Former NRC Chairman Calls for Nuclear Phaseout

In a recent interview I conducted with former Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko he said that the US should phase out the existing fleet of 103 operating reactors because the reactors are based on “flawed technology.” He did not explain why as chairman he voted for license extensions (which would extend reactor lifetimes by 20 years to 60 years, instead of 40), including one for the controversial Vermont Yankee plant, though I can only surmise that his thinking on the issue was affected by events in Japan. (His vote on Vermont Yankee was taken only one day before the March 11, 2011 disaster.)

When Jaczko says that operating reactors are based on “flawed technology,” he is in agreement with other former NRC officials I have talked to. They point out that these reactors were designed and licensed at a time when intervenors were prohibited from even raising the possibility of a core meltdown, hydrogen explosion or containment failure. In other words, they are not designed to withstand any of these events. Indeed, the industry did not want to admit these type of events could occur. After Chernobyl, getting a US official then at the International Atomic Energy Agency to admit that an explosion had occurred (even though it was fairly obvious from TV footage) was like pulling teeth – I recalled the episode in my book. Even now the NRC’s emergency planning procedures are based on evacuating only 10 miles out from a nuclear facility, which is tantamount to denying that an event of the magnitude of a Fukushima or Chernobyl could occur in the US. But beyond that consider your own proximity to a nuclear power plant and imagine the aftermath of an event like Fukushima. The chances are small, but what Jaczko says is that even if the risk is miniscule we shouldn’t have to make that kind of tradeoff just to get electricity. In other words, the NRC should not allow reactors to operate beyond their current lifetimes when that might be putting our homes, our land, and our lives as we know them at risk. (Given that line of reasoning, some might argue why allow them to operate even that long?)

More than two years after Fukushima the vice chairman of Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission, Tatsujiro Suzuki, told a conference in Washington this week: “The Fukushima accident is not over yet. Even a small rat can cut the electrical power.” (He was referring to a recent loss of offsite power attributed to a “rodent” chewing electrical equipment). Beyond that he said that “160,000 people are still away from their homes wondering if they can go back. … It is heartbreaking talking to these people.” He also spoke about another major problem at the Fukushima plant — leaking underground storage tanks seeping radioactive water into the ground.

If you’d like to read my story on Jaczko you can access it (I’m afraid rather circuitously) via the Energy Intelligence website. It ran in Nuclear Intelligence Weekly, the newsletter I edit, on March 29.

Thom Hartmann Show – Time to Start a New Conversation

Talking about nuclear weapons, as I did on the Thom Hartmann show, reminds me that most people are distinctly uncomfortable with the topic. So I left that conversation for the second half of the show. In Part 1 we talk about the close relationship between the so-called peaceful uses of nuclear energy and the military applications – meaning, of course, nuclear weapons. We discuss the mythical nature of the atom – the fantasy that we would create endless nuclear energy and irradicate poverty, and create a weapon so powerful it would end all war — or more ominously provide the first nation to detonate one the means to control the world. We talk about nuclear dreams and nuclear reality,  and on the eve of Fukushima’s first year anniversary the horror of what happens when operators lose all control over “peaceful” nuclear reactors.

Part 1

Part 2

Talking about nuclear weapons takes most people outside their comfort zone, which is probably why there is little in the way of a national conversation on the topic. Yet it’s critical that we start one because we now live in a world where nine countries have nuclear weapons, and more might be more on their way to having them. This trend needs reversing – and it might be up to us in the United States to lead the way. Most Americans probably have a vague feeling that nuclear weapons make us secure and that getting rid of them would leave us defenseless. But might it be just the opposite? Watch the show. Think about it. We’ve waged war to stop other countries having them. But when it comes to even reducing our own stockpiles, let alone going to zero, the outcry, particularly from the  conservative side of the political spectrum, verges on hysteria. If you don’t believe me look at the response to news that the White House is considering reducing our stockpile to 300 warheads

Post-Fukushima Article in the NY Times

In response to my recent guest column in the New York Times on the nuclear industry’s future after Fukushima, the pro nuclear blogger at Idaho Samizdat criticized me for “starting off with a Halloween type scare tactic of saying the Fukushima crisis is a ‘fearful reminder’ of what can go wrong.” The blogger  (2 clicks to discover his identity) said he had “serious objections to Cooke’s views. I emailed them to her earlier this week. She has not responded with even an acknowledgement. I am writing this blog post without the benefit of her input and instead rely on the OP ED as published for my comments.” He also complained I wasn’t “nuanced” enough in my analysis.

