The Long, Long Con: Seventy Years of Nuclear Fission; Thousands of Centuries of Nuclear Waste

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)

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.

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…

When a US Court of Appeals ruled in June that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission acted improperly when it failed to consider all the risks of storing spent radioactive fuel onsite at the nation’s nuclear power facilities, it made specific reference to the lack of any real answers to the generations-old question of waste storage:

[The Nuclear Regulatory Commission] apparently has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository. . . . If the government continues to fail in its quest to establish one, then SNF (spent nuclear fuel) will seemingly be stored on site at nuclear plants on a permanent basis. The Commission can and must assess the potential environmental effects of such a failure.

The court concluded the current situation–where spent fuel is stored across the country in what were supposed to be temporary configurations–“poses a dangerous long-term health and environmental risk.”

The decision also harshly criticized regulators for evaluating plant relicensing with the assumption that spent nuclear fuel would be moved to a central long-term waste repository.

A mountain of risks

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act set in motion an elaborate process that was supposed to give the US a number of possible waste sites, but, in the end, the only option seriously explored was the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada. After years of preliminary construction and tens of millions of dollars spent, Yucca was determined to be a bad choice for the waste:

[Yucca Mountain's] volcanic formation is more porous and less isolated than originally believed–there is evidence that water can seep in, there are seismic concerns, worries about the possibility of new volcanic activity, and a disturbing proximity to underground aquifers. In addition, Yucca mountain has deep spiritual significance for the Shoshone and Paiute peoples.

Every major Nevada politician on both sides of the aisle has opposed the Yucca repository since its inception. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has worked most of his political life to block the facility. And with the previous NRC head, Gregory Jaczko, (and now his replacement, Allison Macfarlane, as well) recommending against it, the Obama administration’s Department of Energy moved to end the project.

Even if it were an active option, Yucca Mountain would still be many years and maybe as much as $100 million away from completion. And yet, the nuclear industry (through recipients of its largesse in Congress) has challenged the administration to spend any remaining money in a desperate attempt to keep alive the fantasy of a solution to their waste crisis.

Such fevered dreams, however, do not qualify as an actual plan, according to the courts.

The judges also chastised the NRC for its generic assessment of spent fuel pools, currently packed well beyond their projected capacity at nuclear plants across the United States. Rather than examine each facility and the potential risks specific to its particular storage situation, the NRC had only evaluated the safety risks of onsite storage by looking at a composite of past events. The court ruled that the NRC must appraise each plant individually and account for potential future dangers. Those dangers include leaks, loss of coolant, and failures in the cooling systems, any of which might result in contamination of surrounding areas, overheating and melting of stored rods, and the potential of burning radioactive fuel–risks heightened by the large amounts of fuel now densely packed in the storage pools and underscored by the ongoing disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Indeed, plants were not designed nor built to house nuclear waste long-term. The design life of most reactors in the US was originally 40 years. Discussions of the spent fuel pools usually gave them a 60-year lifespan. That limit seemed to double almost magically as nuclear operators fought to postpone the expense of moving cooler fuel to dry casks and of the final decommissioning of retired reactors.

Everyone out of the pool

As disasters as far afield as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and last October’s Hurricane Sandy have demonstrated, the storage of spent nuclear fuel in pools requires steady supplies of power and cool water. Any problem that prevents the active circulation of liquid through the spent fuel pools–be it a loss of electricity, the failure of a back-up pump, the clogging of a valve or a leak in the system–means the temperature in the pools will start to rise. If the cooling circuit is out long enough, the water in the pools will start to boil. If the water level dips (due to boiling or a leak) enough to expose hot fuel rods to the air, the metal cladding on the rods will start to burn, in turn heating the fuel even more, resulting in plumes of smoke carrying radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere.

And because these spent fuel pools are so full–containing as much as five times more fuel than they were originally designed to hold, and at densities that come close to those in reactor cores–they both heat stagnant water more quickly and reach volatile temperatures faster when exposed to air.

A spent fuel pool and dry casks. (Both photos courtesy of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

A spent fuel pool and dry casks. (Both photos courtesy of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

After spent uranium has been in a pool for at least five years (considerably longer than most fuel is productive as an energy source inside the reactor), fuel rods are deemed cool enough to be moved to dry casks. Dry casks are sealed steel cylinders filled with spent fuel and inert gas, which are themselves encased in another layer of steel and concrete. These massive fuel “coffins” are then placed outside, spaced on concrete pads, so that air can circulate and continue to disperse heat.

While the long-term safety of dry casks is still in question, the fact that they require no active cooling system gives them an advantage, in the eyes of many experts, over pool storage. As if to highlight that difference, spent fuel pools at Fukushima Daiichi have posed some of the greatest challenges since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, whereas, to date, no quake or flood-related problems have been reported with any of Japan’s dry casks. The disparity was so obvious, that the NRC’s own staff review actually added a proposal to the post-Fukushima taskforce report, recommending that US plants take more fuel out of spent fuel pools and move it to dry casks. (A year-and-a-half later, however, there is still no regulation–or even a draft–requiring such a move.)

But current dry cask storage poses its own set of problems. Moving fuel rods from pools to casks is slow and costly–about $1.5 million per cask, or roughly $7 billion to move all of the nation’s spent fuel (a process, it is estimated, that would take no less than five to ten years). That is expensive enough to have many nuclear plant operators lobbying overtime to avoid doing it.

Further, though not as seemingly vulnerable as fuel pools, dry casks are not impervious to natural disaster. In 2011, a moderate earthquake centered about 20 miles from the North Anna, Virginia, nuclear plant caused most of its vertical dry casks–each weighing 115 tons–to shift, some by more than four inches. The facility’s horizontal casks didn’t move, but some showed what was termed “cosmetic damage.”

Dry casks at Michigan’s Palisades plant sit on a pad atop a sand dune just 100 yards from Lake Michigan. An earthquake there could plunge the casks into the water. And the casks at Palisades are so poorly designed and maintained, submersion could result in water contacting the fuel, contaminating the lake and possibly triggering a nuclear chain reaction.

And though each cask contains far less fissile material than one spent fuel pool, casks are still considered possible targets for terrorism. A TOW anti-tank missile would breach even the best dry cask (PDF), and with 25 percent of the nation’s spent fuel now stored in hundreds of casks across the country, all above ground, it provides a rich target environment.

Confidence game

Two months after the Appeals Court found fault with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s imaginary waste mitigation scenario, the NRC announced it would suspend the issuing of new reactor operating licenses, license renewals and construction licenses until the agency could craft a new plan for dealing with the nation’s growing spent nuclear fuel crisis. In drafting its new nuclear “Waste Confidence Decision” (NWCD)–the methodology used to assess the hazards of nuclear waste storage–the Commission said it would evaluate all possible options for resolving the issue.

At first, the NRC said this could include both generic and site-specific actions (remember, the court criticized the NRC’s generic appraisals of pool safety), but as the prescribed process now progresses, it appears any new rule will be designed to give the agency, and so, the industry, as much wiggle room as possible. At a public hearing in November, and later at a pair of web conferences in early December, the regulator’s Waste Confidence Directorate (yes, that’s what it is called) outlined three scenarios (PDF) for any future rulemaking:

  • Storage until a repository becomes available at the middle of the century
  • Storage until a repository becomes available at the end of the century
  • Continued storage in the event a repository is not available

And while, given the current state of affairs, the first option seems optimistic, the fact that their best scenario now projects a repository to be ready by about 2050 is a story in itself.

When the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was signed into law by President Reagan early in 1983, it was expected the process it set in motion would present at least one (and preferably another) long-term repository by the late 1990s. But by the time the “Screw Nevada Bill” (as it is affectionately known in the Silver State) locked in Yucca Mountain as the only option for permanent nuclear waste storage, the projected opening was pushed back to 2007.

But Yucca encountered problems from its earliest days, so a mid-’90s revision of the timeline postponed the official start, this time to 2010. By 2006, the Department of Energy was pegging Yucca’s opening at 2017. And, when the NWPA was again revised in 2010–after Yucca was deemed a non-option–it conveniently avoided setting a date for the opening of a national long-term waste repository altogether.

It was that 2010 revision that was thrown out by the courts in June.

“Interim storage” and “likely reactors”

So, the waste panel now has three scenarios–but what are the underlying assumptions for those scenarios? Not, obviously, any particular site for a centralized, permanent home for the nation’s nuclear garbage–no new site has been chosen, and it can’t even be said there is an active process at work that will choose one.

There are the recommendations of a Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) convened by the president after Yucca Mountain was off the table. Most notable there, was a recommendation for interim waste storage, consolidated at a handful of locations across the country. But consolidated intermediate waste storage has its own difficulties, not the least of which is that no sites have yet been chosen for any such endeavor. (In fact, plans for the Skull Valley repository, thought to be the interim facility closest to approval, were abandoned by its sponsors just days before Christmas.)

Just-retired New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman (D), the last chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, tried to turn the BRC recommendations into law. When he introduced his bill in August, however, he had to do so without any cosponsors. Hearings on the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2012 were held in September, but the gavel came down on the 112th Congress without any further action.

In spite of the underdeveloped state of intermediate storage, however, when the waste confidence panel was questioned on the possibility, interim waste repositories seemed to emerge, almost on the fly, as an integral part of any revised waste policy rule.

“Will any of your scenarios include interim centralized above-ground storage?” we asked during the last public session. Paul Michalak, who heads the Environmental Impact Statement branch of the Waste Confidence Directorate, first said temporary sites would be considered in the second and third options. Then, after a short pause, Mr. Michalak added (PDF p40), “First one, too. All right. Right. That’s right. So we’re considering an interim consolidated storage facility [in] all three scenarios.”

