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.

LIPA’s Nuclear Legacy Leaves Sandy’s Survivors in the Dark

Head of Long Island Power Authority Steps Aside as Governor Convenes Special Commission, But Problems Have Deep Roots

The decommissioned Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant still occupies a 58-acre site on Long Island Sound. (photo: Paul Searing via Wikipedia)

As the sun set on Veterans Day, 2012, tens of thousands of homes on New York’s Long Island prepared to spend another night in darkness. The lack of light was not part of any particular memorial or observance; instead, it was the noisome and needless culmination of decades of mismanagement and malfeasance by a power company still struggling to pay for a now-moldering nuclear plant that never provided a single usable kilowatt to the region’s utility customers.

The enterprise in charge of all that darkness bears little resemblance to the sorts of power companies that provide electricity to most Americans–it is not a private energy conglomerate, nor is it really a state- or municipality-owned public utility–but the pain and frustration felt by Long Island residents should be familiar to many. And the tale of how an agency mandated by law to provide “a safer, more efficient, reliable and economical supply of electric energy” failed to deliver any of that is at its very least cautionary, and can likely serve as an object lesson for the entire country.

Almost immediately, the United States will be faced with tough choices about how to create and deliver electrical power. Those choices are defined not just by demand but by a warming climate and an infrastructure already threatened by the changes that climate brings. When one choice, made by a private concern nearly 50 years ago, means weeks of power outages and billions of dollars in repair costs today, it suggests new decisions about America’s energy strategy should be handled with care.

A stormy history

Two weeks after Hurricane-cum-Superstorm Sandy battered the eastern coast of the United States, upwards of 76,000 customers of the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) were still without power. That number is down markedly from the one million LIPA customers (91 percent of LIPA’s total customer base) that lost power as Sandy’s fierce winds, heavy rains and massive storm surge came up the Atlantic Coast on Monday, October 29, and down, too, from the over 300,000 still without service on election day, but at each step of the process, consumers and outside observers alike agreed it was too many waiting too long.

And paying too much. LIPA customers suffer some of the highest utility rates in the country, and yet, the power outages that came with last month’s storm–and a subsequent snowstorm nine days later–while disgraceful, were far from unexpected. The Long Island Power Authority and its corporate predecessor, the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO), have a long track record of service failures and glacial disaster response times dating back to Hurricane Gloria, which hit the region in the autumn of 1985.

After Gloria, when many Long Island homes lost power for two weeks, and again after widespread outages resulted from 2011’s Hurricane Irene, the companies responsible for providing electricity to the residents of most of Nassau and Suffolk Counties, along with parts of the Borough of Queens in New York City, were told to make infrastructure improvements. In 2006, it was reported that LIPA had pledged $20 million annually in grid improvements. But the reality proved to be substantially less–around $12.5 million–while LIPA also cut back on transmission line inspections.

Amidst the current turmoil, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been highly critical of LIPA, calling for the “removal of management” for the “colossal misjudgments” that led to the utility’s failures. Cuomo made similar statements about LIPA and its private, for-profit subcontractor, National Grid, last year after Hurricane Irene. But as another day mercifully dawned on tens of thousands of homes still without electricity over two weeks after Sandy moved inland, the dysfunctional structure in charge of the dysfunctional infrastructure remains largely unchanged.

Which, it must be noted, is especially vexing because Governor Cuomo should not be powerless when it came to making changes to the Long Island Power Authority.

It was Andrew’s father, Governor Mario Cuomo, who oversaw the creation of LIPA in 1985 to clean up the fiscal and physical failures of the Long Island Lighting Company. LILCO’s inability to quickly restore power to hundreds of thousands of customers after Hurricane Gloria met with calls for change quite similar to contemporary outrage. But it was LILCO’s crushing debt that perhaps exacerbated problems with post-Gloria cleanup and absolutely precipitated the government takeover.

The best-laid schemes

It was April 1965 when LILCO’s president announced plans for Long Island’s first commercial nuclear power facility to be built on Long Island Sound near the town of Brookhaven, already home to a complex of research reactors. The 540-megawatt General Electric boiling water reactor (similar in design to those that failed last year in Japan) was estimated to cost $65 million and come online in 1973.

