Nuclear power plants appear to be sites of COVID-19 super-spreader events, but government regulators are ignoring the problem. So says a coalition of safe-energy advocates who have been tracking the situation. The groups obtained copies of social media reports by workers at one plant, describing unsafe working conditions, over 200 COVID infection cases, multiple hospitalizations, at least one death, fears for their safety, and a lack of concern by corporate management.

As the nation begins to experience the expected second surge in the COVID-19 pandemic, the coalition is calling for federal action to address coronavirus risks on nuclear sites, and the pandemic’s impacts on the safety and security of the nation’s 94 operating nuclear reactors.  They have addressed these concerns in a list of recommendations which they provided members of Congress and state officials, urging immediate action.

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has utterly failed to do its job during this pandemic,” asserts Tim Judson, director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) in Takoma Park, MD. “The Agency has refused to undertake any measures to protect workers from the coronavirus, and has not even required the industry to report COVID infection rates. All we know is what concerned workers are reporting, and it is alarming. Congress must act now to prevent more COVID-19 outbreaks in nuclear power plants.”

The urgency for action on these recommendations was highlighted as reports of COVID-positive nuclear plant workers from reactor sites around the country came in.  At one reactor site earlier this year – Fermi unit-2 outside of Detroit, operated by Detroit Edison – over 240 workers reportedly tested positive.  Private Facebook posts from workers at the site spoke of “worse conditions I’ve ever experienced,” and questioned “just how hell can you maintain social distancing, constantly cleaning hands, and keep mask on all the time during an outage at a nuke plant.”

Several other nuclear sites have had similar reports of high COVID infection rates: over 800 workers at the Vogtle reactor construction site in Georgia; 89 workers at the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station in Mississippi; and dozens of quarantined workers at the Limerick Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania. In stark and unexplained contrast, the Salem Nuclear Power Plant, operated by PSEG Nuclear in New Jersey, reportedly conducted outage work in the spring with no positives for COVID. The true extent of coronavirus spread within the industry is unknown because NRC has not required any reporting or protective measures.

Nuclear reactors require non-stop monitoring and maintenance.  In addition they need to replenish part of the nuclear fuel needed for the heat-producing chain-reaction every 18 months to two years.  When these operations occur, it is not uncommon for 800-1,200 temporary workers and contractors from all over the country to descend on a reactor site for weeks at a time to conduct the maintenance and refueling.

“The refueling and maintenance operations needed to keep nuclear reactors up to safety standards also mean that hundreds of out-of-state workers will be coming to states trying desperately to contain the COVID pandemic through quarantines, partial lock-downs, and other means of keeping people from close contact with each other.  These conditions are near impossible to achieve during such work outages,” Paul Gunter, reactor oversight project manager at Beyond Nuclear in Takoma Park, MD, points out.

While recognized as a serious concern by the NRC, the agency tasked with insuring the safety and health of the public and the environment from radiation hazards, the agency has taken a direction of allowing nuclear plant operators to skip some maintenance and training activities to reduce the possibility of increased COVID infection at the reactors.

“Using nuclear power puts us on the horns of a serious health and safety dilemma,” observes David Kraft, director of the Chicago-based Nuclear Energy Information Service (NEIS). “If the current COVID outbreak worsens, or becomes ‘cyclic to permanent’ as some experts warn, nuclear utilities and regulators will be forced to regularly choose between spreading the pandemic by bringing workers from out of state into areas of quarantine to keep the reactors operating, or eroding safety by skipping maintenance and training exercises to observe regional quarantines.  Neither is a desirable choice,” Kraft warns.

“Because the NRC has a long and well-documented history of ignoring public input, we are turning to Congress for quick and more assertive action,” NIRS’ Judson points out. “If during the pandemic these reactors cannot be operated safely and according to existing regulations without constantly moving regulatory goalposts, then to protect the public they must be shut down unless and until they can be,” Judson asserts.

The safe-energy groups agree that three immediate action steps must be taken:

  1. Orders from governors and state agencies with pre-emptive authority on the issues of public health should be respected and deferred to in responding to orders for quarantine, isolation and lockdown during the COVID pandemic. Federal regulatory agencies and nuclear utilities must coordinate their actions directly and transparently with state governments attempting to halt the spread of COVID in their respective states.
  2. Calls for oversight:

The appropriate House and Senate committees dealing with nuclear issues must convene hearings on “best practices” in dealing with nuclear facility operation during a COVID, or any kind of pandemic.

  1. Get all Agencies to fully perform their mandates:

The appropriate House and Senate committees dealing with nuclear issues must convene hearings to examine in detail the response of NRC and OSHA to the effects of the pandemic on operation of nuclear facilities, and the effects on local communities; and the Administration must require these agencies to fully discharge their official duties as current regulations stipulate.

