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Los Alamos and Fort Calhoun: lessons in the precautionary principle

Posted by Morgan Pinnell and Ashish Sinha on June 30, 2011


precautionary principle: The precautionary principle states that if an action or policy has suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.


The nuclear catastrophe that occurred on March 11 at Fukushima in Japan alerted many countries around the world to the grave concerns that can arise from complex nuclear reactors. Already we have seen a few countries’ governments taken action to stop and, in some cases, close down their nuclear programs. One notable example of this comes from Germany’s decision to end their reliance on nuclear energy by 2022 (read more about Germanys decision in Morgan Pinnells piece).


The United States is in the middle of a national debate on the role of nuclear technology in meeting our energy and defense needs. In debates over medicine and food, regulators will often apply the precautionary principle. On something as potentially devastating and far reaching as nuclear technology, we have a duty to do the same.


Within the past week, we have witnessed two separate nuclear threats in the United States as a consequence of a forest fire and flooding. The Los Alamos National Laboratory is the birthplace of the nuclear bomb and continues to be a center for nuclear weapons’ development and a place for storage of radioactive waste. A forest fire that has already consumed 61,000 acres of forest is now at the edge of Los Alamos. The Fort Calhoun Nuclear Reactor is imperiled by flood waters from the Missouri River.


At Los Alamos, fire embers can travel great distances (especially under Tuesday’s 60 mph winds) and have the potential of reaching the plutonium disposal areas that are covered with only a fabric tent. Fort Calhoun’s flood berm was breached this weekend. It appears that some water is seeping into the turbine buildings, though officials insist this isn’t a safety threat.  Employees have been using elevated catwalks to maneuver around the plant. 


In both of these cases, the nuclear facilities rely on the reliability of safeguards and internal processes to be secure. The enemy of reliability is complexity and nuclear technology is nothing if not complex. We have witnessed the catastrophic results when safeguards for nuclear technology failed at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima. B-2 Bombers carrying nuclear weapons have crashed, several times, in the US with at least one instance leading to all but one safeguard failing. Droughts can lead to the necessary shut down of nuclear reactors when there isn’t enough water to cool the reactor or the water is to hot. What happens when we get something on the scale of the Japanese tsunami? What will we do when an earthquake, on the scale of the 1906 west coast quake, hits dozens of our nuclear facilities simultaneously?


It’s already apparent that the US Government has not learned the lessons of Fukushima. There is a current project, called the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR), which will create a new plutonium pit facility for expanded nuclear weapons production at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. This $6 billion project harms our ability to stop other countries from developing nuclear weapons’ programs, is being built in an area with many severe natural hazards, and is costly during a time of significant cuts to basic services like the fire fighters who are currently trying to save the Los Alamos National Laboratory.


Let’s not wait for yet another disaster to teach us that the consequences of some things are too risky for us to take on. There is clear empirical evidence and rational reasons to see the dire harm that can result as a consequence of nuclear technology. The European Union adopted the precautionary principle for beef and milk - it does not seem a radical step for the United States to adopt the precautionary principle for something as pervasive and potentially devastating as nuclear energy, nuclear weapons, and storage of nuclear waste.







lam335 said ..

The suggestion about the precautionary principle is good. Unfortunately, it appears that our government (in particular, the EPA) prefers to prepare for the possibility of nuclear disaster by seeking to raise the standard for what is considered a "safe" amount of contamination in food, along with weakening the standards for what would be considered acceptable clean up in the aftermath of a disaster. One thing about this blog--and most of the other media coverage of the past week's nuclear threats--that continues to puzzle me, however, is that everybody has been focusing almost exclusively on the Ft. Calhoun plant, which at least has been shut down for some time and therefore contains less decay heat, while the media have been virtually ignoring the also very real threat posed by the Cooper nuclear plant, which has continued to run at full power despite the encroaching waters. As Arnold Gundersen pointed out on a NY radio interview, the Ft. Calhoun people's decision not to restart in April was motivated by safety since they knew the flood was coming. By contrast, the Cooper management's decision to keep running full-force despite the rising flood waters is simply motivated by profit. If flooding were to knock out Cooper's cooling systems/pumps/power, however, the greater amount of decay heat would likely mean an even greater disaster than what would occur at Ft. Calhoun in a similar situation. Perhaps there should be some kind of law requiring nuclear plants to shut down if flood waters get within a certain distance or rise to a certain level near their facilities.

July 5, 2011

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