NRC Vogtle Reactor Approval Should Blow Lid Off Nuclear Finance Scam

Work is well underway on the Vogtle Unit 4 turbine building. The bottom of the Unit 3 containment vessel can be seen in the background. (photo via the Southern Company)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Thursday vote to approve the combined construction and operating license application (COLA) for Southern Company’s Plant Vogtle cleared the way for adding two AP1000 nuclear reactors to the two existing units near Augusta, Georgia, but it should also shine a light on the elaborate shell game that masquerades as nuclear-powered electrical generation.

Coming almost exactly two years after the Obama administration granted the project $8.33 billion in federal loan guarantees, the NRC’s OK for the project did not signal a groundbreaking at Vogtle. Thanks to a redefinition of what constitutes construction, drafted under a former NRC commissioner who now works for the nuclear industry, Southern started building on the site long before the AP1000 reactor design was finally approved by the NRC last December. And foundations were poured into the Georgia earth before environmental impact surveys were even required to be filed. So, Thursday’s move did not actually start construction, but it did start the roulette wheel turning on a massive financial gamble where Southern Company is pretty much assured of winning, and US taxpayers and Georgia utility customers are guaranteed to lose.

How much those Americans who don’t happen to own a power company will lose is an issue of some question–a question that the Department of Energy and Southern Company is making very hard to answer.

As this month marks two years since the government agreed to the loan guarantees, it will mark almost as long a time since the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the details of the deal the DOE struck with Southern Co., and thus it also marks almost two years of stonewalling by the Obama administration and the energy consortium:

To date, DOE has produced heavily censored documents that have provided little or no information in an effort to frustrate any analysis that would be useful to taxpayers. Based on the limited information produced to date, it appears that the power companies had to put almost no “skin in the game,” only promising to pay a token credit subsidy fee of what could be as little as 0.5 or 1.5 percent of the total loan principal.

Perhaps the once-pledged-to-be-the-most-open-in-history-but-now-proving-to-be-just-as-secretive administration thinks it can hide behind the idea that it is only a guarantee, and, at that, a guarantee of a private business plan, but that would be doubly troubling.

The DOE has indeed tried to use the confidential business argument, but Mindy Goldstein, acting director, Turner Environmental Law Clinic at Emory University School of Law, who is representing SACE in its FOIA case, explains just how disturbing that argument is:

DOE claims that the loan guarantee terms and credit subsidy fee estimates are confidential and may only be viewed by Georgia Power and its utility partners. Let’s hope DOE is wrong. For such information to be withheld as confidential, it must have been obtained from the utilities themselves. If the power companies are literally writing their own guarantees and credit subsidy fee estimates, the Loan Guarantee Program is more flawed than anyone could have imagined.

Alas, given the long history of industry representatives “helping” the DOE and NRC draft their regulations, Goldstein’s legal conundrum isn’t hard to imagine as the actual state of affairs.

And neither the government nor the taxpayer should take comfort from the guarantee angle:

Private lenders have declined to finance new reactors because of the enormously high cost of new nuclear power and the substantial risk that any such investment will fail. In 2003, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the chance of a loan for new nuclear reactor construction resulting in default would be “very high – well over 50 percent.”

And for the folks at Vogtle, the risk is likely much higher. The two reactors now at the Georgia site took over 15 years to complete, came in 1,200 percent over budget, and resulted in an enormous rate hike for Georgia power consumers.

The fact that even with taxpayers already shouldering the risk ratepayers are also on the hook is the remarkable second slap in the face that comes with the nuclear power con:

[Southern’s subsidiary and largest utility, Georgia Power] customers already are paying down the [Vogtle] project’s financing costs through a fee that will increase to $8.74 a month by 2015. The fee will end once reactors start producing power in 2016 and 2017.