 

Examples of COVID-19 Concerns at U.S. Nuclear Reactors:

 Workplace safety concerns:

Just as with the meat packing industry, reports of large numbers of workers being infected with COVID have emerged:

  • Over 240 plant workers were reported to have tested positive at the Fermi 2 reactor outside of Detroit during its recent refueling outage, at least 12% of the workforce at the site. Private Facebook posts from workers spoke of “worse conditions I’ve ever experienced.”
  • Over 800 workers at the Vogtle reactor construction site in Georgia have tested positive, amounting to more than 10% of the 7,000-person workforce.
  • At least 89 workers reportedly tested positive at the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station in Mississippi, by the end of April.
  • It has been reported that first two case of COVID in Piketon Ohio, location of the Portsmouth Piketon Gaseous Diffusion Plant came from two workers at the Portsmouth plant. One of these workers was known for giving the COVID-19 to a family of seven. Piketon now has 10 deaths, and 761 reported cases.
  • NRC has modified reactor staff work regulations to allow utilities to quarantine essential plant personnel onsite if necessary, and permit them to work up to 84 hours per week over a 14 day period – a recommendation advised as potentially dangerous by the guidelines of the National Safety Council, OSHA, and the CDC.

Community Safety concerns:

The small and typically rural communities surrounding nuclear plants have unique safety concerns:

  • Because of their small size, local medical and hospital facilities are limited in their ability to deal with any major outbreaks.
  • Hundreds of workers from out of state will be passing through, dining, shopping and lodging in these communities which will have limited screening, testing and contact-tracing abilities available to them – if these workers are even identified at all engaging in these activities.
  • Even if transient workers are isolated at reactor sites, they will be passing through communities and interacting with the local population and economy.
  • Pennsylvania State Senator Katie Muth said, “Thus far, Exelon has provided an inadequate pandemic response plan, withheld information from county and state officials, and failed to prioritize the safety of its employees, contract workers, community first responders, as well as all residents of the 44th senatorial district and entire region,” Senator Muth wrote. “This is grossly irresponsible as Exelon has brought at least 1,400 workers to the epicenter of Pennsylvania’s Covid-19 pandemic.” (Source: April 1, 2020 letter to Exelon management)

Concerns with the current Regulatory Response:

The various federal agencies that would be most likely involved in dealing with COVID outbreaks relating to nuclear plants have responded in inconsistent and incomplete ways.  Worse, they often seem content to foist seemingly safety-related responsibilities to other agencies, abdicating their own roles in reactor facility safety.

  • To date there has been no assessment as to whether, in the midst of the pandemic, reactor emergency plans would suffice to limit the spread of radiation after a severe accident.
  • No statistics are being kept by NRC regarding numbers of positive COVID-19 test results at reactors; the nuclear industry maintains a national database of nuclear maintenance workers, but has not made it available to track the movements of workers from plant to plant and health data such as date of last test and results.
  • “NRC spokesperson Scott Burnell said that, the NRC’s statutory authority only extends to protecting public health and safety ‘from radiological consequences, and that sets a boundary on our authority‘ and that ’OSHA’s [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] guidelines cover worker safety in regard to Covid-19.’” (Nuclear Intelligence Weekly, April 9, 2020). To date, OSHA has not indicated that it is tracking coronavirus impacts on the nuclear industry, and has provided no numbers as to the number of COVID positives at nuclear reactor sites.
  • “As NRC and industry increase work hour limits for nuclear workers and defer reactor safety inspections, maintenance and repairs as social distancing precautions, emergency preparedness must be strengthened with compensatory measures for the increased risk to public safety,” said Paul Gunter of Beyond Nuclear. “Civilian populations in radiological evacuation planning zones (EPZ) are already sheltering-in-place from the viral threat,” he said. “Disaster medicine professionals, principally the American Thyroid Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, strongly recommend that reactor operators, federal and state civil defense authorities be required to provide everyone, particularly infants, young children and pregnant women,  within the ten-mile reactor emergency planning zone radius with the immediate predistribution by direct delivery of potassium iodide (KI) tablets for the prophylactic protection from the radioactive iodine that would be released in a simultaneous severe nuclear accident,” he said.
  • As of April 2020, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which in the US is the sole authority for determining the adequacy of offsite emergency plans and preparedness, has so far not conducted any emergency planning reviews for nuclear power plants to assess whether they would suffice in the event of a severe accident. Such reviews are required during a “pandemic outbreak” or when “other events occur or are anticipated that may impact the ability to effectively implement offsite EP plans and procedures,” according to a longstanding memorandum of understanding (MOU) between NRC and FEMA, governing offsite emergency preparedness.

