The banquet room inside the city’s lavishly refurbished Pearl Brewery is filled with solar advocates, coal-power people, city decision makers and bureaucrats, geothermal enthusiasts, and a table of Express-News staffers. They dine on salmon and judge in quiet gestures the performance of the panel at the front of the room.
As a tense but generally amenable exchange between the nuclear-energy proponents and the renewable-power disciples winds down, Matagorda County resident Susan Dancer steps from the shadows at the back of the room to steer the conversation, briefly, into dangerous waters. In a rapid-fire indictment of the entire course of the debate, Dancer drops the controversial “C” word.
But cancer isn’t on the menu at today’s forum. In fact, the talk is almost entirely of money. For more than a year, the city has been drifting, in multi-million-dollar installments, into a second helping of nuclear power from the South Texas Project nuclear facility outside Bay City.
On one level, the city’s obsession with the bottom line — $5.2-billion for our share of two new nuclear-power reactors — makes sense. It was, after all, runaway costs and construction failures that undermined Wall Street’s willingness to invest in the hugely expensive projects, resulting in a decades-long freeze on domestic nuclear power plants. Today, with 17 proposed nuclear projects jockeying for crucial federal loans through the U.S. Department of Energy, Moody’s Investors Service is warning that utilities that pursue new plants face heightened financial risks and may expose their customers to “future rate shocks.”
For the last hour, the talk has idled at intersecting concerns over whether Toshiba can deliver two Advanced Boiling Water Reactors to STP on time and on budget; whether renewable energy sources could become cost competitive with nuclear by 2020, when San Antonio will really need the extra electricity; if CPS Energy’s price estimates for alternative energy sources, such as natural gas and efficiency, are even close to accurate.
Nuclear has risks,” confesses CPS Energy’s Co-CEO Steve Bartley, “cost risks, waste risks, health-and-safety possible risks. … Our goal is to evaluate the risks as best we can, understand what they are, and plan a mitigation strategy.”
While the Congressional Budget Office wrote in 2003 that “well above 50 percent” of federal nuclear-power loan recipients will default because of “technical risks” and high construction costs, Bartley tells the audience that CPS had its proposal screened by Fitch Ratings and were told the utility should be able to maintain a Double-A credit rating through the life of the reactors.
But no one is talking risk with a capital R. Not until Dancer speaks.
I’m from Bay City, and I take exception from your broad suggestion that everyone down there is thrilled about the plant,” she says. “To hear this project totally debated on its financial merits is sad to me because I’m three miles downwind, and I deal with the everyday effects of increased cancer rates. … If you were talking about building this plant in downtown San Antonio, we wouldn’t be meeting here.”
In suggesting a possible connection between the South Texas Project nuclear complex outside Bay City and rising cancer rates in Matagorda County, Dancer is not just stepping beyond the realm of polite conversation — she’s pole-vaulting deep into the heart of the highly emotional anti-nuclear protests that have colored the national debate for decades. It’s territory San Antonio’s leadership has strenuously sought to avoid. But it’s hard to dispute her claim that if the proposed nuclear reactors were built in Bexar County, our leaders would be forced to investigate more than cancer claims. We’d demand to know: What’s the worst that could happen?
Nuclear power grew up in darkness.
Just as the atomic-weapons program that preceded it, nuclear-power research was considered “classified at birth” by the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. All information about the “the production of fissionable material, or the use of fissionable material in the production of power” was considered “restricted data.” That, of course, included candid discussions about the radiation risk posed by nuclear-power generation.
“There still remains a cloak of secrecy around nuclear power plants,” said Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Oversight Project for the nonprofit organization Beyond Nuclear. “It has actually become more opaque since September 11.”
According to the 9/11 Commission report published in the summer of 2004, al Qaeda operatives had originally planned to hijack 10 planes and target nuclear power plants in their suicide missions. While NRC officials insisted that such an attack would fail to cause any significant damage, employees were quietly pulling a 1982 report by Argonne National Laboratories out of the public document room, Gunter said. Only recently restored as a public document, the Argonne study stresses that while aircraft hazards are generally considered “low risk events,” a jetliner impact that knocked out electrical power at pressurized water reactors like those operating outside Bay City “would leave the plant vulnerable to core melt.”
