Three important nuclear power events occurred in the past seven days -- one in Nebraska and two in California -- which together show just how doomed and unworkable nuclear power really is.
In Nebraska, the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) Board of Directors unanimously decided to shut down Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power plant because its cost of operation could not be justified against the current and expected future price of natural gas, solar and wind power (but mainly natural gas). Certainly natural gas prices are at an unnatural low compared to the price of oil and nuclear power, and that might change over the coming years, but natural gas prices cannot go up too much if they are to stay competitive with renewable energy prices -- which are going to continue to plummet over the next few decades.
Solar panels thinner than a human hair have been developed in the labs. They don't use many natural resources to make. Solar panels as flexible as a human hair have also been developed. They can be placed virtually anywhere. Wind turbine output keeps going up for the exact same land requirements, which of course, are already minimal to begin with. Power requirements of all the major household appliances keep coming down as better motors, coolers and pumps are developed. The future is bright for renewables, and getting brighter.
All this spelled doom for Fort Calhoun, a "small" (478 megawatts, the smallest operating reactor in the United States) lone reactor that cost about $178 million dollars to build when construction began in 1966, and now costs over $250 million annually to operate. It was "simply an economic decision" to close the facility according to the operators.
Being so old and run-down, it went offline yesterday suddenly, for a turbine issue, (its speed controller failed). But no matter how often a nuclear power plant goes offline without warning, regulators and operators still assure the public they are necessary for "baseload capacity."
Lies, damned lies and the nuclear industry strike out again
In California, an apparently momentous decision was made regarding Diablo Canyon's pair of massive nuclear reactors (~1,100 megawatts each), which first went online in the mid-1980s and were originally scheduled to close by this year, but were granted a 10-year extension a few years ago for no apparent reason at all.
After years of threatening to try to extend their license another 20 years to 60 years and beyond, its operator, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) announced that they would only run out their current license (good to 2024 and 2025 for units 1 and 2, respectively) and then be shut down permanently. The decision was made in cooperation with several environmental organizations (FoE, NRDC and A4NR) in some sort of secret backroom arrangement -- an arrangement which has some good points, but has some very bad points, too.
First and foremost among the good points is, of course, that the plant will shut down. And second is that it will be replaced with renewable energy and increased energy conservation.
But first and foremost among the bad points is not only that it will take 10 more years, and not only that the decision is potentially reversible, but also that the aforementioned environmental groups apparently have lost interest in shutting the plant down earlier. That means another two million pounds of high-level nuclear waste will be generated in the meantime, with their approval. And worst of all, it means that if the San Andreas earthquake fault does what it's been threatening to do for decades, and is actually considered late in doing, southern California will be ruined financially and environmentally. Not to mention the dozens of other faults that could shake the plant to smithereens any day of the week.
Additionally, while Fort Calhoun's operators have promised to help the employees of that plant find other work (probably installing solar panels on rooftops, making new interconnections to the power grid, building wind turbines and so forth), Diablo Canyon has promised to take more than a third of a billion dollars of ratepayer money to do the same. As if it was the ratepayers who chose to make the workers work in a dying industry with high-paying jobs. As if there aren't other nuclear power plants around the country that are having trouble finding workers, for those who want to stay in a dying industry. And as if there won't be plenty of renewable energy jobs they can find for themselves.
In short, the deal stinks so badly, one activist in the Diablo Canyon area described it as being "sold down the river."
In both cases, a major part of the decision was based on the fact that the electricity generated by Fort Calhoun and Diablo Canyon (and virtually every other nuclear power plant in the country) can be replaced immediately with other power sources, without the lights going out or reliability of the grid falling below set point levels. This is as it must be: Nuclear power plants require the rest of the grid to be operating or they themselves must shut down.
That's why, when a massive power outage struck the northeastern United States in 2003, all the nuclear power plants in the area automatically shut down and could not help keep the grid up. They require about 30 megawatts of continuous power to operate, and as much as 100 megawatts during restart once they shut down for any reason. It took many days for the nuclear power plants to come back online even after the rest of the grid was restored. So much for the reliability of the "baseload" power system!
Diablo Canyon can and should close today. Even its owners have now admitted that its electricity output can be replaced entirely by renewables (although that might take a couple of years to accomplish, it would free up about 1500 workers (1200 PG&E employees, 200 subcontractors, and miscellaneous high-paid executives) to start installing solar panels and wind turbines. Its total output could be replaced in a matter of months.