Well, the fee is supposed to end when the reactors start producing power, which is supposed to be in 2016 and 2017. But no nuclear project comes in on time or on budget–and as was just noted, history is not Vogtle’s friend here–and not only will ratepayers continue to cough up cash while construction drags on, it is certainly not unprecedented to see them continue to get fleeced for overruns after the plants are finished (just ask the good citizens of Florida).

These, of course, are just the costs incurred if everything goes more or less right. And these, of course, are just the costs of building the reactors–it has nothing to do with the fueling, the maintenance, the waste removal and clean up should anything get, you know, “unusual.” But since the taxpayers and ratepayers pretty much built the new reactors for them, those costs should come out of Southern Co/Georgia Power’s profits once they start charging for the actual power, right?

Uh. . . wrong. As George W. Bush was headed out the door, he made sure that the Department of Energy would be liable for all costs from any high-level radioactive waste generated at the new Vogtle units. And, of course, as is true for all facilities in the US, the Price-Anderson Act indemnifies the industry against claims arising nuclear accidents.

And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s approval–coming when it does–does nothing to make those accidents less likely. The NRC voted for Vogtle’s COLA over the objections of its chairman, Greg Jaczko, who thought safety rules that should come from the post-Fukushima recommendations should have been stipulated as essential to any new license. And the AP1000’s design, which Toshiba-Westinghouse likes to tout as safer than its close cousin, the pressurized water reactor, is suspected to be anything but.

Meanwhile, trouble at nuclear reactors worldwide continues apace. At Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi, unit two, which was said to have been brought to a “cold shutdown” in December, has experienced what is called a “re-criticality”–in other words, the temperature inside the ruptured containment vessel has begun to rise again, up more than 20 degrees Celsius since February 1. Officials from Japanese power company TEPCO have done a poor job of explaining why this might be happening or what it might mean for the future, but they do admit to the necessity of increasing the amount of water and boric acid pumped into the damaged reactor to counteract the warming. And, since there are holes and cracks in the reactor vessel, that means more radioactive waste water pouring out of the building and into the basements and surrounding plant grounds–more water on top of the 95,000 cubic meters already believed to be there, and on top of the 220,000 cubic meters that TEPCO has claimed they “processed” (and then dumped back into the environment).

And something else quite troubling has been observed in Japan–bird populations in Fukushima prefecture have taken a bigger dip than was expected from studies of similar species around Chernobyl after that nuclear disaster.

Speaking of the former Soviet Union, there was a fire last weekend at the Alikhanov Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics in southwestern Moscow. The building contains an atomic collider and is home to Russia’s very first heavy water reactor, built in the 1940s, and now decommissioned. Government officials said there was no danger of a radiation leak, but others, like Greenpeace Russia, beg to differ.

Back in the USA, the San Onofre plant remains completely shutdown after one reactor was found to be leaking tritium on January 31. Meanwhile, the other reactor, offline for refueling and repairs since January 9, was discovered to have alarmingly excessive wear inside its almost new turbine tubes.

And at Prairie Island, a nuclear facility in southeastern Minnesota, Xcel Energy has copped to two separate toxic chemical and radiological spills. One happened last November, but Xcel did not alert residents of the Prairie Island Indian Community–a whopping 600 yards from the power plant–till last week. The second happened just last Friday, February 3, but Xcel waited to give notice till Monday because the leak happened “‘after business hours’ just before the weekend.”

This is but a small sample–less than a week’s worth–of the nuclear world the NRC has now voted to expand. With each of these items should come a list of questions and a cavalcade of caution, but the NRC’s rulings on the AP1000 have defied the facts on the ground. Meanwhile, the entire federal government seems hell-bent on ignoring the fiscal realities, instead choosing to guarantee that money flow from the pockets of taxpayers into the coffers of nuclear energy corporations, whether or not those corporations ever provide a kilowatt of power to those taxpayers.

It is a sad state of affairs–that almost goes without saying–but perhaps sadder is the relative silence around such a multi-layered scandal.

