The Party Line – October 28, 2011: NRC Moves to Adopt Fukushima Recommendations “Without Delay”

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted last week to implement recommendations from the Near-Term Task Force Review of Insights from the Fukushima Daiichi Accident (PDF), and to do so “without delay.” Coming over seven months after the earthquake and tsunami that started the crisis in Japan, and over four months after the Near-Term Task Force (NTTF) issued its report, the move highlights what might be accomplished when attention is paid, but also illustrates systemic flaws in the US nuclear regulatory regime.

The NRC identified a set of top-tier recommendations that focus on:

  • Re-evaluation of seismic and flood hazards;
  • Inspections after earthquakes and floods;
  • New regulations for “station blackouts” (the loss of all AC power at a reactor);
  • Reliability of vents on Mark I and Mark II containments; and
  • Better instrumentation for monitoring spent fuel pools.

This list does not represent the entirety of NTTF recommendations, just the ones the NRC wishes to see fast tracked (you know, “without delay”)–which, when it comes to nuclear regulation in the United States, means years. The NRC said its staff “should strive to complete and implement” these changes by 2016 (though Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said he thinks the station blackout rule can be adopted by April 2014 (PDF), so fasten your seatbelts).

Now, these recommendations (as opposed to actual rules, which still have to be drafted) do address some of the specific weaknesses exposed by the Japanese disaster–multiple external threats, power interruptions, hydrogen buildup, failing spent fuel storage systems–and that’s a positive step because these problems are quite real and quite possible at many of America’s nuclear power plants. But these fast-tracked proposals make up only seven of the 12 or 13 recommendations in the NTTF report–which, itself, is several points short of a truly comprehensive response to the threats Fukushima brought to the fore–and the process (much beloved by Chairman Jaczko) relies heavily on the cooperation of other government agencies, the good faith of the nuclear industry, and a seemingly magical belief that manmade or geologic events on a level with the March earthquake and tsunami will not happen here until after everything is brought up to code.

So, yes, there is a process for identifying problems (at least after they happen) and proposing some fixes with something approximating alacrity–which raises the question of why the system has not been more responsive over the last 50 years–but history and experience make it clear that process does not equate with performance.

During an interview earlier this month, NRC Chair Greg Jaczko was asked about one of his biggest efforts before the Fukushima crisis (PDF & Flash)–improving fire safety at nuclear facilities. Jaczko reflected on it this way:

[A]fter the Browns Ferry fire, we came up with a new set of regulations. Those regulations ultimately I think were very, very challenging to implement, so we’ve been struggling really for several decades to really implement those in an efficient and effective way. That’s not to say we don’t have strong fire protection programs, but we don’t have the most effective way to do it.

The Browns Ferry Fire happened in 1975. Jaczko has been an NRC commissioner since 2005; he has been chairman since 2009. And yet, here, now, in October 2011, 36 years after a guy checking for air leaks with a candle started a fire considered to be the second most frightening accident at a US nuclear plant (next to Three Mile Island), six years after Jaczko joined the NRC, Jaczko says that fire safety–a cause he has championed–is a “struggle,” “challenging to implement” and still not at its “most effective.”

In the same discussions, Jaczko also referenced safety upgrades suggested in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and how those are not yet fully implemented. Indeed, a recent story on security at the Indian Point power station underscored just how far the industry still has to go:

[W]hile the NRC came out with new security guidelines in 2003, these were largely voluntary in keeping with the Bush administration’s anti-regulatory policy. They were made mandatory in 2009, but Indian Point, New Jersey’s Salem, Hope Creek and Oyster Creek plants, and about 60 others around the country were granted waivers so they did not have to incur immediate expenses.

If a major domestic accident or a terrorist attack that, frankly, has colored practically every government action over the last decade cannot motivate full and fast compliance with NRC rules, why should the 65% of Americans who live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant believe that the Fukushima recommendations will be handled any better?

Already, events say that they shouldn’t. Within a day of the NRC voting to fast track some NTTF recommendations, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, the body responsible for renewing or extending the operating licenses of existing facilities, declared that it would not consider the proposed post-Fukushima requirements when evaluating an extension for the Seabrook Station nuclear plant, nor would it delay consideration of the license till new rules were in place. This is despite NRC Chair Jaczko’s stated preference to the contrary:

I would like to see some type of license condition that provides a commitment or a requirement for implementation of those [Fukushima] lessons before the plants would operate.

It should also be noted that even with Jaczko’s predilection on record, his term as chairman is set to expire in 2013–over a year before he expects any of the NTTF recommendations to be implemented. Jaczko’s desire to serve another term not withstanding, the question of whether he will be asked–even if President Obama is re-elected–or whether he can get reconfirmed is an open one. Despite originally being appointed by George W. Bush, Jaczko has come under fire from other NRC commissioners and from Republicans on the Hill. And it should be pointed out that Obama’s own appointee to the NRC, William Magwood, IV, is a veteran of the Bush administration’s Department of Energy and has been roundly criticized for his cozy relations with the nuclear industry.

And, of course, the planet also seems to have little regard for Jaczko’s inclinations. As repeatedly noted here, numerous US nuclear reactors have had to scram this year, courtesy of Mother Nature’s tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and hurricanes. (Again, that was all this year.)

So, what’s a country to do? Cross some fingers and hope for the best from a deep-pocketed industry and its weak, captured regulators? Or hit “pause” on license renewals and new plant construction–and even some restarts of sub-standard facilities–until the lessons of nuclear power’s most recent catastrophes are truly learned, and instead spend the time, money and effort on energy sources that don’t require such elaborate safety regimes?

In time, the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble. . . but so many of the problems and byproducts of nuclear power are here to stay. Instead of accepting this eternal and fatalist frame for learning lessons and making changes, perhaps this latest case study in regulation should teach a broader lesson: transition to cleaner, safer, and more sustainable energy sources. . . without delay.

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

NRC, nuclear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storage concerns don’t concern

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

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

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

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

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

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

Process is everything

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

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

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

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

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

Shocked, shocked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to regulate, even without the Regulatory Commission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open to openness

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

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

* * *

A version of this story was previously posted on Truthout.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – –

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

The Party Line – September 23, 2011: In Post-Fukushima Reality, What is the Future, and Who is Winning It?

Beginning a story with a correction for what might seem a technical detail might not provide the most attention-grabbing lede, but it opens the door to a broader, and important, observation.

Last week’s column contained reference to “large nuclear power-generating nations,” and then listed Australia as part of that group. That, as pointed out by reader Dgdonovan, was incorrect:

Australia is not a large nuclear power producing nation, in fact none of Australia’s electricity is produced by nuclear power. Australia is a large uranium producing nation, however.

Indeed, while Australia may posses nearly a quarter of the world’s remaining uranium deposits, it has not commissioned a single industrial-scale nuclear reactor for electrical power generation. While the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant makes that look prudent, given the expansion of nuclear power over the last 50 years, it does seem odd.

Australia is hardly an industrial backwater. A member of the G20, Australia is the world’s 13th largest economy in terms of GDP. And it is not as if Australia has not considered building nuclear plants, most recently about five years ago. But nuclear power has never gotten off the ground in Australia for a rather basic reason: it is not supported by a majority of its people.

What the public wants, however, (as some recent events in the US seem to indicate) is not always what the public gets. Also required is a mechanism for the electorate to impose their will.

As previously observed, in the aftermath of the Japanese disaster, German Prime Minister Angela Merkel committed her country to phasing out nuclear power generation in relatively short order, choosing to instead invest in renewables and efficiency. Merkel may have come to this decision based on the facts as now understood post Fukushima, but German domestic politics almost certainly came under consideration, too.