Meltdown occurs when the supply of massive amounts of water needed to cool the reactor and keep fission in check is interrupted. According to a study by Sandia Labs published by the U.S. House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs in 1982, a worst-case scenario meltdown at STP would result in 18,000 “early” deaths, 10,000 injuries, and 4,000 additional cases of cancer within 30 years of the accident. The cost of such an attack in terms of poisoned property was tallied between $104 billion and $112 billion — about $190 billion in today’s dollars — though the fiscal analysis did not include “the cost of providing health care to the affected population, all onsite costs, litigation costs, direct costs of health effects, and indirect costs.”
“If somebody is going to put an airplane in there, they’re going to scramble jets from Ellington. It’s going to take them 15 minutes to even get here,” said Bay City resident Bill Wagner, a former STP employee who has filed as an intervenor in opposition to the proposed plant expansion. “If that is in fact what’s gonna happen, they’re gonna get here just in time to make sure they see the smoke columns of what was there because it’s already gonna be gone.”
Argonne’s report didn’t prevent NRC Chairman Dale Klein from suggesting on national television that a jetliner would simply “bounce off” a nuclear power plant.
“In general, the plane would bounce off. These structures are very robust,” Klein told CNBC host Melissa Francis in a special report aired earlier this year. “They’re over 4 feet thick with concrete on the outside, rebar about two and a quarter inches in diameter woven into a mesh. So they are very robust structures. They were designed to handle hurricanes, tornadoes, very aggressive activities.”
One thing the Argonne study shows, however, is that a terror attack would not have to physically penetrate the reactor tower to stimulate a meltdown scenario. Today, the NRC is working to integrate resistance to such an attack into criteria for all new reactor designs. And the Advanced Boiling Water Reactors proposed for STP would have to supply information about how they would “avoid or mitigate” for the possible impact of a jetliner.
NRC spokesperson Victor Dricks objects to using the Sandia Labs study to project loss of life in the event of a catastrophe at STP since the assumptions used (including 100-percent release of radioactivity from the core) are now considered “extremely unrealistic.” What Sandia had listed as a 1 in 100,000 longshot, Dricks called impossible.
“What they came up with is a one-in-a-billion that is now considered to be so outlandish that it’s not even considered technically feasible,” Dricks said.
To counter those worst-case assumptions, the NRC is working up new numbers about the loss of life, illness, and property damage that a meltdown potentially could cause.
“What we’re doing is updating that, based on changes that have been made to the design of plants over the last 20 years, improvements in how the plants operate, basically updating this based on information that’s been developed over years of research to give us a more realistic assessment of what the consequences would be,” Dricks said.
A schedule for the completion of that study has not been set.
As we approach the dark pool inside Unit 1 of the South Texas Project nuclear plant where highly radioactive “spent” fuel is stored after being removed from the reactor, yellow and red tape runs in lines across the concrete floor. Large yellow barrels sit at either side of yellow pipes across which hangs a placard, red lettering on a yellow sign: “Caution: Contaminated Area.” On the floor are slightly adhesive mats intended to catch any radioactive particles that may hitch a ride in the tread of a work boot. My guide, STP Operating Company spokesperson Cathy Gann, says she doesn’t know how many assemblies are in the pool beneath the water’s surface or how much deadly radioactivity those rods hold. We don’t turn on the lights for a better view. She does, however, take a moment for a good-natured jab at her colleagues in the coal industry.
“At least we know where our waste is,” a smiling Gann tells me as we look past the plexiglass barrier, life ring, and shepherd’s hook.
But the problem isn’t knowing where the waste is. The problem is having nowhere to put it.
After more than 20 years and $9 billion spent developing the site, Yucca Mountain was finally rejected earlier this year as a disposal option for the nation’s high-level radioactive waste. It’s conceivable that long after the reactors at STP are powered down, this site will remain a radioactive tomb for the high-level waste, all of 10 miles from the impetuous Gulf of Mexico.
