, maintenance and personnel training programs for naval nuclear power plants. I have never been in the commercial industry, but I have a lot of friends and former colleagues in the industry who are some of the brightest, hardest working people I have ever met. They are also dedicated to safety and producing reliable, clean electricity.

Please do not take my word for this. Go out and talk to nukes, read their stories and blogs (you can find links to a lot of them at ask them questions. Open your minds and learn that we are not boogeymen trying to pass off a failed technology, but people who have worked very hard to master a new energy production source.

May 28, 2008 1:00 AM  
Blogger ChristinaMac said...

Rod Adams does sound sincere in his plea that "we are not boogeymen trying to pass off a failed technology, but people who have worked very hard to master a new energy production source". And, he's spent an honest lifetime working for naval nuclear power plants.

But aren't "naval nuclear power plants" part of the military complex?
To convince Rod of the dangers and inordinate expense of the nuclear cycle would surely be like trying to convince a Catholic cardinal that God doesn't exist!
Rod suggests that we all "go out and talk to nukes"
I suggest that Rod go out and talk to Navajo families affected by uranium mining, to Chernobyl victims, to Japanese atomic bomb survivors.
Also - he should talk to Warren Buffett, who has decided that nuclear is a bad investment
Christina Macpherson

May 28, 2008 4:42 AM  
Blogger Rod Adams said...


I have talked to at least one near atomic bomb survivor (he entered Hiroshima on 13 August 1945 and was part of a physical survey and research team) and a young woman who was a 4-year old resident of Belarus at the time of the Chernobyl accident.

Dr. Sohei Kondo is the man who entered Hiroshima one week after the bomb as a young adult graduate student. I met him at a meeting of the American Nuclear Society during the mid 1990s. He had presented a paper and was a member of a panel discussion about the health effects of low level radiation.

He is also the author of a book titled "Health Effects of Low-Level Radiation" based on his lifelong study of the effects of the atomic bomb and several other radiation exposures. You should find and read the book; it is quite eye opening. Here is a quote from that book:
"The collected data strongly suggest that low-level radiation is not harmful, and is, in fact, frequently apparently beneficial for human health. The data are incomplete, however, and presentation of these facts alone will not suffice to allay the fear of low-level radiation especially with regar to the risks for congenital anomalies and cancer. For this reason, I discusse the mechanisms of radiation teratogenicity and carcinogenicity in some detail, using epidemiological and recent biological knowledge, in an attempt to provide scientific reasoning for my tentative conclusion that low-level radiation is not measurably hazardous to the health of the human body."

As near as I can tell, Dr. Kondo was still alive and accepting awards as of 2006, more than 60 years after entering Hiroshima as an adult.

The interview I conducted with the Chernobyl survivor is posted on the web at the Atomic Show #091 (

Yes, nuclear submarines are part of the military establishment. They are also continuing examples of the fact that nuclear fission reactor plants are clean enough to run inside a sealed ship. If we forgo the use of technology just because it happens to also have a military use - pushing a ship around the ocean in this case - we would have a difficult time in a modern society. Try flying without using similar engines to those used in bombers!

I have not yet met any Navajo families, but would love to talk to them as well. Do you know any?

May 28, 2008 3:58 PM  
Blogger ChristinaMac said...

Re Navajo families. well, I know Navahe Son of Ft. Wingate, New Mexico.
Now - Rod Adams sounds like a sincere person, wanting the best for people. OR like a very smooth paid spruiker for nukes
I am prepared to believe the former.

Elsewhere Mr Adams has quoted Dr. Kondo on low level radiation, on his theory that low level radiation is beneficial to human health. but Kondo says - that the "data are incomplete" and his conclusion is "tentative"
Plenty more conclusive evidence out there that ionising radiation is harmful at any level.

The military connection with nuclear power is very clear indeed, more so than for any other technology. You'd have to ask yourself why else would Saudi Arabia etc be wanting this expensive and difficult technology - with all their access to other energy sources?

