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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does the Netroots Care about Nuclear Power?

Van Jones speaking to the faithful at this year’s Netroots Nation conference in Providence, RI – June 9, 2012.

On Thursday, June 7, as hundreds of online journalists and activists gathered in Providence, Rhode Island for the seventh annual Netroots Nation conference to discuss what were deemed the most pressing issues of the day, a smaller group made up of nuclear industry representatives and officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the US Department of Energy got together 400 miles south to discuss matters they thought even more urgent. While the attendees in the Ocean State were getting training on “how to navigate the action-packed schedule at Netroots Nation [and] survive on two hours sleep (and still be alert for a day of panels!),” owners of the nation’s aging nuclear facilities pursued doubling the length of new operating licenses, floating the possibility that reactors will be allowed to run into their 80th year–twice the original design life of most plants.

As bloggers, organizers, pundits and politicians were discovering the charms of the Beehive of Industry (yes, that is one of Providence’s nicknames), inspectors at Davis-Besse, the oft-discussed, always troubled nuclear power plant near Toledo, Ohio were reporting what they termed a “pinhole” leak releasing about a gallon of radioactive coolant every 10 minutes. The reactor had been shut down for refueling, maintenance and safety inspections, but was supposed to restart last week. . . before the leak was discovered in a pipe weld. (Though the reason behind the leak has yet to be determined, FirstEnergy, Davis-Besse’s owner, has now resumed the restart. . . without so much as a raised eyebrow from regulators.)

This incident at Davis-Besse comes not so very long after the Ohio primary, where the safety of the plant and trustworthiness of its owners and regulators was an issue in the race between two sitting Democratic members of Congress–Representatives Dennis Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur. Forced to run against each other because of redistricting, the plight of Davis-Besse became a defining issue between the two, with Kucinich calling for the plant to remain off-line until the cause of cracks in the containment structure was determined, while Kaptur affirmed her faith in FirstEnergy. Kaptur argued that the failing facility meant jobs for the struggling district–a district that was drawn to favor Kaptur’s old base–and in the end, beat Kucinich for the Democratic nod.

Following this latest breach in safety, Representative-for-another-six-months Kucinich has petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Inspector General (PDF) for an investigation into the NRC’s lax supervision of Davis-Besse.

As the netroots community and representatives of organized labor pondered in Providence whither the union movement in the wake of the Wisconsin recall results, 250 actual union workers, locked out of their jobs at Massachusetts Pilgrim nuclear plant (a short drive from the Rhode Island Convention Center), some for as long as 10 weeks, were filing a five-point grievance with the National Labor Relations Board. The union accused Pilgrim’s operator, Entergy, of coercive and threatening behavior leading up to a June 2 vote on a new labor contract. The workers overwhelmingly rejected the contract a week after the NRC granted Entergy a 20-year license extension for the plant–and 10 days after Pilgrim had to scram because of reduced vacuum in the plant’s condenser.

That there would be problems at a plant where replacement workers have been complaining that they are being asked to do jobs outside their expertise hardly seems surprising. That an ongoing labor action, safety concerns and licensing fight happening just two counties away from Providence would not be an issue at the Netroots Nation convention is a bit more vexing.

While conventioneers in Providence listened to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman explain his relative lack of action on the foreclosure fraud crisis as somehow part of what he called a “transformational moment,” members of Pilgrim Watch, a citizen’s group opposed to the Massachusetts nuclear plant, were in court demanding that regulators do more to require post-Fukushima lessons learned be incorporated in required upgrades to Pilgrim’s GE Mark I boiling water reactor (the exact same design as those at Fukushima Daiichi). Activist groups have mounted similar (and additional) legal challenges to the relicensing of Vermont Yankee, another ancient Mark I reactor well into its break-down phase. And in New York, public activism mounts as the Indian Point reactors approach their relicensing hearing.

In fact, Friday, as Netroots Nation attendees wondered why there was a 90-minute gap in the midday schedule (word is conference organizers were hoping to bag the president or vice president as a lunchtime keynote, and the extra time was allotted for additional security. In case you missed it, the closest the conference got to any high-level White House official was a new campaign video, introduced on tape by Obama), the DC Court of Appeals handed down an important decision that could have broad implications for the future of domestic commercial nuclear power. A three-judge panel unanimously ruled that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was negligent in the way it evaluated plant safety because regulators assumed a solution to the country’s long-term radioactive waste storage crisis when none currently exists.

If you were watching your twitter feed, you might have caught this. If you were sitting in on any of Friday afternoon’s Netroots panels, this ruling probably didn’t come up.

Indeed, throughout the three-plus days of panels, training sessions, caucuses and keynotes, attendees quite likely heard no mention of nuclear power, its persistent threats to safety, its drastic drain on the budget, its onerous oppression of workers or its brazen gouging of rate-payers. For, while there were well over 100 panels, and dozens of other training sessions and caucuses, nothing on the schedule even made a passing attempt to address nuclear energy here in the United States or the ongoing (and growing) crisis of radioactive contamination from Fukushima spreading across the globe.

It would be one thing if this were purely fodder for wonks and science geeks, but as demonstrated above, and in over a year’s worth of columns, nuclear power touches on many (if not most) of the issues considered to be core concerns of the netroots movement. Corporate greed, captured government, worker rights, environmental justice, and a lazy legacy media–its all part and parcel of the nuclear narrative.

And it might not be worth a few precious hours of conference schedule if the fight against nuclear power and its acolytes were a lost cause, but in this post-Fukushima moment (and, yes, we are still in it), the country and the world stand at a crossroads. While the US government seems hell-bent on backstopping a failing, flailing industry, other countries are using this crisis to step back from the next potential nuclear nightmare and commit to a cleaner, renewable energy future. Meanwhile, here in the United States, engaged communities of activists and concerned citizens are organizing to fight on the local level for the protections their federal government has failed to deliver.

The appeals court decision on Friday is a monument, really, to the years of hard work put in by individuals and organizations across the country–and it is a monumental opportunity to learn from this success and build the future of the anti-nuclear movement.

It is a movement that could benefit greatly from the online organizing tools that have breathed so much life into the netroots, but the netroots, too, could learn a few things from the anti-nuclear movement. Providence, with its physical proximity to Pilgrim, and its temporal proximity to so many developments on the nuclear front, would have seemed like a golden opportunity. But the organizers of Netroots Nation appeared to have other priorities.

