The Party Line – September 23, 2011: In Post-Fukushima Reality, What is the Future, and Who is Winning It?

Beginning a story with a correction for what might seem a technical detail might not provide the most attention-grabbing lede, but it opens the door to a broader, and important, observation.

Last week’s column contained reference to “large nuclear power-generating nations,” and then listed Australia as part of that group. That, as pointed out by reader Dgdonovan, was incorrect:

Australia is not a large nuclear power producing nation, in fact none of Australia’s electricity is produced by nuclear power. Australia is a large uranium producing nation, however.

Indeed, while Australia may posses nearly a quarter of the world’s remaining uranium deposits, it has not commissioned a single industrial-scale nuclear reactor for electrical power generation. While the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant makes that look prudent, given the expansion of nuclear power over the last 50 years, it does seem odd.

Australia is hardly an industrial backwater. A member of the G20, Australia is the world’s 13th largest economy in terms of GDP. And it is not as if Australia has not considered building nuclear plants, most recently about five years ago. But nuclear power has never gotten off the ground in Australia for a rather basic reason: it is not supported by a majority of its people.

What the public wants, however, (as some recent events in the US seem to indicate) is not always what the public gets. Also required is a mechanism for the electorate to impose their will.

As previously observed, in the aftermath of the Japanese disaster, German Prime Minister Angela Merkel committed her country to phasing out nuclear power generation in relatively short order, choosing to instead invest in renewables and efficiency. Merkel may have come to this decision based on the facts as now understood post Fukushima, but German domestic politics almost certainly came under consideration, too.

Merkel’s ruling coalition in the Bundestag currently includes her own party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), and the rightwing Free Democratic Party (FDP). By every indication, the FDP is heading for substantial losses in the next federal election, so the CDU will need a new coalition partner to keep Merkel in power. The most productive option is expected to be the Greens, and to woo them, Merkel found an opportune moment to move on a core Green Party issue.

Australia’s system is not identical to Germany’s, but the parliamentary (or Westminster) plan of the lower house introduces some of the same power dynamics. (Liberal-National Coalition PM John Howard proposed developing nuclear power in 2006; his party lost to anti-nuke Labor in 2007.) Federal and most regional elections are also decided by “preferential voting” (also known as IRV, or “instant runoff”). This form of democracy tends to give voters more options, and allows tertiary parties, and their issues, to gain a foothold in the system. Australia also accords a great deal of autonomy to its six state governments, where, for instance, it would be virtually impossible for the federal Australian government to put a nuclear power plant in a state if that state’s government had rejected it.

Contrast this with the United States, where, rather than responding to the new, post-Fukushima realities, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has signaled it is “full speed ahead” on the relicensing of old nuclear facilities (many of which are nearly identical to the Fukushima reactors; all of which are reaching the ends of their projected lifespans). Seabrook, in Connecticut New Hampshire, has just been granted permission to proceed toward relicensing, and it looks like re-upping the Massachusetts Pilgrim plant will also be moving ahead. This movement runs counter to the NRC’s own recent task force report advocating a new safety regime that incorporates lessons learned from Japan. And this relicensing also runs counter to substantial objections from state governments, nuclear watchdogs, and community activists.

Shouldn’t the chief regulatory agency wait until its new, proposed regulations are in place before giving out licenses for another 20 years of potentially dangerous operation? Under a governmental system that draws its regulators from the industry it regulates and funds its two-party, first-past-the-post elections with money from that industry, it appears not.

And regulatory protocol is not the only point of contrast. In Germany, the marketplace has already recognized the changing reality. Siemens, a German industrial giant, has announced that it is getting out of the nuclear power business:

It [Siemens] will build no further nuclear plants and is canceling its nuclear joint venture with Russia’s Rosatom. Siemens built all 17 of Germany’s existing nuclear plants. Siemens chief executive, Peter Loescher, (pictured) praised the Merkel government’s decision to close all its nuclear plants by 2022 and aim for an 80% to 100% renewable energy economy by 2050, calling it “a project of the century.”

Siemens recognizes that without government support, and without an automatic customer, there is no profit in nuclear power.

In the United States, where President Obama (a beneficiary of large campaign contributions from nuclear power companies) went out of his way to affirm the US commitment to nuclear generation immediately following the Japanese quake and tsunami, and where the federal government continues to offer loan guarantees for maintaining and operating nuclear plants, a very different picture is emerging:

Exelon Corporation and Constellation Energy have filed for Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approval of their proposed merger. In the filing, the companies commit themselves to divesting three of Constellation’s non-nuclear power plants totaling [sic] 2648 MWe in a step to ensure the merger will not cause power market or competitive concerns in the PJM (Pennsylvania, Jersey, Maryland) Power Pool in which they operate.

