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.

Superstorm Sandy Shows Nuclear Plants Who’s Boss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Fukushima Video Shows Disorganized Response, Organized Deception

A frame from early in the newly released Fukushima video.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant when the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck last year, bowed to public and government pressure this week, releasing 150 hours of video recorded during the first days of the Fukushima crisis. Even with some faces obscured and two-thirds of the audio missing, the tapes clearly show a nuclear infrastructure wholly unprepared for the disaster, and an industry and government wholly determined to downplay that disaster’s severity:

Though incomplete, the footage from a concrete bunker at the plant confirms what many had long suspected: that the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the plant’s operator, knew from the early hours of the crisis that multiple meltdowns were likely despite its repeated attempts in the weeks that followed to deny such a probability.

It also suggests that the government, during one of the bleakest moments, ordered the company not to share information with the public, or even local officials trying to decide if more people should evacuate.

Above all, the videos depict mayhem at the plant, a lack of preparedness so profound that too few buses were on hand to carry workers away in the event of an evacuation. They also paint a close-up portrait of the man at the center of the crisis, Mr. Yoshida, who galvanizes his team of engineers as they defy explosions and fires — and sometimes battle their own superiors.

That summary is from New York Times Tokyo-based reporter Hiroko Tabuchi. The story she tells is compelling and terrifying, and focuses on the apparent heroism of Masao Yoshida, Fukushima’s chief manager when the crisis began, along with the far less estimable behavior of TEPCO and Japanese government officials. It is worth a couple of your monthly quota of clicks to read all the way through.

The story is but one take on the video, and I point this out not because I question Tabuchi’s reporting on its content, much of which is consistent with what is already known about the unholy alliance between the nuclear industry and the Japanese government, and about what those parties did to serve their own interests at the expense of the Japanese people (and many others across the northern hemisphere). Instead, I bring this up because I do not myself speak Japanese, and I am only allowed to view a 90-minute “highlight reel” and not the entire 150 hours of video, and so I am dependent on other reporters’ interpretations. And because neither TEPCO nor the Japanese government (which now essentially owns TEPCO) has yet proven to be completely open or honest on matters nuclear, the subtle differences in those interpretations matter.

Tabuchi took to Twitter to say how much she wanted to tell the story as “a tribute to Fukushima Daiichi chief Yoshida and the brave men on the ground who tried to save us.” But in a separate tweet, Tabuchi said she was “heartbroken” to discover her article was cut in half.

Editing is, of course, part of journalism. Trimming happens to many stories in many papers. But I had to raise an eyebrow when I saw a note at the bottom of Tabuchi’s piece that said Matthew Wald “contributed reporting from Washington.” I have previously been critical of Wald–a Times veteran, contributor to their Green blog, and often their go-to reporter on nuclear power–for stories that sometimes read like brochures from the Nuclear Energy Institute. Wald tends to perpetuate myths in line with the old “clean, safe, and too cheap to meter” saw, while reserving a much, uh, healthier (?) skepticism for nuclear power critics and renewable energy advocates.

There is, of course, no way to know what Wald’s contributions (or redactions) were in this case, and it is doubtful any of the parties involved would tell us, but what particularly stokes my curiosity is this paragraph:

Despite the close-up view of the disaster, the videos — which also capture teleconferences with executives in Tokyo — leave many questions unresolved, in good part because only 50 of 150 hours include audio. The company blamed technical problems for the lack of audio.

TEPCO might blame technical problems, but reports from other news services seem to leave little doubt that the general belief is that the audio has been withheld–or in some cases most obviously obscured–by TEPCO. The BBC’s Mariko Oi saw it this way:

Tepco has bowed to pressure to release 150 hours of teleconferencing footage but the tape was heavily edited and mostly muted to “protect employees’ privacy”.

. . . .

Tepco is again under criticism for not releasing the full recordings and has been asked if it was removing more than employees’ names and phone numbers.

