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.

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.

San Onofre: One Leaks, the Other Doesn’t… Yet

For those who thought that, with the new year, nuclear power had turned a page and put its “annus horribilis” behind it–as if the calendar were somehow the friend America’s aging reactors–let’s take a quick look at January 2012.

First, a glance across the Pacific, where the month began with the revelation that the Japanese government purposely downplayed their assessments of the Fukushima disaster–hiding the worst projected scenarios from the public from soon after the March earthquake by classifying the documents as personal correspondence–and ended with discovery of yet another large leak of radioactive water from one of the crippled reactors.

Closer to home, the lone reactor at Wolf Creek, Kansas, was shutdown on January 13 after the failure of a main generator breaker was followed by a still-unexplained loss of power to an electrical transformer. Diesel generators kicked in to run the safety systems until external power was restored, but the plant remains offline while a Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspection team tries to figure out what went wrong.

On the morning of January 30, a power failure caused a reactor at Exelon’s Byron Generating Station to scram, which in turn required a wee bit of venting:

[At] Exelon Nuclear’s Byron Unit 2 atomic reactor near Rockford, IL, primary electrical grid power was lost and safety and cooling systems had to run from emergency backup diesel generators when smoke was seen coming from a switchyard transformer. However, when the plant’s fire brigade responded, they could not find the fire. . . .

As revealed by Exelon’s “Event Report,” offsite firefighters were called in, Unit 1 is still at full power, and Unit 2′s cool down “steam [is] leaving via atmospheric relief valves.”

An initial AP report on the incident stated: “The steam contains low levels of tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, but federal and plant officials insisted the levels were safe for workers and the public…[NRC] officials also said the release of tritium was expected. . . .

Because, you know, a scram without some steam is like a coffee with out some cream. Or, as noted in the past, these emergency shutdowns are not subtle, quiet events. They are like slamming the breaks on a speeding car, and they cause all kinds of stresses and strains on reactor systems. Even when backup power kicks in, the process can require the venting of steam to relieve pressure in various parts of the reactor (where depends on the type of reactor and the kind of “unusual event”)–and that steam will often contain tritium, which has molecules so small they can pass from the closed loop that runs through the reactor into the secondary loop (in the case of pressurized water reactors) that powers the turbines.

So, lots of places in the system with varying levels of tritium, which, as Beyond Nuclear points out, is in no way “safe”:

[T]he linear no threshold theory, endorsed by the U.S. National Academies of Science for decades, holds that any exposure to radioactivity, no matter how small, still carries a health risk, and such risks are cumulative over a lifetime. It would be more honest for NRC officials to states that the tritium releases from Byron are “acceptably risky,” in their judgment, but not “safe.” After all, tritium is a potent radionuclide, a clinically proven cause of cancer, mutations, and birth defects, and if inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin, can integrate anywhere in the human body, right down to the DNA level.

And to add insult to the dishonestly undersold injury, the NRC says it can’t yet calculate just how much tritium escaped in this event.

But Wolf Creek and Byron were really just steamy warm ups (as it were) for January’s main event–the Grand-Guignol-meets-the-Keystone-Kops tragic-comedy commonly referred to as SONGS, or the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

San Onofre sits on the California coast, about halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles, and has a long, infamous history of construction screw-ups, safety breaches, lax reporting, falsified records and unusual events. Unit 1 was brought online in 1968–and decommissioned 25 years later; Units 2 and 3 started up in the early ’80s, and are still operating today. . . .

Well, uh, about that. . . .

Officials at the San Onofre nuclear power plant shut down one of the facility’s two units Tuesday evening [January 31] after a sensor detected a possible leak in a steam generator tube.

The potential leak was detected about 4:30 p.m., and the unit was completely shut down about an hour later, Southern California Edison said.

The next day, SCE revealed that yes, indeed, it was a leak that caused them to scram Unit 3, and that they were dealing with it by “reducing pressure“. . . which other people might call “venting.” SONGS is also a PWR, and this leak was also in the loop that spins the turbines and not the one that runs through the reactor, but as noted above, that system still contains some radionuclides. Edison does admit to the release of some radiation, though they make the same “no threat/no harm” assertions common to the other unusual events.

Beyond the usual pushback on that “no harm” claim, it should also be noted here that the leak did no occur in the reactor’s sealed containment building, but in an auxiliary building. . . with doors. . . and people that go in and out through those doors. . . so the question is not whether some radiation escaped into the atmosphere, but “how much?”

But that’s not the scary part.

The leak occurred in Unit 3, and so that had to be shut down, but Unit 2 was already down–offline for two months of refueling and repair. However, the accident in Unit 3 prompted quite the revelation about Unit 2:

Unusual wear has been found on hundreds of tubes that carry radioactive water at Southern California’s San Onofre Unit 2 nuclear plant, raising questions about the integrity of equipment the company installed in a multimillion-dollar makeover in 2009.

. . . .

The problems at Unit 2 were discovered during inspections of a steam generator, after the plant 45 miles north of San Diego was taken off-line for maintenance and refueling. The two huge steam generators at Unit 2, each containing 9,700 tubes, were replaced in fall 2009, and a year later in its twin plant, Unit 3, as part of a $670 million overhaul.

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, more than a third of the wall had been worn away in two tubes at Unit 2, which will require them to be plugged and taken out of service. At least 20 percent of the tube wall was worn away in 69 other tubes, and in more than 800, the thinning was at least 10 percent.

This level of wear might be typical to systems in use for several decades–still not comforting, considering the age of America’s nuclear plants–but to see this degradation in virtually new tubes gives one pause. . . especially one Joram Hopenfeld, retired NRC engineer and researcher:

“I’ve never heard of anything like that over so short a period of time,” Hopenfeld said.

“The safety implications could be very, very severe,” Hopenfeld added. “Usually the concern is in older steam generators, when they have cracks all over the place.”

According to the regulatory commission, the tubes have an important safety role because they represent one of the primary barriers with the radioactive side of the plant. If a tube breaks, there is the potential that radioactivity from the system that pumps water through the reactor could escape into the atmosphere.

About two-thirds of US reactors are of similar design to those at SONGS.

That’s the scary part.

It is scary, of course, because it raises questions about the manufacturing, the installation, and the maintenance of the $670 million rehab at San Onofre–but it also should raise concerns about the repairs, refurbishments and retrofits at dozens of other domestic facilities.

And it also provides another object lesson on the real costs of nuclear power. To put it in context, the San Onofre makeover cost $135 million more than the much-maligned federal loan guarantee extended in 2009 to the now-defunct solar panel manufacturer Solyndra Corporation. (And, unlike it could ever be for a nuclear loan guarantee, the federal government will recoup most of the Solyndra money when company assets are sold.)

Atomic energy advocates will argue that while construction costs are high, once built, nuclear plants run pretty much round-the-clock–24/7/365, as they say.

Except, of course, as the events just described or any of the dozens of other incidents documented here over the last year show, they don’t. Right now, SONGS is generating zero power. None. The same can be said for Wolf Creek, and one of the two reactors at Byron. The Palisades plant in Michigan was shut down five times last year. Ohio’s Davis-Besse facility, offline much of 2011 because of major repairs and a series of questions about cracks in the reactor building, was just given the green light to restart by the NRC, despite the objections of many nuclear watchdogs and US Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH).

Reactors at North Anna, VA, Calvert Cliffs, MD, and Fort Calhoun, NE, were all offline for substantial amounts of time in 2011. A swarm of jellyfish took out Florida’s St. Lucie nuclear plant for several days last summer, and Crystal River, also in Florida, has not produced so much as a single kilowatt in almost two-and-a-half years. And it likely won’t produce any more until 2014 at the earliest, assuming Florida ratepayers pony up another $2.5 billion for repairs.

All of which again underscores that nuclear power is not just phenomenally expensive in every phase of its life, it is an expense always born by ratepayers and taxpayers. And that, of course, just refers to the financial costs.

Those tritium leaks will take some toll on the health of residents in regions near Byron and SONGS, though it will debated just how much. Less debatable now–thanks to a French study released, yes, in January–the everyday dangers of having a nuclear facility in your general area:

In a report certain to cause fear and loathing in the global nuclear industry, an eminent French research institute published a study in the International Journal of Cancer, which notes increased rates of leukemia in children living close to French nuclear power plants (NPPs.)

How much greater?

The study by the Institut National de la Sante et de la Recherche Medicale (French Institute of Health and Medical Research, or INSERM) found a leukemia rate twice as high among children under the age of 15 living within a 3.1-mile radius of France’s 19 nuclear power plants.

France, of course, has a universal health plan, so those costs will directly hit their national budget. The US does not embrace a similar level of responsibility for the health of its citizens, but the costs of increased numbers of childhood cancers will ripple through the economy all the same (well, in reality, even more then all the same).

Still feeling nuclear power’s worst year is behind it?

But, wait, there’s more–a sort of microcosmic calamity to put a grace note on nuclear’s macro-farce: A few days before the leak and the revelations about tube decay, an Edison employee at San Onofre fell into a fuel storage pool while trying to retrieve a dropped flashlight. The worker was not injured in the fall, though he did ingest some unspecified amount of radioactive water–but (and you know what’s coming here. . . wait for it. . . wait for it) SCE said the man “did not suffer harmful radiation exposure.”

