CCTV Live at Five with Margaret Harrington and Arnie Gundersen

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Margaret Harrington: This is Burlington and here we are in the Channel 17 Newsroom and I am Margaret Harrington with the ongoing nuclear free future conversation.  I want to welcome our guest, Arnie Gundersen, from Fairewinds Energy Education.  Welcome back, Arnie.

Arnie Gundersen:  Thanks for having me.  I am glad I am back.

Margaret Harrington:  I am glad you are here and we have chosen for our topic today Lessons Not Learned from the Fukushima-Daiichi Disaster I want to say.  I want to say disaster but we have chosen the Fukushima-Daiichi accident.  So Arnie, could you explain to me the difference between an accident and a disaster in this case?

Arnie Gundersen:  Yes.  If we are sitting here and a meteor comes through and crashes into the table, that is a disaster, but it is not man-made.  I mean, we did not know it was coming.  It is just a fluke of nature.  But the earthquake and tsunami at Fukushima were not that.  There is a long, long history going back for 2,000 years of tsunamis of that size.  This thing was 65 feet tall and they had at least 3 of them in relatively recent history.  So the Japanese knew that a tsunami 65 feet tall and even some have hit 90 feet tall, could hit that site and in fact relatively frequently did.  So that was #1, they knew it, and #2, they did not want to spend the money to prevent it from happening.  They could have built this plant higher up with a stronger wall and it would have prevented the accident, but instead, they wanted to save perhaps a couple of billion dollars.  When the wave hit, it destroyed a monumental structure.  So this was not a disaster, this was not unpredicted.  Japanese scientists had been predicting this for 30-40 years.

Margaret Harrington:  Viewers, I forgot to tell you that you can call in, we are a live show, and please call (number removed).  And Arnie, when you are saying that they actually could have prevented it and our subject is lessons not learned yet.  So this is an ongoing problem, an existing problem all over the world, a worldwide problem.

Arnie Gundersen:  We build these plants to be economical compared to alternatives.  And as soon as money enters into the equation, then safety is off the table.  So we build the plants to withstand the worst that we think could happen.  But in fact, what Fukushima showed us and 2 other accidents I will talk to you about in a minute, have shown us is that Mother Nature is capable of throwing things at us that we did not anticipate.  In the last year, we had the Fukushima-Daiichi accident, a huge tidal wave.  But we also had the flooding on the Missouri River that completely surrounded a nuclear plant.  It has been shut down now for two years as a result.  Had one more thing happened, had an upstream dam failed, we would have had an accident like Fukushima-Daiichi in the middle of America.  Another one was this earthquake that we felt here in Burlington, but the earthquake down in Virginia.  That one was a Richter 6 and the plant was designed for a Richter 6.  And the industry will say, isn't that great, we withstood what we were designed for.  But that is not the lesson to be learned from the North Anna earthquake.  The lesson is that we thought a Richter 6 would happen once in 20,000 years.  And in fact, it happened 30 years after we built the plant.  So I think that is a warning from Mother Nature that if she wants, she can throw something at us that we did not design for.   And it is a real concern.

Margaret Harrington:  But are you saying that the plants could just be built higher and millions of dollars more be put into their construction?  Is that what would solve the problem or is it that they should not be built at all on these sites?

Arnie Gundersen:  What I am saying is that if they were built to withstand the worst that Mother Nature could throw at us, they could not be built because you could not afford to make the plant that strong.  These plants are, the safety margins are minimized, because if they made them as strong as they really need to be, they could not compete with solar, wind or natural gas, for instance.  So given enough money, engineers could build a bridge from Maine over to England.  But the question is, the money that is available to keep these plants economical means that safety margins are getting trimmed.

Margaret Harrington:  And now there is a new chief for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and her concerns, can you refresh my memory as to what her name is?  Her main concern is the plant safety now.