The price of the Shoreham nuclear project quickly ballooned, first, as LILCO proposed additional reactors across Long Island–none of which were ever built–and then as the utility up-rated the original design to 820 megawatts. Further design changes, some mandated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and construction delays pushed the price tag to $2 billion by the late 1970s.

Because of its proximity to the Brookhaven reactors, LILCO expected little public activism against Shoreham, but local opposition steadily grew throughout the ’70s. The Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and environmentalist Barry Commoner all raised early objections. After a meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979, Shoreham saw 15,000 gather in protest outside its gates, an action that resulted in 600 arrests.

Three Mile Island led to new NRC rules requiring nuclear facilities to coordinate with civic authorities on emergency plans for accidents necessitating the evacuation of surrounding communities. LILCO was forced to confront the fact that, for Shoreham, the only routes for evacuation were already clogged highways that bottlenecked at a few bridges into Manhattan, 60 miles to the west.

In 1983, the government of Suffolk County, where Shoreham was located, determined that there was no valid plan for evacuating its population. New York Governor Mario Cuomo followed suit, ordering state regulators not to approve the LILCO-endorsed evacuation plan.

Still, as Shoreham’s reactor was finally completed in 1984, 11 years late and nearly 100-times over budget, the NRC granted LILCO permission for a low-power test.

But 1985’s Hurricane Gloria further eroded trust in LILCO, and the next year, the Chernobyl disaster further galvanized opposition to a nuclear plant. As LILCO’s debts mounted, it became apparent that a new structure was needed to deliver dependable power to Long Island residents.

The power to act

The Long Island Power Act of 1985 created LIPA to assume LILCO’s assets, and a subsidiary of this municipal authority, also known as LIPA, acquired LILCO’s electric transmission and distribution systems a year later. The radioactive but moribund Shoreham plant was purchased by the state for one dollar, and later decommissioned at a cost of $186 million. (Shoreham’s turbines were sent to Ohio’s Davis-Besse nuclear facility; its nuclear fuel was sent to the Limerick Nuclear Power Plant, with LILCO/LIPA paying Philadelphia Electric Company $50 million to take the fuel off its hands.)

The $6 billion Shoreham folly was passed on to consumers in the form of a three-percent surcharge on utility bills, to be charged for 30 years. Service on LILCO’s $7 billion in debt, half of which is a direct result of Shoreham, makes up 16 percent of every LIPA bill.

But LIPA itself is not really a utility company. Its roughly 100 employees are low on public utilities experience and, as the New York Times reports, high on political patronage. The majority of LILCO’s non-nuclear power plants were sold to a newly created company called KeySpan (itself a product of a merger of LILCO holdings with Brooklyn Union Gas), and maintenance of LIPA’s grid was subcontracted to KeySpan.

KeySpan was in turn purchased by British power company National Grid in 2006.

The situation is now further complicated, as National Grid lost out to Public Service Enterprise Group, New Jersey’s largest electricity provider, in a bid to continue its maintenance contract. PSEG takes over the upkeep of LIPA’s grid in 2014.

A commission on transmission

On Tuesday, Governor Cuomo the Younger announced formation of a Moreland Commission–a century-old New York State provision that allows for an investigative body with subpoena power–to explore ways of reforming or restructuring LIPA, including the possibility of integrating with the state’s New York Power Authority. And just hours later, LIPA’s COO and acting CEO, Michael Hervey, announced he would leave the utility at the end of the year.

But the problems look more systemic than one ouster or one commission, no matter how august, can correct. Andrew Cuomo’s inability to appoint new LIPA board members could owe as much to entrenched patronage practices as to political pre-positioning. State Republicans, overwhelmingly the beneficiaries of LIPA posts, are engaged in a behind-the-scenes standoff with the Democratic Governor over whom to name as a permanent LIPA director. Others see Cuomo as too willing to accept the political cover conveyed by not having his appointees take control of the LIPA board.