Welcome to 2012. One mensis horribilis down, 11 to go.

The War on Gregory Jaczko: Attempt at NRC Coup Evidence of Bigger Problems

NRC, nuclear

NRC Chair Gregory Jaczko (photo: Gabrielle Pffaflin/TalkMediaNews)

Readers of this space know that the pace of safety reforms for America’s nuclear facilities, especially in the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima disaster, has been alarmingly slow. The recalcitrance–if not active hostility–exhibited by the nuclear operators and their government handmaidens borders on the criminal. So, it might sound more than a little bit shocking to hear that the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, is now under attack. . . for trying to implement new safety standards too quickly.

That’s not how House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) is putting it, of course. In doublespeak that would make Orwell proud, Issa has written to the White House, issued a report, and fallen just shy of calling for Jaczko’s head:

“The current Chairman, through his blatant disregard for the Commission and its core beliefs, is testing this resolve,” the report says. “The NRC has survived thus far but the cracks are forming and all symptoms point to catastrophe.”

The report comes several days after Issa released a mid-October letter from the NRC commissioners to the White House that alleges that Jaczko is causing “serious damage” to the agency that could harm the body’s ability to protect health and safety.

The reality, of course, is that Issa–who has summoned Jaczko and fellow commissioners to appear at hearings this very day–has a vested interest in obstructing new health and safety rules, and the hubbub and hearings he is now orchestrating do not in any way focus on post-Fukushima lessons learned, unless that lesson is that the nuclear industry must engage a full-court press to preserve their privilege and profits in light of a new global awareness of the true cost and real dangers of nuclear power.

Since taking the gavel at Oversight, Issa has used his authority to disrupt government’s regulatory roll in the service of his corporate benefactors. In the case of the nuclear industry, Issa’s district includes the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), and Edison International, which owns nearly 80 percent of SONGS through its subsidiary, Southern California Edison, is Issa’s third largest source of career campaign contributions:

[Edison's] political action committee has given Issa’s campaigns $46,000 over the years, including $5,500 during the last cycle. The PAC has also given $10,000 to Issa’s own PACs.

A company–in this case a nominally public utility–paying the piper and calling the tune is, sadly, not necessarily breaking news in 21st Century American politics, but when it comes to the nuclear sector, the level of influence and the nakedness of the quid pro quo should offend everyone.

And the ties don’t stop at the electoral level. Many regulators today come with strong connections to the industries they are supposed to regulate, but few demonstrate a closer relationship or a more unsettling affinity for their private-sector counterparts than NRC commissioner William Magwood, IV.

As reported in October, Bill Magwood, an Obama appointee, spent many years in the Bush administration’s Department of Energy as director of the Office of Nuclear Energy. During that time, Magwood was alleged to have had regular private meetings with Marvin Fertel, then-Senior Vice President and now President and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the lobbying arm of the nuclear power industry. (Not, coincidently, Fertel is quoted in several of this week’s stories hostile to Greg Jaczko.) FOIA requests were filed for records of those meetings, but Magwood’s email correspondence and calendars were destroyed just one month after he left the DOE in 2005.

After leaving the Bush administration, Magwood formed a consulting firm, Advanced Energy Strategies, which had as clients many of the nuclear power companies he dealt with at the Department of Energy and is now tasked with regulating as a commissioner at the NRC. One of those clients, as was uncovered this week by The Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim, was TEPCO, the Japanese power consortium that officially still owns and operates the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility. And that’s not all:

Magwood’s recent client list makes up a who’s who of Japanese power and nuclear companies, and included CLSA Japan Equities Division, the Federation of Electrical Power Companies in Japan (FEPC), IBT Corporation, Marubeni Corporation, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, RW Beck, Sumitomo Corporation and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, which was roundly criticized for its response to the crisis.

It is Jaczko’s use of his authority to push for new rules based on the post-Fukushima Near-Term Task Force (NTTF) recommendations that reportedly triggered the discord that motivated Issa’s current attack. But the controversy is deeper and more complicated.

First, Magwood and other NRC commissioners were vocally differing with Chairman Jaczko before the Fukushima nightmare started. Most notably, some of the commissioners and much of the nuclear industry were upset when Jaczko removed the unfinished Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility from the NRC budget after President Obama announced an end to the troubled Nevada dumpsite. Magwood was a strong proponent of Yucca Mountain during his years at the DOE and after, when he worked in the private sector. US nuclear facilities face a spent-fuel disposal crisis, and desperately need the federal government to take the hazardous waste off their hands.

Second, though the commissioners’ complaint was written and delivered to the White House in October, it was only made public by Rep. Issa last Friday. A slot usually reserved for news dumps seems like bad timing if Issa and his allies wanted to create a splash, unless you consider that Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) had planned to release a report on Monday showing how NRC commissioners had coordinated with pro-nuclear legislators to slow or stop post-Fukushima safety reforms. Markey’s report (PDF) includes emails revealing commissioner Magwood and staffers for pro-nuclear Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) worked together to discredit Jaczko for taking the lead on the US regulatory response to Fukushima.

Magwood, it should be noted, is thought to be next in line for NRC chief, if attempts to unseat Jaczko are successful.

Still, as internecine as all this sounds, this story would be easier to grasp if it were a simple tale of strong regulators vs. industry shills. Alas, as has often been the subject of these columns, the Jaczko-led NRC is far from the zealous industry antagonist depicted in pro-nuclear critiques. While Greg Jaczko might be the most regulation-friendly member of the current commission, his positions and policies are hardly progressive.

Those post-Fukushima recommendations, while all positive moves, are still weak tea when compared with the crisis that motivated the report. The speed at which they will be adopted–if they are ever adopted–can only be described as glacial. Despite Jaczko’s expressed wish that post-Fukushima realities be considered in the design, licensing and re-licensing of US reactors, the approvals of new construction and the renewals of operating licenses for aged reactors continue without any additional, Fukushima-influenced requirements. Further, disturbing domestic nuclear power events have not been met with the level of scrutiny they deserve.

November alone saw the approval of new reactors in South Texas, the refusal to consider the Fukushima report in the proposed relicensing of Seabrook, and reactor restarts of the quake-damaged North Anna facility and of the troubled Davis-Besse plant, even after its owner was forced to admit the presence of new cracks in its reactor building.

In October interviews, Jaczko expressed an interest in increased safety, but he also hid behind a regulatory process that quite plainly was not accomplishing his stated goals. The chairman also made assertions about the lifespan of reactors and the long-term safety of on-site spent-fuel storage that seemed cavalier and contrary to both existing evidence and current science.

While Jaczko might wish to see the Fukushima taskforce recommendations become rules, his pronouncements on the need for progress were weaker than the demands made by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) before her Environment and Public Works Committee (one of the committees charged with oversight of the NRC) during August hearings on the NTTF report:

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.

. . . .

Boxer, to her credit, vowed to hold hearings every 90 days to push for action on the task force report.

The decision to stop construction on the Yucca Mountain waste facility, while the right one, was as much a victory for NIMBY politics as it was for progressive values. Indeed, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid (D), long an opponent of putting a nuclear dump in his state, was once Jaczko’s boss. The end of Yucca Mountain and Jaczko’s NRC job likely owe much to Reid’s early support of Obama in 2008.

Now Reid and Obama (through his Chief of Staff, Bill Daley) have come out for Jaczko again. But is this enough to counter the nuclear industry’s attempt at a coup?

While it would not be a surprise to see “no drama” Obama–who has benefitted greatly from nuclear industry campaign contributions–abandon his NRC chief, especially in the run-up to the 2012 election, it would be more difficult if anyone outside the Beltway felt moved to fight on Jaczko’s behalf.

It’s been the same story for Democrats for years now–Jaczko’s fight is just the latest example. Democrats from the president on down have repeatedly leaned right, disheartening and alienating their activist base, while gaining no measurable concessions from Republican opponents. Nothing Jaczko has done to appease the nuclear industry (or their government surrogates) has made them like him any more–to them, any regulator is a bad regulator. The nuclear lobby wants their loan guarantees, their tax breaks, and their Price-Anderson indemnity without any strings attached.

While it is very possible that any chair that replaces Jaczko will be even friendlier to the nuclear industry, there still exists little pro-Jaczko excitement on the left. Fukushima is a signal moment (well, in actuality, it is a never-ending series of signal moments), one that demands a much broader rethink of US nuclear policy than the regulatory tweaks in the taskforce report. If Jaczko and his elected allies want to energize America’s very-energize-able anti-nuclear community, then they need to seize the Fukushima moment with more than a proposal that better backup power systems be in place at some nuclear plants by 2016.

In the wake of the Japanese earthquake, the nuclear industry mobilized to secure their bottom line. Before there were recommendations to oppose, the industry had a plan in place to oppose them. If Jaczko and his backers want to see a mobilized response to this industry putsch, then they have to give people something to fight for. They can’t just make a few ripples and hope pro-nuclear forces will let it go; Jaczko, and Markey, and Boxer–and any others in government that grasp the meaning of nuclear’s “annus horribilis“–have to make waves.

