Over the past 18 months, a number of nuclear facilities across the country have experienced problems. From the Hanford Site in Washington state to Indian Point in New York, RT America takes a close look at the disastrous conditions at US nuclear sites.
Taking a look at the past, present and future of nuclear facilities in the US, Friday’s special report seeks to fill in the gap about America’s crumbling radioactive infrastructure that the mainstream media has ignored.
Harnessing nuclear energy ‒ both civilian and military ‒ has both helped the world… and put it at risk. RT America’s Alexey Yaroshevsky and Simone Del Rosario explore how nuclear power feeds cities with energy ‒ and how leaks from those same plants can destroy the lives of those nearby.
The US ushered in the nuclear age in August 1945, when it dropped a uranium bomb on Hiroshima and a plutonium version on Nagasaki in Japan. While no other country has used a nuclear weapon, that doesn’t mean that radioactive material hasn’t come close to destroying the world in the decades since.
RT’s Manuel Rapalo looks at the biggest technological disasters in the 71 years since the end of World War II, including the most famous of all: the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl, located in the Soviet republic of Ukraine. Rapalo also looks at one of the most recent disasters, at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, which was struck by a tsunami in 2011. The two meltdowns are the only two to receive the Level 7 classification ‒ the highest score on the International Nuclear Events Scale.
The US is the world’s largest producer of nuclear power, with 99 working reactors, generating nearly 100,000 megawatts of energy ‒ or nearly a quarter of the country’s needs. The oldest nuclear plant, New Jersey’s Oyster Creek, has been running since 1969. Much like America’s infrastructure in general, however, there are severe cracks in the foundations.
One of those places where the cracks are most evident is at the Hanford Site in Richland, Washington, where nuclear waste has been stored for decades in tanks never designed to last for more than 40 years. Recently, the site has released several “burps” of radiation into the atmosphere.
“We know ‒ the data shows ‒ that six of those oldest tanks have been leaking for the last several years, even while the [US] Energy Department denies it,” state Representative Gerry Pollet told RT. “The Energy Department won’t even put in monitoring outside the tank to see if radiation levels are going up in the soil around it.”
When Heart of America North West, a Hanford watchdog where Pollet is the executive director, objected and asked for public meetings, “the Energy Department and state say, ‘No, we don’t need any public meetings about the budget request’,” he said.
“They’re worried about the fact that, if people raise heck about not cleaning up and emptying these dangerous tanks, Congress might respond and take money away from building this massive vitrification plant ‒ which may never work anyway,” Pollet said.
The plant is scheduled to be built by 2036, although it was originally supposed to be operational nine years ago.
Capitol Hill does have its eye on Hanford. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) has traveled to the site recently.
“The DOE has been mismanaging the cleanup at Hanford for three decades,” he told RT in a statement. “I am outraged that the Department claims it doesn’t have enough money to clean up Hanford yet allows such an egregious waste of taxpayer dollars.”
On top of that, there have been leaks of toxic odors into the atmosphere around the tank farms. More than 50 workers have received medical treatment for exposure to chemical vapors since mid-April. Yaroshevsky spoke with several former Hanford workers who are all now suffering from severe health issues.
Officials at Hanford declined to take part in the Nuclear America special.
At Indian Point Nuclear Station just outside New York City, the facility is currently running on an expired license thanks to legislative leeway. In the last 11 years, the plant has had nine incidents, including transformer fires and leaks in spent fuel pools. At one point, its reactor shut down because a bird was defecating on power lines. Despite these mishaps, though, the company that runs the site says it “is safe, and it is operating safely,” Entergy Corporation spokeswoman Patricia Kakridis told Yaroshevsky earlier this year. She then blamed opposition groups for delaying the plant’s license renewal.
The facility is currently operating under a temporary license, but there has been damage discovered in at least one, if not two, of the site’s nuclear reactors, Paul Derienzo, an investigative journalist who has been covering Indian Point for decades, told RT.
“Recently, it was discovered that there was quite a lot of damage inside of Unit 2, and there’s some fear of damage inside of Unit 3, which might extend and it’s definitely led to a situation where there is now a lawsuit to prevent the restarting of Unit 2 and to shut down Unit 3 for an earlier inspection based on these problems and damages that were discovered in the last few weeks,” Derienzo said.
Just south of Miami, Florida, the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station has been described by a former employee as the next reactor to undergo a full-scale meltdown. If that happens, it could make large swaths of the Sunshine State uninhabitable overnight. In March, a study showed that the water next to the plant contains alarming levels of radiation that has leaked from the facility’s cooling canals into Biscayne Bay. RT’s Marina Portnaya reports on why the report’s findings are so dangerous.
Despite the risks posed by America’s crumbling nuclear infrastructure, the so-called clean energy fuel doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.
“The future of nuclear energy is to continue safely and reliably running the current nuclear fleet in the United States while supporting advanced reactor development and construction of those advanced reactors to ensure that we have nuclear energy available to meet our emission and economic goals as a country,” Victoria Anderson, project manager for the Nuclear Energy Institute, told Del Rosario and Yaroshevsky.
Paul Gunther, director of the Reactor Oversight Project for Beyond Nuclear, disagreed, however.
“I think if you look at the trends, particularly the market trends right now, nuclear energy is getting increasingly more and more expensive, and renewable energy like solar and wind are getting less and less, so nuclear is no longer able to compete in the electric marketplace,” he said. “And the industry is responding by closing plants.”
But as Hanford has taught us, closing nuclear plants may not prevent deadly mishaps from occurring.