The lack of certainty on any site or sites is, however, not the only fuzzy part of the picture. As mentioned earlier, the amount of high-level radioactive waste currently on hand in the US and in need of a final resting place is upwards of 70,000 tons–already at the amount that was set as the initial limit for the Yucca Mountain repository. Given that there are still over 100 domestic commercial nuclear reactors more or less in operation, producing something like an additional 2,000 tons of spent fuel every year, what happens to the Waste Confidence Directorate’s scenarios as the years and waste pile up? How much waste were regulators projecting they would have to deal with–how much spent fuel would a waste confidence decision assume the system could confidently handle?

There was initial confusion on what amount of waste–and at what point in time–was informing the process. Pressed for clarification on the last day of hearings, NRC officials finally posited that it was assumed there would be 150,000 metric tons of spent fuel–all deriving from the commercial reactor fleet–by 2050. By the end of the century, the NRC expects to face a mountain of waste weighing 270,000 metric tons (PDF pp38-41) (though this figure was perplexingly termed both a “conservative number” and an “overestimate”).

How did the panel arrive at these numbers? Were they assuming all 104 (soon to be 103–Wisconsin’s Kewaunee Power Station will shut down by mid-2013 for reasons its owner, Dominion Resources, says are based “purely on economics”) commercial reactors nominally in operation would continue to function for that entire time frame–even though many are nearing the end of their design life and none are licensed to continue operation beyond the 2030s? Were they counting reactors like those at San Onofre, which have been offline for almost a year, and are not expected to restart anytime soon? Or the troubled reactors at Ft. Calhoun in Nebraska and Florida’s Crystal River? Neither facility has been functional in recent years, and both have many hurdles to overcome if they are ever to produce power again. Were they factoring in the projected AP1000 reactors in the early stages of construction in Georgia, or the ones slated for South Carolina? Did the NRC expect more or fewer reactors generating waste over the course of the next 88 years?

The response: waste estimates include all existing facilities, plus “likely reactors”–but the NRC cannot say exactly how many reactors that is (PDF p41).

Jamming it through

Answers like those from the Waste Confidence Directorate do not inspire (pardon the expression) confidence for a country looking at a mountain of eternally toxic waste. Just what would the waste confidence decision (and the environmental impact survey that should result from it) actually cover? What would it mandate, and what would change as a result?

How long is it? Does this NRC chart provide a justification for the narrow scope of the waste confidence process? (US Nuclear Regulatory PDF, p12)

How long is it? Does this NRC chart provide a justification for the narrow scope of the waste confidence process? (US Nuclear Regulatory PDF, p12)

In past relicensing hearings–where the public could comment on proposed license extensions on plants already reaching the end of their 40-year design life–objections based on the mounting waste problem and already packed spent fuel pools were waived off by the NRC, which referenced the waste confidence decision as the basis of its rationale. Yet, when discussing the parameters of the process for the latest, court-ordered revision to the NWCD, Dr. Keith McConnell, Director of the Waste Confidence Directorate, asserted that waste confidence was not connected to the site-specific licensed life of operations (PDF p42), but only to a period defined as “Post-Licensed Life Storage” (which appears, if a chart in the directorate’s presentation (PDF p12) is to be taken literally, to extend from 60 years after the initial creation of waste, to 120 years–at which point a phase labeled “Disposal” begins). Issues of spent fuel pool and dry cask safety are the concerns of a specific plant’s relicensing process, said regulators in the latest hearings.

“It’s like dealing with the Mad Hatter,” commented Kevin Kamps, a radioactive waste specialist for industry watchdog Beyond Nuclear. “Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today.”

The edict originated with the White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, but it is all too appropriate–and no less maddening–when trying to motivate meaningful change at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC has used the nuclear waste confidence decision in licensing inquiries, but in these latest scoping hearings, we are told the NWCD does not apply to on-site waste storage. The Appeals Court criticized the lack of site-specificity in the waste storage rules, but the directorate says they are now only working on a generic guideline. The court disapproved of the NRC’s continued relicensing of nuclear facilities based on the assumption of a long-term geologic repository that in reality did not exist–and the NRC said it was suspending licensing pending a new rule–but now regulators say they don’t anticipate the denial or even the delay of any reactor license application while they await the new waste confidence decision (PDF pp49-50).

In fact, the NRC has continued the review process on pending applications, even though there is now no working NWCD–something deemed essential by the courts–against which to evaluate new licenses.

The period for public comment on the scope of the waste confidence decision ended January 2, and no more scoping hearings are planned. There will be other periods for civic involvement–during the environmental impact survey and rulemaking phases–but, with each step, the areas open to input diminish. And the current schedule has the entire process greatly accelerated over previous revisions.

On January 3, a coalition of 24 grassroots environmental groups filed documents with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (PDF) protesting “the ‘hurry up’ two-year timeframe” for this assessment, noting the time allotted for environmental review falls far short of the 2019 estimate set by the NRC’s own technical staff. The coalition observed that two years was also not enough time to integrate post-Fukushima recommendations, and that the NRC was narrowing the scope of the decision–ignoring specific instructions from the Appeals Court–in order to accelerate the drafting of a new waste storage rule.

Speed might seem a valuable asset if the NRC were shepherding a Manhattan Project-style push for a solution to the ever-growing waste problem–the one that began with the original Manhattan Project–but that is not what is at work here. Instead, the NRC, under court order, is trying to set the rules for determining the risk of all that high-level radioactive waste if there is no new, feasible solution. The NRC is looking for a way to permit the continued operation of the US nuclear fleet–and so the continued manufacture of nuclear waste–without an answer to the bigger, pressing question.

A plan called HOSS

While there is much to debate about what a true permanent solution to the nuclear waste problem might look like, there is little question that the status quo is unacceptable. Spent fuel pools were never intended to be used as they are now used–re-racked and densely packed with over a generation of fuel assemblies. Both the short- and long-term safety and security of the pools has now been questioned by the courts and laid bare by reality. Pools at numerous US facilities have leaked radioactive waste (PDF) into rivers, groundwater and soil. Sudden “drain downs” have come perilously close to triggering major accidents in plants shockingly close to major population centers. Recent hurricanes have knocked out power to cooling systems and flooded backup generators, and last fall’s superstorm came within inches of overwhelming the coolant intake structure at Oyster Creek in New Jersey.

The crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi facility was so dangerous and remains dangerous to this day in part because of the large amounts of spent fuel stored in pools next to the reactors but outside of containment–a design identical to 35 US nuclear reactors. A number of these GE Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactors–such as Oyster Creek and Vermont Yankee–have more spent fuel packed into their individual pools than all the waste in Fukushima Daiichi Units 1, 2, 3, and 4 combined.

Dry casks, the obvious next “less-bad” option for high-level radioactive waste, were also not supposed to be a permanent panacea. The design requirements and manufacturing regulations of casks–especially the earliest generations–do not guarantee their reliability anywhere near the 100 to 300 years now being casually tossed around by NRC officials. Some of the nation’s older dry casks (which in this case means 15 to 25 years) have already shown seal failures and structural wear (PDF). Yet, the government does not require direct monitoring of casks for excessive heat or radioactive leaks–only periodic “walkthroughs.”

Add in the reluctance of plant operators to spend money on dry cask transfer and the lack of any workable plan to quickly remove radioactive fuel from failed casks, and dry cask storage also appears to fail to attain any court-ordered level of confidence.

Interim plans, such as regional consolidated above-ground storage, remain just that–plans. There are no sites selected and no designs for such a facility up for public scrutiny. What is readily apparent, though, is that the frequent transport of nuclear waste increases the risk of nuclear accidents. There does not, as of now, exist a transfer container that is wholly leak proof, accident proof, and impervious to terrorist attack. Moving high-level radioactive waste across the nation’s highways, rail lines and waterways has raised fears of “Mobile Chernobyls” and “Floating Fukushimas.”

More troubling still, if past (and present) is prologue, is the tendency of options designed as “interim” to morph into a default “permanent.” Can the nation afford to kick the can once more, spending tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars on a “solution” that will only add a collection of new challenges to the existing roster of problems? What will the interim facilities become beyond the next problem, the next site for costly mountains of poorly stored, dangerous waste?

Hardened: The more robust HOSS option as proposed in 2003. (From "Robust Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel: A Neglected Issue of Homeland Security" courtesy of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service)

Hardened: The more robust HOSS option as proposed in 2003. (From “Robust Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel: A Neglected Issue of Homeland Security” courtesy of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service)

If there is an interim option favored by many nuclear experts, engineers and environmentalists (PDF), it is something called HOSS–Hardened On-Site Storage (PDF). HOSS is a version of dry cask storage that is designed and manufactured to last longer, is better protected against leaks and better shielded from potential attacks. Proposals (PDF) involve steel, concrete and earthen barriers incorporating proper ventilation and direct monitoring for heat and radiation.

But not all reactor sites are good candidates for HOSS. Some are too close to rivers that regularly flood, some are vulnerable to the rising seas and increasingly severe storms brought on by climate change, and others are close to active geologic fault zones. For facilities where hardened on-site storage would be an option, nuclear operators will no doubt fight the requirements because of the increased costs above and beyond the price of standard dry cask storage, which most plant owners already try to avoid or delay.

The first rule of holes

Mixed messages: A simple stone marker in Red Gate Woods, just outside Chicago, tries to both warn and reassure visitors to this public park. (Photo: Kevin Kamps, Beyond Nuclear. Used by permission.)

Mixed messages: A simple stone marker in Red Gate Woods, just outside Chicago, tries to both warn and reassure visitors to this public park. (Photo: Kevin Kamps, Beyond Nuclear. Used by permission.)

