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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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Yule Fuel

8:30 am in Uncategorized by Gregg Levine

Yes, it’s time for that metaphor again. If you grew up near a TV during the 1960s or ’70s, you probably remember the ever-burning Yule Log that took the place of programming for a large portion of Christmas Day. The fire burned, it seemed, perpetually, never appearing to consume the log, never dimming, and never, as best the kid who stared at the television could tell, ever repeating.

Now, if you have been watching this space about as intently as I once stared at that video hearth, perhaps you are thinking that this eternal flame is about to reveal itself as a stand-in for nuclear power. You know, the theoretically bottomless, seemingly self-sustaining, present yet distant, ethereal energy source that’s clean, safe and too cheap to meter. Behold: a source of warmth and light that lasts forever!

Yeah. . . you wish! Or, at least you’d wish if you were a part of the nuclear industry or one of its purchased proxies.

But wishing does not make it so. A quick look at the US commercial reactor fleet proves there is nothing perpetual or predictable about this supposedly dependable power source.

Both reactors at San Onofre have been offline for almost a year, after a radioactive leak revealed dangerously worn heat transfer tubes. Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun plant has been shutdown since April of 2011, initially because of flooding from the Missouri River, but now because of a long list of safety issues. And it has been 39 months since Florida’s Crystal River reactor has generated even a single kilowatt, thanks to a disastrously botched repair to its containment that has still not been put right.

October’s Hurricane Sandy triggered scrams at two eastern nuclear plants, and induced an alert at New Jersey’s Oyster Creek reactor because flooding threatened spent fuel storage. Other damage discovered at Oyster Creek after the storm, kept the facility offline for five weeks more.

Another plant that scrammed during Sandy, New York’s Nine Mile Point, is offline again (for the third, or is it the fourth time since the superstorm?), this time because of a containment leak. (Yes, a containment leak!)

Other plants that have seen substantial, unplanned interruptions in power generation this year include Indian Point, Davis-Besse, Diablo Canyon, Hope Creek, Calvert Cliffs, Byron, St. Lucie, Pilgrim, Millstone, Susquehanna, Prairie Island, Palisades. . . honestly, the list can–and does–go on and on. . . and on. Atom-heads love to excuse the mammoth capital investments and decades-long lead times needed to get nuclear power plants online by saying, “yeah, but once up, they are like, 24/7/365. . . dude!”

Except, of course, as 2012–or any other year–proves, they are very, very far from anything like that. . . dude.

So, no, that forever-flame on the YuleTube is not a good metaphor for nuclear power. It is, however, a pretty good reminder of the still going, still growing problem of nuclear waste.

December saw the 70th anniversary of the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, and the 30th anniversary of the first Nuclear Waste Policy Act. If the 40-year difference in those anniversaries strikes you as a bit long, well, you don’t know the half of it. (In the coming weeks, I hope to say more about this.) At present, the United States nuclear power establishment is straining to cope with a mountain of high-level radioactive waste now exceeding 70,000 tons. And with each year, the country will add approximately 2,000 more tons to the pile.

And all of this waste, sitting in spent fuel pools and above-ground dry casks– supposedly temporary storage–at nuclear facilities across the US, will remain extremely toxic for generations. . . for thousands and thousands of generations.

There is still no viable plan to dispose of any of this waste, but the nation’s creaky reactor fleet continues to make it. And with each refueling, another load is shoehorned into overcrowded onsite storage, increasing the problem, and increasing the danger of spent fuel accidents, including, believe it or not, a type of fire that cannot be extinguished with water.

So, if you want to stare at a burning log and think about something, think about how that log is not so unlike a nuclear fuel assembly exposed to air for a day or two. . . or think of how, even if it is not actually burning, the high levels of radiation tossed out from those uranium “logs” will create heat and headaches for hundreds of thousands of yuletides to come.

Oh, and, if you are still staring at the Yule log on a cathode ray tube television, don’t sit too close. . . because, you know, radiation.

Merry Christmas.

Superstorm Sandy Shows Nuclear Plants Who’s Boss

6:30 am in Uncategorized by Gregg Levine

Oyster Creek Nuclear Power Station as seen in drier times. (photo via wikipedia)

Once there was an ocean liner; its builders said it was unsinkable. Nature had other ideas.

