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Nixon and the Next Nuke Shutdowns
Last year three US nuclear plants closed. Another announced its upcoming shutdown at the end of this year. Together these comprise five nuclear reactors less.
In my previous dispatch, (“Nuclear Power Plant Shutdowns: 2013”), I detailed last year’s nuke plant closures. Kewaunee in Wisconsin, Crystal River in Florida, and San Onofre in California shut down outright. Vermont Yankee in the Green Mountain State announced it will close at the end of this year.
Together these plants comprise five nuclear reactors that will do us no more harm—or at least a lot less.
So far, so good.
But there are plenty more aging and unsafe commercial nuclear reactors across the US—100 to be exact—waiting to join their comrades that are running out of steam.
After last year’s spike in nuclear plant closures, there has been considerable discussion, by pro and no nukers alike, as to which might be the next nuclear reactors to shut down.
So let’s take a look.
Nixon’s the One
In 1974, in the last State of the Union address of his abbreviated presidency, Tricky Dickie Nixon asserted that the long-term goal of his energy policy was “to stimulate the production of renewable sources such as nuclear power.”
In this he was parroting nuke power proponents. The 1990 book Deadly Deceit reported: “By the middle of the 1960s, the nuclear industry expected to build one thousand more nuclear plants by the end of the century. The licensing of these plants was proceeding unimpeded, accompanied by public assurances that it would be ‘too cheap to meter.’”
These predictions fell far short. Nuclear power, with its long-lived radioactive wastes, has proved anything but renewable. The number of reactors never reached much more than 125. And nuclear produced electricity is having trouble competing on the market today.
It is true, however, that the rate of new nuke plants opening did accelerate, perhaps not coincidentally, during Nixon’s time haunting the White House.
Up until Nixon started having visions of bugging the Oval Office, in 1969, 17 commercial reactors, starting in 1957, had been licensed across the nation. But by ’69, seven of those had already shut down.
Not a very auspicious startup for this heavily government subsidized industry.
Now lets look at how many nuke reactors received operating licenses during Nixon’s time in office as president, that is, from January 1969 to August 1974.
OK. We’ll fudge it a little, and say through 74, no, 75. That’s the way the Trick would have liked it to be, anyway,
Now we’re looking at, uh, hmmm, 33. That’s right folks, new licenses for 33 new nuclear reactors issued in seven years, averaging almost five a year.
Oh, you’re saying, you can’t blame Nixon for all of them. The licensing process for some of them began during the previous administration!
True enough, I reply, but that process sure didn’t slow down any after the 37th president and his gang took over 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in DC.
Getting To the Point
OK, all very interesting, you may be saying, but when are you going to get to the point?
Yes, so today all the nuclear reactors licensed before 1969 have been shut down. And so have five of the 33 that came online during the Nixon era (not counting last year’s five).
The point here is that there are now a lot of these old reactors from the earlier ‘70s that we’re stuck with. They were designed to last 40 years. And so those started up during Nixon’s reign have, or soon will, reach that supposed deadline for closure.
We’ll call them Nixon Clunkers, or NCs.
Why aren’t they shutting down now, when their meters are running out? Well, you see, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has the power to grant nuclear reactors 20 year license extensions. And it has done for almost all that have applied for one, including the Nixon Clunkers.
But despite the NRC’s beneficence, time still does take its toll. And so we’ve come full circle, to where the speculation about which nuclear reactors will be next takes hold.
A couple of sources I’ve come upon recently have done just that, examine what US nukes they think are most at risk of closing in the near future.
One source comes from Grist.org, which featured one such analysis from Morningstar, an investment research firm. Another comes from Mark Cooper, Senior Fellow at Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and the Environment. According to the Guardian Environment Network, Cooper “drew his conclusions in part from reports by Wall Street analysts.”
Among the reactors included in these sources’ discussions of those most at risk of shutting down are: Nine Mile Point 1, Ginna and Fitzpatrick in upstate New York; Pilgrim in Massachusetts; Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania; Indian Point 2 and 3, north of New York City; Millstone in Connecticut; Clinton in Illinois; Palisades in Michigan, and Davis Besse in Ohio.
Almost all of these are Nixon Clunkers, whose operating life began between 69 and 75.
The C List
Let’s examine some of these nukes, and why they made it to the C—for closure—List.
The two oldest reactors on the C List are Nine Mile Point 1 and Ginna. Both originated from that fateful year of 1969, Nixon’s first year of his first term.
