The Civil Nuclear Industry
PART 5  |  LEGACY OF THE ATOM
1954 - 2004

Legacy of the Atom | Introduction:

Towards the end of the Cold War, public awareness and concern began to shift from the military implications of the Atom to the civil nuclear industry. The “Atoms for Peace” program promoted by President Eisenhower in the 1950’s led to a proliferation of civil nuclear energy programs throughout the world. ATOM DAYS examines the dangers of nuclear reactors and shows how dangerous their operation really is. Learn what really happened at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and other less known nuclear accidents. Many reactors similar to the flawed design at Chernobyl are still operating throughout the world even though they are clearly unsafe. Most nuclear reactors operating in the United States have already reached the end of their life cycle but are still operational and have been granted extensions to their operating licenses by regulatory authorities. Other reactors in former Soviet controlled nations that have been decommissioned will remain radioactive for thousands of years. Nuclear power as an inexpensive and clean source of energy has proven to be an empty promise. It is estimated that by 2005, approximately 280,000 metric tons of highly radioactive waste from nuclear reactors had accumulated worldwide. In the United States alone, over 70 million gallons of waste had been accumulated from the production of nuclear weapons by 2001. Since the end of World War Two, the waste generated from the civil nuclear industry and military programs has been allowed to simply pile up at nuclear facilities and has begun to poison the environment on a global scale. Although billions of dollars have been invested to develop disposal programs for radioactive waste; no nation on earth currently has an operating repository to store these lethal substances. Despite this fact, the United States and other nations are now planning the construction of hundreds of new nuclear reactors and continue to develop new nuclear weapons which have no practical military purpose other than to subsidize military industries. ATOM DAYS exposes the hazards related to nuclear power and waste disposal that are largely still being hidden from the public by our world governments and energy consortiums of the nuclear industry.

Inside every atom there are three types of subatomic particles: protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons and neutrons bind together to form the nucleus of an atom and the electrons orbit the nucleus. Protons have a positive electric charge and electrons have a negative charge and therefore attract one another. In most cases, the number of electrons and protons are the same in an atom and balance one other electrically. Neutrons are neutral in electrical charge as their name implies. The purpose of neutrons is to bind protons together. Since protons all have the same charge and naturally repel one another, neutrons act as a kind of atomic glue that bind the protons together. Some naturally occurring elements have an excess number of protons or neutrons that upsets this binding force. Atoms of these elements are unstable and attempt to stabilize themselves by ejecting excess subatomic particles from their nucleus over time in a process known as radioactive decay. As an unstable atom decays, it emits these proton or neutron particles in the form of radiation. Eventually, over a period of time unstable atoms emit enough excess protons or neutrons to become stable atoms. Half the time it takes for this process to occur is known as the ‘half-life’ of a radioactive element.

Atoms of a given element always have the same number of protons, but the number of neutrons in the element can vary. These variations in the number of neutrons of the same element are known as isotopes - which are variations in that element's atomic structure. Therefore, isotopes are different varieties of the same naturally occurring element. Some elements, such as uranium, are always radioactive because all uranium isotopes are composed of unstable atoms that emit radiation.

Radiation is measured in different ways. The amount of radiation being emitted by radioactive material is measured using the conventional unit of measure of a "curie" (named after Marie Curie) or with the metric system unit "becquerel" (Bq). A dose of radiation absorbed by a person is measured using the conventional unit "rad" or with the metric unit "gray" (Gy). The level of exposure to radiation by a person is measured by the conventional unit "rem" or metric unit "sievert" (Sv).
(http://science.howstuffworks.com/nuclear1.htm)
(http://www.epa.gov/radiation/understand/radiation.htm)
(http://www.bt.cdc.gov/radiation/measurement.asp

Radiation that occurs naturally in our environment is known as background radiation. Background radiation is emitted from a variety of sources including solar radiation from the sun, cosmic rays from space, and radioactive elements in the earth’s crust that emit radon gas into the atmosphere. Radiation is also found in our own bodies as a result of the food and water we consume. Background radiation in our environment has also been created artificially. Sources of artificial radiation include global radioactive contamination due to nuclear weapons testing, the two nuclear attacks against Japan in World War II, nuclear power plants, stockpiled nuclear weapons, nuclear accidents, and from normal operations of the nuclear power industry.
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Background_radiation)

Radiation can injure and kill living cells in humans and animals or mutate cell growth as a result of exposure over time to abnormal levels of radiation. Cellular damage or mutation to living cells are sometimes also replicated in the natural cell reproduction process and then results in the deadly health condition known as cancer. Radiation can also damage a cell's DNA and alter its genetic code. A human fetus with damaged DNA can die before birth or be born with serious mental and physical defects. The affect of radiation on health is difficult to measure. Radiation affects different people in different ways depending on the genetic map of each individual. Depending on the amount of exposure, one person may die of cancer while another person experiences no adverse affects at all. Extreme radiation exposure (over 400 rad) is nearly always fatal. Such exposure causes severe central nervous system damage resulting in a coma and eventual death. Radiation exposure of 50-100 rad causes nausea and vomiting and doses of over 100 can cause skin burns and hair loss. The effects of radiation exposure on a population can only be measured in statistics. Doubling the radiation dose approximately doubles the number of people affected by the radiation. Scientists still don't know for certain why the same degree of exposure affects some people and not others. In fact, there is still no conclusive evidence to suggest that there is a hazardous threshold. Some research indicates that low-dose radiation exposure can be even more dangerous than exposure to a sudden burst of radiation. It is believed this is because low dose exposure modifies the genetic structure of cells without killing them and the cells then reproduce genetic flaws that cause cancer and other serious immune deficiency diseases as previously described.
(They Never Knew by Glenn Chenney pp. 17-19)

1954 | Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was established under the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 and was originally responsible for the further development and testing of atomic weapons developed in Word War II. In 1954, the United States Congress amended the Atomic Energy Act, which made private ownership of commercial nuclear power reactors possible under licenses issued by the AEC. As a result, the AEC became responsible for both public safety for hazards relating to civil nuclear power and the promotion and development of this new commercial power industry. As the hazards of nuclear materials and radiation became better understood, it became clear that these two responsibilities were contradictory with one another. That same year, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover used his influence with the Navy and the AEC to perfect a miniaturized pressurized light water reactor used in the world's first nuclear powered submarine; the USS Nautilus. The world's first full-scale experimental boiling water nuclear generating power plant was commission in 1957 and built at Shippingport Pennsylvania. Based partially on the USS Nautilus reactor, the Shippingport power plant demonstrated to utility companies the viability of nuclear power as an alternative to coal or petroleum power plants for creating electricity.

1957 | Price-Anderson Act

In 1957, Congress passed the Price-Anderson Act, which served to protect utility companies from full financial liability in the event of a serious accident at a commercial nuclear power plant. The Price-Anderson Act attempted to promote investment interest by private power companies in nuclear reactors and set a ceiling of $560 million in recoverable damages from lawsuits arising from an accident. Under this law, a utility company would assume only $60 million of liability and the federal government would be responsible for the remaining $500 million. By the mid-1960s, the "Great Band Wagon" market for nuclear power was fully underway. Between 1965 and 1967 and major utility companies placed orders for fifty nuclear power plants. In 1975, the Price-Anderson Act was amended to further reduce the liability utility companies and the government would face an event of an accident. The federal government's own studies have shown that a full-scale nuclear reactor meltdown, in which large amounts of radioactive materials are released into the atmosphere, would result in personal property claims of up to $17 billion (in 1965 dollars). Such an accident would jam the United States court system for years after the accident. After exceeding the Price Anderson Act $560 million ceiling on liability, there would be no provision to settle claims for such damages.

