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.
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.
Hurricane Sandy's projected path as of 9 AM, Monday. (map courtesy of NOAA)
With Hurricane Sandy projected to make landfall hundreds of miles to the south and the predicted storm surge still over 24 hours away, New York City completely shuttered its mass transit system early Sunday evening. By 7 PM, all subway service was halted for only the second time in history. The fear, according to state authorities, is that heavy rainfall or the expected six-to-eleven-foot increase in tide levels would flood subway tunnels, stranding trains at various points across the 842 miles of track.
Twelve hours after NYC shut down its subways, at 7 AM Monday, with Hurricane Sandy lashing the Mid-Atlantic coast with heavy rain and 85 mph winds, at least a half-dozen commercial nuclear reactors lie in the storm’s projected path–and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to issue any specific orders to the facilities it supposedly oversees. In fact, check out the NRC’s twitter feed or look at its website, and the only reference you will find to what has been dubbed “Frankenstorm” is the recently posted cancellation notice for a public hearing that was supposed to convene on Tuesday, October 30.
The subject of that meeting? The Fort Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station.
The Fort Calhoun plant sits on the Missouri River, on the eastern edge of Nebraska, near the town of Blair. Fort Calhoun’s single pressurized water reactor was shutdown for refueling in April of last year, but floods during the summer of 2011 encircled the facility and caused a series of dangerous incidents. A breach in water berms surrounded transformers and auxiliary containment buildings with two feet of water. Around that same time, a fire shut down power to Fort Calhoun’s spent fuel pools, stopping the circulation of cooling water for 90 minutes and triggering a “red event,” the second most severe classification. Outside of its reactor, the Nebraska facility is home to approximately 800,000 pounds of high-level radioactive waste. To this day, Fort Calhoun is offline and awaiting further evaluation by the NRC.
That a hearing on a flooded plant has been postponed because of the threat of flooding near NRC offices seems like the height of irony, but it pales next to the comparison of safety preparedness measures taken by New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority for a subway and the federal government’s approach to a fleet of nuclear reactors.
That is not to say that the NRC is doing nothing. . . not exactly. Before the weekend, regulators let it be known that they were considering sending extra inspectors to some nuclear facilities in Sandy’s path. Additionally, regional officials stressed that plant operators were doing walk downs to secure any outside equipment that might become a sort of missile in the event of high winds. It is roughly the equivalent of telling homeowners to tie down their lawn furniture.
And it seems to be understood, at least at the nuclear plants in southern New Jersey, that reactors should be shutdown at least two hours before winds reach 74 mph.
To all that, the NRC made a point of assuring the public that reactor containment buildings could withstand hurricane-force winds, or any odd piece of “lawn furniture” that might be hurled at them.
That’s nice, but hardly the point.
Containment breech is always a concern, but it is not the main issue today. A bigger worry are SBOs–Station Black Outs–loss-of-power incidents that could impede a plant’s capacity to cool its reactors or spent fuel pools, or could interfere with operators’ ability to monitor everything that is going on inside those areas.
As reported last year, Hurricane Irene caused an emergency shutdown at Maryland’s Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant when aluminum siding torn off by high winds shorted out the main transformer and caused an explosion, damaging structures and equipment. Calvert Cliffs was one of the facilities that had chosen not to reduce output or shutdown in advance of Irene–especially alarming because just days before that storm, plant operators had reported trouble with its diesel backup generators.
Irene caused other problems, beyond loss of electricity to millions of consumers, public notification sirens in two emergency preparedness zones were disabled by the storm.
In sum, storm damage triggered a scram at a plant with faulty backup generators. If power had not been restored, backup would have failed, and the rising temperatures in the reactors and fuel pools would have necessitated an evacuation of the area–only evacuation would have been hampered because of widespread power outages and absent sirens.
The worst did not happen last year at Calvert Cliffs, but the damage sustained there was substantial, and the incident should serve as a cautionary tale. Shutting down a nuclear reactor doesn’t prevent every problem that could result from a severe storm, but it narrows the possibilities, reduces some dangers, and prevents the excessive wear and tear an emergency shutdown inflicts on an aging facility.
Calvert Cliffs is again in the line of fire–as are numerous other plants. Hurricane Sandy will likely bring high winds, heavy rain and the threat of flooding to nuclear facilities in Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Given last year’s experiences–and given the high likelihood that climate change will bring more such events in years to come–it might have been expected that the NRC would have a more developed policy.
Instead, as with last year’s Atlantic hurricane, federal regulators have left the final decisions to private sector nuclear operators–operators that have a rather poor track record in evaluating threats to public safety when actions might affect their bottom line.
At the time of this writing, the rain in New York City is little more than a drizzle, winds are gusting far below hurricane strength, and high tide is still over ten hours away. Hurricane Sandy is over 300 miles to the south.
But Gotham is a relative ghost town. The subway turnstiles are locked; city busses are nowhere to be seen.
At the region’s nuclear facilities, however–at North Anna, Hope Creek, Salem and Oyster Creek, at Calvert Cliffs, Indian Point and Millstone–there is no such singular sense of better-safe-than-sorry mission.
