Demystifying Nuclear Power: Anticipating the Worst

by Sue Prent

Today we live in a world that pushes limits, even necessary ones. When it comes to fostering industrial and economic growth, we humans have the tendency to become blinded by the assurance of big business and lose sight of what is really at risk.

Pressure to feed global appetites for expanded energy capacity while supporting an ongoing industrial growth imperative leaves two critical obstacles that are grossly underestimated in the current energy planning paradigm for fossil fuels and atomic power. The first obstacle is the deterioration of the energy production infrastructure and containment systems; the second obstacle is disaster planning for the surrounding areas of these vastly different energy production facilities.

Even the best materials fabricated eventually succumb to failure due to age and use. This failure is accelerated when design flaws and unanticipated stresses take an additional toll on manufactured materials. 

For instance, did you know that the concrete casks approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for long-term above ground storage of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel only have a life-expectancy of less than 100 years?  Likewise, did you know that no practical plan has ever been established for replacing these casks at the end of their useful life, or a plan in the event of an unexpected breach that would allow radioactivity to escape and contaminate surrounding areas?

Atomic power plant spent fuel is highly radioactive and toxic for thousands of years, and therefore requires strict isolation from the environment and living species. More disturbingly, NO permanent underground repository has been constructed in the US for this highly toxic radioactive atomic reactor fuel, even though this atomic power garbage has been building up for more than 70-years. Certainly, a life expectancy of less than 100 years for these casks is not nearly long enough. 

Where is the termination plan and implementation timetable?  Why are these corporations continuing to manufacture a toxic substance impossible to contain with no endgame plan in sight?

Right now California is, and for many months has been, experiencing a major methane gas leak, the mishandling of which demonstrates how incompetent the energy production sector is and how lax both federal and state regulators are. This is one example of what will continue to happen when our energy production infrastructure is only focused on immediate product/profit goals, sparing little thought for an exit strategy when aging, design flaws, and/or simple human error bring about inevitable failure.

The current gas leak, which has nearby residents dealing with headaches, nosebleeds and anxiety for their children’s health, has been traced to failure of a pipe buried deep underground in the Aliso Canyon Gas Storage Field. This pipe was capped-off and left in place when Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) had no further use for it.  Since the rupture occurred in October 2015, the SoCalGas facility has already released more than150-million tons of methane. The mechanical challenge to repair the break in the pipe and the lack of motivation to do it quickly means the leak will continue spewing massive amounts of methane for at least another month or more. 

SoCalGas refuses to acknowledge the severe long-term health risk from this release that contains Benzene and other harmful carcinogenic substances effecting neighborhoods surrounding the facility where literally hundreds of families are reporting a variety of alarming symptoms. Worse still, there is no question that, pound-for-pound, methane is a greenhouse gas many times more hazardous to the environment than CO2.

It is obvious that SoCalGas and its so-called regulators never planned on needing emergency access to the subterranean well after it was capped-off. Regulators obviously failed in their duty to protect public health and safety by not requiring emergency access to the well when it was created. This aged infrastructure that ostensibly began as a boon to growth and prosperity has ended its useful life by threatening the health and welfare of both the community and the surrounding environment as a whole.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Instead this recipe for disaster has been repeated in the energy sector too many times to recount

Nuclear Meltdown

One March day in 1979, design flaws, mechanical failure, and simple human error simultaneously converged at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island (TMI) atomic reactor to turn a community asset into an engine of devastation.

TMI’s corporate decision-makers, whose first instincts should have been to immediately evacuate the surrounding community, were so unprepared to recognize an emergency, let alone respond to it, that they waited more than 24-hours before alerting the surrounding community and regulators to the severity of the disaster – a meltdown in progress.

The nuclear industry quickly closed ranks to minimize the event for public consumption and before too many moons had passed, the atomic power industry and its alleged regulators successfully expunged the whole thing from the collective consciousness with few lessons learned and little consequence for those responsible.