Nine Mile Point Unit 1 is north of Syracuse, NY, on the shore of Lake Ontario, one of those reactors that’s been operating for more than 40 years. It’s on the C List because it’s “old, small, has high costs, and operational issues,“ according to Mark Cooper.
Bought by Baltimore–based Constellation Energy Nuclear Group in 2001, in partnership with the French nuclear company EDF, Nine Mile Point 1’s operating license was extended until 2029. Since the turn of the century, many of the Nixon Clunkers have been bought up on the cheap—as nuclear plants go—by the largest nuclear utilities, which have been milking them for far more than they’re worth.
Since 2004 Constellation has owned the Ginna reactor as well. It’s also on Lake Ontario, 20 miles east of Rochester, NY. In 1982 Ginna leaked radiation into the environment for 93 minutes. Is that a problem? More on that later.
Another 69er worth mentioning is the Oyster Creek reactor in New Jersey, 30 miles from Atlantic City. Chicago-based Exelon, the nation’s largest nuclear utility, purchased Oyster Creek in 2003, after another nuke outfit had snapped it up for $10—a song for a nuke plant. In 2009 Oyster Creek began leaking tritium, radioactive hydrogen. The leaks continue, and are expected to reach public wells in 10-15 years.
There was a big battle over Oyster Creek’s relicensing, but, true to form, the NRC said it could creak on until 2029. But Excelon itself said it plans to close it down in 2019.
Returning to Lake Ontario, the Fitzpatrick reactor, another NC, shares the Ginna site.
Ginna, Nine Mile Point 1 and Fitzpatrick are all at risk of shutting down because they no long can compete in their local electricity markets. As Morningstar put it, “renewable energy has flooded the market (are you listening Nixon?”),” most notably natural gas, and the nuclear electricity prices “are 30% higher.”
Fitzpatrick is owned by New Orleans-based Entergy, the second largest US nuclear utility.
Entergy led the charge in buying up old nuke plants in previous years, but now seems to be preparing to dump them as soon as it figures out how to save face but not lose too much money.
Entergy fought bitterly to keep the Vermont Yankee reactor clunking along, only to agree to its closure by the end of 2014, after fiercely opposing citizen groups and state government efforts to shut it down.
Besides Fitzpatrick, Entergy owns what might be called the A List of the C List nukes. These include the Pilgrim and Indian Point reactors.
The Pilgrim reactor on Cape Cod is within 40 miles of the Boston metropolitan area. It started up in 1972, the first year of Nixon’s shortened second term, and its problems go far back as well.
Deadly Deceit: Low Level Radiation, High Level Cover-Up, by Jay Gould and Benjamin Goldman, reported that in June 1982, “The Pilgrim reactor in Massachusetts had two serious radiation releases. These and other earlier reported releases were the subject of a Harvard School of Public Health investigation of leukemia increases, which Senator (Ted) Kennedy later used to justify a National Institute Health study of cancer rates near nuclear reactors.”
In recent years Pilgrim has had fierce opposition to Entergy’s attempt to extend Pilgrim’s license for another 20 years from both community groups and the state government.
And most recently it got in trouble with the federal government. This January the NRC “placed Pilgrim on a list with seven other reactors in the US deemed as degraded,” local newspaper The Patriot Ledger reported in January.
The NRC took this action after a series of unplanned shutdowns that closed the plant for 34 days last year.
And on January 18 another local paper, The Plymouth Patch, reported that Plymouth “had to file an Event Report with the NRC over elevated levels of tritium in an onsite well.”
But even more controversial is Entergy’s ownership of Indian Point’s two nuclear reactors at a site 35 miles north of New York City. Reactor 2 started up in’73, Unit 3 in ’75.
As with Plymouth, there is a lot of vocal local and state opposition to Indian Point’s continuing operation, which has held up its license renewal plans.
Indian Point 2’s current operating license has run out, and an extension hasn’t been forthcoming. So right now, it’s “the first nuclear reactor in the US to operate with an expired license,” according to a January CBS report. The same report stated, “Governor Andrew Cuomo has pushed for a closure of Indian Point, citing its location near a major population center.”
Former NRC chair Michael Jaczko has commented, “When you have this much local opposition, and the same from state government, what I’ve seen over time is that it’s very difficult to operate plants. The best solution is to sit down with all interested stakeholders and think of a way to shut down the plant on a reasonable time frame.”