In a wooded park just outside Chicago sits a dirt mound, near a bike path, that contains parts of the still-highly radioactive remains of CP-1, the world’s first atomic pile. Seven decades after that nuclear fuel was first buried, many health experts would not recommend that spot (PDF) for a long, languorous picnic, nor would they recommend drinking from nearby water fountains. To look at it in terms Arthur Compton might favor, when it comes to the products of nuclear chain reactions, the natives are restless. . . and will remain so for millennia to come.

One can perhaps forgive those working in the pressure cooker of the Manhattan Project and in the middle of a world war for ignoring the forest for the trees–for not considering waste disposal while pursuing a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Perhaps. But, as the burial mound in Red Gate Woods reminds us, ignoring a problem does not make it go away.

And if that small pile, or the mountains of spent fuel precariously stored around the nation are not enough of a prompt, the roughly $960 million that the federal government has had to pay private nuclear operators should be. For every year that the Department of Energy does not provide a permanent waste repository–or at least some option that takes the burden of storing spent nuclear fuel off the hands (and off the books) of power companies–the government is obligated to reimburse the industry for the costs of onsite waste storage. By 2020, it is estimated that $11 billion in public money will have been transferred into the pockets of private nuclear companies. By law, these payments cannot be drawn from the ratepayer-fed fund that is earmarked for a permanent geologic repository, and so, these liabilities must be paid out of the federal budget. Legal fees for defending the DoE against these claims will add another 20 to 30 percent to settlement costs.

The Federal Appeals Court, too, has sent a clear message that the buck needs to stop somewhere at some point–and that such a time and place should be both explicit and realistic. The nuclear waste confidence scoping process, however, is already giving the impression that the NRC’s next move will be generic and improbable.

The late, great Texas journalist Molly Ivins once remarked, “The first rule of holes” is “when you’re in one, stop digging.” For high-level radioactive waste, that hole is now a mountain, over 70 years in the making and over 70,000 tons high. If the history of the atomic age is not evidence enough, the implications of the waste confidence decision process put the current crisis in stark relief. There is, right now, no good option for dealing with the nuclear detritus currently on hand, and there is not even a plan to develop a good option in the near future. Without a way to safely store the mountain of waste already created, under what rationale can a responsible government permit the manufacture of so much more?

The federal government spends billions to perpetuate and protect the nuclear industry–and plans to spend billions more to expand the number of commercial reactors. Dozens of facilities already are past, or are fast approaching, the end of their design lives, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to reject any request for an operating license extension–and it is poised to approve many more, nuclear waste confidence decision not withstanding. Plant operators continue to balk at any additional regulations that would require better waste management.

The lesson of the first 70 years of fission is that we cannot endure more of the same. The government–from the DoE to the NRC–should reorient its priorities from creating more nuclear waste to safely and securely containing what is now here. Money slated for subsidizing current reactors and building new ones would be better spent on shuttering aging plants, designing better storage options for their waste, modernizing the electrical grid, and developing sustainable energy alternatives. (And reducing demand through conservation programs should always be part of the conversation.)

Enrico Fermi might not have foreseen (or cared about) the mountain of waste that began with his first atomic pile, but current scientists, regulators and elected officials have the benefit of hindsight. If the first rule of holes says stop digging, then the dictum here should be that when you’re trying to summit a mountain, you don’t keep shoveling more garbage on top.

A version of this story previously appeared on Truthout; no version may be reprinted without permission.

Obama Drops Nuclear from Energy Segment of Convention Speech

Delegates react to President Barack Obama’s speech during the closing night of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. (Photo by Jared Soares for PBS NewsHour)

Compare and contrast.

When then-Senator Barack Obama took the stage in Denver four years ago to accept the nomination of the Democratic Party, he delivered what many saw as a powerful and pitch-perfect speech that contained an ambitious plan to correct course after eight years of President George W. Bush. But to this reporter, sitting amongst the cheering throngs at Mile High, one point hit a decidedly sour note.

In the section on energy, which began with the understanding that the country’s economy, security and energy futures are intertwined, Obama pledged to “end our dependence on oil from the Middle East” in ten years, and also spoke of investing $150 billion in renewable energy over that same decade. But then the Democratic nominee added this:

As President, I will tap our natural gas reserves, invest in clean coal technology, and find ways to safely harness nuclear power.

And with that, at least from where I sat (politically more than physically), a soaring speech came crashing to the ground. Even four years ago, “tapping natural gas reserves” was an ominous gloss-over for dangerous drilling techniques and increased carbon emissions. “Clean coal” had already proven to be nothing better than a marketing laugh line, something the Senator from coal-producing Illinois had to say. And “find[ing] ways to safely harness nuclear power,” well, funny that, both because it, too, felt like campaign-trail noblesse oblige for some of Obama’s biggest contributors, and because it implied that a safe way to harness nuclear power was something that had not yet been found.

But there it was–what would eventually come to be known as “fracking,” plus the myth of “clean coal,” and a big nod to the moribund nuclear power industry. One, two, three strikes in Obama’s energy pitch.

Fast, uh, “forward” four years, move indoors and 2,000 miles east, and listen to what President Obama had to say about America’s energy future in his 2012 convention speech:

We’ve doubled our use of renewable energy, and thousands of Americans have jobs today building wind turbines, and long-lasting batteries. In the last year alone, we cut oil imports by one million barrels a day, more than any administration in recent history. And today, the United States of America is less dependent on foreign oil than at any time in the last two decades.

So, now you have a choice – between a strategy that reverses this progress, or one that builds on it. We’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration in the last three years, and we’ll open more. But unlike my opponent, I will not let oil companies write this country’s energy plan, or endanger our coastlines, or collect another $4 billion in corporate welfare from our taxpayers. We’re offering a better path.

We’re offering a better path, a future where we keep investing in wind and solar and clean coal; where farmers and scientists harness new biofuels to power our cars and trucks; where construction workers build homes and factories that waste less energy; where — where we develop a hundred year supply of natural gas that’s right beneath our feet.

Yes, despite a concrete acknowledgement two minutes later that “climate change is not a hoax” and “droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke,” the president still brags of opening “millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration in the last three years”–and then he promises to open more. And, yes, there is still a reference to the fool’s anthracite, “clean coal,” this time incongruously grouped with “wind and solar.” But notice what is not there–not in this section, not in the paragraph about the climate, not anywhere in the entire 38-minute speech.

President Obama no longer promises to “safely harness nuclear power”–that likely would have sounded like a cruel joke in a world now contaminated by the ongoing Fukushima disaster–but beyond that, he does not promise anything about nuclear power at all. There was no platitude, no carefully crafted signal to the industry that has subsidized much of Obama’s political career, no mention of nuclear power whatsoever.

That is not to say that the entire 2012 Democratic National Convention was a nuclear-free zone. A few hours before the president took the stage at the Time Warner Cable Arena, James Rogers, co-chair of the Charlotte host committee, and oh, by the way, CEO of Duke Energy, stepped to the lectern and endorsed Obama’s “all of the above” energy “strategy” (they keep using that word; I do not think it means what they think it means):

We need to work even harder toward a future of affordable, reliable and cleaner energy. That means we need to invest heavily in new zero-emission power sources, like new nuclear, wind and solar projects, as well as new technologies, like electric vehicles.

Well, if you are looking for a future of affordable, reliable and cleaner energy, you need look no further than nu–wait, what? If you are looking for those three features in an energy future, it is hard to imagine a worse option than the unsustainably expensive, chronically unreliable and dangerously dirty nuclear power plant. And, as has been discussed here many times, nuclear is not a zero-emission source, either. The massive carbon footprint of the nuclear fuel lifecycle rivals coal, and that doesn’t even consider the radioactive isotopes that facilities emit, even when they are not encountering one of their many “unusual events.”

But the CEO of the Charlotte-based energy giant probably has his eyes on a different prize. Rogers, who has been dogged by questions about a power grab after Duke’s merger with Progress Energy and his lackluster performance as fundraiser-in-chief for the DNC, sits atop a company that operates seven US nuclear power plants, and is partners in a plan to build two new AP1000 reactors in Cherokee County, South Carolina.

That last project, which is under active review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, awaiting a combined construction and operating license, is one of a small handful of proposed new nuclear facilities currently scrambling for financing. The South Carolina plant, along with a pair of reactors in Georgia, two slated for a different site in South Carolina, and possibly one more in Tennessee, represent what industry lobbyists like to call the “nuclear renaissance.”

But completion of any of the above is nowhere close to guaranteed, and even if some of these reactors are eventually built, none will be able to generate even one kilowatt of commercial power until years after President Obama completes his sought-after second term.

Which, if you really care about America’s energy future, is, of course, all for the better. As even James Rogers noted in his speech (and he gets props for this):

[W]e cannot lose sight of energy efficiency. Because the cleanest, most efficient power plant is the one we never have to build.

That Duke’s CEO thought to highlight efficiency is interesting. That President Obama, with his well-documented ties to the nuclear industry, chose not to even mention nuclear power is important.

In the wake of Fukushima, where hundreds of thousands of Japanese have been displaced, where tens of thousands are showing elevated radiation exposure, and where thousands of children have thyroid abnormalities, no one can be cavalier about promising a safe harnessing of the atom. And in a world where radioisotopes from the breached reactors continue to turn up in fish and farm products, not only across Japan, but across the northern hemisphere, no one can pretend this is someone else’s problem.

Obama and his campaign advisors know all this and more. They know that most industrialized democracies have chosen to shift away from nuclear since the start of the Japanese crisis. They know that populations that have been polled on the matter want to see nuclear power phased out. And they know that in a time of deficit hysteria, nuclear power plants are an economic sinkhole.