Ocean Oil Drilling

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill that defiled the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 is another brazen example of the ongoing cavalier behavior by an energy giant considering itself too powerful for oversight or fiscal responsibility for the ongoing devastation it has caused. Even though it ravaged the eco system and claimed eleven human lives, and even though we saw video of the filthy outflow daily on TV during four long months, this spectacular oil industry failure is barely remembered by the consumption-oriented public who readily eat Gulf shrimp without a thought to what the shrimp themselves might now be consuming.

For its irresponsibility, both before and after the fact, British Petroleum (BP) was ultimately found guilty of gross negligence and held to the highest pollution penalty in U.S. history.  But all the penalties in the world cannot restore the once prolific shrimp fisheries of the Gulf to their former vigor. Ill-advised attempts to hastily “fix” the problem have made matters considerably worse, leaving a toxic residue on the ocean floor from which the microorganisms that feed everything larger take their nutrition, passing chemical residues up the food chain to contaminate the humans who consume them.

Triple Meltdown

Then, of course, there is the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi, a still unfolding disaster that has been inexplicably left to TEPCO to resolve; the same people whose corrupt corporate culture and incompetence laid the groundwork for this catastrophe in the first place.

When was the last time you heard any mention of Fukushima in the news?  The U.S. media lost interest in this ongoing meltdown as soon as the next hurricane or tornado or mass murder came along.

Refusing to acknowledge that there is no workable way to permanently secure atomic reactor waste, the NRC and nuclear industry nevertheless press ahead with plans for new atomic power generation facilities with new radical untried designs. The best the NRC has been able to promise is that the dry cask storage units that have been approved for above-ground stockpiling of highly radioactive spent fuel should last about 100 years.  After that, who knows?  And if, as some studies suggest, those casks prove vulnerable to failure much earlier, there has been no provision made for transferring their contents to new containment systems, whether those failures occur in 10 years or 100.

Concrete cracks, metal fatigue and failures, mixed with simple human inattention, which can be the weakest link of all, are part of the ongoing aging atomic power plant degradation. To maximize profit in a world of competing energy platforms, the nuclear power industry cuts corners and tolerates risks when they never should.

Explosive Oil Transport

When a train carrying crude oil from Western Canada derailed due to operator error and burned down half of the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, a pretty little village that had nothing to do with the oil industry, the industry exploited that tragedy as an opportunity to press further for a highly unpopular pipeline project. Now, in order to more cheaply deliver oil extracted from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries on the U.S. coast, industry lobbyists, fueled by oil corporate funding, seek approval for an untested and environmentally risky scheme to reverse the flow of the desperately aging pipeline infrastructure that was originally designed and built to carry a much lighter, less corrosive oil product.

We are given the false choice to either accept transport of crude oil by freight-train over age-weakened railway infrastructures careening through population centers, like poor incinerated Lac-Megantic, or accept the tar sand oil transport through old deteriorating pipelines, that were designed for transporting significantly less thick and corrosive fluids over fields and under brooks for thousands of uncertain miles. We are also told, by the same industry proponents looking for significant profits, that not transporting tar sands oil is not an option.

Most environmental experts agree that Canadian tar sands oil should be left exactly where it lies.  To fully exploit that filthy reserve will hurry us to the end of human habitation on this planet.


Already, the relatively new industry that has grown up around ‘fracking’ for natural gas seeks to suppress discussion of hazards related to that industry. Fracking releases methane and there is clear seismological evidence that the practice is dangerously destabilizing to the geology of the regions in which the exploitation occurs, leading to an ever greater incidence of earthquakes.

When it comes to energy, the unspoken policy has always been to exploit it now and worry about unforeseen consequences later. Like children bouncing on beds, we ignore the parental warnings that linger in the back of our minds until we’ve broken an arm or shattered a collar bone. Solving potential problems never becomes a priority until the “potential” transforms into unpleasant immediate reality, and unfortunately, unlike our parents, big business corporations don’t want consumers like us to anticipate the worst.  

Next Demystifying Nuclear Power Blog:  Anticipating the Worst, Part II, “Disaster Planning”