Entergy has applied for a permit that could increase employment in the Claiborne County area by about 300 individuals. The same permit could possibly increase the $600,000 already allotted to the town of Port Gibson by a few more than six figures—welcome money for any municipality trying to eke out a budget and improve its economy in cash-strapped Mississippi. Oddly, some residents don't seem to want it.
"I feel very strongly that we have no business revving up an industry that should be dead and buried, particularly in light of 9-11 and warnings that have been issued as late as last November by our own government, alerting officials to beware of cargo jets being hijacked from other countries and flying into nuclear power plants," said Vicksburg resident Martha Ferris, who can see the cooling tower for the Grand Gulf nuclear reactor from the window of her studio.
Ferris referred to a Nov. 7 message from the Homeland Security Department warning that al-Qaeda may be plotting an attack and advised law-enforcement officials, particularly officials responsible for security at such facilities as nuclear plants, against threats that terrorists may send cargo planes into crucial U.S. targets.
Ferris says, however, that she'd still be worried if 9-11 had never happened, especially considering the danger that 2.4 million pounds of spent uranium fuel poses to the nearby community.
"Knowing what I know now about stockpiling nuclear waste that's radioactive and will remain so for millions of years scares me, with or without a terrorist plot helping to spread it over the countryside," Ferris said.
Ferris is one member of a growing coalition including the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, the Alliance for Human Rights, Washington, D.C.-based Public Citizen, the Mississippi Sierra Club, the Mississippi Green Party, the NAACP and a rapidly swelling group of southern Mississippi residents who think that increasing the production of radioactive waste from the Grand Gulf Nuclear power generator by adding a second nuclear reactor is a bad idea, despite the financial benefits.
The current plant, completed in 1984, employs about 700 people, produces almost 30 percent of the power in Mississippi and generates about $20 million in tax revenues for the state. If the coalition gets its way, that'll be the extent of Grand Gulf's growth. The coalition filed a Feb. 12 legal challenge to the Early Site Permit hoping to halt further development, asserting that there isn't enough money to fund adequate emergency services should somebody one day accidentally push the wrong button.
"Speaking as a person who served for 14 years as emergency manager of Claiborne County, I feel people would suffer if there was an accident or act of terrorism at the plant because our emergency planning is not up to par," said A. C. Garner, Claiborne County spokesman for the NAACP. "It's the responsibility of [local emergency departments] to make sure these people are evacuated if necessary, and it's questionable that this could be done with our lack of resources."
RACISM IN CLAIBORNE COUNTY?
Resources have not always been piecemeal. In Grand Gulf's early years, Claiborne County got the full benefit of the plant's tax revenues, but no longer. Legislators later passed a bill dividing the revenue among 47 other counties. Garner cries "racism," pointing out that the county is predominantly African-American, with an 84 percent minority population and 32 percent of its people living below the poverty line. Others agree with him.
"Grand Gulf is the only nuclear plant in the country where tax revenues have been taken from the county that accepts the risk of the facility," said Rose Johnson, chairwoman of the Mississippi Chapter of the Sierra Club. "The county doesn't even have a hospital that's open 24 hours, and there's only one fire station in the entire county. The situation should send chills down the spines of anyone who lives within a 100-mile radius of Port Gibson."
Even small amounts of radiation can zip through human flesh, smashing DNA and peppering the body with deadly cancers without the victim knowing it. But a larger dose, say from Cesium 137 fallout—the most likely isotope to rain down in the event of a reactor breach—can not only kill cells but speed up their decomposition as well. Hours later your body will begin sloughing off necrotic tissue like mud getting rinsed off a pig, giving you the experience of feeling what it's like to be a corpse in the long, miserable hours before you actually become one.
FEAR EQUALS IGNORANCE
A major incident is not a likely scenario at Grand Gulf, however, according to Scott Burnell, public affairs officer at the Nuclear Regulation Committee in Maryland, who said that ignorance is the biggest cause for people's fear of nuclear power.
