New Fukushima Report: “Devil’s Chain Reaction” Could Wipe Out Tokyo

Map of the east coast of Japan showing the distance between Tokyo and Fukushima Daiichi, 150 miles to the north.

A new independent report on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear disaster reveals that Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan feared events following the March 11, 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami would require the evacuation of Tokyo. The report, conducted by the Rebuild Japan Foundation, a new policy organization comprised of college professors, journalists and lawyers, sheds new light on just how in-the-dark many were in the wake of natural disasters that left the Fukushima nuclear facility with damaged safety systems and without internal or external power.

The investigation underscores the conflicting interests of the Japanese government, the directors of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO–Fukushima’s owner and operator), and those on the scene at the crippled nuclear plant. Masataka Shimizu, president of TEPCO, is said to have ordered all of Fukushima Daiichi’s employees to evacuate the facility in the days after March 11, but Daiichi’s plant manager, Massao Yoshida, argued that he could get the damaged reactors under control if he and nuclear workers remained. PM Kan eventually ordered a skeleton crew to stay at the plant, fearing that Fukushima Daiichi, the nearby Fukushima Daini and a third nuclear facility could spiral out of control and start what has been translated as a “devil’s chain reaction” or a “demonic chain reaction” that would necessitate evacuation of the nation’s capital, a city of 13 million people, 150 miles south of Fukushima prefecture.

Given this new window on internal deliberations (far too nice a word–these were likely frantic, heated arguments) in Japan, the decision made by US Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko within days of the quake to recommend evacuating American citizens from an area 50 miles around Fukushima seems downright conservative. In recent days, nuclear power proponents have used this action as their latest volley in their ongoing push to oust Jaczko and replace him with a more servile chief regulator.

Interesting, too, the objections of TEPCO’s president to the plan to pour seawater on the melting Fukushima reactors and boiling spent fuel storage pools. This last-gasp measure, apparently the idea of Yoshida, the Daiichi manager, is believed to have somewhat cooled the reactors and at least kept the fuel pools from completely emptying–which would have resulted in a much more serious outcome (hard to believe, but true)–though it should be noted that the radioactive runoff is now contaminating the ground, groundwater, rivers and the ocean around Fukushima. TEPCO brass no doubt did not want to use seawater because its corrosive effects would make it impossible to ever restart any of the Daiichi reactors (again, ridiculous in hindsight, but not hard to imagine inside the profit-above-people distortion bubble that exists at companies like TEPCO). (UPDATE: Japan Times reports Kan was reticent to use anything but fresh water, but Yoshida ignored him and went ahead with the use of seawater.)

Other recent revelations–about how close Fukushima Daini came to a meltdown of its own, about how the Fukushima region is now more seismically unstable, and that the government had dire assessments of the disaster that it worked hard to keep secret–serve to buttress Naoto Kan’s fears that a string of nuclear disasters was a distinct possibility. And it should also serve as a warning that those fears are still a possibility if the region’s nuclear plants–whether or not they are still functioning–are not decommissioned and contained.

And all this information, and the new details on the lack of trust between the Japanese government and TEPCO, also paints a more nuanced–and, honestly, disturbing–picture of the environment in which US officials had to make decisions.

But, perhaps most importantly, this latest report is yet another data point against the absurd assertion that Fukushima Daiichi somehow proves nuclear power’s “defense in depth” safety systems work. The assertion that Fukushima isn’t a massive disaster, just as it stands today, is ridiculous, but reading about the lack of good information in the early days of the crisis, the internal fights and the government’s fears makes it clear that things could have easily been much, much worse. While there are still real concerns about just how much radiation residents throughout Japan will be expected to absorb, and there are still many technical questions that remain unanswered, it now appears that it was only a combination of an occasionally assertive PM, the heroism of about fifty Daiichi workers and maybe some dumb luck that gave the world the relative luxury of calling Fukushima an ever-metastasizing disaster, rather than an almost-instant hell on earth.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Ignores Fukushima, Green-Lights First New Reactors in 34 Years

Current containment buildings and cooling towers at the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Burke County, GA. (photo: NRC)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted a construction and operating license to Southern Co. for two reactors to be added to its Plant Vogtle facility in Georgia. The OK is the first granted by the US regulator since 1978.

The NRC approved the license over the objections of its chairman, Gregory Jaczko, who wanted the license to stipulate that the units would meet new standards recommended by the agency’s Fukushima Near-Term Task Force (NTTF) report:

“I think this license needed something that ensured that the changes as a result of Fukushima would be implemented,” Jaczko said in an interview after the vote. “It’s like when you go to buy a house and the home inspector identifies things that should be fixed. You don’t go to closing before those things are fixed.”

The NTTF recommendations, geared toward improving safety and preventing another disaster like the one still evolving at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility, have still not become official government rules–some are projected to take up to five years to draft and implement–and so, for now, the new reactor construction will get to pretend the Tohoku quake and tsunami, and the resulting core meltdowns and widespread radioactive contamination, never happened.