Merkel’s ruling coalition in the Bundestag currently includes her own party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), and the rightwing Free Democratic Party (FDP). By every indication, the FDP is heading for substantial losses in the next federal election, so the CDU will need a new coalition partner to keep Merkel in power. The most productive option is expected to be the Greens, and to woo them, Merkel found an opportune moment to move on a core Green Party issue.

Australia’s system is not identical to Germany’s, but the parliamentary (or Westminster) plan of the lower house introduces some of the same power dynamics. (Liberal-National Coalition PM John Howard proposed developing nuclear power in 2006; his party lost to anti-nuke Labor in 2007.) Federal and most regional elections are also decided by “preferential voting” (also known as IRV, or “instant runoff”). This form of democracy tends to give voters more options, and allows tertiary parties, and their issues, to gain a foothold in the system. Australia also accords a great deal of autonomy to its six state governments, where, for instance, it would be virtually impossible for the federal Australian government to put a nuclear power plant in a state if that state’s government had rejected it.

Contrast this with the United States, where, rather than responding to the new, post-Fukushima realities, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has signaled it is “full speed ahead” on the relicensing of old nuclear facilities (many of which are nearly identical to the Fukushima reactors; all of which are reaching the ends of their projected lifespans). Seabrook, in Connecticut New Hampshire, has just been granted permission to proceed toward relicensing, and it looks like re-upping the Massachusetts Pilgrim plant will also be moving ahead. This movement runs counter to the NRC’s own recent task force report advocating a new safety regime that incorporates lessons learned from Japan. And this relicensing also runs counter to substantial objections from state governments, nuclear watchdogs, and community activists.

Shouldn’t the chief regulatory agency wait until its new, proposed regulations are in place before giving out licenses for another 20 years of potentially dangerous operation? Under a governmental system that draws its regulators from the industry it regulates and funds its two-party, first-past-the-post elections with money from that industry, it appears not.

And regulatory protocol is not the only point of contrast. In Germany, the marketplace has already recognized the changing reality. Siemens, a German industrial giant, has announced that it is getting out of the nuclear power business:

It [Siemens] will build no further nuclear plants and is canceling its nuclear joint venture with Russia’s Rosatom. Siemens built all 17 of Germany’s existing nuclear plants. Siemens chief executive, Peter Loescher, (pictured) praised the Merkel government’s decision to close all its nuclear plants by 2022 and aim for an 80% to 100% renewable energy economy by 2050, calling it “a project of the century.”

Siemens recognizes that without government support, and without an automatic customer, there is no profit in nuclear power.

In the United States, where President Obama (a beneficiary of large campaign contributions from nuclear power companies) went out of his way to affirm the US commitment to nuclear generation immediately following the Japanese quake and tsunami, and where the federal government continues to offer loan guarantees for maintaining and operating nuclear plants, a very different picture is emerging:

Exelon Corporation and Constellation Energy have filed for Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approval of their proposed merger. In the filing, the companies commit themselves to divesting three of Constellation’s non-nuclear power plants totaling [sic] 2648 MWe in a step to ensure the merger will not cause power market or competitive concerns in the PJM (Pennsylvania, Jersey, Maryland) Power Pool in which they operate.

Constellation is the owner of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear facility in Maryland, which has recently come under scrutiny (OK, closer scrutiny, it has a long history of safety concerns) because of an emergency shutdown triggered by a transformer explosion during Hurricane Irene. Exelon, itself the product of a merger brokered by former White House Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, was one of Barack Obama’s largest campaign contributors. Exelon already operates more US nuclear plants than any other power company.

And this isn’t the only consolidation move in the US power sector. Duke Energy and Progress Energy, companies that operate nuclear facilities throughout the southeast, are seeking to form the country’s largest electric utility.

The Exelon-Constellation deal is facing opposition from Maryland’s Governor, Martin O’Malley, while the Duke-Progress merger has raised questions in North Carolina. But the final say on whether either deal goes through rests with FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

FERC is comprised of five commissioners, each appointed by the president to a five-year term (in theory, anyway–one commissioner is still there, despite his term supposedly ending in June). As currently constituted, three members are George W. Bush appointees, two were picked by President Obama (though that does not necessarily predict how they will act). FERC’s decisions are final, and are not subject to any kind of Congressional vote.

The differences are stark. In Germany, where electoral realities have forced to the government to take an honest look at nuclear safety, market realities have delineated a path away from nuclear power and toward a renewable energy economy. In the US, where government is not only insulated from popular opinion but also beholden to corporate largess, elected officials, regulators and industry work hand-in-hand to perpetuate dangerous, expensive and inefficient technologies (while, on Capitol Hill, House Republicans vote to slash already threadbare programs meant to encourage renewable energy development).

In an age where so many economies are desperately trying not to lose any more ground in the present, could it be that the ones more responsive to their rank-and-file electorates are the ones in the best position to (to borrow a quickly forgotten phrase) win the future?

The Party Line – September 16, 2011: Though Nuclear Crisis Continues, IAEA Can’t Force Safety Overhaul

On Monday, September 12, an incinerator explosion at a French nuclear waste processing center killed one, injured four, and created just enough nuclear news to edge this week’s other nuclear story right out of the headlines.

The explosion, which is reported not to have caused any leak of radiation, was at a facility that reprocesses used nuclear reactor fuel in order to create a more toxic, less stable form of fuel commonly known as “mixed oxide” or MOX. MOX, which is a tasty blend of uranium and plutonium, was in at least some of the rods in some of the reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi facility when it suffered catastrophic failures after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami–and the presence of MOX fuel made the fallout from explosions at the Japanese plant more dangerous as a result. (More dangerous than already extremely dangerous might seem like a trivial addendum, but it is of note if for no other reason than the manufacture and use of MOX fuel is what nuclear power proponents think of when they call it a “renewable resource.”)

And it was the Fukushima disaster that brought diplomats, nuclear scientists, and government regulators to the negotiating table in Vienna for this week’s annual meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency. At issue, a June proposal by IAEA chief Yukia Amano that the world’s nuclear nations respond to the Japanese crisis with tougher safety regulations and mandatory inspections.

The proposal–which included a one-year deadline for new safety standards and an 18-month window for stress tests on all reactors–had the backing of large nuclear power-generating nations such as Canada, Germany, and Australia, as well as many non-nuclear nations across the globe, but that support and the ongoing disaster in Japan were not enough to overcome sustained, behind-the-scenes efforts to derail this plan. When the IAEA finally took up a draft resolution on Tuesday, it contained no timelines, deadlines or mandatory inspections. Instead, IAEA safety checks, peer reviews, and other moves to ensure nuclear safety may be taken up “upon request” of the nuclear state in question.

Which parties were behind the near-total neutering of the IAEA proposal? Who was responsible for reassuring the global nuclear power industry that virtually no lessons would be learned from the continuing crisis in Japan? It should be no surprise to find traditional foes of nuclear oversight such as Russia, China, Pakistan, and India (along with Argentina) pushing hard against the IAEA. And, given Barack Obama’s very public proclamations of support for nuclear power within days of the Japanese quake, it should probably also not surprise anyone to find the United States right there with them:

[T]he United States was also comfortable with the decision to strip the plan of language entrusting the agency with more clout that was present in earlier drafts and leaving oversight to governments, national safety authorities and power companies. . . .

And now, courtesy of the same AP story, the comic relief:

Such a stance reflects Washington’s strong belief in domestic regulatory bodies having full control of nuclear safety.

The Associated Press, which deserves immense credit for this summer’s exposé on the cozy relationship government regulators have with the nuclear industry it is supposed to police, clearly didn’t give this story the same level of effort (click through for the amusing use of the word “establish” in the penultimate paragraph). . . or maybe it did, and is just bad at communicating the sarcasm. As documented in the months since the start of the Fukushima crisis, a small collection of too-weak recommendations from a Nuclear Regulatory Commission task force is now dying a slow death thanks to lobbying from the nuclear industry, and the NRC commissioners and elected officials receptive to it.