1957 | Windscale Reactor Accident

On October 7, 1957, a serious accident occurred at the Windscale atomic pile reactor facility in Cumbria, Great Britain. The reactors had been built by the United Kingdom to continue its nuclear research program after the end of the Manhattan Project. Designed after the experimental graphite moderated atomic pile designed by Enrico Fermi, the Windscale reactors were air-cooled. During a routine procedure to release a build up of stored energy in the graphite molecules (known as the Wigner Effect) the reactors were allowed to run hotter by shutting down their cooling fans. After they did not appear to release all of their excess energy, they were put through a second heating cycle. When the cooling fans were reengaged the temperature of the piles continued to rise. The next day, it was discovered that the temperature in Pile 1 had risen so high that it's internal graphite had caught fire. By October 10th, radioactivity levels were reading 10 times above the normal level. On October 11th, the decision was made to flood the reactor with water to douse the fire and cool the reactor. After the fire was finally extinguished it was discovered that approximately 22 tons of uranium fuel and graphite had melted inside the reactor. Unable to recover the material, officials decided to entomb Pile 1 in concrete and soon afterwards Pile 2 was also permanently shut down. The fire from the accident released an enormous amount of radioactivity - a fact that was withheld from the public. A program was initiated to dispose of two million liters milk from dairies within several hundred miles of the accident due to radioactive contamination in the form of Iodine 131. It is estimated that as many as 260 cases of cancer were attributed to the accident in civilians living nearby the facility. In addition to the release of various radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere, it has been suggested that ground seepage from the entombed radioactive waste of the reactor may have also poisoned the water table of surrounding areas. Clean up efforts and dismantling of the facility by remote robotic methods were still being conducted in 2007 - fifty years after the meltdown.
(Encyclopedia of the Atomic Age by Rodney P. Carlisle; Editor, p. 364)

1957 | Chelyabinsk 40 Accident

During 1957, a severe accident occurred at the nuclear weapons fuel processing facility of Chelyabinsk 40 in the Soviet Union, located near the village of Kyshtym. The Soviet Union covered up the accident and no information was released to the general public until 19 years later in 1976, when a Russian émigré scientist, Zhores Medvedev, exposed his knowledge of the incident. Hundreds of square miles near the facility had been evacuated and many villages had been relocated and actually removed from geographical maps. Medvedev believed that radioactive waste from atomic weapons production stored in collection wells had exploded sending a huge amount of waste material into the atmosphere. In 1982, a study by the U.S. Department of Energy, suggested that what actually occurred may have been a leak of radioactive materials into the Techa River or that the nuclear waste collection ponds had evaporated and contaminated surrounding areas via prevailing winds. In 1986, 30 years after the event, the Soviet government finally officially confirmed that a large-scale chemical explosion equivalent to 100 tons of TNT had occurred in storage waste tanks at the facility on September 29, 1957. While specific details of the incident were still withheld, evidence suggests the explosion discharged a plume of radioactive material roughly 65 miles long and 5 miles wide. While rehabilitation efforts were conducted over several years, the majority of the area remained uninhabitable and surrounding water supplies were still contaminated. 36 years after the accident, the site is still highly radioactive within 100 meters of the explosion crater. While estimates vary, a population of 270,000 people lived within a 1,000-mile radius of the contaminated area. Subsequent studies have suggested that at least 1000 individuals living in close proximity to the event developed cancer from exposure to radioactive materials released from the Chelyabinsk accident.
(Encyclopedia of the Atomic Age by Rodney P. Carlisle; Editor, p. 168)
(http://www.logtv.com/films/chelyabinsk/nuclear.htm)

1957 | Rocky Flats Accident

That same year, the nuclear weapons production plant at Rocky Flats, Colorado experienced a serious accident. On September 11, 1957, a batch of weapons grade plutonium caught fire in a secure holding area. The fire started in a glove box in which highly radioactive material was manually being handled by a technician. The fire spread into an exhaust system, and several nearby rooms and took over 24 hours to extinguish. Several workers at the plant were exposed to high levels of airborne radioactivity. Twelve years later in 1969, a similar accident in the same facility occurred under nearly identical circumstances resulting in an even higher level of contamination to the plants workers. A subsequent investigation discovered plutonium contamination in soil samples around the plant. Further investigations into the Rocky Flats plant revealed that highly radioactive waste, which was stored in buried steel drums and collection ponds had leaked into the ground and contaminated the surrounding water table. After a raid by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1989, the plant was shutdown by the federal government.
(Encyclopedia of the Atomic Age by Rodney P. Carlisle; Editor, p. 282)

1961 | Idaho National Laboratory (INL) Accident

The National Reactor Testing Station at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) experienced a serious accident in one of its experimental Stationary Low Power reactors (SL1) on January 3, 1961. The reactor had been built to conduct nuclear reactor performance tests and to train military personnel in operation and maintenance procedures. A few days before the accident the reactor had been shut down to install new instruments and the control rods had been disconnected from the drive mechanism that remove them from the reactor. At 4 p.m. on January 3rd, a three-man crew came to the reactor chamber to reassemble the control rods. At 9 p.m., alarms went off and the responding rescue team found extremely high levels of radiation in the reactor building. Inside, one operator was found on the floor alive, but died on route to the hospital. Two other operators were found dead inside the reactor room. One operator had been impaled to the ceiling of the reactor room by a reactor control rod. Radiation levels at the scene were so high that rescue workers had to work in short shifts to remove the bodies. The victims were so radioactive that they had to be buried in lead lined concrete encased coffins and their heads and hands had to be removed and disposed of as highly radioactive waste.

AEC investigators to speculated that the water level controlling the reactor rods had been reduced too quickly resulting in a power surge. The surge created sudden steam pressure that blew the reactor lid off and drove the control rod into the operator’s body. Controversy ensued over the official report of the accident due to the irregular nature of the manual removal of the reactor control rods. Strangely, instruments recording activity in the reactor room had been turned off. A subsequent investigative report later revealed that facility operators had to frequently assist in the manual insertion and removal of reactor control rods due to numerous problems with the automated systems.
(Encyclopedia of the Atomic Age by Rodney P. Carlisle; Editor, p. 308)

1963 | Enrico Fermi Breeder Reactor Accident

The Enrico Fermi breeder reactor, located 18 miles south of Detroit, Michigan suffered a partial meltdown on October 5th, 1963. The reactor used a liquid sodium metal moderation and coolant design with a dense core of approximately 14,000 uranium fuel pins in a cylindrical configuration. A breeder reactor produces more fissionable fuel than it burns in its reaction process, thereby, converting uranium 238 into weapons grade plutonium while simultaneously producing electricity from steam generated from the heat of the reaction process. In order for the design to perform all of its functions properly, the uranium fuel rods must be concentrated closely together. Due to this fuel rod configuration, the reactor design produces much more heat than a standard steam generating light water reactor and therefore uses a liquid metal coolant system. Shortly after the reactor became operational in early August 19, 1963 it experienced a variety of problems including swelling of it's fuel pins, sodium corrosion at the reactor core and difficulties with its steam generators. On October 4, 1963 the temperature of the core and coolant began to rise shortly after the reactor control rods were removed. The next day it was discovered that radioactive material had leaked into the coolant and part of the reactor core had melted. This required the reactor to be shut down in fear that the damaged core might result in a chemical or nuclear explosion. The investigation into the accident revealed that a safety mechanism in the reactor caused the accident. This safety mechanism had been designed to separate the reactor core materials in the event of a problem. The phrase "China Syndrome" was coined from this accident, as technicians were contemplating the possibilities of the meltdown of the reactor core getting so hot that it could melt into the earth. One technician remarked… "It could go all the way to China!”

Using specialized equipment, the piece of corrupted zirconium was finally fished out in April 1968. Two years later, the reactor was ready to resume operation, but a sodium explosion delayed operations until July of 1970. In October 1970, the reactor finally reached a level of 200 Megawatts. The total cost of the repair was about approximately $132 million dollars. In August of 1972 upon denial of an extension of its operating license, the plant was shutdown. Hazards relating to liquid metal coolant systems led the United States to abandon the development of breeder reactor designs. Other nations, including Japan, are still using breeder reactors in their civil nuclear energy programs that have also resulted in accidents due to their inherently dangerous designs.
(Encyclopedia of the Atomic Age by Rodney P. Carlisle; Editor, pp. 39, 103,104)
(http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/nucene/nucacc.html)

1974 | The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)

By 1974, the Atomic Energy Commission's various regulatory programs of the nuclear industry had come under such strong public criticism that the United States Congress abolished the agency. Advocates and critics of nuclear power had lobbied the government for years to separate the promotional and regulatory responsibilities surrounding the civil nuclear industry under the AEC. As a result, the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 created the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC began operations on January 19, 1975, and was charged with the responsibility of protecting public health and safety related to nuclear energy hazards including nuclear reactor safety, exposure to radiation, environmental protection and the regulation of nuclear materials.
(Nuclear Power: Both Sides | The Early Years by Boyd Norton, pp.18-19)
(Nuclear Power: Both Sides | Second Thoughts by Jan Beyea, pp.102-103)
(http://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/history.html#aec-to-nrc)

1975 | Browns Ferry Accident

In 1975, another severe accident occurred at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Facility of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) located near Decatur, Alabama. The power plant’s two nuclear reactors incorporated a flaw in design and safety procedures that nearly caused a full-scale reactor meltdown. Both the primary and backup safety cables running from the control room to the reactor were electrical and ran through a cable spreading room beneath the control center. The reactor buildings were held at low pressure to prevent any radioactive material from escaping through the air. To ensure that air did not leak through the cable connection room plant workers used a safety procedure of holding a lit candle near the connection passage to detect any airflow. On March 22, a worker accidentally started an electrical fire in the cable control room when airflow blew the flame of the lit candle into the polyurethane foam surrounding the cables. Workers unsuccessfully attempted to extinguish the flames with carbon-dioxide fire extinguishers. Finally the electrical current had to be shut down and the fire was extinguished water. The power plant engineers were able to improvise an emergency water flow system and the reactor temperature was finally brought under control. This near catastrophe indicated various obvious procedure and design flaws to the reactor design.
(Encyclopedia of the Atomic Age by Rodney P. Carlisle; Editor, p. 44)

