The spent-fuel pool at Duane Arnold Energy Center in Palo, Iowa
Strict safety controls sought by environmental groups for the storage of radioactive waste at dozens of nuclear power plants may fall to the wayside under a rule that's expected be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission next week. According to a congressional source who does not wish to be identified, the NRC is rushing to vote on the rule before the September retirement of Commissioner William Magwood, an ally of the nuclear power industry.
"You will have all the waste sitting, basically, in a giant swimming pool."
The rule would establish that the environmental risks of storing spent fuel in pools of water at reactor sites for extended periods are negligible and for the most part don't need to be studied as part of the licensing requirements for nuclear power plants. But critics of the rule say that the NRC is blatantly ignoring its own research, which shows that the practice could lead to serious disasters: "You will have all the waste sitting, basically, in a giant swimming pool," the source says, "and the potential of the swimming pool draining or being breached by an accident or an attack or a power loss that causes the water to boil off—all of those things would have impacts that the NRC's own analysis says would equal that of a meltdown of the reactor core."
Existing nuclear plants are designed to store spent fuel for no more than a few years but have accumulated large stockpiles of it due to repeated delays in plans to build a permanent repository in Nevada's Yucca Mountain. In 2010, the Obama administration canceled the $15 billion Yucca project, raising the distinct possibility that a single geologic waste storage site may never be built. In 2012, the Natural Resources Defense Council successfully sued to force the NRC to stop licensing nuclear reactors until the commission conducted an environmental impact study on the long-term risks posed by on-site waste—including the possibility that those temporary storage sites will become permanent. The completed study, along with the new rule, is expected to be approved by the NRC on Tuesday, over the strong objections of environmental groups.
A pool fire could contaminate 9,400 acres and displace 4 million Americans, the NRC found in 2003.
The NRC rule would pave the way for nuclear waste to be stored in open cooling pools at reactor sites for up to 120 years—and up to 60 years after a reactor is decommissioned. Environmental groups say that's way too long. "The pools are a catastrophic risk," says Kevin Kamps, the radioactive-waste watchdog for a group called Beyond Nuclear. Many pools are holding up to four times as many spent rods as intended. Packing so many rods into the pools dramatically increases the risk of a fire should a leak cause the cooling water to drain. A 2013 NRC study found that a pool fire could contaminate 9,400 square miles and displace 4 million Americans from their homes for years.
The NRC's assumption that operators will guard and maintain their waste for decades after their plants are decommissioned is laughable to many enviros. In comments submitted to the NRC last December, the NRDC pointed to "the sad history" of managing hazardous waste in America, which often involves commercial operations going bankrupt and saddling taxpayers with the cleanup.
Even at operable nuclear plants, about a dozen waste storage pools are known to be leaking, including one at New York's Indian Point reactor, which is discharging radioactive water into the Hudson River. To minimize the risk of disaster, environmental groups want the industry to immediately move its waste into thick concrete-and-steel dry casks at a cost of roughly $7 billion. But in a 4-1 vote earlier this year, the NRC ruled that this wouldn't be cost-effective.
The Project on Government Oversight called Commissioner Magwood's failure to step down from the NRC a "glaring conflict of interest."
NRC spokesman David McIntyre denied that the commission is rushing to vote on the waste rule before the retirement of Commissioner Magwood, who joined the commission in 2010. Earlier this year, Magwood said he would accept a job as director general of the Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency, an association of governments that sponsor, and in some cases own, American companies licensed to operate nuclear power plants. In a letter to the White House last month, the Project on Government Oversight complained that Magwood's failure to step down from the NRC after accepting the NEA job represented a "glaring conflict of interest."
In a response circulated by the NRC, Magwood claims that the NEA "is primarily a research and policy agency" and that his future job doesn't affect his impartiality.
Yesterday, 34 environmental groups called on the NRC to delay its vote until Magwood steps down. His retirement comes amid a broader shakeup of the NRC panel: Commissioner George Apostolakis' term ended last month and was not renewed by the White House. The two vacancies on the five-member commission will be filled by Jeffrey Baran, an aide to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), and former NRC general counsel Stephen Burns.
Environmental groups hope the new commission will break with its industry-friendly past. "The industry crawls all over that place in terms of lobbying," Kamps told me. "They own that place."