Still, no matter who runs LIPA, the elaborate public-private Russian-doll management structure makes accountability, not to mention real progress, hard to fathom. Perhaps it would be crazy to expect anything but regular disasters from a grid maintained by a foreign-owned, lame-duck, for-profit corporation under the theoretical direction of a leaderless board of political appointees, funded by some of the highest electricity rates in the country. And those rates, by the way, are not subject to the same public utilities commission oversight that would regulate a private utility, nor do they seem sensitive to any democratic checks and balances.

And all of this was created to bail out a utility destabilized by the money pit that is nuclear power.

The truth has consequences

As nighttime temperatures dip below freezing, it will be cold comfort, indeed, for those still without the power to light or heat their homes to learn that money they have personally contributed to help LIPA with its nuclear debt could have instead paid for the burying of vulnerable transmission lines and the storm-proofing of electrical transformers. But the unfortunate results of that trade-off hold a message for the entire country.

It was true (if not obvious) in 1965, it was true in 1985, and it is still true today: nuclear power, beyond being dirty and dangerous, is an absurdly expensive way to generate electricity. This is especially apropos now, in the wake of a superstorm thought to be a harbinger of things to come as the climate continues to warm.

In recent years, the nuclear industry has latched on to global warming as its latest raison d’être, claiming, quite inaccurately, that nuclear is a low-greenhouse gas answer to growing electrical needs. While the entire lifecycle of nuclear power is decidedly not climate friendly, it is perhaps equally as important to consider that nuclear plants take too long and cost too much to build. The time, as well as the federal and consumer dollars, would be better spent on efficiency, conservation, and truly renewable, truly climate-neutral energy projects.

That is not a hypothetical; that is the lesson of LIPA, and the unfortunate reality–still–for far too many New York residents.

Oyster Creek Nuclear Alert: As Floodwaters Fall, More Questions Arise

Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in pre-flood mode. (photo: NRCgov)

New Jersey’s Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station remains under an official Alert, a day-and-a-half after the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission declared the emergency classification due to flooding triggered by Hurricane Sandy. An Alert is the second category on the NRC’s four-point emergency scale. Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the federal regulator, said that floodwaters around the plant’s water intake structure had receded to 5.7 feet at 2:15 PM EDT Tuesday, down from a high of 7.4 feet reached just after midnight.

Water above 6.5 to 7 feet was expected to compromise Oyster Creek’s capacity to cool its reactor and spent fuel pool, according to the NRC. An “Unusual Event,” the first level of emergency classification, was declared Monday afternoon when floodwaters climbed to 4.7 feet.

Though an emergency pump was brought in when water rose above 6.5 feet late Monday, the NRC and plant owner Exelon have been vague about whether it was needed. As of this writing, it is still not clear if Oyster Creek’s heat transfer system is functioning as designed.

As flooding continued and water intake pumps were threatened, plant operators also floated the idea that water levels in the spent fuel pool could be maintained with fire hoses. Outside observers, such as nuclear consultant Arnie Gundersen, suspected Oyster Creek might have accomplished this by repurposing its fire suppression system (and Reuters later reported the same), though, again, neither Exelon nor regulators have given details.

Whether the original intake system or some sort of contingency is being used, it appears the pumps are being powered by backup diesel generators. Oyster Creek, like the vast majority of southern New Jersey, lost grid power as Sandy moved inland Monday night. In the even of a site blackout, backup generators are required to provide power to cooling systems for the reactor–there is no such mandate, however, for spent fuel pools. Power for pool cooling is expected to come either from the grid or the electricity generated by the plant’s own turbines.

As the NRC likes to remind anyone who will listen, Oyster Creek’s reactor was offline for fueling and maintenance. What regulators don’t add, however, is that the reactor still needs cooling for residual decay heat, and that the fuel pool likely contains more fuel and hotter fuel as a result of this procedure, which means it is even more at risk for overheating. And, perhaps most notably, with the reactor shutdown, it is not producing the electricity that could be used to keep water circulating through the spent fuel pool.

If that sounds confusing, it is probably not by accident. Requests for more and more specific information (most notably by the nuclear watchdog site SimplyInfo) from Exelon and the NRC remain largely unanswered.