Political activists were rightfully outraged when the Bush administration fought tooth-and-nail to keep the minutes of Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force secret. Now, aside from the good people at SACE, who else is working to uncloak an equally secretive–and equally offensive–Obama energy deal?

Some look to leverage a scandal off the failure of Solyndra–but the loan guarantees to Southern Company are over 15 times larger than those made to the small solar manufacturer, and frankly, even today, more risky. (Solyndra may have failed, but its assets can and will be sold, and its plant will be repurposed. Very little of that potential exists for a failed nuclear endeavor.)

Many who are outraged by the bailouts of the banks should see each of these nuclear facilities as a little version of the same “socialize the risk, privatize the profit” model. A nuclear facility might only lose billions of dollars instead of trillions, but as Everett Dirksen observed in a cheaper era, “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

And, of course, nuclear failures aren’t just toxic to the economy, they are toxic to the environment, too.

And for those that think this week’s $25 billion settlement with the five big financial institutions guilty of mortgage fraud is somehow a grand amount–just remember that you can’t get two new nuclear power stations for that. . . and after typical delays and cost overruns, $25 billion likely won’t even get you one.

So, take a good look at what is happening in Georgia–even if the Obama administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission won’t. . . even if the Obama administration and the NRC don’t want you to. The nuclear industry, its acolytes, its lackeys, its supplicants and subordinates want to make the Vogtle reactors the first of many, the first of an irresistible nuclear renaissance, the start of a hard-charging, government-subsidized pushback–against activists and environmentalists, sure, but in reality, against the truth.

The truth, of course, is that without the lobbyists and the grease they spread, without the captured regulators and the purchased elected officials, the nuclear industry would be relegated to the past, right alongside its antiquated technology. The truth is that nuclear power is not clean, nor safe, nor too cheap to meter–it is dirty, dangerous, and a financial sinkhole of epic proportions. Banks and investment houses know it, ratepayers in Georgia and Florida know it, many of the residents of Japan know it, and even the government of Germany knows it–and now you know it, too. Now is the time to make sure your representatives in government–your president, your members of Congress, your state and local officials–know that you know it. Now is the time to stop this boondoggle and bailout, and then get to the business of safely uncoiling the nuclear serpent’s grip on our leaders and our imaginations. The AP1000 is not a first glimpse of the future, it is the last gasp of the past–and the sooner we stop subsidizing the old ideas, the sooner we can start investing in some new ones.

San Onofre: One Leaks, the Other Doesn’t… Yet

For those who thought that, with the new year, nuclear power had turned a page and put its “annus horribilis” behind it–as if the calendar were somehow the friend America’s aging reactors–let’s take a quick look at January 2012.

First, a glance across the Pacific, where the month began with the revelation that the Japanese government purposely downplayed their assessments of the Fukushima disaster–hiding the worst projected scenarios from the public from soon after the March earthquake by classifying the documents as personal correspondence–and ended with discovery of yet another large leak of radioactive water from one of the crippled reactors.

Closer to home, the lone reactor at Wolf Creek, Kansas, was shutdown on January 13 after the failure of a main generator breaker was followed by a still-unexplained loss of power to an electrical transformer. Diesel generators kicked in to run the safety systems until external power was restored, but the plant remains offline while a Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspection team tries to figure out what went wrong.

On the morning of January 30, a power failure caused a reactor at Exelon’s Byron Generating Station to scram, which in turn required a wee bit of venting:

[At] Exelon Nuclear’s Byron Unit 2 atomic reactor near Rockford, IL, primary electrical grid power was lost and safety and cooling systems had to run from emergency backup diesel generators when smoke was seen coming from a switchyard transformer. However, when the plant’s fire brigade responded, they could not find the fire. . . .

As revealed by Exelon’s “Event Report,” offsite firefighters were called in, Unit 1 is still at full power, and Unit 2’s cool down “steam [is] leaving via atmospheric relief valves.”

An initial AP report on the incident stated: “The steam contains low levels of tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, but federal and plant officials insisted the levels were safe for workers and the public…[NRC] officials also said the release of tritium was expected. . . .