The Vogtle reactors are of a new (or, let’s call it “new-ish”) design. The AP1000 reactor was just approved by the NRC in December, over the objections of numerous scientists and engineers, who saw claims of innovation insufficient to counter the dangers native to any Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) design. Upon examination, many of the “improvements” to the AP1000 look more like ways to cut construction costs. Even so, a single new AP1000 is expected to cost anywhere from $8 billion to $14 billion dollars–and, it should be noted, no US nuclear facility has ever come in anywhere close to on time or on budget. The US government has already pledged over $8 billion in federal loan guarantees to cover construction of the Georgia reactors, since without the government backstop, no private financial institutions will invest in such a high-cost, high-risk project. Southern Co. has already spent $4 billion preparing the Vogtle site for the anticipated new construction.

I cannot support this licensing as if Fukushima never happened,” said Gregory Jaczko after the Thursday vote–but thanks to the four other commissioners of his captured agency, licensing as if Fukushima never happened is exactly what the NRC did.

Aftershocking: Frontline’s Fukushima Doc a Lazy Apologia for the Nuclear Industry

There is much to say about this week’s Frontline documentary, “Nuclear Aftershocks,” and some of it would even be good. For the casual follower of nuclear news in the ten months since an earthquake and tsunami triggered the massive and ongoing disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, it is illuminating to see the wreckage that once was a trio of active nuclear reactors, and the devastation and desolation that has replaced town after town inside the 20-kilometer evacuation zone. And it is eye-opening to experience at ground level the inadequacy of the Indian Point nuclear plant evacuation plan. It is also helpful to learn that citizens in Japan and Germany have seen enough and are demanding their countries phase out nuclear energy.

But if you are only a casual observer of this particular segment of the news, then the Frontline broadcast also left you with a mountain of misinformation and big bowl-full of unquestioned bias.

Take, for example, Frontline correspondent Miles O’Brien’s cavalier treatment of the potential increase in Japanese cancer deaths, courtesy of the former property of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO):

MILES O’BRIEN: When Japanese authorities set radiation levels for evacuation, they were conservative, 20 millisieverts per year. That’s the equivalent of two or three abdominal CAT scans in the same period. I asked Dr. Gen Suzuki about this.

[on camera] So at 20 millisieverts over the course of a long period of time, what is the increased cancer risk?

GEN SUZUKI, Radiation specialist, Nuclear Safety Comm.: Yeah, it’s 0.2— 0.2 percent increase in lifetime.

MILES O’BRIEN: [on camera] 0.2 percent over the course of a lifetime?

GEN SUZUKI: Yeah.

MILES O’BRIEN: So your normal risk of cancer in Japan is?

GEN SUZUKI: Is 30 percent.

MILES O’BRIEN: So what is the increased cancer rate?

GEN SUZUKI: 30.2 percent, so the increment is quite small.

MILES O’BRIEN: And yet the fear is quite high.

GEN SUZUKI: Yes, that’s true.

MILES O’BRIEN: [voice-over] People are even concerned here, in Fukushima City, outside the evacuation zone, where radiation contamination is officially below any danger level.

There was no countervailing opinion offered after this segment–which is kind of disgraceful because there is a myriad of informed, countervailing opinions out there.

Is 20 millisieverts (mSv) a year a conservative limit on exposure? Well, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the average annual dose for those living in the United States is 6.2 mSv, half of which is background, with the other half expected to come from diagnostic medical procedures. And according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the maximum additional dose for an adult before it is considered an “unacceptable risk” is one millisievert per year.

Then, to assess the cancer risk, O’Brien, practically in the same breath, changes exposure over a single year to “over the course of a long period of time”–an inexcusable muddying of the facts. One year for those who must live out their lives in northern Japan might wind up seeming like a long period of time, but it would actually be a small fraction of their lifetimes, and so would present them with only a fraction of their exposure.

So, is Dr. Gen Suzuki assessing the increased cancer risk for 20 mSv over a lifetime, a long time, or just one year? It is hard to say for sure, though, based on his estimates, it seems more like he is using a much longer timeframe than a single year. But even if his estimate really is the total expected increase in cancer deaths from the Fukushima disaster, what is he talking about? Miles O’Brien seems almost incredulous that anyone would be showing concern over a .2 percent increase, but in Japan, a .2 percent increase in cancer deaths means 2,000 more deaths. How many modern nations would find any disaster–natural or manmade–that resulted in 2,000 deaths to be negligible? For that matter, how many of the reporters, producers or crew of Frontline would feel good about rolling the dice and moving their family into an area that expects 2,000 additional fatalities?

Further, the exchange doesn’t say anything about the person who is supposed to casually endure the equivalent of three abdominal CAT scans a year (something no respectable professional would recommend without some very serious cause). The effects of radiation exposure on children are quite a bit different from the effects of the same exposure on adults–and quite a bit more troubling. And young girls are more at risk than young boys. Though the Frontline episode features many pictures of children–for instance, playing little league baseball–it never mentions their higher risks.

Also missing here, any mention that in a country now blanketed north to south in varying levels of radioactive fallout, radiation exposure is not purely external. The estimates discussed above are based on an increase in background radiation, but radioactive isotopes are inhaled with fallout-laden dust and dirt, and consumed with food from contaminated farmlands and fisheries. Outcomes will depend on the isotopes and who consumes them–radioactive Iodine concentrates in the Thyroid and has a half life of a couple of weeks; Cesium 137 tends to gravitate toward muscle and has a half-life of about 30 years. Strontium 90, which concentrates in bones, lasts almost as long. The affect of all of this needs to be factored in to any estimates of post-Fukushima morbidity.