In New York, it can be argued that the likes of Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have gone overboard, that they have made decisions based not just on safety, but on fears of political fallout and employee overtime. But in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s northeast region, there is no chance of that kind of criticism–one might even say there is no one to criticize, because it would appear that there is no one in charge.
For those who thought that, with the new year, nuclear power had turned a page and put its “annus horribilis” behind it–as if the calendar were somehow the friend America’s aging reactors–let’s take a quick look at January 2012.
Closer to home, the lone reactor at Wolf Creek, Kansas, was shutdown on January 13 after the failure of a main generator breaker was followed by a still-unexplained loss of power to an electrical transformer. Diesel generators kicked in to run the safety systems until external power was restored, but the plant remains offline while a Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspection team tries to figure out what went wrong.
Readers of this space know that the pace of safety reforms for America’s nuclear facilities, especially in the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima disaster, has been alarmingly slow. The recalcitrance–if not active hostility–exhibited by the nuclear operators and their government handmaidens borders on the criminal. So, it might sound more than a little bit shocking to hear that the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, is now under attack. . . for trying to implement new safety standards too quickly.
That’s not how House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) is putting it, of course. In doublespeak that would make Orwell proud, Issa has written to the White House, issued a report, and fallen just shy of calling for Jaczko’s head:
“The current Chairman, through his blatant disregard for the Commission and its core beliefs, is testing this resolve,” the report says. “The NRC has survived thus far but the cracks are forming and all symptoms point to catastrophe.”
The report comes several days after Issa released a mid-October letter from the NRC commissioners to the White House that alleges that Jaczko is causing “serious damage” to the agency that could harm the body’s ability to protect health and safety.
The reality, of course, is that Issa–who has summoned Jaczko and fellow commissioners to appear at hearings this very day–has a vested interest in obstructing new health and safety rules, and the hubbub and hearings he is now orchestrating do not in any way focus on post-Fukushima lessons learned, unless that lesson is that the nuclear industry must engage a full-court press to preserve their privilege and profits in light of a new global awareness of the true cost and real dangers of nuclear power.
Since taking the gavel at Oversight, Issa has used his authority to disrupt government’s regulatory roll in the service of his corporate benefactors.
In April 1966, Esquire Magazine published a story by Gay Talese that is still considered one of the greatest magazine articles of all time; the article, the cover story, was titled “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”
The piece, still very much worth the read, says much about celebrity, journalism, and, of course, celebrity journalism, but germane here is a point Talese makes early on: for most people, having a cold is a trivial matter–after all, it’s called the “common” cold–but when a man, a cultural icon, a giant of stage and screen like Sinatra (remember, this is 1966) has a cold, well. . . .
Frank Sinatra with a cold is a big deal. It affects him, his mood, his ability to perform, and so it affects his friends, his entourage, his personal staff of 75, his audience, and perhaps a part of the greater popular culture. In other words, as Talese wants you to understand, in this case, a cold is anything but trivial.
Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, made some comments to the press earlier this week. Jaczko, it seems, is worried. He believes, as noted in an Associated Press story, that “U.S. nuclear plant operators have become complacent, just nine months after the nuclear disaster in Japan.” The NRC head thinks that a slew of events at over a dozen domestic nuclear facilities reveal the safety of America’s reactors to be something less than optimal.
To be clear, safety concerns at any kind of plant, be it a soda bottler or a microchip manufacturer, are probably not trivial, but when the safe and secure operation of a nuclear facility comes into question–as the aftermath of Chernobyl or the ongoing crisis in Japan will tell you–it ratchets up concern to a whole different level. So, when the man who more or less serves as the chief safety officer for the entirety of the nation’s nuclear infrastructure says he’s worried, many, many other people should be worried, too.
In the immediate aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that triggered the horrific and ongoing disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power generating station, President Barack Obama went out on a bit of a limb, striking a tone markedly different from his fellow leaders in the industrialized world. Speaking about Japan and its effect on America’s energy future–once within days of the quake, and again later in March–the president made a point of reassuring Americans that his commitment to nuclear power would stay strong. While countries like Germany and Japan–both more dependent on nuclear power than the US–took Fukushima as a sign that it was time to move away from nuclear, Obama wanted to win the future with the same entrenched industry that so generously donated to his winning the 2008 election.
But a funny thing happened on the way to winning our energy future–namely, our energy present.
As November drew to a close, an article on AOL Energy (yes, it seems AOL has an energy page) declared 2011 to be “nuclear’s annus horribilis“:
March 2011 brought the 9.0 magnitude earthquake off northeastern Japan that sparked a tsunami whose waves may have exceeded 45 feet. Tokyo Electric Power Company’s oldest nuclear station, Fukushima Daiichi, apparently survived the earthquake, but its four oldest reactors didn’t survive that wall of water. Nuclear experts are still figuring out what all went wrong, and tens of thousands still haven’t returned home as Japanese authorities try to decontaminate radioactive hot spots.
In April, massive tornadoes that devastated the southeast swept near the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry plant.
In June, droughts sparked wildfires across the Southwest, including one that threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where nuclear weapons materials are stored.
June also brought record floods across the upper Midwest. For weeks Omaha Public Power District’s Fort Calhoun nuclear plant was essentially an island.