 

“Best Practice” Recommendations for COVID Response at Nuclear Facilities

Transparency and Reporting

  • NRC must require that each reactor site and nuclear facility submit regular reports on COVID testing and infection rates.
  • NRC must require licensees to submit the COVID-19 protocols and procedures, share them with state and local health agencies, and publish them online.
  • NRC must post summary data for each reactor site on infection, quarantine, hospitalization, mortality, and positive test rates, in real time.
  • Local and state governments and health departments must also be notified.
  • Licensees must establish robust contact tracing for all employees and contractors. NRC must establish a central database to track employees and contractors who work at multiple reactor sites, and make the data available to contact tracers and state and local health agencies

Maintenance Response:

  • In order to avoid incremental erosion of the nuclear industry’s oft-touted boast of “defense in depth,” and also to avoid the possibility of serious nuclear accident through neglect as has historically been demonstrated, inspections, maintenance and repair at reactors should not be skipped, deferred, or given exemptions.  To paraphrase former NRC Region III inspector Ross Landsman, “This is the kind of thinking that crashes space shuttles.”
  • If the maintenance and repair cannot be safely conducted, the reactors need to shut down until such time as these activities can be conducted.

Recommendations for Onsite COVID Response:

  • Workers’ health and safety must come first in the work environment. All CDC guidelines must be observed to the maximum extent possible, including but not limited to keeping social distancing; wearing masks; necessary disinfecting of probable contaminated surfaces, public areas like restrooms, changing rooms, food rooms, vending machine areas, locker areas, stairs and elevators, radiation detectors, security checkpoints, and especially the control room.
  • Daily temperature checks for incoming workers – regular employees and sub-contractors — should be conducted, and records kept for all employees and contractors entering or remaining at the plant site.
  • Isolated testing facilities must be maintained onsite, and workers regularly tested.
  • Should a worker or contractor arrive at a reactor site and test positive, they should be:
    • Immediately quarantined, and refused further entry into the facility.
    • Be reported to local public health authorities, or county EMA and state Department of Health should none exist locally.
  • Quarantine areas should be established for essential workers identified as COVID positive (e.g., reactor operators), who will need to remain onsite for the safe operation of the reactor and spent fuel areas. Should a need for some kind of quarantine be determined, it seems that the universal standard for this is a minimum of 14 days.
  • Temporary, quarantined screening area should be established in the outer area of the reactor site, to conduct the screening activities described below, before an incoming contractor can gain access to either the temporary lodgings, or the reactor areas in which s/he will be working.
  • Onsite temporary lodging trailers and facilities should be established for dedicated and exclusive use by all incoming contractors for the time they will be performing their maintenance and refueling duties and obligations.
  • Contractors should remain onsite at the above described temporary lodging facilities for the entire duration of their work at the reactor site; they should not be permitted to leave the site for the duration of their contracted work, only at final exiting.
  • To be granted entry to a reactor site, all individual contractors arriving at a reactor site must provide the following documentation:
    • Whereabouts for the past 14 days
    • Last reactor site worked at, and jobs/activities conducted, signed by an authorized personnel from that previous site, with contact information for that site personnel signing the document.
    • Written documentation of any previous COVID test results obtained within the past 14 days prior to arrival at the new reactor site.
    • A list of all states and towns passed though and stayed in, and a list of any temporary accommodations used (hotels, motels, camp grounds) or other stops made (restaurants, highway rest stops, any shopping, etc.) for the previous 14 days.

Recommendations for Offsite Response:

  • Reactor utilities should be required to notify all communities within the 10-mile EPZ of their intention to conduct any maintenance activities requiring the use of off-site contractors and personnel, no less than 21 days in advance of the work.
  • Prior to the arrival of any contractors, reactor utilities should institute cooperative measures and response plans between local town, county and state health departments and facilities, for dealing with anticipated COVID-positive individuals.

