The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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It’s one thing when college students protest construction of a nuclear power plant. Those who are already convinced applaud. Those who aren’t convinced are likely to be unimpressed. When a scientist speaks out, there’s likely to be a little more interest. When that scientist is Richard E. Webb, it’s important that we all listen.
Webb is the author of The Accident Hazards of Nuclear Power Plants, published in 1976 by the University of Massachusetts Press — a book, according to our correspondent, Karl Grossman, “which in a decade, I expect, will be seen as having the future import of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.” Karl writes:
“Webb really knows. An Ohio boy, he was trained in nuclear technology in the Navy, worked under Admiral Hyman Rickover on America’s first civilian nuclear power plant, at Shippingport, Pa., was an engineer at the Big Rock Point nuclear plant in Michigan, but then got so concerned with the accident hazards that he went to study just that — ending up with a Ph.D. but drummed out of the universities, industry, and government for blowing the whistle. He has not been able to find work since because he’s such a hot potato and when I spoke with him last was still staying with his family at his parents’ home in Toledo.”
SUN: The meltdown has been seen as the major accident that could happen with nuclear power plants. Are there other similar accidents, others as serious as a meltdown?
WEBB: Yes, there’s what we call nuclear runaway accidents. That’s one class that’s more serious than the meltdown.
SUN: Let’s look at a meltdown first. What happens in a meltdown?
WEBB: The meltdown is caused by a loss of coolant process and then the fuel overheats due to the intense radiation that persists inside the reactor. If you don’t cool the reactor by spraying emergency coolant over it to keep it cool, the fuel could melt down within several minutes, heat up and meltdown. That melting process — very intense heat, 500 degrees Fahrenheit — has a potential of vaporizing most of your serious radioactivities, poisons that are in the reactor, and the problem is to contain those radioactive vapors.
SUN: An engineer in a nuclear power plant, if he has an indication that an emergency core cooling system is inoperable and a meltdown has begun, has how long to get some kind of cooling operable?
WEBB: Once the meltdown occurs there’s no equipment in the plant that’s designed to control it. So he just runs away. He gets in a car and beats it.
SUN: If the regular cooling system fails, he goes for the emergency system and it doesn’t work. How long does it take before a meltdown begins?
WEBB: It takes about five minutes.
SUN: What is the result of that kind of meltdown in an average nuclear power plant, the kind being built today?
WEBB: What could be the consequences? There’s an outer shell around the reactor, a concrete structure that encloses the reactor system. The melting process could trigger one of a variety of ways that the containment system, or that outer shell, could be ruptured. One case is a coolant explosion could be triggered. In any one of these mechanisms in which you rupture the containment system you have the potential for releasing most of the radioactive material that’s in the core of the reactor, and the consequences of that could be agricultural restrictions for half the land east of the Mississippi River, that’s in the upper limit of what appears to be possible.
SUN: For a plant where?
WEBB: Out in Oklahoma, say. And the fall-out cloud travels across the United States and it rains, it has to rain to wash out the radioactivity. And that is the potential due to Strontium 90 fall-out alone, those agricultural restrictions. There would be living restrictions, too, for an area the size of Indiana, Illinois and Ohio combined.
SUN: For one plant?
WEBB: One plant. That’s the potential. That accident could say happen out in Illinois to cause that. The wind patterns are west to east. And the fall-out would be in that direction.
SUN: Half of the agriculture from Florida to Maine east of the Mississippi would be quarantined for a number of years?
WEBB: There’s no real clear definition of what these agricultural restrictions are. I’m getting this term agricultural restrictions from the Atomic Energy Commission’s 1957 study of the accident hazards.
SUN: What about deaths and illnesses in the proximity of the plant. What kind of radius would that affect from a meltdown?
WEBB: Depends on what your assumptions are and how many people could be evacuated. But let’s just talk about long-term cancer deaths arising from the accidents. In the federal government’s official safety study that was released recently they say about 45,000 people could be killed with cancer deaths. However, the Environmental Protection Agency believes that the federal government’s study is underestimating the harm that could be caused by radiation by a factor of as much as ten, so you’re up to possibly 450,000 cancer deaths due to fall-out as calculated by the federal government’s safety study. However, I find that the federal government’s safety study, known as the Rasmussen Report, does not look at the worst types of accidents where you get heavier releases of radioactivity.