While the good folks at NIRS–the Nuclear Information and Resource Service–where awarded a booth in the exhibition hall at the Providence convention center, veterans of the conference know there is quite a different level of engagement when it comes to the booths, versus what happens at panels and speeches. (This is to take nothing away from NIRS, which had a table filled with great information, much of which can also be found on their website.)

Fired up?

Some noise was made, quite publicly, as a matter of fact, about this year’s Netroots convention being friendlier to the Obama administration. “I think people are generally on board [with Obama's reelection effort],” said Raven Brooks, the executive director of Netroots, as he explained to Talking Points Memo that this year’s convention would be relatively free of the confrontation that met White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer at the 2011 conference.

“People are fired up about 2012,” said Mary Rickles, who is communications director for Netroots, noting in the same TPM article that she expected an administration presence at this year’s conference. (Again, unless you count Schneiderman, there was none.)

Inside the convention center, Van Jones–briefly part of the Obama administration until driven out by a rightwing witch-hunt, and cofounder of Rebuild the Dream–headlined the last night of speeches. Jones, himself a longtime advocate for renewable energy, instead turned to a theme he has hit often in recent years: that while some might be disappointed with the pace of progress, in the end, it is not Obama’s failing, it is ours. But this time, it being an election year, and everyone thusly “fired up,” Jones put it this way: “We have two tasks: to re-elect the president and re-energize the movement to hold the president accountable.”

Quoting Jones in an email announcing next year’s convention, Brooks underscored the point:

After November has come and gone, our job of pushing for the strongest possible progressive policies will begin in earnest. In short, we’ve got to step up our game.

Inspiring thoughts, perhaps, but ones completely contrary to the way electoral politics has worked in this country about as far back as anyone can remember. Making demands of office-seekers after you’ve pledged your vote is not just cart-before-the-horse, it’s asinine and ass-backwards.

The netroots played a roll in the election of Barack Obama in 2008, though in the eyes of the now-POTUS, not an overly large one. After the election, Team Obama moved quickly to rein in the less-predictable elements of its grassroots campaign while one-by-one riding roughshod over most of the issues that mattered to left-leaning bloggers and online activists. Previous NetNat attendees had a right to boo Obama surrogates, and the folks charged with re-electing the president should be taught to fear that wrath–if not through activism, at least by way of apathy.

Mitt Romney would no doubt make a dismal president–but that is not the point. This election will be decided by turnout, and the Obama campaign will need to motivate parts of his base such as the netroots with reasons to get out and vote for his second term. If online activists want something from Obama in return for going to the polls, the time to demand that, the time to get that on paper–or in pixels–is before election day, not after.

After, Obama doesn’t need you anymore. It’s called a lame duck term for many reasons, but one of them is that the president can easily duck any kind of obligation some might feel he should have to his blandly loyal netizens.

Which brings us back to nuclear power and Netroots Nation. It is not a secret that one of Obama’s great benefactors in past elections has been Exelon, the nuclear giant that not only gave heavily to the 2008 campaign, but once employed both former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, once a senior Obama advisor and now Communications Director for his 2012 campaign. Obama’s steadfast support for nuclear power–making the point, not once, but twice, in the first weeks after the Fukushima crisis began, to publicly assure that the US commitment to nuclear was strong–now puts him at odds with many countries in the industrialized world, but, more important here, it has always put him at odds with many in the online progressive community. It would be sad to think that conference organizers decided against any anti-nuclear content in an effort to keep this year’s Netroots Nation “onboard” with and “fired up” about a possible administration presence.

But it would be even sadder to think that the fault lies not in these self-anointed stars, but in ourselves. While chances are if you are reading this you have at least some degree of interest in nuclear issues, is it possible that what once was called the “blogosphere” (but now should be considered something more) does not see nuclear power, the looming environmental catastrophe and financial sinkhole it presents, as relevant? Is it that the almighty and always invisible atom is just not as juicy as, say, fracking, or anything with the word “occupy” in it?

That would be a shame–and a mistake–for it is all part of a piece. The work of occupiers across this country over the last year is to be applauded, but some of the things central to the protests, a broken system, a captured government filthy with corporate cash, are central to the fight against nuclear power, as well. And while hydrofracking represents a tremendous threat to our water supply and our climate, and so should be protested full bore, its current profitability might make it less sensitive to activism than nuclear power at this point in its history.

Without government support–without the federal loan guarantees, the Price-Anderson indemnity, state and local tax breaks and rate subsidies–the commercial nuclear power industry would collapse. There would be few demands for license renewals because few plants would turn a profit.

And without a government-run long-term waste repository, the nuclear industry faces even more safety and financial concerns. The lack of storage options is actually a crisis for nuclear operators–and a threat to the safety of a majority of Americans. What this country does with its atomic waste has always been a political issue, too–and it has played out on the political stage throughout this past year. It is an issue that is very sensitive to old-time, easy to grasp, electoral politics, and so it is one sensitive to the newfangled tools of internet organizing.

So, between environmentalists and budget wonks, between regulatory hawks and electoral junkies, and between old-line environmental activists and 21st Century online organizers there is much to discuss. Let’s hope that no matter who is running for whatever office next year, the netroots, and the Netroots Nation conference, find the time and space–and the political will–to engage the dirty, dangerous and expensive threat of nuclear power.

*  *  *

[Full disclosure: I had submitted a panel proposal for the 2012 Netroots Nation conference, and though it was given consideration and, I am told, was in the running till the end, it was not included in the final schedule. The panel was to be called "Clean, Safe, and Too Cheap to Meter? Countering Nuclear's Lies in a Post-Fukushima Landscape," and while I was disappointed at not having this opportunity, the far bigger concern for me was that conference organizers chose not to include any sessions on nuclear issues at all. One year's personal slight is not really a big deal; ignoring the obvious and broad importance of this topic, however, signals a bigger problem.]

Court Says Regulators Must Evaluate Dangers of Nuclear Waste

A nuclear spent fuel pool. (photo: NRCgov)

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, so ruled a federal court on Friday.

In a unanimous ruling (PDF), a three-judge panel of the US court of appeals for the District of Columbia found that the NRC’s “Nuclear Waste Confidence Decision”–the methodology used for evaluating the dangers of long-term waste storage–was woefully inadequate:

[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.

