OVER 100,000 NUCLEAR SHIPMENTS—A CHERNOBYL ON WHEELS1
Too much nuclear bomb-fuel has been too available for too long, and, as we have seen, once sophisticated terrorists acquire it, fabricating a small Hiroshima- or a Nagasaki-style nuclear device is not overwhelmingly difficult. If they have thirty-five pounds of highly enriched uranium (HEU), a small group of unskilled people with low-tech equipment can build a Hiroshima-style terrorist nuke.2
Unfortunately, rather than confronting nuclear proliferators, aspiring nuclear terrorists, and most importantly their paymasters, the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama … enabled them.
Obama’s nuclear proliferation policies reflected Bush’s to a disconcerting degree. In fact, as we shall also demonstrate later, at times he pursued the Bush policies with greater tenacity than Bush did—a tenacity that his supporters did not anticipate.
“Until we can make certain that nuclear power plants are safe … I don’t think that’s the best option,” Obama had said in one campaign speech. “I am not a nuclear energy proponent,” he claimed another time.3
Consequently, his almost monomaniacal support of nuclear power left many of his supporters dumbfounded.
We will discuss Obama’s apparent mind-change, but for the moment, let us examine his seeming disregard for the nuclear proliferator’s threat—and by extension that of the nuclear terrorist. President Obama never treated nuclear proliferation as a serious problem. Instead of reining in nuclear proliferators, at home and abroad, he sought to retail nuclear power reactors—every proliferator’s holy grail—by offering them to some of the most unreliable nations in the developing world, including Saudi Arabia, India, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and even Iraq.4
Before Egypt erupted in flames in 2011, it announced that it would issue a tender for building four nuclear power plants. Its minister of electricity, Hassan Younes, told Reuters that the United States expressed interest in building nuclear power reactors for them, too. What the Egyptian rebels, rioters, and administration partisans would have done with three or four completed nuclear reactors during their revolution is painful to contemplate.5
Throughout his political career, Obama never acknowledged nuclear power proliferation’s dark side—it is the perfect cover for developing nuclear weapons and once the nuclear reactors are built nothing short of a military invasion can definitively destroy that nation’s nuclear weapons program. Iran and North Korea are cases in point. But instead of fighting nuclear proliferation, Obama became that industry’s most effective advocate since Dwight David Eisenhower, who created the global nuclear proliferation industry with his “Atoms for Peace” speech—something we will discuss in detail later.
Obama also seemed indifferent to the threat nuclear waste posed to the nation.
Given the almost incomprehensible virulence of spent fuel, one would think that Washington would have outlawed its creation and shut down the industry’s current reactors as soon as their licenses expired.
Preternaturally Poisonous for … 250,000 Years!
The most overwhelmingly toxic substance on Earth, people do not have to ingest or even touch nuclear reactor waste in order to die from it. Standing in its presence will kill a person. Moreover, nuclear waste remains poisonous for as long as 250,000 years—longer than Homo sapiens have been in existence. Sequestering this waste in secure, isolated, leak-proof storage facilities over so many thousands of centuries has proven to be an absurdly quixotic quest. The nations of Earth have too much waste, and produce too many tons of it each year to make safe storage achievable. Humanity cannot even contrive warning signs—which would prove decipherable in a quarter of a million years—for their waste dumps.6
Instead, in 1987, President Ronald Reagan convinced Congress to begin building a central repository for that industry’s soaring edifice of radioactive refuse—which, during the Obama administration, weighed over seventy-five tons. The industry adds to that quantity 2.2 tons annually and were those endlessly lethal rods all packed together like sardines, they would take up 160,000 cubic feet. Of course, were they thus crammed together, they would also chain-react.7
400,000 Tons of Nuclear Waste—No Permanent Storage Plan in Sight
By the time of Obama’s presidency, the nuclear nations had produced almost 400,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste. Were it all compressed, its total volume would come to 750,000 cubic feet—except, as we said, it would burst into flames. The world creates an additional ten thousand tons of such waste annually. Given nuclear waste’s immense volume, tonnage, toxicity, and growth rate, one would think that the planet would have found a permanent repository for it by now, or would have put the industry out of its misery.
The world has tried to find that vault of eternal rest. For sixty years, people have tried. However, the human race hasn’t found it yet, and in all likelihood never will.