Oyster Creek was not the only nuclear power plant dealing with Sandy-related emergencies. As reported here yesterday, Nine Mile Point Unit 1 and Indian Point Unit 3–both in New York–each had to scram because of grid interruptions triggered by Monday’s superstorm. In addition, one of New Jersey’s Salem reactors shut down when four of six condenser circulators (water pumps that aid in heat transfer) failed “due to a combination of high river level and detritus from Hurricane Sandy’s transit.” Salem vented vapor from what are considered non-nuclear systems, though as noted often, that does not mean it is completely free of radioactive components. (Salem’s other reactor was offline for refueling.)

Limerick (PA) reactors 1 and 2, Millstone (CT) 3, and Vermont Yankee all reduced power output in response to Superstorm Sandy. The storm also caused large numbers of emergency warning sirens around both Oyster Creek and the Peach Bottom (PA) nuclear plant to fail.

If you thought all of these problems would cause nuclear industry representatives to lay low for a while, well, you’d be wrong:

“Our facilities’ ability to weather the strongest Atlantic tropical storm on record is due to rigorous precautions taken in advance of the storm,” Marvin Fertel, chief executive officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry group, said yesterday in a statement.

Fertel went on to brag that of the 34 reactors it said were in Sandy’s path, 24 survived the storm without incident.

Or, to look at it another way, during a single day, the heavily populated eastern coast of the Unite States saw multiple nuclear reactors experience problems. And that’s in the estimation of the nuclear industry’s top lobbyist.

Or, should we say, the underestimation? Of the ten reactors not in Fertel’s group of 24, seven were already offline, and the industry is not counting them. So, by Fertel’s math, Oyster Creek does not figure against what he considers success. Power reductions and failed emergency warning systems are also not factored in, it appears.

This storm–and the trouble it caused for America’s nuclear fleet–comes in the context of an 18-month battle to improve nuclear plant safety in the wake of the multiple meltdowns and continuing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility. Many of the rules and safety upgrades proposed by a US post-Fukushima taskforce are directly applicable to problems resulting from Superstorm Sandy. Improvements to flood preparation, backup power regimes, spent fuel storage and emergency notification were all part of the taskforce report–all of which were theoretically accepted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But nuclear industry pushback, and stonewalling, politicking and outright defiance by pro-industry commissioners has severely slowed the execution of post-Fukushima lessons learned.

The acolytes of atom-splitting will no doubt point to the unprecedented nature of this massive hybrid storm, echoing the “who could have predicted” language heard from so many after the earthquake and tsunami that started the Fukushima disaster. Indeed, such language has already been used–though, granted, in a non-nuclear context–by Con Edison officials discussing massive power outages still afflicting New York City:

At a Consolidated Edison substation in Manhattan’s East Village, a gigantic wall of water defied elaborate planning and expectations, swamped underground electrical equipment, and left about 250,000 lower Manhattan customers without power.

Last year, the surge from Hurricane Irene reached 9.5 feet at the substation. ConEd figured it had that covered.

The utility also figured the infrastructure could handle a repeat of the highest surge on record for the area — 11 feet during a hurricane in 1821, according to the National Weather Service. After all, the substation was designed to withstand a surge of 12.5 feet.

With all the planning, and all the predictions, planning big was not big enough. Sandy went bigger — a surge of 14 feet.

“Nobody predicted it would be that high,” said ConEd spokesman Allan Drury.

In a decade that has seen most of the warmest years on record and some of the era’s worst storms, there needs to be some limit on such excuses. Nearly a million New York City residents (including this reporter) are expected to be without electricity through the end of the week. Residents in the outer boroughs and millions in New Jersey could be in the dark for far longer. Having a grid that simply survives a category 1 hurricane without a Fukushima-sized nuclear disaster is nothing to crow about.

