The Long, Long Con: Seventy Years of Nuclear Fission; Thousands of Centuries of Nuclear Waste

From here to eternity: a small plaque on the campus of the University of Chicago commemorates the site of Fermi's first atomic pile--and the start of the world's nuclear waste problem. (Photo: Nathan Guy via Flickr)

From here to eternity: a small plaque on the campus of the University of Chicago commemorates the site of Fermi’s first atomic pile–and the start of the world’s nuclear waste problem. (Photo: Nathan Guy via Flickr)

On December 2, 1942, a small group of physicists under the direction of Enrico Fermi gathered on an old squash court beneath Alonzo Stagg Stadium on the Campus of the University of Chicago to make and witness history. Uranium pellets and graphite blocks had been stacked around cadmium-coated rods as part of an experiment crucial to the Manhattan Project–the program tasked with building an atom bomb for the allied forces in WWII. The experiment was successful, and for 28 minutes, the scientists and dignitaries present observed the world’s first manmade, self-sustaining nuclear fission reaction. They called it an atomic pile–Chicago Pile 1 (CP-1), to be exact–but what Fermi and his team had actually done was build the world’s first nuclear reactor.

The Manhattan Project’s goal was a bomb, but soon after the end of the war, scientists, politicians, the military and private industry looked for ways to harness the power of the atom for civilian use, or, perhaps more to the point, for commercial profit. Fifteen years to the day after CP-1 achieved criticality, President Dwight Eisenhower threw a ceremonial switch to start the reactor at Shippingport, PA, which was billed as the first full-scale nuclear power plant built expressly for civilian electrical generation.

Shippingport was, in reality, little more than a submarine engine on blocks, but the nuclear industry and its acolytes will say that it was the beginning of billions of kilowatts of power, promoted (without a hint of irony) as “clean, safe, and too cheap to meter.” It was also, however, the beginning of what is now a, shall we say, weightier legacy: 72,000 tons of nuclear waste.

Atoms for peace, problems forever

News of Fermi’s initial success was communicated by physicist Arthur Compton to the head of the National Defense Research Committee, James Conant, with artistically coded flair:

Compton: The Italian navigator has landed in the New World.
Conant: How were the natives?
Compton: Very friendly.

But soon after that initial success, CP-1 was disassembled and reassembled a short drive away, in Red Gate Woods. The optimism of the physicists notwithstanding, it was thought best to continue the experiments with better radiation shielding–and slightly removed from the center of a heavily populated campus. The move was perhaps the first necessitated by the uneasy relationship between fissile material and the health and safety of those around it, but if it was understood as a broader cautionary tale, no one let that get in the way of “progress.”

A stamp of approval: the US Postal Service commemorated Eisenhower's initiative in 1955.

A stamp of approval: the US Postal Service commemorated Eisenhower’s initiative in 1955.

By the time the Shippingport reactor went critical, North America already had a nuclear waste problem. The detritus from manufacturing atomic weapons was poisoning surrounding communities at several sites around the continent (not that most civilians knew it at the time). Meltdowns at Chalk River in Canada and the Experimental Breeder Reactor in Idaho had required fevered cleanups, the former of which included the help of a young Navy officer named Jimmy Carter. And the dangers of errant radioisotopes were increasing with the acceleration of above-ground atomic weapons testing. But as President Eisenhower extolled “Atoms for Peace,” and the US Atomic Energy Commission promoted civilian nuclear power at home and abroad, a plan to deal with the “spent fuel” (as used nuclear fuel rods are termed) and other highly radioactive leftovers was not part of the program (beyond, of course, extracting some of the plutonium produced by the fission reaction for bomb production, and the promise that the waste generated by US-built reactors overseas could at some point be marked “return to sender” and repatriated to the United States for disposal).

Attempts at what was called “reprocessing”–the re-refining of used uranium into new reactor fuel–quickly proved expensive, inefficient and dangerous, and created as much radioactive waste as it hoped to reuse. It also provided an obvious avenue for nuclear weapons proliferation because of the resulting production of plutonium. The threat of proliferation (made flesh by India’s test of an atomic bomb in 1976) led President Jimmy Carter to cancel the US reprocessing program in 1977. Attempts by the Department of Energy to push mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication (combining uranium and plutonium) over the last dozen years has not produced any results, either, despite over $5 billion in government investments.

In fact, there was no official federal policy for the management of used but still highly radioactive nuclear fuel until passage of The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. And while that law acknowledged the problem of thousands of tons of spent fuel accumulating at US nuclear plants, it didn’t exactly solve it. Instead, the NWPA started a generation of political horse trading, with goals and standards defined more by market exigencies than by science, that leaves America today with what amounts to over five-dozen nominally temporary repositories for high-level radioactive waste–and no defined plan to change that situation anytime soon.

When you assume…

When a US Court of Appeals ruled in June that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission acted improperly when it failed to consider all the risks of storing spent radioactive fuel onsite at the nation’s nuclear power facilities, it made specific reference to the lack of any real answers to the generations-old question of waste storage:

[The Nuclear Regulatory Commission] apparently has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository. . . . If the government continues to fail in its quest to establish one, then SNF (spent nuclear fuel) will seemingly be stored on site at nuclear plants on a permanent basis. The Commission can and must assess the potential environmental effects of such a failure.

The court concluded the current situation–where spent fuel is stored across the country in what were supposed to be temporary configurations–“poses a dangerous long-term health and environmental risk.”