After follow-up requests for details about the amount of spent fuel stored here, STP Operating Company spokesperson Buddy Eller says the information is a matter of national security and cannot be released. If terror attacks on the reactors themselves are one debilitating risk posed by STP, the pool represents another. Public records show that in 1988 the NRC increased the number of spent reactor fuel rods STP can store by 10-fold — from 196 fuel assemblies to 1,969. Whether initiated by a human error, an “act of God”-level accident, or evil intent, draining the pool’s water could cause these rods to overheat and catch fire. And while the NRC would like to distance itself from the Argonne study of the ’80s and its heavy casualties, a 2001 NRC report found that a severe pool fire could result in even more deaths: 26,000 in a 500-mile radius. That study was followed by an investigation by the National Academy of Sciences, who examined the risk posed by spent-fuel pools around the country in 2005. In a declassified version of their classified report to Congress, the group wrote that while it would be “difficult” to achieve, a terrorist attack on a power plant could spark a zirconium-cladding fire resulting in “the release of large amounts of radioactivity.”
As one-time federal research transitioned into the public and private sectors, secrets of another kind plagued the construction of the South Texas Project in the 1970s and ’80s — secrets that eventually leaked out despite the use of violence and threats against regulators and whistleblowers alike. Ultimately, hundreds of concerns boiled up from dozens of workers at STP, including allegations of shoddy workmanship, forged inspection reports, improperly installed valves, and onsite drug use by contractors. The NRC, widely criticized for failing to respond to complaints more quickly, eventually stepped in.
Whistleblower John Corder was a 27-year Bechtel employee who had overseen quality control at 12 nuclear power plants before coming to STP in the 1980s. Allegedly fired after going to his supervisor about plant-safety concerns, Corder was one of the employees asked to join the NRC on a “reinspection” walk-through in January of 1988.
“I was asked to go with the NRC to the plant to specifically show them 10 items that appeared to be discrepancies,” Corder wrote in a public statement at the time. “When I got to the plant site, they only wanted me to show them one of the 10 items. I was to show them where the problems were in Unit 1, but they refused to allow me into Unit 1 and only allowed me into Unit 2. When asked about this, the managing inspector said, ‘John, you don’t know how difficult it was to get you onsite.’”
Despite Corder’s concerns, Unit 1 was brought online later that year; Unit 2 followed in 1989. The very next year, STP’s owners filed a joint lawsuit against Westinghouse for problems with the steam generators. In 1993, STP was placed on the NRC’s “Watch List” of problem nuclear reactors, and in the late ’90s the agency took two enforcement actions against the plant. Following an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, the NRC found significant cases of worker intimidation and harassment. Problems with a leaking valve went unaddressed for eight months.
To date, the worst equipment breakdowns at STP include failure of the installed Westinghouse steam generators — all since replaced — and the 2003 discovery of corrosion at the base of one reactor vessel. A similar acid leak at FirstEnergy’s Davis-Besse plant ate almost entirely through the reactor’s 6-inch-thick steel cap, an event workers there sought unsuccessfully to hide from NRC inspectors. Either of these events could have ended far worse than they did.
To the credit of the operators at STP, Units 1 and 2 appear to have finally rounded a corner and are churning out massive amounts of uninterrupted electricity. The shift has vaulted the plant from the ranks of one of the country’s worst-run facilities in the 1990s to one of the best.
“I can remember 10 years ago when I would drive in, I would look to see if the units had tripped. I’d always look for steam billowing,” Paul Burton, secondary reactor operator, says from Unit 1’s control room. “Now, I don’t ever look at that because we’re always running. It’s just amazing. The reliability we’re at now is just incredible.”
