Home > Our World > Book of Resolutions > Nuclear Safety in the United States

Theology

God has given humans a special charge to "guard and keep" the earth (Genesis 2:15). Nuclear technology presents a special challenge to our call to be stewards of God's creation (Psalm 8:6-8) because of the risks involved in the production, handling, and disposal of long-lived nuclear byproducts (such as plutonium) in the energy and weapons-production cycles. Until society discontinues the use of nuclear power to produce energy and weapons, we have a special responsibility to ensure that God's creation be protected for present and future generations by insisting that the entire production cycle be as safe as possible.

The problem of nuclear safety is of worldwide concern. It is the responsibility of the church to use its influence internationally to prevent the devastation that could result from nuclear disasters.

United Methodist Policy

Through its Energy Policy Statement, The United Methodist Church affirmed the need to explore all sustainable energy options while highlighting the environmental risks posed by certain options including nuclear power. "The hazards in storing radioactive wastes for thousands of years and the destructive potential of a catastrophic accident involve a great risk of irreversible damage to the environment or to the human genetic pool."1 Furthermore, the Church has reiterated its opposition to "the production and testing of weapons designed to destroy or harm God's creation, such as . . . nuclear weapons. We urge the abolishment of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and urge the cleanup of sites contaminated by chemical biological and nuclear weapons waste."

Background

Nuclear Power

Although there has been a pause in construction of new nuclear capacity in the United States—no nuclear plants have been ordered since 1978 and none has come on-line since the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar 1 reactor ordered in 1970 and licensed to operate in 1996—the waste generated by current nuclear operations continues to pile up and policy-makers are debating the merits of encouraging construction of new nuclear reactors. In the United States there are currently 103 licensed reactors operating at 65 plants in 31 states. Worldwide, nearly 433 reactors generate roughly 17 percent of global electricity.

The accident at Chernobyl on April 28, 1986—and its legacy of radiation, contamination, and cancer—demonstrated the dangers involved in the production of nuclear energy. This accident was much larger than the one at Three Mile Island in 1979. However, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Reactor Safety Study points out that accidents even larger than Chernobyl are possible for U.S. reactors. Despite the difference between the design of the Chernobyl plants and the designs of most U.S. plants, there are, according to the Reactor Safety Study, many accident scenarios possible in U.S. plants that could lead to substantial releases of radiation. In March 2002, at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant near Toledo, Ohio, authorities discovered that leaking boric acid had corroded a six-inch hole in the reactor vessel head leaving only a quarter-inch-thick stainless steel liner to prevent a potentially catastrophic release of reactor cooling water. This most recent example of safety-related shortcomings at nuclear plants further increases concerns raised after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's oversight is insufficient and additional security and safety measures are needed.

Department of Energy Reactors

The Department of Energy (DOE) operates more than 200 nuclear facilities. Among its main responsibilities are the production and testing of this country's nuclear weapons program. The DOE facilities are generally more antiquated than civilian plants and are not subject to review by outside agencies. Five of these facilities are the main nuclear weapons production reactors. Four are located on the Savannah River in South Carolina; the fifth is the "N-Reactor" at Hanford, Washington (a complex where poor disposal of wastes in the past has created a radioactive landfill known as "one of our largest contaminated areas"). The containment systems in these plants have been criticized as being inadequate and not capable of meeting minimum civilian standards. In 1986, the DOE agreed to submit its five weapons reactors to state and federal waste disposal rules and shut down the Hanford "N-Reactor" for safety improvements. The cleanup of the Hanford site alone could cost over $100 billion. Yet most DOE plants continue to be exempt from the far more rigorous examination of commercial reactors by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Emergency Planning and State Rights

After the Three Mile Island accident, rules were instituted to improve public safety in case of a nuclear accident. The new rules required the participation, in emergency planning exercise, of local and state officials. In 1986, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in response to two state governors' challenge to the viability of utility-produced emergency plans, requested that it be allowed to approve utility emergency evacuation plans in the event that state and local officials refuse to participate in the emergency-planning process. This rule change would ease the licensing of future nuclear reactors and seriously diminish public participation and review of safety measures, as well as increase the dangers of a serious accident.

Nuclear Wastes

One of the most controversial and costly components of the nuclear fission process is the creation of radioactive byproducts. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission divides wastes into two different categories according to the level and duration of radioactivity: high-level and low-level wastes. Each reactor produces an annual average of 20 tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel and 50-200 cubic meters of low-level radioactive waste. Since the 1950s, the Department of Energy has been searching for a viable way to dispose of the wastes created by commercial nuclear reactors (irradiated fuels) and high-level wastes from weapons production. These wastes are highly radioactive and will remain radioactive. Presently, these wastes are stored within nuclear facility sites, creating what one member of Congress called hundreds of "de facto nuclear waste dumps." Over the past six decades, these by-products have been accumulating at storage sites throughout the country, including an estimated 45,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel at civilian nuclear power plants with another 2,000 tons generated annually.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) set a schedule for the location, construction, and operation of two high-level waste geologic repositories, one in the east, and one in the west. Amendments to NWPA in 1987 restricted the repository site studies to one location: Yucca Mountain. This site is located in Nevada, a state which itself has no nuclear reactors, and on land considered sacred to the Western Shoshone and Paiute. To a large extent, political considerations have taken precedence over safety and scientific considerations, and there has been improper and inadequate consultation and cooperation with state governments and Native American tribes. In 2002, Yucca Mountain was designated as the nuclear fuel repository over the objections of Nevada's elected officials, tribal representatives, and environmental advocates. Proponents of the site highlighted the area's geological stability despite the occurrence of an earthquake registering 4.3 on the Richter scale the month of the Congressional vote.

