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Published December 24, 2007 08:11 PM

Report: Safety and Security Risks Undercut Nuclear Power's Role in Minimizing Global Warming

WASHINGTON — An expansion of nuclear power capacity in the United States could help reduce global warming pollution, but could also increase threats to public safety and national security, according to a report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

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Those risks include a massive radiation release from a power plant meltdown or terrorist attack, and the death of hundreds of thousands from the detonation of a nuclear weapon made with materials obtained from civilian nuclear facilities. (The report is available at www.ucsusa.org/nuclearandclimate.) "Unless the industry, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the federal government adopt the common-sense recommendations in our report, building a new fleet of nuclear power plants will create serious safety and security risks," said Dr. Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of UCS's Global Security Program and a report co-author.

There are 104 nuclear power reactors operating in the United States, generating approximately 20 percent of U.S. electricity. Most of these reactors have 40-year operating licenses, but several recently have received extensions for another 20 years. Even with extensions, the first plants will retire in 2029 and nearly all will retire by 2050. Currently 17 utility companies have plans to build 31 new reactors. The 74-page report assesses nuclear power's key problems and offers recommendations to strengthen nuclear plant safety, better protect facilities against sabotage and attack, ensure the safe disposal of nuclear waste, and minimize the risk that nuclear power will help more nations and terrorists acquire nuclear weapons.

It also evaluates new reactor designs. The report does not address the economics of nuclear power or the relative benefits of other energy options under consideration to reduce global warming emissions. According to the report, the United States has strong safety regulations, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) -- the federal agency charged with overseeing the industry -- does not consistently enforce them. "Nuclear power is less safe and more costly than it should -- and could -- be," said David Lochbaum, director of UCS's Nuclear Safety Project and a report co-author. "Congress must protect its investment in nuclear power by transforming the NRC into an aggressive safety enforcement agency."

Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer, cited a 2002 incident at the Davis-Besse reactor near Toledo, Ohio, as a prime example of lax NRC enforcement. Plant operators discovered a football-size hole in the reactor vessel, which, had it gone undetected, could have caused a worse accident than the 1979 core meltdown at Three Mile Island. Knowing the plant was vulnerable, the NRC drafted an order requiring the plant owner to shut down the reactor for safety inspections in 2001, but then allowed the plant to continue operating into 2002 so the owner could avoid the high costs of shutting down while it was finalizing a corporate merger.

The report also found that federal security standards are inadequate to defend plants against real-world terrorist threats. For example, plant owners are not required to defend against terrorists using readily available shoulder-launched rocket-propelled grenades. The report recommended that the Department of Homeland Security -- instead of the NRC -- identify threats to nuclear power facilities. The report identified only one of 10 new reactor designs under consideration in the United States that is potentially safer and more secure than those operating today. The design, which has a double-walled containment structure, was designed to meet European safety criteria that are more stringent than NRC standards.

"By refusing to require new reactor designs to be safer than current generation reactors, the NRC is squandering an opportunity to greatly reduce the threat of nuclear accidents or terrorist attacks in the coming decades," said Dr. Edwin Lyman, senior staff scientist in the UCS Global Security Program and a report co-author. "Unless the agency raises the safety bar for new reactors across the board, those with costly additional safety features will have to compete with cheaper ones that are less safe."

The disposal of highly radioactive waste contained in nuclear reactors' used, or spent, fuel rods poses another serious problem. This waste must be isolated for at least tens of thousands of years, if not longer. It ultimately should be stored in a permanent, underground geologic repository, but the proposed site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada may never be licensed. The report recommends that the Department of Energy identify other potential sites. In the interim, the report concluded that the waste can be stored safely in dry casks for the next 50 years, but only if the casks are hardened against attack by surrounding them with earthen berms.

Currently, casks are sited in the open on concrete slabs. Finally, the report warned that a global expansion of nuclear power could increase the risk that more nations or terrorists will acquire nuclear weapons. According to the report, a significant risk factor is whether nations reprocess their spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium, which can be used to build nuclear weapons. Reprocessing, however, is not necessary to expand nuclear power. The report recommended that the United States reinstate a ban on reprocessing U.S. spent fuel and take the lead in promoting a global moratorium on reprocessing. In addition, all uranium enrichment facilities, the report said, should be placed under international control.

"The risks posed by global warming may turn out to be so grave that the United States and the world cannot afford to rule out a substantial expansion of nuclear power," said Dr. Gronlund. "However, it also may turn out that nuclear power cannot be deployed worldwide on the scale necessary to significantly cut emissions without resulting in unacceptably high safety and security risks."

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