Date: Tue, 30 May 2006 06:23:26 -0700

From: "Russell 'Ace' Hoffman" <>
Subject: How Cheney and friends use the complexities of nuclear power
  to pocket billions of dollars and destroy the planet

May, 2006

It's taken more than 30 years, and well over 3,000 interviews (hundreds in person, thousands over the phone, and thousands more by email), but here's what I've learned:

Nuclear power is really, really complicated.

Duh?  Duh, you say?  Are you a nuclear engineer?  If so, what portion of the whole puzzle did YOU study?  I'll find an expert who's just as good.

And if not, then please just step aside for the moment and watch the Biggies battle it out.  Watch the pro-nuke "experts" dance from one reason to another to prove their point.  That is, watch them give up on one reason we simply MUST have nukes only to argue something different, that you had already argued with them before.  This is what they do.  Circular arguments, with many steps (remember, nukes are complicated, right?).

I did a couple of animation of nuclear power plants last year.  They are extremely accurate depictions (see URLs, below), and even several pro-nuclear sources have described them as "excellent" and asked to use them to describe nuclear power to the public, to university students.

Okay, that doesn't make me a nuclear scientist, but if you find me a pro-nuclear scientist and give me his arguments, I'll find another scientist who'se credentials are just as good to go over my answer if I need to, but I'll answer every one of his arguments.   I've done it before and I'll do it again -- I'll let them argue for 50 pages and dozens of letters if it takes them that long to circulate around to their previous arguments (repeat themselves) or, as is MORE LIKELY, they end up arguing both sides of a coin, which show's they are being merely argumentative, which is not the same as debate.

For example, most pro-nukers can be induced to argue FOR wind power within 10 pages of "debate" (utter gibberish on their part, mind you).  No matter if they started out saying it couldn't work.  Eventually you can always dance them around to admitting that renewables COULD work, if only.

If only this, if only that.  If only they weren't so ugly.  If only they didn't kill birds.  If only they didn't put a lake where a canyon or a flood plain used to be.  If only, if only, if only.

Then, when you turn the conversation to the specific, unique, and INTRACTABLE problems of nuclear power and say, "these are so much more serious than ANY of the arguments against renewable energy," the cycle starts to repeat itself, as they argue that wind power could never replace nuclear power because of this, and that, and so on.  It's all hogwash.

The latest voodoo reason to support nuclear power is fear of global warming.  Not that global warming isn't a problem -- it's just that nuclear isn't the solution.

It would take every issue of every week of this newsletter to describe all the problems nuclear power presents, but in this guest editorial, I'd like to concentrate on some immediate problems California (and many other states and countries around the world) are facing.

First and foremost is the continued accumulation of ever-increasing mountains of nuclear waste -- so called "High Level Radioactive Waste,"  which is also known as "Spent Fuel," a term the nuclear industry likes, because it sounds so harmless.  Well, it isn't harmless and worse, it cannot be safely contained for long periods with defying the laws of physics, which say that a radioactive breakdown is strong enough to break ANY chemical bond -- and not just any chemical bond, but thousands of them at once.

By operating nuclear power plants, we are creating enormous problems for future generations.   So-called "experts" STILL, after 50 years of knowing better, write about the possible creation of containment systems that will not break down, will not become radioactive themselves, will not fail, no matter how many years they are required to last.

Other pro-nuke "experts" STILL, after 50 years of knowing better, talk about "rocketing the waste to the sun."  Really, it's not been forgotten, and I'm talking about by so-called "rocket scientists."  REAL "rocket scientists" who obviously are not statisticians, for statistically, after 50 years, we know that that method could not possibly reliably loft all 77,000 tons (or whatever the exact correct value is; one hear's so many different numbers) of high level radioactive waste out to space.  It's preposterous.

Still other "highly qualified experts" (I don't know WHO does the qualifying, but they get articles in high places so someone must) think that dumping the waste in tectonic subduction zones deep in the oceans is the answer.  They're wrong on several counts, and their numbers are few, but they're out there.

Glass vitrification is another dream, but the construction delays in the Hanford, Washington nuclear facility to try it might put the lid on the idea.  It was a bad idea to begin with, but so is leaving that waste the way it currently is stored, in leaky tanks.

Which brings us to San Onofre and Diablo Canyon.  They are creating so-called "High Level Radioactive Waste" at the rate of about a ton every two days for the four reactors.  There is now approximately ten million pounds of the HLRW stuff and it isn't being rocketed to the sun (thank goodness) or anything -- it's "just" sitting there.