Gregory Jaczko Has a Cold

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko (photo: pennstatelive)

In April 1966, Esquire Magazine published a story by Gay Talese that is still considered one of the greatest magazine articles of all time; the article, the cover story, was titled “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”

The piece, still very much worth the read, says much about celebrity, journalism, and, of course, celebrity journalism, but germane here is a point Talese makes early on: for most people, having a cold is a trivial matter–after all, it’s called the “common” cold–but when a man, a cultural icon, a giant of stage and screen like Sinatra (remember, this is 1966) has a cold, well. . . .

Frank Sinatra with a cold is a big deal. It affects him, his mood, his ability to perform, and so it affects his friends, his entourage, his personal staff of 75, his audience, and perhaps a part of the greater popular culture. In other words, as Talese wants you to understand, in this case, a cold is anything but trivial.

Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, made some comments to the press earlier this week. Jaczko, it seems, is worried. He believes, as noted in an Associated Press story, that “U.S. nuclear plant operators have become complacent, just nine months after the nuclear disaster in Japan.” The NRC head thinks that a slew of events at over a dozen domestic nuclear facilities reveal the safety of America’s reactors to be something less than optimal.

To be clear, safety concerns at any kind of plant, be it a soda bottler or a microchip manufacturer, are probably not trivial, but when the safe and secure operation of a nuclear facility comes into question–as the aftermath of Chernobyl or the ongoing crisis in Japan will tell you–it ratchets up concern to a whole different level. So, when the man who more or less serves as the chief safety officer for the entirety of the nation’s nuclear infrastructure says he’s worried, many, many other people should be worried, too.

To put it another way, Greg Jaczko has a cold.

But that’s not the scariest part.

When Frank Sinatra had a cold, he knew he had a cold–pretty much everyone knew he had a cold. It was unpleasant for all of them, but forewarned is forearmed. Jaczko, though, doesn’t know–or won’t acknowledge–he’s sick. As relayed by the AP:

Jaczko said he was not ready to declare a decline in safety performance at U.S. plants, but said problems were serious enough to indicate a “precursor” to a performance decline.

Pardon my acronym, but WTF does “‘precursor’ to a performance decline” mean?

It sounds like a way to talk about erectile dysfunction, but perhaps a more accurate analogy is to say that Greg Jaczko has just told us that, yes, actually, you can be a little bit pregnant.

Of course, that is not true. Either safety–with regards to protocols, equipment and people–is up to snuff, or it is not. As Jaczko observes–and the many “unusual events” he has had to deal with this year make clear–the safety of America’s nuclear reactors is not where it needs to be:

Mr. Jaczko said the NRC has noticed an increase in “possible declines in performance” at some U.S. nuclear facilities, including instances of human error that almost exposed workers to high levels of radiation. He said a number of nuclear plants have experienced safety challenges in recent months, and that two of the plants were having significant issues.

The chairman’s classic understatement here is magnified by the Wall Street Journal. Beyond the fact that “possible declines in performance” means flat-out “declines in performance,” the human error referred to here didn’t “almost” expose workers to high levels of radiation–the accidents at Cooper Nuclear Station in Nebraska and the Perry Nuclear Power Plant in Ohio most definitively exposed workers to high (and possibly dangerously high) levels of radiation.

And the two plants having significant issues–which would those be? Would they be Crystal River in Florida, where news of a third major crack in the containment building recently came to light, and Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun, which is still shut down after flooding earlier this year? Or might they be New Hampshire’s Seabrook, where crumbling concrete was discovered in November, a month after the plant had to shut down because of low water levels, and Vermont Yankee, where radioactive tritium continues to leak into the Connecticut River?

Or maybe Jaczko was referencing North Anna, which of course scrammed when the Mineral Springs, VA, earthquake shook the reactors well in excess of their designed tolerances. Or maybe he’s including Calvert Cliffs in Maryland, where a piece of siding blown off by Hurricane Irene shorted a transformer, and the resulting loss of power to safety systems caused its reactor to scram. And who can forget Michigan’s Palisades nuclear power plant, which had to vent radioactive steam when it scrammed after worker error triggered a series of electrical issues?

Is it possible the NRC head was thinking of the constantly troubled Davis-Besse plant near Toledo, Ohio? Probably not–since the Commission just (as in 4:40 PM on Friday, December 2) okayed a restart there, despite serious concerns about numerous cracks in its shield building. But perhaps Jaczko should think again–on December 7, one day after the reactor restart, FirstEnergy, Davis-Besse’s operator, admitted that they had withheld news of new cracks on a different part of the structure, which were discovered in November. (FirstEnergy says that they only withheld the information from the public, and that they did report it to regulators–which raises grave questions about the honesty, independence and competency of the NRC and how it could approve a restart.)

Representative Dennis Kucinich, by the way, is thinking of Davis-Besse. The Ohio Democrat had called for public hearings in advance of the restart, and is now criticizing both FirstEnergy and the NRC for their lack of candor about the new cracking.

Kucinich appears to understand something that Jaczko does not: when it comes to oversight of the nuclear industry, there is no room for even the germ of a doubt.

To extend the illness-as-metaphor metaphor a little further, there is a construction often used to imply the broadly felt repercussions of a single action or a major actor: When “x” sneezes, “y” catches a cold. The phrase is believed to have started during the worldwide depression that spread after the U.S. stock market crash of 1929–as in, “When America sneezes, the whole world catches cold.” The cliché has come back into vogue during the last three years of global economic tumult, but it could easily be adapted to the ongoing perils of nuclear power.

On November 26, the Asahi Shimbun gave the world another measure of just how big a disaster the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility has become:

Radioactive substances from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant have now been confirmed in all prefectures, including Uruma, Okinawa Prefecture, about 1,700 kilometers from the plant, according to the science ministry.

The ministry said it concluded the radioactive substances came from the stricken nuclear plant because, in all cases, they contained cesium-134, which has short half-life of two years.

Before the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake, radioactive substance were barely detectable in most areas.

Or, it could be said, when Fukushima sneezed, all of Japan caught a cold.

And not just Japan, of course. Fallout from Fukushima has drifted halfway around the world. Radioactive isotopes directly linked to Japan’s crippled reactors have been detected in milk and vegetables across the U.S. and Canada. And the Pacific Ocean, too, has been contaminated–and continues to be more so. December brings news of new leaks sending more radioactive runoff from the Japanese reactors into the sea. Tens of thousands of tons of overspill have already flowed into the waters around Japan’s northeastern coast–bringing levels of radioactivity to thousands of times what is considered acceptable–and TEPCO, still nominally the Fukushima’s operator, just had to scrap plans to dump untold tons more after protests from Japanese, Chinese, and Korean fishing concerns. (The contaminated water, still collecting at the plant at a rate of 200 to 500 tons a day, will exceed the facility’s 155,000-ton storage capacity by March.)

The effects of bioaccumulation–as dangerous isotopes move with global tides, and contaminated fish (and their contaminated predators) migrate–presents scientists with a long-term research project where much of the world’s population will serve as unwilling subjects.

And, as has been noted here many times, the crisis is far from over. Even TEPCO’s own conservative (or is that “dishonest?”) models now confirm a core melt-through in reactor 1. TEPCO officials insist that somehow they will cool the surrounding steel or concrete enough to stop the molten corium from going further, but the architect of Fukushima Daiichi Reactor 3, Uehara Haruo, sees things very differently. As relayed by Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear, Haruo says:

It is only a matter of time before the molten core, at least of Unit 1–if not Units 2 and 3–does reach ground water, and if it hits it right. . . you’re going to have a powerful steam explosion.

And, as Kamps explains, that steam explosion will again send massive amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. As longtime nuclear activists Paul Gunter recently put it, “It’s pins and needles time,” implying that while much is unknown about what is going on inside the destroyed reactors, nothing indicates TEPCO is gaining the upper hand on this dire situation.

Yet, with all this–with the spreading fallout, the continuing radioactive water leaks, and the real threat of what so many refer to as a “China Syndrome” event–NRC Chair Jaczko worries that the U.S. nuclear industry has become complacent about the safety gaps highlighted by the Fukushima disaster. Given the evidence–and given that the NRC itself spent all summer studying the crisis and drafting recommendations based on “lessons learned”–it is hard to believe complacency is really the problem. It is probably even too generous to say that the industry suffers from willful ignorance. No, when considering the contagion spreading from Japan and the coughs and hiccups that are practically weekly here in the United States, it is probably more accurate to say that the profit-driven, government-protected nuclear sector is actively callous.

The risks, after all, of the nuclear business model are not borne by power companies. In the U.S., federal loan guarantees, state tax breaks and utility rate hikes insulate nuclear operators from the costs of slipshod construction, poor training, and malign management. Even without that, perhaps the only lesson the domestic nuclear industry will choose to learn from Fukushima is that when a catastrophe like this happens, the government is given no choice but to step in. (Beyond the price of the cleanup, and the healthcare and relocation of those in severely contaminated regions, note how TEPCO’s stock price fell all week after word leaked that the Japanese Government would buy $13 billion worth of new shares.)

So, what’s a chief regulator to do? Given the overwhelming evidence of industry arrogance in the face of real danger, Jaczko could have an “I am Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” moment, seize his birthright, as it were, and actually demand compliance from the industry he has been tasked to oversee–but, judging from his tone in many interviews, and the continuing approvals of new and renewed operating licenses, it seems more like the NRC chief will remain the Hamlet of the first four acts of the play.

