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As US Probes Radiation at Three Mile Island, Christian Parenti on Enduring "Zombie Nuke Plants" Nationwide

StoryNovember 25, 2009
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Christian Parenti

journalist and author of three books. He was guest editor of The Nation’s special issue on climate change, which just came out.

Federal officials have launched an investigation of a radiation leak at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania on Saturday. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said about 175 workers were sent home when the contamination was detected. We speak to journalist Christian Parenti, who says "Zombie Nuke Plants" like Three Mile Island should have been closed a long time ago but continue to operate. [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Federal officials have launched an investigation of a radiation leak at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania Saturday. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said about 175 workers were sent home when the contamination was detected. Some were exposed to low levels of radiation. Tests showed the contamination was confined to surfaces inside the plant, which is owned by Exelon, the nation’s largest generator of nuclear power.

In 1979, a partial meltdown occurred in Three Mile Island’s Unit 2 reactor. While nuclear power has long been considered environmentally hazardous, many are considering it as an alternative to fossil fuels in the face of climate change. The government has put up $18.5 billion in subsidies to fund a new crop of nuclear power plants.

But our next guest argues that the new atomic plants are prohibitively expensive. The real issue, he says, is what happens to our old nuclear plants, such as Three Mile Island. He says the country’s oldest plants, most of which opened in the early '70s and were designed to operate for only thirty to forty years, should be dead by now. Yet, zombie-like, they march on, thanks to the indulgence of the NRC.

Christian Parenti is a journalist and author of three books. He was guest editor of The Nation's special issue on climate change, which just came out. His latest article in The Nation is called "Zombie Nuke Plants."

Joining us from New York, Christian, welcome to Democracy Now! Well, lay out — what do you mean, zombie nuke plants? Where are they? What’s happening to them?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Well, they’re all over the country. There are 104 reactors in the US, and they’re all over the country. And they were designed to last for forty years. And what’s happened over the last several years is that half of this fleet of atomic reactors have been relicensed for twenty years. There’s actually a discussion of relicensing some of them for another twenty years. So, what happens in many cases is that new companies bought them. Frequently these old plants were unburdened of their debt at the expense of the ratepayers, and now you have companies like Exelon, which gave over $225,000 to Obama and who has contracted regularly with Axelrod, David Axelrod’s PR firm. And David Axelrod is sort of the PR genius behind Obama. So they buy these plants, and they are now running them for an extra twenty years.

And one of the problems is that radiation makes metal brittle, so these plants are in serious disrepair. They were designed to last forty years. They’re now going to be used for sixty years. And on top of that, there’s a process called uprating, whereby these operators can apply to increase the rate at which to operate the plant, in some cases up to 120 percent of design capacity. For example, Vermont Yankee outside Brattleboro, Vermont, runs at 120 percent of its design capacity, and it’s at the end of its life. And so, all over the country there are these problems of leaks, emergencies, and it remains largely under the radar. And many in the environmental movement talk about atomic power in terms of the future and whether or not we should build a new fleet of atomic power plants, how we’ll fight climate change. And that’s really not the issue, because new atomic power plants are extremely expensive. If all goes well, which it never has in the construction of a single plant in the US, it would cost about ten to twelve billion dollars. Generally, they cost more. There’s $18.5 billion on the table.

The problem is, the federal government has guaranteed up to 80 percent — has insured 80 percent of any private loans that will be made to build a new plant. But no one in Wall Street is prepared to invest in these things unless they get 100 percent public insurance. So there’s really not much investment there for it. There are these firms that would love to get on the gravy train of building atomic power plants. Whether or not they ever come online is different question. They would like to continue building these indefinitely. And so, that’s the lobby behind pushing for atomic energy.

And it also — basically, it functions as a canard to hide the real issue, which is that we continue to burn coal, which is extremely dangerous for the climate, and the real use of atomic power is to run this fleet of old plants into the ground, and we have constantly these small accidents, such as the leak a few days ago at Three Mile island.

