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"Clean" Nuclear Power? The President Knows Better

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In last night's State of the Union address, President Obama said that "(t)o create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country." Despite his statement, the President knows better.

Nuclear power is neither safe nor clean. There is no such thing as a "safe" dose of radiation and just because nuclear pollution is invisible doesn't mean it's "clean." For years nuclear plants have been leaking radioactive waste from underground pipes and radioactive waste pools into the ground water at sites across the nation. Mr. Obama was prompted to address the issue when radioactive contamination was found in drinking wells and off the nuclear plant site at Exelon's Braidwood nuclear plant.

In 2006, when the President was serving as a senator from Illinois, he introduced the Nuclear Release Notice Act to address the radioactive contamination of groundwater at several nuclear reactors in his state. Unfortunately, the bill never became law.

Rather than hold nuclear power plant owners accountable for the uncontrolled and unmonitored leaks, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) handed the problem over to the nuclear industry's lobbyists. Despite the fact that tritium releases to groundwater violate the terms of the nuclear plant's license, the NRC has failed to exercise its regulatory authority. Instead, NRC has allowed the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) to create a voluntary industry program to deal with the tritium contamination.

Since then, the trickle of operators of nuclear plants acknowledging that they've contaminated the ground water at their sites has grown into a deluge. The nuclear plants that have admitted leaking radioactive hydrogen or tritium into the groundwater include: Braidwood, Byron & Dresden in Ilinois; Indian Point & Fitzpatrick in New York; Yankee Rowe & Pilgrim in Massachusetts; Three Mile Island & Peach Bottom in Pennsylvania; Callaway in Missouri; Oyster Creek in New Jersey; Hatch in Georgia; Palo Verde In Arizona; Perry in Ohio; Point Beach in Wisconsin; Salem in Delaware; Seabrook in New Hampshire; Watts Bar in Tennessee; Wolf Creek in Kansas; Connecticut Yankee and most recently Vermont Yankee. This NY Times article explains it all.

This list is likely incomplete and still growing. It remains difficult for the public to track which nuclear plants are leaking radioactive contamination because the NRC has failed to update its website since October of 2007 when it abdicated its authority to the industry's voluntary initiative.

The President was then less than pleased with the industry's voluntary regulation of radioactive leaks. Then Senator Obama responded that

(w)hile it's encouraging that the nuclear industry recognizes it has a special responsibility to keep communities informed of tritium leaks, the voluntary guidelines recommended by the Nuclear Energy Institute would still allow tritium leaks to occur without the public ever finding out about it. The nuclear industry already has a voluntary policy, and it hasn't worked.

Obama's comments now seem prophetic. Recently, just one week after the government regulators extended the operating license for the 40-year-old Oyster Creek reactor in New Jersey, the plant owner admitted leaking radioactive contamination into the plants ground water. This most recent revelation has prompted several members of Congress to ask the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate the leaks and how regulators at the NRC have mishandled the issue.

According to Congressman Ed Markey, who oversees the NRC, "(u)nder current regulations, miles and miles of buried pipes within nuclear reactors have never been inspected and will likely never be inspected."

Markey concluded that "(t)his is simply unacceptable. As it stands, the NRC requires-at most-a single, spot inspection of the buried piping systems no more than once every 10 years. This cannot possibly be sufficient to ensure the safety of both the public and the plant."

If President Obama truly wants a clean energy economy and the jobs that come with it, he should abandon the failed policies of the past. Nuclear power is a dirty and dangerous distraction from the clean energy future the President has promised America.

--Written with Greenpeace Nuclear Analyst Jim Riccio

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