The decision also harshly criticized regulators for evaluating plant relicensing with the assumption that spent nuclear fuel would be moved to a central long-term waste repository.

A mountain of risks

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act set in motion an elaborate process that was supposed to give the US a number of possible waste sites, but, in the end, the only option seriously explored was the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada. After years of preliminary construction and tens of millions of dollars spent, Yucca was determined to be a bad choice for the waste:

[Yucca Mountain’s] volcanic formation is more porous and less isolated than originally believed–there is evidence that water can seep in, there are seismic concerns, worries about the possibility of new volcanic activity, and a disturbing proximity to underground aquifers. In addition, Yucca mountain has deep spiritual significance for the Shoshone and Paiute peoples.

Every major Nevada politician on both sides of the aisle has opposed the Yucca repository since its inception. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has worked most of his political life to block the facility. And with the previous NRC head, Gregory Jaczko, (and now his replacement, Allison Macfarlane, as well) recommending against it, the Obama administration’s Department of Energy moved to end the project.

Even if it were an active option, Yucca Mountain would still be many years and maybe as much as $100 million away from completion. And yet, the nuclear industry (through recipients of its largesse in Congress) has challenged the administration to spend any remaining money in a desperate attempt to keep alive the fantasy of a solution to their waste crisis.

Such fevered dreams, however, do not qualify as an actual plan, according to the courts.

The judges also chastised the NRC for its generic assessment of spent fuel pools, currently packed well beyond their projected capacity at nuclear plants across the United States. Rather than examine each facility and the potential risks specific to its particular storage situation, the NRC had only evaluated the safety risks of onsite storage by looking at a composite of past events. The court ruled that the NRC must appraise each plant individually and account for potential future dangers. Those dangers include leaks, loss of coolant, and failures in the cooling systems, any of which might result in contamination of surrounding areas, overheating and melting of stored rods, and the potential of burning radioactive fuel–risks heightened by the large amounts of fuel now densely packed in the storage pools and underscored by the ongoing disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Indeed, plants were not designed nor built to house nuclear waste long-term. The design life of most reactors in the US was originally 40 years. Discussions of the spent fuel pools usually gave them a 60-year lifespan. That limit seemed to double almost magically as nuclear operators fought to postpone the expense of moving cooler fuel to dry casks and of the final decommissioning of retired reactors.

Everyone out of the pool

As disasters as far afield as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and last October’s Hurricane Sandy have demonstrated, the storage of spent nuclear fuel in pools requires steady supplies of power and cool water. Any problem that prevents the active circulation of liquid through the spent fuel pools–be it a loss of electricity, the failure of a back-up pump, the clogging of a valve or a leak in the system–means the temperature in the pools will start to rise. If the cooling circuit is out long enough, the water in the pools will start to boil. If the water level dips (due to boiling or a leak) enough to expose hot fuel rods to the air, the metal cladding on the rods will start to burn, in turn heating the fuel even more, resulting in plumes of smoke carrying radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere.

And because these spent fuel pools are so full–containing as much as five times more fuel than they were originally designed to hold, and at densities that come close to those in reactor cores–they both heat stagnant water more quickly and reach volatile temperatures faster when exposed to air.

A spent fuel pool and dry casks. (Both photos courtesy of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

A spent fuel pool and dry casks. (Both photos courtesy of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

After spent uranium has been in a pool for at least five years (considerably longer than most fuel is productive as an energy source inside the reactor), fuel rods are deemed cool enough to be moved to dry casks. Dry casks are sealed steel cylinders filled with spent fuel and inert gas, which are themselves encased in another layer of steel and concrete. These massive fuel “coffins” are then placed outside, spaced on concrete pads, so that air can circulate and continue to disperse heat.

While the long-term safety of dry casks is still in question, the fact that they require no active cooling system gives them an advantage, in the eyes of many experts, over pool storage. As if to highlight that difference, spent fuel pools at Fukushima Daiichi have posed some of the greatest challenges since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, whereas, to date, no quake or flood-related problems have been reported with any of Japan’s dry casks. The disparity was so obvious, that the NRC’s own staff review actually added a proposal to the post-Fukushima taskforce report, recommending that US plants take more fuel out of spent fuel pools and move it to dry casks. (A year-and-a-half later, however, there is still no regulation–or even a draft–requiring such a move.)

But current dry cask storage poses its own set of problems. Moving fuel rods from pools to casks is slow and costly–about $1.5 million per cask, or roughly $7 billion to move all of the nation’s spent fuel (a process, it is estimated, that would take no less than five to ten years). That is expensive enough to have many nuclear plant operators lobbying overtime to avoid doing it.

Further, though not as seemingly vulnerable as fuel pools, dry casks are not impervious to natural disaster. In 2011, a moderate earthquake centered about 20 miles from the North Anna, Virginia, nuclear plant caused most of its vertical dry casks–each weighing 115 tons–to shift, some by more than four inches. The facility’s horizontal casks didn’t move, but some showed what was termed “cosmetic damage.”

Dry casks at Michigan’s Palisades plant sit on a pad atop a sand dune just 100 yards from Lake Michigan. An earthquake there could plunge the casks into the water. And the casks at Palisades are so poorly designed and maintained, submersion could result in water contacting the fuel, contaminating the lake and possibly triggering a nuclear chain reaction.

And though each cask contains far less fissile material than one spent fuel pool, casks are still considered possible targets for terrorism. A TOW anti-tank missile would breach even the best dry cask (PDF), and with 25 percent of the nation’s spent fuel now stored in hundreds of casks across the country, all above ground, it provides a rich target environment.

