Taking Our Energy Future Back from the Nuclear Industry

adapted by Jessica Maxwell from the Vermont Citizens Action Network (www.vtcitizen.org) publication "Act Today to Change Tomorrow" by Chad Simmons, Tim Judson, Deb Katz, Jeff Unsicker and Chris Williams

In May 2006, stemming from enormous public demand, the Vermont legislature unanimously passed Act 160 (www.leg.state.vt.us). This law states that Vermont's democratically elected representatives will decide the circumstances of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant's closure, not the out-of-state, multi-national corporate owner - Entergy. Act 160 requires detailed, independent studies to be carried out on the environmental and economic impact of the plant and mandates significant public input throughout the process. This means that even if the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in Washington, DC decides to authorize a license renewal for the aging reactor, Vermont legislators could still shut it down.

No other state legislature has ever claimed the right of its citizens, through their elected representatives, to make a decision that could over-ride the powerful interests of a major nuclear corporation and the NRC. A coalition of citizen and advocacy groups will continue to provide constructive input about what constitutes an adequate combination of economic, health and environmental studies and meaningful public engagement, as well as to hold the Department of Public Services (similar to NY's Public Service Commission) publicly accountable for any failure to provide these. Through citizen participation and strong political leadership, activists and concerned residents in Vermont are now looking to use this opportunity to replace Vermont Yankee with conservation, efficiency and renewable energy solutions.

What does this have to do with Central New York?
With three aging nuclear power plants just 45 miles to the north of Syracuse, near Oswego, we should follow closely what's happening in Vermont - and start thinking about how we might replicate the process here. Entergy owns the local Fitzpatrick reactor as well as the decrepit Indian Point 3 reactor in downstate NY. Both Nine Mile Point 1 and 2 are now owned by Constellation, a Maryland based corporation. These corporations aren't just looking to extend their current licenses; they have also expressed an interest in building new nuclear power plants.

With fuel prices skyrocketing and more people acknowledging coal's connection to global warming, nuclear corporations are once again touting themselves as the cheap, safe solution for our energy needs.

Why Nuclear Power Isn't Green: the Waste
The continuing operation of nuclear power plants is creating a mounting stockpile of hazardous radioactive nuclear waste. No solution exists to safely dispose of this waste. Spent fuel is commonly stored in "fuel pools" at the reactor site, or once fuel pools are full (as at Fitzpatrick), in controversial "dry casks" that are inadequate for longterm storage. Everything except the used fuel is generally considered low-level radioactive waste and is shipped to Barnwell, SC, a poor, rural, 48% African American community. Until recently, Barnwell hosted the country's primary radioactive waste dump. On July 1, it closed, intensifying the waste crisis. Unfortunately, within a few years that community's water supply will become contaminated by existing waste leaking from the dump, raising concerns of environmental racism.

Contaminated uniforms, gloves, and booties are sent off-site to be "cleaned" at industrial laundries that serve the nuclear industry. The closest such laundry is operated by UniFirst, Inc. in East Springfield, MA - a largely minority and immigrant community. These laundries routinely have bad safety and working conditions, fail to train their employees about radiation hazards, and discharge radioactive and chemical waste into the local water supply. The UniFirst/NTS laundry in E. Springfield has repeatedly dumped waste in the local sewage system and even the pond in a nearby park. Workers have been endangered by fires and spills in the plant.

As high-level waste continues piling up at reactor sites around the US, the industry is targeting Native communities in Nevada and Utah to locate waste dumps for the nation's spent nuclear fuel. These plans, including the Yucca Mountain proposal, continue to be challenged by local opposition, environmental concerns, technical flaws and delays. Some in Congress are now attempting to revive reprocessing - a dirty and expensive process (currently banned in the US) that does little to solve the waste problem and raises nuclear proliferation concerns.

The Nuclear Fuel Chain: Bad for the Planet, Bad for our Communities
Greenhouse gases are emitted throughout the nuclear fuel chain, from the mining of the uranium to its enrichment, transportation of fuel and waste, and the construction of nuclear plants. The beginning of the nuclear fuel chain, the mining and refining (milling) of uranium ore, produces immense amounts of radioactive and chemical waste. They are mostly located on Native lands in the Dakotas, the Province of Ontario and the Southwest US. For every pound of uranium that is used in a reactor, 3,500-4,000 pounds of radioactive uranium tailings are generated. In addition, the uranium enrichment produces seven pounds of "depleted uranium" for every pound of enriched uranium. This means, for example, that the 500 tons of spent fuel at Fitzpatrick represent just the tip of a huge iceberg of radioactive waste: nearly 4,000 tons of depleted uranium - and about two million tons of uranium tailings.