This week’s physical explosion might have taken place in southern France, but the shot that needs to be heard around the world is the IAEA firing blanks, thanks in part to the concerted efforts of a United States government in the grip of a dangerous but powerful industry. At the same time a relative non-event like the Solyndra bankruptcy seems to be growing scandalous legs thanks to obsessive media attention, the real Obama administration scandal is its addiction to old, expensive, dangerous, and non-renewable forms of energy. (See here, too, a very interesting piece tying America’s decline to dwindling petroleum supplies.) That this “The business of America is business-as-usual” story has not made headlines is, itself, probably not news, but what can–and likely will someday–happen because the US government is adamant that Fukushima changes nothing will not be so easy to ignore.

The Party Line – September 9, 2011: Shaken, But Still Not Stirred

Sunday, September 11, will of course be the tenth anniversary of a tragedy that fundamentally changed America in ways we are still trying to understand. But this 9/11 is also a day for other anniversaries, ones that will likely get little, if any, recognition in the US.

In 1985, for instance, September 11 saw a Keystone Kops-like collection of miscues during a test of the remote shutdown protocols at the Limerick Generating Station, a boiling water nuclear reactor outside of Philadelphia. During the shutdown, a valve on a cooling system failed to open, and attempts to manually open the valve were met by a locked door, and a call for a key, which, after a 15-minute wait, turned out to be the wrong key. Once the proper key was found and the door was opened, the operators found the valve’s hand wheel chained and padlocked to prevent accidental opening. Those keys were in the abandoned control room. Bolt cutters had to be used before the operators could finally open the valve.

All that time, the reactor core’s temperature was increasing. Fortunately, the test was done during startup, when decay heat is relatively low, so control rods were able to slow the reaction enough to provide time to overcome the multiple barriers to opening the valve. Had the plant been operating at full power when this series of problems occurred, the outcome would likely have not been so rosy.

September 11 will also mark six months since the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck northern Japan triggered a series of cataclysmic failures at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex. That accident provides no amusing anecdotes or happy endings, but those horrible events should provide a loud wakeup call and numerous object lessons for nuclear power programs across the globe.

As previously noted, the Japanese nightmare and domestic political realities have spurred German Prime Minister Angela Merkel to announce a rather rapid phase out of her country’s nuclear plants. The Japanese government, too, has spoken of turning away from nuclear power and toward renewable alternatives.

But here in the United States, six months on from Japan’s quake, there are no such proclamations or pledges–if anything, quite the contrary–and almost no movement on even the most incremental of recommendations.

In the face of lessons still not learned, a trio of nuclear experts gathered in Washington, DC on September 8 to highlight key concerns that still have not been addressed six months after the start of the world’s worst nuclear accident. Included on the list are several issues discussed in this space since the Fukushima quake (this is a partial and edited list–please use the link for more concerns and more explanation):

The U.S. regulatory response since Fukushima has been inadequate. “Six months after Fukushima, it seems clear that the U.S. is not going to undertake the type of fundamental, no-holds-barred look at its nuclear regulatory practices that followed the much less serious accident at Three Mile Island some 30 years ago.”

America should avoid post-9/11 mistakes in tightening reactor safety standards. “In responding to Fukushima by issuing orders, the NRC should not make the same mistakes as it did following 9/11, when industry stonewalling delayed implementation of critical security measures for many years. Even today, some post 9/11 security upgrades have not been completed at numerous plants. . . . The U.S. must respond to Fukushima in a much more comprehensive way or it may soon face an accident even worse than Fukushima.”

The U.S. was warned of Fukushima-style problems but failed to act … and is still failing to do so. “U.S. reactors have some of the shortcomings of the Fukushima plants. Furthermore, citizen groups and scientists had tried to call one of these – spent fuel pool vulnerability — to Nuclear Regulatory Commission attention during the last decade. The NRC dismissed these efforts. . . . Without a root cause analysis of its own failure to heed the now validated warnings about spent fuel pools, the NRC may patch the technical problems revealed by Fukushima, but it won’t fix the underlying shortcomings that allow defects to persist until catastrophic events rather than regulatory vigilance force the nuclear industry and the public to face up to them.”

Emergency planning zones in the U.S. must be expanded. “In contrast to the [NRC] Task Force conclusions, we believe that emergency planning zones should be expanded, certain hydrogen control measures should be immediately enforced and spent fuel transfer to dry casks should be accelerated. Also, the safety margins of new reactors need to be reassessed.”

The recent East Coast earthquake should spur more NRC safety analysis. “The earthquake near the North Anna nuclear plant, which reportedly exceeded the plant’s seismic design basis, reinforces the urgency of the NRC Fukushima task force’s recommendation that all plants immediately be reviewed for their vulnerability to seismic and flooding hazards based on the best available information today.”

To that last point, as noted before, the earthquake that struck Mineral, VA in late August should have moved US nuclear regulators to quickly adopt the recommendations of the Fukushima task force. Well, the quake doesn’t seem to have moved the NRC much, but it did move some things, like most of the 117-ton dry storage casks at the North Anna facility. . . and, as we now have learned, pretty much everything else there:

Last month’s record earthquake in the eastern United States may have shaken a Virginia nuclear plant twice as hard as it was designed to withstand, a spokesman for the nuclear safety regulator said on Thursday.

Dominion Resources told the regulator that the ground under the plant exceeded its “design basis” — the first time an operating U.S. plant has experienced such a milestone. . . .

That a facility experienced such a milestone is now known because, over two weeks after the fact, data from the so-called “shake plates” has finally been released (almost a week after it was expected):

“We are currently thinking that at the higher frequencies, the peak acceleration was around 0.26” g, which is a unit of gravity that measures the impact of shaking on buildings, said Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesman.

The plant was designed to withstand 0.12 g of horizontal ground force for parts that sit on rock, and 0.18 g for parts that sit on soil, Burnell said.

Dominion’s sensors recorded average horizontal ground force of 0.13 g in an east-west direction and 0.175 g in a north-south direction, officials said.

The apparent discrepancy seems to stem from the distance between instruments used by the US Geological Survey and those cited by North Anna’s operator, Dominion, but even taking the smaller numbers, the design limits of the plant were exceeded.

Dominion officials have been quick to point out that even though some things have moved and some structures show cracks, those changes are merely cosmetic and in no way dangerous. But nuclear engineer John H. Bickel says that vessels and pipes are not the first things to go in a quake:

[A]n analysis of plants hit by earthquakes had shown that the most vulnerable components were ceramic insulators on high-voltage lines that supply the plants with power and electrical relays, which resemble industrial-strength circuit-breakers and switches.

Even if the relays are not damaged, they might be shaken so that they change positions, cutting off the flow of electricity or allowing it to flow without any command from an operator.

As previously noted (with more than a hint of irony), in order to safely generate electrical power, nuclear plants need an uninterrupted supply of electrical power. Without electricity, cooling systems and important monitors in both the reactors and spent fuel storage pools cannot function. Without effective cooling, nuclear facilities are looking at a series of disasters like the ones encountered at Fukushima Daiichi. That the most quake-vulnerable components directly affect a nuclear plant’s power supply is yet another data point underscoring the urgent need to review and enhance seismic safety at US facilities.

But even before that nation-wide examination can take place, the damage to the shaken North Anna plant needs to be surveyed and analyzed so that Dominion might restart its reactors. What does Dominion need to show in order to get the thumbs up, what criteria need to be met, what repairs or retrofits should be required? To paraphrase the head of the NRC: Who knows?

In an interview last week, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko told Reuters it was unclear what the plant would need to show to resume operations because it is the first time an operating plant has sustained a beyond-design-basis quake.