And Mari Yamaguchi of the Associated Press reported even more directly about TEPCO’s intent:

Japan’s former prime minister criticized the tsunami-hit nuclear plant’s operator Wednesday for heavily editing the limited video coverage it released of the disaster, including a portion in which his emotional speech to utility executives and workers was silenced.

Naoto Kan called for Tokyo Electric Power Co. to release all of its video coverage, beyond the first five days. Two-thirds of the 150 hours of videos it released Monday are without sound, including one segment showing Kan’s visit to the utility’s headquarters on March 15 last year, four days after a tsunami critically damaged three reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant.

Many people’s faces, except for the plant chief and top executives in Tokyo, are obscured in the videos and frequent beeps mask voices and other sound.

The AP story also points out that the released video arbitrarily ends at midnight on March 15–and though it is not known how much more tape exists, it appears clear that TEPCO has held some substantial portion back. After five days, the Fukushima crisis was far from over, after all (as it is still far from over), and the recordings end amidst some of the disaster’s most critical events.

But the New York Times omits all of this, leaving TEPCO’s Rose Mary Woods-like excuse to stand as the innocent truth.

That’s a shame, because the way you read this story changes when you look at some of the horrific revelations keeping in mind that this is only the part TEPCO decided it could let you see. Here are just a few highlights. . . or lowlights:

  • Plant managers and TEPCO officials were aware from the earliest hours of the crisis that they were likely facing multiple meltdowns.
  • Japanese government officials withheld information–and ordered TEPCO to withhold information–on radiation levels that could have helped untold numbers of civilians reduce their exposure.
  • Despite warnings years prior that such natural disasters were possible in the region, Fukushima operators had no plan to deal with the damage and loss of power caused by the quake and tsunami.
  • TEPCO did not even have the infrastructure or procedures in place to evacuate its own employees from an imperiled facility.
  • Plant officials were–from the earliest days–as worried about the spent fuel pools as they were about the reactors. Those on the scene feared that most of the pools at Daiichi, not just the one at reactor four, were facing loss of coolant and the fires and massive radiation leaks that would follow, though publicly they said none of the pools were a danger at the time.

And there is more about the dire conditions for plant workers, the lack of food or water, the high levels of radiation exposure, and even a point where employees had to pool their cash to buy water and gasoline. And, as noted above, that’s just the part TEPCO has deemed acceptable for release.

Above all, though–beyond the discrepancies in reporting, beyond the moral failings of TEPCO and government officials, beyond the heroism of those at the crippled facility–what the new Fukushima tapes reveal is what those who watch the nuclear industry have mostly known all along. Nuclear power is dangerous–the radiation, the complexity of the system, the waste, the reliance on everything going right, and the corrupt conspiracy between industry and government saddle this form of energy production with unacceptable risks. The video now available might shed some light on how things at Fukushima went horribly wrong, but the entire world already knows plenty of who, what, where and when. We all know that things at Fukushima did go horribly wrong, and so many know that they must suffer because of it.

Made in Japan? Fukushima Crisis Is Nuclear, Not Cultural

(photo: Steve Snodgrass)

Since the release of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Committee’s official report last week, much has been made of how it implicates Japanese culture as one of the root causes of the crisis. The committee’s chairman, Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, makes the accusation quite plainly in the opening paragraphs of the executive summary [PDF]:

What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster “Made in Japan.” Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.

That this apparently critical self-examination was seized upon by much of the western media’s coverage of the report probably does not come as a surprise–especially when you consider that this revelation falls within the first 300 words of an 88-page document. Cultural stereotypes and incomplete reads are hardly new to establishment reportage. What might come as a shock, however, is that this painful admission is only made in the English-language version of the document, and only in the chairman’s introduction is the “made in Japan” conclusion drawn so specifically.

What replaces the cultural critique in the Japanese edition and in the body of the English summary is a ringing indictment of the cozy relationship between the Japanese nuclear industry and the government agencies that were supposed to regulate it. This “regulatory capture,” as the report details, is certainly central to the committee’s findings and crucial to understanding how the Fukushima disaster is a manmade catastrophe, but it is not unique to the culture of Japan.

