Ep 91: Paul Gunter - Director, Reactor Oversight Project, Beyond Nuclear
1 - Early Activism Involvement
Bret Kugelmass: How did you first get involved in nuclear?
Paul Gunter: Paul Gunter’s original concerns about nuclear technology came out of the bomb. He had the opportunity to meet folks that were involved with the Golden Rule, which was a boat that sailed into the Enewetok testing site. They conducted civil disobedience at the testing site and were arrested, but railed the profile of the issue. Several years later, the Public Service Company of New Hampshire announced construction of the Seabrook Station nuclear power station located on a saltwater estuary. These two 1,150 megawatt Westinghouse reactors were going to take three billion gallons of water a day for the cooling systems and had 18’ diameter pipes that reached out into the Atlantic. There was a concern about the use of fissioning enriched uranium and those connections to nuclear weapons. Paul Gunter grew up in Detroit and studied special education at Northern Michigan University. When the Vietnam War came along, Gunter’s involvement as an activist interceded and he became a counselor to conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War. He also was an activist for prison rights, leading to the connection between human rights and environmental protection. In 1976, Gunter’s activists involvement culminated in the formation of a group called the Clamshell Alliance, which published a declaration of nuclear resistance.
2 - Nuclear Resistance at Seabrook Station
Bret Kugelmass: How did you get involved in different activist groups?
Paul Gunter: Paul Gunter worked with non-profit organizations to get involved in different activist groups. He comes at the nuclear issue from a lay-person point of view and and education by experience. The Clamshell Alliance was the original anti-nuclear power organized citizen opposition group. Multiple interests found common denominators among multiple construction projects and raised questions about what they wanted energy policy to look like, especially as it relates to centralized power. Everybody wanted to see an energy future that would be reliable, safe, clean, affordable, and independent that provided access to not just one class of power generation. Nuclear power was seen as a concentration of power and influence, ultimately connected to the military-industrial complex which rang a lot of alarms for people. The central environmental issue of the Seabrook Station siting, located on an estuary, gave way to principal action. On August 1, 1976, the first formal rally was held in Hampton. Gunter saw a rapid mobilization of public concern and consensus that came together without the internet. The advent of renewables was on the horizon.
3 - Nuclear Proliferation
Bret Kugelmass: Was there a conversation leading up to the rally about what the electric company should build instead?
Paul Gunter: Solar and wind were the alternatives to the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant. Nuclear was not a finished package and the idea of long-term radioactive waste management was a wide open question. The sense and vision of alternatives was a vision that was a counterpoint to the vision of nuclear power in which people were not convinced that a nuclear accident was incredible. Paul Gunter and the activist groups were still operating under a number of myths about nuclear power that, at a gut level, they didn’t buy. When deciding to spend his time as an activist protesting coal or nuclear, Gunter saw a connection between nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Uranium is the currency of a coin whose flip sides are nuclear waste from power plants and nuclear weapons material. The enrichment process is all that separates nuclear power from nuclear weapons, so it’s a question of how to go about the enrichment process. A country’s intent to manage a peaceful atom had an ulterior motive to develop nuclear weapons. Centrifuges used in the enrichment process can be hidden from inspection and part of the enrichment strain can be diverted into a covert operation. North Korea signed the non-proliferation treaty and cooperated until they got what they wanted before breaking the handshake.
4 - Practicalities of Reprocessing Irradiated Fuel
Bret Kugelmass: How do enrichment facilities relate to nuclear power?
Paul Gunter: The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) predates the modern Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The American power industry was solicited for a white paper published in 1952 prior to Eisenhower’s speech before the United Nations about the peaceful atom. This collective paper described how the co-generation of heat generated from the nuclear weapons manufacturing industry, for the production of plutonium, could be made into electricity. The government and the American industry collaborated to co-generate electricity for security concerns. Reprocessing plutonium is a separation process from irradiated U-235 fuel. The solid is dissolved and the asset, plutonium-239, is pulled out and separated. Reprocessing irradiated fuel can be made more difficult, such as with pebble bed modular reactors in which enriched uranium is embedded in graphite and placed in a ceramic shell. Reprocessing civilian nuclear fuel to retrieve usable uranium and usable plutonium is within the realm of technology. Fast reactors may not be practical. Even small modular reactors (SMR’s) that are before the U.S. NRC are still light water pressurized reactors. The regulators right now aren’t willing to venture into other technologies. Some advanced designs are mirages and are being chased, but not developed due to practical matters.