Confidence game

Two months after the Appeals Court found fault with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s imaginary waste mitigation scenario, the NRC announced it would suspend the issuing of new reactor operating licenses, license renewals and construction licenses until the agency could craft a new plan for dealing with the nation’s growing spent nuclear fuel crisis. In drafting its new nuclear “Waste Confidence Decision” (NWCD)–the methodology used to assess the hazards of nuclear waste storage–the Commission said it would evaluate all possible options for resolving the issue.

At first, the NRC said this could include both generic and site-specific actions (remember, the court criticized the NRC’s generic appraisals of pool safety), but as the prescribed process now progresses, it appears any new rule will be designed to give the agency, and so, the industry, as much wiggle room as possible. At a public hearing in November, and later at a pair of web conferences in early December, the regulator’s Waste Confidence Directorate (yes, that’s what it is called) outlined three scenarios (PDF) for any future rulemaking:

  • Storage until a repository becomes available at the middle of the century
  • Storage until a repository becomes available at the end of the century
  • Continued storage in the event a repository is not available

And while, given the current state of affairs, the first option seems optimistic, the fact that their best scenario now projects a repository to be ready by about 2050 is a story in itself.

When the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was signed into law by President Reagan early in 1983, it was expected the process it set in motion would present at least one (and preferably another) long-term repository by the late 1990s. But by the time the “Screw Nevada Bill” (as it is affectionately known in the Silver State) locked in Yucca Mountain as the only option for permanent nuclear waste storage, the projected opening was pushed back to 2007.

But Yucca encountered problems from its earliest days, so a mid-’90s revision of the timeline postponed the official start, this time to 2010. By 2006, the Department of Energy was pegging Yucca’s opening at 2017. And, when the NWPA was again revised in 2010–after Yucca was deemed a non-option–it conveniently avoided setting a date for the opening of a national long-term waste repository altogether.

It was that 2010 revision that was thrown out by the courts in June.

“Interim storage” and “likely reactors”

So, the waste panel now has three scenarios–but what are the underlying assumptions for those scenarios? Not, obviously, any particular site for a centralized, permanent home for the nation’s nuclear garbage–no new site has been chosen, and it can’t even be said there is an active process at work that will choose one.

There are the recommendations of a Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) convened by the president after Yucca Mountain was off the table. Most notable there, was a recommendation for interim waste storage, consolidated at a handful of locations across the country. But consolidated intermediate waste storage has its own difficulties, not the least of which is that no sites have yet been chosen for any such endeavor. (In fact, plans for the Skull Valley repository, thought to be the interim facility closest to approval, were abandoned by its sponsors just days before Christmas.)

Just-retired New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman (D), the last chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, tried to turn the BRC recommendations into law. When he introduced his bill in August, however, he had to do so without any cosponsors. Hearings on the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2012 were held in September, but the gavel came down on the 112th Congress without any further action.

In spite of the underdeveloped state of intermediate storage, however, when the waste confidence panel was questioned on the possibility, interim waste repositories seemed to emerge, almost on the fly, as an integral part of any revised waste policy rule.

“Will any of your scenarios include interim centralized above-ground storage?” we asked during the last public session. Paul Michalak, who heads the Environmental Impact Statement branch of the Waste Confidence Directorate, first said temporary sites would be considered in the second and third options. Then, after a short pause, Mr. Michalak added (PDF p40), “First one, too. All right. Right. That’s right. So we’re considering an interim consolidated storage facility [in] all three scenarios.”

The lack of certainty on any site or sites is, however, not the only fuzzy part of the picture. As mentioned earlier, the amount of high-level radioactive waste currently on hand in the US and in need of a final resting place is upwards of 70,000 tons–already at the amount that was set as the initial limit for the Yucca Mountain repository. Given that there are still over 100 domestic commercial nuclear reactors more or less in operation, producing something like an additional 2,000 tons of spent fuel every year, what happens to the Waste Confidence Directorate’s scenarios as the years and waste pile up? How much waste were regulators projecting they would have to deal with–how much spent fuel would a waste confidence decision assume the system could confidently handle?

There was initial confusion on what amount of waste–and at what point in time–was informing the process. Pressed for clarification on the last day of hearings, NRC officials finally posited that it was assumed there would be 150,000 metric tons of spent fuel–all deriving from the commercial reactor fleet–by 2050. By the end of the century, the NRC expects to face a mountain of waste weighing 270,000 metric tons (PDF pp38-41) (though this figure was perplexingly termed both a “conservative number” and an “overestimate”).

How did the panel arrive at these numbers? Were they assuming all 104 (soon to be 103–Wisconsin’s Kewaunee Power Station will shut down by mid-2013 for reasons its owner, Dominion Resources, says are based “purely on economics”) commercial reactors nominally in operation would continue to function for that entire time frame–even though many are nearing the end of their design life and none are licensed to continue operation beyond the 2030s? Were they counting reactors like those at San Onofre, which have been offline for almost a year, and are not expected to restart anytime soon? Or the troubled reactors at Ft. Calhoun in Nebraska and Florida’s Crystal River? Neither facility has been functional in recent years, and both have many hurdles to overcome if they are ever to produce power again. Were they factoring in the projected AP1000 reactors in the early stages of construction in Georgia, or the ones slated for South Carolina? Did the NRC expect more or fewer reactors generating waste over the course of the next 88 years?