As Hurricane Irene revealed the lack of national guidelines for what to do in the face of an approaching storm, the Virginia earthquake has shown that the United States has no regulatory regime for learning, analyzing, or acting on data from events that exceed the often-negotiated-down design parameters of its nuclear facilities.

In fact, the NRC does not even have a post-quake inspection protocol. Inspections of North Anna are being done according to procedural guidelines drawn up by the Electric Power Research Institute, “a nonprofit utility consortium that has inspected dozens of industrial plants hit by earthquakes around the world.”

Yes, the nuclear industry has written its own post-event checklist, and, in the absence of any other standard, is left alone to use it.

That sort of self-policing leads to some noteworthy analysis, like this from a nuclear industry attorney: “You shake something really hard, and it’s not designed to be shaken that hard — it doesn’t mean that it’s broken.”

But there is something even more disturbing, if that is possible, propagated by the weak regulations and weak-willed regulators. It leaves space for arguments like this one from that same industry lawyer:

The incident helps make the case for new-generation nuclear plants, which have additional safety features. . . . “If you can have a car from 2011 vs. a car from 1978, what are you going to put your toddler in?”

Beyond the fact that no one is actually suggesting the 1978 plants get traded in for newer models (just augmented with them), cars have to compete for consumer dollars in a way that nuclear plants do not. Nuclear plants could not be built, fueled, operated or maintained without massive subsidies, loan guarantees, and infrastructure commitments from the federal government.

Also of note, a 2011 automobile is safer and more efficient than a 1978 model because of government regulation. The auto industry has fought improvements like mandatory airbags, three-point restraints, and CAFE standards, but a strong government imposed those requirements anyway. And your toddler is safer in that car because the Consumer Product Safety Commission reviews the design of child car seats, and laws mandate their use.

Where the comparison does work, however, is that both represent a false choice. Just as a car is not the only way to transport a toddler, nuclear plants are not the only means by which to generate power. And in 2011, there are many more choices, and many safer choices, than there were in 1978.

Which recalls the important contrast between a country such as Germany–which, faced with a restive electorate and lessons to be learned from Japan’s misfortune, has made a commitment to not just trade in nuclear but trade up to renewable alternatives–and the US, where corporate influence and politics as usual have left the government with seemingly few options beyond willful ignorance and calcification.

Even without recognition of the Japan quake’s semi-anniversary, September 11 will probably be a tense day for most Americans, especially those with personal connections to the events of ten years ago. But while remembrance will be hard, it will mostly be so because of an event now relegated to history.

Residents of Japan, still living with an ongoing and ever-evolving threat, cannot so neatly define their anguish. And if there is a message to be found in this coincidental concurrence of dates, it perhaps springs from there. While Americans can debate what could have been done to prevent the attacks of 9/11/2001, it is a debate held in hindsight. For the Japanese dealing with the aftermath of their disaster, hindsight still seems like a luxury to be enjoyed very far in the future.

But, for the United States, a debate about what can be done to prevent a Fukushima-like disaster here is theoretically blessed, both because it is a debate that can be had before the next crisis, and because it is a debate that can be informed by events. And experience, science, economics and common sense are all pretty clear on what needs to be done.

The Party Line – September 2, 2011: Earthquakes, Hurricane Highlight Serious Flaws with Nuclear Power and its Regulation

On Friday, August 26, as Hurricane Irene began its slow journey up the US central Atlantic coast, power companies operating 20 nuclear reactors in nine states made plans to deal with the storm and its potential aftermath.

North Carolina’s Brunswick reactors, operated by Progress Energy, were powered down to 70 percent of peak capacity. At New Jersey’s Oyster Creek, near Barnegat Bay, plant operator Exelon chose to shutdown its reactor completely. Dominion Resources, owner of New London, Connecticut’s Millstone plant took one reactor down to 70 percent, the other to 50 percent.

Dominion’s Surry plant in Virginia stayed at full power, as did Entergy’s Indian Point, 35 miles north of New York City, and the Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts.

The reason some plants chose to reduce output or go offline was because, if an accident caused or required the plant to scram–that is, quickly and completely shut down–the stress on the reactor increases the chance of a future safety breach. As Bob Alvarez, of the Institute for Policy Studies, explains:

Keep in mind that when these large reactors scram, it’s like a jumbo jet making a quick forced landing. The sudden insertion of control rods creates unexpected stress on the reactor. This is why when a reactor is normally shut-down for refueling, it is done gradually. If a reactor experiences several scrams during a year, this should raise a red nuclear safety flag.

While working in DOE, I was involved in energy emergency planning, and electricity blackouts, NRC staff were definitely concerned about the safety of increased scrams caused by forced power outages.

By reducing output, a reactor comes under less stress during a rapid shutdown. It is like hitting the brakes at 35 mph as opposed to slamming them on at 60 mph. The stop is faster and results in less wear-and-tear on the vehicle.

One plant that decided not to reduce output was Constellation Energy Group’s Calvert Cliffs facility near Lusby, Maryland. That was probably a mistake:

A nuclear power reactor automatically went offline late Saturday in Calvert Cliffs after its main transformer was hit by a piece of aluminum siding that Hurricane Irene had peeled off a building. . . .

A follow-up NRC Daily Event Report filed on August 29 by Constellation Energy to the NRC identified that the wind blown debris crashed into an electrical transformer at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear station causing an electrical short and “An unanticipated explosion within the Protected Area resulting in visible damage to permanent structures or equipment.”

To be clear, automatically going offline is a scram.

That is bad news for CEG, which has to keep the reactor offline pending a full inspection by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but it might have actually been good news for the surrounding communities. As it turns out, the transformer explosion was not the only problem encountered at Calvert Cliffs during Irene’s visit. As the NRC’s August 29 Daily Event Report [PDF] states:

At 2400, 8/27/2011, numerous alarms on the 1A DG [Diesel Generator] started to be received. These were investigated and it was found that water was intruding down the DG exhaust piping resulting in a DC ground. Based on these indications the 1A DG was declared inoperable and appropriate technical specifications implemented.

In other words, the backup power generator would not have worked if the Calvert Cliffs reactor had lost its main power source. As previously observed, nuclear plants require a steady stream of electric power to operate safely, as cooling systems and monitoring devices depend on it.

It was also noted in the NRC event report that Hurricane Irene “disabled public notification sirens in two counties in the reactor’s emergency planning zone.” They lost power, and CEG had not provided any battery back-up system. So, if an accident severe enough to require precautions or evacuation took place that night, large numbers of people would have been left in the dark, as it were. As the editors of Beyond Nuclear put it, “So much for defense in depth.”

And so much for oversight, it seems. The problems at Calvert Cliffs are not really a revelation–at least not to the NRC:

Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant in Southern Maryland is due for closer scrutiny by federal regulators after unspecified security lapses discovered there earlier this year.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has finalized a “greater than green” finding of security deficiencies spotted during a special inspection from January to July of this year, according to a letter released Wednesday. The agency has not disclosed the nature of the problems, saying that releasing such information might help someone to attack or sabotage the twin-reactor plant in Lusby in Calvert County.

That is the sum total of an item in the August 31 Baltimore Sun. Curious civilians with an abundance of time can access some of the reports through the NRC’s Calvert Cliffs page, but there is no digest for lay readers.

And even the untrained eye might take issue in light of recent developments. For instance, a May report [PDF] on an inspection instigated in the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima disaster gave a passing grade to backup equipment designed to kick-in if a so-called SBO, or Site Blackout, occurred. As observed, rainfall from Irene rendered a backup diesel generator inoperable.

The lingering safety questions, coupled with dual mishaps caused by high winds and heavy rain, appear not to have resulted in a dangerous event at Calvert Cliffs this time. However, it is just this kind of “what are the chances?” one-two punch that so exacerbated the crisis in Japan, and it is events like this that again should serve as an urgent wakeup call for regulators and legislators alike to quickly implement safety improvements to America’s nuclear facilities.

