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In The World of Nuclear Power Crisis - Life Magazine May 1979, pp.23-30

nuclear power in crisis three mile island life may79

River view of Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg, PA

In The World of Nuclear Power in Crisis Time magazine May 1979

Life Magazine May 1979, pp.23-30

One month later, we are no longer so frightened. Just as the radioactive materials at Three Mile Island are cooling off into stable forms, so the immediate national fear over the nuclear accident there has subsided. What remains in the aftermath of this most dramatic and damaging event in the 20-year history of peacetime nuclear energy is a new and acute public awareness. Even before the accident, the nuclear power business was in serious trouble. Now the future of atomic power here and around the world seems in still greater jeopardy.

The accident at the power plant near Harrisburg was a case study in failure. Contributing to it were human error, administrative negligence, design flaws, mechanical collapse and bad luck. In the subsequent uproar there was a welter of incomplete, inept, confusing and frequently deceptive reports to the public. Panic and a major disaster were imminent possibilities. In the painful reevaluation going on now before congressional committees and investigative commissions, certain major areas of concern predominate. The leading issue, of course, is reactor safety. One of our newest nuclear power plants, Diablo Canyon in California, is under fresh and intense scrutiny. The problem of how to dispose of the radioactive wastes produced by the reactors has taken on an urgent new significance. Behind all the questions lie the great dilemmas of energy use as we move to the end of the 20th century. What are the alternatives to nuclear power? How will we fuel our civilization?

Poisons That Last Forever

On November 25, 1957, the nation's first licensed power reactor (left) had a grand opening at the Vallecitos nuclear site in California. A circus tent was pitched next to the reactor dome, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission nailed up a bronze plaque, and the governor proclaimed it "an instrument of science geared to the well-being of our people."

nuclear wastes being dumped into the sea by british in 1979From their dinghy, environmentalists try unsuccessfully to 
halt British dumping of radioactive wastes into the Atlantic

In all the talk of miracles back then, little thought was given to the inevitable by-products of nuclear energy. Radioactive garbage from weapons production and civilian power plants now totals over 600,000 tons. In the form of spent fuel rods and liquids, these wastes-highly toxic for 600 years and radioactive for 300,000-are crowded into temporary holding pools and tanks. Until a permanent disposal plan is found, four states have banned the construction of new power plants. If there is no solution, over a third of the nation's plants will exhaust their storage facilities by 1990.

Several alternatives have already been proposed. Could the wastes be rocketed into space? Though less fantastic than it sounds, this idea is both too costly and. in the event of spacecraft failure, too risky. How about the sea? The British routinely jettison low-level wastes into the Atlantic, but since the canisters tend to corrode, the U.S. abandoned this practice in 1970. This leaves the earth itself: burial in manmade tunnels or in a dry, stable, natural medium like salt or granite. The U.S. is experimenting with this approach for fuel-rod assembly disposal (below). But liquids must first be converted to solids-glass, ceramic or synthetic rock-that cannot escape from their containers into the soil. A promising Canadian experiment in glass conversion (opposite) showed very little leaching even after a 20-year burial.

Since nuclear plants have a life expectancy of under 40 years, they themselves may become the hardest waste disposal problem of all. Dismantling obsolete plants may be prohibitively expensive, and "mothballing"-removing the fuel assemblies and sealing the plants-is a far from permanent solution. The Vallecitos reactor is a case in point. Six years after its dedication ceremony, it was judged obsolete and mothballed. It will remain radioactive at a low level for another 30 years. The Harrisburg plant is now infinitely more contaminated, and some critics predict it may never reopen. If they are right, Three Mile Island will remain for centuries, in Senator Gary Hart's words, "a billion-dollar mausoleum." Huge Forces, Shaky Ground

There are 72 nuclear plants currently in operation in the U.S. and all are certain to be closely studied in the months to come. A particularly rough time lies ahead for the 124 other plants that are still in the planning stage or under construction. A number of these were already encountering heavy opposition long before the Harrisburg accident.

A case in point is the oceanside nuclear power plant at Diablo Canyon in California. For the past six years the plant has been sitting on its shelf by the sea like a twin-domed basilica, fully completed, ready to start up, but immobilized by legal actions, red tape and some hard questions as to whether it is safe enough to be permitted to operate. The Diablo Canyon plant is huge. The domes containing the two reactors are 18 stories high. The hall with the turbine generators is as long as two and a half football fields. The thick-walled reactor vessels in which fissioning takes place are tiny by comparison. To know that this one installation could create enough power for the entire San Francisco area is to appreciate the great benefits of this energy source as well as the vast forces, including devastating radioactivity, that must be confined within its two reactors.

