Next | ToC | Prev



          Senator Mike Gravel has announced plans to introduce legislation which will remove preferential treatment for nuclear power plants, and give new attention to safer ways of making electricity.

          One provision of the bill will be repeal of the Price-Anderson Act, which presently provides special liability limits in case of nuclear power-plant accidents; repeal of the Act may bring construction of nuclear plants to a halt. Gravel's bill will provide job insurance for the affected workers—both private and government—and indemnification for the affected businesses if construction of nuclear power plants stops.

          "It is not fair—in the nuclear business, or in the defense, space, or aircraft businesses—to make people suffer for having done just what the government urged them to do," Gravel said. "On the other hand, it is not fair to the public to have allowed the construction of nuclear plants which are so potentially dangerous that a single accident might contaminate 150,000 square miles, or fifteen states the size of Maryland."

          The major substance of the bill will establish an Energy-Environment Commission instead of an Atomic Energy Commission, and will provide funds to develop safe methods of generating electricity, such as clean fossil-fuel technology, magneto-hydrodynamic generators, fusion, solar, and geothermal energies. Research on nuclear fission plants would also continue as one division of the new Energy-Environment Commission.

          Gravel's announcement coincided with the broadcast of the NET television program, "The Advocates," in which he and Dr. John W. Gofman argued in favor of a moratorium on the construction of nuclear power plants. Senator Gravel's statement deals with the following questions:

  1. Why is it advisable to stop building nuclear power plants?

              The possibility of a major accident at one of our nuclear power plants is undeniable. One really serious accident could release as much long-lived radioactivity over the countryside as 100 Hiroshima bombs, or more. The consequences could bring this country to its knees.

  2. What might be the consequences of a major nuclear accident?

              If we use the AEC's own Brookhaven Report, we must figure the following possibilities:

              Fifteen states the size of Maryland might be contaminated; agriculture restricted or forbidden; water supplies contaminated; other power plants contaminated.

              Half a million people might need evacuation, fast. These radiation refugees would have no place to go, and probably no one who would want them.

              Perhaps another 3½ million people might have to have their outdoor activity restricted to keep them from receiving high radiation doses.

              There might be general panic, and people might demand that all the nuclear plants in the country be shut down—which would extend the economic chaos even further.

              In addition, there might be 3,000 or 4,000 people dying from acute radiation overexposure.

              Plus another 50,000 people dying later from radiation-induced cancer, which is a horrible way to die.

  3. Are the damage and casualty figures upper-limits on the very worst accident which could happen?

              No, the figures cited above could be significant underestimates for several reasons:

    1. Nuclear plants are now being built and planned 5 times bigger than they were when the Brookhaven Report was written in 1957; that means that they produce 5 times more radioactivity per year.

    2. Because the nuclear fuel is cleaned less often now long-lived radioactivity is given more time to accumulate inside the reactor. Therefore, at the moment of accident, a 1000-megawatt reactor may contain more than 5 times as much radioactivity as the 200-megawatt reactor postulated in the Brookhaven Report.

    3. The human casualties depend, of course, on how much exposure to radiation is received; if we do not succeed in evacuating up to half a million people fast enough, the casualties will go up.

    4. The Brookhaven Report postulated an accident at a small nuclear power plant located about 30 miles from a city. Huge reactors are now being built 24 miles from New York City; 12 miles from downtown Gary, Indiana; 4 miles from New London, Conn; 10 miles from Philadelphia; 5 miles from Trenton, New Jersey. Evacuation will be both more complex and more urgent.

    5. These figures also exclude all casualties caused by radiation exposure below 50 rads, which is a high dose (about 500 times more than our annual dose from natural radiation) Obviously, there will be additional cancers coming later from doses below 50 rads, but they are not even included in these figures. A dose of 1½ rads to a woman during pregnancy seems to increase the chance by 50% that her child will get cancer before the age of ten.

  4. Some nuclear enthusiasts refer to the Brookhaven Report as a fanciful exercise; is that true?

              The utilities take the AEC's Brookhaven Report so seriously that they have insisted on the Price-Anderson Act to limit their liability.

              The AEC takes it so seriously that in 1965, the Commission admitted in writing that the consequences of accidents could be even more serious than was indicated in 1957.

              If the utilities and the AEC take it seriously, we should too. If the utilities do not take the report seriously, then of course they will have no objection to repeal of the Price-Anderson Act.

