Three years after the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese government has reversed its position of abandoning nuclear power and is developing new nuclear reactors – another example that neither nuclear-caused death nor nuclear-caused destruction can deter a corrupt power structure from the pursuit of its goals.
After the Fukushima disaster, Japan’s government claimed it would phase out nuclear power. On February 26, 2014, Tokyo reversed the decision and began starting up most of the 50 idle reactors. It subsequently announced that the plutonium Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Plant at Rokkasho will open in October 2014.
If the results of the past 65 years at the Hanford site can be taken as an example, and 40 years of now-declassified documented analyses says it can, the reprocessing of nuclear fuel to obtain weapons-grade plutonium and the subsequent handling and disposal of the resultant complex radioactive wastes is one of the nastiest, most poorly understood and apparently insoluble problems in the folder of nuclear safety.
The Hanford site represents two-thirds of our nation’s high-level radioactive waste by volume and is the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States.The vitrification of the liquid waste is about a half century “behind schedule,” with cost “overruns” of more than $20 billion. Since the mid-1950s, it was determined that the radioactive waste leaking from Hanford reached the Columbia River. In 1992, radioactive waste from Hanford reached the Pacific Ocean, 200 miles away, contaminating fish and drinking water along the river and exposing as many as 2,000 people.
In spite of the billions of dollars spent on “remediation” in the past 60 years, the radioactive leaks from the reprocessing storage tanks and the escape of reprocessing wastes from the site have been increasing monotonically and are continuing. New leaks were detected March 14, 2014.
Japan’s leaders announced recently that the privately owned, government-supported Rokkasho reprocessing plant, which was designed as part of a government effort to create special fuel for the country’s future nuclear power plants, will be ready to open in October 2014.
When the Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Center at Rokkasho is operating at full capacity, it is expected to produce 8 metric tons of plutonium annually, enough to make an estimated 2,600 nuclear weapons, each with the explosive force of 20,000 tons of TNT.
In a series of recent articles from the Center for Public Integrity (see references below), Douglas Birch, R. Jeffery Smith and Jake Adelstein report:
“Washington has been furiously lobbying behind the scenes, trying to persuade Japanese officials that terrorists might regard the Rokkasho plant as an irresistible target.”
“Japan has resisted upgrading its security force or requiring background security checks for the 2,400 workers there,”
“Companies with ties to the yakuza, or Japanese organized crime syndicates are heavily involved in the nuclear industry.”
“A consortium of electric utilities, Japan Nuclear Fuels Limited, has spent 22 years building the plant, the cornerstone of a plan to build the world’s first energy system based on plutonium-powered, fast breeder reactors. (Breeder reactors – a technology considered and rejected in the United States more than 30 years ago – are so named because they can produce more plutonium than they consume.) Japanese consumers are paying the $22 billion bill for its construction through a surcharge on their electric bills.”
“The US has long been concerned about potential development of a Japanese bomb, since Japan has the scientific skills, infrastructure and – most important – the raw explosive material in the form of plutonium, hundreds of pounds of weapons-grade uranium, and the technology to produce more.”
The major lesson that should be learned from Fukushima is that if nuclear power and nuclear weapons are “here to stay” in Japan, they are also “here to stay” in the United States.
There is more:
At the end of World War II, the US government’s pitch for peaceful uses of safe, cheap, atomic energy was used to create the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and to justify funding for development of more than 50 nuclear reactor types. The newly created AEC took over the future of the wartime laboratories, extending their lives indefinitely. Funding and infrastructure were secured to sponsor other “national laboratories,” which were centered around accelerators and nuclear reactors.
The national pitch of “peaceful uses of atomic energy” was, and still is, an umbrella for maintaining an active nuclear community that is necessary for the United States to assure its position as the planet’s greatest developer and possessor of nuclear weapons.
The nuclear community was split in its views and values from the onset. Most of the senior scientists that developed the atom bomb (Edward Teller not included) were concerned about weapons development from the plutonium produced by fission in reactors considered for production of electricity. Problems in recovering plutonium even from “low burn up” material already were surfacing. The radioactive sludges produced from the variety of reprocessing schemes to obtain the plutonium, in normal operation, were acidic, potentially explosive, chemically complex, continuously reacting and changing composition, and unsuitable for permanent disposal. Many feared that the lack of an acceptable nuclear waste disposal method would make widespread storage of radioactive waste containing plutonium a target for terrorism and sabotage. This anti-weapons group stressed safety, waste management, non-proliferation and believed along with Alvin Weinberg, a former director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, that:
“Should the world demand for energy increase sixfold within the next 50 years, largely because the underdeveloped countries, then……the risk of a CO2 accumulation inherent in the widespread use of coal is in a sense analogous to the risk of nuclear proliferation: both problems are global, uncertain, and could pose profound challenges to man’s future.”
The anti-weapons group never had a chance. Weinberg was fired for his views on nuclear safety by Congressman Chet Holifield, chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. Holifield was a strong advocate of nuclear weapons production and fallout shelters. He proposed that the United States should “build a nationwide system of underground shelters.”