Arnie Gundersen:  Just in the last 2 weeks, a new chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was appointed by Congress.  The old Chairman, Chairman Jaczko, was hated by the nuclear industry.  And the nuclear industry really controls Congress.  So he left and a new chairperson was put in charge, a woman, her name is Allison McFarland, and she is a PhD Geologist.  In the article that is in the New York Times today, she talks about just what you and I were talking about right now, that the seismic safety margins are not adequate on a lot of these older nuclear plants.  Back in 1960 when these plants were designed, we knew one thing about how the earth reacts, but now we are 50 years later, and we have learned a lot more.  So the question is, can we take what we have learned and change these plants.  The industry said no, we had a deal.  You know, like Vermont Yankee.  We had our license in 1972.  Whatever we knew in 1972 is all we are allowed to meet.  And what McFarland is saying is no, that is not safe.  As we learn more about the earth and seismic events and other things, we need to uprate our safety standards and make these plants more robust.

Margaret Harrington:  Are you saying, Arnie, that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave the 20 year extension to Vermont Yankee according to 1972 standards?

Arnie Gundersen:  Yes.

Margaret Harrington:  O.K.  Well that is shocking.  Good, let's all wake up, people who are watching this, that so much more has been learned in 40 years, and still they gave the approval.  So please call in (number removed).  We have Arnie Gundersen here, the Chief Engineer for Fairewinds Energy Education.

Arnie Gundersen:  On your point there about the standard, Vermont Yankee was built to 1972 standards and the NRC just re-licensed it to those same standards on the theory that if you have a 1972 car, you can continue to meet the standards, you do not have to add extra brakes or extra seat belts or whatever.  If it was licensed in 1972, it can be driven on the roads today.  The problem with that argument is that Vermont Yankee changed it's internals dramatically when they got this power increase.  The NRC allowed them to increase the power, but did not require them to meet new standards.  So they had it both ways.  They got the best of both worlds.  They got the old standards and the new power.  That is sort of a typical way that the Commission runs.  It is a ratchet that only turns one way.  When you tell a utility like Vermont Yankee that they have to build to a newer standard, they say, whoa, we were grandfathered in.

Margaret Harrington:  So these are the lessons that we have not learned worldwide from the . . .

Arnie Gundersen:  Well that is one and I am glad to see that the New York Times is talking about Chair McFarland, saying we need to look again at the seismic issue.  The biggest one that is right on our doorstep, is the nuclear fuel that is stored up on top of these buildings like Vermont Yankee.  There are 23 Mark I reactors.  That is the kind that blew up at Fukushima.  But there are 23 of them in the United States, almost the identical design.  And at the very top in that box that sits up in the air, at the very top of that is the nuclear fuel pool.  We have so much nuclear fuel in those pools, that it equals the equivalent of more than all of the bombs that were dropped in all of the above ground testing, 700 nuclear bombs blew up.  There is more cesium in the fuel pool at Vermont Yankee than in all those above ground tests over 30 years.  And we tolerate it.  There is a solution.  You can take it and put it on the ground in something called dry casks, but Vermont Yankee and the other 23 utilities do not want to spend the money and are keeping that fuel in a very precarious place.

Margaret Harrington:  Viewers, we are going to take our first call.  No, we do not have a call, I am sorry.   Arnie you were on a point, a jaw-dropping point and I am sorry that I deflected the interest away from that right now about all of the fuel supply.  And what is in that fuel supply, for people who are not . . .

Arnie Gundersen:  The nuclear reactor has got the hottest nuclear fuel, but after 4 years it burns out and it has to be removed and it is put next to the reactor in a deep blue swimming pool, huge swimming pool.  It has to stay cooled for 5 years and it has to be protected by the water for 30 years.  There is a solution though.  It does not have to stay up on the roof.  Called dry cask storage, the fuel can be taken out and put into canisters and then lowered to the ground and set on the ground.  Fukushima had those.  In Fukushima, those survived the tsunami and the earthquake just fine.  But the building did not.  So the lesson that we have not learned from Fukushima is to get that fuel out of the fuel pool at Vermont Yankee and at 23 other nuclear sites around the country.  Get it on the ground where it will be much safer.

Margaret Harrington:  Thank you Arnie.  Now we are going to take a call.  OK, you are on the air.  Hello?

Caller Greg:  My name is Greg from Burlington and my question is was it the Yucca Mountain storage facility in Nevada that taxpayers spent millions of dollars building supposed to take care of these storage problems?  and why is now that Nevada is being allowed to say that after we brought all those jobs and spent all that money, that they do not want the fuel now?