August saw the 5.8 magnitude Virginia earthquake just 11 miles from Dominion Energy’s North Anna plant. The plant shut safely, and returned to service mid-November after extensive checks found no damage even though ground motion briefly exceeded the plant’s design.
That list, as readers of this space will no doubt note, is far from complete. This year has also seen serious events at nuclear plants in California, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire and Ohio. But, perhaps even more troubling is the strangely positive tone of the piece.
Despite its ominous headline, it seems the message is: “Yeah, lots of nasty business in 2011, but 2011 is almost over. We got through it and no one died (at least no one in the US), so. . . problem solved!” It’s an attitude absurd on its face, of course, the passage of time is not the friend of America’s aging nuclear infrastructure–quite the opposite–but it is also a point that can’t survive the week in which it was made.
Take North Anna, for example. Yes, it is true that the NRC signed off on a restart in the waning hours of November 11, but the two generators at Dominion’s plant were not back at full power till November 28 because there was indeed damage–some of which was not discovered until after the restart process began.
A week earlier, a fire at Ohio’s crippled Davis-Besse facility cut ventilation to the reactor control room. A faulty valve in a pipe sending water to the reactor core leaked on an electrical switchbox, triggering an electrical arc, which started the fire. This could have been a potentially catastrophic emergency. . . had the reactor not been shut down seven weeks earlier to replace an already once previously replaced, corroded, 82-ton reactor lid. This “transplant operation” revealed a 30-foot crack in the concrete shield building that will require a separate repair program. . . which will in no way be completed before the end of the year.
The day after that fire, November 20, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Progress Energy’s Crystal River nuclear power plant in Citrus County, Florida, had discovered a 12-foot by 4-foot crack and crumbled concrete in its containment building in late July, but failed to notify the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This was a patently intentional omission, as Progress Energy was already reporting to the NRC about repairs to two other major cracks in the same building dating back to October 2009 and March 2011.
The Crystal River story is long and sordid. The containment building cracked first during its construction in 1976. That crack was in the dome, and was linked to a lack of steel reinforcement. Most nuclear plants use four layers of steel reinforcement; Crystal River used only one. The walls were built as shoddily as the dome.
The latest problems started when Crystal River needed to replace the steam generator inside the containment building. Rather than use an engineering firm like Bechtel or SGT–the companies that had done the previous 34 such replacements in the US–Progress decided it would save a few bucks and do the job itself.
Over the objections of on-site workers, Progress used a different method than the industry standard to cut into the containment building. . . and that’s when this new cracking began. It appears that every attempt since to repair the cracks has only led to new “delamination” (as the industry calls it).
At this point, most have determined that the best plan going forward is to tear down the substandard structure and build a properly reinforced new one, but Progress thinks they have a better idea. Crystal River’s operator is trying to replace the wall panels–all six of them–one by one.
Funny enough, the cost of this never-before-tried retrofit is about the same as the cost of a whole new building. But the full rebuild would take more time–and there’s the rub.
Every day that Crystal River is offline costs Progress money because they have to buy energy to replace what they agreed to provide to the region from this nuclear facility. Each year that the plant is offline is said to cost $300 million. The price tag on this little cracking problem so far–not counting the actual costs of the repair–is $670 million.
Customers will pay $140 million next year so Progress Energy Florida can buy electricity from other sources while a nuclear plant remains shut down for repairs.
Consumer advocates opposed the power replacement charge, which will take effect Jan. 1, but it won unanimous approval Tuesday from the five-member Florida Public Service Commission.
The panel’s decision is a prelude to a determination next year whether a portion of the repair costs should be passed on to customers or paid in full by the company’s investors owing to problems that have delayed the work. The Crystal River plant was closed for repairs in 2009 but now isn’t expected to reopen until 2014. That’s about three years later than initially expected.
The repair bill is expected to total $2.5 billion. The utility wants customers to pay $670 million, or about a quarter of that amount.
Interesting how that $670 million exactly mirrors the replacement energy costs through today. Students of the Florida Public Service Commission would probably be skeptical that the bailout will really stop there–remember, Florida residents already pay a surcharge on their utility bills for possible (but in no way guaranteed) future nuclear power construction.
And to say that it’s all about the money would not be pure speculation. As the St. Petersburg Times reports, while the good people at Crystal River failed to notify the NRC (or the Public Service Commission) about their latest troubles in a timely fashion, Progress Energy didn’t dare keep secrets from the US Securities and Exchange Commission. On August 8, the same day it neglected to mention the new cracks in a report to the PSC, Progress filed its annual report to the SEC and stated “additional cracking or delaminations may have occurred or could occur during the repair process.”
Given the many revelations of just how casual SEC enforcement can be, it is disturbing to think a nuclear provider had more to worry about from the SEC than from the NRC, the agency given direct oversight of nuclear plant licensing and safety.
Disturbing, but not surprising. This year has also revealed the cozy relationship between the nuclear industry and the NRC. An AP exposé made that clear over the summer, but one need look no further than the AOL Energy story:
[Nuclear Energy Institute CEO Marvin] Fertel said the industry and NRC are “in very good alignment” on the issues raised by 2011 events. The concern for utilities is the “cumulative impact” of new rules, he said, and making sure they’re ranked so plant staffs attack those with the most safety benefit first and the cost is manageable.