Constellation is the owner of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear facility in Maryland, which has recently come under scrutiny (OK, closer scrutiny, it has a long history of safety concerns) because of an emergency shutdown triggered by a transformer explosion during Hurricane Irene. Exelon, itself the product of a merger brokered by former White House Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, was one of Barack Obama’s largest campaign contributors. Exelon already operates more US nuclear plants than any other power company.

And this isn’t the only consolidation move in the US power sector. Duke Energy and Progress Energy, companies that operate nuclear facilities throughout the southeast, are seeking to form the country’s largest electric utility.

The Exelon-Constellation deal is facing opposition from Maryland’s Governor, Martin O’Malley, while the Duke-Progress merger has raised questions in North Carolina. But the final say on whether either deal goes through rests with FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

FERC is comprised of five commissioners, each appointed by the president to a five-year term (in theory, anyway–one commissioner is still there, despite his term supposedly ending in June). As currently constituted, three members are George W. Bush appointees, two were picked by President Obama (though that does not necessarily predict how they will act). FERC’s decisions are final, and are not subject to any kind of Congressional vote.

The differences are stark. In Germany, where electoral realities have forced to the government to take an honest look at nuclear safety, market realities have delineated a path away from nuclear power and toward a renewable energy economy. In the US, where government is not only insulated from popular opinion but also beholden to corporate largess, elected officials, regulators and industry work hand-in-hand to perpetuate dangerous, expensive and inefficient technologies (while, on Capitol Hill, House Republicans vote to slash already threadbare programs meant to encourage renewable energy development).

In an age where so many economies are desperately trying not to lose any more ground in the present, could it be that the ones more responsive to their rank-and-file electorates are the ones in the best position to (to borrow a quickly forgotten phrase) win the future?

The Party Line – August 5, 2011: Japan Worries About More Radiation, US Officials Worry About Red Tape

News this week out of Japan that workers at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have detected extremely high levels of radiation in and around reactor 1. The first incident, on August 1, pinned the Geiger counter at 10 sieverts (1000 rem)—yes, that’s as high as the device could measure, so that number is a minimum—and was taken at the base of a ventilation stack. The second reading, the following day, clocked in at five sieverts per hour inside the reactor building.

I have yet to read an explanation for the discovery of the second reading, but the initial, sky-high measurement on Monday has me and many others scratching heads. A thousand rem is not some little ho-hum number. A half-hour of exposure at that level is fatal in a matter of days, I am told. Where did that radiation come from? When did contamination occur? How is it that such a dangerous level could go unreported for what is now over 140 days?

Officials from the Japanese power company, TEPCO, who have been repeatedly criticized for withholding critical information, insist that contamination likely happened in the first few days of the disaster when workers tried to vent hydrogen from the reactor building in a futile attempt to prevent an explosion. Somehow, though, this part of the facility (which, it should be noted, has been extensively mapped for radioactive hotspots over the last several months) was not measured till August.

Others, such as Arnie Gundersen, chief engineer at Fairwinds Associates, believes levels this high would not have gone undetected this long, and that these new readings represent a recent accumulation. Because the measurement was taken at the base of a ventilation stack that has continued to vent undisclosed amounts from the damaged reactors, Gundersen believes that condensation and radioactive cesium trickled down to the base of the stack—which means that some amount of radioactive isotopes continues to be vented into the atmosphere. And it seems, some not inconsequential amount.

Back in April, TEPCO was ordered to give an accounting of the amounts of radiation released during the crisis, and TEPCO promised to do so by August. It is now August, but there is no sign yet of this report or an indication of when it will be released.

And, just to wrap up newish news from Japan, the government has announced plans to build a wall around Daiichi reaching 60 feet below ground to try to stop contaminated groundwater from reaching the sea. Beef contaminated with radioactive cesium from the plant has turned up in more markets across Japan, and the government has banned the sale of most beef from the north.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has fired three government officials with ties to the crisis, including the leader of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which would be roughly the Japanese equivalent of the US NRC. Officially, the reason is because the agency did a lousy job of preparing for a tsunami and its disastrous effects, but it also recently came to light that this official had planted pro-nuclear-industry shills at town hall meetings in an attempt to steer public opinion.

Back in the United States, one can only imagine what that kind of accountability would look like—but why imagine, when we have the videotape!

On August 2, when most eyes (like, you know, everyone’s) were on the floor of the Senate, a few of us (probably a very few, it wasn’t even on CSPAN-3) were watching the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works full committee and subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety joint hearing entitled “Review of the NRC’s Near-Term Task Force Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century.” (Sounds so much more important when you spell it all out.)

