Code Red 

It is 4 a.m. The date is March 28, 1979. The place is Middletown, Pa.

Most of the town is sleeping. Suddenly, a plume of steam shoots into the sky over the nearby Three Mile Island nuclear plant with enough force to vibrate windows and floor boards of nearby houses. Residents of Middletown and other small towns south of Harrisburg, Pa. are jerked awake.

They know something has happened, but they won’t learn until later that a series of problems -- both human and technical -- have combined to create the worst nuclear disaster in United States history. During the TMI disaster, radiation was released, the plant’s nuclear core was damaged and thousands of people were evacuated from their homes.

Panic ensued, especially among pregnant women. Was the radiation level high enough to cause permanent damage to DNA?

It wasn’t until much later that the nation learned how dangerous the situation really was. The temperature of the reactor’s core had approached a temperature of 4,300 degrees -- hot enough to turn uranium into a liquid.

If the temperature had continued to rise, a nuclear meltdown would have been inevitable. Because of increasing oxygen and hydrogen levels in the reactor, engineers began to worry that TMI’s Unit 2, where the disaster occurred, would explode.

The reactor was well on its way to becoming a hydrogen bomb. H-bombs are 100 to 1,000 times more powerful than atomic bombs, with the potential to kill millions and make large geographical areas uninhabitable for thousands of years.

Nuclear annihilation -- not just for Middletown, but the entire East Coast -- became a distinct possibility. Fortunately, workers were able to defuse the reactor and the threat began to dissipate.

All was quiet for a while. Then on April 26, 1986, the world’s worst nuclear disaster occurred at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union. While testing a reactor, workers disregarded several safety procedures.

A chain reaction in the plant’s reactor went out of control, causing explosions and a fireball which blew off the reactor’s heavy steel and concrete lid. More than 30 people died immediately.

Rescue workers who tried to contain the accident died later from radiation exposure. At least 135,000 people had to be evacuated.

The full scale of the accident is still not yet known, but workers and residents alike have developed illnesses that may be directly related to radiation exposurek, including various types of cancer, birth defects and heart problems.

The public’s reaction to these incidents was so intense that it seemed for a time that the nuclear industry was dead, or a doddering dinosaur that would gradually die out as its infrastructure aged. Not one new nuclear reactor has been built in the U.S. since 1979, although several that were under construction at the time have been completed.

“The industry never really backed off the effort to get nuclear power plants built,” says Steve Smith, executive director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which works to promote clean air and clean energy technology in the Southeast.

Billions of dollars have been spent on research and development of nuclear power, Smith says.

“It’s a very lucrative market,” he says. “They’re constantly trying to figure out ways to expand the nuclear industry.”

From 1948 to 1998, more than $111 billion was spent on total energy research and development. Of that, 59 percent was spent on nuclear power, an industry that produces only 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.

In Georgia, there are four nuclear power reactors that provide 27 percent of the state’s electricity. There are seven more reactors within 15 miles of Georgia’s borders.

Sara Barczak, SACE’s Safe Energy Director, is the co-author of CodeRedAlert: Confronting Nuclear Power in Georgia. The report, which was co-written by Rita Kilpatrick, took 2 1/2 years to compile.

The report is aimed at policy makers, but is must-reading for anyone who is concerned about nuclear energy. It can be downloaded at www.cleanenergy.org. “It’s good timing, considering what’s going on in the world of nuclear business,” Barczak says.

Locally, the Southern Company, the parent company of Savannah Electric, has joined with other utility companies to form a consortium, NuStart Energy Development LLC. Each member of the consortium has committed $1 million per year for seven years to the project.

“It’s all the major utilities of the Southeast,” Barczak says.

The utilities in NuStart have combined to jointly pursue a “COL” -- a combination construction and operating license. In the past, a two-step process was required for the construction and operation of a nuclear power plant.

After lobbying by the industry, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission streamlined the process, making only one license necessary. If a COL license is granted to the consortium, every utility in the group will be licensed to construct and operate a nuclear power plant.

Southern Nuclear is the nuclear power division of Southern Company. It operates Plant Vogtle near Augusta and Plant Hatch near Baxley.

Southern Nuclear spokesman Steve Higginbottom emphasizes that Southern Nuclear has no plans to build a nuclear plant or acquire an existing one at this time.

“But because of the low cost, high reliability and safety of nuclear power, we think it should remain an option for the expansion of our fleet,” he says.

The COL procedure has never been tested, and Higginbottom says the consortium’s application will be its first test. The previous two-part system was not effective, he says.

“It involved a lot of financial risk and uncertainty,” Higginbottom says. “The new program allows us to do several things and it removes a good bit of uncertainty and minimizes financial risk.”