And so, on a night when the president was promised one of the largest audiences of his entire campaign, he and his team decided that 2012 was not a year to throw a bone to Obama’s nuclear backers. Obama, a consummate politician, made the decision that for his second shot at casting for the future, nuclear power is political deadweight.

This is not to say that the Obama administration has thoroughly abandoned nuclear as part of its energy plan, or even its kitchen-sink rhetoric. There is no shortage of well-researched analysis detailing where the president’s deeds have failed to match his words, and it will take more than a significant omission in one speech to turn around the federal government’s policy of protecting and propping up the nuclear industry.

But the fact remains that at a convention underwritten by the head of a large nuclear energy conglomerate, nuclear energy didn’t even rate head-of-state lip service. That in a country where the nuclear industry tries desperately to brand itself as an energy of the future, the president decided to, at least rhetorically, leave it in the past. And that in a time where apostles of the atom claim that there is a nuclear rebirth, Barack Obama decided, on one of his biggest nights, that nuclear power would be better left for dead.

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

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.

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:

At the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that is generally critical of nuclear power safety, David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer, said the commission was supposed to grant exemptions from its rules if there was no increase or only a minor increase in risk, and if the situation could not have been foreseen.

The safety argument “is likely solid and justified,’’ he wrote in an e-mail, but “it is tough to argue (rationally) that warming water conditions are unforeseen.’’ That is a predictable consequence of global warming, he said.

Quite. Lochbaum cites two instances from the hot summer of 2010–New Jersey’s Hope Creek nuclear station and Limerick in Pennsylvania each had to reduce output due to intake water that was too warm. In fact, cooling water problems at US thermoelectric generators were widespread along the Mississippi River during the hot, dry summer of 1988.

And the problem is clearly growing. Two months ago, a study published in Nature Climate Change predicted continued warming and spreading drought conditions will significantly reduce thermoelectric output in coming decades:

Higher water temperatures and reduced river flows in Europe and the United States in recent years have resulted in reduced production, or temporary shutdown, of several thermoelectric power plants, resulting in increased electricity prices and raising concerns about future energy security in a changing climate.

. . . .

[The Nature Climate Change study] projects further disruption to supply, with a likely decrease in thermoelectric power generating capacity of between 6-19% in Europe and 4-16% in the United States for the period 2031-2060, due to lack of cooling-water. The likelihood of extreme (>90%) reductions in thermoelectric power generation will, on average, increase by a factor of three.

Compared to other water use sectors (e.g. industry, agriculture, domestic use), the thermoelectric power sector is one of the largest water users in the US (at 40%) and in Europe (43% of total surface water withdrawals). While much of this water is ‘recycled’ the power plants rely on consistent volumes of water, at a particular temperature, to prevent overheating of power plants. Reduced water availability and higher water temperatures – caused by increasing ambient air temperatures associated with climate change – are therefore significant issues for electricity supply.

That study is of course considering all thermoelectric sources, not just nuclear, but the decrease in efficiency applies across the board. And, when it comes to nuclear power, as global temperatures continue to rise and water levels in rivers and lakes continue to drop, an even more disconcerting threat emerges.

When a coal plant is forced to shut down because of a lack of cool intake water, it can, in short order, basically get turned off. With no coal burning, the cooling needs of the facility quickly downgrade to zero.

A nuclear reactor, however, is never really “off.”

When a boiling water reactor or pressurized water reactor (BWR and PWR respectively, the two types that make up the total of the US commercial reactor fleet) is “shutdown” (be it in an orderly fashion or an abrupt “scram”), control rods are inserted amongst the fuel rods inside the reactor. The control rods absorb free neutrons, decreasing the number of heavy atoms getting hit and split in the fuel rods. It is that split, that fission, that provides the energy that heats the water in the reactor and produces the steam that drives the electricity-generating turbines. Generally, the more collisions, the more heat generated. An increase in heat means more steam to spin a turbine; fewer reactions means less heat, less steam and less electrical output. But it doesn’t mean no heat.

The water that drives the turbines also cools the fuel rods. It needs to circulate and somehow get cooled down when it is away from the reactor core. Even with control rods inserted, there are still reactions generating heat, and that heat needs to be extracted from the reactor or all kinds of trouble ensues–from too-high pressure breaching containment to melting the cladding on fuel rods, fires, and hydrogen explosions. This is why the term LOCA–a loss of coolant accident–is a scary one to nuclear watchdogs (and, theoretically, to nuclear regulators, too).

So, even when they are not producing electricity, nuclear reactors still need cooling. They still need a power source to make that cooling happen, and they still need a coolant, which, all across the United States and most of the rest of the world, means water.

Water that is increasingly growing too warm or too scarce. . . at least in the summer. . . you know, when it’s hot. . . and demand for electricity increases.

In fact, Braidwood is not the only US plant that has encountered problems this sultry season:

[A] spokeswoman for the Midwest Independent System Operator, which operates the regional grid, said that another plant had shut down because its water intake pipes were now above the water level of the body from which it draws its cooling water. Another is “partially curtailed.”

That spokeswoman can’t, it seems, tell us which plants she is talking about because that information “is considered competitive.” (Good to know that the Midwest Independent System Operator has its priorities straight. . . . Hey, that sounds like a hint! Anyone in the Midwest notice a nearby power plant curtailing operations?)

So, not isolated. . . and also not a surprise–not to the Nature Climate Change people this year, and not to the industry, itself. . . 17 years ago. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a non-profit group of scientists and engineers funded by the good folks who generate electricity (a group that has a noticeable overlap with the folks that own nuclear plants), released a study in 1995 that specifically warned of the threat a warming climate posed to electrical generation. The EPRI study predicted that rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide would make power production less efficient and more expensive, while at the same time increasing demand.

And climate predictions have only grown more dire since then.

Add to that mix one more complicating factor: when the intake water is warmer, the water expelled by the plant is warmer, too. And there are environmental protections in many areas that limit how hot that “waste” water can be. There have been instances in the past where thermoelectric plants have had to curtail production because their exhaust water exceeded allowable temperatures.

And yet, despite a myriad of potential problems and two decades of climate warnings, it is sobering to note that none of the US reactors were built to account for any of this. . . because all American nuclear reactors predate these revelations. That is not to say nuclear operators haven’t had 20 years (give or take) to plan for these exigencies, but it is to say that, by-and-large, they haven’t. (Beyond, that is, as described above, simply lobbying for higher water temperature limits. That’s a behavior all too recognizable when it comes to nuclear operators and regulators–when nuclear plants can’t meet requirements, don’t upgrade the procedures or equipment, just “upgrade” the requirements.)

But, rather than using all this knowledge to motivate a transition away from nuclear power, rather than using the time to begin decommissioning these dinosaurs, nuclear operators have instead pushed for license extensions–an additional 20 years beyond the original 40-year design. And, to date, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to reject a single extension request.

And now the nuclear industry–with the full faith and credit of the federal government–is looking to double down on this self-imposed ignorance. The “Advanced Passive” AP1000 reactors approved earlier this year for Georgia’s Plant Vogtle (and on track for South Carolina, too) may be called “advanced,” but they are still PWRs and they still require a large reserve of cool, circulating water to keep them operating and nominally safe.

The government is offering $8.3 billion of financing for the Georgia reactors at rock-bottom rates, and with very little cash up front from the plant owners. There have already been numerous concerns about the safety of the AP1000 design and the economic viability of the venture; factor in the impact of climate change, and the new Vogtle reactors are pretty much the definition of “boondoggle”–a wasteful, pointless project that gives the appearance of value while in reality delivering none. It is practically designed to fail, leaving the government (read: taxpayers and ratepayers) holding the bag.

But as a too-darn-hot July ends, that’s the woo being pitched by the nuclear industry and its government sweethearts. Rather than invest the money in technologies that actually thrive during the long, hot days of summer, rather than invest in improved efficiency and conservation programs that would both create jobs and decrease electrical demand (and carbon emissions), rather than seizing the moment, making, as it were, hay while the sun shines, it seems the US will choose to bury its head in the sand and call it shade.

Nuclear power was already understood to be dirty, dangerous and absurdly expensive, even without the pressures of climate change. Far from being the answer to growing greenhouse gas emissions, the lifecycle of nuclear power–from mining and milling to transport and disposal–has turned out to be a significant contributor to the problem. And now, the global weirding brought on by that problem has made nuclear even more precarious–more perilous and more pricy–and so an even more pernicious bet.

According to the Kinsey Report, every average man you know would prefer to play his favorite sport when the temperature is low. But when the thermometer goes way up and the weather is sizzling hot, a gob for his squab, a marine for his beauty queen, a GI for his cutie-pie–and now it turns out–the hour for nuclear power is not.

‘Cause it’s too darn hot.
It’s too. Darn. Hot.

New York Times, GE Throw Energy Industry a Party; You Were Not Invited

Entrance to the New York Times building, NYC. (photo: niallkennedy)

Those with a nose for dead trees might recall a scandal from the summer of 2009 that sullied the reputation of the Washington Post. Back then, the Post Company sent out fliers touting exclusive dinners at the home of Post publisher Katharine Weymouth that “offered corporate underwriters access to Post journalists, Obama administration officials and members of Congress in exchange for payments as high as $250,000.” When word got out, the Post cancelled the dinners, initially blaming the company’s marketing department (though later reporting showed Weymouth and WaPo’s executive editor Marcus Brauchli knew more about the confabs than they initially let on). The White House also claimed that it had not authorized any officials to participate in these “salons.”

Remember? If you were a critic of the “leftwing media,” this was proof positive of the cozy relationship between the new Democratic administration and the Beltway’s company newsletter; if you were suspicious of the establishment media for its close corporate ties and naked attempts to curry favor with political elites, these planned dinner parties had it all, from aperitifs to the final bill. It really was a fetid swamp, even for swampland.