Recommendations for NRC and other Agency Responses:

  • Provide for immediate reevaluation and reversal by the Task Force of NRC exemptions to lift work-hour limits for reactor power operations  from 72 to 86 hours per week during the pandemic, due to the increased levels of fatigue on (a) workers’ vulnerability to COVID-19 and (b) radiological health and safety.
  • The Nuclear Regulatory Commission should coordinate with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide for immediate preparation of required Disaster Initiated Reviews (DIR) of the impact of the pandemic on emergency response  plans at all reactor sites and fuel cycle facilities.
  • NRC should establish a secure and confidential national contractor personnel data base, accessible by the appropriately identified reactor site screening personnel, that can collect and collate the health information gathered by the reactor site screening personnel (see above “Onsite” Recommendations). This will help reduce spread of COVID from workers going from site to site to do their work.
  • NRC should be ordered by Congress to maintain a data base that identifies all positive COVID test results at all U.S. reactors. Those numbers should be publicly available.
  • NRC should adopt a temporary procedure and emergency rule that considers the COVID pandemic, and any such future health epidemics/pandemics, as “fitness for duty” (FFD) related, and therefore affecting the safe operation of the reactor site; and be obligated to implement all pertinent FFD procedures in relation to the pandemic.
  • The Federal and State disaster authorities (FEMA; state disaster response agencies, etc.) should be ramping up best practices for offsite radiological emergency preparedness around every U.S. nuclear power station as a reasonable response to a pandemic.
  • Given the unpredictability of COVID outbreaks, and current guidelines for response to radiological emergencies that run counter to CDC social distancing guidelines (e.g., rendezvousing at identified evac reception centers and evacuation sheltering facilities, obtaining KI pills at central sites, etc.), potassium iodide (KI) pills should be pre-distributed by direct delivery to every household and business within the 10-mile EPZ, in the event that “shelter in place” orders are in place to deal with COVID spread.

The recent Illinois lobbying corruption scandal involving Exelon Corporation, its subsidiary Commonwealth Edison and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan demonstrate the extent to which nuclear “power” is about more than electrons. While the FBI arrests of the Ohio House Speaker and 5 others in a $60 million bribery/corruption scheme, the $10 billion Exelon nuclear bailout in New York, the questionable circumstances surrounding Exelon’s 2016 PepCo merger, and the South Carolina $9 billion SCANA fraud case suggest that this may be a national pandemic (summarized nicely in this New York Times piece , “When Utility Money Talks,” 8/2/20), the situation in Illinois with Exelon and its subsidiary ComEd has been long standing and particularly egregious.

For decades Exelon’s stranglehold on Illinois energy legislation in cooperation with the currently investigated Speaker Michael Madigan has not only given Illinois more reactors (14) and high-level radioactive waste (>11,000 tons) than any other state. It has severely stifled expansion of renewable energy and energy efficiency, and hampered the Illinois’ energy transformation needed to deal with the worsening climate crisis.

For decades the Illinois environmental community has seen renewables expansion thwarted by the recognition that no significant renewable energy buildout could occur without concessions to either Exelon or ComEd, and Speaker Madigan’s approval. The most recent instance was the 2016 $2.35 billion bailout of three uncompetitive Exelon reactors.

This “nuclear blackmail” politics has forced enviros wanting to pass new legislation to expand renewables into a reluctant and grudging alliance with Exelon – at Exelon’s price of capacity market “reform” that would reward both renewables and ten of Exelon’s operating reactors. If passed in its presently proposed form, this provides yet another nuclear bailout under the disguise of “market-based reform.”

To ratchet up the pressure to enact this nuclear prop-up even more, Exelon CEO Chris Crane in Exelon’s 2Q quarterly earnings call with analysts once again dangles the prospect of closing up to 6 reactors if this market-based-bailout is not granted in 2021.

Under the current ongoing FBI corruption investigation, this reluctant alliance of necessity has turned disastrous, given the political toxicity of any current association with either ComEd or Exelon.

It is just and reasonable that ComEd (and the so-called “bad apples” who “retired” already) should be penalized and prosecuted for their misdeeds, even if they are reportedly “cooperative.” However, a $200 million “settlement” penalty for a $34 billion corporation that for decades has gouged billions from Illinois ratepayers through admittedly corrupt illegal practices is a slap on the wrist.

Further, the $200 million penalty agreement provides no restitution for the decades-long societal damage done via nuclear pay-for-play. Illinois rate payers deserve restitution from these and any predatory, corrupt companies that would engage in such activities. This may require explicit legislation. How can one logically or ethically assert that ill-gotten gains (e.g., the 2016 $2.35 billion nuclear bailout) are still “good for the public” when bribery and corruption were used to get them?

Last Fall, a spokesperson for Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker stated, “The governor’s priority is to work with principled stakeholders on clean energy legislation that is above reproach.” Gov. Pritzker – your moment of truth has arrived.

We urge the Governor and the legislature to begin the restitution process by repealing the $2.3 billion 2016 nuclear bailout. Further, and as others like Crain’s Joe Cahill have suggested, Christopher Crane must step down completely from all functions at Exelon.