SUN: Let’s take it to where we’re sitting now. If one of Con Edison’s Indian Point plants 50 miles from where we sit in midtown Manhattan now would have a meltdown and blow up, and it would be the worst possible accident, what would be the effect?
WEBB: Well, potentially, you could have a lethal cloud of 75 miles in range and a mile wide. That’s the potential. Evacuation easily of the whole New York City area.
SUN: That’s kind of impossible unless we all take boats back to the Old World. What would happen to New York? That plant 50 miles from here is in the proximity of 10, 12 million people, maybe more.
WEBB: The 1957 safety study known as the WASH 740 report calculates 680 square miles requiring total evacuation — a range of 118 miles. Now today’s plants have six times more of the radioactivity that would be responsible for requiring that evacuation.
SUN: But New York City would be wiped out?
WEBB: According to the WASH 740 analysis. The Rasmussen Report, the latest safety study, has an analysis on the consequences and I have checked it and found all kinds of errors and unjustified assumptions. It depends on what kinds of meteorological excursion formulas you use and so forth and as I tried to explain in the book there was no clear statement in the Rasmussen Report that they looked at the worst meteorological conditions.
SUN: These federal reports and what we’ve been talking about so far deal mostly with a meltdown. Now you’re talking about more serious accidents than meltdowns that are possible but the public isn’t particularly aware of. You were talking about runaway accidents. What’s that?
WEBB: A runaway nuclear reaction in the core that would cause it to begin melting instantly, within a thousandth of a second. It would melt, say, half of the core and vaporize 10 per cent of the core. You’d have an instant explosion of this outer shell or containment. Now the hazard with that is an instant explosion reaches the containment and opens it up and the rest of the core melts down, plus what already melted down during the nuclear runaway process, and you have a direct path into the atmosphere for that radioactivity.
SUN: How could a nuclear runaway accident happen?
WEBB: Oh, there are a myriad of ways that you could get nuclear runaway. One is a valve closes shut, say in a boiling water reactor, one major class of reactors. In that case say you’re operating full power and a steam valve trips shut. It’s designed to trip shut to protect the turbine in certain cases. That has a feedback effect to cause the power level in the reactor to start running away. So you have a back-up safety system to what we call SCRAM the reactor, to shoot 180 mechanical rods into the reactor that has an effect to stop the nuclear reaction. But what happens if that safety system doesn’t work? We found SCRAM systems totally inoperative.
WEBB: In a boiling water reactor in Germany, for example, made in the U.S., a U.S. designed reactor.
SUN: You found it or the U.S. found it?
WEBB: It was reported by the federal government in a document dealing with the concern for a failure to SCRAM. Incidentally, back in 1972, before that AEC document came out, I posed a question in a public hearing to the Atomic Energy Commission asking has a SCRAM system ever been found inoperative and that was the first time that they revealed publicly that yes, they’ve been found inoperative. And a year later they analyzed that possibility.
SUN: Are there other ways runaways could happen besides a SCRAM system failure?
WEBB: Yes. This nuclear runaway process by the way is like what goes on in an atomic bomb. Now it turns out that present day reactors cannot blow up like a nuclear weapon explosion, with that force and violence. But the same phenomenon is involved.
SUN: How would they blow up then?
WEBB: They could just blow the plant apart and that’s the problem, that’s the hazard we’re worried about here. Because it could rupture the shell around the reactor and allow the escape of these enormous quantities of radioactivity.
SUN: What would be the difference between a blow up of a nuclear power reactor and a blow up of an atom bomb?
WEBB: In an atomic bomb you’d have this huge fireball of blast and of heat to cause firestorms in a wide area of destruction due to the physical blast. A nuclear reactor does not have that hazard. However, a nuclear reactor would have thousands times more radioactivity in the reactor to cause contamination. So in that respect a reactor is a lot more hazardous than an atomic bomb.
SUN: If it went?
WEBB: Right. Except an atomic bomb has a potential for sure killing people, whereas to get the lethal cloud to kill people you have to have certain weather conditions, inversions, so that the radioactivity doesn’t go aloft too high in the air. It hugs the ground more, that’s when it kills people. Now there are other ways that I should mention about how you could get runaway. There’s these control rods, we call them, that regulate the nuclear reaction in the core. If a pipe that holds the motor of these rods, or any of these pipes, should rupture due to high pressure, a rod could be blown out of the reactor and that would set off nuclear runaway.
SUN: You’ve gone from meltdown, into runaway. Are there other potential accidents that could happen of which the public is not aware?
