Prepared -- With Apologies to Shakespeare
buy water or not buy water: that is the question.
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.
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.
better have some extra water on hand.
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.
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?
I hate doing anything that Homeland Security guy suggests. No duct tape or plastic for me.
in the event of a nuclear disaster what difference are a few gallons of water
going to make? Who am I kidding?
are the cons. Here are the pros.
fuel and spent fuel pools.
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.
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.
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
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.
#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.
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.
deadly, extraordinarily active, stuff is what the industry calls
#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,
a minute to think about it.
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.
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
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
amount of radioactivity released could make Chernobyl look like a picnic.
alas, boiling water reactors also have major problems with their different but
also unsafe irradiated fuel pools.
how is a little water going to help me in this potentially disastrous
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.
down? Shouldn't we all flee?
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?
depending on where you live and how close you are to the burning irradiated
fuel pool, staying put may be a good idea.
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?
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com.
* 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,