The legislature should also enact explicit utility ethics legislation with transparent oversight of utility contracting and philanthropic giving activities to insure that this kind of corrupt behavior is not repeated. And if Chris Crane’s threat of imminent reactor closure is true, then community just-transitions legislation to protect those negatively impacted communities should be a priority of the legislature. As NEIS has maintained and advocated since 2014 – it’s the reactor communities (and equally adversely affected coal mining and power plant communities) that need state support and bailouts when plants are threatened with closure, not profitable private corporations like Exelon.

Finally, we support the FBI’s continued investigation into the activities of Speaker Madigan, associates, and other legislators if necessary to ferret out the remaining political corruption that has abetted this corporate larceny. This is the only way to send a significant and lasting message that nuclear pay-for-play in Illinois is over.

[NOTE: If you are interested in using the above cartoon, please contact NEIS for conditions of use. Thanks in advance.]

Greetings Safe Energy Advocate –

It’s now officially winter.  Both meteorologically and astronomically.  The major holidays are winding down, and we soon will face a new year.  That makes it time for NEIS to fill you in on what we’ve been up to, and what’s on the safe-energy agenda in 2020.

Exelon Bailouts – New Name, Same Results:

To paraphrase Shakespeare, a Carrion flower by any other name would smell as – foul.  The same can be said for Exelon’s 2019 attempt to subsidize its unprofitable nuclear reactors.  NEIS fought Exelon’s 2016 reactor bailout, and its new back-door version of bailouts in 2019.

Having already won its $2.3 billion overt bailout in 2016 for three reactors (Quad Cities 1&2, Clinton-1), Exelon shifted to a more subtle approach of co-opting the climate emergency for its own ends by marketing its reactors as “emissions free” (a blatant falsehood; lower-carbon, yes; emissions free, NO!), and therefore entitled to more money for its alleged environmental benefit of not Read more

NEIS sent the following today to Illinois state and federal legislators, as well as to its entire media list.  We share it with you now:

We hope that this latest installment of our energy transformation series finds you well, and as you wind down towards the end of the Spring legislative session, that your work is successful.

Former NRC Chair Greg Jaczko

We share with you a critically important op-ed that appeared today in the Washington Post, written by the former Chairperson of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) – Dr. Gregory Jaczko.  (before proceeding here, please read his article, “I oversaw the U.S. nuclear power industry. Now I think it should be banned.”).

Currently, there are a number of major pieces of energy legislation before the Legislature:  CEJA, the Exelon Bill, the ComEd/Ameren Bill, Path to 100, maybe more.  Realistically, no single bill from this group will or should pass before the end of this Spring legislative session; and in all probability, a large, omnibus energy bill in the Fall Veto Session is the most likely outcome. Read more

NEIS sponsors a week of activities against premature, hazardous radioactive waste transport through Illinois

NEIS hosted a week of events and activities in response to recent House Congressional legislation that would prematurely place hazardous high-level radioactive waste (HLRW) on our roads, build expensive and unnecessary HLRW storage facilities in Texas and New Mexico, and would reopen development of the flawed site at Yucca Mt., Nevada as the nation’s HLRW disposal repository.

Kevin Kamps, Beyond Nuclear

Kevin Kamps, radioactive waste specialist at Beyond Nuclear of Takoma Park, Maryland was the featured guest speaker at a number of events sponsored by NEIS in Chicago the week of November 12th.

Both Beyond Nuclear and NEIS are part of a national coalition of grassroots, environmental, anti-nuclear and environmental justice groups opposing the HLRW plans advocated in H.R. 3053, sponsored by Rep. John Shimkus (R., IL-15).  The bill – Amendments to the High-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act – passed the House in early 2018.  However, the Senate has not acted on the bill.  If the Senate does not take it up before Dec. 31st, 2018, the bill is dead and would have to be reintroduced into a now Democratic-controlled House in 2019.

The week got off to a poor start when both Sens. Richard Durbin and Tammy Duckworth declined to meet with Kamps and NEIS in Chicago before returning to the Senate for the year-end session. Read more

Dr. Norma Field (l), and Dr. Yuki Miyamoto await interview on WBEZ’s “Worldview”,  Aug. 16, 2018.

August 16, 2018

Dr. Norma Field, professor emeritus of Japanese Studies at the University of Chicago, and Dr. Yuki Miyamoto, ethicist and professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University are interviewed by Jerome McDonnell on his “Worldview” program, on WBEZ-FM 91.5 public radio Chicago.

The Japanese Government has been engaged in a program to dismantle ongoing radiation monitors in the Fukushima Zone, while relocating former residents back into areas which still show signs of contamination.  Activities such as these are preparatory for assuring the world that Japan’s nuclear contamination is nothing to worry about at the upcoming Olympics – although both Olympic baseball and softball games are to be played in Fukushima.