WEBB: Well, there is a class of nuclear runaway accidents dealing with the breeder reactors. The breeder reactor is evidently going to be needed if nuclear power is going to be a long term proposition.
WEBB: Because you’re going to run out of high grade uranium ores in 30 years from all accounts of the resource of uranium. What you’ll have to do is bring in a class of reactors called the breeder reactor which converts a low grade non-fuel type of uranium into a fuel type of material called plutonium. Now plutonium is a very toxic substance, a lung cancer hazard if converted into a dust. Now the breeder reactor in order to get this breeding capability begins to look like an atomic bomb due to the nuclear characteristics of that type of reactor. Now if you bring in a breeder, by the way, you can extend your fuel resources out to a thousand years because you convert this non-fuel material, this non-fuel type uranium which is pretty abundant, into fuel. And it’s converted by the nuclear reactions that go on in the reactor. Now they want to recycle that plutonium to run other breeder reactors, to start up other breeder reactors and be a fuel source for non-breeder type reactors.
SUN: I’ve heard that plutonium is the most dangerous substance in the universe.
WEBB: It could be. A microgram of it has been known to cause lung cancer in dogs. It seems to be undisputed. The hazard of the breeder reactor is that it is prone to runaway, more so than the water cooled or present day reactor. There you can get a nuclear explosion due to melting, interacting with coolant, as you could get with present day reactors. But here in a breeder you can get a nuclear explosion of the order of 20,000 pounds of TNT equivalent. Now that would vaporize tons of plutonium, radioactive material that’s in the core of the reactor as fuel and just burst the containment system very easily. And vaporize all that plutonium material. And as it expands and explodes it condenses into a very fine dust — that’s what the potential is — and that dust can fall-out and cause 150,000 square miles of land to be abandoned. That’s Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and half of Pennsylvania combined.
SUN: That’s more than the other kinds of accidents?
WEBB: Right. That’s just due to the plutonium fall-out. And there’ll be all the other radioactivity that will be involved as well. Now that figure of 150,000 square miles of land is based on using the federal government’s safety study, the Rasmussen Report’s own contamination limit for plutonium above which you have to relocate people, and that’s using the federal government’s own meteorological dispersal fall-out formula and so it’s just a matter of plugging in how much plutonium you have that could be released. I’ll give you an idea. When the federal government issues a safety analysis for breeder reactors they have to worry about a tenth of a gram being released, squirted out of a leak. And follow where that’s going and the dose rates. A nuclear explosion could put tons of plutonium, not just a tenth of a gram.
SUN: Tons of plutonium?
WEBB: Tons of plutonium into the environment.
SUN: One teaspoon of plutonium, I’ve heard, can give 150 million people a fatal dose of lung cancer.
WEBB: One of those scenarios where you assume that if the plutonium in a teaspoon would be distributed in everybody’s lungs in the world . . . that really isn’t . . . You can’t just assume that everybody is going to get it uniformly in their lungs. You have to show mechanistically or in a plausible way that the plutonium dust would get into their lungs.
SUN: Tons of plutonium in the atmosphere of this planet — what would happen?
WEBB: You see it’s going to fall-out. And it might get trapped in the soil. And rain might drive it down and it would get trapped. Of course when a farmer plows his field and the ground dries up the dust can get kicked out so then it will be in the air again. And it only decays to half its strength in 24,000 years. So it’s going to be around forever if it gets out. All I do — I’m a nuclear engineer. I’m not a biological health expert, I’m not a meteorologist. But I use the formula and evacuation criteria that others who are authorities use, and you get these size land areas. See where I come in on this whole issue is that I’m claiming and I’m showing that there’s that potential for releasing those tons of plutonium into the atmosphere. The federal government prior to my testimonies and treatises on this subject tried to argue that the explosion hazard is limited; about ten pounds of TNT equivalent explosion and you could easily contain it with blast shielding and with a well-designed containment system you could contain practically all of the plutonium, except for maybe a tenth of a gram or something. Where I come in is I can show that there is this potential for 20,000 pounds of TNT explosion. Now since I’ve issued my analysis of the explosion potential the Argonne National Laboratory, which is the headquarters for breeder reactor safety research, more specifically the manager of the safety program there, has admitted we do not have the mathematical upper limit of the breeder explosion potential.
I’d have to assume that you’re going to get a disastrous accident, it’s a certainty within the next 20 years, 30 years, right around there . . . I may be wrong . . . We’re liable to have one next week.