Indeed, observers of the United States will recognize this lax regulatory construct as part-and-parcel of problems that threaten the safety and health of its citizenry, be it in the nuclear sector, the energy sector as a whole, or across a wide variety of officially regulated industries.

No protection

The Japanese Diet’s Fukushima report includes a healthy dose of displeasure with the close ties between government regulators and the nuclear industry they were supposed to monitor. The closed, insular nature of nuclear oversight that might be attributed to Japanese culture by a superficial read is, in fact, a product of the universally familiar “revolving door” that sees industry insiders taking turns as government bureaucrats, and regulatory staff “graduating” to well-compensated positions in the private sector.

Mariko Oi, a reporter at the BBC’s Tokyo bureau, described the situation this way when discussing the Fukushima report on the World Service:

When there was a whistleblower, the first call that the government or the ministry made was to TEPCO, saying, “Hey, you’ve got a whistleblower,” instead of “Hey, you’ve got a problem at the nuclear reactor.”

A disturbing betrayal of accountability in any context, it is especially troubling with the ominous repercussions of the Fukushima disaster still metastasizing. And it is also ominously familiar.

Look, for example, just across the Pacific:

[San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station] was chastised two years ago by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for creating an atmosphere in which employees fear retaliation if they report safety concerns.

. . . .

Edward Bussey, a former health physics technician at the plant, sued Edison in state court after he was fired in 2006 under what he said were trumped-up charges that he had falsified initials on logs documenting that certain materials had been checked for radiation. Bussey contended that he was really fired in retaliation for complaining about safety concerns to his supervisors and the NRC.

San Onofre–SONGS, if you will–has been offline since January when a radioactive steam leak led to the discovery of severely degraded copper tubing in both of the plant’s existing reactors. But here’s the real kicker: whistleblower suits at SONGS, like the one from Mr. Bussey, have routinely been summarily dismissed thanks to a little known legal loophole:

San Onofre is majority owned and operated by Southern California Edison, a private company, but it sits on land leased from the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base.

That puts the plant in a so-called federal enclave, where courts have held that many California laws, including labor laws intended to protect whistle-blowers, do not apply.

Lawsuits filed in state court by San Onofre workers who claimed that they were fired or retaliated against for reporting safety concerns, sexual harassment and other issues have been tossed out because of the plant’s location.

The Los Angeles Times cites examples dating back to the construction of San Onofre where personnel who complained about safety or work conditions were terminated and left without many of the legal options normally afforded most California citizens. The history of SONGS is liberally peppered with accidents and safety breaches–and the lies and cover-ups from its owner-operators that go with them. Considering that San Onofre employees are regularly punished for exposing problems and have fewer whistleblower protections, is it at all surprising that SONGS is reported to have the worst safety record of all US nuclear plants?

If San Onofre’s track record isn’t evidence enough of the dangers of weak regulation, the findings and conclusions of the latest Fukushima report make it crystal clear: “safety culture” is not undermined by Japanese culture so much as it is by the more international culture of corruption born of the incestuous relationship between industry and regulators.

It’s a nuclear thing…

But the corrupt culture–be it national or universal–is itself a bit of a dodge. As noted by the Financial Times, the Japanese and their regulatory structure have managed to operate the technologically complex Shinkansen bullet trains since 1964 without a single derailment or fatal collision.

As the Diet’s report makes abundantly clear–far more clear than any talk about Japanese culture–the multiple failures at and around Fukushima Daiichi were directly related to the design of the reactors and to fatal flaws inherent in nuclear power generation.

Return for a moment to something discussed here last summer, The Light Water Paradox: “In order to safely generate a steady stream of electricity, a light water reactor needs a steady stream of electricity.” As previously noted, this is not some perpetual motion riddle–all but one of Japan’s commercial nuclear reactors and every operating reactor in the United States is of a design that requires water to be actively pumped though the reactor containment in order to keep the radioactive fuel cool enough to prevent a string of catastrophes, from hydrogen explosions and cladding fires, to core meltdowns and melt-throughs.