The government and the industry agree–safety must be addressed with an eye toward cost. And the tens of millions of Americans living in the shadow of a nuclear reactor will see just what this means as the watered-down post-Fukushima recommendations are slowly proposed and implemented–with little fully required of plant operators before 2016.
Indeed, the global nuclear industry is proceeding not just as if it is business as usual–when it comes to the United States, manufacturers of nuclear plant components are already betting on a new wave of reactor construction. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Yomiuri Shimbun reported that Toshiba Corp. is preparing to export turbine equipment to the US.
The turbines are for Toshiba-owned Westinghouse Electric Company-designed AP1000 reactors proposed for sites in Georgia and South Carolina. As previously reported, the AP1000 is a new reactor design–a new design that has not yet officially been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Still, the operators of the plants have already started to procure the equipment.
All of which raises the question, how is it that, in an age when credit is so hard to come by, an industry so focused on the bottom line feels secure in moving forward with commitments on a plan that is still officially going through the regulatory pipeline?
The assurances come from the top, and so does the money.
In contrast to pledges to, say, close Guantanamo or give Americans a public health insurance option, when it comes to nuclear power, Barack Obama is as good as his word. In February, Obama pledged $8.33 billion in federal loan guarantees to Southern Co., the operator of Georgia’s Plant Vogtle, the proposed home of two new AP1000 reactors. Again, this pledge came in advance of any approval of the design or licensing of the construction.
So, perhaps the nuclear industry is right to feel their “annus horribilis” is behind them, at least when it comes to their business plans. And with the all-too-common “privatize the profits, socialize the risks” way the utilities are allowed to do business, one might even doubt this last annus was really that horribilis for them at all.
But for the rest of us, the extant and potential problems of nuclear power are not limited to any particular period of time. The dangers of nuclear waste, of course, are measured in tens of thousands of years, the Fukushima crisis is lived by millions every minute, and the natural disasters, “events” and accidents that plague an aging, expensive and insufficiently regulated American nuclear industry are an anytime, anywhere reminder that future cannot be won by repeating the mistakes of the past.
As previously noted, the reactors at North Anna scrammed during the Mineral, VA earthquake of August 23. It was later shown the power plant sustained shaking well beyond its design criteria. Several spent fuel storage casks moved one to four inches, and other storage containers showed what was termed cosmetic damage (namely, cracks), but plant operators contend that the nuclear reactors sustained no “functional” damage.
What constitutes “functional” now remains to be seen. The fact is there was no official protocol–no “checklist”–for evaluating a nuclear facility after it experienced a seismic event such as this. The NRC’s inspectors have essentially been inventing that inspection regime on the fly as they surveyed the North Anna plant. Dominion has been pressing for permission to restart since shortly after the quake.
Of concern, beyond the cracks and dancing dry casks, has been the integrity of the containment buildings and, more specifically, the pipes and couplings that ensure that the reactors can be properly cooled once the cores are allowed to again heat up. Questions about the state of underground pipes were expressed right after the earthquake by watchdogs such as Paul Gunter, and those same buried pipes were cited as recently as last week when explaining the ongoing delay to the restart OK.
North Anna’s reactors were initially thought to have shut down when the cooling systems lost power from the electrical grid, soon after the Virginia quake. Three backup diesel generators provided power to the safety systems until power could be restored (a fourth generator failed). Later, however, it was discovered that the shaking itself caused the reactors to scram–a fast emergency shutdown sometimes compared to slamming the brakes on a speeding car.
How the NRC and its inspectors resolved questions about what constituted a passing grade after a never-before-seen event remains to be seen. Until then, it appears the NRC will do the regulatory equivalent of keeping its fingers crossed:
Eric Leeds, director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, said in a statement. “We’re satisfied the plant meets our requirements to restart safely, and we’ll monitor Dominion’s ongoing tests and inspections during startup of both reactors.”
For those that think nothing has changed in United States regulation since the Japanese earthquake and tsunami started the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility, think again. The pre-disaster mentality of “What could possibly go wrong?” has been replaced with reassurances that “Stuff like that hardly ever happens!”
At least that is the impression conveyed by the current chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, in a pair of early October interviews. During two NRC-sponsored events, Jaczko fielded questions first from nuclear industry professionals and those considered friendly to the expansion of nuclear power, and then, in a separate session two days later, responded to representatives from public interest groups and other individuals generally seen as opposed to nuclear energy.
While the tone of the questions differed somewhat predictably in the two sessions, Chairman Jaczko’s attitude did not. Jaczko took several opportunities to praise the NRC staff and the processes and protocols used by the commission, repeating in both panels that the primary duty of his agency is ensuring the safety of nuclear facilities in the United States.
Beyond his broad assurances and patient, capable demeanor, however, many of the chairman’s assertions about both the NRC process and the progress being made toward his stated safety goals highlighted notable contradictions and troubling biases inherent in America’s nuclear regulatory regime.