This was the hearing on the report I discussed three weeks ago, and besides the obvious observation that there’s 150 minutes of life I’ll never get back, there were a few points worth mentioning.

First, it was clear from the opening statements that no Senator (perhaps with the exception of Bernie Sanders. . . perhaps) was going to come close to making a call for a shift away from nuclear power in the US the way leaders in Germany and Japan have in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. In fact, the tone was very much about moving forward with some version of a flourishing nuclear industry.

For Republicans on the panel, the response was predictable. The only thing that is keeping us from rushing headlong into a glorious future with upwards of 100 fabulous, new nuclear plants is excessive government regulation. In fact, Senators Lamar Alexander and Jeff Sessions seemed stunned that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had the primary responsibility of protecting the health and safety of the public rather than helping to foster an environment favorable to the expansion of the nuclear industry. (A funny protest, really, considering that the NRC has long been criticized for acting as a booster club for the industry it is supposed to regulate—and especially risible in light of this summer’s AP exposé on the cozy relationship between power companies and regulators.) The GOP contingent chastised NRC members for thinking of themselves as guardians of public safety without regard to what it would cost what they always euphemistically referred to as “stakeholders” (as did the more overtly pro-industry commissioners).

This, in turn, earned the senators a chastisement of their own from EPW chair, Sen. Barbara Boxer, who literally threw the book at them. . . ok, she didn’t throw the book, she just read from the law that empowers the NRC.

Indeed, Boxer had a more refreshing take on government regulation. The California Democrat said that if the industry wanted to operate and expand, it had to demonstrate that it could do so safely. Boxer stressed that it was important that citizens saw regulators as their defenders, able to act quickly in response to a crisis and honestly assure the safety of nuclear facilities. It takes a trusted regulatory regime for an industry to prosper.

That is a fair point, and one that applies to a much broader discourse about government regulation. Alas, in this case, it papers over a slow, lax regulatory history and a nuclear industry that has done a solid job of dumping campaign cash into the coffers of most of the politicians responsible for oversight.

On the always amusing “did he just say that?” front, there was Sen. Alexander saying that we didn’t have to worry about anything like what happened in Japan because we had a different system, blithely adding that no one had ever been killed by an accident at a US nuclear plant or on a US nuclear submarine. This will be news to the families of the four workers killed in two separate accidents at Surry 2 in Virginia, or to the crews of the USS Thresher and USS Scorpion. Or to the one man killed in the 1959 Navy reactor explosion. (Nitpickers will argue, of course. Lucky for them, the four dead at Surry 2 died from steam burns before they had to worry about radiation, and the two subs imploded after plummeting below their crush depth, and so cannot be classified with surety as “nuclear” accidents. The 1959 USS Triton accident happened on a prototype at a Navy training center, so I guess that won’t count, either.)

And, of course, Alexander has no room in his worldview for the 430 infants (PDF) (the most conservative estimate) that died from radiation released during the Three Mile Island disaster.

Jeff Sessions is a circus sideshow all by himself (an imperious, ignorant sideshow). He used most of his time to criticize Gregory Jaczko, Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for assuming emergency powers in the days after the earthquake and tsunami that crippled Fukushima Daiichi. In essence, Sessions was upset that Jaczko empanelled the task force quickly, rather than allow the process to be sabotaged by commissioners more friendly with those aforementioned stakeholders.

Sessions also used the story of how the Japanese are pulling together to conserve energy now that so many of its nuclear power plants are offline to negatively paint the dystopian hellscape that awaits the US if we were to shift away from nuclear power. Conservation, including the royal family using flashlights in their garden, lord save us! (This New Yorker had to laugh when Sessions told of the horrors of Japanese subway platforms that now went un-air-conditioned for three hours a day.)

The senator also tossed out that nuclear was a clean, safe and cheap domestic source of energy. None of those things are true, of course. Mining and refining the fissile materials for the reactors is polluting and comes with a large carbon footprint. We still have no clear plan to deal with “spent” fuel. Fukushima, TMI, Chernobyl, and dozens of less famous disasters belie the “safe” assumption. As far as “cheap,” when you add in the government subsidies, loan guarantees, tax breaks, security costs, and the need for a fuel -disposal infrastructure, nuclear power is not just not “cheap,” it is one of the most expensive options out there. And, as for “domestic,” as I have detailed before, we import most of our uranium—and not always from the nicest people.

Alas, no one had the inclination in this Senate session to respond with any of that to Sen. Sessions. The real problems facing our nuclear future were not really on the table this week.