The response: waste estimates include all existing facilities, plus “likely reactors”–but the NRC cannot say exactly how many reactors that is (PDF p41).

Jamming it through

Answers like those from the Waste Confidence Directorate do not inspire (pardon the expression) confidence for a country looking at a mountain of eternally toxic waste. Just what would the waste confidence decision (and the environmental impact survey that should result from it) actually cover? What would it mandate, and what would change as a result?

How long is it? Does this NRC chart provide a justification for the narrow scope of the waste confidence process? (US Nuclear Regulatory PDF, p12)

How long is it? Does this NRC chart provide a justification for the narrow scope of the waste confidence process? (US Nuclear Regulatory PDF, p12)

In past relicensing hearings–where the public could comment on proposed license extensions on plants already reaching the end of their 40-year design life–objections based on the mounting waste problem and already packed spent fuel pools were waived off by the NRC, which referenced the waste confidence decision as the basis of its rationale. Yet, when discussing the parameters of the process for the latest, court-ordered revision to the NWCD, Dr. Keith McConnell, Director of the Waste Confidence Directorate, asserted that waste confidence was not connected to the site-specific licensed life of operations (PDF p42), but only to a period defined as “Post-Licensed Life Storage” (which appears, if a chart in the directorate’s presentation (PDF p12) is to be taken literally, to extend from 60 years after the initial creation of waste, to 120 years–at which point a phase labeled “Disposal” begins). Issues of spent fuel pool and dry cask safety are the concerns of a specific plant’s relicensing process, said regulators in the latest hearings.

“It’s like dealing with the Mad Hatter,” commented Kevin Kamps, a radioactive waste specialist for industry watchdog Beyond Nuclear. “Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today.”

The edict originated with the White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, but it is all too appropriate–and no less maddening–when trying to motivate meaningful change at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC has used the nuclear waste confidence decision in licensing inquiries, but in these latest scoping hearings, we are told the NWCD does not apply to on-site waste storage. The Appeals Court criticized the lack of site-specificity in the waste storage rules, but the directorate says they are now only working on a generic guideline. The court disapproved of the NRC’s continued relicensing of nuclear facilities based on the assumption of a long-term geologic repository that in reality did not exist–and the NRC said it was suspending licensing pending a new rule–but now regulators say they don’t anticipate the denial or even the delay of any reactor license application while they await the new waste confidence decision (PDF pp49-50).

In fact, the NRC has continued the review process on pending applications, even though there is now no working NWCD–something deemed essential by the courts–against which to evaluate new licenses.

The period for public comment on the scope of the waste confidence decision ended January 2, and no more scoping hearings are planned. There will be other periods for civic involvement–during the environmental impact survey and rulemaking phases–but, with each step, the areas open to input diminish. And the current schedule has the entire process greatly accelerated over previous revisions.

On January 3, a coalition of 24 grassroots environmental groups filed documents with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (PDF) protesting “the ‘hurry up’ two-year timeframe” for this assessment, noting the time allotted for environmental review falls far short of the 2019 estimate set by the NRC’s own technical staff. The coalition observed that two years was also not enough time to integrate post-Fukushima recommendations, and that the NRC was narrowing the scope of the decision–ignoring specific instructions from the Appeals Court–in order to accelerate the drafting of a new waste storage rule.

Speed might seem a valuable asset if the NRC were shepherding a Manhattan Project-style push for a solution to the ever-growing waste problem–the one that began with the original Manhattan Project–but that is not what is at work here. Instead, the NRC, under court order, is trying to set the rules for determining the risk of all that high-level radioactive waste if there is no new, feasible solution. The NRC is looking for a way to permit the continued operation of the US nuclear fleet–and so the continued manufacture of nuclear waste–without an answer to the bigger, pressing question.

A plan called HOSS

While there is much to debate about what a true permanent solution to the nuclear waste problem might look like, there is little question that the status quo is unacceptable. Spent fuel pools were never intended to be used as they are now used–re-racked and densely packed with over a generation of fuel assemblies. Both the short- and long-term safety and security of the pools has now been questioned by the courts and laid bare by reality. Pools at numerous US facilities have leaked radioactive waste (PDF) into rivers, groundwater and soil. Sudden “drain downs” have come perilously close to triggering major accidents in plants shockingly close to major population centers. Recent hurricanes have knocked out power to cooling systems and flooded backup generators, and last fall’s superstorm came within inches of overwhelming the coolant intake structure at Oyster Creek in New Jersey.

The crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi facility was so dangerous and remains dangerous to this day in part because of the large amounts of spent fuel stored in pools next to the reactors but outside of containment–a design identical to 35 US nuclear reactors. A number of these GE Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactors–such as Oyster Creek and Vermont Yankee–have more spent fuel packed into their individual pools than all the waste in Fukushima Daiichi Units 1, 2, 3, and 4 combined.

Dry casks, the obvious next “less-bad” option for high-level radioactive waste, were also not supposed to be a permanent panacea. The design requirements and manufacturing regulations of casks–especially the earliest generations–do not guarantee their reliability anywhere near the 100 to 300 years now being casually tossed around by NRC officials. Some of the nation’s older dry casks (which in this case means 15 to 25 years) have already shown seal failures and structural wear (PDF). Yet, the government does not require direct monitoring of casks for excessive heat or radioactive leaks–only periodic “walkthroughs.”