Arnie Gundersen:  OK, Greg, thank you for calling.  Yes, Yucca Mountain was the chosen site, but not by scientists, by Congress.  Yucca Mountain was called . . .  The bill that went through Congress to establish the Yucca Mountain site, was called The Screw Nevada Act.  Basically, 49 states did not want it, Nevada did not have much of a population and very little clout in Congress and so they gave it to Nevada in The Screw Nevada act.  Yucca Mountain was not sited scientifically, it was sited politically.  So now, after 20 years of drilling and problems with the mountain, 1. the congressional delegation in Nevada includes a guy named Harry Reid who runs Congress.  But 2. the science of Yucca Mountain is showing that, in fact, it is not as seismically stable as people hoped and there is water in the rock that nobody ever accounted for.  So for 20 years we have been investigating Yucca Mountain on The Screw Nevada bill because nobody else wanted it, but  not because it was scientifically best.  And on top of that, there were the political pressures from Senator Harry Reid.  So when President Obama was elected, he said no, we are going to choose a site scientifically.  If it happens to be Yucca Mountain that is good; we will go there.  But if it happens to be New Hampshire with it's granite or portions of Vermont with it's granite, if that is the best place for it, that is where we are going to put it.  So they have changed the approach to finding a place from one that is not a political decision, Let's Screw Nevada, to one that is a scientific decision, let's go out and find the best place for it.

Margaret Harrington:  Are you still on the line, Greg?

Caller Greg:  I am still on the line, just listening to Arnie.

Margaret Harrington:  OK, thank you.

Caller Greg:  Thank you.

Margaret Harrington:  OK, Arnie, what about the seismic conditions at Yucca Mountain?  What are the standards for the seismic conditions today compared to when the idea for Yucca Mountain was conceived?

Arnie Gundersen:  As they started the borings in Yucca Mountain, they discovered fractures under the rock that they had not anticipated.  And actually, about 10 years ago, they actually had a severe earthquake that they had never imagined Yucca Mountain would have.  So the data indicated that it was not seismically stable.  But the other thing was, the mountain was wet.  You would think something in the middle of Nevada is not going to be wet, but there was moisture in the rocks that would degrade the canisters that stored the nuclear fuel and allow it to get into the ground water table.  So the government came up with this plan to put a titanium cap over these fuel bundles, but not until 100 years from now.   And no one had figured out how to build this titanium cap, but they estimated it would be about 10 billion dollars, a hundred years from now, to go back in and fit these things back up as people were moving out of the mountain and sealing it forever.  So there was a lot of technology that was on the come.  They had no idea how they were going to walk away from this site.  Now there is a repository in New Mexico that is storing, at 2,000 feet below grade, that is storing some weapons waste.  And as a matter of fact, in the Times article that you talked about with Commissioner Chairperson McFarland, she does talk about the fact that there have been sites that have successfully stored nuclear waste.  She does not think Yucca Mountain is one of them.  As a matter of fact, she was a critic of Yucca Mountain before she became the Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  So is there a site somewhere in the United States that can store the waste?  Likely.  But is it Yucca Mountain?  Not likely.

Margaret Harrington:  Arnie, you were talking about the fuel supply on the top of the nuclear power reactor.  Right? And now we are talking about the nuclear waste, which is a totally different thing. I am correct, right?

Arnie Gundersen:  Yes.

Margaret Harrington:  But they are both made up of the same thing actually.

Arnie Gundersen:  Well, they are both connected.  At the top of the reactor in that pool is the waste that ultimately has to go into the ground.  There is no place to store it above ground because it lasts for something on the order of a quarter of a million years.  So we cannot build a structure above ground and the theory is that you could find a place that is geologically stable enough and you could put it underground until it decayed away.  And that process takes about a quarter of a million years.  But it is the same material.  It is just new compared to potentially very, very old when it gets into the ground.

Margaret Harrington:  And where does depleted uranium come into that?

