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Seventy Years of Nuclear Fission: Short on Confidence; Long on Waste

5:55 am in Uncategorized by Gregg Levine

From here to eternity: a small plaque on the campus of the University of Chicago commemorates the site of Fermi's first atomic pile--and the start of the world's nuclear waste problem. (Photo: Nathan Guy via Flickr)

On December 2, 1942, a small group of physicists under the direction of Enrico Fermi gathered on an old squash court beneath Alonzo Stagg Stadium on the Campus of the University of Chicago to make and witness history. Uranium pellets and graphite blocks had been stacked around cadmium-coated rods as part of an experiment crucial to the Manhattan Project–the program tasked with building an atom bomb for the allied forces in WWII. The experiment was successful, and for 28 minutes, the scientists and dignitaries present observed the world’s first manmade, self-sustaining nuclear fission reaction. They called it an atomic pile–Chicago Pile 1 (CP-1), to be exact–but what Fermi and his team had actually done was build the world’s first nuclear reactor.

The Manhattan Project’s goal was a bomb, but soon after the end of the war, scientists, politicians, the military and private industry looked for ways to harness the power of the atom for civilian use, or, perhaps more to the point, for commercial profit. Fifteen years to the day after CP-1 achieved criticality, President Dwight Eisenhower threw a ceremonial switch to start the reactor at Shippingport, PA, which was billed as the first full-scale nuclear power plant built expressly for civilian electrical generation.

Shippingport was, in reality, little more than a submarine engine on blocks, but the nuclear industry and its acolytes will say that it was the beginning of billions of kilowatts of power, promoted (without a hint of irony) as “clean, safe, and too cheap to meter.” It was also, however, the beginning of what is now a, shall we say, weightier legacy: 72,000 tons of nuclear waste.

Atoms for peace, problems forever

News of Fermi’s initial success was communicated by physicist Arthur Compton to the head of the National Defense Research Committee, James Conant, with artistically coded flair:

Compton: The Italian navigator has landed in the New World.
Conant: How were the natives?
Compton: Very friendly.

But soon after that initial success, CP-1 was disassembled and reassembled a short drive away, in Red Gate Woods. The optimism of the physicists notwithstanding, it was thought best to continue the experiments with better radiation shielding–and slightly removed from the center of a heavily populated campus. The move was perhaps the first necessitated by the uneasy relationship between fissile material and the health and safety of those around it, but if it was understood as a broader cautionary tale, no one let that get in the way of “progress.”

A stamp of approval: the US Postal Service commemorated Eisenhower's initiative in 1955.

By the time the Shippingport reactor went critical, North America already had a nuclear waste problem. The detritus from manufacturing atomic weapons was poisoning surrounding communities at several sites around the continent (not that most civilians knew it at the time). Meltdowns at Chalk River in Canada and the Experimental Breeder Reactor in Idaho had required fevered cleanups, the former of which included the help of a young Navy officer named Jimmy Carter. And the dangers of errant radioisotopes were increasing with the acceleration of above-ground atomic weapons testing. But as President Eisenhower extolled “Atoms for Peace,” and the US Atomic Energy Commission promoted civilian nuclear power at home and abroad, a plan to deal with the “spent fuel” (as used nuclear fuel rods are termed) and other highly radioactive leftovers was not part of the program (beyond, of course, extracting some of the plutonium produced by the fission reaction for bomb production, and the promise that the waste generated by US-built reactors overseas could at some point be marked “return to sender” and repatriated to the United States for disposal).

Attempts at what was called “reprocessing”–the re-refining of used uranium into new reactor fuel–quickly proved expensive, inefficient and dangerous, and created as much radioactive waste as it hoped to reuse. It also provided an obvious avenue for nuclear weapons proliferation because of the resulting production of plutonium. The threat of proliferation (made flesh by India’s test of an atomic bomb in 1976) led President Jimmy Carter to cancel the US reprocessing program in 1977. Attempts by the Department of Energy to push mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication (combining uranium and plutonium) over the last dozen years has not produced any results, either, despite over $5 billion in government investments.