On Monday evening, as Hurricane Sandy was becoming Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy, pushing record amounts of water on to Atlantic shores from the Carolinas to Connecticut, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a statement. Oyster Creek, the nation’s oldest operating nuclear reactor, was under an Alert. . . and under a good deal of water.

An Alert is the second rung on the NRC’s four-point emergency classification scale. It indicates “events are in process or have occurred which involve an actual or potential substantial degradation in the level of safety of the plant.” (By way of reference, the fourth level–a General Emergency–indicates substantial core damage and a potential loss of containment.)

As reported earlier, Oyster Creek’s coolant intake structure was surrounded by floodwaters that arrived with Sandy. Oyster Creek’s 47-year-old design requires massive amounts of external water that must be actively pumped through the plant to keep it cool. Even when the reactor is offline, as was the case on Monday, water must circulate through the spent fuel pools to keep them from overheating, risking fire and airborne radioactive contamination.

With the reactor shut down, the facility is dependant on external power to keep water circulating. But even if the grid holds up, rising waters could trigger a troubling scenario:

The water level was more than six feet above normal. At seven feet, the plant would lose the ability to cool its spent fuel pool in the normal fashion, according to Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The plant would probably have to switch to using fire hoses to pump in extra water to make up for evaporation, Mr. Sheehan said, because it could no longer pull water out of Barnegat Bay and circulate it through a heat exchanger, to cool the water in the pool.

If hoses desperately pouring water on endangered spent fuel pools remind you of Fukushima, it should. Oyster Creek is the same model of GE boiling water reactor that failed so catastrophically in Japan.

The NRC press release (PDF) made a point–echoed in most traditional media reports–of noting that Oyster Creek’s reactor was shut down, as if to indicate that this made the situation less urgent. While not having to scram a hot reactor is usually a plus, this fact does little to lessen the potential problem here. As nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen told Democracy Now! before the Alert was declared:

[Oyster Creek is] in a refueling outage. That means that all the nuclear fuel is not in the nuclear reactor, but it’s over in the spent fuel pool. And in that condition, there’s no backup power for the spent fuel pools. So, if Oyster Creek were to lose its offsite power—and, frankly, that’s really likely—there would be no way cool that nuclear fuel that’s in the fuel pool until they get the power reestablished. Nuclear fuel pools don’t have to be cooled by diesels per the old Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations.

A site blackout (SBO) or a loss of coolant issue at Oyster Creek puts all of the nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste at risk. The plant being offline does not change that, though it does, in this case, increase the risk of an SBO.

But in the statement from the NRC, there was also another point they wanted to underscore (or one could even say “brag on”): “As of 9 p.m. EDT Monday, no plants had to shut down as a result of the storm.”

If only regulators had held on to that release just one more minute. . . .

SCRIBA, NY – On October 29 at 9 p.m., Nine Mile Point Unit 1 experienced an automatic reactor shutdown.

The shutdown was caused by an electrical grid disturbance that caused the unit’s output breakers to open. When the unit’s electrical output breakers open, there is nowhere to “push” or transmit the power and the unit is appropriately designed to shut down under these conditions.

“Our preliminary investigation identified a lighting pole in the Scriba switchyard that had fallen onto an electrical component. This is believed to have caused the grid disturbance. We continue to evaluate conditions in the switchyard,” said Jill Lyon, company spokesperson.

Nine Mile Point Nuclear Station consists of two GE boiling water reactors, one of which would be the oldest operating in the US were it not for Oyster Creek. They are located just outside Oswego, NY, on the shores of Lake Ontario. Just one week ago, Unit 1–the older reactor–declared an “unusual event” as the result of a fire in an electrical panel. Then, on Monday, the reactor scrammed because of a grid disturbance, likely caused by a lighting pole knocked over by Sandy’s high winds.

An hour and forty-five minutes later, and 250 miles southeast, another of the nation’s ancient reactors also scrammed because of an interruption in offsite power. Indian Point, the very old and very contentious nuclear facility less than an hour’s drive north of New York City, shut down because of “external grid issues.” And Superstorm Sandy has given Metropolitan New York’s grid a lot of issues.