Because, you know, a scram without some steam is like a coffee with out some cream. Or, as noted in the past, these emergency shutdowns are not subtle, quiet events. They are like slamming the breaks on a speeding car, and they cause all kinds of stresses and strains on reactor systems. Even when backup power kicks in, the process can require the venting of steam to relieve pressure in various parts of the reactor (where depends on the type of reactor and the kind of “unusual event”)–and that steam will often contain tritium, which has molecules so small they can pass from the closed loop that runs through the reactor into the secondary loop (in the case of pressurized water reactors) that powers the turbines.

So, lots of places in the system with varying levels of tritium, which, as Beyond Nuclear points out, is in no way “safe”:

[T]he linear no threshold theory, endorsed by the U.S. National Academies of Science for decades, holds that any exposure to radioactivity, no matter how small, still carries a health risk, and such risks are cumulative over a lifetime. It would be more honest for NRC officials to states that the tritium releases from Byron are “acceptably risky,” in their judgment, but not “safe.” After all, tritium is a potent radionuclide, a clinically proven cause of cancer, mutations, and birth defects, and if inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin, can integrate anywhere in the human body, right down to the DNA level.

And to add insult to the dishonestly undersold injury, the NRC says it can’t yet calculate just how much tritium escaped in this event.

But Wolf Creek and Byron were really just steamy warm ups (as it were) for January’s main event–the Grand-Guignol-meets-the-Keystone-Kops tragic-comedy commonly referred to as SONGS, or the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

San Onofre sits on the California coast, about halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles, and has a long, infamous history of construction screw-ups, safety breaches, lax reporting, falsified records and unusual events. Unit 1 was brought online in 1968–and decommissioned 25 years later; Units 2 and 3 started up in the early ’80s, and are still operating today. . . .

Well, uh, about that. . . .

Officials at the San Onofre nuclear power plant shut down one of the facility’s two units Tuesday evening [January 31] after a sensor detected a possible leak in a steam generator tube.

The potential leak was detected about 4:30 p.m., and the unit was completely shut down about an hour later, Southern California Edison said.

The next day, SCE revealed that yes, indeed, it was a leak that caused them to scram Unit 3, and that they were dealing with it by “reducing pressure“. . . which other people might call “venting.” SONGS is also a PWR, and this leak was also in the loop that spins the turbines and not the one that runs through the reactor, but as noted above, that system still contains some radionuclides. Edison does admit to the release of some radiation, though they make the same “no threat/no harm” assertions common to the other unusual events.

Beyond the usual pushback on that “no harm” claim, it should also be noted here that the leak did no occur in the reactor’s sealed containment building, but in an auxiliary building. . . with doors. . . and people that go in and out through those doors. . . so the question is not whether some radiation escaped into the atmosphere, but “how much?”

But that’s not the scary part.

The leak occurred in Unit 3, and so that had to be shut down, but Unit 2 was already down–offline for two months of refueling and repair. However, the accident in Unit 3 prompted quite the revelation about Unit 2:

Unusual wear has been found on hundreds of tubes that carry radioactive water at Southern California’s San Onofre Unit 2 nuclear plant, raising questions about the integrity of equipment the company installed in a multimillion-dollar makeover in 2009.

. . . .

The problems at Unit 2 were discovered during inspections of a steam generator, after the plant 45 miles north of San Diego was taken off-line for maintenance and refueling. The two huge steam generators at Unit 2, each containing 9,700 tubes, were replaced in fall 2009, and a year later in its twin plant, Unit 3, as part of a $670 million overhaul.

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, more than a third of the wall had been worn away in two tubes at Unit 2, which will require them to be plugged and taken out of service. At least 20 percent of the tube wall was worn away in 69 other tubes, and in more than 800, the thinning was at least 10 percent.