To be fair, the pre-Fukushima outlook was not exactly “What could possibly go wrong?” In terms of the types of accidents and the repercussions of contamination, containment breaches, radioactive releases, meltdowns, melt-throughs, and a host of other undesirable situations, regulators and industry insiders alike were probably quite aware of what could go wrong. But as US nuclear proponents and profiteers strove to convey the impression of an informed industry, they also moved to downplay the threats to public safety and made sure to stress that, when it came to disaster scenarios, they had it covered. Read the rest of this entry →
As September drew to a close, residents of southwest Michigan found themselves taking in a little extra tritium, thanks to their daily habit of breathing (h/t emptywheel). The tritium was courtesy of the 40-year-old Palisades Nuclear Generating Station in Covert Township, which suffered its third “event” (as they are politely called) in less than two months, and was forced to vent an indeterminate amount of radioactive steam.
While it is nice to see rectors shut themselves down when a vital system goes offline, remember that “turning off” a fission reactor is not like flicking a light switch. Shutting down a reactor is a process, and the faster it is done, the more strain it puts on the reactor and its safety and cooling systems. And even after fission is mitigated, a reactor core generates heat that requires a fully functional cooling system.
Which is kind of an interesting point when considering that Palisades had just been restarted after completing repairs to a breach in the cooling system that was reported to be leaking more than 10 gallons per minute. Prior to that, a “special inspection” was ordered August 9 after a pipe coupling in the plant’s cooling system failed.
(By the way, have no fear, Michiganders, a public affairs representative for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reassured the public that the concentration of tritium was “far below regulatory releases,” and that “as soon as it goes out, it gets diluted further.” You know, in the air. . . that you breathe.)
News of the Palisades tritium burp came at roughly the same time as a breathless (if a press release can be breathless) announcement from Dominion Resources, the folks responsible for the North Anna nuclear plant, the facility that scrammed after being shaken beyond design specifications by the earthquake centered in nearby Mineral, Virginia:
Our investigation showed the units tripped before the loss of off-site power when multiple reactor sensors detected a slight power reduction in the reactors. . . .
The root cause team determined that this occurred as result of vibration in the reactor or the monitoring devices in the reactors, or both.
Again, good that the reactors scrammed when something registered the quake, but noteworthy again because it was previously believed that the automatic shutdown started as a result of a loss of power–power required to operate the cooling systems, not only for the reactors, but for the spent fuel pools, as well.
This is not just a perpetual motion machine laugh line. This inherent flaw in the design of LWRs is at the root of two other prominent tales of nuclear safety (or lack thereof).
The first, of course, is the ongoing, ever-metastasizing disaster in Japan, where failures in the cooling systems at Fukushima Daiichi following a massive earthquake and tsunami resulted in hydrogen explosions, core meltdowns, and, likely, melt-throughs that contaminated and continue to poison sizable portions of the country and surrounding sea.
The second story concerns the proposal for the construction of two new reactors at Plant Vogtle, a nuclear power facility near Augusta, Georgia.
The Vogtle reactors would be the first to be built in the US in a generation, and they have come under some additional scrutiny in part because they would be the first of a new-design LWR called the AP1000. A riff on previous Toshiba/Westinghouse pressurized water reactors, the AP1000′s most noticeable “innovations” are meant to address the active cooling paradox. First, it has emergency “dump tanks,” reservoirs of water situated above the reactor that could, in an emergency, empty into the reactor via gravity, providing up to 72 hours of “passive” cooling. Second, rather than housing the core in a reinforced concrete shell with a metal liner, the AP1000 would have an all-steel containment vessel which would, in theory, be able to expel heat through convection.
While these two design features both highlight and attempt to address a dangerous flaw that is a part of every other nuclear facility in the United States–that water has to be actively cycled through a reactor core to keep it from melting–the design still predates the Fukushima quake, and fails to truly incorporate the lessons of that disaster.
The massive March 11 earthquake shutdown power to the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and thus the cooling systems, and the tsunami that followed flooded the diesel-powered backup generators, but that was only part of the problem. Investigations now show that even if Fukushima had in some way managed to maintain power, the cooling system would still likely have failed for at least some (and likely all) of the reactors, and (and this is important) for the spent fuel pools, as well. That is because the quake not only caused a loss of power, it also caused numerous breaches in the cooling system. Cracks in the containment vessel, broken pipes, and dislodged couplings would have likely resulted in a calamitous drop in water levels, even with full power. Less than successful attempts to restore the cooling systems with new, external power sources, and the large amounts of contaminated water that continue to pour from the plant, have demonstrated just how severely the physical infrastructure was damaged.
There are additional concerns about the design of the AP1000 (possible corrosion of the all-metal containment vessel and less than rigorous computer modeling of seismic tolerances, for instance), but, in a post-Fukushima world, simply addressing the active/passive cooling problem (and only doing so for the reactor and not the spent fuel pools) does not promise a safe nuclear facility.
The chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the agency may need to incorporate its findings about a nuclear disaster in Japan into a license to build a new nuclear plant in Georgia.
NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said Wednesday [September 28] he believes the license to build two more reactors at Plant Vogtle near Augusta should include conditions that reflect the findings of a review of this year’s disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.
While it is true that “may” and “should” are not “will” and “must,” and it is also the case that the Fukushima taskforce recommendations themselves do not fully address the problem outlined here, Chairman Jaczko’s comments do make the point that there are indeed lessons to be learned from the Japanese crisis, and right now, in the US, that education has not taken place.