WWSD–What Would Sinatra Do? Read through the Esquire piece and see how, despite his froggy throat and foul mood, Sinatra takes control of his world. In the end, as Sinatra drives his Karmann Ghia down a sunny LA street, a pedestrian sees him through the windshield and stares, wondering, “Could it be? Is it?” Sinatra, knowing he has done what needed to be done–and done it well–stares back, as if to confidently say, “Yes, it is.”

Gregory Jaczko would do well to read (or maybe re-read–who knows?) “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Even if his nuclear rat pack won’t learn the lessons of Fukushima, the NRC chairman could learn a thing or two from the Chairman of the Board. Let’s hope Jaczko does so before his cold gets worse–because the possibility of another Fukushima, here in the United States, is nothing to sneeze at.

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

In the immediate aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that triggered the horrific and ongoing disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power generating station, President Barack Obama went out on a bit of a limb, striking a tone markedly different from his fellow leaders in the industrialized world. Speaking about Japan and its effect on America’s energy future–once within days of the quake, and again later in March–the president made a point of reassuring Americans that his commitment to nuclear power would stay strong. While countries like Germany and Japan–both more dependent on nuclear power than the US–took Fukushima as a sign that it was time to move away from nuclear, Obama wanted to win the future with the same entrenched industry that so generously donated to his winning the 2008 election.

But a funny thing happened on the way to winning our energy future–namely, our energy present.

As November drew to a close, an article on AOL Energy (yes, it seems AOL has an energy page) declared 2011 to be “nuclear’s annus horribilis“:

March 2011 brought the 9.0 magnitude earthquake off northeastern Japan that sparked a tsunami whose waves may have exceeded 45 feet. Tokyo Electric Power Company’s oldest nuclear station, Fukushima Daiichi, apparently survived the earthquake, but its four oldest reactors didn’t survive that wall of water. Nuclear experts are still figuring out what all went wrong, and tens of thousands still haven’t returned home as Japanese authorities try to decontaminate radioactive hot spots.

In April, massive tornadoes that devastated the southeast swept near the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry plant.

In June, droughts sparked wildfires across the Southwest, including one that threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where nuclear weapons materials are stored.

June also brought record floods across the upper Midwest. For weeks Omaha Public Power District’s Fort Calhoun nuclear plant was essentially an island.

August saw the 5.8 magnitude Virginia earthquake just 11 miles from Dominion Energy’s North Anna plant. The plant shut safely, and returned to service mid-November after extensive checks found no damage even though ground motion briefly exceeded the plant’s design.

That list, as readers of this space will no doubt note, is far from complete. This year has also seen serious events at nuclear plants in California, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire and Ohio. But, perhaps even more troubling is the strangely positive tone of the piece.

Despite its ominous headline, it seems the message is: “Yeah, lots of nasty business in 2011, but 2011 is almost over. We got through it and no one died (at least no one in the US), so. . . problem solved!” It’s an attitude absurd on its face, of course, the passage of time is not the friend of America’s aging nuclear infrastructure–quite the opposite–but it is also a point that can’t survive the week in which it was made.

Take North Anna, for example. Yes, it is true that the NRC signed off on a restart in the waning hours of November 11, but the two generators at Dominion’s plant were not back at full power till November 28 because there was indeed damage–some of which was not discovered until after the restart process began.

A week earlier, a fire at Ohio’s crippled Davis-Besse facility cut ventilation to the reactor control room. A faulty valve in a pipe sending water to the reactor core leaked on an electrical switchbox, triggering an electrical arc, which started the fire. This could have been a potentially catastrophic emergency. . . had the reactor not been shut down seven weeks earlier to replace an already once previously replaced, corroded, 82-ton reactor lid. This “transplant operation” revealed a 30-foot crack in the concrete shield building that will require a separate repair program. . . which will in no way be completed before the end of the year.

The day after that fire, November 20, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Progress Energy’s Crystal River nuclear power plant in Citrus County, Florida, had discovered a 12-foot by 4-foot crack and crumbled concrete in its containment building in late July, but failed to notify the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This was a patently intentional omission, as Progress Energy was already reporting to the NRC about repairs to two other major cracks in the same building dating back to October 2009 and March 2011.

The Crystal River story is long and sordid. The containment building cracked first during its construction in 1976. That crack was in the dome, and was linked to a lack of steel reinforcement. Most nuclear plants use four layers of steel reinforcement; Crystal River used only one. The walls were built as shoddily as the dome.

The latest problems started when Crystal River needed to replace the steam generator inside the containment building. Rather than use an engineering firm like Bechtel or SGT–the companies that had done the previous 34 such replacements in the US–Progress decided it would save a few bucks and do the job itself.

Over the objections of on-site workers, Progress used a different method than the industry standard to cut into the containment building. . . and that’s when this new cracking began. It appears that every attempt since to repair the cracks has only led to new “delamination” (as the industry calls it).

At this point, most have determined that the best plan going forward is to tear down the substandard structure and build a properly reinforced new one, but Progress thinks they have a better idea. Crystal River’s operator is trying to replace the wall panels–all six of them–one by one.

Funny enough, the cost of this never-before-tried retrofit is about the same as the cost of a whole new building. But the full rebuild would take more time–and there’s the rub.

Every day that Crystal River is offline costs Progress money because they have to buy energy to replace what they agreed to provide to the region from this nuclear facility. Each year that the plant is offline is said to cost $300 million. The price tag on this little cracking problem so far–not counting the actual costs of the repair–is $670 million.

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

Customers will pay $140 million next year so Progress Energy Florida can buy electricity from other sources while a nuclear plant remains shut down for repairs.

Consumer advocates opposed the power replacement charge, which will take effect Jan. 1, but it won unanimous approval Tuesday from the five-member Florida Public Service Commission.

The panel’s decision is a prelude to a determination next year whether a portion of the repair costs should be passed on to customers or paid in full by the company’s investors owing to problems that have delayed the work. The Crystal River plant was closed for repairs in 2009 but now isn’t expected to reopen until 2014. That’s about three years later than initially expected.

The repair bill is expected to total $2.5 billion. The utility wants customers to pay $670 million, or about a quarter of that amount.

Interesting how that $670 million exactly mirrors the replacement energy costs through today. Students of the Florida Public Service Commission would probably be skeptical that the bailout will really stop there–remember, Florida residents already pay a surcharge on their utility bills for possible (but in no way guaranteed) future nuclear power construction.

And to say that it’s all about the money would not be pure speculation. As the St. Petersburg Times reports, while the good people at Crystal River failed to notify the NRC (or the Public Service Commission) about their latest troubles in a timely fashion, Progress Energy didn’t dare keep secrets from the US Securities and Exchange Commission. On August 8, the same day it neglected to mention the new cracks in a report to the PSC, Progress filed its annual report to the SEC and stated “additional cracking or delaminations may have occurred or could occur during the repair process.”

Given the many revelations of just how casual SEC enforcement can be, it is disturbing to think a nuclear provider had more to worry about from the SEC than from the NRC, the agency given direct oversight of nuclear plant licensing and safety.

Disturbing, but not surprising. This year has also revealed the cozy relationship between the nuclear industry and the NRC. An AP exposé made that clear over the summer, but one need look no further than the AOL Energy story:

[Nuclear Energy Institute CEO Marvin] Fertel said the industry and NRC are “in very good alignment” on the issues raised by 2011 events. The concern for utilities is the “cumulative impact” of new rules, he said, and making sure they’re ranked so plant staffs attack those with the most safety benefit first and the cost is manageable.

The government and the industry agree–safety must be addressed with an eye toward cost. And the tens of millions of Americans living in the shadow of a nuclear reactor will see just what this means as the watered-down post-Fukushima recommendations are slowly proposed and implemented–with little fully required of plant operators before 2016.

Indeed, the global nuclear industry is proceeding not just as if it is business as usual–when it comes to the United States, manufacturers of nuclear plant components are already betting on a new wave of reactor construction. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Yomiuri Shimbun reported that Toshiba Corp. is preparing to export turbine equipment to the US.

The turbines are for Toshiba-owned Westinghouse Electric Company-designed AP1000 reactors proposed for sites in Georgia and South Carolina. As previously reported, the AP1000 is a new reactor design–a new design that has not yet officially been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Still, the operators of the plants have already started to procure the equipment.

All of which raises the question, how is it that, in an age when credit is so hard to come by, an industry so focused on the bottom line feels secure in moving forward with commitments on a plan that is still officially going through the regulatory pipeline?

The assurances come from the top, and so does the money.

In contrast to pledges to, say, close Guantanamo or give Americans a public health insurance option, when it comes to nuclear power, Barack Obama is as good as his word. In February, Obama pledged $8.33 billion in federal loan guarantees to Southern Co., the operator of Georgia’s Plant Vogtle, the proposed home of two new AP1000 reactors. Again, this pledge came in advance of any approval of the design or licensing of the construction.

So, perhaps the nuclear industry is right to feel their “annus horribilis” is behind them, at least when it comes to their business plans. And with the all-too-common “privatize the profits, socialize the risks” way the utilities are allowed to do business, one might even doubt this last annus was really that horribilis for them at all.

But for the rest of us, the extant and potential problems of nuclear power are not limited to any particular period of time. The dangers of nuclear waste, of course, are measured in tens of thousands of years, the Fukushima crisis is lived by millions every minute, and the natural disasters, “events” and accidents that plague an aging, expensive and insufficiently regulated American nuclear industry are an anytime, anywhere reminder that future cannot be won by repeating the mistakes of the past.