Even the most ardent nuclear hawks cannot describe a definitive storage system that is currently feasible.8
Reagan’s permanent storage site for this nuclear nightmare was to be Yucca Mountain, less than a hundred miles northwest of Las Vegas. Washington eventually spent over $11 billion on the Yucca storage site—a deep stainless-steel-lined mine shaft bored into the mountain, and the Bush administration estimated that were the United States to finish it, the total cost would run $90 billion. To pressure the Department of Energy (DOE) into finishing the facility on time, Congress ordered the completion of the Yucca Mountain site by 1998; failure do so required $1 billion a year in fines and penalties, payable to the nuclear industry. Since 1998, U.S. taxpayers have ponied up $1 billion a year in tribute to the nuclear power industry.9
Why did U.S. citizens have to pay such extortionate late fees to the nuclear power companies? Why didn’t the nuclear utilities build their own geologic repositories and not the government? Why did taxpayers and utility rate-payers have to finance and underwrite virtually 100 percent of nuclear power’s costs, all the while bearing its eternal fiscal and physical liabilities?
Obama offered no answer to these questions.
It was as if the nuclear power’s hawks were corporate socialists, who believed that U.S. taxpayers worked for the industry.
Even so, a storage site had to be found. Nuclear physicists agreed almost unanimously that the most secure resting place for America’s waste would be a geologic repository deep inside of a mountain. The solution wasn’t perfect by any means. Over so many hundreds of millennia, the storage sites would be subject to flooding, earthquakes, even sabotage; if nothing else, simple plain deterioration and leakage. Still “a deep geologic repository” was the only answer scientists could come up with, which was why in 1987, President Ronald Reagan and the U.S. Congress agreed on such a storage site: the tunnels of Yucca Mountain.10
Sequestering so many tons of frighteningly flammable waste necessitated a mountainous amount of storage space. The Department of Energy would have had to bore forty miles worth of tunnels, each of which would have to be at least twenty-five feet in diameter, after which the country would have to spend several decades hauling waste into that stony labyrinth. Even before the DOE filled it up, however, it would have to find and open up another forty miles worth of twenty-five-foot-in-diameter tunnels in which to stow what its nuclear plants had again accumulated, after which the DOE would have to honeycomb another mountain with another endless maze of nuclear mine shafts.11
On and on, ad eternam, ad infinitum.
Or until the entire nuclear industry disappeared into one vast, apocalyptic meltdown or the industry ran out of mountains to despoil.
Obviously, most Americans feared—even hated—the Yucca Mountain repository … for good reason. Not only was the site itself a seismic hazard, transporting the spent fuel to Yucca Mountain would be a potential “Chernobyl on wheels.” The caravans of boxcars—one-third of which would pass through metropolitan Chicago—would be an open invitation to terrorists.12
So when Obama took office, he came up with a plan that would allow the nuclear power industry to expand and at the same time alleviate voters’ fears of Yucca Mountain. He wouldn’t move the seventy-five tons of toxic waste. He’d leave it right where it was—in power plant cooling pools, on the plant grounds—guarded by rent-a-cops. It would stay there until someone figured out what to do with it. In other words, he would kick the can down the road.13
Obama’s rationale for this storage system was specious in the extreme. America’s toxic fuel pools at the reactor sites held 400 percent more nuclear waste than they were built to store. It was as if Obama was trying to cram four hundred pounds of waste into a hundred-pound bag.14
Badly Trained, Poorly Armed Rent-a-Cops for Protection
Obama did place a comparatively small quantity of spent-fuel rods into “dry casks”—steel containers, encased in concrete, filled with an inert gas such as helium. But this temporary fix was expensive—over $1 million per cask—and the life-span of these containers was measured in decades not millennia. Then the casks would have to be cracked open, the rods removed, and the deadly, intractable problem of what to do with them would have to be addressed all over again … at great cost, with immense difficulty, and no small risk. Casks only kicked the can down the road and for a relatively brief period.15
Moreover, the rods still emitted radiation and are still hot. The air around casks is sometimes 90 degrees. Because of the heat they give off, they are kept aboveground and are dangerously exposed. They are an inviting target for terrorists, such as the brutally professional teams that have been blowing up Pakistan’s nuclear facilities, and the nineteen terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11. Since these casks are also housed, like the cooling ponds, on the premises of the nuclear power plants, they have been dependent on the nuclear industry’s badly trained, poorly armed rent-a-cops for protection.16
Transporting the spent fuel would be a forbiddingly difficult task. When the plan was still on the drawing board, experts estimated the nuclear energy would need 100,000 individual shipments to load the waste into Yucca Mountain and that the operation would take decades. The shipping routes would take it throughout forty-three states. Wherever that central storage site was located, the country’s nuclear refuse would have to travel though most of the United States. The storage sites were just too spread out.17
Would those transport vehicles be safe from terrorist attacks? Security at U.S. power plants and weapons labs had proven to be abysmal. Why would transport security on over 100,000 shipments be any better? At any one of the myriad stopping points, a terrorist could slip a bomb into one or more of the nuclear transport vehicles.18
And as we have said, one-third of those toxic waste-trains would pass through Chicago.