Flash forward a few years, grab a Metroliner north, and behold this:

U.S. Secretary of Energy, energy economist Daniel Yergin and former Petrobras CEO Jose Sergio Gabrielli de Azevedo are among the speakers at tomorrow’s (Wednesday’s) The New York Times Energy for Tomorrow conference. The conference has been created in collaboration with Richard Attias and Associates.

More than 400 corporate and political leaders, as well as NGOs, academics and energy experts will debate the most pressing issues and opportunities facing the energy sector today. GE is the founding sponsor of The New York Times Energy for Tomorrow, with BMW and Louisiana Economic Development as supporting sponsors.

Gerald Marzorati, editor for The New York Times who is responsible for creating The Times’s conferences, said: “With rising prices, energy is at the top of the agenda – both economically and politically – around the world. The supply picture is changing in the United States, with new sources of oil and natural gas.

“There is also the debate over the environmental impact of energy extraction and production, and the role of efficiency in making sure there will be enough energy to meet growing global needs.”

(That was last Wednesday, April 11, by the way.)

This was an invitation-only event. What, you weren’t invited? Well, then, who was?

Yes, there was Obama’s Energy Secretary, Dr. Steven Chu–he got to have a special chat with Times columnist and human carnage unit Thomas Friedman. And Pulitzer Prize-winning author Daniel Yergin was there, fresh off his role as a member of the Presidential Shale-Gas Advisory Commission (spoiler alert: Yergin concluded that fracking’s environmental problems can be managed and that shale gas drilling is here for the long run). And Jose Sergio Gabrielli de Azevedo, who was the head of Petrobras (the name sort of says it all, but if you are still wondering, it is a Brazilian energy giant–the largest company in the Southern Hemisphere), but is now chief planning officer for the state government of Bahia, Brazil. . . but who else?

To be fair, here’s the entire public list:

Lester R. Brown, founder and president of Earth Policy Institute;
Carol Browner, Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and former ‘energy czar’ to the Obama administration;
Lee Edwards, president and chief executive of Virent, Inc.;
Marvin Fertel, president and chief executive of the Nuclear Energy Institute;
Jochen Flasbarth, president of the German Federal Environment Agency;
Robert A. Hefner III, founder and owner of the GHK Company;
Amy Myers Jaffe, director of the Energy Forum at the Baker Institute;
John Krenicki Jr., vice chairman of GE, and president and chief executive of GE Energy;
Michael Levi, Senior Fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and director of the CFR program on energy security and climate change;
Dave McCurdy, president and chief executive of the American Gas Association;
Steve Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy;
T. Boone Pickens, chairman of BP Capital Management;
Jim Prendergast, executive director of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE);
Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace;
Jim Rogers, chairman, president and chief executive of Duke Energy;
and Manuel Camacho Solis, Mexico’s former secretary of Urban Development and the Environment, and former mayor of Mexico City.

Impressive, no? Impressive, yes. . . if you are into energy industry bigwigs. Why, there’s the head lobbyist for the nuclear energy industry, Marvin Fertel, and there’s his good pal, John Krenicki, CEO of GE Energy. Then there’s Jim Rogers, the head everything at Duke Energy, the North Carolina-based utility that is responsible for something like 36,000 megawatts of electrical generation, mostly from its fleet of aging coal and nuclear plants. (I wonder how he, the leader of America’s 13th largest air polluter got on with Carol Browner, who was head of the Environmental Protection Agency when it brought suit against Duke for its coal plants. Probably not so bad, seeing as Browner was until recently the director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, and they were fine with Duke building two new nuclear reactors in South Carolina–the license for which was just granted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.)

And look over there–why it’s Amy Myers Jaffe, big proponent of oil and gas for the James Baker Institute at Rice University. And there’s the president of the American Gas Association, and there’s the head of GHK, the oil and gas company that proudly touts itself as a pioneer in deep gas well drilling in Oklahoma. And ooh, oil man T. Boon Pickens, who now likes to talk wind, but not without talking about the real estate needed for the transmission lines. . . which also would do quite nicely for moving water, by the way. . . oh, and he still likes oil, too.

By the way, that Lee Edwards, the one at Virent, a big player in biogasoline, that’s not the Heritage Foundation Lee Edwards, that’s the Lee Edwards who used to be at BP.

But it was not an all pro-gas, pro-oil, pro-nuke, hydrofracking hydrocarbon love fest. No! Look closely, there are two–not one, but two–conference attendees that can squarely be called environmentalists: the esteemed Lester Brown of EPI, and Phil Radford, who has headed Greenpeace for the last three years. Both those men are solidly anti-nuclear and openly concerned about climate change. . . and there are two of them!

But these people probably get to see each other all the time. The New York Times wanted to mix it up with some of their staff–you know, reporters and columnists. To that end:

New York Times moderators will include:

Richard L. Berke, assistant managing editor;
Helene Cooper, White House correspondent;
Thomas Friedman, Op-Ed columnist;
Clifford Krauss, energy correspondent;
Joe Nocera, Op-Ed columnist;
Ashley Parker, Metro reporter;
and Jeff Zeleny, national political correspondent.

Now if all of this sounds to you a little like, oh, say, the World Economic Forum–you know, Davos–that is probably not a coincidence. Richard Attias–the guy that put this Times conference together–he used to run the events company that organized Davos. . . and the Clinton Global Initiative. . . and the Dalian Economic Summit in China. . . the list goes on.

But more importantly–maybe–it sounds an awful lot like the Washington Post’s mixers of industry powerbrokers, government officials, and newspaper reporters. No, it is not “off the record,” as the Post’s parties were advertized, and instead of soliciting payment for a seat at the table, the Times just pulled together major corporate “sponsors”–so perhaps it feels less hush-hush, less pay-to-play–but this was not a public party by any means. It was by invitation only. . . and you were not invited.

That special feeling

But don’t feel left out. You may not have gotten to have lunch with the giants of energy on Wednesday–but for $2.50 (or $3.75/week if you prefer the digital subscription), you could read the special Energy section in that day’s New York Times. And really, isn’t that just like being there?

Well, sadly, kind of.

The inclusion of the special section on the same day as the Times Forum was not some lucky coincidence. Instead, it read like a 10-page welcome mat for the energy executives and policymakers who made it up to Times Center. It was as if to say, “Your time here will not be wasted. We hear you. Behold, the power of synergy!”

Though reporting on the content of the forum has been surprisingly scant–what there is focuses on Secretary Chu’s story about manure and the conference’s general support for the Obama “all of the above,” uh, well, it is called a “strategy”–the Wednesday special section is chockablock with tasty stories, with headlines such as: “Fuel to Burn: Now What?” and “Natural Gas Signals ‘Manufacturing Renaissance,'” and who can resist “Renewable Sources of Power Survive, But in a Patchwork”?

But of special interest here is Matthew Wald’s piece, “Nuclear Power’s Death Somewhat Exaggerated.”

Now, Matthew Wald is not mentioned in the press release about the Times‘ Energy for Tomorrow Conference, so it is not clear if Wald got to have coffee with the powers behind our power, but his presence was hardly necessary–Wald already writes like he lives in Marvin Fertel’s hip pocket:

The [nuclear power] industry’s three great recent stumbling blocks, the Fukushima accident of March 2011, the exceptionally low price of natural gas and a recession that has stunted demand for power, mock the idea that dozens of new reactors are waiting in the wings. But in an era of worry over global warming, support is plentiful for at least keeping a toe in the water.

“Even if global warming science was not explicitly invented by the nuclear lobby, the science could hardly suit the lobby better,” complained a book published last month, “The Doomsday Machine,” a polemic on the evils of splitting the atom. In fact, the industry continues to argue that in the United States it is by far the largest source of zero-carbon energy, and recently began a campaign of upbeat ads to improve its image.

According to the authors of “The Doomsday Machine,” Martin Cohen and Andrew McKillop, “In almost every country — usually for reasons completely unrelated to its ability to deliver electricity — there is almost universal political support for nuclear power.”

That is probably an exaggeration, with Japan leaving almost all of its 54 reactors idle at the moment because of the Fukushima Daiichi triple meltdown, and Germany promising to close its fleet. But China and India, two countries with enormous demand for electricity and not much hand-wringing over global warming, are planning huge reactor construction projects.

Admittedly, there is much to debate in Cohen and McKillop’s book (and debate it we will when I chat live, online with the authors of The Doomsday Machine during a Firedoglake Book Salon I am hosting on Sunday, April 22, at 5 PM EDT/2 PM PDT), but to quickly dismiss it as a “polemic” is to ignore hundreds of footnoted, glossaried and indexed pages on the history of the nuclear industry’s many near-death and rebirth experiences. It is, in many ways, the kind of story that fits quite nicely with Wald’s narrative, for while Cohen and McKillop are clearly not fans of civilian nuclear power, it is hard not to take from The Doomsday Machine a grudging admiration for the industry’s powers of mythmaking and influence peddling.

Take, for example, Wald’s unexamined–and oft-repeated–regurgitation of the nuclear sector’s claim that atomic power is “zero-carbon energy.” As is spelled out in The Doomsday Machine, and as has been detailed on this site, as well, nuclear power is quite the opposite–from uranium mining to fuel refining, from transport to waste storage, nuclear power models a carbon footprint that brings to mind Bambi Meets Godzilla. While many will likely be uncomfortable with the Cohen-McKillop approach to climate change (again, more on this during the April 22 book salon), Wald’s work itself stands as testament to the nuclear narrative’s ability to morph from “too cheap to meter” to “zero-carbon energy.”