Construction of the Yucca Mountain repository will not be completed for years and shipments of the radioactive waste—raising deep safety concerns for the millions of residents living along shipment routes—will take decades. While billed as creating a "central repository" for waste, spent nuclear fuel must remain for years on site before it is "cool" enough to transport, so this process would merely create a new, larger storage site in addition to the 100-plus on-site storage facilities that would continue to store nuclear waste.

Recommendations

The United Methodist Church expresses its deep concern over the use of a technology with severe environmental and health impacts without appropriate and extensive safety measures in the production, handling, and disposal processes. We also reiterate our opposition to the use of nuclear technology for the production of weapons.

We recommend:

1. Reviewing the safety of operating plants. Each of the 107 operating commercial plants in the U.S. should be reviewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress to identify design deficiencies and weaknesses that could contribute to or cause an accident.

2. Instituting improvement programs. Improvement programs should be instituted in areas of demonstrated weak performance such as management, personnel performance, equipment reliability, and contractor accountability.

3. Researching new designs for plant safety. New designs for existing and future nuclear plants should be researched and developed so as to eliminate the potential of a core meltdown accident.

4. Phasing out nuclear weapons production. We urge the closing down of the five weapons-producing reactors and the Rocky Flats Plutonium Processing Plant, a thorough cleanup of any remaining nuclear wastes at these sites, and no more nuclear arms testing.

5. Establishing uniform safety standards for civilian and military nuclear operations. We support having all nuclear operations in the U.S. subject to uniform basic safety provision. All Department of Energy nuclear operations should be licensed and reviewed by an independent agency such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the Environmental Protection Agency. Department of Energy contractors should be held accountable to the same standards as civilian facility contractors and operators.

6. Protecting neighboring populations. We urge that due attention be given to the protection of populations living near nuclear power plants or along routes used to transport nuclear materials by ensuring the communities' participation in emergency evacuation plans. We support maintaining evacuation planning zones for all areas within ten miles from a nuclear facility, and engaging the full participation of state and local officials in the planning process. We believe that the safety of all potentially exposed populations should be the guide in safety improvements to nuclear power plants, not narrow cost-benefit analysis.

7. Instituting full liability and compensation. We hold that those corporations and governments responsible for nuclear accidents should be liable for cleanup and restitution to all victims of an accident.

8. Reevaluating the U.S. nuclear waste policy:

a. We urge a moratorium on DOE's proposed nuclear waste repository program;

b. We urge Congress to establish an independent commission to review DOE's nuclear waste repository and Monitored Retrievable Storage Programs and to provide increased funding for the development of waste management technologies that will allow prolonged storage at the reactor site;-

c. We urge that full public participation and consultation in any future nuclear waste repository siting and transportation routing be guaranteed through provision of grants to affected localities, states, and Native American tribes; and

d. We urge a moratorium of the building of nuclear power facilities until an adequate national plan is developed and implemented for the permanent disposal of nuclear waste products.

9. Decommissioning. We urge that the full cost of decommissioning (the dismantling and disposing of obsolete or closed power plants) be paid by the entities responsible for the construction and operation of nuclear facilities, not ratepayers or taxpayers.

10. Conserving energy and finding alternative energy sources. The greatest national effort should be made in the areas of conservation and renewable energy sources. We support increased government funding for research and development of technologies that would decrease dependence upon nuclear energy as an electricity source and urge the development of incentives, including tax and appliance standards, to speed the adoption of these technologies.

11. Cooperating with annual conferences. We urge the general church agencies of The United Methodist Church to assist central and annual conferences in their efforts to learn more about nuclear safety. Specifically, we urge general agencies of The United Methodist Church to assist annual conferences who have identified nuclear safety problems related to nuclear facilities, waste sites, and transportation routes within the bounds of those annual conferences.

We particularly urge the General Board of Church and Society to identify qualified nuclear safety experts who could assist annual conferences to understand and respond to nuclear waste and nuclear safety concerns in their areas.

ADOPTED 1988, AMENDED AND READOPTED 1992, AMENDED AND READOPTED 2004

See Social Principles, ¶ 160E.

1. Joshua Gordon, as cited by Christopher Flavin, Worldwatch Paper 75: "Reassessing Nuclear Power: The Fallout from Chernobyl"; March 1987.

From The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church — 2004. Copyright © 2004 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.



Still Have Questions?

If you have any questions Ask InfoServ

Looking for a Church?

Find A Church Near You


Try a Different Search

United Methodism Is Global

Learn how the United Methodist Church is
Making connections throughout the world

Korean UMC

Discover the MethoPedia

A world of news, tools and Church-wide resources for everyone.

Explore all issues

Contact Us

This will not reach a local church, district or conference office. InfoServ* staff will answer your question, or direct it to someone who can provide information and/or resources.

Phone
(optional)

*InfoServ ( about ) is a ministry of United Methodist Communications located in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. 1-800-251-8140

Not receiving a reply?
Your Spam Blocker might not recognize our email address. Add InfoServ@umcom.org to your list of approved senders.