NRC Gives OK for Restart of Damaged North Anna Nuclear Plant

North Anna Nuclear Generating Station (photo: dougward)

In what feels like a Friday news dump that goes to 11, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has given its approval to restart Dominion Virginia Power’s North Anna nuclear power facility. The decision came late in the day on a holiday–Veterans Day, 11/11/11.

As previously noted, the reactors at North Anna scrammed during the Mineral, VA earthquake of August 23. It was later shown the power plant sustained shaking well beyond its design criteria. Several spent fuel storage casks moved one to four inches, and other storage containers showed what was termed cosmetic damage (namely, cracks), but plant operators contend that the nuclear reactors sustained no “functional” damage.

What constitutes “functional” now remains to be seen. The fact is there was no official protocol–no “checklist”–for evaluating a nuclear facility after it experienced a seismic event such as this. The NRC’s inspectors have essentially been inventing that inspection regime on the fly as they surveyed the North Anna plant. Dominion has been pressing for permission to restart since shortly after the quake.

Of concern, beyond the cracks and dancing dry casks, has been the integrity of the containment buildings and, more specifically, the pipes and couplings that ensure that the reactors can be properly cooled once the cores are allowed to again heat up. Questions about the state of underground pipes were expressed right after the earthquake by watchdogs such as Paul Gunter, and those same buried pipes were cited as recently as last week when explaining the ongoing delay to the restart OK.

North Anna’s reactors were initially thought to have shut down when the cooling systems lost power from the electrical grid, soon after the Virginia quake. Three backup diesel generators provided power to the safety systems until power could be restored (a fourth generator failed). Later, however, it was discovered that the shaking itself caused the reactors to scram–a fast emergency shutdown sometimes compared to slamming the brakes on a speeding car.

How the NRC and its inspectors resolved questions about what constituted a passing grade after a never-before-seen event remains to be seen. Until then, it appears the NRC will do the regulatory equivalent of keeping its fingers crossed:

Eric Leeds, director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, said in a statement. “We’re satisfied the plant meets our requirements to restart safely, and we’ll monitor Dominion’s ongoing tests and inspections during startup of both reactors.”

Let’s hope inspectors work holidays.

NRC Chair Jaczko: Events Like Fukushima Too Rare to Require Immediate Changes

NRC, nuclear

NRC Chair Gregory Jaczko (photo: Gabrielle Pffaflin/TalkMediaNews)

For those that think nothing has changed in United States regulation since the Japanese earthquake and tsunami started the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility, think again. The pre-disaster mentality of “What could possibly go wrong?” has been replaced with reassurances that “Stuff like that hardly ever happens!”

At least that is the impression conveyed by the current chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, in a pair of early October interviews. During two NRC-sponsored events, Jaczko fielded questions first from nuclear industry professionals and those considered friendly to the expansion of nuclear power, and then, in a separate session two days later, responded to representatives from public interest groups and other individuals generally seen as opposed to nuclear energy.

While the tone of the questions differed somewhat predictably in the two sessions, Chairman Jaczko’s attitude did not. Jaczko took several opportunities to praise the NRC staff and the processes and protocols used by the commission, repeating in both panels that the primary duty of his agency is ensuring the safety of nuclear facilities in the United States.

Beyond his broad assurances and patient, capable demeanor, however, many of the chairman’s assertions about both the NRC process and the progress being made toward his stated safety goals highlighted notable contradictions and troubling biases inherent in America’s nuclear regulatory regime.

To be fair, the pre-Fukushima outlook was not exactly “What could possibly go wrong?” In terms of the types of accidents and the repercussions of contamination, containment breaches, radioactive releases, meltdowns, melt-throughs, and a host of other undesirable situations, regulators and industry insiders alike were probably quite aware of what could go wrong. But as US nuclear proponents and profiteers strove to convey the impression of an informed industry, they also moved to downplay the threats to public safety and made sure to stress that, when it came to disaster scenarios, they had it covered.

If the disaster in Japan has proven one thing, though, it is that plant operators and nuclear regulators didn’t have it covered. Events (or combinations of events) that were either not foreseen or not acknowledged leave Japan scrambling to this day to understand and mitigate an ever-evolving catastrophe that has contaminated land and sea, and exposed yet-untallied thousands of Japanese to dangerous levels of radiation. “As we saw in Fukushima,” said Jaczko, “accidents still do happen in this industry. If we are thinking that they can’t, we are in a dangerous place.”

But for US nuclear regulators, there needn’t be any sense of urgency–or so believes the NRC chair. When asked why the agency doesn’t hold up plant relicensing until new standards that include lessons learned from the Japanese disaster are in place, Jaczko expressed confidence in the current system:

Bottom line is that changes get made at a plant. . . some changes will be made quickly, some may take years. It doesn’t matter where a plant is [in the process]–what is the licensing phase–but that changes get made. These are low frequency events, so we have some leeway.

It is a posture Jaczko took again and again in what totaled over two-and-a-half hours of Q&A–accidents are very, very rare. Given the history of nuclear power, especially the very recent history, his attitude is as surprising as it is disturbing. Beyond the depressingly obvious major disasters in nuclear’s short history, unusual events and external challenges now manifest almost weekly in America’s ageing nuclear infrastructure. The tornado that scrammed Browns Ferry, the flooding at Fort Calhoun, the earthquake that scrammed the reactors and moved storage casks at North Anna and posed problems for ten other facilities, and Hurricane Irene, which required a number of plants to take precautions and scrammed Calvert Cliffs when a transformer blew due to flying debris–all are external hazards that affected US facilities in 2011. Add to that two leaks and an electrical accident at Palisades, stuck valves at Diablo Canyon, and failures in the reactor head at oft-troubled Davis Besse, and the notion that dangerous events at nuclear facilities are few and far between doesn’t pass the laugh test.

That these “lesser” events have not resulted in any meltdowns or dirty explosions does nothing to minimize the potential harm of a more serious accident, as has been all too vividly demonstrated in Japan. The frequency or infrequency of “Level 7″ disasters (the most severe event rating–so far given to both Chernobyl and Fukushima) cannot be used to paper-over inadequate safeguards when the repercussions of these catastrophes are so great and last for generations.

Storage concerns don’t concern

Chairman Jaczko’s seeming ease with passing current problems on to future generations was also in evidence as he discussed mid- and long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel. Though previously a proponent of an accelerated transfer of spent fuel from pools to dry casks, Jaczko now says, post-Fukushima, he has “no scientific evidence that one method is safer than the other.” The chairman made a point of noting that some dry casks at Virginia’s North Anna plant moved during the August earthquake, but said that it will be well over a year before we can evaluate what happened to wet and dry storage systems at Fukushima.

While it is true a full understanding will have to wait until after Daiichi is stabilized and decontaminated, it is already apparent that the spent fuel pools, which require a power source to actively circulate water and keep the stored fuel cool, posed dangers that in some ways rivaled the problems with the reactors. (So far, no Japanese plants have reported any problems with their dry casks.) So obvious was this shortcoming, that the NRC’s own staff review actually added a proposal to the Fukushima taskforce report, recommending that US plants take more fuel out of wet storage and move it to dry.

Jaczko’s newfound indifference is also odd in light of his own comments about dry casks as an alternative to a central nuclear waste repository. Asked in both sessions about the closing of Yucca Mountain (the proposed US site for spent nuclear fuel), the chairman buoyantly championed the possibility of using on-site dry casks for hundreds of years:

The commission is taking the appropriate action to address the storage of spent fuel. We have come to the conclusion that, over the short- and medium-term, safe storage is possible. We are taking a look at what is the finite limit on current [dry] storage. . . 200, 300, 400 years. Is there a time we have to move the fuel? . . . Nothing tells us we shouldn’t generate the [radioactive] material. We don’t see a safety concern out 100 years, or anything that says at 101 years, everything changes.

Chairman Jaczko then added that while the nuclear industry is generating waste that will require “long, long term storage or isolation,” it is not unprecedented to assume this problem can be taken care of by “future generations.”

It is good that Jaczko has such faith in the future, because his depiction of the present is not actually that impressive. While the NRC chief repeatedly touted their “process” for evaluating risks, problems, and proposals, he also painted a picture of a bureaucracy that has so far failed to fully act on the initiatives he has considered most important. Neither the fire-safety improvements Jaczko has championed since he came to the commission in 2005, nor the security enhancements required after 9/11/2001 have as yet been fully implemented.

Process is everything

Time and again, whether he was directly challenged by a question or simply asked for clarification, Gregory Jaczko referred to the NRC’s “process.” “We have a relicensing process,” “there is an existing process [for evaluating seismic risk],” there is a process for determining evacuation zones, there is a process for incorporating lessons learned from Fukushima, and there is a process for evaluating new reactor designs. Process, of course, is not a bad thing–in fact, it is good to have codified protocols for evaluating safety and compliance–but stating that there is a process is not the same thing as addressing the result. Too often, what might have sounded like a reasonable answer from the chairman was, in reality, a deflection. “The process knows all; trust in the process. I cannot say what will happen, and what I want to happen does not matter–there is a process.” (This, of course, is a dramatization, not a direct quote.) Form over functionary.