Arnie Gundersen:  Depleted uranium is what . . . uranium in the earth that we mine is 99% uranium 238 and a little less than 1% uranium 235.  You need the 1% to run a nuclear reactor.  You do not need the 99%.  So they strip out that 1% and they run nuclear power plants with that 1%.  But, then they still have all this other uranium 238.  That is called depleted uranium because the 235 has been removed.  That is used in weapons.  It is not a nuclear bomb.  What it is, is it is a metal.  Uranium is a metal and it is pyrophoric and what that means is that an M-1 tank for instance, the projectile in the M-1 tank does not have any explosive in it.  It is a depleted uranium casting and when it hits another tank, the friction of the shell is enough to ignite the uranium.  Engineers like it because there is no explosive involved, but the problem is that when it volatilizes, when it burns, it releases atomic size molecules of uranium that get in the soldier's lungs.  And so, we are seeing now a lot of illness and birth defects in the children of our soldiers that have been in Iraq and the first Gulf War under the first Bush and the second Gulf War and now Afganistan.  And it is because we are using depleted uranium projectiles that when they vaporize, give off very small particles that wind up being inhaled and then getting stuck in your lungs and ultimately in your liver and other organs.

Margaret Harrington:  Arnie, is it true that in order to get depleted uranium, you need to have nuclear power plants?

Arnie Gundersen:  Or nuclear weapons.  You need a process to separate out the 235 from the 238.  We use it here in Vermont.  The Gatling gun on the A-10 Warthog airplane had depleted uranium bullets.  And that Gatling gun was tested on the National Guard Army Range up against Mount Mansfield.  So, the testing of depleted uranium weapons has occurred right here in Vermont.

Margaret Harrington:  Arnie, all of this is alarming and we have a time limit here on our live program, so I would like you to touch upon the other lessons that we have not, worldwide, learned from the Fukushima-Daiichi accident.

Arnie Gundersen:  The first one was the fact that Mother Nature can and will throw things at us that if we have anticipated, we did not want to spend the money to prevent.  And that is a broad picture for any of the nuclear power plants, even the new ones.  The new ones being built down in Georgia for instance, are designed for a Richter 6.  Well, if there is a 6.5, they will not stand up.  So we have convinced ourselves that the worst that is going to happen in Georgia is a Richter 6 and therefore they are OK.  I do not think that is the lesson we should take from Fukushima.  If we think a 6 can happen, we better design for a 7 because the odds are, something can happen that is worse.  So I think that is item #1.  And the other item is the fuel pool issue where the utilities, to save money, are storing 35 years of spent nuclear fuel in locations that are nowhere near as safe as they could be.  And everybody knows this.  This is not new technology that has to be developed.  The canisters that hold this waste are available and are readily available on the market.  But nobody wants to spend the money to get the fuel out of those pools and onto the ground.  The industry will say well we are concerned about our worker exposure.  But that is a straw man.  In fact, over 20 years, the industry has sped up refueling outages.  And in the process of speeding up the refueling outages, the workers have become more exposed.  The industry has never said, well, we have to slow down and not make as much money.  Instead they have given those workers that worker exposure.  Now when it comes to taking that fuel out, they suddenly are worried about the worker exposure.  In fact, it is a straw man to try to save some money.  Unfortunately, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has bought that argument.  The other issues are, I have said it before, sooner or later in any foolproof system, the fools are going to exceed the proofs.  We had that at Fukushima-Daiichi where components that were designed to work with electricity, suddenly did not have electricity.  So then they had to send men down to turn huge valves over 100 times to open a valve and in the process, they could not do it because it was hot, it was radioactive, there were aftershocks, and it was also radioactive to begin with.  And the net effect of all that was that the foolproof systems were not foolproof and the buildings blew themselves to smithereens.  So there are a lot of lessons that unfortunately, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not learning.

Margaret Harrington:  And the time is running out, isn't it?  Between one accident and the next accident, we have no way of knowing how much time we have.

Arnie Gundersen:  Well if you listen to the experts they will say the chance of an accident is one in a million and if you have got 400 nuclear power plants worldwide.  You put a million on the numerator and 400 on the bottom, that means there should be one accident every 250 years.  That is what the nuclear establishment will say, that is what their numbers show, that is what their . . . what we call probabilistic risk assessment shows.  So if you go by their numbers, we should have one accident every 250 years.  In fact, we have had 5 accidents in 30 years.  We have had Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima-Daiichi I, II, and III.  So you have had 5 meltdowns in 30 years instead of listening to what the nuclear people will say is one accident every 250 years.