As we discussed, in the 1980s the Reagan administration passed a law guaranteeing the nuclear power industry the creation of a centralized, permanent nuclear waste repository. The law stated that if the federal government failed to build the repository by 1998, the U.S. taxpayers would owe the nuclear power companies fines and penalties for that failure. The U.S. taxpayers have consequently shelled out hundreds of millions of dollars a year, have paid $2 billion in all to these nuclear companies, and unfortunately the penalties are going up. Nor does transporting nuclear power’s intensely radioactive fuel and its toxic waste to a permanent, centralized site—an interim site is against the law—appear even remotely feasible. The waste and the fuel first have to be packed into protective casks, which are massive. Typically constructed of steel and surrounded by concrete, the containers stand over two stories high, are eleven feet in diameter, weigh 180 tons, and can become warm to the touch. Those casks aren’t meant for shipping though. In order to transport these silo-size cylinders, they have to be lighter. The maximal tonnage for truck casks is 26 tons, and for rail car casks 125 tons, so the concrete must be removed in order to ship them. For transport purposes, the casks also have to be smaller. The overall diameter for truck casks must be reduced to 6 feet and their length is 20 feet. The overall diameter for rail casks must be 8 feet, their length 25 feet. These are still big, very heavy objects, however, and their transportation requires powerful, highly specialized equipment, including cask-lifting cranes and in many cases rail lines, most of which the U.S. has not built and installed in sufficient quantities at these sites. The country also lacks the custom-built trucks and rail cars into which the casks would have to safely fit during the course of the casks’ journeys—over 100,000-plus cumulative shipments in all. These containers are, for now, literally too hot and heavy to handle and ship safely.19
Moreover, at a number of the storage sites the reactors have been shut down. The unused reactor fuel has to be loaded into casks and stored on site. However, since these installations are no longer generating power and profit, the companies have cut back on security. At these locations taxpayers have to pick up the security tabs. The Department of Energy is, as of the writing of this book, sitting on 2,800 tons of such nuclear fuel—which is of course different from nuclear waste—stored at nine different sites. Over all, the DOE is storing casks filled with nuclear waste and rejected reactor fuel at 120 sites.20
Obama Never Knew How Dangerous the Pools Were
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) stated that power plant cooling ponds could safely store spent-fuel rods for up to one hundred years, then proceeded to extend dozens of nuclear power plant licenses and issue four new licenses based on that assumption. A Washington, D.C., appeals court, however, determined that the commissioners had never researched the long-term safety and durability of those pools. The New York Times reported that the commission had not analyzed the storage ponds individually. The NRC never calculated the risk of cooling water leaking out of the ponds or the threat of the fuel rods catching fire.
The court also wrote: “The commission apparently has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository.” The court pointed out that the U.S. government might never create a deep, safe, politically acceptable geologic repository and that “possibility cannot be ignored.” The judges went on to say that if the Department of Energy could not find a safe, permanent storage site, nuclear waste would be sequestered in those storage ponds at the nuclear power plants forever.
As we have said, the reason the NRC had claimed—without any evidence or facts—that the pools would be safe for a hundred years was, according to The New York Times, “to extend the operating licenses of dozens of power reactors in recent years and to license four new ones.”21
Copyright © 2014 by Robert Gleason
Robert Gleason, author of End of Days, has worked for 40 years in the New York book industry, where he has published many scientists, politicians and military experts. He starred in and hosted a two-hour History Channel special, largely devoted to nuclear terrorism and has discussed the subject on many national TV/radio talk shows, including Sean Hannity’s and Lou Dobbs’s TV shows and George Noory’s Coast to Coast AM. He has also spoken on nuclear terrorism at major universities, including Harvard.