1979 | Three Mile Island Accident (TMI)

On March 28, 1979, a fifteen cent part caused a partial meltdown of the Unit 2 nuclear reactor at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. The reactor was a 906 MW pressurized water reactor manufactured by Babcox and Wilcox. The reactor core at Three Mile Island consisted of 100 tons of uranium stored in 12 foot vertically stacked rods. The energy generated from a nuclear reactor is regulated by inserting and removing control rods into the reactor core. These control rods are made of cadmium or boron compounds and absorb neutrons from core to stop the fission chain reaction. Therefore, the amount of fission reaction that occurs can be moderated by the position of the control rods. A nuclear power plant cannot explode like an atomic bomb. Commercial U.S. reactors use uranium that is only slightly enriched, and contains too little U-235 to produce a fast fission reaction that causes an atomic explosion. Instead, the fission reaction of a nuclear power plant releases atomic energy in a slow controlled fashion, which is regulated by its control rods and cooling systems. Nevertheless, if not properly controlled, a nuclear reactor core can overheat to extreme temperatures causing damage its control rods and result in a "meltdown". A meltdown can result in the release of enormous amounts of deadly radiation if a reactor core melts trough it's containment vessel into the ground or vaporizes its coolant water into the atmosphere. There are three major water/steam loops in most pressurized water reactors (PWR): the primary cooling loop, the secondary loop and the cooling tower loop. The primary loop runs purified through the reactor and is heated by the fission reaction process of the uranium core. The primary cooling loop runs at temperatures that far exceed the boiling point of water so it is pressurized to prevent the water from converting to steam. The secondary loop resembles the steam cycle in a conventional power plant. The water is pumped into the steam generator. A heat exchanger uses heat from the primary loop to boil the secondary loop water into steam. The steam then turns a turbine that is connected to the electrical generator. Once its energy has been expended, the steam flows through a condenser that converts it back into feed water and transfers its latent heat to the cooling tower water. The feed water is pumped back to the steam generator, and the process repeats itself. The cooling tower loop provides cooling water for the condenser of the secondary loop and other operational cooling needs.

The Three Mile Island accident began when the plant's main feed water pumps in the secondary cooling system failed and no longer removed heat from the reactor. Due to the extra heat, additional water was converted into steam, and the pressure in the primary system of the plant began to rise. In order to prevent pressure from becoming excessive, a relief valve automatically opened. The valve should have closed again when the excess pressure had been released but it only closed partially and stuck in an open position. A "positive feedback" lamp in the control room indicating the true position of the valve was eliminated in the original construction designs to save time. As a result of this design error, the stuck open valve went unnoticed and caused the pressure to continue to decrease in the primary coolant system. As pressure began to rise again, cooling water began to pour out of the stuck open valve and caused the reactor core to become partially exposed. There was no instrumentation in the control room that showed the true level of coolant in the core. As a result, operators judged the level of water in the core by the level in pressure, and since it was high, they assumed that the core was properly covered with coolant. Therefore, the control room operators did not initially recognize the loss of coolant and failed to properly interpret other warning indicators.

Three emergency feed water pumps started automatically to compensate for the coolant water loss. However, two valves on the emergency feed water lines were shut, preventing the feed water from reaching the steam generators. The emergency feed water system had been tested 42 hours prior to the accident. As part of the test, these valves were closed but should then have been reopened at the end of the test. But on this occasion, it appeared that due to human error, the valves were not reopened. This error was discovered about eight minutes into the accident. Once they were reopened, emergency feed water was restored to the steam generators. The restoration of feed water from the emergency system became blocked by several steam voids that had formed in the primary loop and prevented heat from transferring from the reactor to the secondary loop via the steam generator.

As the pressure in the primary system continued to decrease due to steam blocking the primary coolant lines, water pressure levels rose in the secondary loop. The pressure level indicator that tells the operator the amount of coolant capable of heat removal incorrectly indicated the water level was rising. This caused the operators to stop adding water by turning off the Emergency Core Cooling pumps, which had automatically started following the initial pressure decrease. The operators were unaware the indicator was provided false readings due to air pockets forming in the reactor vessel. This erroneous indication blinded operators to the fact that water level was dropping and the reactor core was becoming exposed. With the emergency pressure valve still open, the tank that collected excess discharge to overfill causing the containment sump to fill and sound an alarm at 4:11 a.m. This alarm, along with higher than normal temperatures on the valve discharge line, indicated that the pressure relief valve was stuck open. At 4:15 a.m. the collection tank ruptured and radioactive coolant began to leak out into the general containment building. Realizing their mistake, operators quickly began pumping the contaminated coolant from the containment sump to an auxiliary.

After almost 80 minutes of slow temperature rise, the primary loop pumps experienced cavitations as steam rather than water began to pass through them. The pumps were shut down because operators believed that the primary loop circulation would continue to circulate the water. Steam that had built up, due to the temperature rise, now blocked the primary loop and as the water stopped circulating it was converted into even more steam. About 130 minutes after the first malfunction, the top of the reactor core was exposed and the intense heat caused a reaction to occur between the steam forming in the reactor core and the zirconium nuclear fuel rod cladding. This runaway reaction damaged the nuclear fuel rod cladding and released even more radioactivity into the reactor coolant, which produced hydrogen gas, causing a small explosion in the containment building later that afternoon.

Despite the ongoing crisis there was a shift change of operators in the control room at 6 a.m. One of the new operators noticed that the temperature in the holding tanks was excessive and used a backup valve to shut off the coolant venting. By then 250,000 gallons of coolant had already leaked from the primary loop. It was not until 165 minutes after the start of the problem that radiation alarms activated as contaminated water reached radiation detectors. By that time, radiation levels in the primary coolant water were around 300 times expected levels and the plant was seriously contaminated.

Even at the time, it was still not clear to the control room staff that the primary loop water levels were low and that over half of the core had become exposed. A group of workers took manual readings from the thermocouples and obtained a sample of primary loop water. Around seven hours into the emergency, new water was pumped into the primary loop. The backup relief valve was opened to reduce pressure. Approximately two hours later hydrogen within the reactor building ignited and burned due to the extreme temperatures being generated from the reactor core. After almost sixteen hours the primary loop pumps were finally turned back on and the core temperature began to fall. By this time, a large part of the core had melted.

Over the next week the radioactive steam and hydrogen were removed from the reactor using specialized equipment and vented into the atmosphere. It is estimated that a maximum of 13 million curies of radioactive gases were released by the event; though very little hazardous iodine-131 was released. It was later found that about half of the core had melted during the accident, but the reactor containment vessel did not fail and contained the damaged fuel rods. Approximately 25,000 people lived within five miles (8 km) of the island at the time of the accident. According to the U.S. government, no identifiable injuries due to radiation occurred and it was predicted that "the projected number of excess fatal cancers due to the accident...is approximately one". But the accident had serious economic and public relations consequences, and the cleanup process was slow and costly. The accident also stimulated increased public fear and opposition to nuclear power that resulted in a decline of the proliferation of commercial nuclear power in the United States.