Writing for the court, Judge David Sentelle made no bones about the shortcomings of the NRC’s magical, one-size-fits-all method of assuming a future solution for the nuclear waste storage crisis. Spent fuel “poses a dangerous long-term health and environmental risk,” he said.

The suit was brought by the attorneys general of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont, in coordination with the Prairie Island Indian Community of Minnesota and environmental groups represented by the National Resources Defense Council.

The decision harshly criticized regulators for evaluating plant relicensing with the assumption that spent nuclear fuel–currently stored onsite in pools and dry casks–would be moved to a central long-term waste repository. As discussed here before, the only option seriously explored in the US was the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada. After years of preliminary construction and tens of millions of dollars of dollars spent, Yucca was determined to be a bad choice for the waste, and the Obama administration’s Department of Energy and the NRC halted the project.

Despite the wishful reporting of some nuclear advocates, the Yucca repository is nowhere near ready, and even if it were an active option, the facility would be many years and maybe as much as $100 million away from completion. Still, the nuclear industry and its acolytes have 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 zombified hopes, 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 filled many times over 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 in the storage pools and underscored by the ongoing disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant.

The decision has immediate ramifications for plants in the northeast seeking license extensions–most notably Entergy’s Indian Point facility, less than an hour’s drive from New York City, and their Vermont Yankee plant, which is operating despite seeing its original license expire in March.

New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman released a statement, which reads, in part:

This is a landmark victory for New Yorkers, and people across the country living in the shadows of nuclear power plants. We fought back against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s rubber stamp decision to allow radioactive waste at our nation’s nuclear power plants to be stored for decades after they’re shut down – and we won. The Court was clear in agreeing with my office that this type of NRC ‘business as usual’ is simply unacceptable. The NRC cannot turn its back on federal law and ignore its obligation to thoroughly review the environmental, public health, and safety risks related to the creation of long-term nuclear waste storage sites within our communities.

And William Sorrell, Vermont’s AG, concurred:

This outcome illustrates how important it is for states to work together on environmental matters of national importance. Today’s decision is a major victory for New York, Vermont, and all other states that host nuclear power plants. The court confirmed what Vermont and other states have said for many years now—that the NRC has a duty to inform the public about the environmental effects of long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel, particularly when it is occurring at nuclear power plants that were never designed to be long-term storage facilities.

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.

But, as reported here last fall, outgoing NRC chief Gregory Jaczko was exploring the possibility of using onsite storage for 200 to 300 years. How these metrics will change when the new head regulator, Allison Macfarlane, is confirmed is not yet known–but Macfarlane is on record as both a Yucca skeptic and an advocate for regional interim waste storage facilities. That plan, however, has many critics, as well, can only take fuel already cool enough to be removed from pools, and, of course, has not been so much as sited or designed, let alone constructed.

While no nuclear plants will close today as a result of this decision, it should also be noted–because some reports assume otherwise–that this finding does not mean Yucca Mountain must open, either. The ruling does, however, underscore the waste crisis–and it is a crisis–faced by the US nuclear industry. No only is it generating approximately 2000 tons of new waste every year that will need an eternal resting place, pools at some plants are so full it actually complicates refueling and maintenance (since fuel needs to removed from reactors and kept cool for both procedures). Plant operators are desperate to have the federal government take on the costs and the risks of waste storage.

But without anything even close to a plan for a long-term repository, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission cannot assume a solution, says the court. Instead, it must look at reality–something the entire country would best be advised to do when evaluating the future of this dirty, dangerous and expensive energy source.

Emergency Evacuation, Drill Requirements Quietly Cut While Nuclear Regulators Consider Doubling Length of License Extensions

Map showing the evacuation zone around Indian Point Energy Center by the NRDC (via Riverkeeper).

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will hold a public meeting tonight (Thursday, May 17) on the safety and future of the Indian Point Energy Center (IPEC), a nuclear power plant located in Buchanan, NY, less than 40 miles north of New York City. The Tarrytown, NY “open house” (as it is billed) is designed to explain and answer questions about the annual assessment of safety at IPEC delivered by the NRC in March, but will also serve as a forum where the community can express its concerns in advance of the regulator’s formal relicensing hearings for Indian Point, expected to start later this year.

And if you are in the area–even as far downwind as New York City–you can attend (more on this at the end of the post).

Why might you want to come between Entergy, the current owner of Indian Point, and a shiny new 20-year license extension? As the poets say, let me count the ways:

Indian Point has experienced a series of accidents and “unusual events” since its start that have often placed it on a list of the nation’s worst nuclear power plants. Its structure came into question within months of opening; it has flooded with 100,000 gallons of Hudson River water; it has belched hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive steam in the last 12 years; its spent fuel pools have leaked radioactive tritium, strontium 90 and nickel 63 into the Hudson and into groundwater; and IPEC has had a string of transformer fires and explosions, affecting safety systems and spilling massive amounts of oil into the Hudson.

That poor, poor Hudson River. Indian Point sits on its banks because it needs the water for cooling, but beyond the radioactive leaks and the oil, the water intake system likely kills nearly a billion aquatic organisms a year. And the overheated exhaust water is taking its toll on the river, as well.

Indian Point is located in a seismically precarious place, right on top of the intersection of the Stamford-Peekskill and Ramapo fault lines. The NRC’s 2010 seismic review places IPEC at the top of the list of reactors most at risk for earthquake damage.

Entergy was also late in providing the full allotment of new warning sirens within the 10-mile evacuation zone, which is a kind of “insult to injury” shortfall, since both nuclear power activists and advocates agree that Indian Point’s evacuation plan, even within the laughably limited “Plume Exposure Pathway Emergency Planning Zone,” is more fantasy than reality.

With this kind of legacy, and all of these ongoing problems, it would seem, especially in a world informed by the continuing Fukushima disaster, that the NRC’s discretionary right to refuse a new operating license for Indian Point would be the better part of valor. But the NRC rarely bathes itself in such glory.

Instead, when the nuclear industry meets rules with which it cannot comply, the answer has usually been for the regulatory agencies to just change the rules.

Such was the case the night before the-night-before-Christmas, when the NRC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency quietly changed long-standing emergency planning requirements:

Without fanfare, the nation’s nuclear power regulators have overhauled community emergency planning for the first time in more than three decades, requiring fewer exercises for major accidents and recommending that fewer people be evacuated right away.

Nuclear watchdogs voiced surprise and dismay over the quietly adopted revamp — the first since the program began after Three Mile Island in 1979. Several said they were unaware of the changes until now, though they took effect in December.