About five years after it is removed from the reactor, spent fuel can be removed from a pool where it is stored deep underwater, and placed in "dry casks."   This transfer itself is a very dangerous operation.  Every step -- and every added step -- is dangerous.  By not having a long-term solution, we are adding lots of steps, every one of which carries an added grave risk.

These dry casks are massive things, but not so massive that a terrorist cannot break them open.  Not so massive that an earthquake, tsunami, or other natural disaster cannot harm them, although the utility will claim otherwise -- it's a lie.  It's an engineering impossibility at the price / performance ratio they must work under to do what they claim they are doing AT A PROFIT.  How so?  A couple of inches of steel and a few feet of concrete just aren't enough to guarantee the job.

And if a dry cask catches fire, it could easily be as bad as a meltdown of the nuclear reactor itself -- perhaps worse.  Each dry cask holds about 1/4 of a full reactor's load of fuel, and if they catch fire, they cannot be put out with water -- it takes flooding them with noble gases, but no one can get close enough to do it (they won't live long enough to get close, if they try) and the casks are not being stored in pits where such a thing would even be possible, AND there is no automated delivery system for such a calamity, nor are there stores of such chemicals on site.

What does the nuclear industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission do instead?

They assume such a thing simply cannot happen.  Really -- that's what they do.  That's the fantasy-land they operate under.  Their idea of a "worst-case scenario" very specifically does NOT include more than perhaps 0.01% percent of the fuel burning or escaping in any way, if that.  Zero Point Zero One Percent.

These "what-if" accident scenarios are utterly unrealistic.  In reality, a dry cask fire can cause widespread death and destruction, just like a nuclear plant.  Furthermore, by storing the dry casks so close to the nuclear reactors, IF a reactor accident occurs, both the spent fuel pools and the dry storage casks are vulnerable to secondary failures,.  For example, some explosive accidents can throw the lid of the reactor half a mile into the air.  The lid weighs about 20,000 pounds.   If it lands in the spent fuel pool or on a dry storage cask, it would cause a secondary release of radiation that might be bigger than the first.

Of course, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a way around this.  They simply deny that such accidents are possible.  They do this by designating such explosive deconstruction as being "outside the design-basis accident."

In other words, the NRC simply refuses to admit that things can go that wrong.  They believe, instead, that the safety systems and backup systems will work as designed, even though experience has shown that to be a baseless assumption.

For example, the Monticello nuclear reactor had its main safety system UNAVAILABLE for nearly 30 years -- since the plant was constructed until just a few years ago -- because 32 shipping bolts were not removed from eight humongous bellows, when parts were installed at the plant during its original construction.

And after that, the system was never tested or inspected.  This is just one of many, many indications that the NRC is a lap-dog regulatory agency and the industry it regulates is dangerously incapable of meeting the incredibly high standards required by nuclear power.

Both San Onofre AND Diablo Canyon -- all four of California's aging nuclear power plants -- are, for all intents and purposes, being completely rebuilt as we speak. By dividing the work up into pieces the full cost -- well over a billion dollars PER PLANT and probably two or three -- is made to appear in media reports as much smaller amounts, and the work is made to appear as little more than accelerated maintenance -- a seemingly good thing, eh? Well, it's a bunch of bull. What's going on is a complete rebuild ALMOST from the ground up, but a piece at a time. There are so many old wiring systems and parts in those plants, though, that no one that works there knows how the system really works -- I guarantee it (and I know quite a few employees and ex-employees at the plant, by the way).

Here are some of the parts that have recently been replaced or probably will be soon, in one or more reactors at San Onofre alone: Steam generators, "heaters" (about 30 per reactor), reactor pressure vessel heads, one main rotor (there is one per reactor) had to be rebuilt after the fire in 2001. Hundreds of pumps, wiring systems, feedback loops and circuit boards (these are humongous things that have to be put in place with forklifts and cranes, nothing like a household circuit at all!).

Yet, in the end, to call these reactors "like new" or even "newly refurbished" would be inappropriate, because, try as they might, there are still hundreds of systems which are corroding in place in the radioactive and salty, smog-filled environment in which these reactors sit. The parts replacement projects are mostly being done on a "when it fails, replace it" basis, rather than on a preventive-maintenance schedule.

And what of the NRC? The industry is "self-regulated" -- they only do paperwork audits, 99% of the time that they do ANY audit at all.