"We've got procedures that take into account the possibility of a large, fast release of radioactive contamination from a plant. The plans basically draw two circles around a plant: one at 10 miles, one at 50 miles. Within the 10-mile circle, the primary concern is the possibility of airborne contamination, and within the 50-mile circle there is the possibility that contamination could build up on plants and be ingested by animals in the food chain," Burnell said. "As the radioactive plume moves from the reactor, it dissipates, like smoke from a fire. As it moves away it spreads out to less toxic levels. Within the 10-mile zone … even in the case of a major release from a plant, the doses projected for someone coming into contact with the plume would not be anything that could cause immediate death."
Burnell said people living in the expected path of release in the 10-mile zone would either be instructed to stay inside their house and close the windows or evacuate and that "in either case we're ending up in a situation where people in a 10-mile zone are not getting exposed to radiation that would pose a hazard."
"That's not what happened at Chernobyl in 1986," argued Paul Gunter, director of the Project for Nuclear Information and Resource Service. "[Burnell's] analysis clearly isn't based in reality. This is contamination that, helped by the wind, can extend thousands of miles away. Grass in Cumbria, England, is still radioactive from the Chernobyl meltdown way off in Russia. They still have food restrictions in Cumbria, and they'll have them probably for another 350 years."
NOT 'IMMEDIATE DEATH'
Gunter sardonically agreed with Burnell that the majority of people would not die from "immediate death."
"There would be prompt fatalities within the first year, spontaneous abortions and so forth. Infants and the elderly will be more vulnerable, but the biggest death toll, based upon studies of Chernobyl and the people in the Ukraine, would come about through cancers, leukemia, immune deficiencies and a wasting disease called 'failure to thrive.'"
NRC is quick to point out that the Chernobyl reactor, which had been in operation for only two years when catastrophe struck, cannot be compared to American reactors, because of design differences in the reactors. Gunter agrees with this, but, in doing so, he points out that the Grand Gulf Reactor is much older and has a larger inventory of radiation to disperse to the wind in the event of a meltdown.
Opponents to nuclear energy abound in America, especially since the 1979 partial meltdown of Reactor 2 at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. In fact, no new permits for reactor construction in the nation have been approved since 1979. The federal government, however, is a huge advocate of nuclear energy. Beginning with George H.W. Bush in the 1990s, and continued by President George W. Bush, the White House has worked to "streamline" the permit process. Ferris calls it "gutting environmental regulation."
PADDING POL POCKETS
Information from the Center for Responsive Politics revealed that the nuclear industry gave $8.7 million to federal candidates and committees in the 2002 election cycle. Overall, the industry has favored Republicans, giving them 70 percent of its individual, polictical action committee and soft money contributions. Top political recipients of Nuclear Energy Institute PAC money from 1997 to 2002, for instance, include Sen. Trent Lott ($79,500) and Rep. Charles "Chip" Pickering Jr. ($52,622), according Federal Election Commission data released on June 3, 2002.
The federal government's regulation doesn't come honestly, according to Gunter. He claims that the NRC can't be counted upon to be an effective watchdog for the industry, much like the Atomic Energy Commission, its predecessor, which was disbanded in 1975 for undercutting its own public safety directive.
"There are revolving doors between the nuclear industry and the NRC. High officials working for one entity commonly move to the other, so there are terrible conflicts of interest here," Gunter said.
Burnell said that there was commonly an exchange of high-ranking executives moving from watchdog to bone and vice-versa, such as John Zwolinsky, former senior manager in nuclear reactor regulation—now with American Electric Power, operators of the Cook Nuclear Power Station, near Bridgman, Mich. Burnell said that this was understandable considering the specific knowledge required.
"I worked with John Zwolinsky for some time, and I think he's a very ethical, skilled person in the field. People have to keep in mind that the skill sets involved in nuclear energy are not common to the general populace, so if a utility needs a person with a particular skill set, it's quite possible that the person could already work at the NRC. But we have ethics and conflict of interest rules that have to be followed," Burnell said.