At least four years in the works, the changes appear to clash with more recent lessons of last year’s reactor crisis in Japan. A mandate that local responders always run practice exercises for a radiation release has been eliminated — a move viewed as downright bizarre by some emergency planners.

The scope of the changes is rivaled only by the secrecy in which they were implemented. There were no news releases regarding the overhaul from either FEMA or the NRC in December or January. Industry watchdogs, such as the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, only learned about the new rules when questioned by the Associated Press.

It was the AP that published an in-depth investigation of lax nuclear regulation last June, and it was the AP that spotted this latest gift to the nuclear industry:

The latest changes, especially relaxed exercise plans for 50-mile emergency zones, are being flayed by some local planners and activists who say the widespread contamination in Japan from last year’s Fukushima nuclear accident screams out for stronger planning in the United States, not weaker rules.

FEMA officials say the revised standards introduce more variability into planning exercises and will help keep responders on their toes. The nuclear power industry has praised the changes on similar grounds.

Onsite security forces at nuclear power plants have practiced defending against make-believe assaults since 1991 and increased the frequency of these drills after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The new exercises for community responders took years to consider and adopt with prolonged industry and government consultations that led to repeated drafts. The NRC made many changes requested by the industry in copious comments.


But, if a nearby resident or a city official were to express concerns about a nuclear plant’s emergency preparedness–like, say, those that live and work around Indian Point–regulators would likely dismiss them as alarmist:

None of the revisions has been questioned more than the new requirement that some planning exercises incorporate a reassuring premise: that little or no harmful radiation is released. Federal regulators say that conducting a wider variety of accident scenarios makes the exercises less predictable.

However, many state and local emergency officials say such exercises make no sense in a program designed to protect the population from radiation released by a nuclear accident.

“We have the real business of protecting public health to do if we’re not needed at an exercise,” Texas radiation-monitoring specialist Robert Free wrote bluntly to federal regulators when they broached the idea. “Not to mention the waste of public monies.”

Environmental and anti-nuclear activists also scoffed. “You need to be practicing for a worst case, rather than a nonevent,” said nuclear policy analyst Jim Riccio of the group Greenpeace.

From the perspective of the industry-captured regulators, if you can’t handle the truth, rewrite the truth. And if there were any doubt about the motives of the nuclear industry, itself, when it comes to these new rules, a reading of the AP report makes it clear: from top to bottom, the revisions require less of nuclear operators.

While officials stress the importance of limiting radioactive releases, the revisions also favor limiting initial evacuations, even in a severe accident. Under the previous standard, people within two miles would be immediately evacuated, along with everyone five miles downwind. Now, in a large quick release of radioactivity, emergency personnel would concentrate first on evacuating people only within two miles. Others would be told to stay put and wait for a possible evacuation order later.

This rule change feels ludicrous in the wake of Fukushima, where a 12-mile radius is assumed to be a no-go zone for a generation, and the State Department advised US citizens to evacuate beyond 50 miles, but it is especially chilling in the context of Indian Point. The stated reasoning behind the tiny evacuation zone is that anything broader would be impossible to execute quickly, so better to have folks just “hunker down.”

“They’re saying, ‘If there’s no way to evacuate, then we won’t,'” Phillip Musegaas, a lawyer with the environmental group Riverkeeper, said of the stronger emphasis on taking shelter at home. The group is challenging relicensing of Indian Point.

Over 17 million people live within 50 miles of IPEC. In February, environmental and anti-nuclear groups asked the NRC to expand evacuation planning to 25 miles from the current 10, and to push readiness zones out to 100 miles, up from 50. They also asked for emergency planners to take into account multiple disasters, like those experienced last year in Japan.

That might have been an opportune time for the regulators to explain that they had already changed the rules–two months earlier–and that they had not made them stronger, they had made them weaker. Not only will the 10 and 50-mile zones remain as they are, the drills for the 50-mile emergency will be required only once every eight years–up from the current six-year cycle.

With the turnover in elected officials and municipal employees being what it is–especially in times of constricting local budgets–even a run-through every six years seems inadequate. An eight-year lag is criminal. (Perhaps the NRC can revise assumptions so that disasters only happen within a year or two of a readiness drill.)

But an extra two years between drills is cheaper. So is the concentration of the evacuation zone in case of quick radiation release. So are many of the other changes. At a time when regulators should look at Japan and ask “What more can we do?” they instead are falling over themselves to do less.

And the nuclear industry needs all the help it can get.

The fact is that without this kind of help–without the weakened rules and limp enforcement, without the accelerated construction and licensing arrangements, without the federal loan guarantees and liability caps, and without the cooperation and expenditures of state and local governments–nuclear could not exist. Indeed, it would not exist, because without this wellspring of corporate welfare, nuclear power plants would never turn a profit for their owners.

In fact, with the cost of new plant construction escalating by the minute (the new AP1000 reactors approved for Georgia’s Plant Vogtle this February are already $900 million over budget), the strategy of energy giants like Entergy rests more on buying up old reactors and spending the bare minimum to keep them running while they apply for license extensions. This is the game plan for Indian Point. It is also Entergy’s plan for Vermont Yankee, a plant granted a license extension by the NRC in March, over the objections of the state government.

The case of Vermont Yankee is currently before a federal appeals court–and New York has filed an amicus brief on Vermont’s behalf, since New York Governor Andrew Cuomo would like to see Indian Point shuttered at the end of its current license, and it knows the NRC has never met a license extension it didn’t like.

Meanwhile, however, Entergy continues to hemorrhage money. The second largest nuclear power provider in the nation posted a first quarter loss of $151.7 million–its stock is down 13% this year–directly as a result of its creaky, inefficient, often offline nuclear reactors. It needs quick, cheap, easy relicensing for facilities like Indian Point if it is ever going to turn things around.

Although maybe not even then. Take, for example, the current plight of California’s San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). San Onofre’s two reactors have been offline since the end of January, when a radiation leak led to the discovery of accelerated wear in over 1,300 copper tubes used to move radioactive water to and from the plant’s recently replaced steam generators:

[Southern California] Edison finished installation of the $671-million steam generators less than two years ago, promising customers they would create major energy savings. Now, officials estimate it will cost as much as $65 million to fix the problems and tens of millions more to replace the lost power.