While neither of these shutdowns is considered catastrophic, they are not as trivial as the plant operators and federal regulators would have you believe. First, emergency shutdowns–scrams–are not stress-free events, even for the most robust of reactors. As discussed here before, it is akin to slamming the breaks on a speeding locomotive. These scrams cause wear and tear aging reactors can ill afford.

Second, scrams produce pressure that usually leads to the venting of some radioactive vapor. Operators and the NRC will tell you that these releases are well within “permissible” levels–what they can’t tell you is that “permissible” is the same as “safe.”

If these plants were offline, or running at reduced power, the scrams would not have been as hard on the reactors or the environment. Hitting the breaks at 25 mph is easier on a car than slamming them while going 65. But the NRC does not have a policy of ordering shutdowns or reductions in capacity in advance of a massive storm. In fact, the NRC has no blanket protocol for these situations, period. By Monday morning, regulators agreed to dispatch extra inspectors to nuclear plants in harm’s way (and they gave them sat phones, too!), but they left it to private nuclear utility operators to decide what would be done in advance to prepare for the predicted natural disaster.

Operators and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokes-folks like to remind all who will listen (or, at least, all who will transcribe) that nuclear reactors are the proverbial house of bricks–a hurricane might huff and puff, but the reinforced concrete that makes up a typical containment building will not blow in. But that’s not the issue, and the NRC, at least, should know it.

Loss of power (SBOs) and loss of coolant accidents (LOCAs) are what nuclear watchdogs were warning about in advance of Sandy, and they are exactly the problems that presented themselves in New York and New Jersey when the storm hit.

The engineers of the Titanic claimed that they had built the unsinkable ship, but human error, corners cut on construction, and a big chunk of ice cast such hubris asunder. Nuclear engineers, regulators and operators love to talk of four-inch thick walls and “defense-in-depth” backup systems, but the planet is literally littered with the fallout of their folly. Nuclear power systems are too complex and too dangerous for the best of times and the best laid plans. How are they supposed to survive the worst of times and no plans at all?

New Fukushima Video Shows Disorganized Response, Organized Deception

6:30 am in Uncategorized by Gregg Levine

A frame from early in the newly released Fukushima video.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant when the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck last year, bowed to public and government pressure this week, releasing 150 hours of video recorded during the first days of the Fukushima crisis. Even with some faces obscured and two-thirds of the audio missing, the tapes clearly show a nuclear infrastructure wholly unprepared for the disaster, and an industry and government wholly determined to downplay that disaster’s severity:

Though incomplete, the footage from a concrete bunker at the plant confirms what many had long suspected: that the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the plant’s operator, knew from the early hours of the crisis that multiple meltdowns were likely despite its repeated attempts in the weeks that followed to deny such a probability.

It also suggests that the government, during one of the bleakest moments, ordered the company not to share information with the public, or even local officials trying to decide if more people should evacuate.

Above all, the videos depict mayhem at the plant, a lack of preparedness so profound that too few buses were on hand to carry workers away in the event of an evacuation. They also paint a close-up portrait of the man at the center of the crisis, Mr. Yoshida, who galvanizes his team of engineers as they defy explosions and fires — and sometimes battle their own superiors.

That summary is from New York Times Tokyo-based reporter Hiroko Tabuchi. The story she tells is compelling and terrifying, and focuses on the apparent heroism of Masao Yoshida, Fukushima’s chief manager when the crisis began, along with the far less estimable behavior of TEPCO and Japanese government officials. It is worth a couple of your monthly quota of clicks to read all the way through.

The story is but one take on the video, and I point this out not because I question Tabuchi’s reporting on its content, much of which is consistent with what is already known about the unholy alliance between the nuclear industry and the Japanese government, and about what those parties did to serve their own interests at the expense of the Japanese people (and many others across the northern hemisphere). Instead, I bring this up because I do not myself speak Japanese, and I am only allowed to view a 90-minute “highlight reel” and not the entire 150 hours of video, and so I am dependent on other reporters’ interpretations. And because neither TEPCO nor the Japanese government (which now essentially owns TEPCO) has yet proven to be completely open or honest on matters nuclear, the subtle differences in those interpretations matter.