As operators at the Matagorda plant celebrate their 20-year anniversary, they are also celebrating five years of continued record-breaking levels of power generation. A recent press release from the operating company states: “The South Texas Project produced more electricity than any other two-unit nuclear power plant in the nation in 2008, for the fifth consecutive year. STP Unit 1 led all 104 reactors nationwide and Unit 2 placed third nationally in electric generation, despite scheduled shutdowns of both units for refueling and maintenance last year.”
Thanks to upgrades and changes in operating procedures, Unit 2 is expected to run at more than 100 percent this year.
Still, with 20 years left on its license and staff beginning to draft an application for a 20-year extension, STP operators are determined to make up for those years of construction delay and 500-percent cost overruns. The turnabout is a welcome shift for investors, but those who have spent the past decades decrying construction foibles and cover-ups have another perspective.
“These are aging and brittle reactors. There’s no telling what comes next,” said Karen Hadden, director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, or SEED. “Why risk any of this? What is the threat from a wind turbine or a solar panel?”
San Antonio resident Lanny Sinkin has lived this before.
As one of the few opponents of CPS Energy’s decision to partner in the construction of the STP reactors outside of Bay City in the 1970s, Sinkin was critical in exposing serious construction problems at the facility. He connected an NRC whistleblower with the national media and helped launch a full-fledged investigation that led to a $100,000 fine against Houston Lighting & Power. The experience taught Sinkin that the system was broken.
“Why did it have to be some young anti-nuclear activist in San Antonio going to 60 Minutes to stop poor construction at a nuclear power plant?” he asks.
But in the ’70s, with a punishing oil embargo on and San Antonio struggling to diversify its natural-gas-dependent portfolio, the city truly faced a choice between coal and nuclear. This time, however, as executive director of Solar San Antonio, Sinkin has a counter offer.
“Solar’s going down, down, down,” Sinkin says. “And particularly right now you’re going to see breakthroughs because there’s money being invested and people are competing like crazy to be the one that delivers the solar solution.”
CPS estimates the city’s population will start to surpass its available electricity by 2020, a gap that could quickly grow to 500 megawatts, making it difficult if not impossible to meet the power demands of the city — particularly during the hottest, or “peak,” times of the day. To meet that need, CPS’s leadership is advocating San Antonio buy its way into twice that amount with a 40-percent share of the proposed STP expansion and sell off the excess.
Up the road, meanwhile, municipally owned Austin Energy is also preparing a recommendation for its city leaders to meet that city’s power needs come 2020. Austin’s process has differed from San Antonio’s in at least two important ways. First, Austin, a 16-percent partner in STP 1 and 2, bowed out of the proposed expansion with NRG Energy, citing the associated financial and environmental risks. (“They thought the cost projections were too low, and also that it would put Austin Energy into debt to the point it may hurt our credit rating,” said Carlos Cordova, an Austin Energy spokesperson.) Secondly, while CPS chose a power prescription and launched a major sales campaign to round up public support, Austin Energy — guided by a city-council mandate that future energy sources be carbon-neutral — trotted out an assortment of possible power-generation scenarios and asked for public input.
“What we found was the public wanted more energy efficiency and more renewable energy,” said Cordova. “Basically our recommendation reflects this public-participation process.”
Following the public meetings, Austin’s utility increased its renewable-energy goals from 30 percent of the city’s total power supply by 2020 to 35 percent. It ramped up desired efficiency savings from 700 to 800 megawatts, and doubled the utility’s original solar goal of 100 megawatts to 200 megawatts. The recommendations are expected to be deliverd to Austin’s city council later this month. Ratepayers there would see their bills increase by about 2 percent per year until 2020, Cordova said, as compared to CPS’s nuclear option, which prices out at 5-percent rate increases every other year for the next decade.
If CPS presented a decidedly top-down solution, critics like Sinkin also charge that the utility has skewed the numbers against other options in order to close the nuclear-expansion deal. `See “Atomic numbers,” Page 12.` It riles CPS critics, for instance, to see the price tag put on energy efficiency in San Antonio at three times Austin Energy’s tabulation.