Add in the reluctance of plant operators to spend money on dry cask transfer and the lack of any workable plan to quickly remove radioactive fuel from failed casks, and dry cask storage also appears to fail to attain any court-ordered level of confidence.

Interim plans, such as regional consolidated above-ground storage, remain just that–plans. There are no sites selected and no designs for such a facility up for public scrutiny. What is readily apparent, though, is that the frequent transport of nuclear waste increases the risk of nuclear accidents. There does not, as of now, exist a transfer container that is wholly leak proof, accident proof, and impervious to terrorist attack. Moving high-level radioactive waste across the nation’s highways, rail lines and waterways has raised fears of “Mobile Chernobyls” and “Floating Fukushimas.”

More troubling still, if past (and present) is prologue, is the tendency of options designed as “interim” to morph into a default “permanent.” Can the nation afford to kick the can once more, spending tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars on a “solution” that will only add a collection of new challenges to the existing roster of problems? What will the interim facilities become beyond the next problem, the next site for costly mountains of poorly stored, dangerous waste?

Hardened: The more robust HOSS option as proposed in 2003. (From "Robust Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel: A Neglected Issue of Homeland Security" courtesy of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service)

Hardened: The more robust HOSS option as proposed in 2003. (From “Robust Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel: A Neglected Issue of Homeland Security” courtesy of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service)

If there is an interim option favored by many nuclear experts, engineers and environmentalists (PDF), it is something called HOSS–Hardened On-Site Storage (PDF). HOSS is a version of dry cask storage that is designed and manufactured to last longer, is better protected against leaks and better shielded from potential attacks. Proposals (PDF) involve steel, concrete and earthen barriers incorporating proper ventilation and direct monitoring for heat and radiation.

But not all reactor sites are good candidates for HOSS. Some are too close to rivers that regularly flood, some are vulnerable to the rising seas and increasingly severe storms brought on by climate change, and others are close to active geologic fault zones. For facilities where hardened on-site storage would be an option, nuclear operators will no doubt fight the requirements because of the increased costs above and beyond the price of standard dry cask storage, which most plant owners already try to avoid or delay.

The first rule of holes

Mixed messages: A simple stone marker in Red Gate Woods, just outside Chicago, tries to both warn and reassure visitors to this public park. (Photo: Kevin Kamps, Beyond Nuclear. Used by permission.)

Mixed messages: A simple stone marker in Red Gate Woods, just outside Chicago, tries to both warn and reassure visitors to this public park. (Photo: Kevin Kamps, Beyond Nuclear. Used by permission.)

In a wooded park just outside Chicago sits a dirt mound, near a bike path, that contains parts of the still-highly radioactive remains of CP-1, the world’s first atomic pile. Seven decades after that nuclear fuel was first buried, many health experts would not recommend that spot (PDF) for a long, languorous picnic, nor would they recommend drinking from nearby water fountains. To look at it in terms Arthur Compton might favor, when it comes to the products of nuclear chain reactions, the natives are restless. . . and will remain so for millennia to come.

One can perhaps forgive those working in the pressure cooker of the Manhattan Project and in the middle of a world war for ignoring the forest for the trees–for not considering waste disposal while pursuing a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Perhaps. But, as the burial mound in Red Gate Woods reminds us, ignoring a problem does not make it go away.

And if that small pile, or the mountains of spent fuel precariously stored around the nation are not enough of a prompt, the roughly $960 million that the federal government has had to pay private nuclear operators should be. For every year that the Department of Energy does not provide a permanent waste repository–or at least some option that takes the burden of storing spent nuclear fuel off the hands (and off the books) of power companies–the government is obligated to reimburse the industry for the costs of onsite waste storage. By 2020, it is estimated that $11 billion in public money will have been transferred into the pockets of private nuclear companies. By law, these payments cannot be drawn from the ratepayer-fed fund that is earmarked for a permanent geologic repository, and so, these liabilities must be paid out of the federal budget. Legal fees for defending the DoE against these claims will add another 20 to 30 percent to settlement costs.

The Federal Appeals Court, too, has sent a clear message that the buck needs to stop somewhere at some point–and that such a time and place should be both explicit and realistic. The nuclear waste confidence scoping process, however, is already giving the impression that the NRC’s next move will be generic and improbable.

The late, great Texas journalist Molly Ivins once remarked, “The first rule of holes” is “when you’re in one, stop digging.” For high-level radioactive waste, that hole is now a mountain, over 70 years in the making and over 70,000 tons high. If the history of the atomic age is not evidence enough, the implications of the waste confidence decision process put the current crisis in stark relief. There is, right now, no good option for dealing with the nuclear detritus currently on hand, and there is not even a plan to develop a good option in the near future. Without a way to safely store the mountain of waste already created, under what rationale can a responsible government permit the manufacture of so much more?

The federal government spends billions to perpetuate and protect the nuclear industry–and plans to spend billions more to expand the number of commercial reactors. Dozens of facilities already are past, or are fast approaching, the end of their design lives, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to reject any request for an operating license extension–and it is poised to approve many more, nuclear waste confidence decision not withstanding. Plant operators continue to balk at any additional regulations that would require better waste management.

The lesson of the first 70 years of fission is that we cannot endure more of the same. The government–from the DoE to the NRC–should reorient its priorities from creating more nuclear waste to safely and securely containing what is now here. Money slated for subsidizing current reactors and building new ones would be better spent on shuttering aging plants, designing better storage options for their waste, modernizing the electrical grid, and developing sustainable energy alternatives. (And reducing demand through conservation programs should always be part of the conversation.)