5 - Effects of Radiation on the Human Body
Bret Kugelmass: Should we invest money in pursuing new nuclear technologies?
Paul Gunter: Nuclear technology has had its run in terms of the lion’s share of federal tax subsidies since 1948. Worldwide, 250,000 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste already exists. The agenda of the nuclear industry is to keep plowing forward with its production agenda, despite the fact that it never completed the waste management cycle. The volume or weight is not the concern, but the Curie count. The radioactive threat is invasive in terms of its ability to spread itself out equally over time. Radioactive waste is put underground and needs to be isolated from water. Humans have evolved in an atmosphere that has been in radiative balance. With the advent of man-made nuclear materials, the Curie count in the environment is being raised incrementally. Radioactivity becomes less by a process of disintegration, which represents the biological hazard. Uranium is as toxic as it is radiological. Radiation is carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic. The etiology of cancer can be multifaceted and synergistic and the effects of radiation on human cells are deleterious. The common acceptance in science is there is not safe exposure when talking about the full range. Columbia University did a study of Three Mile Island and found there was no statistical significance, but the University of North Carolina found statistical significance of cancer in Columbia University’s research.
6 - Environmental Impacts of Energy Production
Bret Kugelmass: What’s the worst case scenario on what spent fuel has done in terms of human health?
Paul Gunter: A number of studies show that the routine emissions from operating nuclear power stations have consequences. There are over 60 studies that show a causal relationship between nuclear power operation and the proximity and duration of residency. Generally speaking, cancer incidence is on the rise. Cancer can be caused by radiation, chemicals, and environmental factors. Right now, renewables are going to have the least impact on human health. Any major energy project needs an environmental review. Six reactors have been shut down in the last five years and six more are going down in the next three years. More new generation capacity wind and solar are coming online than both fossil and fissile. Most of the U.S. electrical storage capacity has emerged in the last three years. Lithium used in batteries for large grid storage can go through a recycling process. There are shifts in the battery storage systems to safer, more reliable, and more efficient battery development. The world is in the middle of a huge paradigm shift as it relates to energy.
7 - Carbon Footprints of Energy Systems
Bret Kugelmass: Is the difference between the mass used in the nuclear world and the chemical world on six orders of magnitude?
Paul Gunter: Paul Gunter is unsure what the balance is between the chemical world and the nuclear world. The nuclear world is a chemical process as well. There is a difference between a nuclear power plant having an emergency planning zone going out 50 miles and the ability to operate solar power on top of a house. This is a paradigm in which wind, solar, efficiency, and conservation are now blossoming. The first large offshore wind development off of Martha’s Vineyard will provide over 1,150 megawatts of offshore wind electricity. According to Stanford University, there is enough electrical generation from offshore wind development along the cost from Virginia to Delaware to provide electricity for a third of the United States. One downside to wind and solar are the chemicals that need to be contained and safeguarded. However, they allow energy availability to be more independent and provides an opportunity for communities to be generators. The major difference between fossil, fissile, and renewables is the fact that there is no fuel cycle for the sun and the wind. The systems are essentially about harvesting and transmitting. Many composite studies have looked at the carbon footprint of coal, uranium, and wind, specifically the extraction industries for the materials for wind and solar. An on-shore wind farm has about eight grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour; solar has about 35 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour; coal is upwards of 750 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour. Averaging out the 200 studies on the carbon footprint of uranium is about 60 grams CO2 per kilowatt hour. Policy needs to be directed towards making the world safer, cleaner, and affordable. This is done through renewable energy right now.