Both those figures are likely low. No one has yet isolated the exact cause of the wear, though attention focuses on excessive vibration (and that vibration will likely be linked to faulty design and the attempt to retrofit off-the-shelf parts on the cheap), and the time it will take to correct the problem, make repairs and get the reactors up to something close to full power is somewhere between unpredictable and never.

Indeed, Edison is instead talking about running SONGS at reduced capacity, at least for several months. Plant engineers say they believe running the reactors at lower power will minimize vibration (though critics point out this will not resolve the problems with already badly worn tubing), but the reality is much simpler. Every kilowatt the nuclear plant can manage to generate is one kilowatt that Edison won’t have to buy from someone else. There is some warranty coverage for the new generators, but there is none for the replacement costs of the electricity.

Edison will, of course, ask the California Public Utility Commission if it can pass replacement costs on to consumers, but that, in turn, begs another question. When the PUC approved the cost of replacing the steam generators, they did so with the assumption that SONGS would average 88% capacity until its license expires in 2022.

An analysis at the time showed that a one-year outage or a scenario in which the plant would run at lower capacity for an extended period could make the project a money loser. But the PUC found those scenarios to be unlikely and determined that the project would probably be a good deal for ratepayers.

“If the plant runs at 50 to 80 percent capacity for the rest of its life, the entire cost-effectiveness analysis is turned on its head,” said Matthew Freedman, attorney for advocacy group The Utility Reform Network.

Sound familiar?

Regulators, be they at the federal NRC or a state’s PUC, can re-imagine reality all they want, but reality turns out to be stubborn. . . and, it seems, costly.

And don’t think that the industry hasn’t already cottoned to this.

In the midst of a battle over extending the 40-year licenses of two Entergy Corp. nuclear plants near New York City, federal regulators are looking into whether such plants would be eligible for yet another extension.

That would mean the Indian Point plants and others around the county might still be running after reaching 60 years of age.

Bill Dean, a regional administrator for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said Wednesday the agency “is currently looking at research that might be needed to determine whether there could be extensions even beyond” the current 60-year limit for licenses.

Yes, the article attributes the initiative to federal regulators, but it strains credulity to believe they came up with this idea on their own. The industry can do the money math–hell, it’s pretty much the only thing they do–extending a license for 40 years beyond design life has got to be more profitable than extending a license for only 20 years.

And let’s be clear about that. The design life of Generation II reactors–the BWRs and PWRs that make up the US nuclear power fleet–is 30 to 40 years. When the plans were drawn up for Indian Point, Vermont Yankee, San Onofre, or any of the other 98 reactors still more-or-less functioning around the country, the assumption was that they would be decommissioned after about four decades. Current relicensing gives these aged reactors another 20 years, but it now turns out that this is only an interim move, designed to buy time to rewrite the regulations and give reactors a full second life. Eighty years in total.

It is yet another example of how rules are shaped–and ignored–to protect the bottom line of the nuclear industry, and not the safety of US citizens. (Or, for that matter, the pocketbooks of US consumers.)

And so, it is yet another example of why the Nuclear Regulatory Commission cannot be allowed to continue its rubberstamp relicensing.

And this is where you come in: As mentioned at the top, the NRC’s Bill Dean (the same guy looking into doubling the license extensions) will be in Tarrytown, NY, along with other government and Entergy representatives to answer questions and listen to testimony about the past, present, and future of Indian Point.

The open house is from 6 to 8 PM, and the public meeting is from 7 to 9 PM at the DoubleTree Hotel Tarrytown, 255 South Broadway, Tarrytown, NY.

Riverkeeper, in coordination with Clearwater, NYPIRG, Citizens’ Awareness Network, Occupy Wall Street Environmental Working Group, IPSEC, Shut Down Indian Point Now, and others will be holding a press conference before the open house, at 5:30 PM.

If you live in New York City, Riverkeeper is sponsoring busses to Tarrytown. Busses leave at 3:45 PM sharp from Grand Central (busses will be waiting at 45th St. and Vanderbilt Ave.). More info from SDIPN here. Reserve a place on a bus through Riverkeeper here.

Obama Sides with GOP Against Reid in Battle over Nuclear Regulator

In a move that could be seen as election-year expedience, a friendly nod to the nuclear industry, or a sign of a coming battle with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), the Obama administration announced Thursday that it would nominate Kristine Svinicki for a second term on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Reid had gone public just a day earlier with his objections to Commissioner Svinicki getting another five-year appointment when her tenure expires at the end of June.

Svinicki, a George W. Bush appointee to the NRC, is considered a staunch ally of the nuclear industry, and, according to Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear, “is amongst the worst of the NRC Commissioners when it comes to implementing Fukushima lessons learned for safety upgrades at US reactors.” Svinicki voted for the rubberstamp relicensing of Vermont Yankee’s GE Mark I reactor, and then pushed hard for NRC staff to finalize the paperwork just days after identical reactors experienced catastrophic safety failures at Fukushima Daiichi, and she has continued to fight new requirements for nuclear plants based on lessons learned from the Japanese disaster.

Prior to her time on the NRC, Svinicki served in the Department of Energy’s Washington, DC Offices of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology, and of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, and also served on the staff of then-Senator Larry Craig (R-ID), whom Kamps called “one of the most pro-nuclear US Senators of the past 15 years.”

During Svinicki’s time at DoE, she worked extensively on support documents for the proposed national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. But in testimony during her 2007 Senate confirmation hearing for her NRC post, Svinicki was asked by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) if she worked “directly on Yucca”–and Svinicki replied, “I did not, no.”

This obfuscation–or “lie” as Reid has called it–is the official inflection point for the Nevada Senator’s objection to Svinicki’s re-up, but the full story has several layers.

Don’t open that mountain, Fibber

The proposed waste facility at Yucca Mountain has been a thorn in the side of Nevada politicians for decades. Harry Reid has made stopping the Yucca project his life’s work, and with the elevation of his former aid, Gregory Jaczko, to the chairmanship of the NRC, and the decision by the White House to defund further development of the site, it seemed like the Majority Leader had accomplished his goal.

But there is no current substitute for the Yucca site. The US nuclear power industry continues to produce thousands of tons of toxic waste in the form of highly radioactive “spent” fuel rods. That waste is currently stored around the country, on the grounds of the nation’s reactor fleet, in “spent fuel pools,” which require a steady power source to keep cooling water circulating, or once the spent fuel is a little older, in what are called “dry casks”–massive concrete coffins of a sort–and neither of these was intended to be anything but a temporary solution.