In fact, there was no official federal policy for the management of used but still highly radioactive nuclear fuel until passage of The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. And while that law acknowledged the problem of thousands of tons of spent fuel accumulating at US nuclear plants, it didn’t exactly solve it. Instead, the NWPA started a generation of political horse trading, with goals and standards defined more by market exigencies than by science, that leaves America today with what amounts to over five-dozen nominally temporary repositories for high-level radioactive waste–and no defined plan to change that situation anytime soon.

When you assume…

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NRC Halts License Approvals Pending New Guidelines on Nuclear Waste

7:15 am in Uncategorized by Gregg Levine

A nuclear spent fuel pool. (photo: NRCgov)

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced Tuesday it would suspend the issuing of new reactor operating licenses, license renewals and construction licenses until the agency crafted a plan for dealing with the nation’s growing spent nuclear fuel crisis. The action comes in response to a June ruling by the US Court of Appeals that found the NRC’s “Waste Confidence Decision”–the methodology used to evaluate the dangers of nuclear waste storage–was wholly inadequate and posed a danger to public health and the environment.

Prior to the court’s ruling, the Commission had evaluated licensing and relicensing with the assumption that spent fuel–currently stored on site at nuclear power plants in pools and dry casks–would soon be moved to a central long-term waste repository. As previously noted, that option was once thought to be Yucca Mountain, but after years of preliminary work and tens of millions of dollars wasted, Yucca was found to be a poor choice, and the Obama Department of Energy and the NRC ended the project. The confirmation of new NRC Chair Allison Macfarlane–considered a nuclear waste expert and on record as a Yucca Mountain critic–focused even more attention on the country’s lack of realistic plans for safe, permanent waste storage.

The release from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission [PDF] put it this way:

Waste confidence undergirds certain agency licensing decisions, in particular new reactor licensing and reactor license renewal.

Because of the recent court ruling striking down our current waste confidence provisions, we are now considering all available options for resolving the waste confidence issue, which could include generic or site-specific NRC actions, or some combination of both. We have not yet determined a course of action.

In recognition of our duties under the law, we will not issue licenses dependent upon the Waste Confidence Decision or the Temporary Storage Rule until the court’s remand is appropriately addressed.

What this means in real terms remains to be seen. No licenses or renewals were thought imminent. Next up were likely a decision on extending the life of Indian Point, a short drive north of New York City, and a Construction and Operation License for Florida’s Levy County project, but neither was expected before sometime next year. Officially, 19 final reactor decisions are now on hold, though the NRC stressed that “all licensing reviews and proceedings should continue to move forward.”

Still, this should be read as a victory for the originators of the suit that resulted in the June ruling–the Attorneys General of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Vermont in coordination with the Prairie Island Indian Community of Minnesota and environmental groups represented by the National Resources Defense Council–and most certainly for the millions of Americans that live close to nuclear plants and their large, overstuffed, under-regulated pools of dangerous nuclear waste. Complainants not only won the freeze on licensing, the NRC guaranteed that any new generic waste rule would be open to public comment and environmental assessment or environmental impact studies, and that site-specific cases would be subject to a minimum 60-day consideration period.

While there is still plenty of gray area in that guarantee, the NRC has (under pressure) made the process more transparent than most similar dealings at the agency. The commission has also, at least for the moment, formally acknowledged that the nation’s nuclear reactor fleet faces a very pressing problem.

The US has 72,000 tons of radioactive waste and generates an additional 2,000 tons every year. Spent fuel pools at individual sites are already so full they pose numerous threats, some eerily similar to the ongoing disaster at Fukushima. Dry cask storage poses other problems and much additional expense. And regional interim waste storage facilities, an idea possibly favored by Macfarlane, is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that no sites have yet been designated or built.