What the two-and-a-half hour hearing really boiled down to, really hinged on, was that NRC Chair Jaczko believes that 90 days is plenty of time for disposal of the recommendations (that’s how he put it—we are not talking implementation here, just the decision that the task force recommendations should be turned into rules. . . which would then take about five years to enact), but three of the five-member NRC do not. Those commissioners and their Republican brethren on the committee steadfastly refused to commit to any timeframe on anything, insisting that they needed first to hear from “stakeholders” (yes, that word again).

Democrats for the most part tried to buttress Jaczko, asking for commissioners to at least admit that some of the recommendations could be disposed in 90 days. The results of that request were inconclusive. Boxer, to her credit, vowed to hold hearings every 90 days to push for action on the task force report. (Will any more people be paying attention in November. . . right before Thanksgiving. . . when the SuperCommittee is supposed to deliver its budget-cutting plan? No breaths were held in the crafting of this question.)

But I feel funny rallying around this flag. As I mentioned when the Near-Term Task Force report came out, there is nothing I can see particularly wrong with any of the recommendations, as far as they go, but they fail to address any of the bigger issues, from used fuel disposal to the decommissioning of old, poorly designed, geographically vulnerable facilities. Yes, the NRC should prove that it can act—authoritatively and quickly—in the wake of a disaster. And, the federal government should prove it can rise above campaign considerations to exercise real oversight. But until people like the Senators on the EPW committee, or members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, or the president, face up to the dangers of nuclear power revealed (again) by the Japanese disaster, or confront the myths of an energy source once called “clean, safe, too cheap to meter,” then hearings like this will feel more like redecorating than real policy.

(A version of this post also appears at Firedoglake.)

The Party Line – July 15, 2011: Japan’s PM Recommends Shift Away from Nuclear Power; US Report Recommends Regulatory Tweaks

While most of creation is still trying to predict if Congress will raise the debt ceiling, and what will happen to the economy if they don’t, I thought I’d spend some quality time with disasters quite present, and in some ways, quite predictable. I am talking about nuclear power in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster.

As I detailed a few weeks back, Germany’s Prime Minister, Angela Merkel, announced a plan to shut down all of her country’s nuclear reactors by 2022. This week, Japanese PM Naoto Kan made similar noises:

We should reduce our dependence in a planned and gradual way, and in the future we should aim to get by with no nuclear energy. When we think of the magnitude of the risks involved with nuclear power, the safety measures we previously conceived are inadequate.

And, also this week, here in the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released, via its website, an 80-something-page report on the Japanese nuclear disaster [PDF], which included a series of recommendations for improving safety and disaster response at US nuclear power facilities.

Just doesn’t have the same oomph, does it? Kind of missing the gravity or sense of urgency of a head of state declaring an unambiguous move away from nuclear power, no?

Style points aside—I mean, you can hardly expect President Obama to break away from round-the-clock deficit hysteria to address a looming threat that also happens to siphon billions of dollars from federal coffers in the form of subsidies and loan guarantees—the content of the report itself, its findings and recommendations, also leave me feeling a bit underwhelmed.

As noted, the report is long–and it is dense–but as I understand it, the task force recommends that regulators pay more attention to what the report calls “low-likelihood, high-consequence events”. . . you know, like earthquakes and floods that damage nuclear reactors and safety systems.

Hard to argue with that. . . but then the task force also says that the sort of high-consequence disaster that happened in Japan can’t happen in the US—and that is a point that I and many experts and activists would argue against. To put it very briefly, the United States has many reactors past their projected life spans, many similar in design to Fukushima’s, and many built in areas vulnerable to seismic activity, floods and, yes, even tsunamis.

Also recommended, that the government standardize safety regulations and emergency response plans—and make them actual rules as opposed to voluntary industry initiatives (aka “suggestions”)—which is good as far as it goes, but in the wake of a multi-part AP exposé showing how the NRC conspired with the nuclear industry to lower safety standards, I’m thinking that doesn’t go that far.

Perhaps what is most important, however, is what’s missing from the Near-Term Task Force Review. As noted by Physicians for Social Responsibility, the report makes no recommendation for moving spent nuclear fuel from over-packed pools to hardened on-site storage. A striking omission considering that used fuel rods stored in pools inside the Fukushima reactor buildings were and continue to be a serious part of the crisis in Japan.

Also highlighted by PSR, though completely outside the prescribed scope of the investigation, the task force states that there is an “expectation of no significant radiological health effects” from the Fukushima disaster.

No significant radiological health effects. When I first read that, I assumed the NRC review was referring to the United States—an assertion that already strains credulity as far as I’m concerned, but one that can be debated, given the distance and the data (or paucity of data). But, as I read it—uh, re-read it—this “conclusion” is a general one, as in everywhere, as in an expectation of no significant radiological health effects in Japan.

