The Party Line – November 4, 2011: Self-Styled Clean Energy President Embraces Future That’s Dirty, Dangerous, and Expensive

“Reeling from months of protests, President Barack Obama’s advisors are worried. . . .”

So begins a November 3rd story from Reuters assessing the potential political fallout from an administration decision to green-light the Keystone XL pipeline, TransCanada Corp’s plan to move crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries in Texas. Reading the whole piece, one can’t help but feel that Obama is still of a mind to go ahead and OK this dangerous and much-derided plan, it is just the Obama 2012 campaign that’s agonizing over how to spin it.

Back in 2008, Obama the candidate seemed to understand the threat posed by global warming, and he spoke often of moving away from carbon-heavy fuel sources like tar sands. Now, a good part of what is considered the president’s “base,” it seems, understands that the transcontinental pipeline is not only a danger to farmlands and aquifers, but also a betrayal of a campaign promise.

Don’t think this is the dynamic at play? Look at recent administration boasts about such “green” initiatives as raising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, or just read Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt in the abovementioned Reuters story:

“The president has done more to wean us off of foreign oil and transition the nation to a clean energy economy than any other,” he said. “When Americans compare the president’s record promoting clean energy and America’s energy security to those of the leading Republican candidates, who don’t even believe that climate change is an issue that we need to address and would cede the clean energy market to China, there will be no question about who will continue our progress.”

Moving beyond the observation that this is the same “We suck less” positioning that performed so poorly for Democrats in 2010, there are indeed many questions raised by Obama’s apparent take on our energy future.

LaBolt’s claim, “The president has done more to wean us off of foreign oil and transition the nation to a clean energy economy than any other,” first begs the obvious fact-check: Alberta is not in the US, and tar sands crude is no one’s idea of clean energy. But it is not a big leap to read this statement as something more inclusive, something meant to refer to all of the Obama administration’s moves in the energy sector. Indeed, with references to clean energy, climate change and China, the Obama campaign is probably hoping for some to hear a commitment to solar power, while others might understand it as an embrace of nuclear fission.

Intent notwithstanding, administration moves have underscored the latter–a White House enraptured with nuclear power–just as events continue to lay bare the lie that US nuclear power generation could fit anywhere into a tale of clean, domestic energy advocacy.

A new stupid way to boil water?

On November 1, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a new design of what is called an Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR) slated for construction in South Texas. The plan to build two 1,350-megawatt reactors was originally pitched five years ago, with the original plant operator, NRG Energy (so nice they named it twice!), requesting design certification for Toshiba’s version of ABWRs in 2007.

But in 2009, the NRC made mandatory what had previously been a voluntary requirement that plants would be able to withstand a 9/11-style aircraft attack and continue to cool the reactor and spent fuel pools. The ABWR design, and its certification, had to be amended. This amended design is what just received the NRC’s thumbs-up.

A funny thing, however, happened since the original request: NRG stopped investing in the project. NRG was the prime investor in the “South Texas Project Nuclear Power Co.,” which is the name of the body that originally submitted the amended design. Without NRG, Toshiba has been shepherding the certification request, the one just approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Just one hitch, though, foreign companies are not allowed to operate nuclear power plants in the United States–a point that seems to have been missed by the NRC (and by most establishment news reports about the certification).

This design certification without funding or domestic management in place provides an almost comic counterpoint to the funding-without-certification approach taken by the Obama administration for the AP1000 reactors proposed for Georgia’s Plant Vogtle.

The AP1000, a riff on a Pressurized Water Reactor design, is supposed to provide passive cooling inside a reactor in the event of a loss of power to the active cooling system. There are many questions about the AP1000, and it too had to be altered to comply with the 2009 9/11 rules, but the most recent delay in certification comes at least in part from concerns that the design should also account for a Fukushima-like seismic event. At this point, Vogtle’s operator, The Southern Company, and the NRC have not come to a meeting of the minds.

But these concerns–or, at least, delays–did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the White House. In February of 2010, without any design certification in place, none other than Barak Obama himself announced $8.33 billion in loan guarantees for Southern. This was done with fanfare at a public event (there’s even a YouTube of the announcement).

So, certification with no funding, or funding with no certification–to the US federal government, it doesn’t matter. And it spells out two points in bold type: The Obama administration stands squarely behind nuclear power. . . and the marketplace does not. Without help from what the campaign would have voters believe is the all-time greatest champion of clean, green, domestic energy, new nuclear reactors would not be built in the United States.

Uranium extraction is not clean and never has been. The US is still paying to clean up from mining in the southwest that ended half a century ago. And today, uranium is not really a domestic fuel source, either. A list of the world’s top uranium producers looks like this: 1) Kazakhstan, 2) Canada, 3) Australia, 4) Namibia, 5) Russia, 6) Niger, 7) Uzbekistan. The US comes in eighth, accounting for just 2.9 percent of the world’s uranium production. By contrast, the US ranks third in global oil production, extracting almost 11 percent of the world’s crude.

And uranium doesn’t jump out of the ground ready to go for a nuclear reactor. The processing of uranium ore into useable fuel is a dirty, costly and energy intensive endeavor requiring loan guarantees, waste storage and safety protocols all its own. (And as if to underscore this, House Speaker John Boehner has recently requested federal loan guarantees to build a new nuclear processing plant in his home state of Ohio.)

Fukushima: a case study

A pair of new stories out of Japan provide all the evidence any president would need to honestly evaluate the role of nuclear power in America’s supposedly clean, green energy future.