As if to underline this point, Wald writes, without any apparent irony, that the reason America is now burdened with a fleet of 104 aged nuclear reactors that have not been upgraded since the 1980s is because “competition from other sources of electricity is strong.”

One wonders, too, about Wald’s take on climate change when he characterizes China and India as doing “not much hand-wringing over global warming.” Does Wald believe that the reaction in most of the rest of the northern industrialized world is just so much hand-wringing?

The blips about Japan and Germany are not smart or informative explanations, either. The tradition in Japan is that local governments have a say on whether reactors can restart, and while, yes, 53 of Japan’s 54 reactors are now offline as a result of either the Tohoku quake, the ongoing Fukushima crisis, or other maintenance concerns, the government of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is pushing hard to ignore precedent and bring nuclear plants back online over the objections of local residents.

In Germany, as has been observed here many times, the particulars of their parliamentary system left the previously pro-nuclear government of Angela Merkel looking for a new coalition partner in advance of the coming national elections, and the bargaining chip to potentially bring the Green Party into the next government was a change in nuclear policy. This is not a bad thing, mind you–the commitment to phasing out nuclear power in the next decade has allowed Germany to seize the moment and rocket to the forefront of nations gearing up for the next technical revolution (the post-hydrocarbon, renewable-energy revolution)–but it is not the same as the simple refutation in Wald’s story.

And the problems in Wald’s reporting extend beyond a mischaracterization of one book’s argument. Running throughout articles like this one, and throughout the New York Times’ energy coverage, in general, is the “gone native” taint of access journalism.

Boldfaced names impart authority, not just to the point in the story, but also to the journalist who got the quote. The higher up the food chain, be it in government or the corporate world, the more impressive the “get.” Having a senior administration official or a top industry spokesperson or CEO lends a shorthand gravitas to the story, and lends even more to a journalist’s “rolodex.”

To take the piece in question as one example, why waste precious column inches on explanations from any number of available engineers, experts and activists on why the AP1000 reactors just Okayed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would actually not have prevented a Fukushima-like disaster, and, quite possibly, could have made things worse? Instead, just get Jim Ferland, the recent president and chief executive of Westinghouse Electric, to say, “If an AP1000 had been there [in Japan], we wouldn’t be having this discussion today; that plant would be back on line.”

In fact, as readers of this space learned last year, the most exciting thing about the AP1000 reactor to the nuclear industry is that is uses less concrete and rebar, and lots of theoretically “off the shelf” parts, so that construction promises to be cheaper than it was for previous generations of light water reactors. The “passive” safety of the design is a nice story, but it has no real-world case study to add to the narrative. (Indeed, fears about what might happen to the skimpy containment of the AP1000 during a quake or explosion long ago earned it the nickname “the eggshell reactor.”)

That the real excitement here comes from cost savings and not safety is actually backed up by the penultimate paragraph of this same Times article. Wald again goes to Ferland, who says that because similar reactors have already been built in China, it will now be easier and faster (and, thus, cheaper) to build them here.

Funny enough, that very argument is debunked, and at great length, in The Doomsday Machine. Maybe Wald didn’t get that far, but the book details how France attempted to standardize and routinize its nuclear plant construction, and not only were no savings seen, the price of the facilities–and the price of the electricity they delivered–actually went up.

But again, that is another wordy explanation for why nuclear continues to fail to fulfill its promise, and not a pithy quote. Much more impressive, it would seem, are the assurances of a current member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

“It seems like every time something happens, you always get these prognostications this is the end, the nuclear industry has come to a halt,” said William D. Magwood IV, one of the five members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a former assistant secretary of energy in charge of promoting nuclear power.

. . . .

Mr. Magwood argues that the situation is not so dire, though, because the “renaissance” was never as big as some people assumed. He said he calculated in 2008 that of the 23 or so projects that were under discussion, only 12 were actually under development, and of those, only 10 faced no real licensing or technical hurdles. But only five of those had clear sources of financing. He assumed three would be in the first wave; now it is two. The industry insists that even its small-scale rebirth is a step forward. Those two pairs of reactors could lay the groundwork for more.

Wald does point out Magwood’s position on the NRC, and his former role as a promoter of nuclear power in the Department of Energy. It would probably break up the flow of the article to mention that Magwood has been embroiled in a power struggle with the Chairman of the NRC, Gregory Jaczko, in part because Jaczko has expressed slightly more concern that US nuclear facilities make safety upgrades to reflect lessons learned from the Fukushima crisis. (Magwood and three other members of the NRC have consistently opposed Jaczko on mandating any post-Fukushima reforms.)

But, as “bold” a “get” as Magwood might be, his argument, as relayed by Wald, folds in on itself. Forget that Wald starts this article with Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander’s call for 100 new reactors, and forget that the much pooh-poohed “polemic” by Cohen and McKillop recounts the history of promises many times this size (not to mention current assertions that hundreds, if not thousands, of new reactors are “essential” to either meet growing demand or mitigate climate change), Magwood’s own quote pretty much spells it out: the industry talks big, but they have little to really deliver. They call it a “renaissance,” but they hope that getting a pair of reactors up and running (in five to seven years, and at a cost of $14 billion or more, mind you) will “lay the groundwork for more.”

Hating the game–and its players

There is a funny parallel between the stories of two second-millennium industries trying hard to stay relevant in the third–how can they change to meet evolving needs, overcome economic challenges and adapt to technological revolutions? The difference, of course, is that while news reporting has served us well in the past and can continue to be necessary and important if done right, nuclear has only been a burden–ecological and economic–and has yet to demonstrate what “done right” actually means.

Working as a reporter in the post-millennial media environment is in many ways an unenviable task–demands for content rapidly increase while bureaus and support staffs are cut way back. You want to hate the game, and not the player, but it is hard when the players blur the distinctions between the sports.

Rubbing elbows at exclusive, industry-sponsored “forums” might make sense for corporate bottom lines, and it might make life a little easier–or at least a little more fun–for stressed-out scribes, but it does nothing, really, for the consumer. And that would be for the consumer of the energy product or the news product.

Perhaps access journalism seems like a natural consequence of the corporatization of media, but there is still enough good reporting out there to say that it doesn’t need to be. Inserts like the New York Times‘ special “Energy” section, however, are a logical outgrowth of corporate/government/fourth estate salons like Times Forum. Corporate underwriters want something for their investment of money, just as corporate and government big shots want something for their time. To the writers at a place like the Times, it might not feel like arm twisting or pay-to-play, but it is human nature to warm to those in the noblesse who convey a bit of oblige.

The dire problem here, of course, is that when it comes to matters as urgent as energy and climate–or as hazardous and costly as nuclear power–one reporter’s warm fuzzy becomes thousands or millions of people’s overheated and pointedly dangerous world.

If inviting everyone at every level to the highbrow hobnob might make it, shall we say, too “hot, flat, and crowded” at Times Center, then it is up to those lucky enough to be on the inside, those like Matt Wald, to stray beyond their comfort zone and question the powers-that-be a little harder about what they plan to use for power. Bite the hand that feeds you–as hard as that might seem when you are all sharing a box lunch.

As for a corporate media megalith like the Times, maybe this is what they do now–maybe, like the scorpion that can’t help but sting the frog, it is in their nature. But the consumer–of both news and energy–would be the frog in that analogy, and so it is all of our responsibility to make some pointed demands before blithely trusting that articulate arthropod. We want to be invited to the party, or at least get to see what goes into the cake before we are told to eat it.

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

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. . . .

Wait, what?

Yes, based on the amazing success they have had managing Crystal River–and something called a “determination of need,” which was granted in 2008–Progress Energy holds out hope of someday building two of those trendy new AP1000 nuclear reactors at another Florida site, this one in Levy County.

And who is expected to pick up the tab? Who is on the hook, not just for repairs and replacement energy at Crystal River, but for PEF keeping its options open at Levy? Well, not surprisingly in “privatize profits, socialize risk” America, the plan was to stick Florida ratepayers with the bill (again Footprints provides the numbers):

Customer bills for instance, were expected to increase by $16/mo. in 2016; $26/mo. in 2017 and a whopping $49/mo. in 2020. Initially, Progress expected the proposed reactors to cost $4-6 billion each, coming online beginning in 2016. Just a few years later, the estimated costs have skyrocketed to over $22 billion and the online date, if the reactors ever even come online, has bumped back to 2021 and 2022. And the Office of Public Counsel believes that PEF may not intend to complete the reactors until 2027, if at all. The company has spent over $1 billion dollars on the Levy nuclear reactors and has yet to commit to build them. And the company is entitled to recover all its preconstruction and carrying costs from its customers before even a kilowatt of electricity is produced. In fact, even if the project is never completed PEF can recover all its construction costs from customers courtesy of the 2006 anti-consumer “early cost recovery” state law…essentially a nuclear tax scheme.

But now, as of this week, there is a new plan. . . stick Florida ratepayers with the bill:

The state Public Service Commission on Wednesday unanimously approved an agreement that will increase the power bills of Progress Energy Florida customers — who already pay among the highest rates in the state.

It is supposed to be a win for consumers.

The deal includes a $288 million “refund” of money customers were to pay to replace power from the crippled Crystal River nuclear plant, which has been offline since fall 2009 and might never return to service.

PSC staff concluded that customer rates still would increase. The average Progress customer’s bill on Jan. 1 is expected to increase $4.93 a month per 1,000 kilowatt hours of usage, from $123.19 to $128.12, subject to adjustments for fuel costs.

That’s a “win” for Floridians, it seems, because they are paying out something less for Progress Energy’s mistakes–at least in the near term. But even that caveat is subject to scrutiny:

While the agreement provides a replacement power cost refund over 3 years of $288 million to PEF customers (due to the CR3 outage) – it comes packaged with a base rate increase of $150 million and it precludes the parties from challenging up to $1.9 billion (yes, billion) fuel and replacement power costs from 2009 to 2016.

