D'oh! A nuclear blunder and a one-day story

class=img_thumbleft>Last week, Michael Keegan, an anti-nuclear activist out of Indiana, was scouring the fine print on the website of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission when he came across a curious item: on May 3, according to the website, approximately 100 workers at Xcel Energy's Prairie Island nuclear power plant had been exposed to an unfiltered radioactive gas called iodine 131. Keegan forwarded the news to Bonnie Urfer, co-director of the Wisconsin-based group Nukewatch, who disseminated the report to colleagues in the environmental movement, who then notified reporters. All told, six days had passed between the blunder at the plant and its first public airing.

"I was absolutely shocked that there was no press release by the NRC or Xcel Energy. It should have been headline news everywhere, no matter what the industry said about the danger," says Urfer. The reports that did make the news hardly stoked the flames of outrage. In the Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the "incident"--no one dared call it an accident--was a one-day story. Jan Strasma, a spokesman for the NRC, dutifully supplied quotes suggesting that the it was, really, no big deal. He further declared that there were "no health or safety consequences" from the exposure, which he likened to an x-ray.

That comparison did not sit well with Urfer and other anti-nuclear activists, whose insights were conspicuously absent from the mainstream accounts. Cindy Folckers, an environmental scientist at the Nuclear Information Resource Service, bristles at the equating of effects of inhaling a radioactive gas to getting an x-ray. "It's apples and oranges. There is no comparison, except to make it seem insignificant. But scientifically, it's a stupid thing to do," Folckers offers. "It's the difference between touching a hot coal and breathing in a hot coal into your system."

George Crocker, director of the Lake Elmo-based North American Water Office, was equally incensed. "These people were trying to pretend that nothing had happened," he says of Xcel. "What does that tell you about whether you can trust them?" In Crocker's view, the mishap also highlights the inherent problem of the nuclear industry. "These guys are out of bounds again and they're operating a very unforgiving technology," says Crocker. "The time will come when they're will be a payback."

Dave Lochbaum, the director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, says U.S. power plant workers are exposed to radiation under similar circumstances every two or three years. In Lockbaum's view, the most noteworthy aspect of the Prairie Island event was the number of workers effected; by that standard, it was the most serious accident in about five years. "Bottom line," says Lochbaum, "this is not the first time that mistakes caused workers to face unplanned radiation exposures and it'll likely not be the last time."