The 16-minute Worldview segment can be heard on the “Worldview” page on WBEZ’s website.

In other Fukushima news, the Japanese utility TEPCo has also announced its intention to release all of the tritium contaminated water it currently stores onsite awaiting decontamination treatment, into the Pacific Ocean.  Japanese activist organizations are circulating a worldwide letter/petition directed at the Japanese Government to prohibit this ocean dumping and contamination.

It’s August already.  They don’t call this time of year “the dog days” for nothing.  After a pretty frenetic Spring, things have slowed down a bit.  But that doesn’t mean that nothing is happening.  We at NEIS are using this relatively “slow(er)” time to re-group, plan, groom and educate those who are in need of knowing about nuclear hazards.

  • Educating Congress on “The Age of Decommissioning”

Panelists at Congressional Briefing on Reactor Decommissioning, July 16, 2018, Washington D.C.

NEIS spent the better part of a year making plans with national allies to hold a Congressional briefing on “The Age of Decommissioning” — issues pertaining to reactor decommissioning and radioactive wastes.  The team had to raise $10,000, solicit expert witnesses, and then get a Congressional sponsor to find space in the Capital to conduct the session. Read more

A new NEIS “Know Nukes” program made its debut this August 6th at the Chicago Hiroshima  Anniversary Observance, held at the site of the Henry Moore Sculpture to Nuclear Power on the campus of the University of Chicago.  The site – memorialized by the world-famous sculpture — is the exact location where the Nuclear Age began on Dec. 2, 1942, with the experiment conducted by scientist Enrico Fermi and his team working on the Manhattan Project that produced the first human initiated and controlled chain reaction.

NEIS Board member Linda Lewison proposed the project early in summer, and envisioned it as an ongoing, monthly educational “tour” of one of the most significant, yet equally ignored historic memorial sites in the Chicago area.

NEIS Board Member Linda Lewison at the Moore Sculpture

Rather that bombard audiences with facts and figures, Lewison invited listeners to reflect on what thoughts and feeling the sculpture evoked in them.  She led them along with three questions to consider:

  • What do we see when we look at this sculpture?
  • What happened here and what is its relevance today?
  • What can we do? What actions can we take to make a difference?

Lewison said, “Millions of tourists in Chicago every year visit the sculpture “Cloud Gate” or “The Bean” as it has been nicknamed in Grant Park. The sculpture behind me, named “Nuclear Energy,” by Henry Moore is one of the greatest sculptures in the world and yet people walk by it every day not knowing its significance….Everyone goes to see the Bean but this is much more important.”

She went on to emphasize the need for immediate and future action, and not just passive memorializing.  Plans are in development to conduct the program on a more regular if not monthly basis in the future.

The observance has been held for decades at this location, which was dedicated in 1967, the 25th anniversary of the chain reaction experiment.  This year’s event was organized by Hyde Park resident and peace advocates Roberta Siegel and Brad Lyttle (who, it was announced, turned 90 this year).

In addition to Lewison’s presentation, the program consisted of attorney and musician Marian Neudel, lead a number of classic folk songs in between speakers; Bradford Lyttle, the venerable peace

Event organizer and legendary peace activist Brad Lyttle

and justice regular participant, who addressed  what nuclear madness means to all of us and the future of our planet;  Jack Lawlor from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship Chicago chapter who read the Buddha’s Discourse on Love; and Charles Strain also from BPF Chicago, who gave a short reading on the dangers of militarism.  The event concluded with a short silent meditation

The event was attended by about 35 people, the majority of whom were older and gray haired.  Numerous University of Chicago students walked by and through the memorial, but showed little interest in stopping or finding out what was happening.

THE ANNUAL EVENT HAS PURPOSE: On December 2, 1942, the Nuclear Age was born on the very spot this event will occur.  Seventy-three years ago on this date, the U.S. ushered in the Age of Nuclear War, with the bombing of the Japanese city of Hiroshima.  The first atomic bombing in history killed 20,000 Japanese soldiers, and 70,000–126,000 civilians.  These were but the first of the world’s nuclear victims, to be followed by tens to hundreds of thousands more Americans, Russians, Chinese, Marshall Islanders, Western Shoshone and numerous other people from around the world who have since died in the process of making and testing nuclear weapons, or just having the enormously bad luck of living down wind of the tests of the thousands of nuclear weapons that followed.