And that’s not all. Also in the agreement is a requirement that PEF start (yes, that is start) the latest repairs on Crystal River by the end of 2012; if they do not, Progress has to “refund” an additional $100 million to consumers. Missing, however, from the agreement is any new estimate (given the latest revelations, not to mention any post-Fukushima upgrades required) of the cost should PEF actually try to remedy all of Crystal River’s problems–and perhaps even more glaring, questions remain as to who will pay (and how much it will cost) should PEF decide to stop throwing good money after bad and decommission Crystal River reactor 3.

Also missing from the calculation is any determination of what PEF’s insurance will cover–Crystal River’s insurer stopped paying out in early 2011, and they have yet to decide if they will pay anything more. . . at all.

The agreement also fails to put an end to what is now becoming a regular part of the nuclear power finance scam–collecting public money for plants that will never be built. As the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE, which is affiliated with CleanEnergy Footprints) observed when it opted not to sign on to the Florida rate agreement:

PEF hasn’t committed to actually building the Levy Co. reactors. Having customers pay for the company just to maintain the “option” at a later date to build reactors is unfair to today’s customers – and runs counter to the Commission’s “intent to build” standard. The agreement allows the company to collect another $350 million from customers, presumably for pursuing their Nuclear Regulatory Commission license (without any prudency review) for reactors it hasn’t committed to build? In fact, the agreement contemplates that the company will cancel its engineering and procurement contracts as well, further demonstrating the unlikelihood of project completion.

If something sounds familiar here, it should. Southern Company has been using heaping helpings of Georgia ratepayer money to do all kinds of preliminary work on their Vogtle site, purportedly the future home of two new AP1000 reactors, just granted a combined construction and operating license by the NRC in January.

The big difference so far between Levy and Vogtle has been Southern’s ability to line up some financing for its Georgia construction–thanks to $8.33 billion in federal loan guarantees granted the project by the Obama administration almost two years in advance of the NRC approval.

PEF does not have this kind of guarantee, but that did not stop them from trading on the possibility:

Progress Energy Florida officials said Thursday that President Obama’s plan to offer federal loan guarantees to encourage investment in nuclear power plant construction will be a strong incentive to move forward with the company’s proposed Levy County plant.

The project, however, is facing delays of between 20 to 36 months due to economic and regulatory problems, making the plant’s future uncertain despite the company’s insistence the project isn’t cancelled.

“It (the loan guarantee program) will definitely play a role in that decision (whether to continue with the project). It is one of many, but a very important one,” said Progress Energy spokesman Mike Hughes.

That was in 2010, right after President Obama announced the new Department of Energy loan program–but two years later, PEF has not secured a federal guarantee, and so has not secured any financing. . . and thus has also not committed to ever building the Levy plant. But none of that has stopped Progress from collecting money from Florida consumers just to keep hope alive, as it were. And none of that has apparently stopped any of Florida’s public service commissioners from telling PEF that this practice is just jake with them.

Even with NRC approval and some federally guaranteed money, it is still not a sure bet that the Vogtle AP1000 reactors will ever come on line. PEF’s Levy project has no license and no loan guarantee.

The folks at Progress Energy are not stupid–at least not when it comes to short-term financial gain–they know how very slim their chances are of ever pushing even a single kilowatt out of Levy County, but they also know where the profit is in the nuclear power game. It is not, quite obviously, in the construction of nuclear power plants–rife as that process is with lengthy delays and massive cost overruns–and it is not, some might be surprised to learn, so much in electric generation, given that plants in the US are now suffering “unusual events” that force one or more of them offline pretty much every week. Unusual events cost money–in parts and labor, and in time lost to repairs and inspections–and, as has been demonstrated at Crystal River, there is the cost of replacement energy.

No, the real profits in the nuclear racket come from the ability to collect on services not rendered and a product not delivered, or at least not delivered regularly. Because the system backstops the financing of nuclear facilities while also allowing plant operators to pass both real and anticipated costs onto ratepayers, many American taxpayers are poised to pay twice for nuclear power plants that don’t produce power.

And it would be remiss to close without adding a few more points.

Much has been made of the failure of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, which also received aid from the federal government in the form of loan guarantees. Solyndra ultimately got $527 million from the government; contrast that with what has been granted to Southern for Vogtle. Or, starker still, look at the entire alternative energy loan program, now projected to cost out at under $3 billion, and then look back to 2010, when Barack Obama pledged $54.5 billion to the DOE loan guarantee program designed to foster investment in nuclear power.

In addition, while the government will actually recoup most of the money lost on Solyndra when the factory and inventory are auctioned off, the “leftovers” from a failed nuclear plant–even the parts that are not contaminated with radioactivity–are much harder (if not impossible) to move.

The focus of this story has been on the costs–because the case of Progress Energy Florida is such a glaring example of how nuclear operators fleece America–but the fact that a company so focused on the bottom line, regardless of its effect on public safety, is still allowed to play with something as dangerous as a damaged nuclear power plant should not be overlooked. Alas, as was exposed last year, nuclear regulators and the nuclear industry seem to agree that safety should be addressed with an eye toward cost. So, while Crystal River is a scary mess, the reactor in question is actually offline right now. The same cannot be said, for example, about Ohio’s Davis-Besse plant, which has cracking problems of its own, but was allowed by the NRC to restart in January–over the vociferous objections of industry watchdogs, engineers, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH).

And then there is Palisades, on the shores of Lake Michigan, where numerous events and releases of radioactivity in the last year caused the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to issue a downgrade of the plant’s safety rating–but the NRC did not order the plant to shut down. Palisades is owned by Entergy Nuclear, who was recently cited for “buying reactors cheap, then running them into the ground.” In addition to Palisades, Entergy owns nine other plants–Arkansas Nuclear One, Nebraska’s Cooper Nuclear Station, Fitzpatrick in upstate New York, Grand Gulf in Mississippi, Indian Point, just north of New York City, Pilgrim, outside of Boston, River Bend and Waterford, both in Louisiana, and Vermont Yankee.

The case of Vermont Yankee is especially upsetting. Yankee is a GE boiling water reactor, similar to the model that failed so catastrophically at Fukushima–but the NRC voted to extend its operating license just days after the Tohoku quake. The state of Vermont had a better idea, declaring that the nuclear plant should shut down by March 21, 2012. However, in January, federal district court judge J. Garvan Murtha ruled Entergy could ignore Vermont’s order and continue operating. The state is appealing the ruling, but in the meantime, Yankee continues to operate. . . and continues to leak tritium into the groundwater, and into the Connecticut River.

It is not clear who will be paying for any attempt to clean up the Vermont Yankee leak–though one can guess–nor is it clear what will happen to new nuclear waste produced after March 21, since the Vermont statehouse has forbidden any new waste storage on the site. Indeed, storing used nuclear fuel is a nationwide problem that poses real dangers in the near term, and will likely cost billions of public dollars in the long term.

And that’s the bottom line–the real bottom line–for the industry’s oft-ballyhooed “nuclear renaissance.” Plant operators and captured regulators can try to obscure the safety concerns with diversionary dustups and magical thinking, but economic realities, like facts, are stubborn. Without huge injections of public money, nuclear power simply cannot continue to function–and the public is in no mood for another multi-billion dollar government bailout.

NRC Vogtle Reactor Approval Should Blow Lid Off Nuclear Finance Scam

Work is well underway on the Vogtle Unit 4 turbine building. The bottom of the Unit 3 containment vessel can be seen in the background. (photo via the Southern Company)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Thursday vote to approve the combined construction and operating license application (COLA) for Southern Company’s Plant Vogtle cleared the way for adding two AP1000 nuclear reactors to the two existing units near Augusta, Georgia, but it should also shine a light on the elaborate shell game that masquerades as nuclear-powered electrical generation.

Coming almost exactly two years after the Obama administration granted the project $8.33 billion in federal loan guarantees, the NRC’s OK for the project did not signal a groundbreaking at Vogtle. Thanks to a redefinition of what constitutes construction, drafted under a former NRC commissioner who now works for the nuclear industry, Southern started building on the site long before the AP1000 reactor design was finally approved by the NRC last December. And foundations were poured into the Georgia earth before environmental impact surveys were even required to be filed. So, Thursday’s move did not actually start construction, but it did start the roulette wheel turning on a massive financial gamble where Southern Company is pretty much assured of winning, and US taxpayers and Georgia utility customers are guaranteed to lose.

How much those Americans who don’t happen to own a power company will lose is an issue of some question–a question that the Department of Energy and Southern Company is making very hard to answer.

As this month marks two years since the government agreed to the loan guarantees, it will mark almost as long a time since the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the details of the deal the DOE struck with Southern Co., and thus it also marks almost two years of stonewalling by the Obama administration and the energy consortium:

To date, DOE has produced heavily censored documents that have provided little or no information in an effort to frustrate any analysis that would be useful to taxpayers. Based on the limited information produced to date, it appears that the power companies had to put almost no “skin in the game,” only promising to pay a token credit subsidy fee of what could be as little as 0.5 or 1.5 percent of the total loan principal.

Perhaps the once-pledged-to-be-the-most-open-in-history-but-now-proving-to-be-just-as-secretive administration thinks it can hide behind the idea that it is only a guarantee, and, at that, a guarantee of a private business plan, but that would be doubly troubling.

