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S-14: The nuclear elephant is back at the public trough

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Large-animal metaphors were used a lot Saturday in Apex at the forum on nuclear waste sponsored by N.C. WARN and Public Citizen. Lisa Gue, PC's senior energy analyst, got off the first gigantism to the crowd of more than 100: Wastes are a problem, but nuclear power itself is "the gorilla in the living room" that's getting harder to ignore. We need to ask ourselves why we continue to use nuclear reactors for electricity generation, Gue said, when we have no good answer to the question of how the plants themselves can be protected against terrorist attacks, let alone their waste fuels.

We? Absolutely. Half the electricity in North Carolina comes from nuclear power. Nationally, 103 nuclear plants are still operating. Only 17 have been mothballed. Nuclear plant owner and operating companies gave members of Congress $5.8 million in 2002 election contributions, which makes the industry enormously powerful and very difficult for the rest of us to control. But we have no choice. "How do you eat an elephant?" asked Carrboro Alderman John Herrera. "One bite at a time."

Chad Haddix, a Pittsboro mechanic who can see the Shearon Harris plant from his house, agreed with that, except for one thing. "This elephant is growing," Haddix said. If you want to take a bite-sized hunk out of it, Haddix said, insulate your house, seal up your windows, turn down your thermostat. Anything to cut your electricity use--and the amount of money Progress Energy and Duke Power have to throw around.

A week ago, The Independent looked at whether a Sept. 11-style attack on the waste-storage pools at Shearon Harris could succeed, and at the thesis advanced by some scientists that, if it did, the fact that the pools are so densely packed with spent fuel rods could result in a catastrophe beyond our imaginations. The subject is complex--no need to rehash it here.

But Public Citizen, the group Ralph Nader founded 32 years ago, makes a simple point. Since Sept. 11, Congress has enacted no legislation whatsoever regarding the safety of nuclear plants. No safety requirements. No security upgrades. Not even a study of whether such things are needed.

But Congress has approved the Bush administration's plan to send nuclear wastes by truck or train to Yucca Mountain, Nev., as soon as they fit it out at a cost of $50 billlion or so. By 2015, maybe?

Yucca Mountain, if it ever happens, means either 1,000 train trips a year or 5,000 truckloads, Gue said, most of them originating in the eastern half of the country and traveling long distances, through cities and towns, into tunnels and over bridges, all loaded with casks full of the most dangerous stuff on earth. "Mobile Chernobyls," her group calls them, because each train, and every five trucks, will have aboard as much cesium-137 as the Chernobyl plant in the former Soviet Union released when it exploded in '86 and contaminated an area the size of Rhode Island.

Even if you agree with Progress Energy that terrorists can't destroy the Harris waste pools, do you really believe they'll never figure out how to detonate a train bound for Yucca Mountain?

Never?

That's what the nuclear industry says, and Durham's Wells Edelman, a longtime critic, who said he believes that they believe it. "But that only means that these utility company executives would make lousy terrorists," Edleman added.

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A Burning Bush. Not surprisingly, the insurance industry won't cover a nuclear plant. Even Lloyds of London won't. So you and I do, courtesy of the Price-Anderson Act, a 1957 relic that makes the taxpayers liable for most of the damages if a plant blows up or gets blown up. Price-Anderson is proposed for renewal by Congress as part of the Bush administration's Energy Policy Act of 2003.

S-14's a big, bad bill full of oil and gas subsidies, so the nuclear power provisions haven't gotten much attention. But as it stands, it would entice the utilities to build even more nuclear plants by offering our tax money--up to $30 billion--to cover half the construction costs. Remember, we haven't licensed a new nuke in the United States since 1978, when Three Mile Island almost blew.

Waiting in the wings, though, are a passel full of amendments coming from the nuclear industry's critics, who include Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada (no surprise) Democrat. Reid has proposed to federalize the security forces at the plants, exactly the same as at the airports.

Milder amendments passed by the Senate Environment Committee call for a presidential review of nuclear safety, and for the Department of Homeland Security--not just the Nuclear Regulatory Commission--to review any new plants to assure they pose no "undue threats" to national security. Critics charge the NRC is the industry's lapdog. Homeland Security is untested, Gue says, "but could actually end up being tough on nuclear plants" because of the cost of protecting them.

Sens. Edwards' and Dole's offices can be reached through the Capitol switchboard, 202-224-3121, if you'd like to register your opinion about S-14.

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Want to blow off steam? Write rjgeary@aol.com or call 412-5051.

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