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.

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

You know that expression, “Hotter than July?” Well, this July, July was hotter than July. Depending on what part of the country you live in, it was upwards of three degrees hotter this July than the 20th Century average. Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis and St. Louis are each “on a pace to shatter their all-time monthly heat records.” And “when the thermometer goes way up and the weather is sizzling hot,” as the Cole Porter song goes, demand for electricity goes way up, too.

During this peak period, wouldn’t it be great to know that you can depend on the expensive infrastructure your government and, frankly, you as ratepayers and taxpayers have been backstopping all these years? Yeah, that would be great. . . so would an energy source that was truly clean, safe, and too cheap to meter. Alas, to the surprise of no one (at least no one who watches this space), nuclear power, the origin of that catchy if not quite Porter-esque tripartite promise, cannot.

Take, for example, Braidwood, the nuclear facility that supplies much of Chicago with electricity:

It was so hot last week, a twin-unit nuclear plant in northeastern Illinois had to get special permission to continue operating after the temperature of the water in its cooling pond rose to 102 degrees.

It was the second such request from the plant, Braidwood, which opened 26 years ago. When it was new, the plant had permission to run as long as the temperature of its cooling water pond, a 2,500-acre lake in a former strip mine, remained below 98 degrees; in 2000 it got permission to raise the limit to 100 degrees.

The problem, said Craig Nesbit, a spokesman for Exelon, which owns the plant, is not only the hot days, but the hot nights. In normal weather, the water in the lake heats up during the day but cools down at night; lately, nighttime temperatures have been in the 90s, so the water does not cool.

But simply getting permission to suck in hotter water does not make the problem go away. When any thermoelectric plant (that includes nuclear, coal and some gas) has to use water warmer than design parameters, the cooling is less effective, and that loss of cooling potential means that plants need to dial down their output to keep from overheating and damaging core components. Exelon said it needed special dispensation to keep Braidwood running because of the increased demand for electricity during heat waves such as the one seen this July, but missing from the statement is that the very design of Braidwood means that it will run less efficiently and supply less power during hot weather.

Also missing from Exelon’s rationale is that they failed to meet one of the basic criteria for their exception:

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And climate predictions have only grown more dire since then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crystal River Nuclear Generating Plant, Unit 3, 80 miles north of Tampa, FL. (photo: U.S. NRC)

Crystal River is back in the news. Regular readers will recall when last we visited Progress Energy Florida’s (PEF) troubled nuclear reactor it was, shall we say, hooked on crack:

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

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

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

Sara Barczak of CleanEnergy Footprints provides more detail on the last couple of years:

The Crystal River reactor has been plagued with problems ever since PEF self-managed a steam generation replacement project in September 2009. The replacement project was intended to last 3 months, until PEF informed the Commission that it had cracked the containment structure during the detensioning phase of the project. PEF subsequently announced that the CR3 reactor would be repaired and back in service by the 3rd quarter of 2010…then by the 4th quarter of 2010…and then by the first quarter of 2011. On March 15, 2011 PEF informed the Commission that it had cracked the reactor again during the retensioning process and subsequently told the Commission that it estimated repair costs of $1.3 billion and a return to service in 2014. Shortly thereafter, the Humpty Dumpty Crystal River reactor suffered yet another crack on July 26, 2011.

That July crack was later revealed to be 12-feet long and 4-feet wide–and here, at least when it came to notifying the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “later” means much later. . . like four months later.

The issue, of course–as anyone with a lifetime crack habit will tell you–is that this all gets very expensive. Not only is there the cost of the repairs. . . and the repairs to the repairs. . . and the repairs to the repairs to the repairs. . . there is the cost of replacing the energy that was supposed to be supplied to PEF customers by the crippled reactor.

And then there is the cost of the new reactors. . . .

Wait, what?

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

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

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

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

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

It is supposed to be a win for consumers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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