  5. Isn't the chance nearly zero of such an accident ever occurring?

              We are told that the chances of such an accident occurring are extremely remote or negligible. That's theory, not human experience. The chance might be one chance in ten, and we would not necessarily know it yet from our accumulated experience.

              The declaration of long odds—like one chance in 300 million for such an accident—is one of the most irresponsible lines being used today on the public. That's a phony figure, both in terms of the frequency with which statistically "impossible" accidents do happen—like the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage—and in terms of our experience so far with nuclear power plants.

              We have about 100 reactor-years of experience—or some people claim 600—but we would need about 100,000 reactor-years of experience to assess odds like one chance in 200, if we plan 500 reactors in operation.

              What were the statistical odds that the Tacoma Narrows Bridge would fall down? Surely "extremely remote." What were the odds that two airliners would collide in mid-air over the Grand Canyon? "Negligible." Or that a bomber would run into the Empire State Building?

              So far, we've been lucky with a few reactors. It seems that the utilities are telling us, "Look, we haven't killed anyone yet, so give us a chance."

              The chance belongs to the American people, to decide whether or not they want this gamble taken with their lives and their country.

              If a nuclear accident is possible, and they tell us it is, then the chance of its happening sooner is just as great as of its happening later.

  6. Is the chance of an accident growing larger or smaller?

              We've already got 20 of those radioactive power plants in operation, and any one of them might have an accident at any moment.

              If we build more of them, the chances of accidents will increase instead of decreasing. It's not necessary to be an expert in radiation or engineering to see that humans can and do make mistakes in design, in manufacture, in construction, and in operating machines. Reactors are no exception, and we've already had some close calls with a few of them. The very act of building and operating more, allows more chances for mistakes. Especially because they are behind schedule, and rushing.

              Edward Teller has warned us wisely when he said, "With the greater number of simians monkeying around with things that they do not completely understand, sooner or later a fool will prove greater than the proof even in a foolproof system."

              Stopping construction will prevent the accident risks from increasing, while giving us time to consider such possibilities as building all nuclear reactors underground, or developing other kinds of power.

  7. Why do utilities advertise nuclear power plants as safe?
  8.           Obviously, there is a puzzling contradiction between the utilities' advertisements which claim radioactive power plants are wonderfully safe, and the utilities' testimony to Congress that they would not build them unless Congress relieved them of almost all financial responsibility for accidents. If "nukes" are as safe as they claim, why do they worry about financial responsibility for accidents?

              If the utilities won't even risk their dollars on the safety of nuclear power plants, why should the people have to risk their lives?

              We should not wait for the Price-Anderson Act to expire in 1977. Repeal now is a minimum objective

  9. Is a move against nuclear electricity a move against progress?
  10.           Progress in technology might be defined as something which enhances human health and survival. The one technology which has the ability to pollute this planet permanently is hard to consider as progress.

              We've spent billions on nuclear research, we're buying nightmares for generations to come, and for what?

              We end up with another way to boil water. That's all that a nuclear reactor accomplishes. It boils water, which produces electricity very inefficiently, and it also produces radioactive garbage to the tune of about 1,000 Hiroshima bombs-worth a year.

              Is that human progress?

              One of the main ingredients of the nuclear power program is plutonium-239, which lingers radioactively for 240,000 years. Other kinds of radioactive waste last hundreds of years.

              Who needs it?

  11. We already have power shortages; won't the lights go out for sure if we have a nuclear moratorium?

              The lights won't go out because of a nuclear moratorium, although they may go out due to other foul-ups.

              For instance, in 1969, the utilities spent about $320 million on advertising to increase consumption of electricity—and only $41 million on research and development of ways to generate it. No wonder we have a power shortage.

              Brown-outs and black-outs won't be because of a moratorium. In fact, we will hardly miss nuclear power at all, which is only one percent to two percent of our power supply now.

  12. Will a nuclear moratorium cause chaos and unemployment in the power industry?

              We have chaos now, even without a nuclear moratorium. Every analysis of the power shortage refers to bad planning and miscalculation on the part of the industry.

              Of course we can expect to hear wailing and cries of "We can't deliver the power," even from the coal operators who are sitting on a 400-year supply of coal. We also hear the can-not-do cries from the automobile industry about clean cars. Do you believe them?