So, as one might imagine, Dr. Suzuki’s cancer estimate, be it from his own deliberate downplay or O’Brien’s sloppy framing, is widely disputed. In fact, a quick survey of the literature might call the estimate in Frontline an absurdly low outlier.

By way of example, take findings compiled by Fairwinds Associates, an engineering and environmental consulting firm often critical of the nuclear industry. Using data from the National Academy of Science’s report on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR), Fairwinds explains that one in every 100 girls will develop cancer for every year they are exposed to that “conservative” 20 mSv of radiation. But Fairwinds believes the BEIR also underestimates the risk. Fairwinds introduces additional analysis to show that “at least one out of every 20 young girls (5%) living in an area where the radiological exposure is 20 millisieverts for five years will develop cancer in their lifetime.”

It should be noted here that five years of 20 mSv per year would equal 100 mSv lifetime exposure–the newly revised lifetime maximum set by Japan after the start of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. And some cities in northern Japan, uncomfortable with this blanket prescription, have set limits for children at one millisievert per year.

None of this information was hard to find, and all of it stems from data provided by large, respected institutions, yet, for some reason, O’Brien and Frontline felt content to let their single source set a tone of “no big deal.” Worried Japanese residents featured just after the interview with Dr. Suzuki are portrayed as broadly irrational, if not borderline hysterical.

The dismissive tenor of the medical segment carries over to several other parts of “Nuclear Aftershocks.” Take Frontline’s assessment of the German reaction to the meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has pledged to entirely phase out their reliance on nuclear power within the next decade. O’Brien call this decision “rash” and “hasty,” and he doesn’t qualify those adjectives as the viewpoint of one expert or another; instead, he uses them matter-of-factly, as if everyone knows that Germany is a nation of jittery, irresponsible children. The political reality–that the German government is actually pursuing a policy that is the will of the people–is treated as some sort of abomination.

Japanese anti-nuclear protestors get similar treatment from Frontline. That large demonstrations like those seen over the last ten months are a rare and special occurrence in Japan is not considered. Instead, the documentary, time and again, hints at a shadowy doomsday somewhere in the near future, a sort of end-of-civilization scenario caused by an almost instant cessation of nuclear power generation. Indeed, as the program ends, O’Brien declares that every nuclear plant in Japan will be shut down by May–and as he says this, the camera peers out the window of a slow-moving elevated train. The view is a darkened Japanese city, and as O’Brien finishes his monologue, the train grinds to a halt.

Ooh, skeddy. Was this Frontline, or Monster Chiller Horror Theater?

Yes, the end seemed that absurd. “Nuclear Aftershocks” paints a picture many members of both the nuclear and fossil fuels lobbies would love to have you believe: a sort of zero-sum, vaguely binary, cake-or-death world where every possible future holds only the oldest, dirtiest and most dangerous options for electrical power generation. You get coal, you get gas, or you get nuclear–make up your mind!

But the show, like the handmaidens of those out-dated technologies, perverts the argument by glossing over the present and omitting choices for the future. As much as many concerned citizens would like to see nuclear power disappear overnight, it will not. Germany is giving itself a decade, the US is looking to run its aging reactors for another twenty years, and even Japan, dream though they might, will likely not decommission every reactor in the next four months. There is a window–big or small depending on your point of view–but a decided period of time to shift energy priorities.

Even the nuclear advocates who appear on Frontline call nuclear power “a bridge”–but if their lobby and their fossil fuel-loving brethren have their way, it will likely be a bridge to nowhere.

“Nuclear Aftershocks” does mention Germany’s increased investment in a wind- and solar-powered future, but the show calls that shift “a bold bet” and “a risk.”

Likely the producers will argue they did not have time for a deeper exploration, but by allowing fissile and fossil fuel advocates to argue that renewables cannot meet “base load” requirements, while failing to discuss recent leaps forward in solar and wind technology, or how well Japan’s wind turbines weathered the Tohoku quake and tsunami–or, for that matter, how much Japanese citizens have been able to reduce their electrical consumption since then through basic conservation–Frontline’s creators are guilty of flat-earth-inspired editing.

Indeed, missing from almost every discussion of the future of power generation is how much we could slow the growth in demand through what is called efficiencies–conservation, passive design, changes in construction techniques, and the replacement and upgrading of an aging electric infrastructure. The Frontline documentary highlights some of the potential risks of an accident at New York’s Indian Point nuclear generating station, but it contrasts that concern with nearby New York City’s unquenchable thirst for electricity. Missing entirely from the discussion: that New York could make up for all of Indian Point’s actual output by conserving a modest amount and replacing the transmission lines that bring hydroelectric power from the north with newer, more efficient cable.

No single solution is a panacea for every region of the globe, but many alternatives need to be on the table, and they certainly ought to be in any discussion about the “aftershocks” of nuclear’s annus horribilis. It should be seen as impossible to evaluate nuclear energy without considering the alternatives–and not just the CO2-creating, hydrofracking alternatives that are the standby bugbear of those infatuated with atomic power. Coal, gas, and nuclear are our links to the past; renewables and increased efficiency are our real bridge to the future. Just as it is dishonest to evaluate the cost of any of the old-school energy technologies without also considering environmental impact and enormous government subsidies–and now, too, the costs of relocating hundreds of thousands or millions of people and treating untold numbers of future health problems–it is also misleading to treat energy funds as permanently allocated to entrenched fuels.