Margaret Harrington:  Well it seems that the numbers are so abstract, but the people involved, the people who were evacuated so badly from the Fukushima area are living testimonies to what the disaster really was.   Today I saw that they have found butterflies there in that area that are mutants, they describe them as very strange looking butterflies.  So we see that this is working upon the birth cycles of our species.

Arnie Gundersen:  You know that is a great point.  There are some good signs now about rapid mutations in insects, and insects are relatively radiation resistant compared to human beings.  So, yes, it is frightening.  And then of course, if it is in the human gene pool, it will be 2 or 3 generations before it completely manifests itself.  The butterflies already have a couple of generations and already it is  starting to manifest itself.  So we will not see the results on the human gene pool for 30 or 60 or 90 years until this works its way through.  You are right, it is an abstract number and they want your eyes to glaze over and say well this is so remote I do not care about it.  But in fact, it is a very real terrible consequence.

Margaret Harrington:  For our viewers too, you mentioned that there are new nuclear power plants that are actually being built in Georgia, and these were approved to be built after the accident in Fukushima in March 2011.

Arnie Gundersen:  Well and that is interesting.  There are 4 new nuclear plants being built in the United States, 2 at the Vogel plant, 2 at the VC Summer plant.  If Wall Street had it's way, they would not be built, but you and I are on the hook for the cost of those units.  We have signed a loan agreement so that if they default, Vermonters have to pay for that plant down in Georgia.  And it is interesting because I testified down in Georgia.  I did not think the plant was safe.  And one of these guys from Georgia said, well you are a Yankee, why the heck should we listen to you.  This is a Georgia plant, leave us alone.  I said, you are right, you are exactly right.  I want my loan guarantee back and you can have that plant.  But no, they do not want it that way.  They want it so that they get our money for the loan guarantee, but yet the safety issues, they are really not willing to hear us Yankees tell them about.

Margaret Harrington:  Arnie, we are winding down in time now and I just want to put us into the time frame that we are in right now.  This is the 67th anniversary of the bombing of the Hiroshima, August 6th, and in some states like in Vermont and in Connecticut, it is observed as Nuclear Disarmament Day, to face up to the past, the present, and the future and people are taking responsibility.  And viewers we can take responsibility by learning from Arnie, an engineer expert in the nuclear field.  And awareness is very, very important, but what else, Arnie, are the important things for people who are not in the field and want to learn more about it.

Arnie Gundersen:  I go back to Tokyo for 10 days next week and one of the things I will be telling the people in Japan is that this can be bookends.  You can have . . . the beginning of the nuclear era started with Nagasaki and Hiroshima.   The end of the nuclear era can be Fukushima-Daiichi.  It can bracket the nuclear era if we allow it to.  There are alternatives that are cheaper and safer and we just need the political will to go up against a machine that is well funded and is influencing our Congress.   It is not in our best interests.

Margaret Harrington:  It is hair-raising about the influence on Congress, lobbying and the corporations.  This is a major problem that really, people were not aware of back at the beginning of the nuclear age, which is going on to 70 years now.

Arnie Gundersen:  Well Vermont's Peter Bradford who lives down in Peru, has said, there are no Democrats and Republicans when it comes to nuclear power, there are only pro-nuclear people.  Essentially Congress has been totally co-opted with the exception of Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey in Massachusetts and a few others, Dennis Kucinich, and just a few congressmen and senators have the courage to fight this lobby.  But almost all of them have been co-opted by the money and are pro-nuclear.

Margaret Harrington:  Thank you Arnie.  We are winding down now, and viewers, thank you very much for being with us today.   I hope that you learned a lot as I did with Arnie's conversation here.  And until the next time as we go into a nuclear free future, may we be more well informed, may we be aware.

Thank you very much Arnie.

Arnie Gundersen:  Thank you for having me.

Margaret Harrington:  Goodbye for now.