At the time of the Three Mile Island accident, there were 72 licensed nuclear reactors operating in United States with 88 more under construction. By 1979, there were 530 nuclear reactors of various designs in operation worldwide. Even before the accident at Three Mile Island, the expansion of light water reactors in the United States was tapering off. Although the energy crisis of the 1970s had helped promote the growth of the industry, declining electricity consumption coupled with a spike in inflation and high interest rates, began to make the business model of constructing a reactor significantly less lucrative. In addition, new safety standards imposed by the NRC, public opposition and legal challenges began to result in long delays in reactor construction. By 1978, only two new reactors were ordered and 11 previous orders were cancelled.
(Nuclear Power: Both Sides | The Early Years by Boyd Norton, pp. 22-25)
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Mile_Island_accident)
(Encyclopedia of the Atomic Age by Rodney P. Carlisle; Editor, pp. 61-62)

1979 | Church Rock | New Mexico Accident

Three weeks after the Three Mile Island reactor accident, one of the largest environmental accidents in the United States related to nuclear technology occurred at Church Rock, New Mexico. On July 16, 1979, a clay dam containing waste pools from a uranium processing plant operated by the United Nuclear Corp. collapsed spilling approximately 90 million gallons of chemical and radioactive liquid waste into the Puerco River. The waste was carried at least seventy miles downstream contaminating drinking wells in Gallup, New Mexico and ground water 30 to 40 feet below the surface. The flood left residues of radioactive uranium, thorium, radium, and polonium, as well as traces of heavy metals and high concentrations of sulfates. The spill degraded the western Rio Puerco River as a water source. The accident raised concerns among the district's congressional leaders that uranium mining in the Colorado River Basin may have endangered Lake Mead and with it the drinking water of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and much of Arizona. After the accident, U.S. Democratic Representative Morris Udall informed a congressional hearing that "at least three ...federal and state regulatory agencies had ample opportunity to conclude that such an accident was likely to occur." Even before the dam had been licensed, "the company's own consultant predicted that the soil under this dam was susceptible to extreme settling which was likely to cause cracking and subsequent failure." With the exception of atmospheric testing of atomic weapons in Nevada, Church Rock was the largest single release of radioactive poison into the environment in the United States. Ironically, the accident occurred 34 years - to the day - after the world's first atomic explosion at the nearby Trinity test site in New Mexico.
(Encyclopedia of the Atomic Age by Rodney P. Carlisle; Editor, pp. 61-62)
(http://www.ratical.org/radiation/KillingOurOwn/KOO9.html)

1986 | Chernobyl Disaster

On April 26, 1986 the world's worst nuclear disaster in history took place at the Chernobyl power reactor complex outside the town of Pripyat located approximately 80 miles north of Kiev in the Soviet Union. At the time of the accident, the Chernobyl power reactor complex consisted of four RBMK-1000 (reaktor bolshoy moshchnosti kanalniy) “Channelized Large Power Reactors” with two additional reactors of the same type still under construction. These reactors were graphite moderated and water-cooled, similar in design to early U.S. reactors used to produce plutonium for atomic weapons. The accident occurred in unit 4 about 1:20 a.m. as a result of deficiencies in design, human error, as well as an ill-conceived poorly conducted test procedure. The reactor design included standby diesel generators to provide electricity to power the reactor's safety systems (in particular, the water pumps) in the event of a loss of external electric power. During the day of April 25, the Unit 4 reactor was scheduled to be shut down for routine maintenance. This occasion was chosen as an opportunity to test the reactor's backup generators.

During the day of April 25, the Unit 4 reactor output was gradually reduced to 50%. As a result a regional power station in Kiev unexpectedly went offline. The power grid controller requested that the further reduction of output be postponed to provide electricity for the evening peak demand. The plant director agreed and postponed the test to comply. Soon after, the skeleton night shift took over operations of the Unit 4 reactor. This reactor crew had had limited experience in the safety procedures and operation of the power plant. At 11:00pm, the grid controller advised the plant operators the reactor could be shutdown. The night crew was unaware of the prior postponement of the reactor slowdown, and followed the original test protocol, which resulted in the reactor power level being decreased too rapidly. In this situation, the reactor produced more of the nuclear poison product xenon-135, which dropped the power output well below the protocol for the safety procedure. The operators believed that the rapid fall in output was due to malfunctioning of one of the automatic power regulators rather than reactor poisoning. In order to increase the reaction process of the underpowered reactor, the automatic control rods were pulled out of the reactor beyond what is allowed under safety regulations. Despite this dangerous breech in protocol, the reactor's power only increased to a third of the minimum required for the diesel generator safety experiment. At 1:05 a.m. on April 26 the water pumps driven by the turbine generators were turned on to proceed with the experiment and increased the water flow to the reactor beyond what was specified by safety regulations. The increased water flow absorbed additional neutrons from the reactor which produced a very precarious operating situation where coolant and xenon-135 was substituting a large part of the moderating role normally handled the control rods in the reactor.

The unstable state of the reactor was not reflected on the control panel, and apparently the reactor control operators were not aware of any danger. Steam to the turbines was shut off and as the turbine generator drove the water pumps, water flow rate slowed ands decreased absorption of neutrons by the coolant. The turbine was then disconnected from the reactor, which then increased the level of steam in the reactor core. As the coolant heated, pockets of steam formed voids in the coolant lines. Due to the RBMK reactor design, steam bubbles in the core rapidly increased the power output and the reactor became unstable. As the reaction continued, excess xenon gas was burnt up and increased the number of neutrons available for fission. This led to a runaway fission reaction in the reactor.

At 1:23 a.m., the operators pressed the AZ-5 emergency button that ordered a shutdown of the reactor fully inserting all reactor control rods, including the manual control rods that had been withdrawn earlier. It is unclear whether this was done as an emergency measure, or simply as a routine method of shutting down the reactor upon the completion of the experiment. It is usually suggested that this was ordered as a response to the unexpected rapid increase in power output. The slow speed of the control rod insertion mechanism and the flawed rod design initially reduced the amount of coolant present during the emergency shutdown and increased the reaction rate inside the reactor core. At this point an energy spike occurred and some of the fuel rods began to fracture and obstructed the path of the control rods. The rods became stuck after being inserted only one-third of the way during the shutdown process and were not able to be fully inserted to stop the fission reaction. At this point nothing could be done to stop the disaster. The energy output of the reactor was ten times operational capacity. The fuel rods melted and the steam pressure rapidly increased, causing a large steam explosion. The steam pressure generated from the explosion traveled vertically along the rod channels of the reactor and destroyed the reactor lid. The reactors coolant tubes were ruptured and resulted in another pressure explosion that blew off part of the roof of the reactor containment building. The extremely high temperature of the reactor meltdown combined with oxygen flowing in through the exposed roof sparked a massive graphite fire. The fire lasted ten days and emitted vast amounts of vaporized radioactive material into the atmosphere before it could be brought under control. At least 31 workers and emergency firefighters were killed almost immediately from intense radiation exposure caused by the nuclear meltdown and the resulting fire. Soviet officials initially suppressed news to the general public about the accident, but within a few days the government began evacuating approximately 135,000 people from a 20-mile radius surrounding the reactor. It is estimated that all of the xenon gas, about half of the iodine and cesium, and at least 5% of the radioactive material in the Chernobyl-4 reactor core was released in the accident. Most of the released material was deposited close to the reactor in the form of dust, but lighter radioactive materials were carried by prevailing winds over the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Scandinavia and portions of Europe may have also been affected to a limited extent.
(Encyclopedia of the Atomic Age by Rodney P. Carlisle; Editor, p. 55)
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster)

In the years following the accident, an additional 210, 000 people were resettled outside the exposed area and the initial 30 km radius exclusion zone was extended to cover 4,300 square kilometers. Since the accident, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and World Health Organization have reported that only 50 deaths can be directly attributed to the disaster and 4,000 people may eventually die from exposure to fallout in the areas affected by the disaster. Official reports from these agencies indicate only nine children have died of thyroid cancers in twenty years (the rest recovered) and that the majority of illnesses among the estimated five million people contaminated in the former Soviet Union are primarily attributable to poverty of the region and unhealthy lifestyles.

New estimates recorded in 2006 by researchers from Greenpeace International, medical foundations in Britain, Germany, Ukraine, Scandinavia, and elsewhere indicate the long term affects of the Chernobyl accident are far worse. They take into account more than 50 independent published scientific studies. A 2006 Greenpeace health report (chernobylhealthreport.pdf) of the Chernobyl disaster states that "At least 500,000 people have already died out of the 2 million people who were officially classed as victims of Chernobyl in Ukraine”...”We have found that infant mortality increased 20% to 30% because of chronic exposure to radiation after the accident. All of this information has been denied or ignored by the IAEA and WHO. “We sent it to them in March last year and again in June. They've not said why they haven't accepted it." These independent studies indicate that 34,499 people who participated in the clean up of the Chernobyl complex have died since the accident. The IAEA and WHO responded by claiming that apart from an increase in thyroid cancer in children, there is no evidence of a large-scale impact on public health. In the Rivne region of Ukraine, 310 miles west of Chernobyl, doctors say they are experiencing an unusual rate of cancers and infant mutations. According to Alexander Vewremchuk of the Special Hospital for the Radiological Protection of the Population in Vilne, "In the 30 hospitals of our region, we find that up to 30% of people who were in highly radiated areas have physical disorders including heart and blood diseases, cancers and respiratory diseases” and “nearly one in three of all the newborn babies have deformities".
(http://www.commondreams.org/headlines06/0325-05.htm)
(http://www.guardian.co.uk/ukraine/story/0,,1739339,00.html)