The Department of Energy unveiled its Nuclear Power 2010 program in February 2002. The program is a public/private sector cost sharing program and among its goals are to have orders for one or more new nuclear plants by 2005 and by 2010 have new nuclear power plants in operation.

“Part of Vice President Cheney’s energy task force goal to is have new reactors on line by 2010, which is not that far away,” Barczak says. “Before, it took several years. This puts two things together, which cuts down severely on public reaction time.”

Higginbottom says the COL process provides ample opportunity for public comment.

“It gives the public an outstanding opportunity to speak out,” he says. “The NRC is very committed to giving the public the opportunity to address this issue. None of that has gone away.”

Why has interest in nuclear power increased in recent years? Smith says it’s partly political.

“There’s a combination of forces,” Smith says. “The current administration has embraced nuclear power and is actively promoting it. We haven’t had this for a while.”

Enough time has passed that the fear may have passed, too.

“We have a whole generation of people who have no recollection of Three Mile Island or even Chernobyl,” Barczak says. “We have policymakers in office who weren’t in office when Three Mile Island happened. They lack a historic memory of the accident’s consequences and the panic that ensued from Three Mile Island. They also are unaware of the economic history.”

Barczak says nuclear power is extremely expensive. “It’s a 50/50 public/private partnership,” she says. “You and I and the other taxpayers are footing half of the bill.”

The nuclear power infrastructure is extremely costly to build. For example, Plant Vogtle cost $8 billion to build in the mid-to-late ‘80s.

“Southern Company is still paying for Vogtle,” Barczak says.

As environmentalists have raised concerns about global warming and fossil fuel emissions, the industry has touted nuclear energy as being cleaner and better for the environment.

“They have seized the issues and used them to justify nuclear expansion,” Smith says.

Higginbottom disagrees. “Nuclear power offers several benefits,” he says. “It is our lowest cost energy source.”

Proponents of nuclear power point out that nuclear power plants are already providing 20 percent of the electricity produced in America. The plants are fueled by uranium, an element that occurs naturally in the earth’s crust.

At the present time, uranium is low in cost. Uranium prices are less likely to go higher than other fuels, such as oil or natural gas.

According to Georgia Power, one uranium fuel pellet can produce as much electricity as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 1,780 pounds of coal or 149 gallons of gas.

“It’s highly reliable and has a very strong baseload unit, because of the low cost,” Higginbottom says. “It stays online over an extensive period of time. The technology has improved tremendously over the years. It has a low environmental impact, with very low emissions and no greenhouse gases.

“Nuclear power is safe and reliable,” Higginbottom says. “There are NRC inspectors on-site at the plants to oversee all the operations.”

Nuclear proponents also say the nation’s dependence on foreign oil could be mitigated by nuclear development.

“It’s a domestic fuel,” Higginbottom says. “It reduces our dependency on other forms of fuel, including oil.”

The issues surrounding the energy debate are not easy ones. That’s why reports such as Code Red Alert are so important, Smith says.

“It has been several decades since there has been a national debate about nuclear power. In the 1970s and early 80s, there was a heated debate where public support for nuclear power was not there, particularly after Three Mile Island,” Smith says.

“Many people felt the industry was not viable enough to go forward. They thought the existing reactors would run their course and be phased out.”

Local environmental agencies say nuclear power plants require far too much water to operate. “Understanding and reducing the negative consequences of nuclear power and nuclear weapons on our region should be a top public health and environmental priority,” says Charles Belin of the Savannah Riverkeeper. “This report helps us move in that direction.”

“Once a plant is built, you have to dedicate the water resources to it for a long time,” Barczak says. “You have to have water flowing continuously to cool the reactors. The fuel has to sit for 10 years. Georgia is already in a major water crisis.”

Nuclear power plants use enormous volumes of water for cooling the reactor and nuclear waste. “Nuclear power plants impose an unjustifiable burden on water resources and threaten aquatic life,” says David Kyler, executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast.

“These resources are essential to Georgia’s commercial fishing and seafood industries, as well as other nature-based businesses,” Kyler says. “Combined, these businesses are worth more than $1 billion a year to the coastal Georgia economy. As a result, using nuclear energy works against our own economic self-interest, as well as creating avoidable public health risks.”

Nuclear power plants have a life span of just 40 years, and many are at that age or near it, Smith says.

“The industry has gone to the NRC to petition for license extenders,” he says. “That will expand the life of a plant 20 years beyond what is was designed to operate.”

Plant Hatch is one of those plants that has been granted a 20-year extension. “The Hatch license was renewed recently,” Higginbottom says. We think Hatch can safely and reliably serve our customers well into the 21st century. The structure has been highly maintained and the plant is highly proficient.”