Enrico Fermi might not have foreseen (or cared about) the mountain of waste that began with his first atomic pile, but current scientists, regulators and elected officials have the benefit of hindsight. If the first rule of holes says stop digging, then the dictum here should be that when you’re trying to summit a mountain, you don’t keep shoveling more garbage on top.

A version of this story previously appeared on Truthout; no version may be reprinted without permission.

Yule Fuel

Yes, it’s time for that metaphor again. If you grew up near a TV during the 1960s or ’70s, you probably remember the ever-burning Yule Log that took the place of programming for a large portion of Christmas Day. The fire burned, it seemed, perpetually, never appearing to consume the log, never dimming, and never, as best the kid who stared at the television could tell, ever repeating.

Now, if you have been watching this space about as intently as I once stared at that video hearth, perhaps you are thinking that this eternal flame is about to reveal itself as a stand-in for nuclear power. You know, the theoretically bottomless, seemingly self-sustaining, present yet distant, ethereal energy source that’s clean, safe and too cheap to meter. Behold: a source of warmth and light that lasts forever!

Yeah. . . you wish! Or, at least you’d wish if you were a part of the nuclear industry or one of its purchased proxies.

But wishing does not make it so. A quick look at the US commercial reactor fleet proves there is nothing perpetual or predictable about this supposedly dependable power source.

Both reactors at San Onofre have been offline for almost a year, after a radioactive leak revealed dangerously worn heat transfer tubes. Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun plant has been shutdown since April of 2011, initially because of flooding from the Missouri River, but now because of a long list of safety issues. And it has been 39 months since Florida’s Crystal River reactor has generated even a single kilowatt, thanks to a disastrously botched repair to its containment that has still not been put right.

October’s Hurricane Sandy triggered scrams at two eastern nuclear plants, and induced an alert at New Jersey’s Oyster Creek reactor because flooding threatened spent fuel storage. Other damage discovered at Oyster Creek after the storm, kept the facility offline for five weeks more.

Another plant that scrammed during Sandy, New York’s Nine Mile Point, is offline again (for the third, or is it the fourth time since the superstorm?), this time because of a containment leak. (Yes, a containment leak!)

Other plants that have seen substantial, unplanned interruptions in power generation this year include Indian Point, Davis-Besse, Diablo Canyon, Hope Creek, Calvert Cliffs, Byron, St. Lucie, Pilgrim, Millstone, Susquehanna, Prairie Island, Palisades. . . honestly, the list can–and does–go on and on. . . and on. Atom-heads love to excuse the mammoth capital investments and decades-long lead times needed to get nuclear power plants online by saying, “yeah, but once up, they are like, 24/7/365. . . dude!”

Except, of course, as 2012–or any other year–proves, they are very, very far from anything like that. . . dude.

So, no, that forever-flame on the YuleTube is not a good metaphor for nuclear power. It is, however, a pretty good reminder of the still going, still growing problem of nuclear waste.

December saw the 70th anniversary of the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, and the 30th anniversary of the first Nuclear Waste Policy Act. If the 40-year difference in those anniversaries strikes you as a bit long, well, you don’t know the half of it. (In the coming weeks, I hope to say more about this.) At present, the United States nuclear power establishment is straining to cope with a mountain of high-level radioactive waste now exceeding 70,000 tons. And with each year, the country will add approximately 2,000 more tons to the pile.

And all of this waste, sitting in spent fuel pools and above-ground dry casks– supposedly temporary storage–at nuclear facilities across the US, will remain extremely toxic for generations. . . for thousands and thousands of generations.

There is still no viable plan to dispose of any of this waste, but the nation’s creaky reactor fleet continues to make it. And with each refueling, another load is shoehorned into overcrowded onsite storage, increasing the problem, and increasing the danger of spent fuel accidents, including, believe it or not, a type of fire that cannot be extinguished with water.

So, if you want to stare at a burning log and think about something, think about how that log is not so unlike a nuclear fuel assembly exposed to air for a day or two. . . or think of how, even if it is not actually burning, the high levels of radiation tossed out from those uranium “logs” will create heat and headaches for hundreds of thousands of yuletides to come.

Oh, and, if you are still staring at the Yule log on a cathode ray tube television, don’t sit too close. . . because, you know, radiation.

Merry Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

Constellation has since been purchased by Exelon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NRC Halts License Approvals Pending New Guidelines on Nuclear Waste

A nuclear spent fuel pool. (photo: NRCgov)

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced Tuesday it would suspend the issuing of new reactor operating licenses, license renewals and construction licenses until the agency crafted a plan for dealing with the nation’s growing spent nuclear fuel crisis. The action comes in response to a June ruling by the US Court of Appeals that found the NRC’s “Waste Confidence Decision”–the methodology used to evaluate the dangers of nuclear waste storage–was wholly inadequate and posed a danger to public health and the environment.

Prior to the court’s ruling, the Commission had evaluated licensing and relicensing with the assumption that spent fuel–currently stored on site at nuclear power plants in pools and dry casks–would soon be moved to a central long-term waste repository. As previously noted, that option was once thought to be Yucca Mountain, but after years of preliminary work and tens of millions of dollars wasted, Yucca was found to be a poor choice, and the Obama Department of Energy and the NRC ended the project. The confirmation of new NRC Chair Allison Macfarlane–considered a nuclear waste expert and on record as a Yucca Mountain critic–focused even more attention on the country’s lack of realistic plans for safe, permanent waste storage.