The nation’s fuel pools are already filled beyond their intended capacity. That makes them hotter, and, so, more dangerous. The higher temperatures and greater concentration of radioactive fuel mean that pools that suffer a power loss are in danger of boiling off their water faster–and without the cooling liquid, the cladding on the fuel rods can melt and catch fire, sending vast amounts of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere. In fact, it is the damaged spent fuel pool at Fukushima Daiichi reactor 4 that currently has those watching the Japanese crisis most concerned.

Dry casks are considered safer than liquid storage, but can only be used once fuel has had a chance to cool for years in pools. Further, some of the nation’s casks are already showing cracks, while others have moved during earthquakes.

The bottom line is that nuclear power plants cannot refuel without a place to put the old rods, and with onsite storage space exhausted, a long-term solution is needed. If the nuclear industry is to pursue license extensions for its 104 aging reactors, not to mention seek to expand that number with new construction, it needs a facility like Yucca Mountain, and it needs it fast.

But Yucca Mountain is not only opposed by all major Nevada politicians, be they Democrats or Republicans, it has proven to be a tremendously bad place for nuclear waste. The 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.

So what’s a nuclear industry to do?

One avenue might be to unseat the men most responsible for killing the project.

New coup review

Kristine Svinicki was at the center of attempts to oust Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko that went public late last year when Svinicki and the three other commissioners serving with Jaczko sent a letter to the White House complaining about their chairman’s management style. Central to the complaint, the way in which Jaczko used his authority to recommend that the Yucca project be terminated.

Also in the letter, the allegation that Jaczko was verbally abusive to female NRC employees, including Svinicki.

The complaint prompted hearings in both the House and Senate, with rather predictable, partisan results. Republicans, especially in the House, used the time to berate Jaczko and defend the nuclear industry, while Democrats tended to back Jaczko and highlight his focus on improved nuclear plant safety, especially in the wake of the Fukushima crisis. And while the White House voiced tepid support for its NRC chief, it seemed at the time like Jaczko owed at least some of his job security to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

But this part of the story is not over. There has already been one Inspector General’s report on Jaczko’s management, and another is due later this spring. The GOP-led House has also scheduled more hearings on this for the end of May.

Elections have consequences

While Svinicki’s performance as a nuclear regulator ranks poorly–even among a long line of industry-captured NRC commissioners–it is her work on Yucca Mountain and her role in the attempted ouster of Greg Jaczko that factor most prominently in the brewing standoff between President Obama and Senator Reid.

In a move that might be seen as funny if it weren’t so intertwined with nuclear safety, a small parade of Republicans took to the Senate floor this week to praise Commissioner Svinicki–not so much as a nuclear-friendly regulator, but as a whistleblower:

Senate Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) charged that Svinicki was being delayed because of “retribution.”

“She has had the courage to step forward and has blown the whistle on the chairman,” Murkowski added, “and the chairman happens to be a good friend of Sen. Reid. So the question should be put to Sen. Reid: Why is he not allowing her to advance?”

Republicans, it seems, see this as a chance to counter the current “war on women” election-year narrative by showing their support not for a good friend to a friendly industry, but for an abused working woman. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) put it this way:

McConnell accuses Democrats of retaliating against NRC Commissioner Kristine Svinicki for taking part in an organized effort to oust NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko last year.

“Commissioner Svinicki stood up to this guy, who somehow managed to avoid being fired in the wake of all these revelations, in an effort to preserve the integrity of the agency, and to protect the career staffers who were the subject of the chairman’s tactics,” said McConnell on the Senate floor Wednesday. “And now, for some mysterious reason, she’s being held up for re-nomination.”

President Obama, however, moved to undermine the GOP. . . by siding with them:

The White House plans to renominate a Republican member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, forestalling a potential fight with Senate Republicans over whether she would be tapped to continue serving after raising concerns with the panel’s Democratic chairman.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney explained it this way: “The president will renominate Ms. Svinicki. He doesn’t want to have a break in service in June when her current term expires.”

Now that actually is funny–and like all good humor, it’s funny on several levels.

First, rather than facilitating the work of the nation’s top nuclear regulator, Svinicki has worked hard to weaken the NRC’s oversight role. From the previously noted quickie relicensing of Vermont Yankee, to consistent votes against requiring upgrades recommended by the commission’s post-Fukushima taskforce–even for yet-to-be-built reactors–to her role in the time-consuming coup attempt, Svinicki has made the NRC demonstrably less effective.

Second, remember what body has to hold hearings on Svinicki’s nomination, and then hold a vote to re-confirm her? That would be the Senate. And remember who runs the Senate? That would be Harry Reid–the same Harry Reid who just one day earlier had publicly registered his strong opposition to Svinicki. If the White House were really concerned with a speedy confirmation and no interruption in service, wouldn’t it have been better to coordinate a pick with the Majority Leader, rather than pointedly show him up?

Third, a “break in service”–the absence of one commissioner for some amount of time–should that occur, would not stop plant inspections. It would not stop enforcement of current safety regulations. No, the only thing a missing commissioner might delay is the approval of new reactors or the relicensing of old ones.

Still, this could be seen as classic “no drama Obama,” distilled in the crucible of an election, were it not for the consistent influence of the nuclear industry on the Obama administration. The evidence is as unavoidable as the presence of radioactive cesium in your broccoli–and just as unsettling. From the nuclear industry’s hefty contributions to Obama’s campaigns, to generating giant Exelon’s ties to Obama and confidants like Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod; from the president’s pledge of billions in loan guarantees for nuclear plant construction, to his appointment of nuclear industry insider William Magwood to the NRC; right through to Obama’s inclusion of atomic power in his smorgasbord of an energy policy at a time when much of the industrialized world is turning away from nuclear, the move by the White House to back Republican Svinicki isn’t just a political bugaboo. . . it’s a feature.

And while keeping Kristine Svinicki in place would be a nice amuse-bouche for Obama’s nuclear godfathers, nothing would satisfy the industry quite as much as Harry Reid’s head on a plate. For even though Nevada’s other Senator, Republican Dean Heller, also opposes the Yucca Mountain repository, he is not in either side’s leadership, and does not wield the power that Reid does. And without Reid in leadership to backup his former aid, it is likely Gregory Jaczko would be forced out as NRC chair.