But step back, and an even larger systemic problem takes shape. Each private energy company made its own decisions on what to do with each of its reactors in the face of an approaching (and somewhat predictable) natural disaster. The call on whether to decrease output or shutdown reactors in advance was not the federal government’s call, not the NRC’s, and not the call of at-risk states or municipalities. There is no federal rule, and, apparently, no federal authority to direct plants on how to operate in cases of multi-region events such as a hurricane.

The NRC’s post-Fukushima-disaster task force did not specifically address this issue, but it did recommend a reexamination of the way the entirety of US nuclear power generation is regulated. The majority of NRC commissioners, however, found even that vague recommendation to be too urgent, and any consideration of this question is now at least 18 months away.

Meanwhile, at North Anna’s quake-damaged plant. . . .

On August 26, Dominion, the company that operates the reactors at Virginia’s North Anna plant, notified the NRC that the 5.8 magnitude Earthquake centered in Mineral, Virginia, might have caused more shaking than the facility was designed to withstand. (Some confusion has surrounded the seismic standard to which North Anna was built. The tolerances are often shorthanded to a Richter scale magnitude number, but, in fact, plant design is supposed to be evaluated against the amount of shaking a quake will cause. Shaking at one point depends on magnitude, but also on the distance from the epicenter and the depth of the quake, as well as other geological factors.) Full results of an examination of the “shake plates” (which measure ground motion) are supposed to be released later today (September 2).

What is already known, though, is that the shaking caused many of North Anna’s dry casks–a type of spent-fuel storage container–to move by as much as four inches. Twenty-five of the 27 vertical casks moved as a result of the quake. Each of those steel and concrete casks contains 32 spent fuel rods and weighs 115 tons. Newer horizontal casks did not move, but some of the 26 (13 already full of spent fuel) show what has been termed “cosmetic damage” to exterior concrete.

As discussed, but, as noted here, not addressed in the NRC task force report, dry cask storage is preferable to the spent fuel pools where “fresher” old fuel is stored at most US plants. Pools require a dependable electrical source to keep liquid circulating and completely covering stored fuel rods. An interruption of power or damage to the cooling system can cause dangerous conditions where the liquid overheats, boils away, and even “cracks” as a result of the nuclear reaction, which accelerates as the pools heat and disappear, and hydrogen explosions are possible, further damaging the vessels and sending radioactive material into the atmosphere.

Dry casks store fuel further removed from “active service,” and are cooled by naturally circulating air.

While the March quake and tsunami provoked the described dangerous events in Fukushima Daiichi’s spent fuel pools, there are no reports of any problems with any of Japan’s dry casks.

But the movement of and damage to North Anna’s casks, though minor, is not meaningless. Beyond the contrasts with liquid storage, the August event highlights the lack of a national repository for spent-but-still-highly-radioactive nuclear fuel. Fifty-five of the nation’s nuclear facilities currently have dry casks on site, but the United States has no centralized facility for the long-term storage. And, since the Obama administration declared Nevada’s partially built Yucca Mountain repository closed, the US has no current plan for the disposal of this dangerous material.

The NRC Fukushima task force acknowledges the need for a long-term plan, but there exist no specific recommendations and no process or funding for developing any.

And speaking of Fukushima. . . .

Al Jazeera has a disturbing report on radioactive waste from the ongoing nuclear disaster overwhelming sewage treatment facilities hundreds of miles from Fukushima.

In Japan, before March, processed sewage sludge was often shipped out for use by fertilizer and concrete manufacturers. But now, even far from the destroyed nuclear plant, the sewage is too dangerous for any use. As a result, piles of highly radioactive sludge are accumulating at sewage plants that have no capacity or expertise for handling the toxic material. Instead, containers and piles of sludge are just being lined up at the processing plants, out in the open, covered by simple plastic tarps. Workers are told they face no imminent danger, but Geiger counters say otherwise.

 

The Japanese government has no plan for dealing with this latest sinister wrinkle, saying only that it is not yet an urgent problem.

Such a lack of urgency is stunning and sad for a country and a people so directly in harm’s way, but a similar lackadaisical, industry-coddling attitude in the US should be no less troubling. True, nothing as terrible as Japan’s catastrophe has yet occurred at an American nuclear plant, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility, as almost every passing week or natural disaster seems to accentuate.

Theoretically, the United States has a body tasked with responding to these new probabilities–the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And if the NRC won’t do its job, the US has a body with strict oversight powers–Congress. The Congress and the president also have the ability to demand from the nuclear industry improvements in safety and emergency preparedness in exchange for the federal subsidies and loan guarantees the industry needs to operate at all.

But if the Commission or the politicians cannot break free of their cozy relationships with–and the campaign donations from–private energy companies, then who or what, beyond nature, will hold the nuclear industry accountable?

The lifespan of a nuclear plant or a political career is short, but the half-life of many byproducts of nuclear power generation is long. In some cases, very, very long. Is any nation’s political system able to take that long a view?

The Party Line – August 26, 2011: Virginia Quake Yet Another Wakeup Call for Sleepy Nuclear Regulators (Plus: Japan’s PM Resigns)

Late Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) made this observation over at The Huffington Post:

Uninterrupted electricity is essential for nuclear safety. Without electricity, nuclear power plants are unable to pump cooling water through reactor cores and spent fuel pools to prevent overheating and fuel melting.

Without power, plant operators cannot control reactor activity or remotely monitor spent fuel.

It was the loss of electrical power that led to the partial-meltdown of multiple reactors, significant radiation release and damage to the spent fuel pools at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan after the devastating 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in March.

First, I can’t move on without noting two problems there in the last paragraph.

I don’t know how Feinstein defines it, but I think most of the world has dropped the “partial” from the assessment of the meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility. Maybe DiFi has some secret pictures that show tiny bits of intact cladding floating on top of the blobs of corium now understood to be at the bottom of at least some of the damaged reactors, and so she feels uncomfortable going all the way, but the company that nominally runs the facility and the country that is unlucky enough to serve as its home feel sure enough to call it a meltdown without the modifier, so I think US Senators should, too.

Also, it is now believed that a meltdown in at least one of the reactors started before the tsunami that followed Japan’s March 11 earthquake. In other words, as I reported previously, the earthquake damaged the containment vessel or, more likely, the cooling system before the massive wave knocked out the backup generators and, thus, power to the cooling system. So, the loss of power did not lead to at least some of the meltdown—earthquake damage did.

That is not just an academic nitpick, it goes directly to how Feinstein and the entire US regulatory structure should evaluate the safety of domestic nuclear power plants.

Second: “Uninterrupted electricity is essential for nuclear safety.” Just think about that for a second. Uninterrupted electricity is essential for the safe generation of electricity. It is a logic that seems as vulnerable to reason as nuclear cooling systems are to seismic and tidal events.

But third, I do want to congratulate Senator Feinstein for recognizing and writing the obvious:

The incident [Tuesday’s magnitude 5.8 quake centered in Virginia] was a stark reminder of how vulnerable America’s nuclear power plants are to natural disasters.

I mean that congratulations sincerely. Yes, we didn’t really need a new reminder—Japan’s Fukushima disaster is recent and ongoing—but the Mineral, VA earthquake was another indication that our nuclear plants are vulnerable to natural and manmade disasters at many points. And more American politicians should say just what DiFi said, instead of brushing off Japan’s already extant stark reminder as a “can’t happen here” event, or quickly forgetting Tuesday’s quake because it resulted in “minimal damage and no loss of life” (to use Feinstein’s own rosy words).

Feinstein continues by laying out four “lessons” that Japan and Virginia should teach us. (It is really more like two or three points with repeats, but that’s OK.) The headlines:

First, our country needs a comprehensive, national policy to address the management of spent fuel, the radioactive waste produced while generating electricity by fission.

