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.

End-of-Summer News Puts Nuclear Renaissance on Permanent Vacation

Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, Units 1 & 2, near Lusby Maryland. (photo: NRCgov)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission cannot issue a license for the construction and operation of a new nuclear reactor in Maryland–that is the ruling of the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) handed down Thursday.

In their decision, the ASLB agreed with intervenors that the Calvert Cliffs 3 reactor project planned for the shores of Chesapeake Bay violated the Atomic Energy Act’s prohibition against “foreign ownership, control, or domination.” UniStar, the parent company for the proposal, is wholly owned by French energy giant Électricité de France (EDF).

EDF had originally partnered with Constellation Energy, the operator of two existing Calvert Cliffs reactors, but Constellation pulled out of the project in 2010. At the time, Constellation balked at government requirements that Constellation put $880 million down on a federal loan guarantee of $7.6 billion (about 12 percent). Constellation wanted to risk no more than one or two percent of their own capital, terms the feds were then willing to meet if Constellation and EDF could guarantee the plant’s completion. Constellation also found that requirement too onerous.

Constellation has since been purchased by Exelon.

The ASLB decision technically gives EDF 60 days to find a new American partner, but given the history and the current state of the energy market, new suitors seem highly unlikely. It marks only the second time a license has been denied by the ASLB. (The first, for the Byron, Illinois plant in 1984 was overturned on appeal. Byron opened the next year, and Illinois’s groundwater has never been the same.) The NRC also declined to grant a license to the South Texas Project late last year when US-based NRG Energy (corporate ID courtesy of the Department of Redundancy Department) pulled out of the project, leaving Japanese-owned Toshiba as the only stakeholder.

The Calvert Cliffs intervenors were led by the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), which has been fighting Calvert Cliffs 3 almost since its inception. NIRS was joined by Beyond Nuclear, Public Citizen and Southern Maryland CARES.

Michael Mariotte, Executive director of NIRS, called Thursday’s decision “a blow to the so-called ‘nuclear renaissance,'” noting that back in 2007, when permit requests were submitted for Calvert Cliffs 3, the project was considered the “flagship” of a coming fleet of new reactors. “Now,” said Mariotte, “it is a symbol for the deservedly failed revival of nuclear power in the US.”

A symbol, yes, but far from the only symbol.

Earlier in the week, Exelon notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it would withdraw its application for an “early site permit” for a proposed nuclear facility near Victoria, Texas. A combined construction and operating license was originally sought for two reactors back in 2008, but by 2010, with demand down and nuclear costs continuing to skyrocket, Exelon backed off that request, essentially downgrading it to “just keeping a toe in the water” status.

Now, with the price of a new nuke plant climbing higher still–even though the economy remains sluggish–and with natural gas prices continuing to fall, that toe has been toweled dry. “Today’s withdrawal brings an end to all project activity,” said an Exelon statement issued Tuesday.

And on Monday, the operators of the troubled San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station let it be known that they would start removing the radioactive fuel from Unit 3 sometime in September. Unit 3 has been offline since it scrammed after a heat exchange tube leaked radioactive steam at the end of January. Later inspection revealed that numerous tubes on the unit, as well as on its previously shut-down twin, showed alarming and dangerous amounts of wear.

Removing the fuel rods all-but-confirms what most experts already knew: SONGS 3 will never come back online. Southern California Edison, the plant’s majority operator, might not want to admit that, but earlier in August, SCE announced plans for 730 layoffs, roughly a third of the plant’s workforce. That size of reduction makes repairing, testing and restarting both San Onofre reactors unfeasible. Or, to look at it through the other end of the telescope, as David Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists put it, “reducing the scope of required work at the jobsite is a good thing to do before discharging workers.”

Mothballing Unit 3 will reduce the workload, but with the entire facility offline for most of this year, SONGS is already an economic sinkhole. Strangely, despite failing to generate a single kilowatt of energy in eight months, SCE and co-owner San Diego Gas & Electric have continued to collect $54 million of revenue every month from California ratepayers.

The California Public Utilities Commission has to investigate rate cuts when a plant fails to deliver for nine months (so, officially, November and December, for the two SONGS reactors), but that process would start sooner if it were determined that a reactor would never come back into service. Neither San Onofre reactor will restart before the end of the year, and it is now clearer than a San Diego summer sky that the number 3 reactor never will. Scientists know this, engineers know this, utilities commissioners know this, and even Southern California Edison knows this–but SCE won’t say it because that would hasten the start of rate rollbacks.

Calvert Cliffs being in the news this time of year also calls to mind how well nuclear plants do in hurricanes. . . as in, not very well at all. Last year, as Hurricane Irene marched up the Atlantic coast, the two existing reactors at Calvert Cliffs had to scram when a dislodged piece of siding caused a short in the main transformer and an “unanticipated explosion within the Protected Area resulting in visible damage to permanent structures or equipment.”

As fate would have it, this year’s “I” storm, Isaac, necessitated the shutdown of Entergy’s Waterford plant, outside of New Orleans. In fact, many plants are required to shutdown when facing winds in excess of 74 mph, “rendering them,” as Beyond Nuclear put it, “a liability, rather than an asset during a natural disaster.”

And Hurricane Isaac was but one possible symptom of a warming climate that has proven problematic for nuclear plants this summer. Braidwood, Illinois and Millstone in Connecticut had to curtail output or temporarily shutdown this summer because the source water used for cooling the reactors rose above prescribed limits. With summer temperatures expected to climb even more in coming years–and with droughts also anticipated–incidents like these (and like those at Hope Creek, New Jersey, and Limerick, Pennsylvania, in 2010) will become more frequent, leaving nuclear power less able to deliver electricity during the months when it is most in demand.

Of course, the summer of 2012 has also had its share of what might be called “classic” nuclear plant problems–power supply failures, radioactive leaks, and other so-called “unusual incidents.” One of the most recent, yet another accident at Palisades in Michigan:

On Sunday [August 12], Palisades shut down due to a leak of radioactive and acidic primary coolant, escaping from safety-critical control rod drive mechanisms attached to its degraded lid, atop its “worst embrittled reactor pressure vessel in the U.S.”

And all of the above has happened during a summer when the NRC finally acknowledged (or, more accurately, when a federal court ordered the NRC to acknowledge) that it could no longer pretend the US had a solution for its nuclear waste storage crisis. The commission has stopped issuing new operating licenses, license extensions and construction licenses until it can craft a plan for dealing with the mountains of spent nuclear fuel continuing to accumulate at nuclear facilities across the country.

So, there is no nuclear renaissance. There wasn’t one before this summer–there wasn’t even one before everyone came to know about the Fukushima disaster. The dangers and costs that have followed nuclear power since its inception have firmly branded it as a technology of the past. The events of 2011 and 2012 have provided more evidence that nuclear power is done as a meaningful energy proposition. The sooner America can also be done with the myth of a possible, sometime, “who knows when,” “maybe next year” nuclear renaissance, the sooner the federal government can stop propping up the unsafe and unviable nuclear industry. And the sooner the US can begin a real technological and economic rebirth.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, uh, about that. . . .

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

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

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

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

But that’s not the scary part.

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the scary part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much greater?

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

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

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

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

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

Gregory Jaczko Has a Cold

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko (photo: pennstatelive)

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s not the scariest part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NRC, nuclear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storage concerns don’t concern

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

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

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

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

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

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

Process is everything

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

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

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

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

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

Shocked, shocked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to regulate, even without the Regulatory Commission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open to openness

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

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

* * *

A version of this story was previously posted on Truthout.