UPDATE: NRC spokesman David Mcintyre asked Mother Jones to clarify that the Tuesday's vote will not automatically allow nuclear reactor operators to store spent fuel on-site for extended periods. Before receiving licenses to do so, plant operators must demonstrate adherence to accepted safety standards, he says.
Peace prevailed last night in Ferguson, Missouri—for the most part. There were a few bottles hurled at the cops, and dozens of arrests, but no gunshots, looting, tear gas plumes, or fusillades of rubber bullets. Largely to thank for this turn of events are the Peacekeepers, a group comprised of mostly of Ferguson and St. Louis locals who've been physically inserting themselves between police and rowdy protesters over the past few days in an effort to diffuse tensions.
The Peacekeepers' unofficial leader is Paul Muhammad, a linebacker-sized guy from St. Louis who favors fatigues but reportedly speaks in the soft tones of a therapist. Little is known about Muhammad, who did not immediately return a call from Mother Jones. "If you are going to be out here all night, I will be out here all night. Let's just go home," he told a teenager with a red bandanna over his face last night, according to Newsweek's Robert Klemko. A few minutes later, someone from a fringe group of onlookers hurled a water bottle and police moved in to disperse the crowd.
Members of the Peacekeepers have been active during the late-night protests since at least Wednesday, when Renita Lamkin, an African Methodist Episcopal Church pastor, was shot with a rubber bullet while attempting to mediate between police and protesters:
Over the next few days, Lamkin helped form the ad-hoc Peacekeepers group. Many volunteers turned out in response to a call during an August 12 church service by Rev. Al Sharpton for 100 men to step forward to be "Disciples of Justice" to keep the peace in the area.
The idea to make "Peacekeepers" shirts to help differentiate the group from other protestors was Muhammad's, Lamkin told me. He posted a request on his Facebook page and the next day the shirts arrived. They're now worn by about 10 to 12 people who conduct the nightly patrols. Here's Lamkin in hers last night:
Pastor Renita Lamkin
Lamkin sees the Peacekeepers as a critical way to protect both police and protesters. "We don't want police officers injured and we don't want our young people's lives altered," she told me. "I often tell young people: "Don't make permanent decisions in a temporary place. In this one moment, don't do something that is going to result in a permanent decision for your life."
The Peacekeepers have learned a few important lessons since last week. Since Sunday night, when Lamkin got pushed into side streets by police and cut off from her car, the group now keeps someone "on the outside" who can pick up people who've been cordoned off from the action. On Tuesday night, she ferried several loads of people back to their own cars.
When people ask Lamkin whose side she's on, she replies that she's "on the side of life." Her goal, she clarifies, is "preserving life" so that "everybody goes home."
"The people trust us and they know that we care about them," she says. "So there's the difference: It's the difference love brings to a situation."
"I ain't expecting the police to love on folks; they're there to do a job," she adds. "Our job is to bring the love."
"Crisis is the leading edge where change is possible," Lisa Fithian, an itinerant protest organizer, once told me. Nowhere does that seem more true right now than in Ferguson, Missouri, where ongoing protests have drawn attention to a deep national vein of racial animus. It's not surprising, then, that national figures have begun parachuting into town: the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, actress Keke Palmer, Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey—and the list goes on. The threat of "outside agitators" is a meme that has accompanied protests dating back to the civil rights era and beyond. But in Ferguson, there are indeed complaints from local organizers that some outsiders are making the situation worse.
On Monday, when Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon signed an order to bring in the National Guard, he cited "violent and criminal acts of an organized and growing number of individuals, many from outside the community and state." On Tuesday, US Sen. Claire McCaskill said on MSNBC that the protesters "have now been invaded…by a group of instigators, some coming from other states, that want a confrontation with the olice." An officer told the Washington Post that visitors to Ferguson are engaging in "looting tourism."
Arrest statistics appear to bear them out, up to a point. Of the 78 people arrested Monday night, police told reporters, 68 percent were from the St. Louis metro area, but 18—or 23 percent—had come from out of state, some from as far away as New York and California.