As the population grows, there is more demand for electricity, so plants will be working harder than they have in the past.

“It’s an aging fleet that they want to run longer and run harder than it was designed to,” Smith says. “The threat (of a nuclear accident) is low. But we are concerned that as the fleet ages, the risk will increase. And we’re living in a different world post 9/11. Terrorists have targeted nuclear power plants.”

Barczak notes that at one time, mock terrorist attacks were conducted to test security at nuclear plants.

“Almost half the plants failed the test,” she says. “You don’t get a second chance.”

One plant that failed its test was Plant Farley. When the plant’s operators filed complaints about the way the test was conducted, a retest was scheduled for fall of 2001. But after 9/11, the testing was halted and has not been resumed.

Higginbottom points out that the nuclear industry is one of the most secure in the country. “The FBI called nuclear reactors ‘difficult targets’,” he says.

“Our security officers undergo 270 hours of initial training,” Higginbottom says. “Then they have 90 hours of training each year to requalify. Thirty hours of that is aimed at dealing with terrorist attacks.”

Many of the security officers have either military or law enforcement backgrounds, Higginbottom says. “They’re highly trained, well armed and fully capable,” he says.

There are various safety plans in place to provide further security, Higginbottom says. “You don’t go on a nuclear site unless you have business there,” he says.

But could a nuclear reactor withstand the force of an airplane being flown into it? “These structures are robust, but they are not perfect,” Barczak says. “They’re not designed to withstand that type of thing.”

Barczak is concerned that even new plants would be substandard. “The safer designs are always more expensive, and it comes back down to economics,” she says. “The safer designs are almost never used.”

Safe alternatives to nuclear power are the solution, Smith says.

“We have energy sources and opportunities to counter global warming that would not require nuclear power,” he says. “We waste a tremendous amount of the energy we consume.”

Energy efficiency is an important key to solving the problems, Smith says. Development of alternative technologies, such as coal gassification, wind and solar power, also is needed.

It’s not too late to reverse the trend that favors nuclear power, Smith says.

“It’s still very early. It would not take much to send a clear sign. This is being driven by the financial interests of large nuclear companies and the current administration. It’s more a policy decision the country needs to make,” Smith says.

“The November election is going to be a referendum on a whole host of things,” he says. “That includes this administration’s energy policy. Do we want to support it?”

The National Energy Policy Development Group recommended in May 2004 that President Bush “support the expansion of nuclear energy in the United States as a major component of our national energy policy.”

To do that, the group recommends operating and relicensing existing nuclear plants, licensing new ones and developing more advanced nuclear technologies.

Yet despite its endorsement of nuclear power, the group also recognizes that barriers to new nuclear plants include the disposal of the nuclear waste that would be created, accident indemnification and a high initial capital investment.

As nuclear waste will remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, disposal is of utmost importance. In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to establish methods for disposal of high-level radioactive waste.

So far, the Department of Energy has pursued just one high-level waste repository -- at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. It is licensed to hold bout 63,000 metric tons of waste.

But is that enough? As of January 1998, there were 1,665 metric tons stored in Georgia alone.

Transportation of the waste to Yucca Mountain also causes concern. Trucks and trains used to haul the waste are subject to accidents and could be targeted by terrorists.

“It’s an issue that the nuclear industry must work with Congress to solve,” Higginbottom says. “Together, we can come to a solution.”

SACE is recommending that Georgia and the entire Southeast phase out nuclear power plants and replace them with safe, clean and economical energy supplies. The organization is building a coalition of businesses, community leaders, policy makers, educators and citizens who are concerned about the nuclear industry.

Proponents of nuclear power say that unlike fossil fuels, nuclear plants generate electricity with no emissions -- a claim that is hotly disputed by environmentalists.

“You don’t see smoke stacks like you see at coal plants, but there are radioactive air emissions,” Barczak says. “Radiation is invisible. Out of sight, out of mind.”

Although wind farms and solar energy technology are viable options, they may be a hard sell. At the present time, there is no infrastructure in place to support them.

“If we had solar and wind, small generating facilities would deliver power to a smaller number of people,” Barczak says.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to develop new technology, she says.

“Most polls say most people are apprehensive of nuclear power. It’s not too far along to stop it,” Barczak says. “Things have moved along at a faster pace under this administration, although the nuclear industry obviously was getting paid for under both Democratic and Republican administrations before.”

The outcome of the November presidential election could have a direct impact on the nuclear issue.

“If Bush were reelected, it would put this issue on a train that would be difficult to stop,” Barczak says.

“The No. 1 thing we can do to help change the direction is to promote public awareness -- also policymaker awareness.”

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Linda Sickler

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