Fukushima isn’t a single event, it is an ongoing, ever-evolving, always metastasizing crisis. In case anyone thought otherwise, the detection of radioactive xenon in Fukushima Daiichi reactor 2 provided a chance to again pay heed to just how serious things remain at the crippled Japanese nuclear facility.

Though Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the nominal owners Fukushima Daiichi, contend that the trace of xenon gas does not represent evidence of a nuclear chain reaction inside the reactor previously thought closest to a so-called “cold shutdown,” they still pumped in boric acid–a substance used to mitigate nuclear fission.

Tokyo Electric may or may not be telling the whole truth in this instance, but evidence from throughout this disaster dictates skepticism. For example, scientists have again revised upwards their estimates of total radiation released from the plant, and a new study explodes TEPCO’s minimalist fairytale:

France’s l’Institut de Radioprotection et de Surete Nucleaire (Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety, or IRSN) has issued a recent report stating that the amount of radioactive cesium-137 that entered the Pacific after 11 March was probably nearly 30 times the amount stated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. in May.

According to IRSN, the amount of the radioactive isotope cesium-137 that flowed into the ocean from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant between March 21 and mid-July reached an estimated 27.1 quadrillion becquerels.

Quadrillion is not a number that often comes up in polite conversation, but suffice it to say, it’s a lot. . . even for becquerels. Soon after the March 11 earthquake, Japan revised acceptable levels of radioactive cesium upward. . . to 500 becquerels per kilogram. Though even the 27.1 quadrillion number sort of redefines the phrase “a drop in the ocean,” the really disturbing notion is that with a relatively long half-life, the pattern of Pacific currents, and the principles of bio-accumulation and bio-concentration at play, it is possible that everyone who includes Pacific Ocean fish in his or her diet is now part of an informal, long-term experiment on the effects of low-level radioactive contamination. Or, as the same story as above snidely puts it:

The radioactive silver lining? Radioactive cesium-137 has a half life of roughly 30 years, so if the IRSN estimates are accurate, then [b]y 2041 the Pacific’s aquatic life will only be subjected to a mere 13.55 quadrillion becquerels of radiation.

But long half-lives and long-term health effects require long-range thinking, not to mention arguments about the relative value of human life. Perhaps another fresh release from Japan tells the nuclear story in numbers a deficit-obsessed DC elite can more easily comprehend:

Tokyo Electric Power Co. won approval for a 900 billion yen ($11.5 billion) bailout from the government after the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe to avert bankruptcy and start paying compensation for the crisis.

Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano approved the support after the company known as Tepco committed to cutting 7,400 jobs and 2.5 trillion yen in costs. The utility forecast an annual loss of 600 billion yen, its second since the March earthquake and tsunami wrecked its Fukushima nuclear plant.

Eleven-and-one-half-billion dollars–and that only takes TEPCO through March 2013. Who here thinks the crisis will be over by then? It almost makes Obama’s $8.33 billion loan guarantee to Southern look like a bargain.

Almost.

Except that the loan guarantee is just for construction of a yet unapproved reactor design–should Southern, or whatever entity might eventually operate Plant Vogtle, experience an accident, that would likely be a whole other ball of bailout.

But what could possibly go wrong? Well, as repeatedly documented in this column, a lot. Beyond the level-7 sinkhole that is Fukushima, in the US, 2011 alone has seen manmade accidents and natural disasters that have scrammed and/or damaged more than a half-dozen reactors. And with each event, a process of shutdown, repair, inspection, authorization and startup costs time and money that does nothing to provide America with clean, safe, renewable, affordable energy.

Each event does, however, add costs to a variety of segments of the economy. Energy production and utility bills are obvious, but this nuclear obsession also drives up costs for healthcare, food safety, air and water quality, the yet-to-be-solved problem of long-term waste storage, and don’t forget the additional tax burden required to support all the bailouts, tax breaks and loan guarantees for the nuclear industry. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US think tank, has also called for a global study of the health effects of long-term radiation exposure as part of an international response to the Fukushima disaster. That, too, is an expense that should be factored into the real cost of nuclear power.

One thing, however, has gotten cheaper since the Japanese earthquake and tsunami gave the world its third top-level nuclear accident since 1979, and that would be uranium. Since March, world uranium prices have fallen some thirty percent. In fact, demand is so low, the French company Areva has decided to suspend its uranium mining in the Central African Republic–for two years.

The market is again speaking, but to those predisposed to cherish the siren song of nuclear power, cheap uranium could easily become the excuse to dash greener, safer alternative energy development.

Since the earliest days of nuclear power, that siren song has gone something like this: clean, safe, and too cheap to meter. Obviously, 2011 has proven none of that rings true, but when an administration believes it can greenwash away the political fallout from a tar sands pipeline, is it such a stretch to see them ignoring the financial and radioactive fallout of nuclear power in their attempt to package Obama as the cleanest, greenest energy president ever?

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I am always happy to see the issues discussed in this column get attention from a broader audience, so I was thrilled to see Rachel Maddow take nine minutes out of her Wednesday show to call attention to what she sees as a scandal no one finds sexy enough to get excited about–namely the dangerous state of nuclear power plants across the US. But her contention that no one is paying attention irks me, at least a little. I have lost count of the number of posts I have devoted to this very subject this year, and I think, throughout, most would say I find much about this subject quite scandalous. So, Rachel, next time you want to talk about this stuff, the next time you want to share your excitement about this scandal, call me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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