I won’t comment on his criticism of my choice of adjectives. However, lest he think I am ignoring his criticism I’d like to point out that I was overseas when the column appeared and unable to respond to a bunch of emails because of time constraints and limited computer access. Now that I’m back and have had a chance to catch my breath and read the blogpost, I’d like to make a few points.

After initially stating that he has “serious objections” to my views, djysrv (Dan Yurman) ends his blog by concluding that  “Ms. Cooke’s negative musings about the future of nuclear energy, while mostly true in the broad sweep of things, appear to require significant clarification once a reader adopts a ‘skeptical attitude.’” In fact, it is Mr. Yurman’s analysis that requires correction and clarification, particularly with respect to China. While China was unofficially planning for 86 GW of nuclear capacity by 2020 (and much higher than that for 2030), it now looks like that figure is being cut back to somewhere between 60 and 70 GW. Also the 86 GW had not been made official prior to Fukushima, and as a previous commenter indicated, China is unlikely to resume new reactor approvals until early next year because it is still getting comment on its safety review. As for “delusional” Germany, it’s hardly news that the Czech Republic is planning new reactors and that it has its eyes on the European electricity market. But that was true before Fukushima. India certainly wants to move forward with newbuild but is being held back by a combination of political opposition and the government’s inability to satisfy vendor demands for liability legislation that would remove all vendor risk in the event of an accident. (Yurman calls the existing legislation which would assign some risk to vendors “harsh”.)  The UAE is in no way ready to move forward with its reactor project at the end of this year, as Mr. Yurman asserts (as someone else on his site has already pointed out). There is no contract yet with the South Koreans — and much negotiating lies ahead before any signing is likely. I think his projections for new nuclear capacity in countries like Vietnam and the UK are, shall we say, optimistic.

As for nuances, I can only say I tend to like to let the facts speak for themselves. The outlook for nuclear energy prior to Fukushima was not particularly bright with the exception of China, India and perhaps a few other countries, and both China and India were also facing numerous obstacles. After Fukushima, the industry’s future looks even less bright.

Why the NRC Should Act Now on Post-Fukushima Reforms

Since the Fukushima catastrophe the US nuclear industry has cautioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to move cautiously on new regulations. After all, says the industry’s chief lobbying group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, all the facts aren’t known so how can the NRC be sure that new regulations – such as installing reliable hardened vents in BWRs (like the ones at Fukushima) — will be really necessary? But moving too slowly risks doing nothing at all, as Ed Lyman, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, has repeatedly pointed out. This was particularly true after 9/11 when proposed security-related nuclear regulations were watered down to the point of being rendered ineffective.  As I wrote in an op-ed for the Christian Science Monitor today, the NRC should learn from that experience and act decisively on recommendations for new safety regulations from an NRC post-Fukushima task force. There is a real risk that the agency will again be dragged through years and years of debate over minor details by an industry determined to avoid new regulations at any cost. It’s a tactical maneuver that puts all of us at risk, particularly all of us living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant. So tweet and email about jobs, but don’t forget about nuclear safety!

America’s Nuclear Waste

With the release of its draft report on America’s nuclear waste, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future made one thing painfully clear. We’re back at the starting gate after more than three decades of struggling over how to resolve this basically intractable problem. That said, I was pleased about a number of sensible suggestions in the report — decoupling interim storage sites from the opening of a deep-geologic repository for permanent storage, more or less passing on the topic of spent fuel reprocessing (for which there’s no money anyway), and — perhaps most of all — putting all responsibility for waste management into a new independent agency, away from the Department of Energy. If Congress picks up on the report’s recommendations, some $25 billion collected from ratepayers since 1982 would finally be used for what it was intended, namely finding a place to store nuclear waste, instead of deficit reduction and other non-waste activities. That will take some doing given the current fiscal/debt crisis — as one former DOE official told me, “Good luck!” There are many other challenges and questions that haven’t been resolved, all of which boil down to the basic question: what community in our country is willing to host radioactive waste indefinitely? The Yucca Mountain debacle demonstrated two realities — 1) the federal government can’t force a state to take unwanted nuclear waste, and 2) trying to legislatively pre-ordain scientific conclusions about site suitability doesn’t work. As I pointed out recently in the Chicago Tribune (a point picked up by, the likely candidates for interim storage are existing DOE sites — particularly at Savannah River, Idaho and Hanford, Washington — none of which makes people living in those areas very happy. They are already battling to get rid of the high-level liquid and sludge wastes leftover from the nuclear weapons program and will almost surely resist any efforts to add more. So, as I said, save for the legacy of the past several decades, we are back to where we started from when the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was first passed in 1982.