The astronomical cost of restoring power to millions of consumers is real, as is the potential danger still posed by a number of crippled nuclear power plants. The price of preventing the current storm-related emergencies from getting worse is also not a trivial matter, nor are the radioactive isotopes vented with every emergency reactor scram. All of that should be part of the nuclear industry’s report card; all of that should raise eyebrows and questions the next time nuclear is touted as a clean, safe, affordable energy source for a climate change-challenged world.

UPDATE: The AP is reporting that the NRC has now lifted the emergency alert at Oyster Creek.

Superstorm Sandy Shows Nuclear Plants Who’s Boss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alert Declared at Oyster Creek Nuclear Plant

Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station (photo courtesy of NRC)

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reporting that an “alert” has been declared at the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in Ocean County, New Jersey. An alert is the second level on the four-point scale, a step above an “unusual event.”

The NRC declared the alert at 8:45 PM local time, as a combination of rising tides, wind and the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy caused water to rise above safe levels in the plant’s water intake structure. Sandy, which made landfall at around 8 PM in southern New Jersey with 90 mph winds, has caused power outages and widespread flooding along the Atlantic coast from Maryland to New York.

Oyster Creek is the oldest operating commercial reactor in the US. It is a GE boiling water reactor of similar design to the ones that failed in Fukushima, Japan during 2011’s Tohoku earthquake, though Oyster Creek is actually older. As Sandy moved up the coast, fears were raised about several nuclear facilities in the storm’s path. The NRC had issued no specific directives in advance of the hurricane, though extra inspectors were dispatched to threatened plants early on Monday.

Particular concerns were raised about Oyster Creek. The reactor is currently offline for maintenance, which means all the reactor fuel, along with generations of used fuel, is in the plant’s spent fuel pools. The plant itself is not generating any electricity, and so is dependent on external power. If the power were to fail, there would be no way to circulate cooling water through the pools.

Backup diesel generators typical to this design power the heat transfer from the reactor, but the so-called “defense in depth” backups for the spent fuel pools are the plant’s own electrical output and power from an external grid.

Flooding of the coolant intake structure further complicates matters. Oyster Creek does not have a cooling tower (like those seen in classic pictures of Three Mile Island). Safe temperatures are maintained by taking in massive amounts of water from a nearby source (in this case, Barnegat Bay). Water must continue to circulate in and out of the facility to keep temperatures at safe levels.

Another question would be whether floodwaters would carry additional radioactive contamination into Barnegat Bay as they recede.

In the NRC press release on Oyster Creek (PDF), the regulator also noted (with apparent pride) that no reactors had been shut down because of Hurricane Sandy. However, at least one reactor, Millstone 3 in Connecticut, had reduced output in anticipation of the storm. Several other reactors in the region are currently offline for refueling or maintenance.

Hurricane Sandy Brings Wind, Rain and Irony to US Nuclear Plants

Hurricane Sandy’s projected path as of 9 AM, Monday. (map courtesy of NOAA)

With Hurricane Sandy projected to make landfall hundreds of miles to the south and the predicted storm surge still over 24 hours away, New York City completely shuttered its mass transit system early Sunday evening. By 7 PM, all subway service was halted for only the second time in history. The fear, according to state authorities, is that heavy rainfall or the expected six-to-eleven-foot increase in tide levels would flood subway tunnels, stranding trains at various points across the 842 miles of track.

Fearing similar flooding, the Washington, DC, Metro is also expected to suspend service for all of Monday.

Twelve hours after NYC shut down its subways, at 7 AM Monday, with Hurricane Sandy lashing the Mid-Atlantic coast with heavy rain and 85 mph winds, at least a half-dozen commercial nuclear reactors lie in the storm’s projected path–and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to issue any specific orders to the facilities it supposedly oversees. In fact, check out the NRC’s twitter feed or look at its website, and the only reference you will find to what has been dubbed “Frankenstorm” is the recently posted cancellation notice for a public hearing that was supposed to convene on Tuesday, October 30.

The subject of that meeting? The Fort Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station.