The billions pledged to the nuclear industry by the Obama administration dwarf the budgets and tax incentives for conservation, alternative fuels, and green technology innovation combined. Factor in the government-shouldered costs of cleanup and waste storage, not to mention the sweetheart deals granted to the hydrocarbon crowd, and you could put together a program for next-generation generation that would make the Manhattan Project look like an Our Gang play (“My dad has an old barn!” “My mom can sew curtains!”).

It is a grave disappointment that Frontline couldn’t take the same broad view. The producers will no doubt argue that they could only say so much in 50 minutes, but like Japan, Germany, and the United States, they had choices. For the governments of these industrialized nations, the choices involve their energy futures and the safety of their citizens; for the Frontline crew, their choices can either help or hinder those citizens when they need to make informed choices of their own. For all concerned, the time to make those choices is now.

It is a shame that “Nuclear Aftershocks” instead used its time to run interference for a dirty, dangerous and costly industry.

The Party Line – December 30, 2011: The Party Line, Nuclear Style

As we close out 2011, readers of this space will likely not be surprised to hear the following:

  • The crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility continues and continues to poison the planet;
  • Accidents and events at nuclear reactors across the United States continue at a headshaking pace (something goes wrong somewhere pretty much weekly);
  • The nuclear industry continues its full-court press against any new safety rules that might spring from lessons learned from Fukushima or the domestic events;
  • Industry-friendly regulators continue to help slow-walk new rules while also working with allies in Congress to oust the slightly more safety-minded Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair, Gregory Jaczko;
  • Chairman Jaczko continues to hope his faith in a moderate path and a captured regulatory agency will guarantee a safe nuclear future and help save his job; and
  • All of this has happened before.

Last point first: Ryan Grim has a great follow-up on this month’s attempted coup at the NRC–where four commissioners, in coordination with members of congress and nuclear industry lobbyists, have gone public with complaints about the NRC chairman, Greg Jaczko. While the commissioners have stopped short of calling for Jaczko to step down, several GOP congressmen are pressing for just that result.

As Grim reports in the Huffington Post, the effort to oust Jaczko not only continues in the wake of two congressional hearings on the matter, the whole ugly putsch closely resembles moves in the 1990s to discredit another regulation-minded nuclear regulator. And the stories even include some of the same players.

Like with the current “scandal,” the plot is not a simple one to summarize (so please read Grim’s detailed story), but the highlights include a former National Resources Defense Council scientist, Terry Lash, who was appointed by the Clinton administration to run the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy, his deputy, one William Magwood, and a staffer for the very nuke-industry-financed Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) named Alex Flint.

Thanks to an exploited possible gaffe in protocol and the coordinated work of Domenici, Magwood and Flint, Terry Lash was eventually pushed aside. And Magwood would take over the nuclear division at DOE, first as acting director, and then, under George W. Bush, as the office’s permanent head.

And yes, you’ve read two of those names here before. Bill Magwood is a commissioner at the NRC, a former consultant to the nuclear industry, and one of the most vocal critics of Chairman Jaczko. Alex Flint has run through the classic DC regulatory revolving door, moving between Senate staffer, nuclear industry lobbyist and back, most recently settling in as the top lobbyist for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the industry’s largest trade association.

The story is as troubling as it is tired. A government agency manipulated by the industry it is supposed to regulate. An industry, protected by bought politicians, avoids accountability while profiting from government largess. Some of that profit is then turned around to lobby and buy another administration’s worth of officials.

And an agency chief who is maybe too slow to realize that the industry and its surrogates will work relentlessly to undermine him and the regulatory body he tries to command.

The lessons here seem obvious and familiar. . . and yet they seem to be lost on so many.

It has been all-too-rare to see broad coverage of the US nuclear industry in the establishment press, yet, during the first week of December, nearly every news organ was Johnny-on-the-spot, repeating the industry storyline. Gregory Jaczko, it seems, was a temperamental leader, so difficult to work with that the NRC’s mission had been compromised.

Beyond the unremarked upon humor inherent in seeing Republican Senators and Representatives suddenly so concerned with nuclear safety, Jaczko himself provided under-reported frame-relief by proving so difficult to work with that he was able to secure the NRC’s unanimous approval of the new Westinghouse AP1000 reactor (despite some very serious concerns about that design and no financial support for construction without billions in federal loan guarantees). And the rest of the commission was able to out-vote Jaczko, four to one, to fast-track the construction and licensing of the new reactors, slated for plants in Georgia and South Carolina.

But perhaps most remarkable is that despite the industry push-back and power-politics, Jaczko still seems to think and act as if nuclear power can be regulated to a safe and prosperous future. The viciousness of the industry attacks and the seriousness of the events of nuclear’s annus horribilis should really disabuse him of that notion.

And the horrible year is not yet over. The last two weeks have seen the first of the debris from the Japanese tsunami hitting US shores, Pacific seals being tested after showing up in Alaska with skin lesions and other symptoms consistent with radiation poisoning, and a report from the International Journal of Health Services linking some 14,000 excess deaths in the US to the fallout from the Fukushima reactors.

Then there is the Japanese interim report on their nuclear disaster describing a regulatory agency unable and unwilling to take control of the crisis. There is the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) contention that they are not legally responsible for fallout once it lands on someone else’s property. And here in the United States, there was a valve leak at Mass Pilgrim, a condenser leak at New York’s Fitzpatrick plant, and an event at Vermont Yankee where both of the cooling system’s backup power generators were offline at the same time.