I’d have to assume that you’re going to get a disastrous accident, it’s a certainty within the next 20 years, 30 years, right around there . . . I may be wrong . . . We’re liable to have one next week.
SUN: Going back to your average nuclear power plant that every power company wants to build down the corner, you’ve discussed meltdowns, runaway nuclear accidents, is there a third?
WEBB: Again it’s more serious than the loss of coolant accident, somewhere between loss of coolant and nuclear runaway. It’s called power cooling mismatch. Here you have the reactor operating full power at its operating pressure level and some malfunction occurs to cause overheating of the core, and melting of the core while it’s pressurized, and that can trigger a rupture, a coolant explosion in the reactor system, and that has the potential of breaking the reactor vessel. Now you have that instantaneous release of all that high pressure, high temperature coolant to add to the violence of that explosion.
SUN: How does that accident happen?
WEBB: One of the ways is with the 180 mechanical rods that regulate the nuclear reaction in the core. The relative positioning of those rods, withdrawing them partially out of the core, will set how the power is evenly distributed or not in the reactor. If you pull a control rod out too far you can have that local region overheat. That can set the stage for local melting in the core. You could get a blockage of coolant in one of the fuel elements in the reactor, and that could lead to a depriving coolant in one fuel element and that could cause a local melting in the core.
SUN: The atomic energy industry claims — now they talk about meltdowns — they say a meltdown is a billion to one chance. They say we have to sort of live dangerously and the chances are a billion to one so what the hell.
WEBB: In the first place, the Rasmussen Report, the probability analysis, doesn’t analyze the likelihood for a potential for nuclear runaway accidents. In the final report they looked at a couple of lesser nuclear runaway accidents but they didn’t look at the full range. Number 2. Their probability estimates are based on a set of crucial guesses. The probability of any particular kind of reactor accident is based on a set of factors that are multiplied together to get these extremely low probability factors that they calculate. Many of the factors are guesses — just outright guesses — they’re just somebody’s judgement of what they think the likelihood is of a certain piece of equipment not working. Other types of probability factors are — well, what do you think the probability is for getting a coolant explosion given some molten fuel dropping in the water? And they say the probability factor is about one in a hundred given the melting occurring for a coolant explosion which would break or rupture the containment system. Let’s look at that probability factor for example. That factor’s not been scientifically demonstrated with any meltdown test. You’re liable to find out it’s 98 per cent probability that you’re going to get an explosion — if you run the test. Furthermore, if you look at nuclear runaway, which they’re ignoring and there are many accidents which could take the path of nuclear runaway, but they make a subjective judgement that it will probably follow a different course due to the complexity of how the reactor system will behave in an abnormal state. Well that’s a subjective judgement that they think it’s likely to follow a different course. If it follows a course that could bring out these nuclear runaways, you could get instant explosion of the reactor. I mean a nuclear runaway of such force and severity that a coolant explosion must be a certainty. And, incidentally, that’s where we first learned about this phenomenon of coolant explosions, in nuclear runaway tests, an explosion experiment out in Idaho. If you get the nuclear runaway type thing then your probability is not one per cent of a coolant explosion, it’s 100 per cent. What does that mean? That means you have to change the Rasmussen’s estimate of about one in 5,000 years of getting a disastrous accident to one in fifty.
SUN: If you have a thousand reactors, like they’re talking about having in America in the year 2,000, the probabilities even under Rasmussen would then be one in 500?
WEBB: In this particular accident I am speaking of he has a probability for of something like two to the minus seven, that’s two in 10,000,000 years of operating per each reactor per year of getting an accident, a disastrous accident. Now if you multiply that by 180 reactors that particular class of reactors will have, it turns out to be one in 25,000 years. Increase that to account for the uncertainty in what they estimate the probability is — what they admit the uncertainty is — then you get about one in 6,000 years of getting a disastrous accident for this particular reactor and for the particular accident of concern for that reactor. But if you take out that factor of one per cent they assume without basis and which doesn’t apply to nuclear runaway anyway, then it’s one in 60 years, not one in 6,000.
SUN: If there’s a thousand nuclear power plants in America in the year 2,000 what would be your estimate of the rate of accidents annually?
WEBB: When I put it all together and look at all the complexity and then review the human experience with these reactors — we’ve had a lot of close calls, I examine 14 of them in my book. In each of these close calls lots of malfunctions occur and they sort of pile up until you need equipment in a hurry and it doesn’t work and then you’re in trouble. We’ve had some close calls. We’ve also had some accidents. Some minor accidents in the early days, they weren’t big disasters because there wasn’t much radioactivity involved in them, due to the situations unique to those accident mishaps.