The chairman and his fellow commissioners have wrestled all summer with the pace of post-Fukushima reform. Jaczko has argued for what in NRC terms is considered a speedy consideration of the new safety regime, but a majority of the panel has managed to slow the process down to a point where no new regulations will likely be in place by the time the NRC is required to rule on the Vogtle permits.
But, because the Vogtle hearings have revealed the Chairman’s understanding of at least some of the problems, it also reveals an obvious path for Jaczko and those (such as Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA)) who would also want any new construction or operating permits to only be approved under guidelines drafted in response to the Fukushima disaster. If the industry–and the commissioners most friendly to it–wants to move quickly ahead on new construction and the relicensing of 40-year-old plants, then it should be required that they move quickly on adopting the Fukushima taskforce recommendations. No new safety rules, no new permits–the political calculus should be that simple.
And, if the NRC won’t do the political math, then it should be up to elected government to run the financial numbers.
Building the new Vogtle reactors is projected to cost $14.8 billion. That’s projected–the existing Vogtle plant went over budget by a factor of 14. But even if the new reactors stay on budget, there is still no way they would get built without help from the Federal Government. To that end, the Obama administration okayed an $8.33 billion loan guarantee for The Southern Company, owners of Plant Vogtle, contingent on the NRC’s approval of the plans. (By way of comparison, that is 16 times the size of the loan given to the now-defunct solar technology company Solyndra.) While there are a myriad of reasons why that and other such guarantees should never be proffered, at minimum, the federal government should now freeze the financial backing for new construction until the NRC passes–and industry adopts–an enhanced safety regime.
This wouldn’t be a one-shot power play. Hot on the heals of Vogtle, the V.C. Summer nuclear facility in South Carolina is also looking to add two new AP1000 reactors, and its permit process is also underway. And financial markets understand what a bad bet that project is, too. Summer is also owned by Southern, but it is operated by SCANA. Moody’s, the bond-rating agency, just downgraded SCANA’s debt to one notch above “junk” status, citing the cost of the proposed new reactors.
Meanwhile, the Commonwealth of Virginia has handed over $7 million in precious state funds to North Carolina’s Babcock & Wilcox to open a prototype of a small modular reactor (SMR) in the town of Forest, near Lynchburg. The SMR is small, indeed–160 megawatts (in contrast to the 1,800 megawatt capability of Virginia’s North Anna plant)–and it’s built entirely underground, supposedly enhancing its safety when faced with a potential terrorist attack. How it will provide greater protection from an earthquake or flood seems (at best) less obvious.
Yet, with all of this action, all of these new designs, all of this lobbying, and all of this (as “serious” people repeatedly caution) scarce government money, still no one is addressing another part of the nuclear equation: spent fuel. With Yucca Mountain now (supposedly) abandoned, the United States has no long-term plan for handling the already large and ever-growing problem of dangerous spent nuclear fuel. Right now, each nuclear facility stores its used fuel in either pools, dry casks, or both. The spent fuel pools require an active cooling system, which faces most of the same problems inherent in reactor cooling. Dry casks–used for fuel that is cool enough to remove from the pools–are considered safer, but they are far from “safe.” They are above ground, emit some radiation, and are theoretically vulnerable to terrorist attack (and the casks at North Anna moved and sustained “cosmetic” cracks in the August earthquake). In many US plants, both pools and casks are already filled to capacity. Expanding the number of nuclear reactors only accelerates the storage crisis.
And it must be reiterated, all of this activity comes a mere six months after the start of the Fukushima disaster. The latest announcement from the Japanese government–that they will relax the evacuation order for more than 100,000 residents even though their towns have not yet been decontaminated–says nothing about an easing of the emergency, and everything about a government that frankly just doesn’t know what else to do. The United States, though obviously larger, has reactors near enough to densely populated areas that a nuclear accident would make Japan’s evacuation problem seem like a rush hour fender bender. And the US government’s plan to deal with a nuclear disaster is no more impressive than Japan’s.
The saddest part, of course, is that it needn’t be that way. Beyond the political and financial tools proposed above, the NRC actually already has the power to demand the nuclear industry own up to the new seismic reality. When Westinghouse Electric came before the commission in May, it was ordered to fix its seismic calculations. Though Westinghouse grumbled, it did not question the NRC’s authority to rule on seismic concerns.
Nuclear regulators already have “sufficient information and knowledge” to deal with earthquake risks at existing U.S. reactors and don’t need to wait for a broader review, a safety advocate said.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission developed seismic rules for new plants in 1996 and has since approved preliminary construction for proposed nuclear units at a Southern Co. plant in Georgia and certified an early reactor design by Toshiba Corp.’s Westinghouse Electric unit, according to comments filed with the agency today by David Lochbaum. . . .
“If the NRC truly lacks sufficient information about seismic hazards and how safety at nuclear power reactors is affected, then the agency cannot responsibly have issued early site permits and certified new reactor designs,” he said.
