Bush has always been a good friend to the nuclear industry, but his recent
overtures should sound alarm bells.
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
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."
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."
How 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
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.
is a free-lance writer with a background in clinical psychology. Her work as
been featured in publications and websites internationally. Heather can be
contacted via her website:
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