On January 7 CBS reported, “a drop in the water level in a steam generator has automatically shut down Indian Point 3.”
And the list goes on.
But I have to mention just one more Nixon Clunker on the C List: Millstone 2 This is one of the two remaining operating reactors from this nuke plant on Long Island Sound in southeastern Connecticut, where I hail from. We got Unit 1 shut down in 1996. Units 2 and 3 were shut down for over two years as well. But big money and Nixonian corrupt politics allowed them to restart in this very pronuclear region.
Started in 1970, Millstone has released more radiation into the air and water than any US nuclear plant except Three Mile Island.
Unit 2 started up in ’75. Today Units 2 and 3 (started in ’86) continue to suck in incredible amounts of water: 1.3 million gallons per minute, or 6.8 trillion gallons a year. It also spews out massive amounts of water laced with radioactive and toxic chemicals, which forms a thermal plume, estimated to give off 15 million BTUs of heat per hour, according to the Connecticut Coalition to Close Miillstone.
Closing Nukes May Be Good For Your Health
In order for nuclear reactors to operate, they must produce radiation. This radiation is the byproduct of nuclear fission in the reactor. The fission produces heat that is used to generate electricity. But it also produces radioactive chemicals that can cause cancer and other diseases as well as create mutations.
This radiation regularly goes out of nuclear plants into surrounding air and water, and moves up the food chain until it enters our bodies, where it can irradiate us.
Whether it can cause us harm has been a matter of longstanding controversy. Nuclear utilities and government regulators say the doses we may be exposed to aren’t high enough to make us sick or harm our DNA or offspring.
This stance, however, took a blow in 2005, when a study by the National Academy of Sciences concluded, “The scientific research base shows there is no threshold of exposure below which low levels of ionized radiation can be demonstrated to be harmless or beneficial.”
In other words, there is no such thing as a risk free dose of radiation.
The study also found an “occurrence of solid cancer increases in proportion to radiation dose.” That is, the more we are exposed to radiation, the greater our chances of developing cancer.
Thus populations living around nuclear power plants, which are chronically exposed to the reactor’s radioactive releases, have increased chances of developing cancers.
A number of independent researchers have reached similar conclusions.
Among these conclusions is that, if we live near a nuclear power plant, our health can improve after that nuclear plant permanently shuts down.
And among those independent researchers are Joseph Mangano and Janette Sherman of the Radiation and Health Project (radiation.org).
In a 2008 study in the European Journal of Cancer Care, these researchers, using mortality data from the US Centers for Disease Control, found that US child leukemia deaths, compared to the US as a whole, showed:
“-An increase of 13.9% near nuclear plants started 1957-70 (oldest plants)
“-An increase of 9.4% near nuclear plants started 1971-81 (newer plants)
“A decrease of 5.5% near nuclear plants started 1957-81 and later shut down.”
“The 13.9% rise near the older plants suggests a potential effect of greater radioactive contamination near aging reactors, while the 5.5% decline near closed reactors suggests a link between less contamination and lower leukemia rates.”
More recently, in 2013, Mangano and Sherman published another, related, study. This one is called “Long-term Local Cancer Reductions Following Nuclear Plant Shutdowns,” and appeared in Biomedicine International journal.
This study looked at what happened to cancer rates after the Rancho Seco reactor shut down in Northern California.
Rancho Seco was yet another problematic Nixon Clunker, started up in September1974, one month after a helicopter took Nixon as president away from the White House forever. The plant closed in 1989, after a vote by the citizens of Sacramento County, who owned the utility that ran the plant, mandated its closure.
The researchers, using data from the California Cancer Registry, found that “when 1988-89 (when the plant closed)” is compared to 1990-2009, “4.11% fewer cancers than expected were diagnosed in the latter period among Sacramento residents.”
“The estimated reduction in cancer cases in the county over 20 years is 4319.”
Sherman and Mangano found as well that radioactivity in Sacramento County milk “declined after Rancho Seco shut down.”
In addition, the researchers observed that thyroid cancers and childhood cancers also declined after the plant’s closure.
It’s going on 40 years now since Nixon was booted out of office. And it’s high time all the Nixon Clunkers were shut down.
It’s insane and absurd that our lives and those of our young are still threatened by this aging technology from such a corrupt and criminal time.
Stay tuned for the next nukes to shut down.
Michael Steinberg is a veteran activist and writer, currently based in San Francisco.