              This country could declare a moratorium tomorrow—and we might even hear a sigh of relief from some worried people inside the nuclear establishment—provided we insured jobs and offered indemnification. After all, we pay landowners billions of dollars every year not to grow crops; we can certainly afford to pay people not to build radioactive machines which could contaminate an area from New York City to Richmond, Virginia.

              If we take care of the financial hardships of a moratorium, arguments in favor of nuclear electricity may lose some of their frenzy.

              My proposal for repeal of the Price-Anderson Act is part of legislation which includes establishment of an Energy-Environment Commission. There will be more energy business and more energy employment, not less, because the total energy effort in this country needs to be far greater than it is.

  13. What alternatives are there to nuclear electricity?

              In California alone, there seems to be geothermal steam in the ground equal to the power of 20 big radioactive power plants. Geothermal steam is not only perfectly clean—it's also safe. There is lots of it in the west. Enough for several hundred years.

              In addition, this country has enough coal to provide electricity for the next 400 years—the present shortage is both temporary and artificial.

              In August 1970, the Vice President of the National Coal Association testified under oath that the mine operators can go just as fast mining coal, as the power demands can grow. But it won't be sensible to open coal mines unless the utilities offer long-term contracts.

              The lead story in the magazine Science News, January 30, 1971, is "Coal's Road Toward Acceptability." It makes some important points about our ability to make coal a clean fuel, and our ability to restore land ruined by strip-mining.

              However, fossil-fuels should not be considered a long-term solution for generating electricity. It is short-sighted to waste the planet's exhaustible natural resources by burning them, when all we have to do is tap into the inexhaustible sources of energy like water, wind, geothermal heat, and the sun.

  14. Will a nuclear moratorium increase air pollution by forcing us back into coal and other dirty fossil-fuels?

              No. And it's dishonest to tell the public that the only choice is between clean "nukes" and dirty coal.

              I favor forcing the coal-plants to clean up, and fast, because even without a nuclear moratorium, we must depend on fossil-fuels to make most of our electricity for the next 20 or 30 years. Dirty plants are an intolerable abuse of public health, so it's a necessity that we clean up the old plants, and build the new ones clean.

              It can be done. In fact, equipment to do most of it is already available. We need to see that the utilities buy and use it.

              Of course the equipment may not work perfectly at first. But it's far safer to take some chances with unproven fossil-fuel equipment than with unproven nuclear equipment. That's obvious.

  15. Will a nuclear moratorium just delay the nuclear plants we'll need sooner or later anyway?

              No, because nuclear plants are not inevitable. Perhaps some day we will find a way to make them truly accident-proof; additional safety research is urgently needed now according to the AEC's own Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards.

              We need time to do that research before we build more plants, and also to give the country a chance to look at other new ways to make electricity—ways which are not tied to potential catastrophe.

  16. Is it possible to generate electricity without pollution?

              The answer is probably yes. No one knows, because we haven't begun really trying yet.

              Consider some of the possibilities we are presently neglecting, even though we know they are real possibilities:

    • Magneto-hydrodynamic generators (MHD), which would contain the fossil-fuel pollutants.

    • Fusion power, which could provide energy for the entire world from seawater—and lower ocean levels by far less than one-thousandth of an inch over the next million years.

    • Geothermal energy, which is pollution-free and accessible anywhere by drilling 5 to 10 miles down.

    • Solar energy, whose energy supply both in the United States and in the world, is far greater than any possible needs; it may already be technically possible to recover about 4 trillion kilowatt-hours in electrical energy per year from Death Valley alone; the use of solar collectors in orbit is another clear possibility.

              We should consider wind and tidal power too. There is such a fabulous amount of energy renewing itself naturally on earth that, if man tapped only a tiny percent of it, he could probably make all the electricity he needs without poisoning the planet or disturbing its natural rhythms.

              The real question to decide during a nuclear halt is:

              Do we take our chances with some of the gentle possibilities, or do we rush into a commitment to the one technology which may end up contaminating this planet permanently?

              What this country needs urgently is an Energy Commission, instead of an Atomic Energy Commission.

  17. How many years away are these alternatives to nuclear power?

              Obviously, that depends on how much effort we start putting into them. Therefore, the following figures are just estimates; some of the possibilities may never be practical, but we need only one or two to work out.

    • Fossil-fuels: Removal of sulfur pollutants: now. Removal of nitrogen, mercury, and radioactive particles: 5 years.

    • MHD generators: Apparently Russia already has a small pilot plant working. AVCO Everett Lab in Massachusetts, which demonstrated MHD feasibility more than 10 years ago, is now designing a 50-megawatt commercial generator with Con Ed of New York, Boston Edison, and some northeast utilities.

