Nuclear Power

Fukushima Nuclear Power Planet photo credit courtesy of Flickr, daveeza

Fukushima Nuclear Power Planet photo credit courtesy of Flickr, daveeza

Nuclear power threatens public health in numerous ways. Uranium mining causes suffer severe health impacts such as tuberculosis and lung cancer among miners who are often indigenous peoples. Harmful radionuclides are routinely released in nuclear reactor operations.

Unresolved safety issues mean accidents can, do, and will occur. The 1989 Chernobyl accident released 400 times the radiation as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and many scientists believe the ongoing disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan has already dwarfed Chernobyl. Nuclear reactors are also vulnerable to terrorist attack, and to natural disasters such as flooding, earthquakes, and tornadoes, all of which are expected to increase with climate change.

Radioactive waste is extremely dangerous. For example, Plutonium-239, if inhaled in quantities as small as a millionth of an ounce, will cause cancer with 100 percent statistical certainty and is toxic to humans for as much as half a million years. The accumulation of high-level radioactive waste in spent fuel pools is an ongoing and serious safety threat at nuclear power plants throughout the country. There is no credible, long-term solution for storing highly toxic radioactive waste, which must be isolated from the environment for longer than civilization has even existed. The national storage center at Yucca Mountain was cancelled because the site was not a safe or even large enough.

Perhaps most importantly, nuclear power is inextricably tied to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The technology needed to enrich uranium for a reactor is the same that is used to enrich it for a bomb. Each operating nuclear power plant produces enough plutonium a year to create 100 nuclear bombs. It is simply not possible to have both nuclear disarmament and nuclear power without increasing proliferation risks.

PSR-LA advocates for policies that enhance security and safety measures at nuclear reactors, especially those in earthquake risk areas such as San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) and Diablo Canyon. Though SONGS is now closed, at least 1,600 tons of highly radioactive spent fuel remain at the site in overcrowded pools. Should a violent earthquake, terrorist attack, or any event that causes extended power failure occur, water could drain out and cause exposed fuel rods to self-ignite, releasing vast amounts of lethal radiation. Recently, the plant operators decided they will use a thin walled dry cask system to expedite the removal of the rods, ignoring the demands of the community for a thicker and more safe design that is use currently in Europe.

PSR-LA also advocates that the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant be shut down until PG&E can prove the the reactors can withstand potential earthquakes on nearby faults, which were recently discovered to be capable of creating ground movement larger than they were designed to withstand. A reactor accident at Diablo Canyon could impact tens of thousands in Central California and potentially millions in Southern California should southerly winds prevail.

In California, thankfully, the 1976 Nuclear Safeguards Act prohibits the building of new nuclear reactors until there is a solution to the storage of highly radioactive waste. Nationwide, until the permanent isolation of radioactive waste from the environment has been demonstrated, PSR-LA advocates that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) not be able to grant licenses for new nuclear reactors or renew existing licenses. In 2012, federal courts forced the NRC to justify that all the radioactive wastes generated by U.S. reactors can be safely stored onsite before it could issue or new licenses. The NRC responded in a draft “waste confidence rule” which PSR-LA joined others in critiquing in December 2013.