Hurricane Sandy Brings Wind, Rain and Irony to US Nuclear Plants

Hurricane Sandy’s projected path as of 9 AM, Monday. (map courtesy of NOAA)

With Hurricane Sandy projected to make landfall hundreds of miles to the south and the predicted storm surge still over 24 hours away, New York City completely shuttered its mass transit system early Sunday evening. By 7 PM, all subway service was halted for only the second time in history. The fear, according to state authorities, is that heavy rainfall or the expected six-to-eleven-foot increase in tide levels would flood subway tunnels, stranding trains at various points across the 842 miles of track.

Fearing similar flooding, the Washington, DC, Metro is also expected to suspend service for all of Monday.

Twelve hours after NYC shut down its subways, at 7 AM Monday, with Hurricane Sandy lashing the Mid-Atlantic coast with heavy rain and 85 mph winds, at least a half-dozen commercial nuclear reactors lie in the storm’s projected path–and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to issue any specific orders to the facilities it supposedly oversees. In fact, check out the NRC’s twitter feed or look at its website, and the only reference you will find to what has been dubbed “Frankenstorm” is the recently posted cancellation notice for a public hearing that was supposed to convene on Tuesday, October 30.

The subject of that meeting? The Fort Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station.

The Fort Calhoun plant sits on the Missouri River, on the eastern edge of Nebraska, near the town of Blair. Fort Calhoun’s single pressurized water reactor was shutdown for refueling in April of last year, but floods during the summer of 2011 encircled the facility and caused a series of dangerous incidents. A breach in water berms surrounded transformers and auxiliary containment buildings with two feet of water. Around that same time, a fire shut down power to Fort Calhoun’s spent fuel pools, stopping the circulation of cooling water for 90 minutes and triggering a “red event,” the second most severe classification. Outside of its reactor, the Nebraska facility is home to approximately 800,000 pounds of high-level radioactive waste. To this day, Fort Calhoun is offline and awaiting further evaluation by the NRC.

That a hearing on a flooded plant has been postponed because of the threat of flooding near NRC offices seems like the height of irony, but it pales next to the comparison of safety preparedness measures taken by New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority for a subway and the federal government’s approach to a fleet of nuclear reactors.

That is not to say that the NRC is doing nothing. . . not exactly. Before the weekend, regulators let it be known that they were considering sending extra inspectors to some nuclear facilities in Sandy’s path. Additionally, regional officials stressed that plant operators were doing walk downs to secure any outside equipment that might become a sort of missile in the event of high winds. It is roughly the equivalent of telling homeowners to tie down their lawn furniture.

And it seems to be understood, at least at the nuclear plants in southern New Jersey, that reactors should be shutdown at least two hours before winds reach 74 mph.

To all that, the NRC made a point of assuring the public that reactor containment buildings could withstand hurricane-force winds, or any odd piece of “lawn furniture” that might be hurled at them.

That’s nice, but hardly the point.

Containment breech is always a concern, but it is not the main issue today. A bigger worry are SBOs–Station Black Outs–loss-of-power incidents that could impede a plant’s capacity to cool its reactors or spent fuel pools, or could interfere with operators’ ability to monitor everything that is going on inside those areas.

As reported last year, Hurricane Irene caused an emergency shutdown at Maryland’s Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant when aluminum siding torn off by high winds shorted out the main transformer and caused an explosion, damaging structures and equipment. Calvert Cliffs was one of the facilities that had chosen not to reduce output or shutdown in advance of Irene–especially alarming because just days before that storm, plant operators had reported trouble with its diesel backup generators.

Irene caused other problems, beyond loss of electricity to millions of consumers, public notification sirens in two emergency preparedness zones were disabled by the storm.

In sum, storm damage triggered a scram at a plant with faulty backup generators. If power had not been restored, backup would have failed, and the rising temperatures in the reactors and fuel pools would have necessitated an evacuation of the area–only evacuation would have been hampered because of widespread power outages and absent sirens.

The worst did not happen last year at Calvert Cliffs, but the damage sustained there was substantial, and the incident should serve as a cautionary tale. Shutting down a nuclear reactor doesn’t prevent every problem that could result from a severe storm, but it narrows the possibilities, reduces some dangers, and prevents the excessive wear and tear an emergency shutdown inflicts on an aging facility.

Calvert Cliffs is again in the line of fire–as are numerous other plants. Hurricane Sandy will likely bring high winds, heavy rain and the threat of flooding to nuclear facilities in Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Given last year’s experiences–and given the high likelihood that climate change will bring more such events in years to come–it might have been expected that the NRC would have a more developed policy.

Instead, as with last year’s Atlantic hurricane, federal regulators have left the final decisions to private sector nuclear operators–operators that have a rather poor track record in evaluating threats to public safety when actions might affect their bottom line.

At the time of this writing, the rain in New York City is little more than a drizzle, winds are gusting far below hurricane strength, and high tide is still over ten hours away. Hurricane Sandy is over 300 miles to the south.

But Gotham is a relative ghost town. The subway turnstiles are locked; city busses are nowhere to be seen.

At the region’s nuclear facilities, however–at North Anna, Hope Creek, Salem and Oyster Creek, at Calvert Cliffs, Indian Point and Millstone–there is no such singular sense of better-safe-than-sorry mission.

In New York, it can be argued that the likes of Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have gone overboard, that they have made decisions based not just on safety, but on fears of political fallout and employee overtime. But in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s northeast region, there is no chance of that kind of criticism–one might even say there is no one to criticize, because it would appear that there is no one in charge.

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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.