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Dropping the ball on nuclear terrorism

Kristin Shrader-Frechette | Thursday, September 23, 2004

Suppose Interstate 80-90, north of Notre Dame, has the nation’s highest volumes of hazardous-waste transport.

Suppose there are 77,000 metric tons of one hazardous waste and inhaling a millionth of a gram can cause lung cancer. Suppose standing unshielded, next to its containers, delivers lethal doses within minutes. Suppose the containers have never been tested for sabotage. Suppose the United States will ship these containers to Nevada, in dozens of daily convoys, for the next 40 years. Suppose the convoys will be unique in appearance, easily targeted, and mostly unguarded. Suppose more convoys will pass through Chicago than any other U.S. city.

Suppose a rural accident could contaminate 42 square miles. An urban accident could be “devastating.” Suppose 50 million people live within a half mile of proposed routes – major interstates. Suppose government will contract private firms, using least-cost bids, to haul the waste. Suppose these firms are not legally/economically liable, even for deliberate transport-safety violations.

There is no need to suppose. All 12 facts are from the U.S. Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency. All concern high-level-radioactive waste from U.S. commercial reactors.

On one hand, in September 2000, campaigning for President, then-Governor Bush wrote Nevada’s governor. Bush promised he “would veto any bill to send nuclear waste” to Nevada because “the best science must prevail in the designation that would send nuclear waste to any proposed site.” Many scientists said the hundreds of thousands of cross-country shipments would inevitably cause “Mobile Chernobyls.”

On the other hand, in February 2002, after Vice President Dick Cheney’s secret meetings with nuclear-industry lobbyists, Bush broke his campaign promises. He said transporting waste to Nevada is a “safer alternative” than continuing storage at 100 nuclear facilities. Calling for more nuclear plants, he said the Nevada dump “will enhance public confidence in nuclear power.” And Bush gave the nuclear industry billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies.

Bush and DOE say Americans will be safe, once nuclear wastes get to Nevada. But the pro-nuclear International Atomic Energy Agency says they are wrong. Using only DOE’s numbers, models and assumptions, IAEA proved public exposures from the site could be 100 million to one trillion times higher than DOE claimed. Even if DOE erred by a factor of only a thousand, many people could die, without any accident.

Is Bush-2000, or Bush-2002, correct about nuclear and terrorist risks? Contrary to Bush-2002, no other nation plans cross-country, nuclear-waste transport and immediate, unmonitored, permanent storage. For now, these nations say it’s safer to keep waste at nuclear plants, where it has been for 50 years. If waste is unsafe at these plants and needs to go to Nevada, why does Bush want more nuclear plants, all having initial, onsite waste-storage? Besides, Wall Street says new U.S. nuclear plants are not cost-effective. None has been ordered since 1974.

In current cost-per-kilowatt-hour, DOE statistics show nuclear plants are between two and five times more expensive than coal, two and seven times more expensive than natural gas, two and three times more expensive than solar-thermal and between two and five times more expensive than wind. Solar photovoltaic is more expensive than nuclear.

The non-partisan budget-watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, says nuclear costs are even worse: “Private investors stay away from nuclear power because production of nuclear-fired electricity costs at least four times as much as other conventional energy sources. Where private investors recognize a bad deal, the federal government continues to recklessly spend taxpayer dollars.”

Why is the second-most-expensive electricity source the cornerstone of Bush’s U.S. energy plan? Cross-country shipments and building more nuclear plants risk terrorism and “Mobile Chernobyl.” U.S. government document WASH-740 says an accident/sabotage could kill 150,000 Americans and destroy areas the size of Pennsylvania. Yet the Price-Anderson Act gives nuclear interests immunity from 99 percent of worst-case liability, even for intentional safety violations. Why has nuclear received 65 percent of federal energy subsidies?

If nuclear power is safe and cheap, why does Bush prohibit the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission from considering terrorist threats when making nuclear-licensing and closure decisions? Why has Wall Street rejected it on economic grounds? Why does the industry demand massive subsidies and liability protections? Instead of nuclear-industry payoffs, why not nuclear terrorism protection, free markets and full liability?

Natural gas, clean coal and renewables are the Kerry-Edwards focus. DOE says tiny parts of three windy, Midwestern states could supply, cost effectively, most U.S. electricity needs.

Although the last two State of the Union addresses promised safe energy, Bush’s 2005 budget cuts $114 million from energy-efficiency renewables, solar, biomass-biofuels and vehicle/industrial-efficiency programs. It cuts $12 million from energy-efficiency grants/loans and $24 million from renewable-energy agricultural programs. Bush’s cutting of $350 million from cleanup at nuclear-contaminated sites, throughout the U.S., risks both terrorism and public health.

Bush says these four, promise-breaking budget cuts are needed to control federal deficits. But they total only $500 million. Bush gave $175 billion, one-third of his tax cuts, to the top one percent of Americans. Why are $500-million cuts in nuclear protection and safer energy necessary to curb deficits but not $175-billion windfalls for rich people? Why build expensive, unnecessary, nuclear terrorist targets? Even wealthy Americans need protection against terrorists.

Professor Kristin Shrader-Frechette teaches in the department of biological sciences and the department of philosophy at Notre Dame. Her column appears every other Friday. She can be reached at 1-2647 or through www.nd.edu/~kshrader.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.