My feeling is when I look at human experience and the complexity of the machines plus the fact we don’t know scientifically what could happen, I’d have to assume that you’re going to get a disastrous accident, it’s a certainty within the next 20 years, 30 years, right around there, that’s my opinion. I may be wrong. I may err in the wrong side. We’re liable to have one next week.
SUN: If there would be a thousand plants in the year 2,000, do you see routine accidents from these plants then, as we go into the next century?
WEBB: Let’s assume you had an accident, ten years, 15 years from now. You had a big accident where it maybe caused agricultural restrictions over Ohio. Well what are you going to do? Are you going to shut all the reactors down? By that time we’ll have so many that the economic hardships would be very severe. So they’ll say let’s just keep running them and tighten up. But if it happened that time it will happen again. And these things are so complex and to add on new safety systems to try to reduce the likelihood doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to reduce the likelihood because you’re making things more complex.
SUN: On the matter of human error?
WEBB: Let’s take the human error factor in the Rasmussen Report. What the report did to estimate the human error factor was to bring in some psychologist who’d studied human error in other systems — I assume it was for airplanes or running submarines or something like that — and he was invited to come and visit the nuclear plants and observe their operations and then make his estimates of human error and probabilities. The type of human error they seem to be estimating is this kind: a mishap occurs in the plant and an operator has one minute to do something, what is his chance of pushing the wrong button? So this psychological expert comes up with some factor like 10 per cent of chance to push the wrong button. Well that’s one kind of human error. But what about the human error that happened up in the Vermont Yankee plant when the reactor went critical, that means something close to a nuclear runaway situation, with the reactor head opened up and the containment opened up. You’re not supposed to do that. And the reason that was done is a workman used a jumper cable to bypass the safety system — to save some time. That’s the problem.
SUN: In your book you discuss nuclear accidents that people haven’t been too aware have happened. There’s a total of 14 in the book.
WEBB: I just picked out a limited 14.
SUN: There’s been more than 14?
WEBB: Oh yeah, close calls.
SUN: The nuclear industry says there hasn’t been a serious accident yet.
WEBB: There hasn’t been a radiological accident in the sense that huge quantities of radioactivity have been released. There’ve been some close calls. It reflects the relatively good care given to the design and operation of reactors. I mean these fellows aren’t irresponsible in designing and building these plants. They’re trying to make them as safe as they can given the need to make a certain amount of fuel put out so much energy with so much efficiency. If the government hadn’t been as safety conscious as it has been we certainly would have had more problems. But we nevertheless have had close calls and I interpret them as omens of disastrous accidents that could occur.
SUN: Talk about some of the accidents you relate.
WEBB: There was one loss of coolant accident in Switzerland. The reactor was built inside a mountain. They had to seal up the cavern.
SUN: When did that accident occur?
WEBB: In 1969.
SUN: And others?
WEBB: This close call that I mentioned about the Vermont Yankee reactor in which the operator bypassed the system. Circumstances could have occurred where it would have been more serious. We had a breeder reactor up in Detroit that suffered a meltdown.
SUN: That’s in the book, We Almost Lost Detroit.
WEBB: Right. In that particular situation the reactor had just been started up so there wasn’t hardly any radioactivity built up in the reactor system. So even if it would have exploded you wouldn’t have had a big . . . you would have had a mess on your hands and some people would have gotten hurt, but you wouldn’t have one of these big consequential problems. If it would have happened after it ran a long time and had a big buildup of radioactivity, yes — there was one study done by the University of Michigan for that Fermi reactor showing that 115,000 people potentially could have been killed. Furthermore, the breeder reactor, the Fermi reactor, did not use plutonium. It used the high grade uranium to start it. So you didn’t have the plutonium hazard. Now the thing about that reactor accident, too, is that it shows you how mishaps can occur with multiple malfunction. The accident occurred because of a last minute design change to put some equipment at the bottom of the reactor for a safety reason. It wasn’t thought out very well. It was done in a hurry. It was a little sheet of metal held down by some cat screws. And they just vibrated away with a flow of induced vibrations of the coolant and they got sucked up inside the core and caused two fuel elements to melt down. Now that just starts the matter. When the fuel is melting down that changes what we call the reactivity of the system and in a breeder reactor a melting down could raise that reactivity and trigger a nuclear explosion like I mentioned before. In this particular melting pattern it so happened that it was the other direction. It reduced the reactivity and the power level started to fall off, decay. Now that should have told the operator, hey something is wrong because it just doesn’t do that. But instead of shutting down the reactor immediately, he took the control rod handle, the control switch and moved the control rods out further — which is in the unsafe direction. He’s aggravating the matter. And then there’s a radiation alarm when the molten fuel was leaking radioactivity, radioactivity was coming out of the reactor. And still the operator took 11 minutes before he SCRAMed the reactor. And what I surmise was maybe he SCRAMed the reactor when the radioactivity started to change around, started to rise . . . hey, this is too crazy, and so they SCRAMed the reactor.
