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New Nukes: The Southern Strategy
L ast July the U.S. Congress passed the Bush Energy bill. According to corporate watchdog Public Citizen (which dubbed the legislation “The Best Energy Bill Corporations Could Buy”), it contains 15 provisions that will provide the nuclear power industry with $12 billion in subsidies to build new nuclear power plants. The industry plans to build almost all these nukes in the southeastern U.S.
When President George W. Bush signed the bill into law on August 8, he was doing his Southern buddies who run nukes a big favor. Bush’s buddies didn’t waste any time getting down to business. A matter of weeks after a top executive of New Orleans-based Entergy Corporation rode out Hurricane Katrina, along with the city’s mayor, the company announced plans to build a nuclear reactor at its Grand Gulf power station in Mississippi and another at its River Bend nuke station in Louisiana. Both are on the Mississippi River, upstream of Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Entergy announced its intention to build a nuke at Grand Gulf under the auspices of NuStart Energy, a consortium of nuclear utilities and reactor manufacturers. The member companies are almost exclusively located in the South. Baltimore’s Constellation Energy wants a nuke at its Calvert Cliffs nuclear power station on Chesapeake Bay or at its Nine Mile Point nuke in upstate New York. Duke Energy, headquartered in Houston, with its nuclear operations based in Charlotte, North Carolina, is interested in firing up new reactors at one or more of its sites in the Carolinas. So is Raleigh, North Carolina- based Progress Energy. So are NuStart members Florida Power & Light and Georgia’s Southern Company.
Also on September 22, another NuStart partner, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), announced its intention to build a reactor at its Bellafonte site in Alabama. The TVA started to build a nuclear plant there before, but never completed the project. Even the NuStart reactor manufacturer General Electric is based in Atlanta. In fact, Pennsylvania-based Exelon and reactor-maker Westinghouse are the only domestic NuStart members not located below the Mason-Dixon line.
The final member of the consortium, EDF International America, headquartered in Washington, DC, is the U.S. subsidiary of a French global nuclear energy company. It has interests not only in the south of France, but in the Southern Hemisphere.
The nuclear utility Dominion Resources of Richmond heads up another new nukes group. Dominion is applying to the NRC to build a new reactor or two at its North Anna nuclear power station near Charlottesville, Virginia.
With 45 of the nation’s 103 operating commercial nuclear power reactors located in the southeastern U.S., it’s not surprising that nuclear utilities in the region are taking the lead in pursuing the construction of nukes. In addition, Constellation, Entergy, and Dominion have bought up and operate eight northeastern nuclear plants in recent years. Entergy is now the largest owner of nukes in the Northeast, but Southern companies now control the majority of the nation’s nuclear reactors.
George W. Bush and his family’s connections with Southern energy companies, most notoriously with Enron, have assured these companies instant access and influence in the Oval Office. Though earlier versions of the energy bill that passed last year failed due to organized opposition inside and outside Congress, the Bush forces kept coming back until they got what they and their energy corp- oration cronies wanted.
The South’s interest in things nuclear originated with the initially secret city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which mushroomed during World War II while playing a key role in the development of the atomic bomb.
In 1946 the Oak Ridge Institute For Nuclear Studies partnered the South’s bomb-making city with regional universities, including Duke, Auburn, Vanderbilt, Emory, and the Universities of Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia, as well as Louisiana State University.
The group has since changed its name to the Oak Ridge Associated Universities. According to its website, the group has expanded beyond the South and now includes “86 doctoral-granting institutions and 8 associate members.” It “continues to provide an important link between academia and federal research facilities, benefiting not only those directly involved but also the nation as a whole.”
Some of these benefits, in the amount of $12 million, trickled down to such universities through the Nuclear Energy Research Institute (NERI) awards provided by the Department of Energy on December 15, 2005. In announcing the awards the DOE said they were “to engage students and professors in the Department of Energy’s advanced nuclear research and development programs [i.e., for new nukes]…that would enhance the nation’s environment and support an economy that is less reliant on imported fossil fuels.”
P erhaps Southern nuclear utilities think that by choosing new nuke sites mostly in that region, they will arouse less public opposition than in other parts of the country. Entergy of late has been taking a lot of heat in the Northeast from environmental and community groups concerned about continuing unsafe practices at its Indian Point nukes in New York as well as its Vermont Yankee reactor. Dominion is faced by unrelenting criticism of its Millstone nuclear plants by the Connecticut Coalition Against Millstone.
The legacy of the Clamshell Alliance, which conducted mass civil disobedience against the construction of the Seabrook nuclear plant in New Hampshire, lives on in continuing anti-nuke activism and consciousness throughout the region. Similar efforts helped shut down the Shoreham nuke on Long Island, New York, and one of Millstone’s reactors, as well as Yankee Row in western Massachusetts and Maine Yankee.
But the South has its own “no nukes” history. Families near the St. Lucie and Turkey Point reactors in south Florida have filed lawsuits against the operators of those nukes alleging that those reactors’ radioactive emissions have caused their kids’ cancers. In the Triangle area of North Carolina, the North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network (NC WARN) has been organizing resistance to Progress Energy’s plan to build nukes at its Shearon Harris nuclear plant, which is near Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. NC WARN is following in the footsteps of the Coalition Against Shearon Harris, which fought against the startup of that plant.
NC WARN has also recently exposed serious safety lapses at the Harris plant that were brought to its attention by whistleblower security guards there, including a charge that one of the guards was shot at last year.
In the Smoky Mountains, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL) has been active in a coalition of groups fighting Dominion’s plan to site a nuke at North Anna. In 2004 BREDL released a study by epidemiologist Joseph Mangano of the New York-based Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP), showing that “the infant death rate near North Anna rose 11 percent in the first 3 years after the first reactor began operating on the site, compared to a 9 percent decline nationwide.” Miscarriages in the study area rose 3 percent, but fell 15 percent in the rest of Virginia.
The study also found that death rates for children 1-4 rose 99 percent from the period 1979-82 (the first years of North Anna’s operation) to 1983-86, but declined 8 percent for the rest of the state. Death rates for children 5-14 rose 72 percent from 1983-86 to 1987-90, but fell 3 percent statewide.
Mangano and Gould’s findings are consistent with those of a study released last summer by the National Academy of Science’s Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation. A June 29 Associated Press report about that study stated, “The nuclear industry, as well as some independent scientists, have argued that there is a threshold of very low radiation where exposure is not harmful, or possibly even beneficial. The [NAS] panel, after five years of study, rejected that claim.”
The committee’s chair, Richard Monson of the Harvard School of Public Health, stated, “The scientific research base shows that there is no threshold below which low levels of ionizing radiation can be demonstrated to be harmless or beneficial. The health risks—particularly the development of solid cancers in organs—rise proportionally with exposure. At low doses of radiation, the risk of inducing solid cancers is very small. As the overall lifetime exposure increases, so does the risk.”
This then is the situation for people living within reach of the constant radioactive emissions from nuclear reactors. Building new nukes will only increase this risk, as well as take more lives.
Michael Steinberg, a veteran activist and writer, is the author of Millstone and Me: Sex, Lies and Radiation in Southeastern Connecticut . He is a former resident of Durham, North Carolina.
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