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.

Yule Fuel

Yes, it’s time for that metaphor again. If you grew up near a TV during the 1960s or ’70s, you probably remember the ever-burning Yule Log that took the place of programming for a large portion of Christmas Day. The fire burned, it seemed, perpetually, never appearing to consume the log, never dimming, and never, as best the kid who stared at the television could tell, ever repeating.

Now, if you have been watching this space about as intently as I once stared at that video hearth, perhaps you are thinking that this eternal flame is about to reveal itself as a stand-in for nuclear power. You know, the theoretically bottomless, seemingly self-sustaining, present yet distant, ethereal energy source that’s clean, safe and too cheap to meter. Behold: a source of warmth and light that lasts forever!

Yeah. . . you wish! Or, at least you’d wish if you were a part of the nuclear industry or one of its purchased proxies.

But wishing does not make it so. A quick look at the US commercial reactor fleet proves there is nothing perpetual or predictable about this supposedly dependable power source.

Both reactors at San Onofre have been offline for almost a year, after a radioactive leak revealed dangerously worn heat transfer tubes. Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun plant has been shutdown since April of 2011, initially because of flooding from the Missouri River, but now because of a long list of safety issues. And it has been 39 months since Florida’s Crystal River reactor has generated even a single kilowatt, thanks to a disastrously botched repair to its containment that has still not been put right.

October’s Hurricane Sandy triggered scrams at two eastern nuclear plants, and induced an alert at New Jersey’s Oyster Creek reactor because flooding threatened spent fuel storage. Other damage discovered at Oyster Creek after the storm, kept the facility offline for five weeks more.

Another plant that scrammed during Sandy, New York’s Nine Mile Point, is offline again (for the third, or is it the fourth time since the superstorm?), this time because of a containment leak. (Yes, a containment leak!)

Other plants that have seen substantial, unplanned interruptions in power generation this year include Indian Point, Davis-Besse, Diablo Canyon, Hope Creek, Calvert Cliffs, Byron, St. Lucie, Pilgrim, Millstone, Susquehanna, Prairie Island, Palisades. . . honestly, the list can–and does–go on and on. . . and on. Atom-heads love to excuse the mammoth capital investments and decades-long lead times needed to get nuclear power plants online by saying, “yeah, but once up, they are like, 24/7/365. . . dude!”

Except, of course, as 2012–or any other year–proves, they are very, very far from anything like that. . . dude.

So, no, that forever-flame on the YuleTube is not a good metaphor for nuclear power. It is, however, a pretty good reminder of the still going, still growing problem of nuclear waste.

December saw the 70th anniversary of the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, and the 30th anniversary of the first Nuclear Waste Policy Act. If the 40-year difference in those anniversaries strikes you as a bit long, well, you don’t know the half of it. (In the coming weeks, I hope to say more about this.) At present, the United States nuclear power establishment is straining to cope with a mountain of high-level radioactive waste now exceeding 70,000 tons. And with each year, the country will add approximately 2,000 more tons to the pile.

And all of this waste, sitting in spent fuel pools and above-ground dry casks– supposedly temporary storage–at nuclear facilities across the US, will remain extremely toxic for generations. . . for thousands and thousands of generations.

There is still no viable plan to dispose of any of this waste, but the nation’s creaky reactor fleet continues to make it. And with each refueling, another load is shoehorned into overcrowded onsite storage, increasing the problem, and increasing the danger of spent fuel accidents, including, believe it or not, a type of fire that cannot be extinguished with water.

So, if you want to stare at a burning log and think about something, think about how that log is not so unlike a nuclear fuel assembly exposed to air for a day or two. . . or think of how, even if it is not actually burning, the high levels of radiation tossed out from those uranium “logs” will create heat and headaches for hundreds of thousands of yuletides to come.

Oh, and, if you are still staring at the Yule log on a cathode ray tube television, don’t sit too close. . . because, you know, radiation.

Merry Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Superstorm Sandy Shows Nuclear Plants Who’s Boss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alert Declared at Oyster Creek Nuclear Plant

Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station (photo courtesy of NRC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s nice, but hardly the point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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A version of this story was previously posted on Truthout.