A sarcophagus of nearly 700,000 tons of steel and 400,000 tons of concrete was hastily built following the accident at Chernobyl to seal in the estimated 200 ton mix of radioactive fuel and materials inside the damaged reactor. No one knows exactly how much radioactive fuel remains inside since only 25 percent of the reactor is accessible. Some nuclear scientists have estimated that most of the radioactive material for the reactor core was discharged during the accidents resulting fire. Other experts believe that as much as 90 percent is still there. Sensors constantly check for signs of new reactions taking place. The roof is not sealed properly and water is leaking inside weakening the concrete and metal. The shelter's original west wall is leaning precariously. While a collapse would be unlikely to spark another explosion, it could release a huge burst of poisonous radioactive dust. Operations to repair and reinforce the existing containment shelter are currently being conducted while a multi-national $1.1 billion project to build a giant steel arch shelter to contain the reactor complex is still on the drawing board. Twelve Chernobyl type RBMK graphite-moderated reactors are still operating in Russia and Lithuania. Russia continues to operate these plants for electricity in Kursk, St. Petersburg, and Smolensk. In addition, four smaller RMBK units remain in use for local heating and power at Bilibino in Siberia.
(http://www.iaea.org/blog/Infolog/?page_id=25)

Proponents of nuclear energy claim that the chances of a major accident in the United States resulting in the release of large amounts radioactive material into the atmosphere would be almost impossible. This is because all commercial reactors operating in the U.S. are pressurized water or boiling water type design. They are inherently much safer than the Chernobyl design and incorporate many redundant systems as well as extremely robust reactor domes and containment buildings. However, as both the Three Mile Island and the Chernobyl accidents have demonstrated, human error can easily undermine redundant safety systems. In addition, even a well-designed reactor building structure would be useless if a ventilation system or valve was left open in the containment building by mistake during a meltdown. Furthermore, even extremely strong reactor containment buildings and domes might succumb to the pressures of an explosion generated by steam or other gases in a full-scale reactor meltdown. Even the finest engineered nuclear containment structures have many openings and seals. Most pressurized water reactor domes can handle between 60 and 100 pounds per square inch (PSI) of pressure when properly sealed. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) computer studies have indicated that the buildup of hot gases in a nuclear meltdown could easily exceed 100 PSI.

At Three Mile Island, some of the hydrogen gas in the containment building ignited causing a 28-PSI explosion. Ironically, newer U.S. reactor containment building designs, such as the General Electric Mark III reactor, were built to handle only 10 to 15 PSI. The NRC Rogovin report expressed considerable skepticism about whether these new reactors could handle hydrogen gas explosion like the one that occurred at Three Mile Island. According to the Rasmussen report, the containment structures of boiling water reactors operating in the United States are able to handle even less pressure than pressurized water reactors and would be expected to fail in 90% of all meltdowns. Boiling water reactors comprise about one third of all reactors operating in the U.S. Tests have shown that a typical reactor in the US can handle an explosion roughly equivalent to one half a ton of TNT. Theoretically however, there is enough energy stored in the molten core to cause a steam explosion equivalent to 20 tons of TNT. While studies show that the build up of hot gases from a meltdown might take several hours allowing operators to find a way to reduce the gas pressure, a steam explosion in a reactor containment building could occur very quickly and with little warning.
(Nuclear Power: Both Sides | Second Thoughts by Jan Beyea, pp. 99-102)

If a full-scale meltdown of a pressurized water reactor occurred resulting in the large-scale steam explosion that breached the reactor containment dome, large quantities of steam bearing radioactive particles would be released in the atmosphere and carried downwind. Even in a best-case scenario, a serious accident is likely to cause confusion among emergency personnel and hamper the coordination of evacuation efforts by civil defense officials. Phone lines might be tied up, roads and highways would experience traffic jams from panicking civilians and breakdown of authority might even take place. During the crisis at Three Mile Island, NRC officials often had difficulty getting through to the reactor operators due to the flood of calls caused by the accident. Assuming that area emergency personnel were notified long before the release of radioactive materials, people living within a 10 mile radius of the reactor would hopefully be evacuated as a pre-caution, even if the reactor operators believe they could correct the problem. In this best-case scenario only a few hundred people would be exposed to a lethal dose of radiation.

Currently no plan exists at any nuclear power plant to evacuate the public beyond a ten-mile radius. If the reactor was located near a heavily populated area such as the Indian Point reactor, 25 miles north of New York City, or the Zion reactor, 20 miles from the city of Chicago, a full evacuation of the surrounding area would be impossible and at least a million people would be exposed to some harmful level of radiation. The radioactive materials released into the atmosphere from a large-scale accident would likely spread hundreds if not thousands of miles from the reactor site. Those people exposed to over 100 REMS would soon experience radiation sickness and thousands of cancer deaths would result years later. The evacuation of the plant operators would also cause other problems. Without supervision the spent fuel rods stored in cooling pools at the nuclear power plant, might overheat causing the water they are stored in to boil off causing a chemical fire and release even more radioactive material into the atmosphere. Even months after the accident, the aftermath would continue. Restrictions would be placed on food consumption from contaminated areas that might extend thousands of miles and water supplies would be polluted from the radioactive fallout and runoff of contaminated ground. The accident could cause a widespread economic catastrophe and hundreds of communities near the reactor would cease to exist. Since the TMI accident, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has implemented a number of long overdue safety measures including evacuation plans within a 10-mile radius of the reactor, improved accident training of reactor operators and new monitoring equipment. The nuclear power industry states that the likelihood of a full-scale catastrophic accident is almost zero. Industry officials and experts argue that the probability of a meltdown, based on theoretical calculations, could only occur in a U.S. reactor once in 1 million operating years. These theoretical predictions are not based on any substantial mathematical calculation, but rather on a contrived formula that the industry invented in the 1950s. In 1974, the authors of the Rasmussen report, made true calculations on the probability of a meltdown, and arrived at a number 50 times more likely. However, the accident at Three Mile Island clearly indicates that Rasmussen report is also highly optimistic. After the TMI accident, additional factors including human error have now been taken into account and some experts now believe that a serious accident is 500 times more likely than originally predicted by industry estimates.
(Nuclear Power: Both Sides | Second Thoughts by Jan Beyea, pp. 102-103)

1996 | TVA | Watt's Bar Nuclear Power Plant

Today there are 104 commercial nuclear reactors with operating licenses at 65 sites in the United States. The last nuclear power plant built in the U.S. was the Watt’s Bar plant in Tennessee. The reactor is owned and operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority and went online in May 1996. Since then, commercial nuclear capacity has increased in recent years through a combination of license extensions and updating of existing reactors. The current Administration has been supportive of nuclear power revival and expansion, emphasizing its importance in maintaining a diverse energy supply due to ever increasing energy consumption in the United States and a decreasing worldwide supply of fossil fuels. New proposed legislation calls for increased subsidies for this already heavily subsidized industry. This has created renewed interest in nuclear power by various energy consortiums along with new debates over the further development of this controversial energy source in the United States. There are three major requirements established by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to build a nuclear plant.

An early site permit gives a company approval for a plant site before a decision is actually made to build the plant. The energy company makes the application and the approval process takes approximately two and a half years. Following the approval of the Early site permit, the design certification process of a reactor design then takes place and signifies the approval by the NRC that the facility design meets regulatory safety standards. The reactor manufacturer makes the application. Once the decision to seek certification has been made, the regulatory interactions leading to approval take between five and eight years.

The combined construction and operating license (COL) permits the construction and subsequent operation of a specific nuclear reactor design at a specific site. Energy companies and reactor manufacturers may apply for a COL. The approval process for the first COL could take up to three years, while subsequent approval of a COL for identical plants will take about one and a half years.

2001 | Vision 2020

In 2001, the nuclear energy industry announced its goal to preserve the current percentage of America’s emission-free electricity sources as well as providing additional electricity for increased consumption in the future. This new initiative, called Vision 2020, calls for new nuclear power plants to be operating or under construction that will provide 50,000 megawatts of additional electricity generating capacity to the U.S. power grid by 2020. In addition, Vision 2020 also calls for the addition of another 10,000 MW capacity of nuclear power by upgrading existing plants by minimizing the time when the reactor is not operating at full power. These two changes will result in increasing the share of nuclear energy in the nation's electric supply from 20% to 23%. In 2003, three energy consortiums, Exelon, Entergy and Dominion filed for early site permits for new reactors—Dominion at its North Anna power station in Virginia, Exelon at Clinton Station in Illinois, and, Entergy at Grand Gulf Station in Mississippi. The companies that have formed these consortiums include General Electric, Hitachi America, Toshiba, Westinghouse, Mitsubishi, and Bechtel Corp. Under the early site permit program, an energy company may "bank" an approved site for future use, returning to the NRC at a later date to request a construction and operating license for a pre-approved plant.
(http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/nuclear/page/nuc_reactors/reactsum.html)
(http://www.nei.org/index.asp?catnum=3&catid=69 in5)

2004 | Union of Concerned Scientist Report
U.S. Nuclear Plants in the 21st Century: Risk of a lifetime.