In California, the operation of our nuclear power plants continues, decade after decade, in opposition to the things Californians love. We do not love the risk from earthquakes, tsunamis, riots, or anything else, we live here IN SPITE of these risks. But risks are cumulative, and the added burden of nuclear power is a risk that has been foisted on the citizens of this state -- and on the planet -- through immoral and undemocratic manipulation of public opinion for the past half century.

For example: Let's take a quick look at tritium: Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, with one proton and two neutrons in its nucleus. When it undergoes radioactive decay, it releases a beta particle -- which is just a very high-speed electron -- from the nucleus. As this happens, one of the neutrons (the one that ejected the electron) becomes a proton instead, and the atom becomes, not a very heavy hydrogen atom like it was, but a light helium atom. (Normal helium has two protons and two neutrons in its nucleus. Helium from tritium has two protons and ONE neutron in its nucleus.)

Too technical? Sure, and the nuclear industry is counting on that. So I'll try to refrain for the rest of this commentary.

Tritium is produced at -- and released into the environment from -- all nuclear power plants. Federal regulations are lax on tritium, because it would cost the nuclear industry billions, or shut them down, if they showed proper concern for tritium's hazards.

Pro-nukers -- health physicists, specifically, the specialists who should know better -- will tell you (and have told me) that tritium's beta particle is relatively harmless, because it is a "low-energy" beta particle, as beta particles go.  In fact, they might add, in low doses it might even be good for you.

But find a BETTER expert to talk to (they do exist), and you'll learn that beta particles, when they are ejected from the nucleus of an atom (oh, here we go again!), "dump" all that excess energy that they get ejected with at "the end of their track." At the beginning of the track, the beta particle is traveling TOO FAST (a significant fraction of the speed of light) to be near another atom long enough to have much influence, but as the beta particle slows down, it stays in the vicinity of each atom it passes long enough to have a significant effect -- long enough to cause ionizing radiation damage.

Now, of course, this IS certainly too technical for the average Californian -- I've been studying it for more than 30 years and it's hard for me, too. And thus we are frozen out of the discussion, accused of being emotional and unaware of the facts, or being just another California "whacko environmentalist."

But there ARE experts who will back up what I've just written regarding tritium, and we need to start listening to them.  Indeed, across the country there seems to be a renewed interest in the damage lowly little tritium can do. Tritium leaks have been found at several nuclear plants and local residents, despite official propaganda from the Feds, are scared.

When the blackouts of '01 occurred here, the real reason was probably because three of our four nuclear power plants were "down and out" and the fourth one dropped out now and then and well. The "powers that be" in charge of power in California engineered the blackouts to "prove" that we need all the power, by any means, that we can get.

And now, Southern California Edison (SCE), the operator of San Onofre Nuclear WASTE Generating Station (called SONGS, not SONWGS, officially, since the waste is ignored), is running millions of dollars worth of ads telling Californians that SCE is making major investments in proven green technologies such as WIND POWER.

Yet at the same time, shills for their nuclear industry, such as academicians who were invited to speak to the California Energy Commission last year at rare public hearings (where testimony was NOT sworn, and much of it WAS useless), tell us that WIND POWER hasn't got a chance.

Who's lying?

Both are, and solely to make nukes look good. There is NO real effort to solve our energy problem with renewables, even though it is perfectly possible to do. Instead, the Bush Administration is pushing nuclear power like never before, with every trick in the book and several new ones, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's new policy to license both the construction AND the operation of a nuclear power plant at the SAME TIME, so that, after the billions of dollars and 5 to 10 years of construction, no citizen can oppose the plant before fuel is finally loaded (as happened at Shoreham on Long Island, New York, leaving a bitter, bitter taste in the Nuclear Mafia's mouth).

AND they have approved the licensing of new nuclear power plants on old sites -- even ones where the previous reactors have been "decommissioned" or perhaps NOT EVEN BUILT! (And "decommissioned, by the way, is a euphemism for grinding them up into radioactive dust and spreading them around the globe, and/or hauling them off in truckloads and trainloads to some waste dump somewhere, except, of course, for the "spent fuel," which just sits, vulnerable, on our coasts.)

If California continues to insist on self-ignorance about this issue -- if we are fooled by the fear of global warming into supporting nuclear power (it's not a solution, as many highly technical articles by highly qualified experts has shown), we are in for a lot of hurt.

A nuclear disaster would be the worst part of ANY accompanying earthquake, tsunami, or terrorist act. It would dwarf Katrina and 9-11 combined. It MUST be avoided, but the only way to do that is to wise up. Will we?

Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA