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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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For Nuclear Power This Summer, It’s Too Darn Hot

7:59 am in Uncategorized by Gregg Levine

You know that expression, “Hotter than July?” Well, this July, July was hotter than July. Depending on what part of the country you live in, it was upwards of three degrees hotter this July than the 20th Century average. Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis and St. Louis are each “on a pace to shatter their all-time monthly heat records.” And “when the thermometer goes way up and the weather is sizzling hot,” as the Cole Porter song goes, demand for electricity goes way up, too.

A Nuclear Power Plant on a clear day under blue skies.

Photo: Thomas Anderson / Flickr

During this peak period, wouldn’t it be great to know that you can depend on the expensive infrastructure your government and, frankly, you as ratepayers and taxpayers have been backstopping all these years? Yeah, that would be great. . . so would an energy source that was truly clean, safe, and too cheap to meter. Alas, to the surprise of no one (at least no one who watches this space), nuclear power, the origin of that catchy if not quite Porter-esque tripartite promise, cannot.

Take, for example, Braidwood, the nuclear facility that supplies much of Chicago with electricity:

It was so hot last week, a twin-unit nuclear plant in northeastern Illinois had to get special permission to continue operating after the temperature of the water in its cooling pond rose to 102 degrees.

It was the second such request from the plant, Braidwood, which opened 26 years ago. When it was new, the plant had permission to run as long as the temperature of its cooling water pond, a 2,500-acre lake in a former strip mine, remained below 98 degrees; in 2000 it got permission to raise the limit to 100 degrees.

The problem, said Craig Nesbit, a spokesman for Exelon, which owns the plant, is not only the hot days, but the hot nights. In normal weather, the water in the lake heats up during the day but cools down at night; lately, nighttime temperatures have been in the 90s, so the water does not cool.

But simply getting permission to suck in hotter water does not make the problem go away. When any thermoelectric plant (that includes nuclear, coal and some gas) has to use water warmer than design parameters, the cooling is less effective, and that loss of cooling potential means that plants need to dial down their output to keep from overheating and damaging core components. Exelon said it needed special dispensation to keep Braidwood running because of the increased demand for electricity during heat waves such as the one seen this July, but missing from the statement is that the very design of Braidwood means that it will run less efficiently and supply less power during hot weather.

Also missing from Exelon’s rationale is that they failed to meet one of the basic criteria for their exception:

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Nuclear “Renaissance” Meets Economic Reality, But Who Gets the Bill?

10:15 am in Uncategorized by Gregg Levine

Crystal River Nuclear Generating Plant, Unit 3, 80 miles north of Tampa, FL. (photo: U.S. NRC)

Crystal River is back in the news. Regular readers will recall when last we visited Progress Energy Florida’s (PEF) troubled nuclear reactor it was, shall we say, hooked on crack:

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).

Sara Barczak of CleanEnergy Footprints provides more detail on the last couple of years:

The Crystal River reactor has been plagued with problems ever since PEF self-managed a steam generation replacement project in September 2009. The replacement project was intended to last 3 months, until PEF informed the Commission that it had cracked the containment structure during the detensioning phase of the project. PEF subsequently announced that the CR3 reactor would be repaired and back in service by the 3rd quarter of 2010…then by the 4th quarter of 2010…and then by the first quarter of 2011. On March 15, 2011 PEF informed the Commission that it had cracked the reactor again during the retensioning process and subsequently told the Commission that it estimated repair costs of $1.3 billion and a return to service in 2014. Shortly thereafter, the Humpty Dumpty Crystal River reactor suffered yet another crack on July 26, 2011.

That July crack was later revealed to be 12-feet long and 4-feet wide–and here, at least when it came to notifying the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “later” means much later. . . like four months later.

The issue, of course–as anyone with a lifetime crack habit will tell you–is that this all gets very expensive. Not only is there the cost of the repairs. . . and the repairs to the repairs. . . and the repairs to the repairs to the repairs. . . there is the cost of replacing the energy that was supposed to be supplied to PEF customers by the crippled reactor.

And then there is the cost of the new reactors. . . .

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