The Party Line – December 2, 2011: Nuclear’s “Annus Horribilis” Confirms Its Future Is in the Past

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.

Who will pay that bill? Well, if you live in Florida, the answer is: you:

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.