Despite the dire and continued warnings of some of the most brilliant people the Planet has produced – Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Andrei Sakharov, Linus Pauling among them – the world still harbors tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, thousands of which remain on “hair-trigger alert” to this day.  Not having learned the lessons of near Armageddon events in 1956, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1965, 1967, 1979, 1980, 1983, 1995, and 2010, national rulers with small minds but infinite destructive power continue the adolescent but dangerous game of nuclear brinksmanship to this day.

This event serves as both a memorial to those lives lost, and a reminder – a warning – that more lives, perhaps all life on Earth remain in jeopardy of extinction as long as nuclear weapons are permitted to exist.

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”  ― Albert Einstein

“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”  —     Albert Einstein, Telegram, 24 May 1946

Written By Kari Lydersen, Energy News Network, July 13, 2018.

Members of Congress are scheduled to receive a briefing next week from nuclear energy experts and watchdogs on pending nuclear waste storage proposals and the decommissioning of nuclear plants that have closed or could soon. Among the organizers of the July 16 briefing and a related national lobby day is the Chicago-based Nuclear Energy Information Service (NEIS).

[Photo: An inflatable high-level radioactive waste cask at a protest against a proposed interim storage facility in New Mexico.]

Like advocates for communities with economies linked to coal, the NEIS is calling for a “just transition” for the neighbors of nuclear power plants. The coalition hosting the testimony notes that five nuclear plants have closed since 2013, “at least 10 more are expected to close in the next few years, including three owned by FirstEnergy,” and 16 are going through decommissioning – essentially remediation of waste and radiation.

Along with the economic impacts similar to those created when coal plants close, nuclear plant closings also usually mean nuclear waste is stored onsite for years to come. The federal government proposes to move this waste to a Consolidated Interim Storage site (CIS), until a long-term repository like the one long-proposed at Yucca Mountain is created. Sites in New Mexico and Texas are being concerned for CIS. Meanwhile Midwest nuclear watchdogs point to a study by Oak Ridge National Laboratory that found Illinois was theoretically an ideal site for CIS.

Nuclear Energy Information Service director Dave Kraft spoke with the Energy News Network before the Congressional briefing. The following interview was lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: How might Illinois be impacted by Consolidated Interim Storage, or long-term storage in Yucca Mountain?

We’ll be 100 percent impacted on the transportation issue – since as much as 80 percent of the high-level waste going to Yucca Mountain is expected to go through Illinois by rail or truck. And it’s possible there would be barge shipments of radioactive waste on Lake Michigan from [closed reactors in] Wisconsin and Michigan. Beyond that we don’t know about the wild card proposal that Illinois would be an ideal location for a CIS site, as the Oak Ridge study indicated. If the ones in Texas and New Mexico don’t work out, who knows what the rest of the short list would look like.

Q: Is nuclear being seen more and more as an environmental justice issue?

Nuclear has always been an environmental justice issue. It’s just that it gets overwhelmed by the more obvious ones in the fossil fuel industry. When you have coal mines that collapse and workers that get killed and black lung disease to contend with and coal ash ponds rupturing, that’s all pretty obvious stuff. But beyond the dramatic, the very subtle aspects of how nuclear communities are impacted are virtually the same as fossil fuels. You have the uranium industry contaminating water supplies in the Southwest, indigenous land. One of my colleagues, a Dine [Navajo] activist, said you might find an old coal miner, but you will never find an old uranium miner. They know first-hand what the impacts of uranium have been on their communities.

Whenever the industry needed a waste dump, one of the first places they’d turn would be a Native American tribe. When you have nothing and someone promises you money and jobs, what do you do? Now we have the fact that nuclear plants are closing and no one is talking about an exit plan.

Q: How about in the Midwest, is nuclear an environmental justice issue here?

Not so much in terms of indigenous tribes, but in terms of some of the communities affected. For one example, the Palisades reactor in Covert, Michigan, which has a [sizable low-income and] black community. When you have a nuclear facility and it closes and not only kills your economy, what does it do to the real estate market, are you able to sell your home? That transcends people of color and minorities, it’s truly a class and economic issue which is an environmental justice issue as well.

When you look at the rail routes that would be used for transporting these materials, you see they are virtually identical to the ones being pummeled by the oil train derailments – rural communities, communities that might not have a first-rate emergency responders program, the communities the rail industry abandoned a century ago. These are the folks in line to deal with any accidents that occur. And even through urban centers, you look where the rail routes go, largely through minority communities.

Q: There’s increasing focus on a just transition for coal communities, both coal mining areas and municipalities with coal-fired power plants. Is just transition a concept being pushed around nuclear too?