So who are these outsiders, and what do they want? I went looking for every nonlocal organization claiming to have members protesting in Ferguson, from fringe to mainstream. Here are some I found:
Ferguson, Missouri, has been consumed with protests since Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, was shot to death by police on Saturday. Brown was not the only African-American man killed by police in recent weeks under disputed circumstances. Consider these three other recent incidents:
Eric Garner, Staten Island, New York / July 17: Eric Garner, a 43-year-old asthmatic father of six, was confronted by New York City police officers for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. When he resisted being cuffed, an officer appeared to put him in a chokehold—a tactic banned by the department since 1993. A video of the arrest, first obtained by the New York Daily News, shows Garner gasping,"I can't breathe!" while officers relentlessly smother him:
More MoJo coverage of the Michael Brown police shooting
The city medical examiner later ruled Garner's death a homicide, saying neck compression from the chokehold killed him. But the officers involved in the arrest may not face charges if the homicide is found to be justifiable. Staten Island district attorney Daniel Donovan is investigating the case.
John Crawford, Beavercreek, Ohio / August 5: Two police officers responded to a 911 call about a man waving a gun at customers inside a Walmart store. According the Beavercreek police department, 22-year-old John Crawford disregarded officers' orders to disarm before being fatally shot in the chest. Crawford's gun turned out to be a .177 calibre BB rifle that he'd picked up from a store shelf. Walmart surveillance camera footage was turned over to the police but hasn't been released to the public or Crawford's family. "Why did John Crawford, a Walmart customer, get shot and killed carrying a BB gun in a store that sells BB guns?" asked Michael Wright, the family's attorney, during a joint press conference with the NAACP. "All the family demands is answers." The Ohio Attorney General's Office is investigating the case.
Ezell Ford, Los Angeles, California / August 11: When police conducted an "investigative stop" of 25-year-old Ezell Ford on a Los Angeles sidewalk, he "wheeled around and basically tackled the lead officer," then went after his weapon, an LAPD spokesperson told the LA Times. But in an interview with KTLA News, a woman who identified herself as Ford's mother said he was lying on the ground, complying with the officers' orders, when he was shot in the back. On Sunday afternoon, a handful of people protested the shooting outside LAPD's headquarters. The LA County District Attorney and the department's Force Investigation Unit are looking into the shooting.
So how often are unarmed African-American men getting shot by the police? The short answer is that nobody really knows, but it's clear that blacks are often disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. In Missouri, for example, African Americans were 66 percent more likely than whites to be stopped by police in 2013, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch. A similar disparity exists in many other states and cities.
UPDATE (8/14/14): Another case has come to light in California:
Dante Parker, Victorville, California / August 12: A Victorville resident told police that a robbery suspect had fled on a bicycle. The police detained Dante Parker, a 36-year-old pressman at the Daily Press newspaper, apparently because they found him nearby on a bike. Though Parker had no criminal record (other than a DUI), a scuffle ensued and Parker was tased repeatedly when he resisted arrest, according to witnesses. He began breathing heavily and was taken to a hospital, where he died. The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department is conducting an investigation.
This was just posted by @theanonmessage, a twitter account affiliated with Anonymous' Operation Ferguson, a member of which I interviewed last night. According to @theanonmessage, this recording contains audio excerpts from St. Louis County police dispatch over several hours on August 9, 2014, the day Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer. The dispatcher starts talking about the Brown shooting around the 10-minute mark, while intermittently handling other calls. See below the recording for an updating list of interesting moments, with time stamps included.
9:35: "Ferguson is asking for assistance with crowd control . . ."
10:58: "Now they have a large group gathering there, she doesn't know any further. . ."
11:20: "We just got another call stating it was an officer-involved shooting . . ."
11:30: "Be advised, this information came from the news . . ."
11:55: "We're just getting information from the news and we just called Ferguson back again and they don't know anything about it . . ."
20:00: ". . .destruction of property . . ."
21:55: "They are requesting more cars. Do you want me to send more of your cars?"
43:55: "Attention all cars, be advised that in reference to the call 2947 Canfield Drive, we are switching over to the riot channel at this time . . ."
Update, 4:40 p.m. ET: I tried to verify the dispatch recordings with St. Louis County Police but their media contact, Brian Shelman, did not answer the phone and his voicemail was full.
Update 2, 5:05 p.m. ET:Mashableis confirming that the St. Louis County Police Department is "aware of this and currently investigating."
Update 3, 6:05 p.m. ET: A twitter follower of mine points out that the dispatch recording probably comes fromBroadcastify, a database of public safety radio audio streams that's available to anyone who pays for a subscription. It's "far from a hack," he says.