Natural uranium must be enriched to increase the amount of uranium that can sustain a nuclear chain reaction. This is a very energy-intensive process, and the only operating enrichment plant in the US (in Paducah, Kentucky) is largely powered by huge, old coal-fired power plants. Enrichment plants leak enormous amounts of chloro-fluoro-carbons (CFCs) - ozone-depleting chemicals that are banned in the US. The uranium enrichment plant is responsible for half of our country's CFC emissions, making it among the single largest ozone-destroyers in the world.

Nuclear plants also release radiation during operation. The BEIR VII report, an exhaustive study done by the National Academy of Science, concludes that any amount of ionizing radiation is dangerous to humans. A medical hospital that regularly uses radioactive materials for cancer treatments and medical diagnoses, typically has 2-5 curies (a unit of radioactivity) on hand over the course of a whole year. The Hiroshima bomb released about 2,000 curies of radioactive material. By comparison, the Nine Mile Point 1 nuclear plant has released over 2,000,000 curies of radioactive gases into the air since 1972.

The Rising Cost of Clean-Up: Who Will Pay?
Nuclear reactor sites become extremely contaminated over the life of the plant, and the companies that operate them are required to set aside money to pay for the plants to be dismantled and the sites cleaned up. Having sufficient funds for that process, called decommissioning, is essential to protect both workers and the surrounding community for generations to come from the legacy of nuclear power.

Unfortunately decommissioning is frequently mismanaged and underfunded by nuclear power companies. Around the country decommissioning costs have exceeded the rosy estimates generated while the plants were operating, and ratepayers and/or taxpayers have been stuck with the bill. Cleaning up the Yankee Rowe reactor site in northwest Massachusetts ended up costing over $700 million, more than double the original estimate and nearly 20 times what it cost to build the plant. Likewise, the Connecticut Yankee reactor has already cost over $800 million to decommission, and could end up totaling over $1.2 billion when the job is complete. It was originally estimated at $410 million. In both cases, some ratepayers who never used a kilowatt of electricity from the plants are paying for these excess costs.

Because many reactors are actually owned by subsidiaries that have no other assets, the subsidiary could simply declare bankruptcy and abandon the plant. Such an outcome is looking more likely as Entergy is in the process of "spinning off" six of its oldest reactors to a separate company called Enexus, which would completely shield it from responsibility for cleaning up the plants it operates in New England, New York and Michigan.

Beyond Nuclear: Our Energized Future
The exciting moment that now exists as our aging nuke plants near the end of their licenses provides us with the unique opportunity to transform our energy economy to one based on local, efficient and renewable solutions. This transition won't be easy and may take some time due to poor leadership in the past. But imagine…homes, businesses, and public buildings outfitted with renewable technologies such as wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass…efficiency efforts dramatically reducing our electricity usage and saving us money…decisions being made locally using our creativity and skills. This could be our energy future.

Locally, the CNY Public Power Coalition is actively working with the city of Syracuse to explore the option of a municipal energy system. If successful, it could be a model for other local communities or expanded to include the county (www.cnypublicpower.net). Syracuse politicians are widely promoting green industries as the answer to our economic development problems. Renewing the licenses of existing nuclear plants, or granting new licenses for the construction of additional plants, locks us into an outdated, inefficient and costly technology for decades into the future. Nuclear plants are capital-intensive, costing at least $6 billion or more apiece, and can take up to 12 years to actually begin producing power. There are faster, cheaper, safer energy sources that we can turn to without the risks presented by nuclear power.

Conservation programs and small-scale energy generation projects are labor-intensive - meaning local job creation. The Vermont Council of Rural Development released a report in 2007 entitled "Strengthening Vermont's Energy Economy" that details the clear choices that can lead to a new energy future in Vermont. We need a similar study for NYS.

Jessica is on SPC staff and is the liaison to the CNY Public Power Coalition and a member of the CNY Citizens Awareness Network, part of a regional Northeast network of organizations working to shut down nuclear reactors.