The release from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission [PDF] put it this way:

Waste confidence undergirds certain agency licensing decisions, in particular new reactor licensing and reactor license renewal.

Because of the recent court ruling striking down our current waste confidence provisions, we are now considering all available options for resolving the waste confidence issue, which could include generic or site-specific NRC actions, or some combination of both. We have not yet determined a course of action.

In recognition of our duties under the law, we will not issue licenses dependent upon the Waste Confidence Decision or the Temporary Storage Rule until the court’s remand is appropriately addressed.

What this means in real terms remains to be seen. No licenses or renewals were thought imminent. Next up were likely a decision on extending the life of Indian Point, a short drive north of New York City, and a Construction and Operation License for Florida’s Levy County project, but neither was expected before sometime next year. Officially, 19 final reactor decisions are now on hold, though the NRC stressed that “all licensing reviews and proceedings should continue to move forward.”

Still, this should be read as a victory for the originators of the suit that resulted in the June ruling–the Attorneys General of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Vermont in coordination with the Prairie Island Indian Community of Minnesota and environmental groups represented by the National Resources Defense Council–and most certainly for the millions of Americans that live close to nuclear plants and their large, overstuffed, under-regulated pools of dangerous nuclear waste. Complainants not only won the freeze on licensing, the NRC guaranteed that any new generic waste rule would be open to public comment and environmental assessment or environmental impact studies, and that site-specific cases would be subject to a minimum 60-day consideration period.

While there is still plenty of gray area in that guarantee, the NRC has (under pressure) made the process more transparent than most similar dealings at the agency. The commission has also, at least for the moment, formally acknowledged that the nation’s nuclear reactor fleet faces a very pressing problem.

The US has 72,000 tons of radioactive waste and generates an additional 2,000 tons every year. Spent fuel pools at individual sites are already so full they pose numerous threats, some eerily similar to the ongoing disaster at Fukushima. Dry cask storage poses other problems and much additional expense. And regional interim waste storage facilities, an idea possibly favored by Macfarlane, is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that no sites have yet been designated or built.

But nuclear plant operators, already burdened by the spiraling costs of a poorly maintained and aging inventory, are desperate to have the federal government take the waste problem off their backs–and off their books. Whether that is even technically feasible, let alone politically of fiscally possible, remains to be seen. But the NRC has at least recognized–or at least been forced to recognize–that the nuclear industry should not be allowed to create waste indefinitely without a plan to safely secure what is already on hand.

NRC Report on San Onofre: Close Enough for Government Work

An aerial view of the San Onofre Generating Station. (photo: Jelson25 via Wikipedia)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission released its report on recent failures at the San Onofre nuclear facility [PDF] on Thursday, stating that, as far as the government regulator was concerned, the operators of the power plant did nothing wrong when they reported major design changes as simple equipment replacement.

At issue at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) is the replacement of two giant steam generators less than two years ago. A metal heat-transfer tube in one generator ruptured in January, releasing superheated radioactive steam and triggering a shutdown. Further examination of that generator and its twin revealed unprecedented and unsettling rates of wear in hundreds of other tubes. SONGS has been completely offline ever since.

Investigation of the problem by plant operators and the NRC, as well as independent watchdogs, found that flaws in the computer modeling of the radically redesigned replacement generators lead to building and installing tubing that vibrated substantially more than was anticipated, and substantially more than the equipment could tolerate. Within 18 months of starting up the retrofitted reactors, vibration caused rapid degradation of the metal tubes, resulting in the rupture.

Still, according to the NRC, no laws were broken. Southern California Edison (a division of Edison International, the majority owner of SONGS) did not mislead regulators about the extent of the changes. Federal officials were not lax in their oversight. Things may not have gone exactly as planned, but no one on this side of the Pacific was to blame. Maybe the Japanese at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the folks who built the replacement parts, have some ‘splainin’ to do, but SCE and the NRC performed just like they were supposed to.

And that’s exactly the point, isn’t it?

To any outside observer (well, to any observer willing to plow through technical data and design specs), the replacement generators at San Onofre were quite obviously a major redesign–something requiring a more careful, time-consuming and, yes, costly government approval process. Mitsubishi was not the original manufacturer of the SONGS generators, and Edison was not looking to have Mitsubishi machine exact replacement parts. That would have been more expensive–much more expensive.

Instead, SCE sought out what would be the nuclear industry equivalent of “off the shelf” parts, and hoped to engineer a way to make them work with their 30-year-old reactors. Further, Edison desired to increase the output of this power plant. More power theoretically equals more profit–and, to oversimplify the technical details, more tubes could equal more power. The new generators had many times more heat-transfer tubes than the originals.

So, the major design changes at San Onofre were, to turn a phrase, very much by design. But to call them major design changes would have increased the cost, the time, and the amount of oversight required, so, as the NRC report seems to make clear, the rules are written to insure that such changes pass under the regulatory radar:

The agency staff investigation concluded that Edison “provided the NRC with all the information required under existing regulations about proposed design changes to its steam generators,” according to a statement.

But a key question remains under study: Does the agency need to change the process that was used to approve the replacement generators? At issue is whether tubing problems that eventually sidelined the reactors might have been identified by changing rules under which utilities swap equipment at nuclear power plants.

For example, the report concluded that there were “major design changes” between the original and replacement generators at San Onofre, yet they qualified as essentially identical replacements that did not require an exhaustive review by the NRC.