Still, the nuclear industry pushes the notion of an impending nuclear renaissance. It wasn’t true before Fukushima, and it certainly isn’t true after, but with even their supposed nemesis on the NRC helping them build new reactors and relicense old ones, why not keep working the system?

As noted here (but few other places), the December hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that was so dominated by the Jaczko cause célèbre was originally scheduled months earlier to track the progress of recommendations from the Fukushima taskforce. An August admonition from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) seemed to move the commissioners to put some of the recommendations on what passes for a fast track at the NRC, but even that has now been reversed by a majority of commissioners who voted themselves the ability to reject the very rules they previously ordered up. But all the attention in oversight hearings has been focused on Jaczko and his management style–learning the lessons of Fukushima and how that might improve US nuclear safety has been less than a footnote.

So, though Jaczko continues in his job with the public support of the White House, the nation’s regulatory agenda has already been altered. The nuclear industry may not yet have their head, but they’ve demonstrated they own the body.

And now a new year is upon us. The flip of the calendar will not wrap up the Fukushima disaster any more than it will end the parade of lesser events at American nuclear facilities. The nuclear industry will not decide to embrace safety upgrades and stricter regulation any more than the financial community will embrace nuclear power as a good risk. And no matter how many moves Gregory Jaczko makes in the direction of Bill Magwood or his industry masters, neither will ever like him. . . or consider calling off their well-practiced campaign to oust him.

Happy New Year.

The Party Line – December 2, 2011: Nuclear’s “Annus Horribilis” Confirms Its Future Is in the Past

In the immediate aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that triggered the horrific and ongoing disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power generating station, President Barack Obama went out on a bit of a limb, striking a tone markedly different from his fellow leaders in the industrialized world. Speaking about Japan and its effect on America’s energy future–once within days of the quake, and again later in March–the president made a point of reassuring Americans that his commitment to nuclear power would stay strong. While countries like Germany and Japan–both more dependent on nuclear power than the US–took Fukushima as a sign that it was time to move away from nuclear, Obama wanted to win the future with the same entrenched industry that so generously donated to his winning the 2008 election.

But a funny thing happened on the way to winning our energy future–namely, our energy present.

As November drew to a close, an article on AOL Energy (yes, it seems AOL has an energy page) declared 2011 to be “nuclear’s annus horribilis“:

March 2011 brought the 9.0 magnitude earthquake off northeastern Japan that sparked a tsunami whose waves may have exceeded 45 feet. Tokyo Electric Power Company’s oldest nuclear station, Fukushima Daiichi, apparently survived the earthquake, but its four oldest reactors didn’t survive that wall of water. Nuclear experts are still figuring out what all went wrong, and tens of thousands still haven’t returned home as Japanese authorities try to decontaminate radioactive hot spots.

In April, massive tornadoes that devastated the southeast swept near the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry plant.

In June, droughts sparked wildfires across the Southwest, including one that threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where nuclear weapons materials are stored.

June also brought record floods across the upper Midwest. For weeks Omaha Public Power District’s Fort Calhoun nuclear plant was essentially an island.

August saw the 5.8 magnitude Virginia earthquake just 11 miles from Dominion Energy’s North Anna plant. The plant shut safely, and returned to service mid-November after extensive checks found no damage even though ground motion briefly exceeded the plant’s design.

That list, as readers of this space will no doubt note, is far from complete. This year has also seen serious events at nuclear plants in California, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire and Ohio. But, perhaps even more troubling is the strangely positive tone of the piece.

Despite its ominous headline, it seems the message is: “Yeah, lots of nasty business in 2011, but 2011 is almost over. We got through it and no one died (at least no one in the US), so. . . problem solved!” It’s an attitude absurd on its face, of course, the passage of time is not the friend of America’s aging nuclear infrastructure–quite the opposite–but it is also a point that can’t survive the week in which it was made.

Take North Anna, for example. Yes, it is true that the NRC signed off on a restart in the waning hours of November 11, but the two generators at Dominion’s plant were not back at full power till November 28 because there was indeed damage–some of which was not discovered until after the restart process began.

A week earlier, a fire at Ohio’s crippled Davis-Besse facility cut ventilation to the reactor control room. A faulty valve in a pipe sending water to the reactor core leaked on an electrical switchbox, triggering an electrical arc, which started the fire. This could have been a potentially catastrophic emergency. . . had the reactor not been shut down seven weeks earlier to replace an already once previously replaced, corroded, 82-ton reactor lid. This “transplant operation” revealed a 30-foot crack in the concrete shield building that will require a separate repair program. . . which will in no way be completed before the end of the year.

The day after that fire, November 20, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Progress Energy’s Crystal River nuclear power plant in Citrus County, Florida, had discovered a 12-foot by 4-foot crack and crumbled concrete in its containment building in late July, but failed to notify the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This was a patently intentional omission, as Progress Energy was already reporting to the NRC about repairs to two other major cracks in the same building dating back to October 2009 and March 2011.

The Crystal River story is long and sordid. The containment building cracked first during its construction in 1976. That crack was in the dome, and was linked to a lack of steel reinforcement. Most nuclear plants use four layers of steel reinforcement; Crystal River used only one. The walls were built as shoddily as the dome.