Most of the multiple calamities to befall Fukushima Daiichi have their roots in the paradox. As many have observed and the latest Japanese report reiterates, the Tohoku earthquake caused breaches in reactor containment and cooling structures, and damaged all of Fukushima’s electrical systems, save the diesel backup generators, which were in turn taken out by the tsunami that followed the quake. Meeting the demands of the paradox–circulating coolant in a contained system–was severely compromised after the quake, and was rendered completely impossible after the tsunami. Given Japan’s seismic history, and the need of any light water reactor for massive amounts of water, Fukushima wouldn’t really have been a surprise even if scientists hadn’t been telling plant operators and Japanese regulators about these very problems for the last two decades.

Back at San Onofre, US regulators disclosed Thursday that the damage to the metal tubes that circulate radioactive water between the reactor and the steam turbines (in other words, part of the system that takes heat away from the core) was far more extensive than had previously been disclosed by plant operators:

[Each of San Onofre's steam generators has] 9,727 U-shaped tubes inside, each three-quarters of an inch in diameter.

The alloy tubes represent a critical safety barrier — if one breaks, there is the potential that radioactivity could escape into the atmosphere. Also, serious leaks can drain protective cooling water from a reactor.

Gradual wear is common in such tubing, but the rate of erosion at San Onofre startled officials since the equipment is relatively new. The generators were replaced in a $670 million overhaul and began operating in April 2010 in Unit 2 and February 2011 in Unit 3.

Tubes have to be taken out of service if 35 percent — roughly a third — of the wall wears away, and each of the four generators at the plant is designed to operate with a maximum of 778 retired tubes.

In one troubled generator in Unit 3, 420 tubes have been retired. The records show another 197 tubes in that generator have between 20 percent and 34 percent wear, meaning they are close to reaching the point when they would be at risk of breaking.

More than 500 others in that generator have between 10 percent and 19 percent wear in the tube wall.

“The new data reveal that there are thousands of damaged tubes in both Units 2 and 3, raising serious questions whether either unit should ever be restarted,” said Daniel Hirsch, a lecturer on nuclear policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who is a critic of the industry. “The problem is vastly larger than has been disclosed to date.”

And if anything, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is underplaying the problem. A report from Fairewinds Associates, also released this week, unfavorably compared San Onofre’s situation with similar problems at other facilities:

[SONGS] has plugged 3.7 times as many steam generator tubes than the combined total of the entire number of plugged replacement steam generator tubes at all the other nuclear power plants in the US.

The report also explains that eight of the tubes failed a “pressure test” at San Onofre, while the same test at other facilities had never triggered any more than one tube breach. Fairewinds goes on to note that both units at San Onofre are equally precarious, and that neither can be restarted with any real promise of safe operation.

And while the rapid degeneration of the tubing might be peculiar to San Onofre, the dangers inherent in a system that requires constant power for constant cooling–lest a long list of possible problems triggers a toxic crisis–are evident across the entire US nuclear fleet. Cracked containment buildings, coolant leaks, transformer fires, power outages, and a vast catalogue of human errors fill the NRC’s event reports practically every month of every year for the past 40 years. To put it simply, with nuclear power, too much can go wrong when everything has to go right.

And this is to say nothing of the dangers that come with nuclear waste storage. Like with the reactors, the spent fuel pools that dot the grounds of almost every nuclear plant in America and Japan require a consistent and constantly circulating water supply to keep them from overheating (which would result in many of the same disastrous outcomes seen with damaged reactors). At Fukushima, one of the spent fuel pools is, at any given point, as much of a concern as the severely damaged reactor cores.

Ions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Even with the latest findings, however, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda pushed ahead with the restart of the precariously situated and similarly flawed nuclear reactor complex at Oi. It is as if the PM and the nuclear industry feared Japan surviving another summer without nuclear-generated electricity would demonstrate once and for all that the country had no reason to trade so much of its health and safety for an unnecessary return.