But nuclear plant operators, already burdened by the spiraling costs of a poorly maintained and aging inventory, are desperate to have the federal government take the waste problem off their backs–and off their books. Whether that is even technically feasible, let alone politically of fiscally possible, remains to be seen. But the NRC has at least recognized–or at least been forced to recognize–that the nuclear industry should not be allowed to create waste indefinitely without a plan to safely secure what is already on hand.

Does the Netroots Care about Nuclear Power?

8:59 am in Uncategorized by Gregg Levine

Van Jones speaking to the faithful at this year's Netroots Nation conference in Providence, RI - June 9, 2012.

On Thursday, June 7, as hundreds of online journalists and activists gathered in Providence, Rhode Island for the seventh annual Netroots Nation conference to discuss what were deemed the most pressing issues of the day, a smaller group made up of nuclear industry representatives and officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the US Department of Energy got together 400 miles south to discuss matters they thought even more urgent. While the attendees in the Ocean State were getting training on “how to navigate the action-packed schedule at Netroots Nation [and] survive on two hours sleep (and still be alert for a day of panels!),” owners of the nation’s aging nuclear facilities pursued doubling the length of new operating licenses, floating the possibility that reactors will be allowed to run into their 80th year–twice the original design life of most plants.

As bloggers, organizers, pundits and politicians were discovering the charms of the Beehive of Industry (yes, that is one of Providence’s nicknames), inspectors at Davis-Besse, the oft-discussed, always troubled nuclear power plant near Toledo, Ohio were reporting what they termed a “pinhole” leak releasing about a gallon of radioactive coolant every 10 minutes. The reactor had been shut down for refueling, maintenance and safety inspections, but was supposed to restart last week. . . before the leak was discovered in a pipe weld. (Though the reason behind the leak has yet to be determined, FirstEnergy, Davis-Besse’s owner, has now resumed the restart. . . without so much as a raised eyebrow from regulators.)

This incident at Davis-Besse comes not so very long after the Ohio primary, where the safety of the plant and trustworthiness of its owners and regulators was an issue in the race between two sitting Democratic members of Congress–Representatives Dennis Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur. Forced to run against each other because of redistricting, the plight of Davis-Besse became a defining issue between the two, with Kucinich calling for the plant to remain off-line until the cause of cracks in the containment structure was determined, while Kaptur affirmed her faith in FirstEnergy. Kaptur argued that the failing facility meant jobs for the struggling district–a district that was drawn to favor Kaptur’s old base–and in the end, beat Kucinich for the Democratic nod.

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Power Play: Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Jaczko Resigns after Push by Industry

4:00 am in Uncategorized by Gregg Levine

Outgoing NRC Chmn. Jaczko testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last year.

The Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, submitted his resignation Monday morning. Chairman Jaczko, a former aid to Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) and Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) who holds a PhD in particle physics, was originally appointed to the NRC in 2005, and elevated to chairman in 2009. Jaczko said he will relinquish his post upon confirmation of a replacement.

Jaczko’s announcement is hard to separate from pressing questions about the safety of commercial nuclear power in the United States–especially in the context of the ongoing crisis in Japan–the debate over the future of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, signs of shifting power dynamics in Washington, and, perhaps most importantly, the influence of wealthy and well-connected private industry on public policy.

As has been discussed here before, Greg Jaczko has been at the center of an orchestrated controversy for much of the last year, with nuclear industry lobbyists, Republican members of Congress, and other NRC commissioners pressing for the chairman’s ouster. Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), head of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has been an especially dogged critic of Jaczko, holding hours of hearings and serving as the driving force behind two inspector general reports on the allegedly hostile workplace environment at the NRC.

Issa, it must be noted, represents a district that includes the extremely troubled San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). The plant is currently offline as regulators try to determine the root causes of radiation leaks and rapid degradation of copper tubing used to move radioactive steam in and out of the reactors. The Orange County Republican has received copious campaign contributions from the companies that operate and maintain San Onofre.

Issa called hearings (while calling for Jaczko’s head) last year after the four other commissioners made public their letter to the White House complaining about Jaczko’s managerial style. The complaint revolved around a handful of issues that help explain the apparent urgency behind the anti-Jaczko putsch.