Promoters of new nuclear reactor designs claim that they are so safe that they should be excluded from the liability provision of the Price-Anderson Act. Furthermore, they contend that the safety measures developed by the NRC to protect the public, such as the 10-mile emergency evacuation zone and disaster plans, are not necessary. Opponents of the expansion of nuclear power in the United States argue that none of the new reactor designs are inherently safe; citing documented evidence identified by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) during the early 1990s as well as recent demands by the nuclear industry’s own requests that the Price-Anderson Act be amended to extend federal liability protection against disasters at new reactors. In addition to the serous accidents that have occurred at nuclear reactors, opponents also cite the fact that 27 U.S. nuclear reactors have been shut down in the past two decades for safety problems that took a year or longer to repair. The UCS argues that this track record clearly demonstrates that both mechanical and human errors are inherently abundant in the nuclear industry and that an increase in safety margins and procedures at existing reactors is necessary before considering the construction of new facilities.

In 2004, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) published a report on the life cycle and safety of nuclear power plants:

~ U.S. Nuclear Plants in the 21st Century: The Risk of a lifetime

This report identifies the risk profile of nuclear reactors in what is known in the scientific community as the ‘Bathtub Curve’. The risk of accidents at nuclear reactors and any other manufactured devices vary over their operational life expectancy just as the risks associated with accidents and illness in living things change over the course of their lifetimes. This risk can be plotted on a curve similar in shape to a cross section of a bathtub. The curve is broken into three regions. Region A of the curve is represented by the top left side of the curve and is associated with the break-in phase of a reactors lifetime. The risks associated with reactors, like other machines and living things, is significantly higher in the early phases of their life cycle. Region B represents the middle or bottom of the ‘Bathtub Curve’ and reflects the most reliable time period for any man made mechanism as well as the peak of health for living things. Region C is represented by the right side of the ‘Bathtub Curve’ and reflects the wear-out phase. The risk of failure increases as all things approach the end of their life cycle.

All nuclear reactors begin their life cycle in Region A of the curve; the break in period. Not surprisingly, most serious accidents at nuclear reactors have occurred in Region A of the curve where the risk was high. Design flaws, manufacturing defects and unexpected imperfections in materials have all led to these failures. In addition, many of the safety procedures in reactor operations have also contributed to the design and material flaws that have resulted in accidents at nuclear reactors. All nuclear reactors operating in the United States and the vast majority of reactors operating worldwide have long since exited Region A of the ‘Bathtub Curve’. The problems nuclear reactors have experienced in Region A of the curve led to improved safety measures and operational procedures that have lowered the risk factor for accidents as they have operated in Region B of their life cycle. After the kinks in the systems were worked out during the break in phase, these machines have experienced fewer problems. However, while the risk of an accident occurring at a nuclear facility is lower in Region B, it is still not zero. Poor maintenance, latent design or material flaws, and human error can still contribute to risk factors associated with Region B. Like a car, a well-maintained and operated nuclear power plant can provide reliable service for many years. However, even the best maintained car if driven regularly, will eventually begin to experience problems from normal use and wear out. Every nuclear reactor operating in the United States is approaching, if not already in, Region C of the ‘Bathtub Curve’. While the number of accidents has decreased at nuclear power plants in the past two decades, the number of near accidents has increased. This data suggests that most nuclear power plants operating in the United States are entering Region C on the ‘Bathtub Curve’. Despite this evidence, many aging reactors in the United States have already been granted a twenty-year extension to their original forty-year operating license. If these reactors continue to operate far into the end of their lifecycle, the risk of a significant accident will become statistically more likely – if not inevitable.
(U.S. Nuclear Power Plants in the 21st Century: The Risk of a Lifetime by the Union of Concerned Scientists, pp. 3-20)

1957-2001 | The Nuclear Waste Life Cycle

Beyond and beneath the debate surrounding the risks of operating and expanding nuclear power is the even more dangerous and controversial issue of the disposal of nuclear waste. Radioactive waste from spent nuclear reactor fuel and from the reprocessing of spent reactor fuel was first generated over half a century ago at the plutonium production reactors in Hanford, Washington, in connection with the Manhattan Project to develop atomic bombs during World War II. At that time it was assumed that the disposal of radioactive waste would not pose a significant problem. Low-level waste consisting of tools, clothing and equipment as well as discarded soil and metal ore known as “mill tailings” from uranium mining could simply be buried in unpopulated areas. High-level extremely radioactive waste that is produced from reactor cores that must be periodically replaced was actually a considered valuable source of plutonium for atom bombs. After World War II, the federal government had promised to provide a long-term storage solution to the problem of waste generated by nuclear reactors to help encourage the development of the commercial nuclear industry. After the inherent dangers of breeder reactors and technical barriers for long-term storage were realized, the waste was simply allowed to accumulate.

Radioactive waste is the result of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle. This cycle begins with the mining of uranium ore, which is then crushed and chemically processed to extract concentrated uranium in a solid form known as “Yellow Cake”. The “Yellow Cake” then undergoes an elaborate chemical and physical distillation process to enrich the compounds of uranium. The uranium 235 isotopes are enriched to a 3% low level of concentration (LEU) for commercial reactor use or a 90% light level of concentration for use in nuclear weapons (HEU). Commercial reactor grade LEU is then compressed into fuel pellets, which are inserted into 12-foot zirconium tubes to serve as the fuel rods for nuclear reactors. A typical nuclear reactor core consists of 50,000 vertically stacked fuel rods and weighs approximately 100 tons. After a year of operation, approximately a third of the fuel rods and must be removed and stored as waste. Prior to use, commercial grade enriched uranium is not highly radioactive. However, once the uranium pellets in the rod become “spent” fuel it contains several hundred extremely radioactive fission by-products. Spent fuel rods are currently cooled in large ponds of water for a year before they are buried at the reactor site. Even though spent fuel is mostly waste, it still contains approximately 200 pounds of unused uranium (U-235) and 500 pounds of plutonium (P-239) that is created as a by-product of the fission process. The leftover U-235 and P-239 can be chemically extracted in an extremely complex process at a reprocessing center. Such reprocessing is known as the Purex process and involves immersing the spent fuel rods in nitric acid to dissolve the unused uranium and plutonium from the other highly radioactive waste by-products. The recovered U-235 can then be recycled into other nuclear reactors. The recovered P-23p can be used as the fuel for plutonium nuclear weapons warheads or used in a breeder reactor.

The operation of commercial power plants in the United States and the production of nuclear weapons during the Cold War have produced enormous amounts of highly radioactive nuclear waste. By 2001, The United States had produced approximately 45,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel waste from commercial nuclear reactors and over two thousand metric tons of waste from military reactors. In addition, over 70 million gallons of highly radioactive liquid waste has been produced by the United States military in the processing of weapons grade plutonium and enriched uranium for nuclear weapons warheads. This waste has accumulated over the last 50 years at temporary government storage facilities in Washington State, South Carolina and Idaho. Approximately 69 million cubic feet of low-level commercial and military waste is also being stored in shallow trenches in Washington State, South Carolina and Kentucky. Furthermore, over 140 million tons of uranium milling tails has accumulated on exposed ground in huge piles throughout the Southwest United States.

Waste disposal by the U.S. military has already had a serious impact on the environment. Containers used during the Manhattan Project in World War II at the Hanford processing plant in Washington State have completely deteriorated, and approximately 500,000 gallons of highly radioactive waste has leaked into the ground. It is estimated that by 2005, approximately 280,000 metric tons of waste from nuclear reactors had accumulated worldwide at 236 nuclear power stations, in thirty-six countries, which altogether have 433 reactors. It is unknown how much additional high-level waste has also been produced worldwide by other nations with nuclear arms programs.