SUN: The one in Idaho? . . .
WEBB: We had this meltdown accident. The whole core melted down and almost exploded within a half second. That was the experimental breeder reactor in Idaho, the first one, and it demonstrated how touchy these things are at running away auto-catalytically — that means on its own volition, and then melting down. And as it melted down the compaction . . . it turns out the breeder reactor when the fuel compacts can trigger a nuclear runaway. That was the experimental breeder reactor No. 1, and it occurred in November, 1955.
SUN: There was a substantial accident in England?
WEBB: Yes, that was the Windscale accident that caused about 200 square miles of land 60 days of dairy prohibition.
SUN: What was the background on that?
WEBB: That was a gas-cooled reactor. The core had a lot of carbon in it. Carbon burns, get it hot enough. And it caught fire. So the fire was smoking out the radioactivity.
SUN: What happened at Brown’s Ferry?
WEBB: You had two big reactors side by side, operated by one common control room, and the safety cable, the electric cable that controlled all the equipment in the two reactors, converged on the control room. There were some workmen checking for air leaks and they used a candle to do it, and the candle got sucked in through an air leak hole and caught fire on some plastic material, and the fire spread and caused the whole cable room to go ablaze.
SUN: How come the American public hasn’t gotten much of this kind of information in the last 25 years?
WEBB: The federal government and its scientific community represents part of an aristocracy in the country. And they feel that the common person out there is not qualified to judge safety of reactors, that only experts can judge safety. Well as they were developing nuclear power, in 1964 — that was a crucial juncture — they wanted to start building big plants, based on the experience we had with tiny plants, and they issued a study of nuclear runaway potential which concluded, yes, you could get catastrophic accidents and there’s always different ways you can conceive of them being brought about and therefore you’d better look at them scientifically with theoretical calculations . . . a whole program was recommended with a series of tests, something called large core kinetics experiments. Plus they said you’d have to have full scale reactor destruct tests, with a full scale power reactor. They said this kind of program couldn’t be considered complete without that type of test. It would take six to eight years, they estimated. Now that was back in 1964. We should have went that route. Instead the federal government suppressed the document, kept it secret, and went ahead and authorized that year the development of these plants.
SUN: Is that document still secret?
WEBB: After my inquiries out to the national reactor testing station I uncovered it, in 1974. It’s called only Internal Phillips Report [picking up thick report] , there’s no date on it other than a library stamp, 1964. Here’s the punchline: program recommendations. [Reading from the report.] “It is urgent that we do this because we’re trying to build a large number of reactors and time is of the essence.” What the federal did is they were confronted with this scientific information of theoretical potentials for runaway and instead of publishing this so the scientific community would have the benefit of knowledge and pursue it, they suppressed it. And what they did is they said we’re going to try to prevent nuclear runaway. So they embarked on a program of trying to build in safety back-up equipment to try to keep the reactor from getting out of control. Now that’s your judgement if you think you can keep the reactor from being out of control. But you see the philosophy of the federal government started at that time was that the people don’t have to know about this because they’ll get too alarmed about it and there’ll be an uproar. I can conceive that they reasoned this might lead to a stoppage of nuclear energy. So they said well, we’re not going to tell them about it because they’ll get unduly alarmed and we’ll just take the responsible steps to make sure the reactor doesn’t get out of control. But you see, they were factoring in their own value judgements, their feeling of what could be safe, and also they had a vested interest in it, that was their livelihood.
SUN: Now it’s your livelihood, too. How come you’re taking this position? It’s obviously cost you your livelihood.
WEBB: It has. I thought nuclear energy was going to be the way to solve the air pollution problem of cities. It doesn’t put out smoke. And it would avoid the problem of running out of coal, or tearing up the ground to get at the coal.