But Jaczko had barely started his second session when his reliance on process suffered an “unusual event,” as it were.

Asked about why the NRC seemed to be moving full-speed ahead with relicensing, rather than pausing to wait for Fukushima taskforce recommendations to be formalized, the agency chief first said, “There is an existing program, there are processes.” But within a breath, Jaczko then said, when it comes to lessons learned from Fukushima being some sort of prerequisite for final license approval, “We are going to look on a case-by-case basis.”

Is deciding whether to apply new requirements on a “case-by-case basis” actually a process? Many would say it pretty much defines the opposite.

The counter-intuitive also took a star turn when it came time to consider new externalities and pending environmental impact surveys. Shouldn’t the Fukushima taskforce findings be considered as part of a series of new environmental impact studies? Well. . . “It is clearly new information, but does it affect the environmental impact survey? Because they are very, very low likelihood events, it is not part of the environmental impact survey.” Jaczko here seems to be saying that unless you know in advance of the new study that the new information will alter the findings, you do not need to consider new information.

Shocked, shocked

With such confidence in the commission and its process, would it be safe to assume that Greg Jaczko is comfortable with the current state of nuclear safety in the United States? Perhaps surprisingly, and to his credit, the NRC head seems to say “no.”

As previously discussed, Jaczko expected faster action on fire safety and security upgrades. He also defended his going public with complaints about design problems with the AP1000 reactors proposed for Plant Vogtle:

We had been going back and forth with [AP1000 designer] Westinghouse for two years. I felt [a lack of] openness; felt if you aired the issues, they get addressed. Now, I feel it was. . . addressed. It ultimately forced these issues to get resolved.

Chairman Jaczko was also asked what tech issues keep him up at night:

Those components that are not replaceable, not easily inspectable. Those subjected to repeated exposure to high radiation, stresses that cause high degradation.

Jaczko said he felt the commission had a handle on what radiation does to the concrete in the containment vessel, but he was less sure about the effect of “shock,” which he defined as “repeated power trips” or scrams. Jaczko acknowledged that this increases stress on the containment vessels, and added, “Some places will not have 20 years [left] on pressure vessels. We get into an unknown piece of regulation on pressure vessel repair.”

That is a pretty stark revelation from a man so passionate about his agency’s ability to, uh, process new data, but it highlights another facet of Jaczko’s approach to regulation.

Noting that New Jersey’s Oyster Creek reactor was granted a renewed operating license for 20 years, but its operator later negotiated with the state to shut it down in 10 years, Jaczko said, “Extension is an authorization to operate, not a requirement to operate.” Relicensing, he said, might come with requirements for modifications or orders that they “monitor aging.”

Jaczko also said that states or facilities might decide it is not economically viable to keep a plant running for the full length of its license, “Like if you have a car and the clutch goes and you make a decision not to replace it.”

How to regulate, even without the Regulatory Commission

Yes, another deeply flawed automobile analogy, but note that Jaczko allows for, and maybe even expects, limits to a plant’s life that are not regulated by the NRC. And in detailing such, the chief regulator of the US nuclear industry shows where citizens might exercise leverage when his NRC fails.

First, there is that issue of economic viability. As previously discussed, the market has already rendered its verdict on nuclear power. In fact, it would be absolutely impossible to build or operate a nuclear plant without loan guarantees, tax breaks, and subsidies from the federal government. The new construction at Vogtle is projected to cost nearly $15 billion (and these plants always go way over budget), and the Obama administration has had to pledge $8.33 billion in loan guarantees to get the ball rolling. Without that federal backstop, there would be no licensing battle because there wouldn’t be the possibility of the reactors getting built.

In fact, in this time of questionable nuclear safety, deficit peacockery and phony Solyndra outrage, it is illustrative to note:

. . . in FY2010 alone, $2.82 billion went to natural gas and petroleum interests (through direct expenditures, tax expenditures, research and development funds, and loan guarantees), $2.49 billion to nuclear energy interests and $1.13 billion to solar interests.

Would any of the relicensing and new construction applications be before Jaczko’s NRC if the energy-sector playing field were leveled?

Second, at many points in the interview, federal regulator Jaczko referenced the power of the states. Early in the “pro” nuclear session, an anxious question expressed worry that states such as Vermont could play a role in the relicensing of reactors. While stating it was yet to be determined whether Vermont’s authority overlapped with the NRC, its chairman stated plainly that states do play a role. “States decide what kind of generating sources they use,” Jaczko said, “especially if the state has a public utility.”

When asked in the second panel if the NRC considers whether new rules or licensing delays will cause rate hikes for consumers, Jaczko said the final determination on rates was the purview of a state’s public utilities commission:

If the PUC denies charges, then they won’t get our approval to go forward–but if the PUC denies a rate change, they [the plant operators] still have to make the improvement required.

And when discussing how the NRC draws evacuation zones, Chairman Jaczko said that in the end, it was the responsibility of the state and local governments, acting on data from the utilities and advice from the NRC, to determine where, when and how to evacuate in case of a nuclear accident.

And, yes, that does sound again like some of the buck-passing that marked too much of these interviews, but it is also a roadmap for a possible detour around a recalcitrant or captured federal agency. If activists feel shut out of the regulatory process, they can attack the funding. If federal elected officials are not responsive (because they, too, have been captured by a deep-pocketed nuclear industry), concerned citizens can hit closer to home. As Jaczko says, states can choose their power sources, and states can define evacuation protocols that either better insure public safety or reveal continued operation of nuclear facilities to be untenable.

Such action would not be easy–state and local officials have their own interests and conflicts–but it might prove easier than a broad federal play. Recent successes by those seeking to close aging coal-fired generators show that action at the individual plant level is possible.

Open to openness

For anything to happen, of course, it is important that a dedicated and passionate citizenry organize around a tactic, or, if they prefer, a process. But it will also require a level of openness on the part of government. Sometimes that openness is offered, sometimes it is hard won, but without transparency, progress is hard to make and hard to measure.

Gregory Jaczko repeatedly stated that he is a big advocate of openness, and he offered these interviews in that spirit. These two events obviously didn’t go all the way in that direction–not even close–but the sessions had merit. Chairman Jaczko, despite all the problems detailed above, can still be admired for exhibiting something rather rare in today’s political climate, a regulator that actually believes in regulation. He, in fact, conveys a passion for it. That some of that regulation is based on flawed assumptions, and that much of it is weak or never enforced, cannot be ignored, but if the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission advocates for the regulatory process (even when hiding behind it), then there is at least a process to improve.

* * *

A version of this story was previously posted on Truthout.

The Party Line – September 30, 2011: No Will, No Way: Nuclear Problems Persist, But US Fails to Seize Fukushima Moment

As September drew to a close, residents of southwest Michigan found themselves taking in a little extra tritium, thanks to their daily habit of breathing (h/t emptywheel). The tritium was courtesy of the 40-year-old Palisades Nuclear Generating Station in Covert Township, which suffered its third “event” (as they are politely called) in less than two months, and was forced to vent an indeterminate amount of radioactive steam.

The reactor at Palisades was forced to scram after an accident caused an electrical arc in a transformer in the DC system that powers “indications and controls“–also known as monitoring devices, meters and safety valves. (Transformer arcs seem to be “in” this season–it was a transformer arc that caused the Calvert Cliffs plant in Maryland to scram during Hurricane Irene.)

While it is nice to see rectors shut themselves down when a vital system goes offline, remember that “turning off” a fission reactor is not like flicking a light switch. Shutting down a reactor is a process, and the faster it is done, the more strain it puts on the reactor and its safety and cooling systems. And even after fission is mitigated, a reactor core generates heat that requires a fully functional cooling system.

Which is kind of an interesting point when considering that Palisades had just been restarted after completing repairs to a breach in the cooling system that was reported to be leaking more than 10 gallons per minute. Prior to that, a “special inspection” was ordered August 9 after a pipe coupling in the plant’s cooling system failed.

(By the way, have no fear, Michiganders, a public affairs representative for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reassured the public that the concentration of tritium was “far below regulatory releases,” and that “as soon as it goes out, it gets diluted further.” You know, in the air. . . that you breathe.)

News of the Palisades tritium burp came at roughly the same time as a breathless (if a press release can be breathless) announcement from Dominion Resources, the folks responsible for the North Anna nuclear plant, the facility that scrammed after being shaken beyond design specifications by the earthquake centered in nearby Mineral, Virginia:

Our investigation showed the units tripped before the loss of off-site power when multiple reactor sensors detected a slight power reduction in the reactors. . . .

The root cause team determined that this occurred as result of vibration in the reactor or the monitoring devices in the reactors, or both.

Again, good that the reactors scrammed when something registered the quake, but noteworthy again because it was previously believed that the automatic shutdown started as a result of a loss of power–power required to operate the cooling systems, not only for the reactors, but for the spent fuel pools, as well.

While North Anna remains offline as the NRC continues its inspection (and tries to decide what would constitute passing that inspection), and Palisades is also down pending an (another) investigation, both serve as only the latest in a long string of examples in what could be called The Light Water Paradox: In order to safely generate a steady stream of electricity, a light water reactor needs a steady stream of electricity.

This is not just a perpetual motion machine laugh line. This inherent flaw in the design of LWRs is at the root of two other prominent tales of nuclear safety (or lack thereof).

