Originally created 03/31/03

'Worst case' unlikely

When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issues environmental impact statements on proposed projects, the effect that worst-case scenarios could have on poor and minority communities must be included.

These requirements have produced quite a stir in public hearings on the planned MOX fuel plant at the Savannah River Site. The plant would take surplus plutonium - some of it from decommissioned, disassembled warheads - and blend it into mixed oxide fuel (MOX) to be burned for commercial power.

The NRC's first draft environmental report on the MOX plant's construction and operation points to problems that could occur in the event of serious accidents. Human exposure over a year's time to a hypothetical radioactive hydrogen release, it says, could cause cancer to eventually take the lives of up to 400 people within a 50-mile radius of the plant.

Most affected, especially if the winds were blowing in their direction, would be small, poor communities such as New Ellenton. But let's face it. It's been known ever since SRS was built back in the early '50s that if there was a catastrophic accident the disaster would not discriminate between rich and poor, black and white, or other demographics. It would impact everybody in our two-state region.

The main point is, despite MOX or any other missions that might be undertaken at the site, DOE and its contractors are much more safety conscious - and open to public scrutiny - than they ever were during the secretive days of the Cold War.

The problem with "worst-case" scenarios, especially where nuclear energy is involved, is that in the minds of some people they become "likely" scenarios. Of course, that's the kind of nonsense which lends itself to anti-nuclear hysteria.

The notion that radioactive hydrogen could escape for a year undetected by SRS plant monitors is ludicrous - so unlikely that it's not really worth considering, says Neal McCraw, MOX site manager for Duke COMEGA Stone & Webster, the consortium of engineers hired by the Department of Energy to design, construct and operate the fuel fabrication facility.

McCraw's assessment was seconded by NRC spokesman Tim Harris, who said at an Aiken hearing earlier this month that the final environmental impact document will trim the fatality number back to a realistic 200 or fewer. It should also be stressed that the NRC has given a tentative green light to the MOX project, which it wouldn't do if it thought it was unsafe.

Of course, one death is too many, but that doesn't mean the MOX risk isn't worth taking - and not just because of the hundreds of jobs it will create in the area, but more importantly for national and world security.

MOX is part of an early-1990s United States-Russia agreement to curb nuclear proliferation by disposing of 34 tons of plutonium in "parallel" programs - to be paid for mostly by the U.S. and its allies. The biggest threat to MOX now isn't environmental concerns. It's that Russia can't or won't fulfill its end of the bargain, which would kill the pact and, quite likely, the project.

But for now, MOX seems to be on track. So let's not fret over "worst case" scenarios.