Nuke Nation


Putting Profits Before Safety

President Bush has always been a good friend to the nuclear industry, but his recent overtures should sound alarm bells.

The White House has begun pushing to replace governmental safety standards at federal nuclear facilities with requirements penned by contractors. As one US lawmaker quipped, "It's like the fox guarding the hen house."

What prompted the Bush administration's move? Simple: Congress insisted the government start fining contractors for violations.

The proposed weakening of safety standards would affect over 100,000 nuclear plant workers and represents an especially lousy time to lower their morale.

A strike by 276 operations and maintenance workers was narrowly averted last December at the Indian Point 3 plant, located 35 miles north of midtown Manhattan. When the plant's owner proposed substituting managers for striking workers, union spokesperson Steve Mangione observed, "Anyone would want the people who work there every day - not managers who take a crash course - to be the ones running the plant."

Worker error is a key factor in nuclear plant problems.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reported 728 worker-caused mishaps during a recent two-year period, an average of over three mistakes per year at each plant.

Even worse, government security contractors have apparently been lax in monitoring worker effectiveness.  The Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Tennessee, for example, made headlines last month when it reported missing 200 keys to protected areas. Then news surfaced that security personnel guarding the nation's nuclear stockpiles, including tons of enriched uranium at Y-12, had been cheating on their antiterrorism drills.

An Energy Department investigation discovered that contract security guards at the Y-12 plant had been given access to computer models of antiterrorism drill strikes in advance, rendering the tests useless. A representative from the longtime government contractor charged with securing the facility, Wackenhut, claimed security at Y-12 was "better than it's ever been" but few are convinced. A January 2002 study found only 19% of Wackenhut guards at NY's Indian Point facility reported feeling able to "adequately defend the plant."

Almost twenty years ago, the reactor core meltdown at Three Mile Island struck fear into the nation, but consequences could have been much worse. A 1982 study by the Sandia National Laboratory predicted an accident at the Limerick nuclear plant outside of Philadelphia could result in 74,000 people killed within the first year and a further 610,000 afflicted with radiation-related illnesses. Add to that $200 billion in relocation and clean-up costs.

By all appearances, however, stateside nuclear facilities are functioning well. Pennsylvania's Susquehanna nuclear plant just announced an electricity-generation record for 2003, which it attributes to "maintaining the highest safety and reliability standards," and Maryland's Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant (CCNPP) is hard at work assuring the public it's a friendly neighbor; the CCNPP web site includes references to its "forest management and wildlife protection." But the CCNPP site also lists protective measures to be taken in case of an accident, such as "put uncovered food into the refrigerator" and "washing yourself and your clothes removes radioactive material you may have picked up."

H ow effective these steps would be in a meltdown is debatable - perhaps similar to clasping seatbelts tight when an airplane is nosediving. One factor is clear: CCNPP's location (just 60 miles from Baltimore and 50 miles from DC) might make it an interesting target for terror. Other reactors in across the country could be similarly at risk.

If terrorists were to attack a nuclear plant via an air strike, truck bomb or even worse, grenade or nuclear device thrown into a Spent Fuel Pool, Armageddon could become reality for the neighboring communities.

Regardless, the Bush administration has been pumping money into the nuclear industry, including a fresh $35 million infusion last year to build 50 new US reactors by 2020. Since each reactor costs over $1.5 billion to produce, and the public assumes liability in case of an accident or attack, the US taxpayer should be forewarned.

The White House is also leaning on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to weaken regulations regarding nuclear waste transport and storage.

How ironic that alternative energy sources receive relatively little in government subsidies, especially in light of new satellite mapping techniques showing that the Great Plains region could generate three times as much energy in wind-power as the US consumes.

What then explains our government's obsession with nuclear power? Follow the money. Nuclear plant PACs invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Bush/Cheney presidential campaign, and almost half a million dollars in the 23 members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in 2002 alone.

That's no excuse for poor energy policy. The risks of nuclear plants must be considered before dumping any more money into this losing game. And as long as the nation's 100+ nuclear plants continue to operate, the toughest of safety standards must be enforced.

Heather Wokusch is a free-lance writer. She can be contacted via her web site:  This article first appeared on March 11 in the Baltimore Chronicle.