While large amounts of high level military waste produced in the United States has been preprocessed at military centers since World War II, there are no commercial reprocessing plants currently operates in the U.S. Of the three planned reprocessing centers planned for the civil nuclear industry, only one, in West Valley New York, was completed. The facility was owned and operated by Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc., a private company, from 1966 to 1972. During the operation of the plant, 660,000 US gallons of highly radioactive liquid waste were generated. The liquid waste was stored in an underground waste tanks designed to last 40 years. Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc., also used a 15-acre (61,000 m²) area for the disposal of radioactive waste from commercial waste generators, and another seven-acre (28,000 m²) landfill to dispose of radioactive waste generated from reprocessing. In 1976, Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc. decided the costs and regulatory requirements of reprocessing made the venture impractical. The company left the site after its lease expired on December 31, 1980, transferring ownership and responsibility for the waste and facility to the state of New York; under the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). Shortly thereafter, Congress passed the West Valley Demonstration Project Act directing the DOE to carry out a high-level radioactive waste management demonstration project at the center. The federal Act required the Secretary of Energy to enter into an agreement with New York State for carrying out the Project, and New York State to pay 10 percent of the project costs and the federal government to pay 90 percent. Under this arrangement, NYSERDA has provided approximately $200M toward completion of the Project, making New York the only state that has contributed to the cleanup of High-level nuclear waste. In 1977, President Carter banned commercial reprocessing in the United States in fear that the extraction of plutonium in a commercial plant might lead to the black market sale of the material and the further proliferation of nuclear weapons. On October 8, 1981, President Reagan issued a nuclear energy policy statement that lifted the indefinite ban stating that he would pursue the elimination of "regulatory impediments to commercial interest in this technology, while ensuring adequate safeguards." Despite President Reagan’s call to the private sector in developing commercial reprocessing services, no private entity has expressed interest in licensing a reprocessing facility.
(Nuclear Power: Both Sides | Nuclear Waste Disposal - Introduction by Michio Kaku & Jennifer Trainer, pp. 109-111)
(Uncertainty Underground | Introduction by Allison M. Macfarlane & Rodney C.Ewing, pp. 1-3)
(http://www.nyserda.org/programs/West_Valley/default.asp)

High-level waste can be divided into two main categories: Short-lived and Long-lived. Short-lived fission by-products are created by the breakdown of uranium nuclei and remain hazardous for approximately 1000 years. Long-lived by-products of the fission process, such as plutonium and neptunium, are formed when uranium nuclei absorb straight neutrons and stay highly radioactive for tens of thousands of years. While both short-lived and long-lived nuclear waste both pose serious hazards for future generations, the short-lived fission byproducts account for most of the intense radiation and heat generated by nuclear waste in the first few hundred years. A freshly spent fuel rod radiates approximately 25,000 rems per hour, which is enough to kill any unprotected human being in is vicinity in a few minutes. After 10 years, the radioactivity of the same spent fuel rod diminishes by a factor of several thousand. This gradual decay of radioactivity is caused by the disintegration of nuclei as its unstable atoms transform themselves into stable atoms through the natural process of radioactive decay. This radioactive decay is measured in what is known as an elements “half-life” which is defined by the number years required for its level of radioactivity to drop half its original value, or in other words, for half its atoms to disintegrate into other atoms. Multiplying an elements half-life by twenty, produces a reasonable estimate of when its radioactivity will be reduced to completely non-hazardous levels. This formula reduces radioactivity of a given substance by a factor of one million. Plutonium therefore, with a half-life of 24,000 years, requires 500,000 years to become completely non-hazardous.
(Nuclear Power: Both Sides | Nuclear Waste Disposal - Introduction by Michio Kaku & Jennifer Trainer, pp. 112-114)

When initiatives finally began to provide a long-term nuclear waste solution in the United States, technical obstacles to create a suitable storage site soon became evident. As early as 1957, an ad hoc panel of the National Academy of Sciences proposed the disposal of highly radioactive waste in geological disposal sites, such as salt beds, or in salt dome cavities. Since water dissolves salt, the existence of such natural formations throughout the southwestern United States indicates they have remained dry and geologically stable since they were formed hundreds of millions of years ago by ancient oceans. Additionally, further studies and recommendations indicated that by sealing the waste in glass or synthetic rock to keep it in solid form, would provide stability of the radioactive material and long-term storage. In 1971, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) proposed the establishment of a long-term storage facility at an abandoned salt mine in Lyons, Kansas. While the engineering aspects of the project were carefully studied, geological factors were neglected. In 1972, the project was canceled due to severe technical problems. The proposed disposal site was riddled with cavities and drill holes from various past mining prospecting activities that could allow water to enter a disposal site. Even if all of these to be located, the long-term integrity of the site could not be guaranteed. In addition, it was discovered that the geological salt deposits contained small pockets of brine, which is highly corrosive. Even though the brine deposits only account for a small fraction of most salt beds, it was also discovered that such deposits might migrate towards any placed sources of heat. Since high-level radioactive waste emits high levels of heat, the repository could become surrounded by a highly corrosive liquid that would rapidly corrode the canisters containing the solidified waste. Granite formations have also been considered as secure permanent repositories. While granite formations are extremely geologically sound, they're also very difficult to mine, and technical assessments indicate that the extreme heat from spent nuclear waste might cause granite to crack allowing ground water to enter a repository.
(Nuclear Power: Both Sides | Nuclear Waste Disposal – Will it Stay Put? by Robert O. Pohl pp. 30-31)
(Uncertainty Underground | Nuclear Waste Story by Thomas A. Cotton, pp. 29-31)

In addition to the technical barriers facing initial efforts to provide a long-term solution for the disposal of nuclear waste, there has also been significant public and political opposition to creating a permanent repository. Most American citizens do not want radioactive waste transported through their streets or buried in their backyards. By 1983, nine states had banned the burial of radioactive waste within their borders in four states a declared moratorium on the construction of new nuclear reactors; until satisfactory waste techniques had been developed. Many alternatives to geological disposal were suggested including sending waste into outer space, which would be extremely dangerous and economically cost prohibitive. Disposal of waste in polar ice caps or sea beds have also been suggested, despite that the fact this would violate international treaties and no doubt contaminate the ecosystem of the planet. It has become evident that the only alternative to geological repository, is long-term storage at existing nuclear power plants and military processing centers. Long-term storage could be accomplished at a centralized facility but this is only a temporary solution. One such site is the Goshute Indian reservation west of Salt Lake City. The reservation’s tribal leaders initially agreed to provide land for such a storage facility in exchange for economic aid from the federal government. Civil rights and antinuclear groups have opposed the initiative as a disgraceful attempt to take advantage of the economic plight of the Goshute Indians. Nevertheless, a temporary long-term storage site might serve as an interim solution to the problem of designing a geological repository. A centralized temporary storage location would allow for spent nuclear assemblies to cool in dry casks of steel and concrete, and therefore reduce the problems associated with using salt beds as a permanent storage.
(Uncertainty Underground | Introduction by Allison M. Macfarlane & Rodney C.Ewing, pp. 3-5)

1982 | The Nuclear Waste Policy Act

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, established a clear mandate for the federal government to provide a program for high-level radioactive waste management and a permanent geological repository for nuclear waste. By 1983, the Department of Energy had identified nine possible sites: four in salt beds, one in basalt, three in domed salt formations and one in "Tuff" formations. Tuff is a fine grain rock composed of pulverized rock and volcanic ash, which dissipates heat well. In 1984, the Department of Energy (DOE) issued draft environmental studies on all nine site followed by a final environmental assessments on five of the sites in 1986. In 1987, The Nuclear Waste Policy Act Amendment detailed the process for the (DOE) to evaluate, design, construct and license the permanent nuclear waste repository. The act established a schedule for the Department of Energy to identify five sites and to recommend three to the President. Three sites were selected as ideal locations for further study: a basalt formation in Hanford, Washington, a salt bed in Deaf Smith County, Texas and a tuff site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Afterwards, the DOE began screening a second round of site candidates to comply with the original requirement of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act for a regional distribution of repositories. The Act amendment also made waste owners responsible for storing nuclear waste until it could be accepted by the Department of Energy for relocation to the permanent storage site. Anticipating an operational facility by 1998, Congress rejected proposals to provide federal funds for an interim storage facility for spent fuel. The decision not to provide an interim storage facility was influenced by concerns that such a temporary solution would diminish incentives to develop a permanent geological repository. The 1987 Amendment excluded first round considerations for salt and basalt sites, terminated all second round selection activities, and directed the DOE to focus on one location – Yucca Mountain.

1987 | Yucca Mountain, Nevada

Yucca Mountain is part of the Great Basin Desert and the Nellis Military Operations Area located 90 miles from the City of Las Vegas, Nevada. The flat top mountain reaches elevations of about 1000 feet and consists of welded and non-welded layers of volcanic ash and pulverized rock known as tuff. Most of the tuff that forms Yucca Mountain were deposited as ash flows, and fused together during episodes of volcanic activity that occurred between 11.6 and 13.5 million years ago. In general, the welded regions tend to be fractured and non-welded regions are less fractured. The proposed repository would be located in the more densely welded lower underground regions of the mountain. Despite the fact that this formation is fairly geologically sound and only receives an average of 8 inches of rain annually, Yucca Mountain is located in what is known as the extensional Basin and Range province. This region still exhibits some levels of seismic and volcanic activity. In addition, the Yucca mountain region lies in proximity to the Solitario Canyon fault line, which has experienced significant movement in the last two million years. The region is also adjacent to the Sundance Fault to the west, and the Ghost Dance fault to the east, which have also experienced movement prior to 2 million years ago. Local areas around the mountain have also experienced much more recent seismic activity. In 1992, an unexposed fault line on Little Skull Mountain located 12.5 miles on Yucca Mountain experienced a magnitude 5.6 Earthquake with thousands of aftershocks. In June 2000, the same fault system produced a magnitude 4.4 Earthquake further east on Rock Valley fault line. Critics of the Yucca Mountain repository argue that its proximity to such fault lines may have grave effects on the future behavior of a nuclear waste repository.

