New nuclear reactors pose serious safety concerns. The history of nuclear power is one pock-marked by a deficient safety culture, nonexistent waste solutions, repeated unintentional radiation releases, and both major and minor accidents. Proponents have revised initial claims of an “inherently safe” technology in the aftermath of catastrophic incidents such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, to now assert total resolution to any and all previous safety problems. A look beyond those two accidents, though, shows a continuum of accidents across six decades that reflect nuclear’s fundamentally unsafe nature.
Nuclear reactors are additionally a risk for terrorist attack. In the final 9/11 Commission Report, Mohammed Atta said that he had considered targeting a nuclear facility in the New York area. More than seven years after 9/11, and despite Atta’s statements, existing nuclear reactors are not required to be protected against air attack. Moreover, repeated incidents that show an epidemic of undertrained and overworked security guards clearly indicate that the security of nuclear reactors and radioactive materials are questionable.
Waste is the Achilles heel of the nuclear industry. Despite 60 plus years of operation, no country in the world has found a credible, long-term solution to deal with its nuclear waste problems. The accumulation of high-level waste in spent fuel ponds or interim storage sites and the dumping of so-called ‘low-level’ radioactive waste into shallow landfills pose serious safety risks. The U.S. possesses more than 58,000 metric tons of irradiated spent fuel and another 12 million cubic feet of low level radioactive waste are created each year. ‘Low Level’ waste, containing known carcinogens, can seep into groundwater systems and contaminate land areas, posing a enormous threat to public health. A terrorist attack on high-level waste in spent fuel ponds could cause a huge release of radiation into civilian areas. Some proponents have suggested that waste issues could be solved if the U.S. undertook the policy of reprocessing the spent fuel, but there again are troubling problems. Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel in order to access the plutonium which accounts for about 1% of it, leaves behind 99% of highly radioactive waste to kick down the road. Reprocessing is also prohibitively expensive and poses serious proliferation risks by separating the bomb-ready plutonium from irradiated spent fuel.
The construction of new nuclear reactors will only exacerbate these existing safety problems. Waste will continue to pile-up in exponentially higher numbers, more terrorist targets that must be safeguarded will stretch our security capacity, and the risk of accidents will remain ever present, not to mention the risks posed by aging reactors dealing with wear and tear and the potential for unintentional releases and leaks of radioactive material. New reactor designs presented as “advanced” and “inherently safe” in the push to acquire loan guarantees for “innovative technologies” appear to have only minor improvements from the standard Light Water Reactor design and raise new safety concerns related to waste, containment structures, and thermal output. Ultimately, nuclear power is still mired in huge, unresolved safety issues.