A lot of people showed up at the Carter center for a talk I gave June 7 on the Fukushima crisis. The atmosphere afterwards was electric as talk turned to a topic of more immediate interest to Georgia citizens — the future of the proposed Vogtle nuclear power plant. Southern Co. is proposing to build two reactors it bills as “the first new generation nuclear plants in the United States, in answer to our national need for emission-free energy from a reliable and affordable source.” Reliable as long as they’re running, but when nuclear power plants run into trouble they often have to be shut down for long periods. Japan is a case in point: only 19 or 54 reactors are currently operating. Some are down for maintenance and refueling but more than a dozen are down because of earthquakes. (Most are unlikely to be restarted anytime soon because of stiff local opposition.) As Fukushima demonstrated, in the event of a major power failure, nuclear plants cannot be relied upon to supply electricity. They MUST shut down because they depend on offsite power to run their cooling systems. Affordable? In the US the cost of one reactor is approaching $10 billion – Southern wants to build two. Southern is getting financial aid in many forms — state legislators allowed it to charge customers construction-work-in-progress fees — with no strings attached — even though construction hasn’t yet started; in fact the reactor design has not even been approved and building can’t begin until it has. Southern can also raise rates to ensure it gets a retail return on equity (ROE) of over 11% — recently approved by a nuclear-friendly Public Service Commission. And it stands to get a multi-billion loan guarantee from the federal government to help finance the plant — with the loan itself paid for by the Treasury’s Federal Financing Bank. So what about the call for more solar from Georgia Public Service Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald? Sounds sensible given Georgia’s climate. Solar costs are coming down. We all know which way nuclear costs are headed.

After Fukushima – Does Nuclear Energy Have a Future?

That is the topic of my upcoming talk in Atlanta at the Jimmy Carter Library on June 7. Looking forward to a lively and thoughtful discussion. The book is currently being translated into Japanese for publication this summer with a special chapter on the accident and its implications for nuclear power. It’s also in its third print run in Germany, having sold out after the accident. Also on the topic of  Germany (which has finally decided to do away with nuclear power) see ZDF History’s documentary Die grossen Illusionen des Atomzeitalters to which I contributed.

Nuclear power is on trial

This editorial was written on and first appeared on

As frightening as Japan’s unfolding nuclear crisis is, worrying about the possibility of an earthquake-related nuclear disaster in the United States should not be our only concern.

The next nuclear disaster is more likely to be the result of something far more common — human error, a technical malfunction, a large-scale power outage — or some combination of all three.

The possible event sequences leading to a large-scale nuclear accident are so numerous they are almost unquantifiable. It is impossible to design against every eventuality.

Who would have thought that putting diesel generators in the basement of the Daiichi-Fukushima power plant would lead to the disaster in Japan — and yet it did. When the tsunami rolled in on Friday, the plant’s emergency back-up power systems ultimately failed. Within a matter of hours, the plant operators had to resort to seawater to keep the units from overheating. The outcome of that battle is still not known.

The nuclear industry has staggered under the weight of near-misses and catastrophes since its beginning more than a half-century ago. In October 1957, fire swept through the first of Britain’s reactors at Windscale in northwest England, sending a radioactive plume into the air that showered radionuclides across the country and into northern Europe.

As men battled the blaze, working in relays because of the high concentration of radioactivity, health physicists drove on narrow twisting roads to take radiation readings on the Lake District’s windswept hills and lush meadows where cows and sheep grazed. Then they started distributing potassium iodide pills. But they were a day or two too late.