But the people of Japan seem to see it differently. Tens of thousands have turned out to demonstrate against their nation’s slide back into this dangerous culture of corruption. (Remember, the Oi restart comes without any safety upgrades made in response to the Fukushima disaster.)

And maybe there’s where cultural distinctions can be drawn. In Japan, the citizenry–especially women–are not demonstrating “reflexive obedience,” instead, they are demonstrating. In the United States, where 23 nuclear reactors are of the same design as Fukushima Daiichi, and 184 million people within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant, when the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggested requiring some modest upgrades as a response to the Fukushima disaster, the nuclear industry got its henchmen on the NRC and in Congress to push him out. . . with little public outcry.

Still, the BBC’s Mariko Oi lamented on the day the Fukushima report was released that Japanese media was paying more attention to the birth of a giant panda at a Tokyo zoo. That sort of response would seem all too familiar to any consumer of American media.

That baby panda, it should be noted, has since died. The radioactive fallout from Fukushima, however, lingers, and the crisis at Daiichi is far from over. The threat to global heath and safety that is unique to nuclear power lives on.

Obama Taps Allison Macfarlane as New Head of Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Seal of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (via Wikipedia)

President Barack Obama has nominated Allison Macfarlane to be the new head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Macfarlane is currently an associate professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, and was part of Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, a panel that was, among its responsibilities, asked to examine how the country should deal with its growing nuclear waste storage crisis. She holds a PhD in Geology from MIT.

If confirmed by the Senate, Macfarlane will replace Gregory Jaczko, who announced his resignation Monday after months of pressure from the nuclear industry and their friends in government.

As predicted, in choosing Macfarlane, Obama tapped someone who is on record as opposed to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. Macfarlane quite literally wrote the book on the subject–she is the editor (along with Rodney Ewing) of Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste, a review that is predominantly very critical of the choice of the Yucca site. Because confirmation has to move through the Senate, it would need the consent of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), a longtime opponent of the Yucca project.

But Macfarlane could not be labeled an opponent of nuclear power. Indeed, Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones cited MacFarlane’s own words in which she called herself a nuclear “agnostic”:

In terms of nuclear energy, I would describe myself as an agnostic. I’m neither pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear. I think nuclear has been doing a good job in the United states and some other industrial countries at providing a good, reliable energy, and they’ve been improving on that. At the same time, I think I think in terms of an expansion in nuclear power over the next 50 years or something, nuclear has lot of liabilities and I don’t know if it can get over them.

If Macfarlane has objections to the expansion of commercial nuclear power, it would seem to be based on the cost–as she explained in a 2007 MIT lecture–and issues of waste storage.

To that second problem, Macfarlane is on record as favoring so-called interim solutions. As explained to me by Beyond Nuclear’s Kevin Kamps, who has met with Dr. Macfarlane, the NRC nominee thinks dry cask storage is “good enough” for now, and is in favor of “centralized interim storage”–a plan to collect spent fuel form the nation’s nuclear plants and move it to a handful of regional, above-ground storage facilities until some unspecified time in the future when a long-term program is completed.

Sites rumored for possible interim storage facilities include the Utah desert, the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and the Dresden nuclear facility in Illinois. The state governments of New Mexico and Arizona have also made moves to request they be considered as repositories for nuclear waste.

The problems with dry casks and centralized interim storage are many. Kamps, a longtime critic of standard dry cask storage, notes that current dry casks are built to shield workers from radiation, but not designed to withstand long-term exposure to the environment or to survive a hostile attack. Some of the nation’s casks already show signs of wear, cracking, and corrosion. Beyond Nuclear recommends hardened dry casks–something different from standard casks–for this level of storage. Kamps was unsure what Macfarlane’s position was on requiring hardened dry casks.