The DOE has indeed tried to use the confidential business argument, but Mindy Goldstein, acting director, Turner Environmental Law Clinic at Emory University School of Law, who is representing SACE in its FOIA case, explains just how disturbing that argument is:

DOE claims that the loan guarantee terms and credit subsidy fee estimates are confidential and may only be viewed by Georgia Power and its utility partners. Let’s hope DOE is wrong. For such information to be withheld as confidential, it must have been obtained from the utilities themselves. If the power companies are literally writing their own guarantees and credit subsidy fee estimates, the Loan Guarantee Program is more flawed than anyone could have imagined.

Alas, given the long history of industry representatives “helping” the DOE and NRC draft their regulations, Goldstein’s legal conundrum isn’t hard to imagine as the actual state of affairs.

And neither the government nor the taxpayer should take comfort from the guarantee angle:

Private lenders have declined to finance new reactors because of the enormously high cost of new nuclear power and the substantial risk that any such investment will fail. In 2003, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the chance of a loan for new nuclear reactor construction resulting in default would be “very high – well over 50 percent.”

And for the folks at Vogtle, the risk is likely much higher. The two reactors now at the Georgia site took over 15 years to complete, came in 1,200 percent over budget, and resulted in an enormous rate hike for Georgia power consumers.

The fact that even with taxpayers already shouldering the risk ratepayers are also on the hook is the remarkable second slap in the face that comes with the nuclear power con:

[Southern’s subsidiary and largest utility, Georgia Power] customers already are paying down the [Vogtle] project’s financing costs through a fee that will increase to $8.74 a month by 2015. The fee will end once reactors start producing power in 2016 and 2017.

Well, the fee is supposed to end when the reactors start producing power, which is supposed to be in 2016 and 2017. But no nuclear project comes in on time or on budget–and as was just noted, history is not Vogtle’s friend here–and not only will ratepayers continue to cough up cash while construction drags on, it is certainly not unprecedented to see them continue to get fleeced for overruns after the plants are finished (just ask the good citizens of Florida).

These, of course, are just the costs incurred if everything goes more or less right. And these, of course, are just the costs of building the reactors–it has nothing to do with the fueling, the maintenance, the waste removal and clean up should anything get, you know, “unusual.” But since the taxpayers and ratepayers pretty much built the new reactors for them, those costs should come out of Southern Co/Georgia Power’s profits once they start charging for the actual power, right?

Uh. . . wrong. As George W. Bush was headed out the door, he made sure that the Department of Energy would be liable for all costs from any high-level radioactive waste generated at the new Vogtle units. And, of course, as is true for all facilities in the US, the Price-Anderson Act indemnifies the industry against claims arising nuclear accidents.

And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s approval–coming when it does–does nothing to make those accidents less likely. The NRC voted for Vogtle’s COLA over the objections of its chairman, Greg Jaczko, who thought safety rules that should come from the post-Fukushima recommendations should have been stipulated as essential to any new license. And the AP1000’s design, which Toshiba-Westinghouse likes to tout as safer than its close cousin, the pressurized water reactor, is suspected to be anything but.

Meanwhile, trouble at nuclear reactors worldwide continues apace. At Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi, unit two, which was said to have been brought to a “cold shutdown” in December, has experienced what is called a “re-criticality”–in other words, the temperature inside the ruptured containment vessel has begun to rise again, up more than 20 degrees Celsius since February 1. Officials from Japanese power company TEPCO have done a poor job of explaining why this might be happening or what it might mean for the future, but they do admit to the necessity of increasing the amount of water and boric acid pumped into the damaged reactor to counteract the warming. And, since there are holes and cracks in the reactor vessel, that means more radioactive waste water pouring out of the building and into the basements and surrounding plant grounds–more water on top of the 95,000 cubic meters already believed to be there, and on top of the 220,000 cubic meters that TEPCO has claimed they “processed” (and then dumped back into the environment).

And something else quite troubling has been observed in Japan–bird populations in Fukushima prefecture have taken a bigger dip than was expected from studies of similar species around Chernobyl after that nuclear disaster.

Speaking of the former Soviet Union, there was a fire last weekend at the Alikhanov Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics in southwestern Moscow. The building contains an atomic collider and is home to Russia’s very first heavy water reactor, built in the 1940s, and now decommissioned. Government officials said there was no danger of a radiation leak, but others, like Greenpeace Russia, beg to differ.

Back in the USA, the San Onofre plant remains completely shutdown after one reactor was found to be leaking tritium on January 31. Meanwhile, the other reactor, offline for refueling and repairs since January 9, was discovered to have alarmingly excessive wear inside its almost new turbine tubes.

And at Prairie Island, a nuclear facility in southeastern Minnesota, Xcel Energy has copped to two separate toxic chemical and radiological spills. One happened last November, but Xcel did not alert residents of the Prairie Island Indian Community–a whopping 600 yards from the power plant–till last week. The second happened just last Friday, February 3, but Xcel waited to give notice till Monday because the leak happened “‘after business hours’ just before the weekend.”

This is but a small sample–less than a week’s worth–of the nuclear world the NRC has now voted to expand. With each of these items should come a list of questions and a cavalcade of caution, but the NRC’s rulings on the AP1000 have defied the facts on the ground. Meanwhile, the entire federal government seems hell-bent on ignoring the fiscal realities, instead choosing to guarantee that money flow from the pockets of taxpayers into the coffers of nuclear energy corporations, whether or not those corporations ever provide a kilowatt of power to those taxpayers.

It is a sad state of affairs–that almost goes without saying–but perhaps sadder is the relative silence around such a multi-layered scandal.

Political activists were rightfully outraged when the Bush administration fought tooth-and-nail to keep the minutes of Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force secret. Now, aside from the good people at SACE, who else is working to uncloak an equally secretive–and equally offensive–Obama energy deal?

Some look to leverage a scandal off the failure of Solyndra–but the loan guarantees to Southern Company are over 15 times larger than those made to the small solar manufacturer, and frankly, even today, more risky. (Solyndra may have failed, but its assets can and will be sold, and its plant will be repurposed. Very little of that potential exists for a failed nuclear endeavor.)

Many who are outraged by the bailouts of the banks should see each of these nuclear facilities as a little version of the same “socialize the risk, privatize the profit” model. A nuclear facility might only lose billions of dollars instead of trillions, but as Everett Dirksen observed in a cheaper era, “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

And, of course, nuclear failures aren’t just toxic to the economy, they are toxic to the environment, too.

And for those that think this week’s $25 billion settlement with the five big financial institutions guilty of mortgage fraud is somehow a grand amount–just remember that you can’t get two new nuclear power stations for that. . . and after typical delays and cost overruns, $25 billion likely won’t even get you one.

So, take a good look at what is happening in Georgia–even if the Obama administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission won’t. . . even if the Obama administration and the NRC don’t want you to. The nuclear industry, its acolytes, its lackeys, its supplicants and subordinates want to make the Vogtle reactors the first of many, the first of an irresistible nuclear renaissance, the start of a hard-charging, government-subsidized pushback–against activists and environmentalists, sure, but in reality, against the truth.

The truth, of course, is that without the lobbyists and the grease they spread, without the captured regulators and the purchased elected officials, the nuclear industry would be relegated to the past, right alongside its antiquated technology. The truth is that nuclear power is not clean, nor safe, nor too cheap to meter–it is dirty, dangerous, and a financial sinkhole of epic proportions. Banks and investment houses know it, ratepayers in Georgia and Florida know it, many of the residents of Japan know it, and even the government of Germany knows it–and now you know it, too. Now is the time to make sure your representatives in government–your president, your members of Congress, your state and local officials–know that you know it. Now is the time to stop this boondoggle and bailout, and then get to the business of safely uncoiling the nuclear serpent’s grip on our leaders and our imaginations. The AP1000 is not a first glimpse of the future, it is the last gasp of the past–and the sooner we stop subsidizing the old ideas, the sooner we can start investing in some new ones.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Ignores Fukushima, Green-Lights First New Reactors in 34 Years

Current containment buildings and cooling towers at the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Burke County, GA. (photo: NRC)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted a construction and operating license to Southern Co. for two reactors to be added to its Plant Vogtle facility in Georgia. The OK is the first granted by the US regulator since 1978.

The NRC approved the license over the objections of its chairman, Gregory Jaczko, who wanted the license to stipulate that the units would meet new standards recommended by the agency’s Fukushima Near-Term Task Force (NTTF) report:

“I think this license needed something that ensured that the changes as a result of Fukushima would be implemented,” Jaczko said in an interview after the vote. “It’s like when you go to buy a house and the home inspector identifies things that should be fixed. You don’t go to closing before those things are fixed.”

The NTTF recommendations, geared toward improving safety and preventing another disaster like the one still evolving at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility, have still not become official government rules–some are projected to take up to five years to draft and implement–and so, for now, the new reactor construction will get to pretend the Tohoku quake and tsunami, and the resulting core meltdowns and widespread radioactive contamination, never happened.

The Vogtle reactors are of a new (or, let’s call it “new-ish”) design. The AP1000 reactor was just approved by the NRC in December, over the objections of numerous scientists and engineers, who saw claims of innovation insufficient to counter the dangers native to any Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) design. Upon examination, many of the “improvements” to the AP1000 look more like ways to cut construction costs. Even so, a single new AP1000 is expected to cost anywhere from $8 billion to $14 billion dollars–and, it should be noted, no US nuclear facility has ever come in anywhere close to on time or on budget. The US government has already pledged over $8 billion in federal loan guarantees to cover construction of the Georgia reactors, since without the government backstop, no private financial institutions will invest in such a high-cost, high-risk project. Southern Co. has already spent $4 billion preparing the Vogtle site for the anticipated new construction.

I cannot support this licensing as if Fukushima never happened,” said Gregory Jaczko after the Thursday vote–but thanks to the four other commissioners of his captured agency, licensing as if Fukushima never happened is exactly what the NRC did.