The fire started during an attempt to release a build-up of excess energy. In the process, they realized the plant’s designers had failed to provide the instruments needed to measure power levels and temperatures inside the core during the operation.

As a result, the fire was not discovered until three days after it started. It took another three to put it out. A recent study confirmed radioactive iodine and cesium were released, as well as polonium and a very small amount of plutonium — and roughly twice the amount than was initially assessed. This led to an increase in the estimated numbers of excess cancers the accident may have caused, from 200 to about 240.

In October 1966, the Fermi Unit 1 reactor in Michigan suffered a partial meltdown only two months after it started operating. The reactor was eventually restarted — although the process was marred by a fire and explosion — and ran for a little over two years before it was refused an extension of its operating license.

A few years later, in 1973, consumer activist Ralph Nader said, “If the country knew what the facts were and if they had to choose between nuclear reactors and candles, they would choose candles.”

What even Nader apparently didn’t realize at the time was that at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry nuclear station in northern Alabama, technicians routinely used candles to check for air leaks. There were occasional small fires, but they were usually extinguished without a problem.

On March 22, 1975, the workers weren’t so lucky. While workers using candles checked for leaks, fire broke out at Unit 1 and spread too quickly, burning for seven hours and leaving the plant without an emergency core cooling system. Luckily the operators were able to shut down the reactor when there was still enough water in the core to prevent damage or radioactive release.

Three decades later, in 2002, the country had what former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Victor Gilinsky called “its closest brush with disaster” since Three Mile Island’s 50% meltdown in 1979. A workman at the Davis-Besse reactor near Toledo, Ohio discovered a rust hole the size of a pineapple in the top of the reactor pressure vessel. Once again, fortune was on the side of the operator: The plant was down for maintenance, which is partly why the hole was discovered.

But reactors are also vulnerable to unpredictable human behavior and malfeasance.

In February 1993, a man drove his mother’s car past a guard booth the Three Mile Island plant, then smashed through an entry gate. He kept going until he crashed through a metal door and entered the turbine building of the Unit 1 reactor. The intruder, who had recently released from the mental ward of a local hospital, hid in a building and was not apprehended until four hours after he entered the site.

What if he’d been a terrorist armed with a ticking bomb?

The Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the crippled Fukushima plant, was forced to shut down its massive seven-unit nuclear plant at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa after a major earthquake in 2007. Afterward, the International Atomic Energy Agency revealed the plant had not been designed to withstand the 6.8-magnitude of the quake. Last week’s quake measured 9.0.

The industry knew it was on trial then. “We cannot afford another accident,” the IAEA’s then director-general Mohamed ElBaradei said after the event.

Now it’s on trial again.

In most countries, the global community has few ways of knowing what really goes on inside nuclear reactors because the industry is shrouded in secrecy. Corporations and governments control what information is made public. When information is made available, it is often couched in jargon and incomprehensible prose. Countless incidents worldwide have been insufficiently documented or not documented at all, according to a detailed 2007 study on nuclear safety conducted for the Green Party in the European Parliament.

In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently released its 2010 report card for the country’s 104 operating reactors.

Six of them scored C. In two of those, H.B. Robinson in South Carolina and Wolf Creek in Kansas, the agency said there were too many unplanned shutdowns. Fires and turbine problems were listed as the cause in the case of the Robinson plant and a number of other technical malfunctions in the case of Wolf Creek.

While that may seem encouraging given there were only six with the lowest rating, the NRC’s own effectiveness is under the spotlight in the wake of events in Japan.

The agency gets mixed reviews in a report released this week by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The report examines 14 “near-misses” at U.S. nuclear plants during 2010 that exposed “a variety of shortcomings, such as inadequate training, faulty maintenance, poor design, and failure to investigate problems thoroughly.” The UCS said that “since NRC inspections cannot reveal more than a fraction of the problems that exist, it is crucial for the agency to respond effectively to the problems it does find.”

The report offers examples of both effective and ineffective responses.