The first, of course, is the ongoing, ever-metastasizing disaster in Japan, where failures in the cooling systems at Fukushima Daiichi following a massive earthquake and tsunami resulted in hydrogen explosions, core meltdowns, and, likely, melt-throughs that contaminated and continue to poison sizable portions of the country and surrounding sea.

The second story concerns the proposal for the construction of two new reactors at Plant Vogtle, a nuclear power facility near Augusta, Georgia.

The Vogtle reactors would be the first to be built in the US in a generation, and they have come under some additional scrutiny in part because they would be the first of a new-design LWR called the AP1000. A riff on previous Toshiba/Westinghouse pressurized water reactors, the AP1000′s most noticeable “innovations” are meant to address the active cooling paradox. First, it has emergency “dump tanks,” reservoirs of water situated above the reactor that could, in an emergency, empty into the reactor via gravity, providing up to 72 hours of “passive” cooling. Second, rather than housing the core in a reinforced concrete shell with a metal liner, the AP1000 would have an all-steel containment vessel which would, in theory, be able to expel heat through convection.

While these two design features both highlight and attempt to address a dangerous flaw that is a part of every other nuclear facility in the United States–that water has to be actively cycled through a reactor core to keep it from melting–the design still predates the Fukushima quake, and fails to truly incorporate the lessons of that disaster.

The massive March 11 earthquake shutdown power to the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and thus the cooling systems, and the tsunami that followed flooded the diesel-powered backup generators, but that was only part of the problem. Investigations now show that even if Fukushima had in some way managed to maintain power, the cooling system would still likely have failed for at least some (and likely all) of the reactors, and (and this is important) for the spent fuel pools, as well. That is because the quake not only caused a loss of power, it also caused numerous breaches in the cooling system. Cracks in the containment vessel, broken pipes, and dislodged couplings would have likely resulted in a calamitous drop in water levels, even with full power. Less than successful attempts to restore the cooling systems with new, external power sources, and the large amounts of contaminated water that continue to pour from the plant, have demonstrated just how severely the physical infrastructure was damaged.

There are additional concerns about the design of the AP1000 (possible corrosion of the all-metal containment vessel and less than rigorous computer modeling of seismic tolerances, for instance), but, in a post-Fukushima world, simply addressing the active/passive cooling problem (and only doing so for the reactor and not the spent fuel pools) does not promise a safe nuclear facility.

And there is, perhaps, a hint that at least one of the members of the NRC understands this:

The chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the agency may need to incorporate its findings about a nuclear disaster in Japan into a license to build a new nuclear plant in Georgia.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said Wednesday [September 28] he believes the license to build two more reactors at Plant Vogtle near Augusta should include conditions that reflect the findings of a review of this year’s disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.

While it is true that “may” and “should” are not “will” and “must,” and it is also the case that the Fukushima taskforce recommendations themselves do not fully address the problem outlined here, Chairman Jaczko’s comments do make the point that there are indeed lessons to be learned from the Japanese crisis, and right now, in the US, that education has not taken place.

The chairman and his fellow commissioners have wrestled all summer with the pace of post-Fukushima reform. Jaczko has argued for what in NRC terms is considered a speedy consideration of the new safety regime, but a majority of the panel has managed to slow the process down to a point where no new regulations will likely be in place by the time the NRC is required to rule on the Vogtle permits.

But, because the Vogtle hearings have revealed the Chairman’s understanding of at least some of the problems, it also reveals an obvious path for Jaczko and those (such as Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA)) who would also want any new construction or operating permits to only be approved under guidelines drafted in response to the Fukushima disaster. If the industry–and the commissioners most friendly to it–wants to move quickly ahead on new construction and the relicensing of 40-year-old plants, then it should be required that they move quickly on adopting the Fukushima taskforce recommendations. No new safety rules, no new permits–the political calculus should be that simple.

And, if the NRC won’t do the political math, then it should be up to elected government to run the financial numbers.

Building the new Vogtle reactors is projected to cost $14.8 billion. That’s projected–the existing Vogtle plant went over budget by a factor of 14. But even if the new reactors stay on budget, there is still no way they would get built without help from the Federal Government. To that end, the Obama administration okayed an $8.33 billion loan guarantee for The Southern Company, owners of Plant Vogtle, contingent on the NRC’s approval of the plans. (By way of comparison, that is 16 times the size of the loan given to the now-defunct solar technology company Solyndra.) While there are a myriad of reasons why that and other such guarantees should never be proffered, at minimum, the federal government should now freeze the financial backing for new construction until the NRC passes–and industry adopts–an enhanced safety regime.

This wouldn’t be a one-shot power play. Hot on the heals of Vogtle, the V.C. Summer nuclear facility in South Carolina is also looking to add two new AP1000 reactors, and its permit process is also underway. And financial markets understand what a bad bet that project is, too. Summer is also owned by Southern, but it is operated by SCANA. Moody’s, the bond-rating agency, just downgraded SCANA’s debt to one notch above “junk” status, citing the cost of the proposed new reactors.

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth of Virginia has handed over $7 million in precious state funds to North Carolina’s Babcock & Wilcox to open a prototype of a small modular reactor (SMR) in the town of Forest, near Lynchburg. The SMR is small, indeed–160 megawatts (in contrast to the 1,800 megawatt capability of Virginia’s North Anna plant)–and it’s built entirely underground, supposedly enhancing its safety when faced with a potential terrorist attack. How it will provide greater protection from an earthquake or flood seems (at best) less obvious.

Yet, with all of this action, all of these new designs, all of this lobbying, and all of this (as “serious” people repeatedly caution) scarce government money, still no one is addressing another part of the nuclear equation: spent fuel. With Yucca Mountain now (supposedly) abandoned, the United States has no long-term plan for handling the already large and ever-growing problem of dangerous spent nuclear fuel. Right now, each nuclear facility stores its used fuel in either pools, dry casks, or both. The spent fuel pools require an active cooling system, which faces most of the same problems inherent in reactor cooling. Dry casks–used for fuel that is cool enough to remove from the pools–are considered safer, but they are far from “safe.” They are above ground, emit some radiation, and are theoretically vulnerable to terrorist attack (and the casks at North Anna moved and sustained “cosmetic” cracks in the August earthquake). In many US plants, both pools and casks are already filled to capacity. Expanding the number of nuclear reactors only accelerates the storage crisis.

And it must be reiterated, all of this activity comes a mere six months after the start of the Fukushima disaster. The latest announcement from the Japanese government–that they will relax the evacuation order for more than 100,000 residents even though their towns have not yet been decontaminated–says nothing about an easing of the emergency, and everything about a government that frankly just doesn’t know what else to do. The United States, though obviously larger, has reactors near enough to densely populated areas that a nuclear accident would make Japan’s evacuation problem seem like a rush hour fender bender. And the US government’s plan to deal with a nuclear disaster is no more impressive than Japan’s.

The saddest part, of course, is that it needn’t be that way. Beyond the political and financial tools proposed above, the NRC actually already has the power to demand the nuclear industry own up to the new seismic reality. When Westinghouse Electric came before the commission in May, it was ordered to fix its seismic calculations. Though Westinghouse grumbled, it did not question the NRC’s authority to rule on seismic concerns.

David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, agrees that the NRC has all the authority it needs:

Nuclear regulators already have “sufficient information and knowledge” to deal with earthquake risks at existing U.S. reactors and don’t need to wait for a broader review, a safety advocate said.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission developed seismic rules for new plants in 1996 and has since approved preliminary construction for proposed nuclear units at a Southern Co. plant in Georgia and certified an early reactor design by Toshiba Corp.’s Westinghouse Electric unit, according to comments filed with the agency today by David Lochbaum. . . .

“If the NRC truly lacks sufficient information about seismic hazards and how safety at nuclear power reactors is affected, then the agency cannot responsibly have issued early site permits and certified new reactor designs,” he said.

Of course, having the authority and exercising it are not the same thing, but just as the NRC is not truly handcuffed by the fight over the Fukushima taskforce recommendations, the entire country need not be shackled to such a flawed, dangerous and expensive energy source as nuclear. The US government has demonstrated that it has the authority to make decisions on energy sources, and it has shown that it actually has the money to invest–big money. Of course, be it the NRC, Congress or President Obama, when it comes to moving beyond nuclear to demonstrably safer and truly renewable sources, what the US has not shown is the will.

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Correction: Last week’s post included the wrong location for the Seabrook nuclear plant; Seabrook is in New Hampshire. Apologies and thanks to the readers that spotted the error.

The Party Line – September 9, 2011: Shaken, But Still Not Stirred

Sunday, September 11, will of course be the tenth anniversary of a tragedy that fundamentally changed America in ways we are still trying to understand. But this 9/11 is also a day for other anniversaries, ones that will likely get little, if any, recognition in the US.

In 1985, for instance, September 11 saw a Keystone Kops-like collection of miscues during a test of the remote shutdown protocols at the Limerick Generating Station, a boiling water nuclear reactor outside of Philadelphia. During the shutdown, a valve on a cooling system failed to open, and attempts to manually open the valve were met by a locked door, and a call for a key, which, after a 15-minute wait, turned out to be the wrong key. Once the proper key was found and the door was opened, the operators found the valve’s hand wheel chained and padlocked to prevent accidental opening. Those keys were in the abandoned control room. Bolt cutters had to be used before the operators could finally open the valve.