The latest problems started when Crystal River needed to replace the steam generator inside the containment building. Rather than use an engineering firm like Bechtel or SGT–the companies that had done the previous 34 such replacements in the US–Progress decided it would save a few bucks and do the job itself.

Over the objections of on-site workers, Progress used a different method than the industry standard to cut into the containment building. . . and that’s when this new cracking began. It appears that every attempt since to repair the cracks has only led to new “delamination” (as the industry calls it).

At this point, most have determined that the best plan going forward is to tear down the substandard structure and build a properly reinforced new one, but Progress thinks they have a better idea. Crystal River’s operator is trying to replace the wall panels–all six of them–one by one.

Funny enough, the cost of this never-before-tried retrofit is about the same as the cost of a whole new building. But the full rebuild would take more time–and there’s the rub.

Every day that Crystal River is offline costs Progress money because they have to buy energy to replace what they agreed to provide to the region from this nuclear facility. Each year that the plant is offline is said to cost $300 million. The price tag on this little cracking problem so far–not counting the actual costs of the repair–is $670 million.

Who will pay that bill? Well, if you live in Florida, the answer is: you:

Customers will pay $140 million next year so Progress Energy Florida can buy electricity from other sources while a nuclear plant remains shut down for repairs.

Consumer advocates opposed the power replacement charge, which will take effect Jan. 1, but it won unanimous approval Tuesday from the five-member Florida Public Service Commission.

The panel’s decision is a prelude to a determination next year whether a portion of the repair costs should be passed on to customers or paid in full by the company’s investors owing to problems that have delayed the work. The Crystal River plant was closed for repairs in 2009 but now isn’t expected to reopen until 2014. That’s about three years later than initially expected.

The repair bill is expected to total $2.5 billion. The utility wants customers to pay $670 million, or about a quarter of that amount.

Interesting how that $670 million exactly mirrors the replacement energy costs through today. Students of the Florida Public Service Commission would probably be skeptical that the bailout will really stop there–remember, Florida residents already pay a surcharge on their utility bills for possible (but in no way guaranteed) future nuclear power construction.

And to say that it’s all about the money would not be pure speculation. As the St. Petersburg Times reports, while the good people at Crystal River failed to notify the NRC (or the Public Service Commission) about their latest troubles in a timely fashion, Progress Energy didn’t dare keep secrets from the US Securities and Exchange Commission. On August 8, the same day it neglected to mention the new cracks in a report to the PSC, Progress filed its annual report to the SEC and stated “additional cracking or delaminations may have occurred or could occur during the repair process.”

Given the many revelations of just how casual SEC enforcement can be, it is disturbing to think a nuclear provider had more to worry about from the SEC than from the NRC, the agency given direct oversight of nuclear plant licensing and safety.

Disturbing, but not surprising. This year has also revealed the cozy relationship between the nuclear industry and the NRC. An AP exposé made that clear over the summer, but one need look no further than the AOL Energy story:

[Nuclear Energy Institute CEO Marvin] Fertel said the industry and NRC are “in very good alignment” on the issues raised by 2011 events. The concern for utilities is the “cumulative impact” of new rules, he said, and making sure they’re ranked so plant staffs attack those with the most safety benefit first and the cost is manageable.

The government and the industry agree–safety must be addressed with an eye toward cost. And the tens of millions of Americans living in the shadow of a nuclear reactor will see just what this means as the watered-down post-Fukushima recommendations are slowly proposed and implemented–with little fully required of plant operators before 2016.

Indeed, the global nuclear industry is proceeding not just as if it is business as usual–when it comes to the United States, manufacturers of nuclear plant components are already betting on a new wave of reactor construction. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Yomiuri Shimbun reported that Toshiba Corp. is preparing to export turbine equipment to the US.

The turbines are for Toshiba-owned Westinghouse Electric Company-designed AP1000 reactors proposed for sites in Georgia and South Carolina. As previously reported, the AP1000 is a new reactor design–a new design that has not yet officially been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Still, the operators of the plants have already started to procure the equipment.

All of which raises the question, how is it that, in an age when credit is so hard to come by, an industry so focused on the bottom line feels secure in moving forward with commitments on a plan that is still officially going through the regulatory pipeline?

The assurances come from the top, and so does the money.

In contrast to pledges to, say, close Guantanamo or give Americans a public health insurance option, when it comes to nuclear power, Barack Obama is as good as his word. In February, Obama pledged $8.33 billion in federal loan guarantees to Southern Co., the operator of Georgia’s Plant Vogtle, the proposed home of two new AP1000 reactors. Again, this pledge came in advance of any approval of the design or licensing of the construction.

So, perhaps the nuclear industry is right to feel their “annus horribilis” is behind them, at least when it comes to their business plans. And with the all-too-common “privatize the profits, socialize the risks” way the utilities are allowed to do business, one might even doubt this last annus was really that horribilis for them at all.

But for the rest of us, the extant and potential problems of nuclear power are not limited to any particular period of time. The dangers of nuclear waste, of course, are measured in tens of thousands of years, the Fukushima crisis is lived by millions every minute, and the natural disasters, “events” and accidents that plague an aging, expensive and insufficiently regulated American nuclear industry are an anytime, anywhere reminder that future cannot be won by repeating the mistakes of the past.

The Party Line – November 4, 2011: Self-Styled Clean Energy President Embraces Future That’s Dirty, Dangerous, and Expensive

“Reeling from months of protests, President Barack Obama’s advisors are worried. . . .”