Meanwhile, the nuclear waste at San Onofre is no longer being generated (SanO closed permanently in 2013 after a leaky steam generator could not be repaired). But the lies and damned lies continue spewing forth unabated from that complex as well. Last night, the quarterly Citizen's Engagement Panel met once again, supposedly to engage with citizens but in fact, to push the utility's agenda of cheap, ineffective, dangerous solutions to its nuclear waste problem -- which it will have for 500,000 years unless something is done about it.
The meeting was attended by some high-powered outsiders from the Department of Energy and a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman, Dr. Allison Macfarlane. Earlier in the day several localized meetings were held with these outsiders for additional discussions. It all looks very cooperative on paper, but in reality it's nothing but the regular dog-and-pony shows the nuclear industry and the NRC have been putting on for decades.
Time was, speakers at an NRC hearing were sworn in, swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That ended about 20 years ago, and now we have a non-governmental body making nonsense plans and decisions which will affect the local population for decades to come, will solve nothing, will obstruct real solutions (more on that in a moment), and will push the utilities' agenda down everybody's throats (literally, when the waste escapes its escarpments).
For example, at the earlier meeting, I was able to ask a question: Why can't the waste at San Onofre be moved to Palo Verde nuclear power plant in Arizona, which has three operating nuclear reactors which are licensed to continue operating for many years to come, which is about 60 miles from the nearest population center, which has plenty of room for another 150 dry casks, and which is partly owned by Southern California Edison anyway, who currently own the fuel at San Onofre?
The chairperson of the CEP -- all of whom were hand-picked by Southern California Edison -- chose to respond, derogatorily, saying with a laugh, "just because SCE owns a part of the plant doesn't mean they can dictate what happens" and "there's no way to transport the waste there" and "laws would have to be changed, which isn't going to happen."
Later, a representative of a radioactive transportation company which has been moving spent fuel for more than 50 years stated that yes, the fuel can be transported "today, if you give me a place for it to go to."
Also at the CEP general meeting last night, practically the entire discussion was about changing the laws of the country so that an interim storage location can be established, and local communities and the state it would be in would no longer be able to object, nor would the communities along the transportation routes, nor would anyone else. Specifically, small greedy land owners or tiny impoverished American Indian tribes would be bribed to take the waste, and new laws to be passed by Congress would forbid objection by other parties.
That is called a "consent-based storage solution"
Allison Macfarlane, a former NRC commissioner and a member of Obama's Blue Ribbon Commission on Nuclear Waste (BRC, which met a few dozen times between 2010 and 2012) pushed the local citizens around San Onofre to push our elected officials to enact some sort of new regulation to permit an interim storage site.
Among other laws that the "experts" say would need to be changed is the use of the funds that have been collected for permanent nuclear waste storage through the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), to deviate either the interest on those funds (which currently covers inflation somewhat) or even some of the funds themselves to pay for interim storage sites, including bribes (they call it "financial incentives") and construction of the sites. If this happens, it eventually will bleed the funds for permanent storage dry as a bone.
John Kotek, Acting Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy, U.S. DOE concurred whole-heartedly with Macfarlane's suggestion, but said he would lose his job if he actually verbalized endorsing the citizens to push Congress. He should lose his job anyway for the lies and damned lies he spewed last night. He admitted to being new to thinking about spent fuel issues until he was made "staff director" of the BRC.
Among his many lies was that the "technical challenges" to long-term nuclear waste storage (as in a few decades, not the 500,000 years actually necessary) have been solved. In reality we're not even close! As Donna Gilmore (www.sanonofresafety.org) has pointed out, and pointed out again last night -- stainless steel -- the metal of choice because it's cheaper than other options -- is susceptible to "stress corrosion cracking" which start as microscopic fissures, usually caused by salts (these casks will be stored barely 100 feet from the ocean) but the fissures can also be started by insects, birds, and even human fingernail scratches, machinery scraping against the casks during fabrication, transport to the reactor site, loading and placement.