SUN: What happened?
WEBB: Well at the end of my working with Rickover in the Navy on the Shippingport reactor — see he had responsibility on the first civilian reactor — that’s when I first learned that an accident in a reactor could affect people 50 miles downwind. I was not told that. I didn’t realize that. I thought accidents were industrial accidents at the plant. And I had a job at the time already committed to go up to a plant in Michigan and I saw the Air Force using that plant for low level target practice, for bombs, planes were coming in 1,000 feet in the air, jet bombers, and then I saw how there was a great difference in quality of operating the reactor up at that plant, a difference in safety standards that I had witnessed in the Navy program. Then I read an article by Edward Teller about the nuclear runaway potential of the breeder reactor. But it was a very skimpy analysis, it was a sort of a feeling that he had that yeah, you could get severe runaways but he didn’t quantify it. And I began to really worry about it. What is this machine I am building? What are their accident potentials? So I decided to leave the industry, that was in ’67, and go off and get Ph.D. training in the theory of the reactor, so I’d really understand that theory. It’s really complex theory, you have to understand it to really appreciate how the reactor could malfunction. And to really understand what the significance is of a valve closing somewhere in the system. Also Rickover sent us to a reactor engineering school for six months while I was in the Navy. It gave me more of a theoretical insight as to what parameters, certain design parameters, meant. I knew what the parameters were, they indicated nuclear runaway potential. So I decided then, I want to study this breeder safety, this explosion hazard that Teller mentioned. I met resistance in the academic community. The faculty in the nuclear engineering department wanted me to study the economic benefits of using a certain type of fuel instead of the explosion hazards. But I had a good advisor.
SUN: But you’re sort of on your own now, to say the least.
WEBB: I then conducted that research for the Ph.D. dissertation and concluded, yup, there is a severe explosion potential, we don’t know it, it hasn’t been anywhere near adequately evaluated theoretically, and I went on from there in to conduct a whole study.
SUN: What kind of energy forms do you think should be pursued instead of nuclear power? Obviously as far as you’re concerned it’s too dangerous to fool around with.
WEBB: That opinion of mind is that we ought not to go with nuclear power. I could change my mind if I see more analysis that I call for in my book. So I reserve that right.
SUN: At this point do you feel it’s too dangerous?
WEBB: Too dangerous. I base that opinion on a belief and maybe this belief is wrong, a belief that there is an alternative and it would require an alternative way of life in America. And that would be to get half the people out of the cities and suburbs and on the land, to live on the land, and you’d have to teach them in schools how to care for the land and live off of it, and to grow their food, and you’d have to have land reform to pave the way so people could afford to live on the land and buy the land to own, and heat and cook with wood. Then the cities would be left for commerce and manufacture and you could hopefully get by there with wind power and solar energy for heating. And conservation. But you’re going to have a way of life that’s different than we have today if you don’t want the risks of nuclear power. That’s my appraisal of it. I’m not an economist. But that appears to be what’s in store. The ultimate of what we’re after is our safety, well being and happiness, and that’s what we want. If you have an accident we’ll be deprived of our land, a great big area of it, and that could really hurt us, so it’s the accident risk I’m worried about but it may be the people will be more happy living off the land than the other way of life.
SUN: Do you think there’s any way to stop it before, as you expect, one of these things blows up?