Since radioactive elements from nuclear waste might be transported into the environment, the amount of water that permeates into Yucca Mountain, known as its level of ‘hydro geology’, plays an important role in the site’s long-term performance as a geological repository. At present, the Department of Energy is still conducting studies of the hydro geology factors of the Yucca Mountain site to determine the amount of rainwater that could seep through the surface of the mountain through fractures and pour into the lower regions of the Tuff. Current analysis indicates an average filtration rate into its lower unsaturated levels of approximately 5 millimeters per year. Long-term infiltration of such seepage also depends on predicted climate changes in the future. The Department of Energy uses U.S. geological survey studies on climate changes over the last 400,000 years to predict future climates. This model suggests that the Yucca Mountain region could be dominated by cooler glacial climates over the next 10,000 years. Therefore, water infiltration is predicted to increase due to higher precipitation, colder temperatures and less evaporation. In light of these predictions, the location depth of the repository, or what is known as its ‘placement horizon’, is planed to be at approximately 200 to 300 meters beneath the surface. This would be below the Tuff that might experience significant water infiltration, but above the water table located 500 meters beneath the surface of the site.
(Uncertainty Underground | Introduction by Allison M. Macfarlane & Rodney C.Ewing, pp. 5-16)

In addition to the ongoing geological studies that have slowed progress on the Yucca Mountain repository, the Department of Energy has still not finalized a workable design for the facility. The agency claims that it can carry out a range of design options through the licensing process as various engineering studies are completed. These options include ‘Hot’ vs. ‘Less Hot’ designs that vary in the spacing of waste packages to control the discharge of heat, or whether the repository would remain open for hundreds of years to ventilate the repository, or closed with forced ventilation systems powered by fans. The leading design currently consists of 58 rows called ‘placement drifts’ that will be 5.5 meters in diameter and spaced 81 meters apart. The total length of the repository would be roughly 56 kilometers and provide 1,150 acres of total area that can accommodate 56 metric tens of waste per acre. Another important aspect of repository is the design of the waste packages. Each package will consist of a cask that has an outer layer of highly corrosion resistant nickel-chromium-molybdenum alloy (Alloy 22) 2.5 centimeters thick and an inner layer of stainless steel 5 centimeters thick. The casks will have different dimensions based on the type of waste they contain and may also include titanium drip shields to protect the waste package from falling rocks or water. Most of the waste to be stored will consist of spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors. Spent nuclear fuel rods are comprised of the uranium dioxide pellets that fill a long thin tube that has zirconium alloy cladding. There is some uncertainty among experts about how well the zirconium alloy would resist corrosion should the waste package be breached. While zirconium alloy is corrosion resistant, it is very difficult to predict how well the waste packages will perform over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. How the waste itself will degrade and how well waste packages will survive has been the focus of many debates surrounding the integrity of the repository. High-level waste that originates from nuclear weapons complexes in the United States, is planned to be solidified with glass or crystal ceramic in a process known as ‘Vitrification’.

The Department of Energy has already vitrified large amounts of high-level waste at the Non-commercial Savanna River Waste Processing site in Aiken, South Carolina. Making solid waste from high-level military liquid wastes first requires the recovery of such waste from storage tanks as well as chemical treatment prior to solidification. This complicated process will be even more challenging at military sites where the waste storage tanks have begun to deteriorate, such as in Hanford, Washington. Studies also suggest that even vitrified waste will also be susceptible to long-term exposure to moisture that could release radioactivity into the repository site; should the containment packages fail.
(Uncertainty Underground | Introduction by Allison M. Macfarlane & Rodney C.Ewing, pp. 16-24)
(Uncertainty Underground | Waste Package Corrosion by David W. Shoesmith, pp. 287-291)
(Uncertainty Underground | Glass by Werner Lutz, pp. 353-355 )

In addition to all the technical obstacles facing a permanent geological repository, the project has also been challenged politically. Most citizens of Nevada do not want a nuclear waste repository in their state. They believe the decision to plan the repository at Yucca Mountain was based more on political convenience than science. Opponents contend that the 1987 Amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, discarded many original site possibilities and characterization provisions, and concentrated on Yucca Mountain as the sole site to be examined as a candidate for the first high-level waste repository before all the scientific studies were completed. Therefore, the final selection of Yucca Mountain came about as a result of a process in which politics dictated the outcome rather than sound science. Over the past decade, the State of Nevada has filed multiple lawsuits against the federal government regarding the Yucca Mountain project. Most of these lawsuits were consolidated into four cases that were heard at the District of Columbia Court of Appeals on January 14, 2004. The judges of the court dismissed most of Nevada's claims, but they did rule in favor of the State's complaint against radiation standards for the nuclear waste repository. This ruling posed a significant setback for the Yucca Mountain project and has stalled the the facility from opening.

Moreover, critics to the repository claim that moving waste to Yucca Mountain will not eliminate risks associated with nuclear waste, but only create another waste dump. One factor that the Department of Energy has not taken fully into account, is the risk associated with moving waste to Yucca Mountain by roadways or railways. A single transportation accident could create an environmental catastrophe that would far outweigh the hazards of leaving the waste at current locations. Critics contend that leaving high level nuclear waste on-site for several decades is feasible and can generally be done with relative safety, provided industry and regulatory authorities pay attention to the to the issues involved. Both European studies and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission claims that "dry spent fuel storage is safe and environmentally acceptable for a period of 100 years in temporary storage.” In some instances, such as a severe earthquake, storage nearby the site may be safer than on-site. Unfortunately on-site storage is not a sound strategy for the long term due to the possibility of leaks, accidents, or destruction of waste storage containers by natural disasters or terrorism. There is also a high potential for neglect by irresponsibility of the utility companies that own the plants or governments of the future. The problem of neglect becomes even more serious if the utility company shuts down a nuclear power plant for economic reasons and simply abandons its responsibility for the waste.

Finally, moving spent fuel to a temporary storage site like the Skull Valley Goshute Native American reservation in Utah carries its own risks. The safety problems associated with transportation of nuclear waste in the process of relocation are likely to pose complex security and environmental hazards in an attempt to provide a long-term solution to the by-products of nuclear power and weapons programs. Despite the fact that no permanent nuclear waste repository yet exists anywhere in the world, energy consortiums back by the governments of United States and other nations are currently planning the construction of even more nuclear power plants. A ten-fold increase in the number of nuclear power plants currently operating worldwide, will produce an additional 70,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste each year. In an open fuel cycle, where the waste must be disposed of, this would require the construction of one new geological repository with the capacity of Yucca Mountain every year. Based on the fact that the Yucca Mountain repository took nearly 20 years to plan and construct and is still not operational, it would appear that that mankind's folly with the atoms still prevails at the highest level of policymaking.
(http://www.ieer.org/fctsheet/yuccaalt.html)
(Uncertainty Underground | Introduction by Allison M. Macfarlane & Rodney C.Ewing, pp. 4)

In 2005, President George W. Bush signed the first U.S. Energy Bill into law in more than a decade. Provisions of the Bill include federal loan guarantees and subsidies for the construction of 19 new nuclear power plants, with a total of 28 nuclear reactors, in the United States beginning in 2008. None of these so-called ‘advanced’ nuclear reactors address the fundamental flaws of nuclear power or nuclear waste disposal. Nevertheless, the federal government is now poised to use billions of tax dollars help energy consortiums promote the expansion of this dangerous technology. In addition, many other nations are also planning the expansion of their own civil nuclear industries. There currently exist a variety of alternative, safe, clean and renewable energy technologies that could be developed instead. However, many of these alternatives are not being fully embraced by energy companies because they would not be as profitable in the short term. Additional nuclear power plants will result in the production of even more fissionable materials as by-products of nuclear waste. In addition, a further expansion of nuclear energy throughout the world will result in the continued proliferation of ‘duel use’ nuclear technologies that promote the spread of nuclear weapons technology.
(The New York Times: Energy Bill Aids Expansion Plans of Atomic Power by Edmund L. Andrews and Matthew L. Wald., July 31, 2007)