And so, the issue that I discuss in this article was the Atomic — the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The President has the right to nominate commissioners. There are five commissioners who run this. And the Senate, unfortunately, has to approve them. And we know how the Senate serves to block — you know, to protect entrenched interests. So, Obama took the best commissioner, Jaczko, and made him head of the commission, which was a good move. He then had two seats open. He appointed one guy who is clearly, according to environmentalists, a proponent of the industry, and one guy who is a safety-conscious professor from MIT. And there will be a third seat open. But what has to happen is this: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has to be run by safety-conscious people, because we are stuck with — at least half of our fleet of atomic power plants are going to be online for the next twenty years, and currently there is very, very lax safety. You know, these companies are again and again found to be in violation of basic safety rules. At Vermont Yankee, for example, Entergy has not hired as many people as it should. It has skipped monitoring radiation. It has forgone routine maintenance, etc., etc. And similar situations obtain in all of these plants.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read to you, Christian, from the Washington Post yesterday, which says, “The Obama administration and leading Democrats, in an effort to win greater support for climate legislation, are eyeing federal tax incentives and loan guarantees to fund a new crop of nuclear power plants across the United States that could eventually help drive down carbon emissions.” Your response to that?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: I think that this is — they think that this is a way of getting conservative Democrats on board, because the construction lobby behind this process of building new plants, one or two new plants — what might happen with that $18 billion, they might increase that subsidy to $18.5 billion — one or two extremely expensive, probably quite safe, but just incredibly expensive plants will be built. But in the meantime, what’s going on, while we’re just debating this future that may or may not happen, is these old plants are getting relicensed and uprated continually, and no one is discussing it. So I think that there’s — there hasn’t been a proper discussion of atomic power in this country for many years. It’s sort of — you know, it’s associated with the '70s and the old days. But these plants are all over the place, and they need to be exposed for what they are, which is leaking, rickety old wrecks that are being run at extremely good profit rates by firms like Entergy and Exelon. And, you know, it also serves —-

AMY GOODMAN: How serious was the leak at -— Christian, how serious was the leak at Three Mile Island?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: We don't know yet. They were — you know, the NRC is investigating it. They say it wasn’t that serious, that the radiation didn’t escape outside the plant. Who knows? There have been leaks of atomic — of tritium-contaminated water from Indian Point, from Oyster Creek, that at first go unnoticed. So the groundwater around all those plans is contaminated. You know, atomic power plants routinely, as part of their proper operating, release small amounts of radiation. There was a recent study that found that — using children’s teeth, baby teeth, that — tracking contamination around nuclear power plants, and they found that cancer rates among children go up — actually, they drop off very precipitously as soon as a plant is decommissioned.

So — and it sounds like this technology works, when you hear the fact that there are, you know, fifty-something plants being built around the world, that France has 50 percent of its energy from atomic energy. But what the issue is internationally with nuclear power is that it does provide energy security, you know, and this logic comes out of the Arab oil embargos of the early '70s. So, Japan, France have these fleets of atomic power plants that no outside power can control. That doesn't mean they’re cost-effective. Those plants are heavily subsidized by the state and by the rest of the economy. And it also doesn’t mean they’re safe. The French system is much safer than ours. They have one design, one company, heavily regulated. Yet they, too, have suffered massive contamination in just the last year.

The other thing is that these plants are almost always linked to actual weapons programs or the quest for weapons programs. But if you just look at it superficially, it sounds like, well, the rest of the world is doing this, this must make sense. It doesn’t make sense economically, and it doesn’t make sense climatologically, because what has to happen is a massive revolution in energy around the world, and the time frame for building a fleet of atomic power plants does not comport with the time frame we face in terms of climate change. We have to make radical cuts immediately. And the best way to do that is energy efficiency and mass investments in wind, solar and tidal, kinetics, and all of that. And the fact of the matter is that right now wind power is much cheaper than atomic power. So, this is a matter of entrenched interests, you know, defending themselves.

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