Second, today’s efforts to protect against seismic and flooding hazards may not be sufficient.

Third, we must improve the redundant safety systems to respond to disasters.

Finally, for spent fuel stored at reactor sites, dry casks are safer and more secure than permanent storage in spent fuel pools.

Both the first and fourth points note that storing spent fuel in pools of circulating water is not a particularly safe, efficient, or cost-effective way of dealing with one of nuclear power generation’s biggest problems. Not only are these pools also dependent on an uninterrupted source of electricity to keep water circulating and levels high enough to keep the rods—now packed in at many times the pools’ original designed capacity—from overheating and melting themselves or cracking the water and triggering hydrogen explosions, the cooling systems for the pools are also vulnerable to seismic events.

Feinstein says that spent rods should be moved to dry casks and eventually to a secure repository, observing that spent fuel in Japan housed in dry casks had no problems after the March 11 quake and flood. Strangely, though, the senator cites the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s special taskforce report on the aftermath of the Japanese disaster as the inspiration for making this call for dry casks and a national fuel repository—strange because, as both Physicians for Social Responsibility and I noted back when the report was released, the task force pointedly did not make any recommendations for moving spent fuel to dry casks or to off-site repositories.

Feinstein also says she has learned that protections against earthquakes and flooding may not be sufficient. Again, DiFi modifies—there is really no need to say “may” here. From Fukushima Daiichi to the reactors in Virginia known as North Anna 1 and 2, it should now be very clear that nuclear plants are walking a precarious line between “minimal damage” and catastrophic failure.

Let’s look more closely at what happened on Tuesday. A 5.8 earthquake centered 15 miles from the North Anna nuclear power generating facility cut electrical power to the plant. Backup diesel generators kicked in to provide power to the cooling systems, averting the overheating of either the reactor core or the pools of spent fuel. Good news, as far as it goes, but there are several disconcerting caveats.

First, we don’t know if the plant—which is theoretically designed to withstand a quake of a 6.2 magnitude—has actually emerged from Tuesday’s tremor completely unscathed. The reactors are currently being brought to a cold shutdown so that they may be inspected further. Not only must the containment vessels be more closely inspected, the cooling system must be tested for leaks. Some of the pipes and conduits for that system are underground. As reactor expert Paul Gunter has noted, an underground rupture, one that might be leaking radioactive tritium into ground water, is quite possible and needs to be investigated more fully.

(As a caveat to the caveat, I must note that we also need to find a way to verify that the public is being fully informed about any damage and radioactive leaks—not a sure thing in light of both the evolving story of cover-up in Japan and this summer’s expose on collusion between the NRC and the nuclear industry.)

Second, the North Anna plant gets its name from Lake Anna, an artificial lake created to provide a reservoir for the cooling requirements of the nuclear facility. What if the quake had caused the dam that holds the water in Lake Anna to rupture? Beyond the dangerous flooding to well-populated communities downstream, the water level in the reservoir would drop to a point where the nuclear plant’s cooling system would fail. If this were to happen, no amount of redundant power generation would fix the problem. Does this sound farfetched? It is not. Virginia is noteworthy for its lack of attention to its aging infrastructure—in fact, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ infrastructure report card [PDF], the condition of Virginia’s dams gets a D-minus.

(It should be noted that the initial inspection of the Lake Anna dam after Tuesday’s quake showed no new damage.)

Third, not all of North Anna’s backup generators worked on Tuesday. Only three of the four came online after power was lost. (Hooray for required redundancy.) What is not clear is what effect this had on the plant’s ability to function normally, or what would have happened if grid power had not been restored as quickly to the facility.

Fourth, there is emerging evidence that seismic activity can increase as the result of the pressure from dammed reservoirs, as well as from hydraulic fracturing (which has been going on in the vicinity of Tuesday’s epicenter).

And finally, to simply give a Richter scale number as a sort of assurance of the safety of a nuclear facility is overly simplistic if not downright deceptive. Here’s why:

As noted here today and before, there are many systems that have to survive an earthquake—the reactor containment vessel, its cooling system, the spent fuel pools, their cooling systems, the reactor building, the monitoring equipment, and a plant’s connection to a steady supply of electrical power. In theory, all these systems were evaluated when the plans for a nuclear facility were initially approved. They all should survive a quake of a specified magnitude.

However, all of America’s nuclear facilities were licensed during a time when regulators assessed designs based on what is called Deterministic Seismic Hazard Analysis (DSHA). But, as noted in a May Congressional Research Service report [PDF]:

Since then, Probabilistic Seismic Hazard Analysis (PSHA) has been adopted as a more comprehensive approach in engineering practice. Consequently, the NRC is reassessing the probability of seismic core damage at existing plants.

I am not an expert in plate tectonics, but what I read tells me that you would feel more secure with a PSHA-generated standard—and what I have learned from Fukushima is that I want that standard applied to all the systems needed to safely operate a nuclear power plant. But what this report tells me is that the NRC is only in the midst of some process of reevaluating plants’ seismic vulnerability—a process that was to have begun last year but has moved very slowly (and this is only the evaluation stage)—and that this re-evaluation is of the probability of core damage, which, to my eye, is not the same as an evaluation of every system needed for the reactor and the spent fuel pools to remain safe.

And I am not alone in my worries. Here’s the NRC itself after it looked at North Anna in April (via the Institute for Southern Studies and the Center for Public Integrity):

Specifically, the NRC report notes that portions of water and gaseous suppression systems and hose stations “are not seismically designed.”

The report noted that “potential leakage can occur through penetrations following seismic event.”

And with specific regard to the spent fuel pools, ISS continues:

There’s also concern about what a major quake would mean for the water-filled pools used to store spent fuel at most U.S. nuclear plants. Bob Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies who recently authored a report on the dangers of spent fuel storage in the United States, addressed the issue in a piece on the IPS blog posted shortly after the quake:

The North Anna reactors are of the Westinghouse Pressurized Water design and went on line in 1979 and 1980 respectively. Since then the reactors have generated approximately 1,200 metric tons of nuclear spent fuel containing about 228,000 curies of highly radioactive materials — among the largest concentrations of radioactivity in the United States.

Alvarez went on to note that almost 40 percent of the radioactivity in North Anna’s spent fuel pools is in the form of cesium-137, a long-lived isotope that presents serious health risks and accumulates in the food chain. He continued:

The spent fuel pools at North Anna contain four to five times more spent fuel than their original designs intended. As in Japan, all U.S. nuclear power plant spent fuel pools do not have steel lined, concrete barriers that cover reactor vessels to prevent the escape of radioactivity. They are not required to have back-up generators to keep used fuel rods cool, if offsite power is lost. Even though they contain these very large amounts of radioactivity, spent reactor fuel pools in the United States are mostly contained in ordinary industrial structures designed to protect them against the elements.

This goes to explaining the confusion I see over whether just parts or the entirety of a nuclear facility is required to meet a specific earthquake safety standard. But what it doesn’t do is imply that a single, plant-wide standard will be used in the future.

As noted when the special task force report came out earlier this summer, the recommendation that the current patchwork of safety rules should be unified and standardized was actually being slow-walked by three of the five NRC commissioners. Finally, one week ago, the commission agreed to give its technical team 45 days to analyze some of the recommendations, but they will be given a full 18 months to analyze the recommendation that the NRC revise its entire regulatory framework in light of lessons learned after the Fukushima disaster.

It should also be noted that there is currently no law that requires the NRC to apply the new, better seismic standards when evaluating requests for license renewals or the building of additional reactors at existing facilities. (There is a bill, languishing in the House, designed to fix this. . . did I mention it was languishing?)