Craig Severance, certified public accountant and green-energy booster, shared the stage with CPS’s Bartley at the Pearl Brewery Stables earlier this month. He drummed home Moody’s financial warning and reminded the audience about nuclear’s failed promises of 30 years ago.
“Over 125 nuclear power plants that had been on order by utilities were canceled, many of them after construction had already been started, most of them after millions or even billions of dollars had been spent,” Severance said later that day. Canceled “not by environmentalists, not by the Three Mile Island accident. … This was a business decision.”
Still, bad business bets weren’t the only cause of nuclear’s first-round demise. Place names became events, and the events at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl still resonate. Just not, it would seem, in San Antonio. While a handful of objectors have dared to raise meltdown fears at public hearings over these past months, Dancer’s intimation of a cancer risk at STP is the closest the city has come to having an actual two-way dialogue about health risks. It didn’t go far.
“I just want to assure all of you in the audience that there is no scientifically credible evidence of any increase in cancer rates anywhere near any nuclear plant in the United States,” said Pearl panelist Patrick Moore, the Nuclear Energy Institute-backed former Greenpeace member. In Moore’s world, Three Mile Island wasn’t a nuclear accident: It was a “planned release of radiation” that left “no evidence of radiation or radiation damage.” In fact, he claimed, there has never been a singled death attributable to nuclear power “anywhere in the Western world or Asia.”
If Dancer’s read of cancer statistics fails, in and of itself, to support her case, Moore drifts recklessly into the realm of hyperbole — an indication that the fight over power-plant hazards remains heated.
Consider that the worst radiological release in history — the 1986 Chernobyl disaster — killed 56 people, with an ultimate death toll from cancer projected to reach 4,000, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency and World Health Organization. Consider also that the IAEA was established by the United Nations to promote the spread of nuclear power around the world and that the message from Ukraine health officials about Chernobyl’s legacy is a far different one.
Nikolai Omelyanets, deputy head of the Ukrainian National Commission for Radiation Protection, has suggested that half a million people may have died from the accident so far. And Evgenia Stepanova, of the Ukrainian government’s Scientific Centre for Radiation Medicine, told the Guardian in 2006, “We’re overwhelmed by thyroid cancers, leukemias and genetic mutations that are not recorded in the WHO data and which were practically unknown 20 years ago.”
The same extremes have played out in the Three Mile Island debate. While Moore and others are quick to assert that no one died as a result of Three Mile Island, a study by Steve Wing and others from the University of North Carolina published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 1997 suggests otherwise.
“People reported symptoms at the time of the accident, symptoms like nausea, vomiting, hair loss, rashes on exposed skin, symptoms that can occur from high-level radiation exposure,” Wing said. “The authorities, upon learning this, the reaction was, ‘This must have been due to stress.’”
However, the Three Mile Island experience didn’t fit the typical “mass psychogenic” reaction, a group psychological event that can occur when people witness and influence each other’s responses. Neither did the symptoms. “People do not generally lose their hair from fear or stress,” Wing said.
The size of the radiation release at Three Mile Island is unknown since plant monitors were overwhelmed, knocked off scale by the released radioactivity, but the NRC would later state that no exposures greater than an average annual dose of natural background radiation occurred. Wing’s team followed on the heels of a study by Colombia University researchers and found elevated numbers of cancers downwind from the plant that could not be explained by either stress or the officially estimated radiation-release figures. Only something “several orders of magnitude” higher could account for recorded cancers that were up to 10 times higher downwind from the reactor than upwind. What made Wing’s report explosive was its willingness to entertain the possibility that the official story may not be accurate.
It’s important to remember, Wing says, that prior to Three Mile Island the atomic industry’s relationship with truth was not always consistent. “I know from the past — and it’s now general knowledge — there were times information about these radiation releases was not published or publicized in any way,” Wing said. “There’s a lot of documentation of really unethical coverups, basically, or failure to tell people about their exposures.”
Even when they’re operating properly and “safely,” nuclear power plants aren’t emission-free. Low levels of radioactivity are routinely discharged into the air and water at the best-run reactors. One radionuclide that keeps turning up is tritium. Associated with nuclear power and weapons production, tritium is a known cancer-causer if ingested or inhaled, and remains hazardous for dozens of years as it slowly decays into a harmless form of hydrogen.