All that time, the reactor core’s temperature was increasing. Fortunately, the test was done during startup, when decay heat is relatively low, so control rods were able to slow the reaction enough to provide time to overcome the multiple barriers to opening the valve. Had the plant been operating at full power when this series of problems occurred, the outcome would likely have not been so rosy.

September 11 will also mark six months since the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck northern Japan triggered a series of cataclysmic failures at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex. That accident provides no amusing anecdotes or happy endings, but those horrible events should provide a loud wakeup call and numerous object lessons for nuclear power programs across the globe.

As previously noted, the Japanese nightmare and domestic political realities have spurred German Prime Minister Angela Merkel to announce a rather rapid phase out of her country’s nuclear plants. The Japanese government, too, has spoken of turning away from nuclear power and toward renewable alternatives.

But here in the United States, six months on from Japan’s quake, there are no such proclamations or pledges–if anything, quite the contrary–and almost no movement on even the most incremental of recommendations.

In the face of lessons still not learned, a trio of nuclear experts gathered in Washington, DC on September 8 to highlight key concerns that still have not been addressed six months after the start of the world’s worst nuclear accident. Included on the list are several issues discussed in this space since the Fukushima quake (this is a partial and edited list–please use the link for more concerns and more explanation):

The U.S. regulatory response since Fukushima has been inadequate. “Six months after Fukushima, it seems clear that the U.S. is not going to undertake the type of fundamental, no-holds-barred look at its nuclear regulatory practices that followed the much less serious accident at Three Mile Island some 30 years ago.”

America should avoid post-9/11 mistakes in tightening reactor safety standards. “In responding to Fukushima by issuing orders, the NRC should not make the same mistakes as it did following 9/11, when industry stonewalling delayed implementation of critical security measures for many years. Even today, some post 9/11 security upgrades have not been completed at numerous plants. . . . The U.S. must respond to Fukushima in a much more comprehensive way or it may soon face an accident even worse than Fukushima.”

The U.S. was warned of Fukushima-style problems but failed to act … and is still failing to do so. “U.S. reactors have some of the shortcomings of the Fukushima plants. Furthermore, citizen groups and scientists had tried to call one of these – spent fuel pool vulnerability — to Nuclear Regulatory Commission attention during the last decade. The NRC dismissed these efforts. . . . Without a root cause analysis of its own failure to heed the now validated warnings about spent fuel pools, the NRC may patch the technical problems revealed by Fukushima, but it won’t fix the underlying shortcomings that allow defects to persist until catastrophic events rather than regulatory vigilance force the nuclear industry and the public to face up to them.”

Emergency planning zones in the U.S. must be expanded. “In contrast to the [NRC] Task Force conclusions, we believe that emergency planning zones should be expanded, certain hydrogen control measures should be immediately enforced and spent fuel transfer to dry casks should be accelerated. Also, the safety margins of new reactors need to be reassessed.”

The recent East Coast earthquake should spur more NRC safety analysis. “The earthquake near the North Anna nuclear plant, which reportedly exceeded the plant’s seismic design basis, reinforces the urgency of the NRC Fukushima task force’s recommendation that all plants immediately be reviewed for their vulnerability to seismic and flooding hazards based on the best available information today.”

To that last point, as noted before, the earthquake that struck Mineral, VA in late August should have moved US nuclear regulators to quickly adopt the recommendations of the Fukushima task force. Well, the quake doesn’t seem to have moved the NRC much, but it did move some things, like most of the 117-ton dry storage casks at the North Anna facility. . . and, as we now have learned, pretty much everything else there:

Last month’s record earthquake in the eastern United States may have shaken a Virginia nuclear plant twice as hard as it was designed to withstand, a spokesman for the nuclear safety regulator said on Thursday.

Dominion Resources told the regulator that the ground under the plant exceeded its “design basis” — the first time an operating U.S. plant has experienced such a milestone. . . .

That a facility experienced such a milestone is now known because, over two weeks after the fact, data from the so-called “shake plates” has finally been released (almost a week after it was expected):

“We are currently thinking that at the higher frequencies, the peak acceleration was around 0.26″ g, which is a unit of gravity that measures the impact of shaking on buildings, said Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesman.

The plant was designed to withstand 0.12 g of horizontal ground force for parts that sit on rock, and 0.18 g for parts that sit on soil, Burnell said.

Dominion’s sensors recorded average horizontal ground force of 0.13 g in an east-west direction and 0.175 g in a north-south direction, officials said.

The apparent discrepancy seems to stem from the distance between instruments used by the US Geological Survey and those cited by North Anna’s operator, Dominion, but even taking the smaller numbers, the design limits of the plant were exceeded.

Dominion officials have been quick to point out that even though some things have moved and some structures show cracks, those changes are merely cosmetic and in no way dangerous. But nuclear engineer John H. Bickel says that vessels and pipes are not the first things to go in a quake:

[A]n analysis of plants hit by earthquakes had shown that the most vulnerable components were ceramic insulators on high-voltage lines that supply the plants with power and electrical relays, which resemble industrial-strength circuit-breakers and switches.

Even if the relays are not damaged, they might be shaken so that they change positions, cutting off the flow of electricity or allowing it to flow without any command from an operator.

As previously noted (with more than a hint of irony), in order to safely generate electrical power, nuclear plants need an uninterrupted supply of electrical power. Without electricity, cooling systems and important monitors in both the reactors and spent fuel storage pools cannot function. Without effective cooling, nuclear facilities are looking at a series of disasters like the ones encountered at Fukushima Daiichi. That the most quake-vulnerable components directly affect a nuclear plant’s power supply is yet another data point underscoring the urgent need to review and enhance seismic safety at US facilities.

But even before that nation-wide examination can take place, the damage to the shaken North Anna plant needs to be surveyed and analyzed so that Dominion might restart its reactors. What does Dominion need to show in order to get the thumbs up, what criteria need to be met, what repairs or retrofits should be required? To paraphrase the head of the NRC: Who knows?

In an interview last week, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko told Reuters it was unclear what the plant would need to show to resume operations because it is the first time an operating plant has sustained a beyond-design-basis quake.

As Hurricane Irene revealed the lack of national guidelines for what to do in the face of an approaching storm, the Virginia earthquake has shown that the United States has no regulatory regime for learning, analyzing, or acting on data from events that exceed the often-negotiated-down design parameters of its nuclear facilities.

In fact, the NRC does not even have a post-quake inspection protocol. Inspections of North Anna are being done according to procedural guidelines drawn up by the Electric Power Research Institute, “a nonprofit utility consortium that has inspected dozens of industrial plants hit by earthquakes around the world.”

Yes, the nuclear industry has written its own post-event checklist, and, in the absence of any other standard, is left alone to use it.

That sort of self-policing leads to some noteworthy analysis, like this from a nuclear industry attorney: “You shake something really hard, and it’s not designed to be shaken that hard — it doesn’t mean that it’s broken.”

But there is something even more disturbing, if that is possible, propagated by the weak regulations and weak-willed regulators. It leaves space for arguments like this one from that same industry lawyer:

The incident helps make the case for new-generation nuclear plants, which have additional safety features. . . . “If you can have a car from 2011 vs. a car from 1978, what are you going to put your toddler in?”

Beyond the fact that no one is actually suggesting the 1978 plants get traded in for newer models (just augmented with them), cars have to compete for consumer dollars in a way that nuclear plants do not. Nuclear plants could not be built, fueled, operated or maintained without massive subsidies, loan guarantees, and infrastructure commitments from the federal government.

Also of note, a 2011 automobile is safer and more efficient than a 1978 model because of government regulation. The auto industry has fought improvements like mandatory airbags, three-point restraints, and CAFE standards, but a strong government imposed those requirements anyway. And your toddler is safer in that car because the Consumer Product Safety Commission reviews the design of child car seats, and laws mandate their use.

Where the comparison does work, however, is that both represent a false choice. Just as a car is not the only way to transport a toddler, nuclear plants are not the only means by which to generate power. And in 2011, there are many more choices, and many safer choices, than there were in 1978.

Which recalls the important contrast between a country such as Germany–which, faced with a restive electorate and lessons to be learned from Japan’s misfortune, has made a commitment to not just trade in nuclear but trade up to renewable alternatives–and the US, where corporate influence and politics as usual have left the government with seemingly few options beyond willful ignorance and calcification.

Even without recognition of the Japan quake’s semi-anniversary, September 11 will probably be a tense day for most Americans, especially those with personal connections to the events of ten years ago. But while remembrance will be hard, it will mostly be so because of an event now relegated to history.

Residents of Japan, still living with an ongoing and ever-evolving threat, cannot so neatly define their anguish. And if there is a message to be found in this coincidental concurrence of dates, it perhaps springs from there. While Americans can debate what could have been done to prevent the attacks of 9/11/2001, it is a debate held in hindsight. For the Japanese dealing with the aftermath of their disaster, hindsight still seems like a luxury to be enjoyed very far in the future.

But, for the United States, a debate about what can be done to prevent a Fukushima-like disaster here is theoretically blessed, both because it is a debate that can be had before the next crisis, and because it is a debate that can be informed by events. And experience, science, economics and common sense are all pretty clear on what needs to be done.