So begins a November 3rd story from Reuters assessing the potential political fallout from an administration decision to green-light the Keystone XL pipeline, TransCanada Corp’s plan to move crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries in Texas. Reading the whole piece, one can’t help but feel that Obama is still of a mind to go ahead and OK this dangerous and much-derided plan, it is just the Obama 2012 campaign that’s agonizing over how to spin it.

Back in 2008, Obama the candidate seemed to understand the threat posed by global warming, and he spoke often of moving away from carbon-heavy fuel sources like tar sands. Now, a good part of what is considered the president’s “base,” it seems, understands that the transcontinental pipeline is not only a danger to farmlands and aquifers, but also a betrayal of a campaign promise.

Don’t think this is the dynamic at play? Look at recent administration boasts about such “green” initiatives as raising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, or just read Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt in the abovementioned Reuters story:

“The president has done more to wean us off of foreign oil and transition the nation to a clean energy economy than any other,” he said. “When Americans compare the president’s record promoting clean energy and America’s energy security to those of the leading Republican candidates, who don’t even believe that climate change is an issue that we need to address and would cede the clean energy market to China, there will be no question about who will continue our progress.”

Moving beyond the observation that this is the same “We suck less” positioning that performed so poorly for Democrats in 2010, there are indeed many questions raised by Obama’s apparent take on our energy future.

LaBolt’s claim, “The president has done more to wean us off of foreign oil and transition the nation to a clean energy economy than any other,” first begs the obvious fact-check: Alberta is not in the US, and tar sands crude is no one’s idea of clean energy. But it is not a big leap to read this statement as something more inclusive, something meant to refer to all of the Obama administration’s moves in the energy sector. Indeed, with references to clean energy, climate change and China, the Obama campaign is probably hoping for some to hear a commitment to solar power, while others might understand it as an embrace of nuclear fission.

Intent notwithstanding, administration moves have underscored the latter–a White House enraptured with nuclear power–just as events continue to lay bare the lie that US nuclear power generation could fit anywhere into a tale of clean, domestic energy advocacy.

A new stupid way to boil water?

On November 1, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a new design of what is called an Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR) slated for construction in South Texas. The plan to build two 1,350-megawatt reactors was originally pitched five years ago, with the original plant operator, NRG Energy (so nice they named it twice!), requesting design certification for Toshiba’s version of ABWRs in 2007.

But in 2009, the NRC made mandatory what had previously been a voluntary requirement that plants would be able to withstand a 9/11-style aircraft attack and continue to cool the reactor and spent fuel pools. The ABWR design, and its certification, had to be amended. This amended design is what just received the NRC’s thumbs-up.

A funny thing, however, happened since the original request: NRG stopped investing in the project. NRG was the prime investor in the “South Texas Project Nuclear Power Co.,” which is the name of the body that originally submitted the amended design. Without NRG, Toshiba has been shepherding the certification request, the one just approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Just one hitch, though, foreign companies are not allowed to operate nuclear power plants in the United States–a point that seems to have been missed by the NRC (and by most establishment news reports about the certification).

This design certification without funding or domestic management in place provides an almost comic counterpoint to the funding-without-certification approach taken by the Obama administration for the AP1000 reactors proposed for Georgia’s Plant Vogtle.

The AP1000, a riff on a Pressurized Water Reactor design, is supposed to provide passive cooling inside a reactor in the event of a loss of power to the active cooling system. There are many questions about the AP1000, and it too had to be altered to comply with the 2009 9/11 rules, but the most recent delay in certification comes at least in part from concerns that the design should also account for a Fukushima-like seismic event. At this point, Vogtle’s operator, The Southern Company, and the NRC have not come to a meeting of the minds.

But these concerns–or, at least, delays–did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the White House. In February of 2010, without any design certification in place, none other than Barak Obama himself announced $8.33 billion in loan guarantees for Southern. This was done with fanfare at a public event (there’s even a YouTube of the announcement).

So, certification with no funding, or funding with no certification–to the US federal government, it doesn’t matter. And it spells out two points in bold type: The Obama administration stands squarely behind nuclear power. . . and the marketplace does not. Without help from what the campaign would have voters believe is the all-time greatest champion of clean, green, domestic energy, new nuclear reactors would not be built in the United States.

Uranium extraction is not clean and never has been. The US is still paying to clean up from mining in the southwest that ended half a century ago. And today, uranium is not really a domestic fuel source, either. A list of the world’s top uranium producers looks like this: 1) Kazakhstan, 2) Canada, 3) Australia, 4) Namibia, 5) Russia, 6) Niger, 7) Uzbekistan. The US comes in eighth, accounting for just 2.9 percent of the world’s uranium production. By contrast, the US ranks third in global oil production, extracting almost 11 percent of the world’s crude.

And uranium doesn’t jump out of the ground ready to go for a nuclear reactor. The processing of uranium ore into useable fuel is a dirty, costly and energy intensive endeavor requiring loan guarantees, waste storage and safety protocols all its own. (And as if to underscore this, House Speaker John Boehner has recently requested federal loan guarantees to build a new nuclear processing plant in his home state of Ohio.)

Fukushima: a case study

A pair of new stories out of Japan provide all the evidence any president would need to honestly evaluate the role of nuclear power in America’s supposedly clean, green energy future.