Now, that assertion, without any long-term health screenings or any epidemiological studies, is as worthless as it is irresponsible, but to make such a statement a week after a Japanese report revealed that 45 percent of children in Fukushima Prefecture have thyroids that show evidence of exposure to radiation makes one wonder what the US task force used for data. . . or if they felt the need to use data at all. Also revealed at the end of June, soil samples from the city of Fukushima—an area well outside of the quarantine radius—contained radioactive cesium at levels 1.5 to 4.5 times greater than the legal limit. (Radioactive cesium 137 has a half-life of approximately 30 years and tends to accumulate in plant tissue and fungal spores.)

But wait, there’s more:

Another sample taken from a street ditch — where nuclear fallout often accumulates — registered as much as 931,000 becquerels per sq. meter, surpassing the 555,000 becquerels per sq. meter limit for compulsory resettlement in the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. Samples from the other three locations measured between 326,000 and 384,000 becquerels per sq. meter.

An earlier survey on soil in the city of Fukushima by the science ministry has found 37,000 becquerels of radioactive substances per 1 kg — equivalent to 740,000 becquerels per sq. meter.

That’s Japan. Here in North America, we found out this week that the Environmental Protection Agency was measuring radioactive iodine in rainwater out west at levels 30, 40, and, in one case, 130 times what is considered the safety standard for drinking water. Granted, a drinking water standard is not the same as a rainwater measure (as I understand it, the drinking water standard is based on the chances that consumption of a glass a day for 30 years will result in cancer), but that does not mean that this revelation doesn’t raise many questions.

For instance, what about negative non-cancer health effects? Has rain-borne radiation contaminated reservoirs, wells, or watersheds? What about bioaccumulation, what about the radiation that winds up in and on plants and animals? And what about—and this has been one of my big questions since the early days of this crisis—what about other isotopes, ones with other deleterious health effects, ones with half-lives measured in decades (like Cs-137) as opposed to days (like I-131)? And, of course, since it has been determined that there is no such thing as a “safe” level of radiation exposure, no matter the source, shouldn’t the government do a better job of informing the public of any significant increases?

To that last point, the report on radioactive rainwater, which is from Heart of America Northwest, also revealed that, in many cases, there was a lag time of a week between the radiation readings and the posting of the information on the EPA’s RadNet website. So, even for those that could parse the data on the less-than-lay-friendly site, the news was nowhere close to real-time, and so nowhere close to immediate enough for individuals trying to assess risk and adjust behavior accordingly.

The same report notes that though the EPA says it stepped up rainwater sampling following the start of the nuclear disaster in Japan, several sites (Portland, OR, for example) do not show additional sample dates beyond the standard once per month. That leads one to assume that the EPA was less diligent than they claimed, but could it also be that the EPA collected samples but chose not to post the data? (That’s an honest question—I don’t know if the latter is possible, but it did occur to me.)

By the way, that increase in sampling—it ended on May 3. . . because, of course, the Fukushima crisis is over. . . .

But, of course, the crisis is not over. Beyond the melted cores in several Fukushima reactors—where Japanese response teams are still trying to understand the shape and temperature of fuel and the integrity of the containment vessels—there are the pools of spent fuel rods, still very radioactive, still sitting in reactor buildings without roofs (which were destroyed by hydrogen explosions in the days after the earthquake and tsunami). Those pools are still sending an unknown amount of radiation into the atmosphere, and those pools will remain exposed for months to come (the first attempt to cover one of the reactor buildings is expected in late September).

So, that’s a lot to digest—for me, yes, and maybe for you, too—but at least I am trying to take it all in. Did the NRC task force take in any of this before they issued their report? Did they digest it? Yes or no, I find their assertion of no significant radiological health effects hard to swallow.

The differences in the levels of response—Germany announcing a plan to end its use of nuclear power, and Japan’s PM stating that his country should do the same, versus the United States quietly releasing a wonky report with a set of recommendations for a sustained nuclear future—tells me that the US government will not learn the lessons of the Fukushima disaster, and I find that hard to stomach.

(A version of this post also appears at Firedoglake.)

The Party Line – May 13, 2011: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Three countries–one gets 29 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, one gets 26 percent from nuclear, and one gets 20 percent. Guess which one is winning the future. . . or, more to point, guess which one is not.

(Also, I dive into the always contentious “stell cem” debate.)

[As always, to view video in a separate window, click "YouTube" on the title bar or follow this link.]

(A version of this post previously appeared on Firedoglake.)