Tabuchi took to Twitter to say how much she wanted to tell the story as “a tribute to Fukushima Daiichi chief Yoshida and the brave men on the ground who tried to save us.” But in a separate tweet, Tabuchi said she was “heartbroken” to discover her article was cut in half.

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Made in Japan? Fukushima Crisis Is Nuclear, Not Cultural

7:29 am in Uncategorized by Gregg Levine

(photo: Steve Snodgrass/flickr)

Since the release of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Committee’s official report last week, much has been made of how it implicates Japanese culture as one of the root causes of the crisis. The committee’s chairman, Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, makes the accusation quite plainly in the opening paragraphs of the executive summary [PDF]:

What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster “Made in Japan.” Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.

That this apparently critical self-examination was seized upon by much of the western media’s coverage of the report probably does not come as a surprise–especially when you consider that this revelation falls within the first 300 words of an 88-page document. Cultural stereotypes and incomplete reads are hardly new to establishment reportage. What might come as a shock, however, is that this painful admission is only made in the English-language version of the document, and only in the chairman’s introduction is the “made in Japan” conclusion drawn so specifically.

What replaces the cultural critique in the Japanese edition and in the body of the English summary is a ringing indictment of the cozy relationship between the Japanese nuclear industry and the government agencies that were supposed to regulate it. This “regulatory capture,” as the report details, is certainly central to the committee’s findings and crucial to understanding how the Fukushima disaster is a manmade catastrophe, but it is not unique to the culture of Japan.

Indeed, observers of the United States will recognize this lax regulatory construct as part-and-parcel of problems that threaten the safety and health of its citizenry, be it in the nuclear sector, the energy sector as a whole, or across a wide variety of officially regulated industries.

No protection

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Obama Taps Allison Macfarlane as New Head of Nuclear Regulatory Commission

5:01 pm in Uncategorized by Gregg Levine

Seal of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (via Wikipedia)

President Barack Obama has nominated Allison Macfarlane to be the new head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Macfarlane is currently an associate professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, and was part of Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, a panel that was, among its responsibilities, asked to examine how the country should deal with its growing nuclear waste storage crisis. She holds a PhD in Geology from MIT.

If confirmed by the Senate, Macfarlane will replace Gregory Jaczko, who announced his resignation Monday after months of pressure from the nuclear industry and their friends in government.

As predicted, in choosing Macfarlane, Obama tapped someone who is on record as opposed to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. Macfarlane quite literally wrote the book on the subject–she is the editor (along with Rodney Ewing) of Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste, a review that is predominantly very critical of the choice of the Yucca site. Because confirmation has to move through the Senate, it would need the consent of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), a longtime opponent of the Yucca project.

But Macfarlane could not be labeled an opponent of nuclear power. Indeed, Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones cited MacFarlane’s own words in which she called herself a nuclear “agnostic”:

In terms of nuclear energy, I would describe myself as an agnostic. I’m neither pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear. I think nuclear has been doing a good job in the United states and some other industrial countries at providing a good, reliable energy, and they’ve been improving on that. At the same time, I think I think in terms of an expansion in nuclear power over the next 50 years or something, nuclear has lot of liabilities and I don’t know if it can get over them.

If Macfarlane has objections to the expansion of commercial nuclear power, it would seem to be based on the cost–as she explained in a 2007 MIT lecture–and issues of waste storage.

To that second problem, Macfarlane is on record as favoring so-called interim solutions. As explained to me by Beyond Nuclear’s Kevin Kamps, who has met with Dr. Macfarlane, the NRC nominee thinks dry cask storage is “good enough” for now, and is in favor of “centralized interim storage”–a plan to collect spent fuel form the nation’s nuclear plants and move it to a handful of regional, above-ground storage facilities until some unspecified time in the future when a long-term program is completed.

Sites rumored for possible interim storage facilities include the Utah desert, the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and the Dresden nuclear facility in Illinois. The state governments of New Mexico and Arizona have also made moves to request they be considered as repositories for nuclear waste.
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