Fukushima isn’t a single event, it is an ongoing, ever-evolving, always metastasizing crisis. In case anyone thought otherwise, the detection of radioactive xenon in Fukushima Daiichi reactor 2 provided a chance to again pay heed to just how serious things remain at the crippled Japanese nuclear facility.

Though Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the nominal owners Fukushima Daiichi, contend that the trace of xenon gas does not represent evidence of a nuclear chain reaction inside the reactor previously thought closest to a so-called “cold shutdown,” they still pumped in boric acid–a substance used to mitigate nuclear fission.

Tokyo Electric may or may not be telling the whole truth in this instance, but evidence from throughout this disaster dictates skepticism. For example, scientists have again revised upwards their estimates of total radiation released from the plant, and a new study explodes TEPCO’s minimalist fairytale:

France’s l’Institut de Radioprotection et de Surete Nucleaire (Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety, or IRSN) has issued a recent report stating that the amount of radioactive cesium-137 that entered the Pacific after 11 March was probably nearly 30 times the amount stated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. in May.

According to IRSN, the amount of the radioactive isotope cesium-137 that flowed into the ocean from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant between March 21 and mid-July reached an estimated 27.1 quadrillion becquerels.

Quadrillion is not a number that often comes up in polite conversation, but suffice it to say, it’s a lot. . . even for becquerels. Soon after the March 11 earthquake, Japan revised acceptable levels of radioactive cesium upward. . . to 500 becquerels per kilogram. Though even the 27.1 quadrillion number sort of redefines the phrase “a drop in the ocean,” the really disturbing notion is that with a relatively long half-life, the pattern of Pacific currents, and the principles of bio-accumulation and bio-concentration at play, it is possible that everyone who includes Pacific Ocean fish in his or her diet is now part of an informal, long-term experiment on the effects of low-level radioactive contamination. Or, as the same story as above snidely puts it:

The radioactive silver lining? Radioactive cesium-137 has a half life of roughly 30 years, so if the IRSN estimates are accurate, then [b]y 2041 the Pacific’s aquatic life will only be subjected to a mere 13.55 quadrillion becquerels of radiation.

But long half-lives and long-term health effects require long-range thinking, not to mention arguments about the relative value of human life. Perhaps another fresh release from Japan tells the nuclear story in numbers a deficit-obsessed DC elite can more easily comprehend:

Tokyo Electric Power Co. won approval for a 900 billion yen ($11.5 billion) bailout from the government after the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe to avert bankruptcy and start paying compensation for the crisis.

Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano approved the support after the company known as Tepco committed to cutting 7,400 jobs and 2.5 trillion yen in costs. The utility forecast an annual loss of 600 billion yen, its second since the March earthquake and tsunami wrecked its Fukushima nuclear plant.

Eleven-and-one-half-billion dollars–and that only takes TEPCO through March 2013. Who here thinks the crisis will be over by then? It almost makes Obama’s $8.33 billion loan guarantee to Southern look like a bargain.

Almost.

Except that the loan guarantee is just for construction of a yet unapproved reactor design–should Southern, or whatever entity might eventually operate Plant Vogtle, experience an accident, that would likely be a whole other ball of bailout.

But what could possibly go wrong? Well, as repeatedly documented in this column, a lot. Beyond the level-7 sinkhole that is Fukushima, in the US, 2011 alone has seen manmade accidents and natural disasters that have scrammed and/or damaged more than a half-dozen reactors. And with each event, a process of shutdown, repair, inspection, authorization and startup costs time and money that does nothing to provide America with clean, safe, renewable, affordable energy.

Each event does, however, add costs to a variety of segments of the economy. Energy production and utility bills are obvious, but this nuclear obsession also drives up costs for healthcare, food safety, air and water quality, the yet-to-be-solved problem of long-term waste storage, and don’t forget the additional tax burden required to support all the bailouts, tax breaks and loan guarantees for the nuclear industry. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US think tank, has also called for a global study of the health effects of long-term radiation exposure as part of an international response to the Fukushima disaster. That, too, is an expense that should be factored into the real cost of nuclear power.

One thing, however, has gotten cheaper since the Japanese earthquake and tsunami gave the world its third top-level nuclear accident since 1979, and that would be uranium. Since March, world uranium prices have fallen some thirty percent. In fact, demand is so low, the French company Areva has decided to suspend its uranium mining in the Central African Republic–for two years.

The market is again speaking, but to those predisposed to cherish the siren song of nuclear power, cheap uranium could easily become the excuse to dash greener, safer alternative energy development.

Since the earliest days of nuclear power, that siren song has gone something like this: clean, safe, and too cheap to meter. Obviously, 2011 has proven none of that rings true, but when an administration believes it can greenwash away the political fallout from a tar sands pipeline, is it such a stretch to see them ignoring the financial and radioactive fallout of nuclear power in their attempt to package Obama as the cleanest, greenest energy president ever?

* * *

I am always happy to see the issues discussed in this column get attention from a broader audience, so I was thrilled to see Rachel Maddow take nine minutes out of her Wednesday show to call attention to what she sees as a scandal no one finds sexy enough to get excited about–namely the dangerous state of nuclear power plants across the US. But her contention that no one is paying attention irks me, at least a little. I have lost count of the number of posts I have devoted to this very subject this year, and I think, throughout, most would say I find much about this subject quite scandalous. So, Rachel, next time you want to talk about this stuff, the next time you want to share your excitement about this scandal, call me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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