Her research has further discovered that the conditions necessary for such cracks to grow are already present after just a few years (when the cask surfaces are too hot, the salts don't precipitate on the surfaces). She also found at least one instance were the same type of stainless steel had developed a crack large enough to go completely through a dry cask in just 17 years! And lastly, she has found that there is no way to inspect the casks. And even if there were a way to inspect most of the surfaces, the most critical areas -- the pressure points -- would still be hard or impossible to inspect, especially without moving the casks, which presents additional dangers.
This is hardly even a temporary solution, let alone a long-term one. But it's what's going to happen.
Kotek stated that the DOE is only funding their "consent-based" group the he heads up one year at a time -- but they were given tens of millions of dollars to spend this year, and expect similar funding next year. Nevertheless, they are only visiting 8 locations that want their fuel moved (San Onofre is not one they are visiting; DOE only sent Kotek and some members of his staff to attend the meetings yesterday).
They have no plans to meet with any "host communities" for two reasons: First, there are no such places. Kotek claimed that Texas and New Mexico both have interested parties, which may be true, but the states as a whole are utterly against becoming the nation's spent fuel repositories, and clearly DOE recognizes that going to those sites to present a "balanced overview" so that an "informed public" could make a "rational decision" was only going to make things worse.
Time and again it was mentioned that the waste needs to be protected for a long time -- tens of thousands of years. Actually, because of the plutonium, which has a half-life of 25,000 years, the real length of time -- unless you somehow remove the plutonium (more on that idea in a moment) -- is more like half a million years (20X the half-life is a standard rule of thumb for how long a radioactive substance remains hazardous above "background levels"). But even more realistic are two factors:
First, the fission products, most of which have half-lives under about three decades, are by far the greatest threat to humanity if they get out, at least in the short term, but are completely gone within about six centuries (with seven exceptions, all of which have extremely long half-lives but are present in very low quantities, which this author refers to as "the ignoble seven").
Second, Plutonium (and Uranium-235, the other most hazardous fissile isotope) CAN be "neutralized" to become fission product components. This was completely ignored by the staff of the DOE, by Macfarlane, and by the CEP. It involves irradiating the spent fuel with a gamma ray free electron laser (FEL) which would produce collimated gamma ray photons having energy levels of about 10 MeV to about 15 MeV -- just the energy levels needed to split fissile Plutonium and Uranium atoms.
Free electron lasers already exist, although not yet tuned to produce those specific energy levels. (Linear accelerators can already produce photons with those energy levels, but take an enormous amount of room and money, and are not as collimated as an FEL could produce.) Given the budget of the DOE however, the research necessary to create such a device is well within reach. And the time to get started is yesterday.
In the meantime, using spent nuclear fuel rods in place of some of the control rods in a nuclear reactor could also reduce the plutonium to fission products, thus reducing the length of time the waste is hazardous from hundreds of thousands of years to hundreds of years, although of course, since that would involve running a nuclear reactor, there is some level of "taking from Peter to pay Paul" and equally troubling would be that there are no reactors designed to do such a thing. A collimated photon beam from a laser seems to be a much better solution. It reduces the length of time the waste is hazardous and eliminates the "proliferation risk" as well (Plutonium-239 and U-235 can both be used to make nuclear weapons).
Why isn't that being considered? I have no idea -- go ask the DOE. But all you'll get is lies and damned lies, if last night's CEP meeting is anything to go on. In the meantime, spent fuel nuclear waste -- now estimated to be nearly 80,000 tons of commercial waste and about a third as much of military waste -- continues to pile up around the country. Sites that are recently closed or closing (more than a dozen reactors around the country have closed in the last few years, or have announced plans to close permanently) want that waste removed.
According to Kotek however, there is little interest in moving the fuel from sites where the waste has already been sitting for several decades, practically unguarded and unprotected (a few security guards, usually from the company that hired the Orlando night club shooter, are all that stand between a terrorist and a catastrophic release of spent fuel). People forget about it, but rust never sleeps, the hazards last for many millennia, and the costs of moving the waste will only go up and up and up. The containers the waste is in become brittle and untransportable without a heavy secondary over pack, the normal weight limits on the bridges the waste must cross over get severely exceeded, and sooner or later, all hell breaks loose.
Thank you, Department of Energy, for decades of pushing nuclear power without thinking about what to do about the waste! It's time for a change. A change of leadership, a change of heart, a change of plans, a change of direction.
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