Renuking Minnesota?

monti1[1]Above: The Monticello reactor.  Note the tall stack used to vent cancer-causing radioactive gases.

(Please forgive the personal notes in this post.  So often we debate the technical merits of nuke power, without sufficiently considering the human side, the human impacts, of the decisions getting made.  This was originally posted on my blog

I’ve had more of a relationship with the nuclear industry than seems ideal.  In Delaware, I can look out a window and see the domes of three reactors.  In 2000, I wrote in an alert:

“Parts of New Castle County (DE) are in the “ingestion zones” (= within fifty miles) of 7 nuclear reactors (Limerick 1 and 2, Peach Bottom 2 and 3, Salem 1 and 2, and Hope Creek). While the nuclear industry has always claimed that it’s radiation output is too small to cause health problems, more and more reports are linking proximity to nuclear facilities to breast cancer, leukemia, childhood cancer and birth defects, and other health problems.”

For a while, for some reason, I was on a Nuclear Regulatory Commission “call list” usually reserved for public officials.  Whenever something official was up with my favorite three reactors, a pleasant and well-informed NRC official would call in advance.  It was a good lesson in how artfully the nuclear industry is able to manipulate official perceptions and mainstream media coverage.

I remember the rainy night of March 28, 2004, spent in Londonderry Township (Middletown) Pennsylvania, at the site of the Three Mile Island nuke plant.  We listened to people, on the 25th anniversary of the meltdown there, talk about the impacts on their lives of the meltdown.

Now, ironically, I find myself living most of the time in Red Wing Minnesota, home of two nuclear reactors (Prairie Island 1 and 2, 1973) and a nuclear waste cask parking lot.  These two reactors have been identified as vulnerable to disaster because of their location downstream of a dam that could fail.  See “Massive Cover-Up of Risks from Flooding to US Nuclear Facilities.”

Red Wing also lies about 80 miles downwind and downriver from the Monticello, MN, reactor (1971).  This reactor is about 34 miles upwind and upriver of Minneapolis/St. Paul.  Monticello is a GE “Mark 1” boiling water reactor, the type of reactor that melted down at Fukushima Daiichi, leading to the evacuation of at least 185 thousand residents.   Mark 1 reactors are probably the most dangerous types of civilian power reactor still operating except for the Russian graphite-block reactors of Chernobyle infamy.

How dangerous are these Mark 1 reactors?

Thirty-five years ago, Dale G. Bridenbaugh and two of his colleagues at General Electric resigned from their jobs after becoming increasingly convinced that the nuclear reactor design they were reviewing — the Mark 1 — was so flawed it could lead to a devastating accident.”

A letter published March 3, 2015 in Environmental Health News by David Agnew notes:

“1 percent of all power reactors worldwide have suffered meltdowns. Thus a meltdown is not a rare event, and the fleet is aging. Nine percent of all GE Mark 1 reactors have suffered meltdowns with breach of their containments. Indeed, a breach after core melt was deemed likely by GE engineers and the Atomic Energy Commission back in the early 70’s. Twenty-two of these faulty designs still operate in the U.S.”

Two key features of these reactors are (1) the “containment” does not contain under stress, and (2) the “spent fuel pools” are way up in the air, like elevated swimming pools.  If they crack open there is no easy way to keep them filled up to prevent the fuel rods from melting and burning.  Long ago, I stood on the gratings over one of these pools at an operating Mark 1 reactor in Pennsylvania.  I did not know enough at the time to fully appreciate what I was seeing or why the experience was so scary.

The three Minnesota reactors were built by Xcel Energy (then Northern States Power Company) which generally seems to get whatever it wants in Minnesota.  But in this case, Minnesotans came to their senses and in 1994, enacted a “no more nukes” law.  Almost every legislative session sees bills introduced to allow new nukes, and 2015 is no exception.  The bills include S.F. 536 and S.F.306, which are being heard on March 3rd in the Senate.  I have asked to testify.

For another take on all this and contact information for legislators, see Carol Overland’s March 2nd post:

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Minnesota Legislature:  Come to your senses.  Don’t even think about imposing more nuclear madness on Minnesota.  Rather, set about shutting down the existing reactors.  Every day they run means more present danger, more health impacts, and more nuclear waste and decommissioning costs passed down to future generations.

Alan Muller