    • Fusion: Feasibility might be proven within the next five years, followed by demonstration plants in the 1980's, and commercial operation before the end of the century.

    • Geothermal energy: Natural geothermal steam is practical now; it's already producing electricity commercially in California, Italy, Mexico, Japan, New Zealand, and Russia. In order to make geothermal energy available just about everywhere on earth, we need to develop deep drilling techniques, which will take approximately 10 years.

    • Solar Energy: Land-based techniques for recovery, storage, and transmission of solar energy are theoretically possible already; engineering large-scale projects might take 10 years; techniques to collect the energy from orbiting stations are probably 25 years away.
  18. Is the government investing equally in all the alternatives?

              Unfortunately, for years we've been putting about 83 percent of the federal energy-research dollar into radioactive power plants, and almost nothing for the other possibilities. Last year, the government spent approximately

    $255,000,000   on developing radioactive
    nuclear power plants.
    $30,000,000   on developing fusion power.
    $300,000   on developing MHD generators.
    zero          on developing geothermal technology.
    zero          on developing solar energy.

              In other words, we spent less on developing non-radioactive sources of power than we spent on two 747 airliners.

              In fact, when we take inflation into account, the effort in fusion will decrease again this year under the AEC's plans. The AEC is in charge of both fusion and fission (radioactive power plants).

  19. Would the cost of household electricity have to go up to pay for this energy development?

              No. For one thing, the $320,000,000 which is spent per year now on advertising electricity could be spent on energy research instead.

              Then the rate-structure could be reversed, so that the more electricity you use, the more it costs you. Right now, the more you use, the less it costs you per kilowatt-hour. Obviously, if we have a power problem, we should not reward people for using more electricity, and punish the little person because he uses less of it.

              In addition, a federal tax on the electrical bills of the big industrial users would pay for the plan without raising household bills. This would be consistent with the long-time policy of this country to avoid regressive taxes and regressive charges, which hit people who can least afford them.

              We've got to face a fact, however. Probably no one has been paying the true cost of electricity on his bill. We have been paying its true cost instead in pollution and in medical bills.

              Nuclear power, which was supposed to be "too cheap to meter," has turned out to be the most expensive power we have, even with all the hidden government subsidies. Let's not make any more foolish predictions about the cost of electricity. Safe, clean alternatives may ultimately cost less or more. There is a good chance they will cost less.

  20. How long might it be before an Energy-Environment Commission is usefully in operation?

              There will be lots of hassles over jurisdiction, over powers, over sources of revenue, over allocation of revenue, over new kinds of administrative organization designed to avoid bureaucratic inertia, and so forth. I expect controversy, and also I expect improvements to be made on my bill.

              Invariably, these things take more time than necessary . . . which makes it important to start now.

  21. Is there anything which can be done in the meantime?

              Since the energy problem is so urgent, we ought to push for bills this session to get initial funding for solar energy and geothermal energy, plus more for fusion than is now in the AEC's budget. If we wait for a perfect new agency to come into existence, we'll lose more time. We can get started this year by pushing for programs under existing agencies.

              Obviously, it will make a lot more sense to have an Energy-Environment Commission supervising our energy efforts, but we should not use its non-existence to postpone our efforts. Nor should we just study the problem, which is obvious. We need action toward solutions.

              Do you realize what it will mean to this earth if we don't start action? We'll find ourselves toe-to-toe due to the population explosion, with only primitive energy systems to provide a tolerably human standard of living for billions of people. We would pollute or contaminate this planet beyond tolerance if we had to depend on today's energy technology.

              Therefore, it's really a very modest proposal to start funding let's say 2,000 people—out of a labor force of about 70 million Americans—whose job will be to make solar energy practical. The same is true for deep geothermal wells. And the fusion budget should be tripled at least.

              Some will say, "But the program can't absorb the money," but the can-not-do attitude is nothing new. Can anyone really argue that putting 2,000 new brains, with new ideas, on the problems of fusion would be a waste of money?

              That's the kind of immediate effort I'm supporting. Unless we put effort into solving energy needs, it's insincere to say that it's electricity vs. the environment, or any of the other false choices offered us.

           Senator Mike Gravel
    February 15, 1971

Next | ToC | Prev

back to PP | CNR | radiation | rat haus | Index | Search | tree