Most people think the industry has been under the microscope — and held to strict safety standards — since Three Mile Island. While there have been some improvements, human error and technical malfunctions have been its scourge since the 1950s. When the human cost of nuclear accidents — particularly at Chernobyl and now in Japan — are weighed, the cost of generating nuclear electricity looks like a different order of magnitude from all other forms of electricity generation, including coal mining.

If you don’t buy that argument, imagine being told to evacuate your home or to stay inside and keep the windows closed. How long should those windows remain closed? How long must important but impractical precautions be taken? Then imagine realizing — in a worst-case scenario — you can never return.

In Japan, people of all ages living in the vicinity of the Fukushima Daiichi plant could now spend the rest of the lives wondering whether they’ve inhaled invisible radioactive products that might cause cancer in themselves of their loved ones or genetic damage to the unborn.

For an energy source once touted as too cheap to meter, the true costs may be too great to fathom.

Fifteen Bomb Programs by 2030?

It is interesting as an author to see my work through the lens of those whose opinions diverge from my own. Steve Kidd’s review in the August edition of Nuclear Engineering International is a case in point. It’s also worth reading an earlier piece by Kidd in Nuclear Engineering International. In it he states: “It is likely that more countries will foolishly choose to acquire nuclear weapons. If they are really determined to do so, there is little really that the world can do to prevent them—the main effort has to be in dissuading them from this course of action. How many countries will have nuclear weapons by 2030 is hard to say, but there could well be a total of 15 by then.”

In other words, Nuklear Uber Alles (with apologies to the Germans, who appear determined to rid their country of reactors as soon as possible and focus on renewables and smart grid technologies). No matter what happens or how horrible the consequences, hands off the nuclear industry. Kidd basically absolves both the industry and the International Atomic Energy Agency of any responsibility for nuclear proliferation. But the fact is most of the programs that exist today would not have developed without the convenient cover of “peaceful” nuclear energy, beginning with India, which used a Canadian-US supplied reactor supplied under Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program to produce fuel for its first nuclear weapon in 1974. (Actually, even earlier, both Britain and France used the pretext of civilian nuclear power to build the reactors they needed for bomb fuel production.) I don’t think most people would be in favor of more nuclear energy if they knew the flip side was a half dozen more nuclear weapons states within their lifetimes.

Reading Kidd’s commentary brings literature’s eternal optimist to mind. When Candide laying dying after an earthquake in Lisbon, he called upon his philosopher friend Pangloss for food and water. “Help! Get me some wine and oil. I’m dying!”

Pangloss replied: “This earthquake is nothing new. The city of Lima felt the same tremors in America last year.” As if that wasn’t enough, the next day, having found a few scraps of food by crawling about in the rubble, Candide and his companions wept over their morsels of bread. But, Voltaire writes, “Pangloss consoled them by assuring them that things could not be otherwise: ‘For all this is the best there is….'”

In Kidd’s view the prospect of a half dozen more nuclear weapons programs is about the best we can hope for since “there is little really that the world can do to prevent them” — and paying that price in order to secure more nuclear generated electricity is as it should be.

Paperback, Books Talks — and Iraq

I just returned — totally energized — from a series of talks in southern New Hampshire and Vermont to coincide with the release of the paperback edition of In Mortal Hands. It’s heartening to see people at a local level genuinely concerned about the big nuclear issues of our day. If what I said was eye opening to my audiences, listener comments were equally eye opening for me — and I want to hear more from all of you! What I think a lot of people realized is that the nuclear narrative as conveyed by Washington and the mainstream media is misleading a lot of people.

A case in point: Iraq. It’s interesting that Tony Blair in his new book says that he is convinced that had Saddam Hussein remained in power he would have tried for a nuclear weapon. He’s probably right. That doesn’t absolve him or former President George W. Bush of the deaths of at least 100,000 Iraqis and 4,400 soldiers (and thousands more injured) in a war started under false pretenses. At the same time, it is worth remembering that the seeds of the conflict are rooted in a failed nonproliferation policy dating back to the early 1980s. During the whole of that decade the US and its European allies turned a blind eye to dozens of exporters who sold Saddam suspect nuclear technology — and the International Atomic Energy Agency gave Iraq a clean bill of health year after year. Nonproliferation goals took a back seat to larger geopolitical purposes (the “tilt” toward Iraq and against Iran) and commercial interests.

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