First, critics were upset about the way that Jaczko helped end work on the Yucca Mountain nuclear storage site. Yucca had proven problematic for a number of reasons–environmental, economic, security, and social–and had long been the target of Nevada politicians (most notably, Senate Majority Leader Reid), who felt their state had been dealt with unfairly in the original selection process.

The Obama administration had seemed to agree, and had the Department of Energy withdraw a request for the licensing of Yucca Mountain. In addition, very little money remained in Yucca’s budget, and no more has been approved.

But the nuclear industry desperately needs an answer to the problem (crisis, really) of long-term nuclear waste storage, and Yucca Mountain is the only site that has even been started. (It is nowhere near finished.) Without a place to move “spent” fuel and the other dangerous detritus of the process, nuclear power cannot realistically expand the number of rectors in the US, nor can it long continue to maintain and refuel those already in operation.

The nuclear industry, through its proxies in Congress and on the NRC, has complained that Jaczko didn’t allow advocates for Yucca to perpetuate the process. Most recently, a fight went public when President Obama nominated NRC Commissioner Kristine Svinicki for another term over the vocal objections of Senator Reid and his colleague Barbara Boxer (D-CA). Of special contention, the role Svinicki played in drafting the documents that called for the construction of the Yucca repository.

Second, the dissenting NRC commissioners complained that Jaczko used his emergency powers as chairman to guide US policy in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that caused a triple-meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility. Complainants seem especially upset that Jaczko recommended evacuation of American citizens from a 50-mile radius around the crippled nuclear plant–a call he made with the support of NRC experts and in coordination with the State Department. Radioactive contamination from Fukushima has, of course, been found across Japan, even beyond the 50-mile limit. (In the US, 65 percent of the population lives within 50 miles of a nuclear plant, and late in December, federal regulators moved to scale back requirements for evacuations and emergency drills around commercial reactors.) Read the rest of this entry →

The Thing That Couldn’t Die: Yucca Battle Continues in Congress and in the Courts

7:15 am in Uncategorized by Gregg Levine

(low resolution movie poster reproduction via wikipedia)

In the 1958 cult horror classic The Thing That Couldn’t Die, a young lass out water-witching (of all things) discovers a curious and ancient box–one that, whether you follow the conventions of the genre or the entreaties of the film’s internal expert, should obviously remain closed.

But, as these things are wont to go, greed and ambition get the better of a few mere mortals, and the box is breached, revealing the intact–and living!–head of a sorcerer executed hundreds of years earlier. The wayward wizard then uses his telepathic powers to manipulate some of the more foolish, godless humans to unearth the rest of his body so that it might be reunited with the head and realize the full force of its destructive powers.

It is hard not to think of this black and white bubbe meise while reviewing the most recent chapters in the battle over the future of the partially excavated, purportedly moribund Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in southwestern Nevada.

As noted here last month, the life and death of the Yucca project was at the center of a public face off between President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who just happens to hail from–and represent–the Silver State. Although the administration has sided with Reid on cancelling work on Yucca Mountain, Obama’s move to re-appoint Kristine Svinicki to another term on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission–over the vocal objections of the Majority Leader–registered with Yucca watchers like stirrings from the grave. Svinicki, after all, has been a staunch proponent of the Yucca project since she worked at the Department of Energy. . . writing the support documents for the Yucca nuclear waste repository. This week’s official re-nomination of Svinicki by the White House seems to say that rumors of Yucca’s demise are somewhat exaggerated.

Or at least that is what the nuclear industry and its army of lobbyists, captured regulators, and purchased politicians would have you believe.

As Republican members of Congress try to exert pressure on Reid and Senator Barbara Boxer (whose committee has jurisdiction over the NRC) to quickly confirm Svinicki, two states with heaping helpings of nuclear waste have gone to court to make sure that the Yucca repository is kept, if not on track, at least on life support.