This level of wear might be typical to systems in use for several decades–still not comforting, considering the age of America’s nuclear plants–but to see this degradation in virtually new tubes gives one pause. . . especially one Joram Hopenfeld, retired NRC engineer and researcher:

“I’ve never heard of anything like that over so short a period of time,” Hopenfeld said.

“The safety implications could be very, very severe,” Hopenfeld added. “Usually the concern is in older steam generators, when they have cracks all over the place.”

According to the regulatory commission, the tubes have an important safety role because they represent one of the primary barriers with the radioactive side of the plant. If a tube breaks, there is the potential that radioactivity from the system that pumps water through the reactor could escape into the atmosphere.

About two-thirds of US reactors are of similar design to those at SONGS.

That’s the scary part.

It is scary, of course, because it raises questions about the manufacturing, the installation, and the maintenance of the $670 million rehab at San Onofre–but it also should raise concerns about the repairs, refurbishments and retrofits at dozens of other domestic facilities.

And it also provides another object lesson on the real costs of nuclear power. To put it in context, the San Onofre makeover cost $135 million more than the much-maligned federal loan guarantee extended in 2009 to the now-defunct solar panel manufacturer Solyndra Corporation. (And, unlike it could ever be for a nuclear loan guarantee, the federal government will recoup most of the Solyndra money when company assets are sold.)

Atomic energy advocates will argue that while construction costs are high, once built, nuclear plants run pretty much round-the-clock–24/7/365, as they say.

Except, of course, as the events just described or any of the dozens of other incidents documented here over the last year show, they don’t. Right now, SONGS is generating zero power. None. The same can be said for Wolf Creek, and one of the two reactors at Byron. The Palisades plant in Michigan was shut down five times last year. Ohio’s Davis-Besse facility, offline much of 2011 because of major repairs and a series of questions about cracks in the reactor building, was just given the green light to restart by the NRC, despite the objections of many nuclear watchdogs and US Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH).

Reactors at North Anna, VA, Calvert Cliffs, MD, and Fort Calhoun, NE, were all offline for substantial amounts of time in 2011. A swarm of jellyfish took out Florida’s St. Lucie nuclear plant for several days last summer, and Crystal River, also in Florida, has not produced so much as a single kilowatt in almost two-and-a-half years. And it likely won’t produce any more until 2014 at the earliest, assuming Florida ratepayers pony up another $2.5 billion for repairs.

All of which again underscores that nuclear power is not just phenomenally expensive in every phase of its life, it is an expense always born by ratepayers and taxpayers. And that, of course, just refers to the financial costs.

Those tritium leaks will take some toll on the health of residents in regions near Byron and SONGS, though it will debated just how much. Less debatable now–thanks to a French study released, yes, in January–the everyday dangers of having a nuclear facility in your general area:

In a report certain to cause fear and loathing in the global nuclear industry, an eminent French research institute published a study in the International Journal of Cancer, which notes increased rates of leukemia in children living close to French nuclear power plants (NPPs.)

How much greater?

The study by the Institut National de la Sante et de la Recherche Medicale (French Institute of Health and Medical Research, or INSERM) found a leukemia rate twice as high among children under the age of 15 living within a 3.1-mile radius of France’s 19 nuclear power plants.

France, of course, has a universal health plan, so those costs will directly hit their national budget. The US does not embrace a similar level of responsibility for the health of its citizens, but the costs of increased numbers of childhood cancers will ripple through the economy all the same (well, in reality, even more then all the same).

Still feeling nuclear power’s worst year is behind it?

But, wait, there’s more–a sort of microcosmic calamity to put a grace note on nuclear’s macro-farce: A few days before the leak and the revelations about tube decay, an Edison employee at San Onofre fell into a fuel storage pool while trying to retrieve a dropped flashlight. The worker was not injured in the fall, though he did ingest some unspecified amount of radioactive water–but (and you know what’s coming here. . . wait for it. . . wait for it) SCE said the man “did not suffer harmful radiation exposure.”

Welcome to 2012. One mensis horribilis down, 11 to go.