Of course, having the authority and exercising it are not the same thing, but just as the NRC is not truly handcuffed by the fight over the Fukushima taskforce recommendations, the entire country need not be shackled to such a flawed, dangerous and expensive energy source as nuclear. The US government has demonstrated that it has the authority to make decisions on energy sources, and it has shown that it actually has the money to invest–big money. Of course, be it the NRC, Congress or President Obama, when it comes to moving beyond nuclear to demonstrably safer and truly renewable sources, what the US has not shown is the will.
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Correction: Last week’s post included the wrong location for the Seabrook nuclear plant; Seabrook is in New Hampshire. Apologies and thanks to the readers that spotted the error.
Sunday, September 11, will of course be the tenth anniversary of a tragedy that fundamentally changed America in ways we are still trying to understand. But this 9/11 is also a day for other anniversaries, ones that will likely get little, if any, recognition in the US.
In 1985, for instance, September 11 saw a Keystone Kops-like collection of miscues during a test of the remote shutdown protocols at the Limerick Generating Station, a boiling water nuclear reactor outside of Philadelphia. During the shutdown, a valve on a cooling system failed to open, and attempts to manually open the valve were met by a locked door, and a call for a key, which, after a 15-minute wait, turned out to be the wrong key. Once the proper key was found and the door was opened, the operators found the valve’s hand wheel chained and padlocked to prevent accidental opening. Those keys were in the abandoned control room. Bolt cutters had to be used before the operators could finally open the valve.
All that time, the reactor core’s temperature was increasing. Fortunately, the test was done during startup, when decay heat is relatively low, so control rods were able to slow the reaction enough to provide time to overcome the multiple barriers to opening the valve. Had the plant been operating at full power when this series of problems occurred, the outcome would likely have not been so rosy.
September 11 will also mark six months since the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck northern Japan triggered a series of cataclysmic failures at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex. That accident provides no amusing anecdotes or happy endings, but those horrible events should provide a loud wakeup call and numerous object lessons for nuclear power programs across the globe.
But here in the United States, six months on from Japan’s quake, there are no such proclamations or pledges–if anything, quite the contrary–and almost no movement on even the most incremental of recommendations.
In the face of lessons still not learned, a trio of nuclear experts gathered in Washington, DC on September 8 to highlight key concerns that still have not been addressed six months after the start of the world’s worst nuclear accident. Included on the list are several issues discussed in this space since the Fukushima quake (this is a partial and edited list–please use the link for more concerns and more explanation):
The U.S. regulatory response since Fukushima has been inadequate. “Six months after Fukushima, it seems clear that the U.S. is not going to undertake the type of fundamental, no-holds-barred look at its nuclear regulatory practices that followed the much less serious accident at Three Mile Island some 30 years ago.”
America should avoid post-9/11 mistakes in tightening reactor safety standards. “In responding to Fukushima by issuing orders, the NRC should not make the same mistakes as it did following 9/11, when industry stonewalling delayed implementation of critical security measures for many years. Even today, some post 9/11 security upgrades have not been completed at numerous plants. . . . The U.S. must respond to Fukushima in a much more comprehensive way or it may soon face an accident even worse than Fukushima.”
The U.S. was warned of Fukushima-style problems but failed to act … and is still failing to do so. “U.S. reactors have some of the shortcomings of the Fukushima plants. Furthermore, citizen groups and scientists had tried to call one of these – spent fuel pool vulnerability — to Nuclear Regulatory Commission attention during the last decade. The NRC dismissed these efforts. . . . Without a root cause analysis of its own failure to heed the now validated warnings about spent fuel pools, the NRC may patch the technical problems revealed by Fukushima, but it won’t fix the underlying shortcomings that allow defects to persist until catastrophic events rather than regulatory vigilance force the nuclear industry and the public to face up to them.”
Emergency planning zones in the U.S. must be expanded. “In contrast to the [NRC] Task Force conclusions, we believe that emergency planning zones should be expanded, certain hydrogen control measures should be immediately enforced and spent fuel transfer to dry casks should be accelerated. Also, the safety margins of new reactors need to be reassessed.”
The recent East Coast earthquake should spur more NRC safety analysis. “The earthquake near the North Anna nuclear plant, which reportedly exceeded the plant’s seismic design basis, reinforces the urgency of the NRC Fukushima task force’s recommendation that all plants immediately be reviewed for their vulnerability to seismic and flooding hazards based on the best available information today.”
To that last point, as noted before, the earthquake that struck Mineral, VA in late August should have moved US nuclear regulators to quickly adopt the recommendations of the Fukushima task force. Well, the quake doesn’t seem to have moved the NRC much, but it did move some things, like most of the 117-ton dry storage casks at the North Anna facility. . . and, as we now have learned, pretty much everything else there:
Last month’s record earthquake in the eastern United States may have shaken a Virginia nuclear plant twice as hard as it was designed to withstand, a spokesman for the nuclear safety regulator said on Thursday.
Dominion Resources told the regulator that the ground under the plant exceeded its “design basis” — the first time an operating U.S. plant has experienced such a milestone. . . .
That a facility experienced such a milestone is now known because, over two weeks after the fact, data from the so-called “shake plates” has finally been released (almost a week after it was expected):
“We are currently thinking that at the higher frequencies, the peak acceleration was around 0.26″ g, which is a unit of gravity that measures the impact of shaking on buildings, said Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesman.