It’s just in its beginning stages. Legislators are finally waking up to the fact that it’s the same issue, just a different energy resource that has to be dealt with. They’re understanding with fossil fuels and nuclear, something has to be done proactively, communities have to be taken care of proactively. New York is grappling with it because of the closure of Indian Point – they’re seeing some of the problems with decommissioning, not having an oversight board and the issue of economic redevelopment. This is being examined, though it hasn’t gelled nationally yet. But we’re in the beginning stages of having a movement. On the select issue of orphaned waste, there is the national legislation Tammy Duckworth sponsored out there to deal with communities that are stuck with waste, that didn’t sign up 40 years ago to be a radioactive waste dump. [U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) is a co-sponsor of the The Stranded Act of 2017 (S. 1903), which would authorize $100 million over seven years to compensate communities storing high-level radioactive waste after reactors close.]

Q: So how do things look in Zion, Illinois, one of those towns dealing with a nuclear closed plant and orphaned waste?

Zion could easily become the national poster child of everything that could go wrong. When [then-owner] ComEd abruptly without any warning and unilaterally closed the Zion reactor in 1998, the community of Zion lost 75 percent of its tax base overnight. It lost a sizable portion of their workforce, and with a reduced tax base they had to raise taxes which drove businesses and people away, and caused a housing crisis in the sense of abandonments…and they’re still stuck with reactive waste. Not even Donald Trump is stupid enough to open a hotel next to that.

Q: What do you think should be done with nuclear waste in places like Zion?

Environmental groups came together in 2002 to come up with a national proposal for what should be done with radioactive waste, and that applies to Zion. First, stop making it. To begin with, our motto is don’t just do something, stand there. Safeguard it, use hardened on-site storage. That’s immediate, you have to do that now regardless of what happens. Protect the communities you have damaged, that’s an obligation. Number two, you do not invest in CIS in other states. All that does is create more waste sites that have to be abandoned and cleaned up, and that doubles the transportation problem, because you have to move it again if and when you get long-term disposal.

The third thing, Yucca Mountain is not a credible, valid and protective site for storage of highly radioactive nuclear waste. So you have to create a new process outside of politics, genuinely scientifically based [to find a different long-term storage site]. You’ll have to deal with the minefield of local consent later. But at least do the credible science first which never happened at Yucca Mountain.

Q: You’ve said before that you think the push for Consolidated Interim Storage is linked to nuclear generators’ push for supports from ratepayers, what critics call bailouts. How is that the case?

To us the linkage has been clear for years. It’s being played out now in public and rationalized in different ways. The industry is looking to be absolved of its past sin of not having a solution [for waste]. If it has a solution then it can keep running for years. The bailout is inextricably linked to the waste issue – the solution to one plays into the other.

Q: In Illinois, most environmental and clean energy groups ended up supporting the state’s energy law even though it included the supports for Exelon’s nuclear plants. But the Nuclear Energy Information Service opposed the bill to the end, and called for communities with closing power plants to be “bailed out” rather than the nuclear plants. What does that mean in practice? Who should be “bailing out” the communities – ratepayers, or companies?

In letters to Governor [Bruce] Rauner and 40 other legislators, we made the case it’s the communities that should be bailed out, not profitable corporations. There’s nothing in the state constitution that mandates the legislature guarantee the profits of a private company. Any community needs to have a piggy bank for a rainy day. To the extent the communities didn’t prepare [for possible plant closures], that’s partly on them. You’re going to have to have a really tough conversation with all the parties, and everyone is going to have to pony up into the fund. We have suggestions on ways to do that. Whether it is stated in law or not, the ethical and moral thing is that company-town employers have a bigger obligation to do something when they leave than a mom and pop store would. They come in with all kinds of promises that rarely are met and leave a big mess that doesn’t get cleaned up.

Q: In Illinois or nationally, do you maintain that nuclear plants are not in fact needed for energy security?

Absolutely not. We have a surplus of power, the grid is operating quite fine. We got through that Arctic plunge of a few years ago. While nuclear [proponents] brags about how available they were [during the Polar Vortex of 2014], no one looks into how available renewables were and they were quite available. We would posit that solar will be there for 3.5 billion years and beyond.

Q: What about wind, should Illinois’ Future Energy Jobs Act have done more to incentivize wind energy?

It was a tough legislative fight to get what we got. In retrospect, solar made out well and wind didn’t. Wind could have been more prolific and widespread [if the law emphasized it more], but it didn’t. Because realistically it was the main competitor to Exelon’s nuclear plants and no one wanted to take that on. You talk about resilience and reliability, a renewable infrastructure gives you the ability to incrementally add and subtract what you need, you can decide how many wind turbines to build or to run. With a nuclear plant you get 1000 megawatts or nothing.