Thirty years later, after President Obama closed Yucca Mountain, his promise to the nuclear community of seeking funding to support development of safe Small Modular Reactors gave rise to a new generation of nuclear grave robbers eager to get a slice of the pie. At present, they have, to greater or lesser degrees, resurrected and repainted more than 50 reactor concepts that were rejected in the past. The futility of these resurrections is either unrecognized or ignored by these new academic reactor designers. Several were unaware that some of the new concepts were studied 50 years ago:
“(Despite the documented history of thorium nuclear power, many of today’s nuclear experts were nonetheless unaware of it. According to Chemical & Engineering News, “most people – including scientists – have hardly heard of the heavy-metal element and know little about it … ,” noting a comment by a conference attendee that “it’s possible to have a Ph.D. in nuclear reactor technology and not know about thorium energy.” Nuclear physicist Victor J. Stenger, for one, first learned of it in 2012: “It came as a surprise to me to learn recently that such an alternative has been available to us since World War II, but not pursued because it lacked weapons applications.”
“Safe Reactors” that do not produce recoverable plutonium or reactors “that burn plutonium” are a government diversion that has never been a serious national nuclear option in the United States.
There is no problem facing the nuclear community that will deter Congress, the utilities and the defense contractors from using the nuclear option to “combat” permanent wars and permanent terrorism and to provide permanent profits. Unfortunately, they are given witless support by some of the supposed best minds in the country who offer some of the dumbest analyses of the problems facing a nuclear option.
Einstein’s successor at Princeton is Freeman Dyson, who has been called “the most prestigious physicist on the planet.” He is a supporter of a nuclear future and an ardent disbeliever in climate change.
“The fundamental problem of the nuclear industry is not reactor safety, not waste disposal, not the dangers of nuclear proliferation, real though all these problems are. The fundamental problem of the industry is that nobody any longer has any fun building reactors. … Sometime between 1960 and 1970 the fun went out of the business. The adventurers, the experimenters, the inventors, were driven out, and the accountants and managers took control. The accountants and managers decided that it was not cost effective to let bright people play with weird reactors. So the weird reactors disappeared and with them the chance of any radical improvement beyond our existing systems. We are left with a very small number of reactor types, each of them frozen into a huge bureaucratic organization, each of them in various ways technically unsatisfactory, each of them less safe than many possible alternative designs which have been discarded. Nobody builds reactors for fun anymore. The spirit of the little red schoolhouse is dead. That, in my opinion, is what went wrong with nuclear power.”
“The computer-modeling approach favored by climate scientists … was flawed from the beginning. … I just think they don’t understand the climate. … Their computer models are full of fudge factors.”
“Atmospheric CO2 may actually be improving the environment. … It’s certainly true that carbon dioxide is good for vegetation. … About 15 percent of agricultural yields are due to CO2 we put in the atmosphere. From that point of view, it’s a real plus to burn coal and oil.”
In the 40 years of documented nuclear reactor accident analyses for the AEC, the NRC, the DOE and the IAEA, Rickover’s comment on academic reactor designers has been validated repeatedly:
“The academic-reactor designer is a dilettante. He has not had to assume any real responsibility in connection with his projects. He is free to luxuriate in elegant ideas, the practical shortcomings of which can be relegated to the category of ‘mere technical details.’ “
Academic reactor designers do not seem to recognize that every major nuclear accident from Windscale to Fukushima has involved human inadequacy because of error or faulty training, failure of critical components that were known to be defective from prior testing, intentional disregard of forbidden operation, limitations in the reactor design because of operation beyond the licensed lifetime, and cover-ups of the causes and consequences of the accident. No new design is going to change that.
The death toll of a nuclear accident is treated as collateral damage and has never been a deterrent to the pro-weapons nuclear community. Nuclear accidents themselves are not on the community’s A-list of problems facing a nuclear option. The serious problems of the existing nuclear communities in the United States and Japan are determined by economics and/or politics. The economic aspects that are problematic include nuclear waste removal and its ultimate isolation or disposal, repair of outdated and defective reactors, compliance with safety modifications for license renewals on the rare occasions that compliance is necessary and, finally, expensive decontamination and decommissioning of reactors that can no longer function economically when abandonment is too much of an embarrassment.
There is a common template in the United States and Japan for bypassing the absence of national waste repositories. It is being used successfully by the coal, oil, fracking, and nuclear industries: Bribe the poor and unemployed to allow their communities to be used as dump sites for chemical and nuclear wastes.
The Rokkasho plant is in Aomori, which ranks near the bottom of Japan’s 47 prefectures in per capita income. Building the plant contributed 88 percent of the tax revenue and raised per capita income by 62 percent. The central government pays the 1,200 people in the village $25.9 million of grants yearly under a special nuclear subsidy program. The grants have amounted to more than $2,300 annually for every man woman and child. Roughly 70 percent of the businesses there are now involved with or dependent upon the nuclear industry.
Rokkasho is now a storage site for 3,000 tons of highly radioactive spent fuel from commercial power plants, waiting to be processed into new plutonium. This poses a serious problem for the United States. The major political problems of a US nuclear option center on the production and ultimate use of weapons-grade plutonium while simultaneously promoting non-proliferation in the rest of the world.
In the more than 60 years since we first separated plutonium from nuclear waste, no believable scenario has ever been developed that can prevent proliferation, theft or reprocessing by “enemy nations” or “terrorists.”
The US response to these apparently insoluble problems is permanent weapons development for the permanent war on terrorism by a permanent nuclear community and a permanent national security agency. All will require permanent funding.
Japan may be the tip of a developing global nuclear iceberg. As of today, more than 70 new nuclear reactors are being built worldwide, bringing the total to more than 500.
One thing should be obvious – nuclear safety is no more of a factor in determining the nuclear option in the United States than it is in determining the nuclear future of Japan.