Which brings us back to Senator Feinstein, or, really, her California colleague, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), who chairs the Committee on Environment and Public Works and has oversight responsibilities over the NRC. While DiFi has written about the lessons of this week’s Virginia quake, Boxer has demanded action on the NRC taskforce report on the lessons learned from Fukushima. At a hearing on August 2, Boxer demanded the NRC pick up the pace on evaluating the recommendations and report back to her by November. With the NRC’s decision on how it will move forward, and the latest in a lengthening string of “wakeup calls” having caused incidents at North Anna and a number of other eastern nuclear facilities, perhaps both of California’s Senators might consider official hearings before then.

It must also be mentioned that while I was writing this post, Japan’s Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, has stepped down. Stories on the resignation concurrently cite his dismal poll numbers from an anti-nuke electorate, and the lack of support from pro-nuclear members of his party. Kan, who had previously hinted at leaving after the Fukushima crisis was brought under control (it seems I correctly predicted he’d be gone well before that), has also signaled that he wanted to wean Japan off nuclear power for electrical generation and move more aggressively toward renewable sources. Both possible reasons for his early exit speak to some form of accountability—one to the public, the other to entrenched nuclear industry masters—and both have probably played some roll. But what matters going forward is to whom the next leader will answer, and what happens with Japanese nuclear facilities will make that very clear.

In the US, we have a less clear choice—no one has proposed a move away from nuclear power (quite the contrary)—which, alas, probably tells us who calls the shots in our country. But that ugly political reality doesn’t change the physical one—United States nuclear facilities remain vulnerable to numerous seismic and tidal threats. As Diane Feinstein concludes, “We need to learn the lessons we can to assure that next time we are ready—not just lucky.”

The Party Line – August 19, 2011: Japan Nuclear Crisis Continues, Highlighting More Potential Dangers in US

Imagine, if you will, living somewhat close to a nuclear reactor—not right next door, but close enough—and then imagine that an accident at that reactor causes a large release of radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere. Certainly scary, but maybe less scary because you know your government has computer models that show where the nuclear fallout will blow and fall, and they explain that the amounts that will blow and fall on you are negligible.

Sure, you might think twice about that reassurance, but it is not like they are saying everything is OK. The government, after all, did evacuate some people based on their fallout models. . . so they are on top of it.

Then imagine five months later, after you’ve breathed the air, drank the water, and tramped dirt and snow in and around your home, the government reveals that even though they had the models, and even though they knew the amounts of radioactivity pouring into the atmosphere from the damaged nuclear plant, they didn’t input the known amounts into the fallout model, so that when the government was reassuring people, it was doing so based on a minimum measurable number used to build the model, and not the actual amounts then being released. So, now, you find that not only have you been living in a place that was well within a zone now littered with hazardous fallout, you find that many who were evacuated were moved directly into the path of that radioactive plume.

While you’re at it, imagine that you’ve been eating contaminated beef, because the government failed to stop the distribution of radioactive rice straw. And, also, imagine you’ve been drinking tea containing three times the allowable limit of radioactive cesium because the government didn’t think they needed to monitor tea that was grown over 100 miles from the failed reactor.

Imagine, too, that your children are safe because the amount of ionizing radiation they are exposed to is under the government’s annual limit. . . because the government just increased the allowable annual limit twenty-fold, from one millisievert to 20 mSv.

Of course, as I am sure you have already surmised, if you live in many parts of Northern Japan, you don’t have to imagine any of this—this is your everyday reality.

This rather terrifying reality really isn’t limited to Northern Japan, however. Yes, that region has suffered the worst of the triple play that was a massive earthquake, a tsunami, and reactor meltdowns, but the contaminated food has been found all over Japan (and now there is word that tuna is also showing evidence of contamination), and in Tokyo, outside the evacuation zone and even the worst of the newly revealed plume models, a rainstorm ten days after the earthquake increased levels of background radiation in the city, and they have remained high ever since.

A professor at Tokyo University recently made a speech before the Japanese Diet in which he compared levels of contamination and exposure from the Fukushima disaster to that from the atomic blast at Hiroshima—the current crisis being upwards of twenty times worse.

More troubling still—for the Japanese, and anyone, frankly, that shares a jet stream with them—the last couple of weeks have seen evidence of a fourth meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi facility, and, perhaps even more disturbing, news of highly radioactive steam emerging from cracks in the ground around the reactor buildings. What makes that last point especially scary is that some believe this is evidence that the “corium” (the molten mess of fissile material that was once fuel rods inside of a reactor) has not only melted through the bottom of the containment vessel, but has started to burn through the concrete floor of the complex and is sinking toward the water table. (Images of Jane Fonda and Jack Lemon make this seem less serious to me, but you will hear others talk of this and reference The China Syndrome.) A constant leaking of a sort of radioactive smog is bad enough—it makes working on the cleanup go from ridiculously difficult to nearly impossible—but the bigger concern is an interaction between the corium and the groundwater that separates the hydrogen from the oxygen, causing a big explosion, sending more contaminants up into the atmosphere.

Such a scenario also sets up another imagination exercise: try to imagine just what effect this development will have on the already dubious plan to cover the breached reactor buildings with giant tarps. That’s one you will still have to imagine, because, as yet, there is no reported adjustment in the containment and cleanup plan from the Japanese government.

Of course, as terrible as this all is, it seems terribly removed from what should concern inhabitants of the mainland United States. After all, the US has not suffered this nuclear accident, it has no issues with leaking radioactive isotopes, America is a much larger and less densely populated country than Japan, and, after all, the dual disaster that caused the Fukushima reactors to meltdown is near to completely impossible for almost any of the reactors based in the US.

Except that none of that is true.

Though none have yet risen to the size and scope of the Fukushima disaster, the US has a long history of nuclear accidents. Some are of the instantaneous crisis variety, like Three Mile Island (to name only the most obvious of several), but many are of the slowly evolved, quietly revealed variety. For instance, just this week, health officials announced that radioactive tritium released from aging pipes at the Vermont Yankee nuclear facility had leached into the soil and has now been detected in the Connecticut River. In past years, strontium contamination had also been linked to the same plant. Vermont Yankee officials, now lobbying for a license renewal, have basically responded with “Pipes? What pipes?” and “Those are not our isotopes.”

And Vermont Yankee is just one of a long list of aging nuclear facilities built dangerously close to population centers. One third of Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear reactor.

Feeling eerily similar to the Japanese response, the US government has met elevated readings of background radiation and radioactive isotopes triggered by the fallout from Fukushima with a decrease in the reporting of such data (and in some cases, an actual decrease in data collected). There is talk (behind closed doors, of course) of revising upward the acceptable amounts of radioactive contamination in certain foods. An AP report exposed a history of US government regulators working closely with the nuclear industry to weaken safety requirements and paper-over violations. And, even a series of relatively modest recommendations on how to enhance nuclear safety based on what has been observed in Japan is being slow-walked into non-implementation.

And maybe most disturbing of all, the very premise that is supposed to comfort us, that the meltdowns in Japan were the result of a catastrophic coincidence of events—an earthquake shutting off electricity to the plant, a tsunami knocking out the diesel back-up generators, thus leaving the facility with no way of powering the cooling systems—while already not wholly impossible in the United States, might turn out to be seriously flawed and overly optimistic. Evidence is beginning to emerge that some of the Fukushima meltdowns might have begun almost immediately after the earthquake, likely the result of multiple ruptures to the cooling system itself caused not by the tsunami, but by the tremor. In other words, even with full power to the plant, the cooling systems would have failed.

Reports right after the March earthquake in Japan found a disturbing number of US nuclear plants in active seismic zones, and found several near large population centers in the east to be even more vulnerable to earthquake damage than the two oft-cited California facilities. But here’s the clincher, those probabilities of whether a nuclear plant can survive an earthquake of a size likely to occur in a particular area are calculated on whether the tremor will damage the reactor core—those numbers do not factor in damage to the cooling system as the cause of a crisis.