Show me what regulatory capture looks like; this is what regulatory capture looks like

The “letter is willing but the spirit is weak” tone of the San Onofre report seems especially poignant/disturbing coming, as it does, within a fortnight of the latest Japanese report on the Fukushima disaster. That lengthy study found that government officials colluded with the nuclear industry to avoid upgrades and evade scrutiny, resulting in a severe undermining of public safety. Summaries of that report focused on aspects described as unique to Japanese culture, but the NRC’s San Onofre findings demonstrate that this well-choreographed dance between industry and regulators crosses cultural and national boundaries.

The SONGS report also comes the same week as a party thrown by supporters of the recently deposed NRC chairman, Gregory Jaczko:

A cadre of veterans from the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) are organizing an effort to pay down the legal debts taken on by Gregory Jaczko, the former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who stepped down amid a fierce industry-backed assault.

Jaczko, a former Reid staffer, racked up tens of thousands in legal fees defending himself. The thinking behind the fundraising effort is straightforward: High-level staffers for top senators can command high salaries in the private sector, many times more than can be earned in public service. So former Reid staffers who have spent their post-Senate years in more lucrative pursuits are coming to the aid of a colleague who made a different, and quite costly, decision.

. . . .

Jaczko’s former colleagues will gather Tuesday evening with Reid and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), another former boss of his, to thank him for his time on the nuclear panel. (No fundraising can legally take place while Reid and Markey are at the event, organizers said.)

. . . .

The industry’s two top representatives, Alex Flint and Marvin Fertel of the Nuclear Energy Institute, are planning to attend the event, said Karen Wayland, a former Reid staffer who, along with [another former Reid aid Susan] McCue, spearheaded the effort.

Tuesday’s event will also co-hosted by Jimmy Ryan, Dayle Cristinzio and Kai Anderson, high-powered corporate lobbyists who were senior aides to Reid.

Since the writing of that story, the event took place and Senator Reid’s Searchlight Foundation has made known its intention to donate $10,000 to Jaczko’s defense fund.

To be clear, what happened to Jaczko, who was forced out after he advocated for modest safety improvements at US nuclear plants and coordinated with the Department of Energy to end work on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project, is itself a lesson in regulatory capture. The US nuclear industry sees any new safety requirements as a threat to their bottom line, and it desperately needs the federal government to find a storage solution for their vast piles of highly radioactive spent fuel and related waste–and so Jaczko was purged and a message was sent.

But, as the guest list would tell you, it is hard to call anyone in this crowd a pure hero. When key figures behind your ouster are also guests at your farewell party and fundraiser, you have to ask yourself if you were really that tough–and everyone around you has to see that industry and government are too cozy.

Close is not good

If online etymologies are to be believed, the expression “close enough for government work” has its origins in the World War II saying, “Good enough for government work.” Back then, the saying was understood to mean that the government had exacting standards, so if the work could pass government inspection, then it could meet any benchmark.

The phrase quickly devolved, however, into its sarcastic opposite–defense contracting will have that effect–and now “close enough for government work” means barely acceptable.

And government–at least when it comes to agencies like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission–has sought to live up to that new understanding ever since.

But when it comes to nuclear power, with the ominous safety implications of substandard work and lax oversight, close enough is not good enough. And if government and industry “working closely” on a problem means what it seems to have at San Onofre, then “close” pretty much never means “good.”

Does the Netroots Care about Nuclear Power?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fired up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

Court Says Regulators Must Evaluate Dangers of Nuclear Waste

A nuclear spent fuel pool. (photo: NRCgov)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission acted improperly when it failed to consider all the risks of storing spent radioactive fuel onsite at the nation’s nuclear power facilities, so ruled a federal court on Friday.

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

[The Nuclear Regulatory Commission] apparently has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository. . . . If the government continues to fail in its quest to establish one, then SNF (spent nuclear fuel) will seemingly be stored on site at nuclear plants on a permanent basis. The Commission can and must assess the potential environmental effects of such a failure.

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

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

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

Despite the wishful reporting of some nuclear advocates, the Yucca repository is nowhere near ready, and even if it were an active option, the facility would be many years and maybe as much as $100 million away from completion. Still, the nuclear industry and its acolytes have challenged the administration to spend any remaining money in a desperate attempt to keep alive the fantasy of a solution to their waste crisis.

Such zombified hopes, however, do not qualify as an actual plan, according to the courts.

The judges also chastised the NRC for its generic assessment of spent fuel pools, currently filled many times over capacity at nuclear plants across the United States. Rather than examine each facility and the potential risks specific to its particular storage situation, the NRC had only evaluated the safety risks of onsite storage by looking at a composite of past events. The court ruled that the NRC must appraise each plant individually and account for potential future dangers. Those dangers include leaks, loss of coolant, and failures in the cooling systems, any of which might result in contamination of surrounding areas, overheating and melting of stored rods, and the potential of burning radioactive fuel–risks heightened by the large amounts of fuel in the storage pools and underscored by the ongoing disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant.

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

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

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

And William Sorrell, Vermont’s AG, concurred:

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

Indeed, plants were not designed nor built to house nuclear waste long-term. The design life of most reactors in the US was originally 40 years. Discussions of the spent fuel pools usually gave them a 60-year lifespan. That limit seemed to double almost magically as nuclear operators fought to postpone the expense of moving cooler fuel to dry casks and of the final decommissioning of retired reactors.

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

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

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