Let’s start with the disclosure; I like the idea of nuclear generated electricity. I am a technophile and the idea of using fission for electrical power is really an elegant idea. However there is a lot of room between the idea and the practical engineering reality.
Fission is a natural thing; there are even naturally occurring fission reactors in Africa. There is a spot where there are high levels of uranium in the soil. There are also springs in this area. What happens is that water fills holes with high levels of uranium and slows down some of the neutrons emitted, which makes them more likely to hit other uranium atoms and fission. This generates heat that boils off the water, which allows more neutrons to escape and the fission process slows down. Then the hole fills with water and the process starts again.
Now, these happenstance reactors are pretty much nothing like the ones that we generate our electricity in. Ours use refined uranium or other fissile materials and they are designed to generate a hell of a lot more heat over a much longer time.
This leads to the problems that we have with all that highly radioactive water and other waste. They have to be closely controlled as they are dangerous, in large amounts, to the environment and everything that lives in it.
MSNBC is reporting that there are a significant number of leaks of radioactive tritium. Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen. It is often a by product of fission reactors. It is often found in water and can contaminate ground water. 48 of the 65 power stations in the United States have reported leaks of tritium.
While the leaks of tritium have been small and really don’t pose a large threat to public health they are a sign of another problem that is much more serious.
For each reactor there are up to a mile of water piping underneath it. This piping carries water to and from the reactor; it is most often encased in cement, which is where the real problem starts. You see there almost no way to check on the integrity of these pipes without digging them up. And over time hot corrosive water tends to erode any pipe. Now remember that most of the plants running in the United States were built 30 or 40 years ago and you can see where this is all going.
As the plants age there is a greater and greater likelihood that pipe will corrode. Hell, water mains corrode and give out, so why shouldn’t these pipes? There is also a real issue with out-of-sight-out-of-mind with plumbing like this.
Here is an example from the MSNBC article:
At the three-unit Browns Ferry complex in Alabama, a valve was mistakenly left open in a storage tank during modifications over the years. When the tank was filled in April 2010 about 1,000 gallons of tritium-laden water poured onto the ground at a concentration of 2 million picocuries per liter. In drinking water, that would be 100 times higher than the EPA health standard.
There a quite literally hundreds of miles of pipes and tanks for moving and storing radioactive water at these plants. The chance of error like at Browns Ferry is very high, just given the amount of things that need to be watched at all times. That is before you get to corroding pipes that can’t be seen.
While the tritium leaks are a problem in and of themselves, the bigger problem is that the pipes they seem to be coming from are often the emergency system pipes that are supposed to bring cool water to the reactor and take away hot water in the event of a run away reactor accident, or a melt down.
If the pipes are leaking under normal low loads, what will happen if they are cranked up for full flow in the midst of an accident? There is no way to know, short of testing them or having an accident test them. If there is a failure in this kind of piping it could mean that the needed water to control the reaction would not be available and the core could be exposed. As we all know from the ongoing Fukishima disaster exposing the core can lead to all kinds of additional release of radioactive material and direct radiation.
So, what is the NRC doing to make sure that this is not a problem? Again from the MSNBC article:
However, even with the best probes, it is hard to pinpoint partial cracks or damage in skinny pipes or bends. The industry tends to inspect piping when it must be dug up for some other reason. Even when leaks are detected, repairs may be postponed for up to two years with the NRC’s blessing.
“You got pipes that have been buried underground for 30 or 40 years, and they’ve never been inspected, and the NRC is looking the other way,” said engineer Paul Blanch, who has worked for the industry and later became a whistleblower. “They could have corrosion all over the place.”
Nuclear engineer Bill Corcoran, an industry consultant who has taught NRC personnel how to analyze the cause of accidents, said that since much of the piping is inaccessible and carries cooling water, the worry is if the pipes leak, there could be a meltdown.
Yeah, the NRC is not doing a whole lot. It is trapped the way that the OMM was trapped. It has the dual responsibility of regulating and promoting its industry. These two tasks are incompatible, and when in doubt safety suffers. This is true whether you are regulating deep water drilling or nuclear power stations.
All of which leads back to where we started. I am a fan of the concept of fission powered electrical generation, but it is clear that no one in the world is ready to do the very stringent safety measures that it requires. The margin of safety is too small and the pressure to cut corners is too high. As groovy as nuclear reactors are to the geeky among us it is clear that they are too risky to use as a major source of electric power.
It is time to end our attempt with this form of electrical generation and put our money and efforts into establishing plants that can handle the baseline needs of an industrial nation, which is concentrated solar power. It is time to do this before we have our Fukishima.
The floor is yours.