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Fukushima One Year On: Many Revelations, Few Surprises

11:30 am in Uncategorized by Gregg Levine

Satellite image of Fukushima Daiichi showing damage on 3/14/11. (photo: digitalglobe)

One year on, perhaps the most surprising thing about the Fukushima crisis is that nothing is really that surprising. Almost every problem encountered was at some point foreseen, almost everything that went wrong was previously discussed, and almost every system that failed was predicted to fail, sometimes decades earlier. Not all by one person, obviously, not all at one time or in one place, but if there is anything to be gleaned from sorting through the multiple reports now being released to commemorate the first anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami–and the start of the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi–it is that, while there is much still to be learned, we already know what is to be done. . . because we knew it all before the disaster began.

This is not to say that any one person–any plant manager, nuclear worker, TEPCO executive, or government official–had all that knowledge on hand or had all the guaranteed right answers when each moment of decision arose. We know that because the various timelines and reconstructions now make it clear that several individual mistakes were made in the minutes, hours and days following the dual natural disasters. Instead, the analysis a year out teaches us that any honest examination of the history of nuclear power, and any responsible engagement of the numerous red flags and warnings would have taken the Fukushima disasters (yes, plural) out of the realm of “if,” and placed it squarely into the category of “when.”

Following closely the release of findings by the Rebuild Japan Foundation and a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (both discussed here in recent weeks), a new paper, “Fukushima in review: A complex disaster, a disastrous response,” written by two members of the Rebuild Japan Foundation for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, provides a detailed and disturbing window on a long list of failures that exacerbated the problems at Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi facility. Among them, they include misinterpreting on-site observations, the lack of applicable protocols, inadequate industry guidelines, and the absence of both a definitive chain of command and the physical presence of the supposed commanders. But first and foremost, existing at the core of the crisis that has seen three reactor meltdowns, numerous explosions, radioactive contamination of land, air and sea, and the mass and perhaps permanent evacuation of tens of thousands of residents from a 20 kilometer exclusion zone, is what the Bulletin paper calls “The trap of the absolute safety myth”: Read the rest of this entry →

NRC Vogtle Reactor Approval Should Blow Lid Off Nuclear Finance Scam

9:30 am in Uncategorized by Gregg Levine

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Thursday vote to approve the combined construction and operating license application (COLA) for Southern Company’s Plant Vogtle cleared the way for adding two AP1000 nuclear reactors to the two existing units near Augusta, Georgia, but it should also shine a light on the elaborate shell game that masquerades as nuclear-powered electrical generation.

Coming almost exactly two years after the Obama administration granted the project $8.33 billion in federal loan guarantees, the NRC’s OK for the project did not signal a groundbreaking at Vogtle. Thanks to a redefinition of what constitutes construction, drafted under a former NRC commissioner who now works for the nuclear industry, Southern started building on the site long before the AP1000 reactor design was finally approved by the NRC last December. And foundations were poured into the Georgia earth before environmental impact surveys were even required to be filed. So, Thursday’s move did not actually start construction, but it did start the roulette wheel turning on a massive financial gamble where Southern Company is pretty much assured of winning, and US taxpayers and Georgia utility customers are guaranteed to lose.

How much those Americans who don’t happen to own a power company will lose is an issue of some question–a question that the Department of Energy and Southern Company is making very hard to answer.

As this month marks two years since the government agreed to the loan guarantees, it will mark almost as long a time since the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the details of the deal the DOE struck with Southern Co., and thus it also marks almost two years of stonewalling by the Obama administration and the energy consortium:

To date, DOE has produced heavily censored documents that have provided little or no information in an effort to frustrate any analysis that would be useful to taxpayers. Based on the limited information produced to date, it appears that the power companies had to put almost no “skin in the game,” only promising to pay a token credit subsidy fee of what could be as little as 0.5 or 1.5 percent of the total loan principal.

Perhaps the once-pledged-to-be-the-most-open-in-history-but-now-proving-to-be-just-as-secretive administration thinks it can hide behind the idea that it is only a guarantee, and, at that, a guarantee of a private business plan, but that would be doubly troubling. Read the rest of this entry →