When it became known in 2005 that Exelon’s Illinois plants had stealthily released millions of gallons of tritium-contaminated water into the groundwater of that state — spawning a variety of health claims and lawsuits — STP officials were forced to look more closely at their own emissions. They found that while tritium releases had increased in 2006 and even migrated into the ditches just beyond the plant’s perimeter, nothing comparable to the Illinois debacle had occurred on their watch.
And while venting radioactivity into the air represents a potential public-health risk, it’s a minute one in Matagorda County, according to company officials. In annual reports filed with the NRC, STP officials maintain that the members of the public who live closest to the plant are exposed to less than a single milli-Rem of radioactivity from the plant each year. Federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency believe the average American is exposed to about 360 milli-Rem of radioactivity each year from natural and medical sources. The only way for local residents to get a serious dose of radiation from this plant, company officials asserted to the NRC in one recent report, would be by eating the fish directly out of the plant’s reservoir — “which is not permitted.”
Some scientists have made a career out of challenging the prevailing order over the threat posed by low-level radiation exposure. One such researcher, Ernest J. Sternglass, professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s Department of Radiology, drew on cancer statistics from counties around the Comanche Peak reactors to make his case in a study titled, The Health Effects of Nuclear Fallout and Releases from Nuclear Power Plants. In it, he noted that in the first five years of operations at Comanche Peak, cancer rates in the four counties around the plant shot up by 27 percent. Breast cancer rose by 51 percent during the same period.
Susan Dancer started fighting STP after her husband’s job at the plant was outsourced several years ago. She formed the South Texas Association for Responsible Energy to hold the plant accountable for its economic promises to the community. But she’s grown increasingly worried about cancer trends in Matagorda County. “We already have this situation where we are the mule, for lack of a better term, for the energy of the bigger cities in the state. Why should we have that risk if we don’t at least get the jobs out of it? Why should we have the cancer risk?”
After decades of nuclear power in the United States, whether or not such a risk exists is still an open question. STP’s emissions numbers would suggest any link is unlikely if not impossible, but Dancer is right that cancer rates in Matagorda County have been rising — fast. Between 1980 and 2000, the rate of cancer deaths increased from 134.8 per 100,000 to 223.9 per 100,000, according to the Center for Health Statistics. Cancer deaths jumped after STP went online in 1988 and 1989. In 1987, there were 58 cancer-related deaths in Matagorda County. In 1990, that number rose to 79. The Texas Cancer Registry recently investigated complaints of high cancer occurances in Palacios, 10 miles to the west of STP, stating in an April report that an unexpectedly high number of lung-cancer cases were found among women in the 5,100-population community. Based on the demographics of the studied population, researchers expected to find 18 cases of female lung cancer between 1997 and 2006. They found 34.
“We do not know why the lung-cancer elevation is present in zip code 77465 females, nor may we ever know why,” the report states. Since tobacco use could not be screened out of the data, the researchers did not recommend a follow-up study, adding, “As new data becomes available, consideration will be given to updating or re-evaluating this investigation.”
While the preponderance of published scientific literature on the subject doesn’t back Dancer’s assertion that nuclear power generation is causing cancer, the issue is far from resolved. For example, a recent study sponsored by the German government found that children living within 5 kilometers of nuclear-power plants in that country had twice the risk of developing leukemia as those children that lived further away. Even the NRC is revisiting the topic with a new study under development to quantify any potential cancer risk posed by nuclear power plants.
As San Antonio considers investing more heavily in a potentially deadly power source, there may be a lesson for us in Wing’s Three Mile Island study. While Wing says the Colombia researchers were bound by the courts to accept the industry’s accounting of how much radiation was released, he was able to follow the numbers where they led him. “I thought it was possible the assumption was wrong,” he said. “There are real, real reasons to question the party line that everything’s fine and always has been.”•
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