Getting Prepared -- With Apologies to Shakespeare
by Mina Hamilton
April 28, 2003
To buy water or not buy water: that is the question.
Since 9/11 I've been worrying about Indian Point. Hey, that's three reactors sitting on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River and they're just 30 miles from the computer I'm sitting at right now.
Forget the bland assurances of utility execs -- those nukes are sitting ducks. And the New York City water supply reservoirs are just a breeze away from tons of toxic stuff that could be released in an attack.
I'd better have some extra water on hand.
So what's been holding me back for 18 months? Well, I figure if I spend all my time trying to psyche out where they, whoever they are, will attack next, I'll have no energy left to live my life. I'll just be a bundle of nerves.
Furthermore, I don't want to admit to myself the grim possibility of an attack at a nuclear power plant. Buying water makes the possibility seem more real. Isn't it better to stick my head in the sand and hope all this nastiness goes away?
Also I hate doing anything that Homeland Security guy suggests. No duct tape or plastic for me.
Finally, in the event of a nuclear disaster what difference are a few gallons of water going to make? Who am I kidding?
Those are the cons. Here are the pros.
Spent fuel and spent fuel pools.
Spent fuel is a euphemism corporate honchos love. The phrase is on a par with smart bombs and collateral damage. In other words, it's gobblygook.
"Spent" sounds harmless and innocuous. "Spent" conjures up something wasted or used up. Not so. Spent fuel - actually a more accurate term is irradiated fuel - is far more toxic than the uranium fuel when it's first loaded into a reactor. In fact, it's one million times more radioactive.
Here's what happens: Slightly enriched uranium is packed into long tubes and loaded into a reactor. This is the fuel. The uranium fissions, meaning the nuclei of the uranium atom are split into lighter fragments. This process produces heat. The heat boils water or produces steam, which turns turbines and makes electricity.
At the same time, the splitting of the uranium atom produces a veritable cornucopia of radioactive materials, such as cesium, plutonium, strontium, cobalt, iodine and other poisons. This irradiated fuel is regularly removed from the reactor.
Secret #1 (except to the nuclear industry and anti-nuke activists): A vital component of every operating reactor in this country is a deep pool in which this irradiated fuel must be stored.
What's a swimming-pool-like body of water doing at a nuclear reactor? The irradiated fuel comes out of the reactor extremely hot. It must be stored under water otherwise the fuel would start to melt. The pools also shield workers at the plant from the intense fields of radioactivity pouring off of the fuel.
This deadly, extraordinarily active, stuff is what the industry calls "spent."
Secret #2: In one particular type of reactor, the pressurized water reactor, these pools are outside of the thick, concrete domes that industry spokesmen so proudly point to as being terrorist-resistant. Yes, outside.
Take a minute to think about it.
Ever since 9/11 every utility executive on the planet has, over and over, reassured us: Those concrete and steel domes that house the nuclear core are solid as a rock. It's a fortress. It will easily withstand the hit of a hijacked 747.
However, there are literally dozens of reactor cores sitting in these irradiated fuel pools. No thick domes here. No concrete and steel roofs. No these pools have metal roofs about as substantial as a Quonset hut's. It could easily be punctured by a suicide bomber in a piper cub or by a shoulder-held mortar.
Imagine: mortar drops into the irradiated fuel pool, cracks the pool, water boils off, fire starts and one extraordinarily toxic cloud of cesium, plutonium and other poisons is pouring up into the air. It's ready to travel wherever the wind is blowing.
The amount of radioactivity released could make Chernobyl look like a picnic.
And, alas, boiling water reactors also have major problems with their different but also unsafe irradiated fuel pools.
So how is a little water going to help me in this potentially disastrous situation?
It would give my partner and me a few days to decide what to do. It could save us from being crushed by 8 million other New Yorkers who, suddenly, are trying to buy water at the local grocery store. It would give us time to hunker down and wait for the radioactive cloud to pass.
Hunker down? Shouldn't we all flee?
It's human nature to want to flee in the event of a disaster. Flee where? And how? Being a car-less New Yorker, what am I to do? Presume the rental agents haven't already fled, make a beeline for my local Hertz, and rent a car that literally millions of other New Yorkers are vying for?
Besides, depending on where you live and how close you are to the burning irradiated fuel pool, staying put may be a good idea.
Twenty-five years ago when I was first doing organizing against nuclear power for the Sierra Club Radioactive Waste Campaign I learned that fleeing might not be the best option. During the Three Mile Island disaster, our office got flooded with calls. Folks from Harrisburg, State College, and Scranton in PA, Syracuse, Ithaca and Rochester in NY, even Maine, were on the phone, crying, pleading, and begging us to tell them where to go. Where was it safe?
Dr. Rosalie Bertell, one of the world's leading experts on the health effects of radiation, advised us to tell folks: Don't move. Stay put. The worse thing is to drive somewhere. That way you're extremely vulnerable to the radiation dropping out of the sky. Much as we may like to think our autos are our fortresses, our castles, the auto's body of metal and glass is too thin to provide adequate shielding against gamma radiation. Furthermore, everybody will be trapped in a traffic jam and, consequently, at risk from longer exposure to more radiation.
So here it is twenty-five years later and I thought I'd check out the latest wisdom on this topic. I called an old friend and dedicated anti-nuclear activist, Paul Gunter. Paul works on reactor safety issues at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington DC. What should people do in the event of a fuel pool accident at a nuclear reactor?
Paul's answer was, "It depends." It depends if it's raining. If it's raining, the rain will bring the radioactivity down onto our heads - instead of it blowing further away to later be brought down on someone else's head. It depends how close we are to the nuke. Closer than 5-10 miles maybe folks should evacuate. Maybe not. That depends upon the type of building we live in. Shingle roof with shingle siding will provide less protection against gamma radiation than a slate roof and brick walls. It depends which way the wind is blowing. The depends went on and on.
Listening to Paul, I got very depressed. Depression was quickly followed by rage. Our government built these damn death traps and sited them all over the country. This same government is not providing its citizens with one scrap of information regarding what to do if a nuclear reactor is attacked. No, they're just saying, it can't happen here, trust us, and everything's hunky-dory.
My conclusion: buy water, but be honest with myself and remember this is a sop, my own personal sop. I'll also remember that most humans, including me, are like Dorothy. When there's a crisis, something totally unpredictable happens. Instead of running for the basement, we dash out the door to catch Toto.
So I head for my local grocery with a shopping cart. I load up $14.56 worth of water (12 gallons) and drag it home. All the Sunday brunchers are out blithely smiling and strolling and I'm sweating and puffing. Water is heavy.
Do I feel any better? Yes. Will my sense of minimal security be temporary? You betcha. A few gallons of water aren't going to solve the problem.
There's only one way to solve the problem. What is it? Shut down the nukes and stop producing all of these fiendish poisons.
Mina Hamilton is a writer based in New York City. She is also a Research Associate at Radioactive Waste Management Associates. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Readers interested in more details about irradiated fuel pools, their design, function and risks might want to check out the chapter, "The Deadly Consequences of Nuclear Power" which Mina wrote for the book, Critical Mass: Voices for a Nuclear-Free Future. Mina will e-mail an updated version of this chapter upon request. To get information regarding the type and location of your nearest nuke, e-mail www.nirs.org.