And without Reid or Jaczko in the way, the path to reopening Yucca–as well as the path to relicensing a bevy of 40-year-old reactors with few new requirements–would be as clear as a Cherenkov blue pool.

Watch this space

As for now, of course, Harry Reid is still very much in place, and so is Greg Jaczko. The fight to hold the Senate for the Democrats, and, if that is accomplished, the fight Reid will have to remain as majority leader, are still down the road. First up is the battle over Kristine Svinicki.

On one side, you have Reid, along with Senators like Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders–all theoretically part of Obama’s power base, all realistically representing states Obama needs to win in November.

On the other side, you have the Senate Minority Leader, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, and Wyoming’s junior Senator, John Barrasso–all partisan Republicans, all from states Obama won’t likely win this fall, nor will he need to.

If you were thinking in purely electoral terms, how would you handicap this fight?

But because Obama has renominated Svinicki, and because the president has opened up a public rift with his party’s Senate Majority Leader, it would appear more than simple election year vote counting is going on here. Is it just another case of Obama “going along to get along” with a GOP that has never had much interest in getting along with him, or is this another example of a president that campaigned on a green, alternative energy future showing that his real investment is in the dying, dirty and dangerous technologies of the past? Or is this about a coming showdown between Obama and Reid?

The choices are not mutually exclusive. Like that slogan Obama insists on calling an energy strategy, the answer could be “all of the above.”

* * *

Important Reminder: This Sunday, April 22, at 5 PM EDT/2 PM PDT, I will be hosting Firedoglake’s book salon. This week’s book is The Doomsday Machine: The High Price of Nuclear Energy, the World’s Most Dangerous Fuel, and we will have authors Martin Cohen and Andrew McKillop online answering questions. There is much to discuss about the history of nuclear mythmaking in this book, please join us.

Looking Back at Our Nuclear Future

nuclear reactor, rocketdyne, LAT

The Los Angeles Times heralds the nuclear age in January 1957. (photo via wikipedia)

On March 11, communities around the world commemorated the first year of the still-evolving Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster with rallies, marches, moments of silence, and numerous retrospective reports and essays (including one here). But 17 days later, another anniversary passed with much less fanfare.

It was in the early morning hours of March 28, 1979, that a chain of events at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania caused what is known as a “loss of coolant accident,” resulting in a partial core meltdown, a likely hydrogen explosion, the venting of some amount of radioisotopes into the air and the dumping of 40,000 gallons of radioactive waste water into the Susquehanna River. TMI (as it is sometimes abbreviated) is often called America’s worst commercial nuclear accident, and though the nuclear industry and its acolytes have worked long and hard to downplay any adverse health effects stemming from the mishap, the fact is that what happened in Pennsylvania 33 years ago changed the face and future of nuclear power.

The construction of new nuclear power facilities in the US was already in decline by the mid 1970s, but the Three Mile Island disaster essentially brought all new projects to a halt. There were no construction licenses granted to new nuclear plants from the time of TMI until February of this year, when the NRC gave a hasty go-ahead to two reactors slated for the Vogtle facility in Georgia. And though health and safety concerns certainly played a part in this informal moratorium, cost had at least an equal role. The construction of new plants proved more and more expensive, never coming in on time or on budget, and the cleanup of the damaged unit at Three Mile Island took 14 years and cost over $1 billion. Even with the Price-Anderson Act limiting the industry’s liability, nuclear power plants are considered such bad risks that no financing can be secured without federal loan guarantees.

In spite of that–or because of that–the nuclear industry has pushed steadily over the last three decades to wring every penny out of America’s aging reactors, pumping goodly amounts of their hefty profits into lobbying efforts and campaign contributions designed to capture regulators and elected officials and propagate the age-old myth of an energy source that is clean, safe, and, if not exactly “too cheap to meter,” at least impressively competitive with other options. The result is a fleet of over 100 reactors nearing the end of their design lives–many with documented dangers and potential pitfalls that could rival TMI–now seeking and regularly getting license extensions from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission while that same agency softens and delays requirements for safety upgrades.

And all of that cozy cooperation between government and big business goes on with the nuclear industry pushing the idea of a “nuclear renaissance.” In the wake of Fukushima, the industry has in fact increased its efforts, lobbying the US and British governments to downplay the disaster, and working with its mouthpieces in Congress and on the NRC to try to kill recommended new regulations and force out the slightly more safety-conscious NRC chair. And, just this month, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the chief nuclear trade group, moved to take their message to what might be considered a less friendly cohort, launching a splashy PR campaign by underwriting public radio broadcasts and buying time for a fun and funky 60-second animated ad on The Daily Show.

All of this is done with the kind of confidence that only comes from knowing you have the money to move political practice and, perhaps, public opinion. Three Mile Island is, to the industry, the exception that proves the rule–if not an out-and-out success. “No one died,” you will hear–environmental contamination and the latest surveys now showing increased rates of Leukemia some 30 years later be damned–and that TMI is the only major accident in over half a century of domestic nuclear power generation.

Of course, this is not even remotely true–names like Browns Ferry, Cooper, Millstone, Indian Point and Vermont Yankee come to mind–but even if you discount plant fires and tritium leaks, Three Mile Island is not even America’s only meltdown.

There is, of course, the 1966 accident at Michigan’s Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station, chronicled in the John Grant Fuller book We Almost Lost Detroit, but atom-lovers will dismiss this because Fermi 1 was an experimental breeder reactor, so it is not technically a “commercial” nuclear accident.

But go back in time another seven years–a full 20 before TMI–and the annals of nuclear power contain the troubling tale of another criticality accident, one that coincidentally is again in the news this week, almost 53 years later.

The Sodium Reactor Experiment

On July 12, 1957, the Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) at the Santa Susana Nuclear Field Laboratory near Simi Valley, California, became the first US nuclear reactor to produce electricity for a commercial power grid. SRE was a sodium-cooled reactor designed by Atomics International, a division of North American Aviation, a company more often known by the name of its other subsidiary, Rocketdyne. Southern California Edison used the electricity generated by SRE to light the nearby town of Moorpark.

Sometime during July 1959–the exact date is still not entirely clear–a lubricant used to cool the seals on the pump system seeped into the primary coolant, broke down in the heat and formed a compound that clogged cooling channels. Because of either curiosity or ignorance, operators continued to run the SRE despite wide fluctuations in core temperature and generating capacity.