In trying to get Diablo Canyon into operation, the Pacific Gas & Electric Company has been through six years of hearings, referendums and litigation. The chief concern has been whether the plant is sufficiently earthquake-proof. The site was deemed safe when construction started in 1968. But by the time of the plant's completion in 1973, a seismic fault had been discovered two miles out to sea, a fault capable of generating a quake comparable to the one that destroyed San Francisco in 1906. Since then antinuclear groups have used every tactic to have Diablo condemned. The company responded by strengthening the building and expected to get its long-awaited license this month. Then came Harrisburg; and Diablo Canyon, which has so far cost the company $1.4 billion, joined the growing list of nuclear plants that share a troubled past and perhaps no future.

New Protests-and More

Clamshell Alliance in Seabrook, NH march 1978In Seabrook, NH, last March members of the 
Clamshell Alliance, an anti-nuclear coalition, 
chained themselves together in an attempt 
to block the delivery of a reactor vessel 
to a power plant site.

Marchers, picketers, doomsday costumes, demonstrators dragged away from construction sites-such spectacles have been stock ingredients in a long and bitter debate. Since Harrisburg, the advantage has shifted for the first time to the critics; every nuclear plant opening can henceforth expect to be greeted with redoubled waves of protest. There has been other bad news in recent months. Only last January the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had to repudiate its own official study claiming that a serious reactor accident was as unlikely as a meteor falling on a major city. In March five nuclear power plants had to be shut down for not having been proved sufficiently earthquake-proof; at the same time a special panel reported to President Carter that the disposal of atomic waste was a much more stubborn problem than had been supposed. Meanwhile, in contrast to earlier assurances. recent medical reports reveal double the normal rate of leukemia among Utah residents who were under 15 and living downwind from atmospheric nuclear tests conducted 20 years ago in Nevada. A spate of recent court cases suggests that exposure to radiation is even more hazardous than previously thought.

german protest - photo by regis bossu/sygma c.1979In Germany demonstrators stage a protest march.

In the background of all this is the economic plight of the nuclear power industry. The delays in getting a reactor built and operating have added hundreds of millions of dollars to costs. Moreover, since the leap in oil prices, the nation's consumption of electricity has fallen far below predictions. As a result, utility companies have been retrenching. From a record 41 in 1973, orders for new reactors dropped to a mere two in 1978; and many industry leaders now say that unless this trend is soon reversed, there won't be any nuclear power industry for protesters to demonstrate against.

A Painful Nuclear Education

A month before the atomic accident near Harrisburg, the guerrilla war over the construction of the Seabrook nuclear plant in New Hampshire took another turn. Knowing that protesters from the Clamshell Alliance were planning to blockade delivery of a 450-ton reactor vessel, the power company disguised a second reactor vessel with a fishnet (above) and safely towed it to its destination near the plant site. The demonstrators regrouped and lay down in the road to stop final delivery. About 180 were arrested (previous page), bringing the total number of arrests in the three-year fight over Seabrook to 1,900.

In the light of Three Mile Island, this story seems oddly anachronistic. Now the protesters have been given a new respectability, and the nuclear industry can no longer regard them as fringe groups. Both sides have a new responsibility and must begin to treat each other accordingly.

The country has received a nuclear education in the past weeks-the hard way. The public now knows something about the workings of nuclear plants. It has heard of Xenon 135 and Iodine 131 and realizes their dangers. Knowledge has informed our opinions-" I never knew before why I was against nuclear power," admitted one conservationist in Maine-and enriched the debate over energy policy.

Though now on the defensive, proponents of nuclear power will surely rebound. Stricter safety standards will allow the completion of many plants under way. When the realities of oil shortages and climbing gas prices take hold, as they soon will, atomic power will not look so bad. Already the counterattack has begun: nuclear advocates emphasize that no one was killed at Three Mile Island. And they point to a referendum in Austin, Tex., held after the accident, in which a majority of voters agreed to pay for cost overruns on a nuclear plant under construction.

Existing reactors currently provide 13 percent of our electricity needs. Even if we wanted to, we could not shut them down without economic disaster. Yet the cost overrun at issue in the Austin vote is the rule, not the exception, for the nuclear power industry today. Inflation, which supersedes all arguments, may have already doomed it.

If not nuclear, then what? For the moment coal will undoubtedly be developed more vigorously, though the environmental side effects will not be pleasant. In the case of the more speculative energy sources-solar and wind power, shale oil and nuclear fusion (the less radioactive cousin of nuclear fission)-the specter of Three Mile Island may serve as a goad to technological progress, just as the launching of the Russian Sputnik drove the U.S. to put a man on the moon. Finally, we shall all be forced to conserve energy on a scale that a few years ago would have seemed absurd. If there was a silver lining in those radioactive emissions near Harrisburg, it will be to make us face up to our energy future.

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