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Stacking the Deck for Disaster


By Chuck Lane

THREE MILE ISLAND almost happened again at nine o'clock in the morning on January 25 Just outside of Rochester, New York. a tube ruptured in the steam generator of the Robert E. Ginna nuclear power plant. allowing radioactive water to come into contact with the cooling system. The water vaporized and escaped--still radioactive into the atmosphere. As the plant's technicians belatedly tried to lower the water pressure to reduce the leak, a valve stuck, pressure dropped too rapidly and the water in the reactor began to boil. If a backup valve hadn't opened, a "bubble" of steam would have formed within the reactor, possibly uncovering the core--exactly what happened at Three Mile Island in March of 1979. But because the Ginna valve did open, the accident goes down in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as only a "serious failure." Rochester Gas-and Electric assured Ginna's neighbors that only "minimal" radioactivity had escaped, and set about persuading the State Public Service Commission to make customers pay for the six-month cleanup.

Since Three Mile Island, match of the public furor over the dangers of nuclear power has abated but as the Ginna "failure" shows, the safety problems which that accident dramatically highlighted have not. Critical Mass, a Ralph Nader energy watchdog lobby, counted 3804 mishaps due to equipment failure, design flaws, and human error at the nation's 71 reactors in 1980 In 1981, nuclear power plants were shut down for safety reasons one day out of every eight. And signs for the future are ominous Thirty three nuclear plants now report cracking and corrosion in their steam generator tubes--the same problem which caused the Ginna accident At '2 other plants, the steel easings of the reactor cores have become so brittle under radioactive bombardment that the plants may have to shut down by the end of this year.

As if these safety problems weren't enough, evidence is mounting that nuclear power--once hailed as "too cheap to meter"--is no longer economically viable. Indeed, since 1975, utilities have ordered only 13 new reactors and have cancelled orders for 50, mainly because of the rising cost of building the plants. Charles Komanoff, a New York energy economist, argues that the capital investment required to build a reactor is almost twice that required to build a coal plant. Soaring costs come partly from the need for greater safety in the wake of Three Mile Island. But more important is the declining demand for electricity, which not only reduces corporate revenues needed to finance plant construction, but makes Wall Street wary of investing in utilities at all.

Thus, in Missouri, the Union Electric company has cancelled a plan for a new reactor at Callaway, citing "financial risks." The five nuclear power plants of the Washington Public Power System are 500 percent over budget and six years behind schedule. With $6.8 billion in outstanding debt. WPPS is the largest borrower ever in the municipal bond market; but it can't get any more funds because Washington's voters recently approved a ballot proposition giving themselves veto power over any more WPPS bond issues. As Joseph Swidler, former chairman of the Federal Power Commission, succinctly put it. "Utilities have run out of money." Nuclear power, then, is both an environmental nightmare and an economic basket case.

INSTEAD OF FACING these issues, America's political leadership has tried to resurrect nuclear power's image as the "wave of the future." The Reagan administration has taken the lead in this effort; indeed, energy secretary James B. Edwards once called opponents of nuclear power "subversive elements." And the Congress has so far seemed willing to go along as economic issues divert public attention from nuclear power.

Even in the halcyon budget-cutting days of July 1981, the House found room in its heart for the "truly needy" Clinch River breeder reactor program, approving Reagan's request for $228 million in new construction funds. The fiscal 1982 budget included a 36 percent increase in nuclear subsidies, boosting the figure to $1.6 billion, and administration planners envision an increase to $1.7 billion for fiscal 1983. In addition, the president has called for "streamlining" the NRC's licensing process to allow 33 more plants to come on line in the next two years. He has also endorsed federal financing of radioactive waste disposal. This is vital to the industry now that Gulf Oil Co. and Allied Corporation plan to close down their Barnwell, S.C. waste dump, which currently handles most of the radioactive waste generated on the East Coast. Small wonder that Carl Waske, president of the Atomic Industrial Forum, expressed "ecstasy, joy, pleasure and euphoria" at Reagan's election--on virtually every issue, the administration has taken the industry's side.

Perhaps most ominous, the administration is seriously considering "solving" the waste problem by using waste plutonium from the civilian reactor program to make nuclear weapons. This measure would shatter once and for all the convenient fiction of an "Atoma for Peace" program completely distinct from its more sinister cousin, the military.

IT IS HARD TO SAY why our leaders are still so infatuated with nuclear power. The American people certainly seem to be losing interest. Voters in Austin, Texas voted last July to sell that city's 16 percent interest in the South Texas Nuclear Project. William Winpsinger, president of the million-member International Association of Machinists, registered his union's dismay at Reagan's nuclear plans, calling for increases in solar energy spending instead. And on the most practical level, people seem to be voting with their furnaces against nuclear power--Worldwatch Institute reports that as of January 1981, more of America's total energy came from wood than from nuclear reactors.

The politicians' commitment to nukes seems to spring from three sources. One is simple pork-barrel politics. Clinch River's two main backers are Tennessee's powerful Republican, senator. Howard Baker, and Congressman Lloyd Bouquard (D-Tenn.), whose district stands to lose jobs if the project shuts down. Another motive seems to be the romanticization of high technology, an irrational love of complexity for its own sake, that ignores nuclear power's evident flaws. This attitude is reflected both in Reagan's vision of remaking America into an "industrial giant" and in many representatives' fears that we might "fall behind" the Soviets in nuclear technology. Finally, the nuclear industry's huge lobby gives it decisive influence in Washington. The industry has forged a durable "partnership" with government and made many congressional friends over the last thirty years, during which time the federal government has subsidized nuclear power to the tune of $40 billion.

Ironically, then, nuclear power--one of the most sophisticated achievements of human intellect--survives because of short--sight-edness, dogmatic inertia, and the refusal to admit mistakes. The irony is cruel--not merely absurd--in light of the fear and bewilderment of people who live near places like Three Mile Island and Ginna, who realize that their safety is a pawn in a political game. Perhaps we may yet come to our senses and start closing down the 71 plants that stand like so many monuments to blind faith in technology and technocracy. But time is short, and the danger of a disaster grows each day. Nothing that has happened lately in Washington offers any hope of diminishing that danger.

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