WEBB: What I’ve come to realize through comprehending what the nuclear accident hazards are is that you can’t prove these things are not safe, you can’t prove that they’re safe, because it’s a judgement, somebody’s personal judgement as to whether you think the back-up systems are adequate enough, and whether the likelihood is less. I think that when you study more than the Rasmussen Report, I think the reasonable conclusion will be yes, they’re just not safe. But that, again, that’s going to be a judgement. So, you see, then how are you to make sure a sound decision is to be made if it just is ultimately a personal judgement. Well, we want to assure a sound decision so you’re going to have to go more to than just physics and engineering, you’re going to have to go to the principles of human law that have developed over the years for insuring sound policy judgement and these principles are embodied in our Constitution. What I did was conduct a Constitutional law inquiry into whether the nuclear program is Constitutional. In other words, did the people ever give the power to the federal government to promote and regulate nuclear energy in the first place by any fair implication of the powers that are granted to it already in the Constitution. Incidentally, I published a lead article in the Ohio State Law Journal on another serious Constitutional issue and so I throw it in as credibility of my Constitutional argument. My legal brief: I find the nuclear program un-Constitutional. I find that the government bases the whole program on a claim that they have an undefined power to provide for the general welfare. Now there’s a clause that says something like that in the Constitution but was not intended to be a grant of power and that was repeatedly explained in the state conventions that ratified the Constitution, in the federal convention, in the Federalist Papers. It was clearly evident when you study the records of the federal Constitutional convention and then the record of Congress interpreting the Constitution. It was only recently, in the 30’s, when the Congress assumed the power on good intention in order to pass social security, and they had certain qualifiers which have been forgotten now, and the federal government has grown ever since and promoted a high technology way of life — civilian air travel, civilian space programs, civilian nuclear programs, superhighways, and what not. Now just because a program is un-Constitutional doesn’t mean it’s bad or against the will of the people. It just means the will of the people hasn’t been determined. Also what this all suggests is that the people really have lost the power to govern themselves to an aristocracy that has set in. For example, the federal government controls the research now in our universities and so they make sure the universities don’t fund safety studies in nuclear reactors. Yet they’ll fund all kinds of innocuous research that is very expensive, like high energy physics, for example. We’re studying and spending millions of dollars investigating the processes that may go on in the interior of a distant star somewhere and yet we’re not studying the accident hazards of nuclear plants that affect all people. So you see the people have lost the power to govern themselves and what I’m saying is let’s recur these Constitutional principles. And the method of resolving this whole nuclear issue is for the Congress to review the whole nuclear program and if they think it’s safe then they’re going to have to propose an amendment to the Constitution to get the authority. And then that amendment proposition would be submitted to the states and I would prefer the state convention mode on acting on that amendment . . . where people will elect delegates close to them, that live down the street, send a delegate down to their state house and each state independently on its own decide whether they think nuclear energy is necessary and safe. And they can call for any information they require and withhold their opinion or judgement for any reason they want, even if on a bare feeling I’m afraid of it and I don’t want to think about it anymore, and it would take three-fourths of the states to concur.
SUN: Your personal situation? You’re in Toledo with your family staying with your folks.
WEBB: I’m penniless, I’m homeless, I don’t own anything but a refrigerator and a washing machine and a dryer, a couple of beds and my library and a Mustang, a 1964 Mustang that doesn’t start.
SUN: And you’ve left the university.
WEBB: The University of Massachusetts funded my last year of research, gave me $8,500 total, actually I was there two years, they funded my first year, wouldn’t fund me the second so we had to just scrape and get money. I had a research program into the Nuclear Regulatory Agency to study certain of these runaway accidents better. It would take the world’s largest computer to do the calculations. I don’t think it’s worth it. I’d just as soon say let’s stop nuclear power, forget it, use the money to start changing over to something else. But if the federal government is just going to insist on building these things and they want to insist unless someone can show them absolute proof that there is a nuclear runaway explosion threat then you’ll have to do these calculations to investigate. But they rejected my research proposal.
I much appreciate your interest in my evaluation of nuclear reactor hazards. [THE SUN, February 1978, Issue 35] May I revise an opinion of mine concerning the argument, mentioned by Karl Grossman, that “one teaspoon of plutonium . . . can give 150 million people a fatal dose of lung cancer.” I indicated that this way of assessing the hazard of nuclear reactors is not valid, for I said that you cannot just assume that 150 million people will receive the plutonium in their lungs but rather one must show how plutonium released from an accident will get into the lungs of people. After more consideration, I have changed my mind. It is said that one human being inhales the equivalent of about 50 teaspoons of soil dust (fully compacted) in a lifetime, with no significant ill effects. The same with water vapor; no ill effects when inhaling it. Since I believe that human beings can live happily on Earth by means of only the soil, water, and air, with the aid of the sun, I feel we do not need to create for this Earth a permanent toxin, especially one as powerful as plutonium, when a teaspoon of it can kill 150 million people. My apology to Dr. John Gofman, who first drew attention to the poisonous power of plutonium using the teaspoon measure. The point is certainly a sufficient concern to reject nuclear energy, including nuclear weaponry.
To correct two errors in the article, I meant to say that in the Fermi reactor meltdown accident, the operator finally shut down the reactor after the reactivity began to rise (not radioactivity). Also the temperature in a fuel meltdown accident is 5000 degrees Fahrenheit (not 500 degrees) — about one half of the Sun’s temperature, which shows up the potential for vaporizing the radioactive materials inside of a reactor in an accident.