Well, Mr Adams hasn't addressed the questions of nuclear waste, nor of cost. The USA and UK are both in a tizz about these 2 points.
Christina Macpherson

May 29, 2008 12:52 AM  
Blogger Rod Adams said...


I address the issues of cost and waste extensively on my own blog, websites and podcast. They are complex issues that cannot be fully explained in a few comments. (Atomic Insights Blog, Atomic Insights, Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. The Atomic Show Podcast.)

Judge for yourself if you think I am sincere. No one pays me to participate in the energy debates, but I have a diverse investment portfolio and will hopefully benefit financially if nuclear power technologies play an increased role in energy production. I am also the sole - unpaid - employee of a company that has been trying to start up since 1993 to manufacture small atomic engines in an assembly line fashion.

I believe very strongly that almost everyone in the US will benefit by using more nuclear fission power - unless you happen to be in the market of selling coal, oil, natural gas, wind turbines, geothermal drilling services, solar panels, transporting coal, building pipelines, operating tankers, collecting donations for anti-nuclear activism, or selling coal plant emissions control systems. (Plenty of people have financial interests in nuclear power's competition.)

The quote from Dr. Kondo's book - published in 1993 - is the kind of honest uncertainty that you find in many works by real scientists. I almost never hear someone who researches complicated subjects like human health, weather, or energy markets express certainty about any predictions. Instead, they speak in probabilities and always state that further research is needed to refine those probabilities. You can find out far more about the health effects of low level radiation than I can every tell you by visiting a web site (admittedly designed by engineers and scientists, not smooth PR or graphic design specialists) called Radiation, Science and Health.

When you hear predictions of certain doom or unmitigated benefits about various technologies you can be pretty sure that you are hearing a sales pitch or an advocacy group, not a scientist or engineer.

If you believe that Saudi Arabia has unlimited supplies of oil and natural gas, perhaps you also believe in the tooth fairy and perpetual motion.

It is a country that is heavily dependent on selling oil and natural gas into export markets, but its internal use for electricity production has been growing at a rate approaching 10% per year for several years. I am sure that the country would rather not burn its own gas and oil if it can sell them to others at an enormous profit. Right now, a million BTUs of heat produced by burning oil costs about $24 while a million BTUs of heat from fission in commercial nuclear fuel costs about 60 - 70 cents. It is a no brainer why there are so many countries all around the world who are beginning to reject your anti-nuclear message.

Nuclear fission power is not all that complicated. I say that based on my own experience; I was in charge of a plant by the time I was 27 years old, and I was an English major as an undergraduate. (I did get some rather intensive nuclear training for a year or so after graduation.)

May 29, 2008 11:46 PM  
Blogger Christina Macpherson said...

Let's just cut to the chase here.
There are straight, clear questions that demand straight clear answers:

1. How much does nuclear power cost - including waste disposal and virtually eternal security & surveillance?
2. Why, despite the Price Anderson Act and the huge subsidies, does nobody want to invest in nuclear power?
3. Are all nuclear installations, nuclear transport, nuclear waste containers secure from terrorist attacks?
4. Will Saudi Arabia, and other nuclear customers never develop nuclear weapons?
5. Statistically, big nuclear accidents are very unlikely, but statistically, isn't it only a matter of time before there is one?
6.Is it not the case that almost every one of the world's existing nuclear power plants is just about past its lifetime, and due to be closed down?
7. Is it not the case that the nuclear lobby is in a great hurry to revive the industry before it collapses due to the ageing reactors and investor reticence?
8. Where nuclear power APPEARS to be going OK - is this not only in countries where it is government- owned and therefore the true costs are not known to the population?
9. Hasn't the USA, the UK, and the world in general got a lot of nuclear wastes, and still no way to
dispose of them?
10. If everything's so fine about nuclear power, and it's not a security, terrorism or proliferation risk - why the massive secrecy surrounding it?
Christina Macpherson

May 31, 2008 12:37 AM  

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