There are massive security concerns around the idea of centralized interim storage, too. Not only would the facilities themselves be potential targets for terrorist attack, the transportation of nuclear waste would be vulnerable. And, it should be noted, as currently conceived, centralized sites would necessitate transport of waste through densely populated areas over insecure stretches of rail lines.

Kamps was also dismayed over Macfarlane’s enthusiasm for the Onkalo spent nuclear fuel repository in Finland. The underground facility, still under construction on Onkiluoto Island, has come under scrutiny by nuclear watchdogs for some of the same reasons critics worry about Yucca Mountain.

Macfarlane is on record, however as concerned about the overcrowded spent nuclear fuel pools that sit next to the nation’s fleet of aging reactors. In a 2003 paper, co-authored with Bob Alvarez and others (PDF), she issued this dire warning:

Because of the unavailability of off-site storage for spent power-reactor fuel, the NRC has allowed high-density storage of spent fuel in pools originally designed to hold much smaller inventories. As a result, virtually all U.S. spent-fuel pools have been re-racked to hold spent-fuel assemblies at densities that approach those in reactor cores. In order to prevent the spent fuel from going critical, the fuel assemblies are partitioned off from each other in metal boxes whose walls contain neutron-absorbing boron. It has been known for more than two decades that, in case of a loss of water in the pool, convective air cooling would be relatively ineffective in such a “dense-packed” pool. Spent fuel recently discharged from a reactor could heat up relatively rapidly to temperatures at which the zircaloy fuel cladding could catch fire and the fuel’s volatile fission products, including 30-year half-life 137Cs, would be released. The fire could well spread to older spent fuel. The long-term land-contamination consequences of such an event could be significantly worse than those from Chernobyl.

Of course, recent events in Fukushima have shown Macfarlane et al to be eerily on target. No doubt, Macfarlane would at least like to see spent fuel moved out of pools (even if it is to dry casks) to bring the density down to original design parameters. Whether Macfarlane will feel inclined to push the nuclear industry in this direction is another matter. Kevin Kamps estimates that moving spent fuel from pools to dry casks would cost roughly $100 million per facility, and cost has been a principle reason nuclear operators have dragged their heels on transferring older spent fuel to dry storage. To date, about 75 percent of the nation’s spent fuel remains in liquid pools.

Heartening, too, when it comes to this mother lode of radioactive waste, is word that Allison Macfarlane has been critical of nuclear fuel reprocessing. As discussed here many times, reprocessing is expensive, energy intensive, and actually creates more nuclear waste, not less.

The nomination of Macfarlane no doubt signals a deal between Sen. Reid and the White House. Reid, for his part, praised Macfarlane, and announced plans to hold confirmation hearings alongside those for Kristine Svinicki, the sitting NRC commissioner re-nominated by Obama but publicly opposed by Reid. According to the Majority Leader, both nominations will be considered next month.

Given that Macfarlane has not given her unwavering support to everything the nuclear industry wants, questions remain about the ease with which Macfarlane’s nomination will move through the Senate. While it is hard to dismiss the possibility that some GOP Senator will place a hold on Macfarlane–it is, like with the scorpion, in their nature–it should be noted that the nuclear industry’s biggest lobbying group has called for both Svinicki and Macfarlane to be confirmed:

The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, called Macfarlane “an active contributor to policy debates in the nuclear energy field for many years” and urged the Senate to confirm her nomination as soon as possible.

“It would not serve the public interest to have her nomination linger,” the group said. “We urge the Senate to confirm both Commissioner Svinicki and Professor Macfarlane expeditiously.”

Watch this space, as they say.

As noted with the news of Jaczko’s resignation, the problems of nuclear power transcend the role of any individual. The dirt and danger–and most notably the costs–that come with nuclear power do not change with the personnel of the NRC. And, though it seems hard to imagine, the problems of regulatory capture loom even larger. The only reason Macfarlane is being discussed is because the nuclear industry grew tired of Gregory Jaczko. That the industry and their political pals were successful in pushing out one regulator cannot bode well for another that is in the least bit inclined to regulate.