The plant was designed to withstand 0.12 g of horizontal ground force for parts that sit on rock, and 0.18 g for parts that sit on soil, Burnell said.
Dominion’s sensors recorded average horizontal ground force of 0.13 g in an east-west direction and 0.175 g in a north-south direction, officials said.
The apparent discrepancy seems to stem from the distance between instruments used by the US Geological Survey and those cited by North Anna’s operator, Dominion, but even taking the smaller numbers, the design limits of the plant were exceeded.
Dominion officials have been quick to point out that even though some things have moved and some structures show cracks, those changes are merely cosmetic and in no way dangerous. But nuclear engineer John H. Bickel says that vessels and pipes are not the first things to go in a quake:
[A]n analysis of plants hit by earthquakes had shown that the most vulnerable components were ceramic insulators on high-voltage lines that supply the plants with power and electrical relays, which resemble industrial-strength circuit-breakers and switches.
Even if the relays are not damaged, they might be shaken so that they change positions, cutting off the flow of electricity or allowing it to flow without any command from an operator.
As previously noted (with more than a hint of irony), in order to safely generate electrical power, nuclear plants need an uninterrupted supply of electrical power. Without electricity, cooling systems and important monitors in both the reactors and spent fuel storage pools cannot function. Without effective cooling, nuclear facilities are looking at a series of disasters like the ones encountered at Fukushima Daiichi. That the most quake-vulnerable components directly affect a nuclear plant’s power supply is yet another data point underscoring the urgent need to review and enhance seismic safety at US facilities.
But even before that nation-wide examination can take place, the damage to the shaken North Anna plant needs to be surveyed and analyzed so that Dominion might restart its reactors. What does Dominion need to show in order to get the thumbs up, what criteria need to be met, what repairs or retrofits should be required? To paraphrase the head of the NRC: Who knows?
In an interview last week, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko told Reuters it was unclear what the plant would need to show to resume operations because it is the first time an operating plant has sustained a beyond-design-basis quake.
As Hurricane Irene revealed the lack of national guidelines for what to do in the face of an approaching storm, the Virginia earthquake has shown that the United States has no regulatory regime for learning, analyzing, or acting on data from events that exceed the often-negotiated-down design parameters of its nuclear facilities.
In fact, the NRC does not even have a post-quake inspection protocol. Inspections of North Anna are being done according to procedural guidelines drawn up by the Electric Power Research Institute, “a nonprofit utility consortium that has inspected dozens of industrial plants hit by earthquakes around the world.”
Yes, the nuclear industry has written its own post-event checklist, and, in the absence of any other standard, is left alone to use it.
That sort of self-policing leads to some noteworthy analysis, like this from a nuclear industry attorney: “You shake something really hard, and it’s not designed to be shaken that hard — it doesn’t mean that it’s broken.”
But there is something even more disturbing, if that is possible, propagated by the weak regulations and weak-willed regulators. It leaves space for arguments like this one from that same industry lawyer:
The incident helps make the case for new-generation nuclear plants, which have additional safety features. . . . “If you can have a car from 2011 vs. a car from 1978, what are you going to put your toddler in?”
Beyond the fact that no one is actually suggesting the 1978 plants get traded in for newer models (just augmented with them), cars have to compete for consumer dollars in a way that nuclear plants do not. Nuclear plants could not be built, fueled, operated or maintained without massive subsidies, loan guarantees, and infrastructure commitments from the federal government.
Also of note, a 2011 automobile is safer and more efficient than a 1978 model because of government regulation. The auto industry has fought improvements like mandatory airbags, three-point restraints, and CAFE standards, but a strong government imposed those requirements anyway. And your toddler is safer in that car because the Consumer Product Safety Commission reviews the design of child car seats, and laws mandate their use.
Where the comparison does work, however, is that both represent a false choice. Just as a car is not the only way to transport a toddler, nuclear plants are not the only means by which to generate power. And in 2011, there are many more choices, and many safer choices, than there were in 1978.
Which recalls the important contrast between a country such as Germany–which, faced with a restive electorate and lessons to be learned from Japan’s misfortune, has made a commitment to not just trade in nuclear but trade up to renewable alternatives–and the US, where corporate influence and politics as usual have left the government with seemingly few options beyond willful ignorance and calcification.
Even without recognition of the Japan quake’s semi-anniversary, September 11 will probably be a tense day for most Americans, especially those with personal connections to the events of ten years ago. But while remembrance will be hard, it will mostly be so because of an event now relegated to history.
Residents of Japan, still living with an ongoing and ever-evolving threat, cannot so neatly define their anguish. And if there is a message to be found in this coincidental concurrence of dates, it perhaps springs from there. While Americans can debate what could have been done to prevent the attacks of 9/11/2001, it is a debate held in hindsight. For the Japanese dealing with the aftermath of their disaster, hindsight still seems like a luxury to be enjoyed very far in the future.
But, for the United States, a debate about what can be done to prevent a Fukushima-like disaster here is theoretically blessed, both because it is a debate that can be had before the next crisis, and because it is a debate that can be informed by events. And experience, science, economics and common sense are all pretty clear on what needs to be done.
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