Nuclear Accident in France, 09/12/2011

"Marcoule" by kmaschke on flickr
"Marcoule" by kmaschke on flickr

On the day (09/12/2011) of the explosion at the Centraco nuclear waste treatment site at the Marcoule nuclear plant, in Languedoc-Roussillon, France, my wife and I were returning from Charles de Galle airport in Paris to the U.S. from a short vacation. The previous week we had stayed for a few days in Nice, about 200 km. from the plant. Perhaps you haven’t heard about the accident if you get your information from the US MSM. One person was killed and four injured and the standard disclaimers that radiation levels beyond the plant site were not increased were issued.

Since we both are aware that France is the most dependent nation on nuclear energy, we packed our potassium iodide pills, which we acquired after the diaster at Fukushima Daiichi, . Procurement of these pills was not a reactionary move by any measure. We live about 25 miles down wind from the Beaver Valley Nuclear Generating Station. The State Health Department provides free potassium iodide pills for people living within ten miles of the plant. Potassium iodide provides protection against only one significant radioisotope, Iodine-131, which is a short lived volatile isotope that concentrates in the thyroid gland and can cause thyroid cancer, as well as other disease. The bottom line is that these pills will buy you some time to evacuate to a safer area where you can shower off other solid radioisotopes and procure a safer source of food and water. In the event of a serious accident, you may never be able to go home again.

As far as risks associated with living nearby a nuclear power plant, according to the Wikipedia Entry:

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s estimate of the risk each year of an earthquake intense enough to cause core damage to the reactor at Beaver Valley was Reactor 1: 1 in 20,833.”

If you buy a lottery ticket for the Powerball drawing in Pennsylvania, your odds of getting four out of five numbers right (not including the powerball) are 1 in 19,030. OK, I know, apples and oranges you say. If you consider getting five numbers right and buy a ticket every day for a year, your chance of winning becomes 1 in 14,077. Although I do not buy lottery tickets, that comparison puts the situation in perspective for me. Out of the more than 100 commercial nuclear power plants in the United States, many of which are located in seismically active areas and near dense population centers, what are the true risks of a severe accident and would those risks be acceptable to nearby residents if they were understood.

I have long listened to the propaganda about safe clean nuclear energy starting with the nation’s first commercial nuclear powerplant at Shippingport, PA which is right next to the Beaver Valley facility. The government would promote the industry while covering up safety lapses and radioactive releases in the name of national security. The government’s own facilities, particularly Savanna River, SC, Hanford, WA, and Oak Ridge, TN are some of the world’s most seriously contaminated industrial sites with fission products, transuranic isotopes, and hazardous chemicals used in reprocessing irradiated fuel assemblies. Cleanup costs already have exceeded billions of dollars with work nowhere near completion.

Environmental costs associated with uranium mining (after all, that is how we found out that Radon causes lung cancer) as well as fuel enrichment and waste disposal do not begin to be properly considered in the costs of civilian nuclear power.

I am not yet ready to accept the abandonment of nuclear power. However, unless we can begin to employ good science, sound risk analysis, and above board finance, I believe we will continue to employ an excessively expensive and risky technology to meet our energy needs. As long as the clueless and the disingenuous profiteers are able to control the conversation, we will continue to be at significant risk. It should be remembered that after the Three Mile Island accident, that safety concerns were not what scuttled orders for new nuclear power plants, but the need for government backed insurance liability limits for otherwise unobtainable insurance and financing subsidies which resulted from long lead times and unattractive return on investment. Industrial socialism at its best.

It should be noted that some of the costs associated with nuclear power generation that the industry is throwing around lately are based in large part on rubber stamped extensions of operating licenses by the NRC. The Beaver Valley Reactor 1 received its initial operating license on 07/02/1976. It received an extension on 11/05/2009 to operate until 01/29/2036 or 60 years from when it first came on line. Many engineering and maintenance issues come into play for an ancient nuclear power plant including reactor vessel embrittlement due to decades of neutron bombardment and corrosion and cracking of critical cooling systems. Calculated costs which include reactors that have had their operating licenses extended make the cost of electricity generated via these nuclear plants look attractive, particularly compared with recently capitalized new technologies.

If we continue to follow the path of utilizing nuclear energy for power generation, we all need to understand the technology, risks, and the credibility of the self proclaimed experts. It is not sufficient to rely on those in government who have the responsibility for regulation of the industry particularly if they are focused on their next career move of being part of the industry. Looking back at history, can we trust those charged with making these crucial decisions?

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