How does the US government assess risk if a double whammy is not necessary? How does the NRC rate a facility if a breach of the containment vessel is not required to start a meltdown (or an explosion in an overheated spent fuel pool, for that matter)? As best I can tell, it doesn’t.

Imagination, as the song says, is funny. It makes a cloudy day sunny. It makes a bee think of honey. . . but it doesn’t cover-up reality when a real-world disaster continues to provide measurable data and cause considerable suffering. Governments on both sides of the Pacific might want to pretend that what we don’t know won’t hurt us, but the facts will prove that whether we know or not, the pain—both physical and economic—will be felt far and wide.

(A version of this post also appears at Firedoglake.)

The Party Line – July 15, 2011: Japan’s PM Recommends Shift Away from Nuclear Power; US Report Recommends Regulatory Tweaks

While most of creation is still trying to predict if Congress will raise the debt ceiling, and what will happen to the economy if they don’t, I thought I’d spend some quality time with disasters quite present, and in some ways, quite predictable. I am talking about nuclear power in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster.

As I detailed a few weeks back, Germany’s Prime Minister, Angela Merkel, announced a plan to shut down all of her country’s nuclear reactors by 2022. This week, Japanese PM Naoto Kan made similar noises:

We should reduce our dependence in a planned and gradual way, and in the future we should aim to get by with no nuclear energy. When we think of the magnitude of the risks involved with nuclear power, the safety measures we previously conceived are inadequate.

And, also this week, here in the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released, via its website, an 80-something-page report on the Japanese nuclear disaster [PDF], which included a series of recommendations for improving safety and disaster response at US nuclear power facilities.

Just doesn’t have the same oomph, does it? Kind of missing the gravity or sense of urgency of a head of state declaring an unambiguous move away from nuclear power, no?

Style points aside—I mean, you can hardly expect President Obama to break away from round-the-clock deficit hysteria to address a looming threat that also happens to siphon billions of dollars from federal coffers in the form of subsidies and loan guarantees—the content of the report itself, its findings and recommendations, also leave me feeling a bit underwhelmed.

As noted, the report is long–and it is dense–but as I understand it, the task force recommends that regulators pay more attention to what the report calls “low-likelihood, high-consequence events”. . . you know, like earthquakes and floods that damage nuclear reactors and safety systems.

Hard to argue with that. . . but then the task force also says that the sort of high-consequence disaster that happened in Japan can’t happen in the US—and that is a point that I and many experts and activists would argue against. To put it very briefly, the United States has many reactors past their projected life spans, many similar in design to Fukushima’s, and many built in areas vulnerable to seismic activity, floods and, yes, even tsunamis.

Also recommended, that the government standardize safety regulations and emergency response plans—and make them actual rules as opposed to voluntary industry initiatives (aka “suggestions”)—which is good as far as it goes, but in the wake of a multi-part AP exposé showing how the NRC conspired with the nuclear industry to lower safety standards, I’m thinking that doesn’t go that far.

Perhaps what is most important, however, is what’s missing from the Near-Term Task Force Review. As noted by Physicians for Social Responsibility, the report makes no recommendation for moving spent nuclear fuel from over-packed pools to hardened on-site storage. A striking omission considering that used fuel rods stored in pools inside the Fukushima reactor buildings were and continue to be a serious part of the crisis in Japan.

Also highlighted by PSR, though completely outside the prescribed scope of the investigation, the task force states that there is an “expectation of no significant radiological health effects” from the Fukushima disaster.

No significant radiological health effects. When I first read that, I assumed the NRC review was referring to the United States—an assertion that already strains credulity as far as I’m concerned, but one that can be debated, given the distance and the data (or paucity of data). But, as I read it—uh, re-read it—this “conclusion” is a general one, as in everywhere, as in an expectation of no significant radiological health effects in Japan.

Now, that assertion, without any long-term health screenings or any epidemiological studies, is as worthless as it is irresponsible, but to make such a statement a week after a Japanese report revealed that 45 percent of children in Fukushima Prefecture have thyroids that show evidence of exposure to radiation makes one wonder what the US task force used for data. . . or if they felt the need to use data at all. Also revealed at the end of June, soil samples from the city of Fukushima—an area well outside of the quarantine radius—contained radioactive cesium at levels 1.5 to 4.5 times greater than the legal limit. (Radioactive cesium 137 has a half-life of approximately 30 years and tends to accumulate in plant tissue and fungal spores.)

But wait, there’s more:

Another sample taken from a street ditch — where nuclear fallout often accumulates — registered as much as 931,000 becquerels per sq. meter, surpassing the 555,000 becquerels per sq. meter limit for compulsory resettlement in the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. Samples from the other three locations measured between 326,000 and 384,000 becquerels per sq. meter.

An earlier survey on soil in the city of Fukushima by the science ministry has found 37,000 becquerels of radioactive substances per 1 kg — equivalent to 740,000 becquerels per sq. meter.

That’s Japan. Here in North America, we found out this week that the Environmental Protection Agency was measuring radioactive iodine in rainwater out west at levels 30, 40, and, in one case, 130 times what is considered the safety standard for drinking water. Granted, a drinking water standard is not the same as a rainwater measure (as I understand it, the drinking water standard is based on the chances that consumption of a glass a day for 30 years will result in cancer), but that does not mean that this revelation doesn’t raise many questions.

For instance, what about negative non-cancer health effects? Has rain-borne radiation contaminated reservoirs, wells, or watersheds? What about bioaccumulation, what about the radiation that winds up in and on plants and animals? And what about—and this has been one of my big questions since the early days of this crisis—what about other isotopes, ones with other deleterious health effects, ones with half-lives measured in decades (like Cs-137) as opposed to days (like I-131)? And, of course, since it has been determined that there is no such thing as a “safe” level of radiation exposure, no matter the source, shouldn’t the government do a better job of informing the public of any significant increases?

To that last point, the report on radioactive rainwater, which is from Heart of America Northwest, also revealed that, in many cases, there was a lag time of a week between the radiation readings and the posting of the information on the EPA’s RadNet website. So, even for those that could parse the data on the less-than-lay-friendly site, the news was nowhere close to real-time, and so nowhere close to immediate enough for individuals trying to assess risk and adjust behavior accordingly.

The same report notes that though the EPA says it stepped up rainwater sampling following the start of the nuclear disaster in Japan, several sites (Portland, OR, for example) do not show additional sample dates beyond the standard once per month. That leads one to assume that the EPA was less diligent than they claimed, but could it also be that the EPA collected samples but chose not to post the data? (That’s an honest question—I don’t know if the latter is possible, but it did occur to me.)

By the way, that increase in sampling—it ended on May 3. . . because, of course, the Fukushima crisis is over. . . .

But, of course, the crisis is not over. Beyond the melted cores in several Fukushima reactors—where Japanese response teams are still trying to understand the shape and temperature of fuel and the integrity of the containment vessels—there are the pools of spent fuel rods, still very radioactive, still sitting in reactor buildings without roofs (which were destroyed by hydrogen explosions in the days after the earthquake and tsunami). Those pools are still sending an unknown amount of radiation into the atmosphere, and those pools will remain exposed for months to come (the first attempt to cover one of the reactor buildings is expected in late September).

So, that’s a lot to digest—for me, yes, and maybe for you, too—but at least I am trying to take it all in. Did the NRC task force take in any of this before they issued their report? Did they digest it? Yes or no, I find their assertion of no significant radiological health effects hard to swallow.

The differences in the levels of response—Germany announcing a plan to end its use of nuclear power, and Japan’s PM stating that his country should do the same, versus the United States quietly releasing a wonky report with a set of recommendations for a sustained nuclear future—tells me that the US government will not learn the lessons of the Fukushima disaster, and I find that hard to stomach.

(A version of this post also appears at Firedoglake.)