Following a pattern that is now all too familiar, increased temperatures caused increased pressure, necessitating what was even then called a “controlled venting” of radioactive vapor. How much radioactivity was released into the environment is cause for some debate, for, in 1959, there was less monitoring and even less transparency. Current reconstructions, however, believe the release was possibly as high as 450 times greater than what was vented at Three Mile Island.

When the reactor was finally shut down and the fuel rods were removed (which was a trick in itself, as some were stuck and others broke), it was found that over a quarter showed signs of melting.

The SRE was eventually repaired and restarted in 1960, running on and off for another four years. Decommissioning began in 1976, and was finished in 1981, but the story doesn’t end there. Not even close.

Fifty-three years after a partial nuclear meltdown at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory site in the Chatsworth Hills, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has just released data finding extensive radioactive contamination still remains at the accident site.

“This confirms what we were worried about,” said Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Oak Park, a long-time leader in the fight for a complete and thorough cleanup of this former Rocketdyne rocket engine testing laboratory. “This begins to answer critical questions about what’s still up there, where, how much, and how bad?”

Well, it sort of begins to answer it.

New soil samples weigh in at up to 1,000 times the radiation trigger levels (RTLs) agreed to when the Department of Energy struck a cleanup deal with the California Department of Toxic Substances in 2010. What’s more, these measurements follow two previous cleanup efforts by the DOE and Boeing, the company that now owns Santa Susana.

In light of the new findings, Assemblywoman Brownley has called on the DOE to comply with the agreement and do a real and thorough cleanup of the site. That means taking radiation levels down to what are the established natural background readings for the area. But that, as is noted by local reporter Michael Collins, “may be easier said than done”:

This latest U.S. EPA information appears to redefine what cleaning up to background actually is. Publicly available documents show that the levels of radiation in this part of Area IV where the SRE once stood are actually many thousands of times more contaminated than previously thought.

Just as troubling, the EPA’s RTLs, which are supposed to mirror the extensively tested and reported-on backgrounds of the numerous radionuclides at the site, were many times over the background threshold values (BTVs). So instead of cleaning up to background, much more radiation would be left in the ground, saving the government and lab owner Boeing millions in cleanup.

It is a disturbing tale of what Collins calls a kind of environmental “bait and switch” (of which he provides even more detail in an earlier report), but after a year of documenting the mis- and malfeasance of the nuclear industry and its supposed regulators, it is, to us here, anyway, not a surprising one.

To the atom-enamored, it is as if facts have a half-life all their own. The pattern of swearing that an event is no big deal, only to come back with revision after revision, each admitting a little bit more in a seemingly never-ending regression to what might approximately describe a terrible reality. It would be reminiscent of the “mom’s on the roof” joke if anyone actually believed that nuclear operators and their chummy government minders ever intended to eventually relay the truth.

Fukushima’s latest surprise

Indeed, that unsettling pattern is again visible in the latest news from Japan. This week saw revelations that radiation inside Fukushima Daiichi’s reactor 2 containment vessel clocked in at levels seriously higher than previously thought, while water levels are seriously lower.

An endoscopic camera, thermometer, water gauge and dosimeter were inserted into the number 2 reactor containment, and it documented radiation levels of up to 70 sieverts per hour, which is not only seven times the previous highest measurement, but 10 times higher than what is called a fatal dose (7 Sv/hr would kill a human in minutes).

The water level inside the containment vessel, estimated to be at 10 meters when the Japanese government declared a “cold shutdown” in December, turns out to be no more than 60 centimeters (about two feet).

This is disquieting news for many reasons. First, the high radiation not only makes it impossible for humans to get near the reactor, it makes current robotic technology impractical, as well. The camera, for instance, would only last 14 hours in those conditions. If the molten core is to be removed, a new class of radiation-resistant robots will have to be developed.

The extremely low water levels signal more troubling scenarios. Though some experts believe that the fuel rods have melted down or melted through to such an extent that two feet of water can keep them covered, it likely indicates a breach or breaches of the containment vessel. Plant workers, after all, have been pumping water into the reactor constantly for months now (why no one noticed that they kept having to add water to the system, or why no one cared, is plenty disturbing, as is the question of where all that extra water has gone).

Arnie Gundersen of nuclear engineering consultancy Fairewinds Associates believes that the level of water roughly corresponds with the lower lip of the vessel’s suppression pool–further evidence that reactor 2 suffered a hydrogen explosion, as did two other units at Fukushima. Gundersen also believes that the combination of heat, radioactivity and seawater likely degraded the seals on points where tubes and wires penetrated the structure–so even if there were no additional cracks from an explosion or the earthquake, the system is now almost certainly riddled with holes.

The holes pose a couple of problems, not only does it mean more contaminated water leaking into the environment, it precludes filling the building with water to shield people and equipment from radiation. Combined with the elevated radiation readings, this will most certainly mean a considerably longer and more expensive cleanup.

And reactor 2 was considered the Fukushima unit in the best shape.

(Reactor 2 is also the unit that experienced a rapid rise in temperature and possible re-criticality in early February. TEPCO officials later attributed this finding to a faulty thermometer, but if one were skeptical of that explanation before, the new information about high radiation and low water levels should warrant a re-examination of February’s events.)

What does this all mean? Well, for Japan, it means injecting another $22 billion into Fukushima’s nominal owners, TEPCO–$12 billion just to stay solvent, and $10.2 billion to cover compensation for those injured or displaced by the nuclear crisis. That cash dump comes on top of the $18 billion already coughed up by the Japanese government, and is just a small down payment on what is estimated to be a $137 billion bailout of the power company.

It also means a further erosion of trust in an industry and a government already short on respect.

The same holds true in the US, where poor communication and misinformation left the residents of central Pennsylvania panicked and perturbed some 33 years ago, and the story is duplicated on varying scales almost weekly somewhere near one of America’s 104 aging and increasingly accident-prone nuclear reactors.

And, increasingly, residents and the state and local governments that represent them are saying “enough.” Whether it is the citizens and state officials from California’s Simi Valley demanding the real cleanup of a 53-year-old meltdown, or the people and legislature of Vermont facing off with the federal government on who has ultimate authority to assure that the next nuclear accident doesn’t happen in their backyard, Americans are looking at their future in the context of nuclear’s troubled past.

One year after Fukushima, 33 years after Three Mile Island, and 53 years after the Sodium Reactor Experiment, isn’t it time the US federal government did so, too?