This article was first published in The Viking News, March 10, 2004, a bi-weekly publication of the State University of New York, Westchester Community College.
By Taffy Lee Williams
Despite industry claims to the contrary, nuclear power plants are devastating to the environment. In the U.S., most nuclear power plants use a once-through cooling technology which requires its location on bodies of water large enough to sustain an intake of as much as one billion gallons of water per reactor unit, approximately a million gallons each minute, per day, to keep the system from overheating.
Initial ecosystem damage originates in the powerful intake mechanism, known as entrainment, which sucks everything from endangered turtles and even manatees down to microscopic plankton and fish larvae into the cooling system. Air-breathing animals, such as seals or turtles, simply drown, while many others remain trapped to their death against grating or filter elements.
As the water is sent through the reactor it is superheated and discharged so violently that adjacent sea beds are scrubbed clean down to the rock of their life forms. The water expelled is up to 25 degrees warmer than usual; this encourages settlement of warm-water tolerant species, but when the plants routinely shut down for maintenance or accidents, these suffer hypothermia and are cold-shocked to death.
Bob Alzarez, executive director of the Long Island Sound's STAR (Stand for Truth About Radiation) Foundation, said, "Nuclear power stations are routinely allowed to destroy alarming percentages of fish stocks and larvae entrained through cooling water intakes. In contrast, the commercial fishing industry must submit to strict regulatory standards including fines and license suspension for illegal takes."
Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Watchdog Project for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), said, "Although responsible for enforcing compliance with intake and discharge permits at reactors under terms of the Clean Water Act, the EPA has largely failed to establish national performance standards. When faced with the opportunity to enforce 'best available technology' standards, the EPA has buckled to industry pressure and left the marine environment to pay the price.
Falsifications by the nuclear industry and pressure tactics have commonly plagued state water and wildlife authorities. Data revealing the extent of environmental damage has often been concealed, withheld or misstated.
In one outrageous instance, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) altered its data, omitting records of marine ecosystem damage caused by the Diablo Canyon nuclear reactors. While claiming that no damage to aquatic life was occurring, black and red abalone populations were obliterated as was marine life for miles both up and downstream. Caught red-handed, PG&E threatened to outspend the state on legal appeals and keep the litigation in courts for a decade. Instead of stopping the thermal discharge damage, the state of California accepted a $4.5 million settlement that lets the destructive and violent expulsion of super-heated water to continue.
Linda Gunter, director of the Safe Energy Communication Council (SECC), has said, "The industry cries poverty when asked to install less destructive systems and again when told to mitigate the environmental damage."
Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) Executive Director Michael Manatee, has said, "The nuclear power industry is essentially licensed to kill by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission [NRC] to accommodate company profit margins. Regulators are constantly pressured by the nuclear industry to stretch the rules and not enforce such laws as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act." Pressure tactics applied by the nuclear giants have wrangled the halls of state water and wildlife agencies as well. In Washington state, allegations have arisen that federal agencies are ignoring egregious violations at the Hanford Nuclear plant.
Closer to home, our own nuclear nightmare is situated in the heart of the Hudson Valley, within easy reach of 8% of the US population. Twenty million people live within a 50 mile radius of the Indian Point (IP) reactors, a facility with one of the worst histories of negligence and violations in the entire industry. The NRC has stated that by today's standards, IP would have never been located in such a heavily populated area. As the plant sucks 2.5 billion gallons of water daily from the plant, it continues to kill millions of fish, having destroyed spawning grounds and thermally heated water for 10 miles downstream. Yet New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation is not requiring IP to install technology that would help limit fish kill until 2013, despite the Clean Water Act's requirements to install the best technology available to minimize environmental damage.
Scott Denman, SECC's executive director, said, "Instead of applying sanctions when a nuclear plant kills more than its allotted quota of endangered species, NRC almost always supports industry attempts to raise the limits on the number of animals that can be killed or captured during reactor operation."
Beyond the devastation to marine life, IP routinely allows discharge of radioactive gas from its cooling vents. Studies have proven that the region surrounding IP has one of the highest levels of breast cancer in the US. Contamination of soil in areas around the IP reactors has occurred as well.
On September 11, a terrorist-controlled passenger plane flew directly over the Indian Point reactors on its way to destroy the World Trade Center. Since then, concerns that IP, like other nuclear plants, is a likely prime terrorist target prompted a coalition of 50 environmental groups to demand the aging plant's closure. As of this date, 45 municipalities and 13 community boards in the tri-state area have passed resolutions to close Indian Point, with 310 public and elected officials concurring. New York Congressman Eliot Engel, at a New York City Council hearing, recently stated, "In the post-9/11 world of terrorism, we cannot have nuclear reactors operating with millions of people living relatively close by." The NRC conceded that it was doubtful that any of the 103 operational US nuclear plants could withstand an impact equal to what destroyed the World Trade Center.
IP's evacuation plan is gravely inadequate. Meanwhile, a Synapse Energy Economics study found that the plant's closure would have negligible or no effect on the region's electrical supply, as IP provides only 6.5% of New York's total electrical energy needs. "In the past three years, the plant has had two major emergencies and was shut down for ten months to repair a radioactive leak. In addition, even the guards there do not even believe they can protect the facility (as stated in an internal report by Entergy, its owners)" (http://www.codepink4peace.org/).
IP has been plagued by a series of small accidents and failures that has environmental groups, scientists and public officials clamoring for its immediate closure. NRC documents revealed that after one incident, on February 15, 2000, thousands of gallons of radioactive water from the IP 2 reactor leaked into nearby Buchanan's water system and the Hudson River. There are unavoidable weekly releases of radioactive gas from the plant, but IP operators say those are of little concern to the public. The problems are so severe that IP has been called the worst nuclear plant in the nation, earning the "red," or least safe, classification. In fact, the NRC has rated IP as the most dangerous of all 103 US operational nuclear reactors.
Instead of high ranking government officials making backroom deals with unscrupulous energy czars, the federal government should take the billions of taxpayer dollars planned for nuclear industry bailouts and subsidies and put solar panels on every American home. Then we should shut these plants down and maybe even wake up from this dreadful nightmare. For more information visit http://www.closeindianpoint.org/.
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