The Fort Calhoun plant sits on the Missouri River, on the eastern edge of Nebraska, near the town of Blair. Fort Calhoun’s single pressurized water reactor was shutdown for refueling in April of last year, but floods during the summer of 2011 encircled the facility and caused a series of dangerous incidents. A breach in water berms surrounded transformers and auxiliary containment buildings with two feet of water. Around that same time, a fire shut down power to Fort Calhoun’s spent fuel pools, stopping the circulation of cooling water for 90 minutes and triggering a “red event,” the second most severe classification. Outside of its reactor, the Nebraska facility is home to approximately 800,000 pounds of high-level radioactive waste. To this day, Fort Calhoun is offline and awaiting further evaluation by the NRC.

That a hearing on a flooded plant has been postponed because of the threat of flooding near NRC offices seems like the height of irony, but it pales next to the comparison of safety preparedness measures taken by New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority for a subway and the federal government’s approach to a fleet of nuclear reactors.

That is not to say that the NRC is doing nothing. . . not exactly. Before the weekend, regulators let it be known that they were considering sending extra inspectors to some nuclear facilities in Sandy’s path. Additionally, regional officials stressed that plant operators were doing walk downs to secure any outside equipment that might become a sort of missile in the event of high winds. It is roughly the equivalent of telling homeowners to tie down their lawn furniture.

And it seems to be understood, at least at the nuclear plants in southern New Jersey, that reactors should be shutdown at least two hours before winds reach 74 mph.

To all that, the NRC made a point of assuring the public that reactor containment buildings could withstand hurricane-force winds, or any odd piece of “lawn furniture” that might be hurled at them.

That’s nice, but hardly the point.

Containment breech is always a concern, but it is not the main issue today. A bigger worry are SBOs–Station Black Outs–loss-of-power incidents that could impede a plant’s capacity to cool its reactors or spent fuel pools, or could interfere with operators’ ability to monitor everything that is going on inside those areas.

As reported last year, Hurricane Irene caused an emergency shutdown at Maryland’s Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant when aluminum siding torn off by high winds shorted out the main transformer and caused an explosion, damaging structures and equipment. Calvert Cliffs was one of the facilities that had chosen not to reduce output or shutdown in advance of Irene–especially alarming because just days before that storm, plant operators had reported trouble with its diesel backup generators.

Irene caused other problems, beyond loss of electricity to millions of consumers, public notification sirens in two emergency preparedness zones were disabled by the storm.

In sum, storm damage triggered a scram at a plant with faulty backup generators. If power had not been restored, backup would have failed, and the rising temperatures in the reactors and fuel pools would have necessitated an evacuation of the area–only evacuation would have been hampered because of widespread power outages and absent sirens.

The worst did not happen last year at Calvert Cliffs, but the damage sustained there was substantial, and the incident should serve as a cautionary tale. Shutting down a nuclear reactor doesn’t prevent every problem that could result from a severe storm, but it narrows the possibilities, reduces some dangers, and prevents the excessive wear and tear an emergency shutdown inflicts on an aging facility.

Calvert Cliffs is again in the line of fire–as are numerous other plants. Hurricane Sandy will likely bring high winds, heavy rain and the threat of flooding to nuclear facilities in Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Given last year’s experiences–and given the high likelihood that climate change will bring more such events in years to come–it might have been expected that the NRC would have a more developed policy.

Instead, as with last year’s Atlantic hurricane, federal regulators have left the final decisions to private sector nuclear operators–operators that have a rather poor track record in evaluating threats to public safety when actions might affect their bottom line.

At the time of this writing, the rain in New York City is little more than a drizzle, winds are gusting far below hurricane strength, and high tide is still over ten hours away. Hurricane Sandy is over 300 miles to the south.

But Gotham is a relative ghost town. The subway turnstiles are locked; city busses are nowhere to be seen.

At the region’s nuclear facilities, however–at North Anna, Hope Creek, Salem and Oyster Creek, at Calvert Cliffs, Indian Point and Millstone–there is no such singular sense of better-safe-than-sorry mission.

In New York, it can be argued that the likes of Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have gone overboard, that they have made decisions based not just on safety, but on fears of political fallout and employee overtime. But in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s northeast region, there is no chance of that kind of criticism–one might even say there is no one to criticize, because it would appear that there is no one in charge.