Nobody starts their day expecting to die in an auto accident

Ace HoffmanBy Ace Hoffman

Everyone starts out the day they are going to have a fatal car accident the same as any other. They get up, wash up, dress up, head out, and drive off, never to return.

Nuclear power has lived the same way, day after day, ignoring the reality of what is down the road.

Even a perfectly-operating nuclear reactor is a nightmare-waiting-to-happen: It produces mountains of nuclear waste, which has to be cooled for 5 to 25 years in a deep cooling pond with special very-clean water. Then it is stored on site in huge thin (1/2 inch thick) stainless steel containers nearly the size of a school bus, which are subject to corrosion because of the heat, humidity inside and out (mostly out but some water always remains inside), and radiation effects.

Nothing can stop the decay of the containers. Yet the waste has nowhere to go.

Now, Congress is considering how to continue financing and regulating the nuclear industry into the future. Many members of Congress want it to live. We, the people, need it to die, and gracefully. That’s not going to be easy.

Nuclear power faces a number of daunting problems today. First and foremost is the aging condition of the reactor fleet. “Only” four reactors are being built — all four are over budget and are boondoggles of an ancient era, of back door politics, of old designs, and are poorly sited, with no plan for the waste they will produce, and no consideration of what the same money put into solar and wind would have done. And absolutely no consideration of what the land around them will be worth if there is a meltdown (note that Chernobyl and Three Mile Island were both newly-started reactors, where nothing had aged).

But five reactors have closed recently and at least as many are liable to close in the next few years — mainly due to aging issues and other economic strains. Possibly several dozen will close in the next five to ten years. Hopefully even more. Hopefully all. Only one reactor in America is younger than about 25 years, some are 40 years old or more. Would you want to ride in a 40-year old commercial jet? One that was in flight almost continuously and could only be inspected about every year and a half? And where most of the internal damage simply cannot be inspected in any way?

Well, that’s the state of our nuclear power fleet. Right now, Indian Point II is shut down due to rusted out bolts inside the reactor itself. About 20% of the bolts are rusted beyond regulatory permissible levels, and have to be replaced, which takes a long time and requires a lot of radiation exposure to the workers. But that’s not the worst of it. Some of the bolts at Indian Point are so rusted, the heads have fallen off and flowed downstream from the reactor to other internal components of the primary coolant loop. Technicians are looking for the bolt heads throughout the system, but they could already be stuck in valves, or will become so at a crucial time when a valve needs to shut tight, but can only shut 98%. In a nuclear power plant, that could easily be the difference between a meltdown and a nice, profitable day. Or between Fukushima and San Onofre. (Fukushima was shut down by triple meltdowns caused by overheating due to lack of power for coolant pumps; San Onofre was shut down permanently by careless design errors that caused a replacement steam generator to vibrate excessively until it got a pinhole-sized hole.)

With the cost of solar and wind power literally plummeting, the economic future looks very bleak for nuclear power. But still the industry hangs on to what they’ve got, which is (or usually is, depending on the regulatory environment) a very lucrative cash cow. First off, the federal government has promised to take the waste — some day. That promise remains unfulfilled at this time and will remain so for the foreseeable future, but it’s still being made by the feds to the utilities. A hot potato “get out of jail free” card (charged to the taxpayer, $30 billion dollars so far).

Second, their customer’s rates are usually regulated by the state in such a way that the utility covers their costs AND MAKES A 10%+ PROFIT. See how tricky that is? When things go wrong for the nuclear power plant, it costs money to fix. So the state public utilities commission (California, I’m looking at you!) not only gives them the money to fix the problem — covers the cost entirely through electricity rate increases — but allows the utility to make a profit for their shareholders on all that extra cash that comes in.

THAT future still looks great for the utilities. Most Public Utilities Commissions around the country that regulate electricity rates also make large solar and wind farms pay exorbitant hook-up fees, or won’t help pave the way for transmission lines to be built to move that power to where it’s needed, or simply won’t approve large or small renewable energy plans because then the nuclear power plant’s power wouldn’t be “needed.”

At a Congressional hearing this morning, one after another nuclear proponent (including a former NRC commissioner who now works for the nuclear industry as a lobbyist) was given time to testify as to what the industry needs from government in order to move forward with nuclear power in America. No opposition view was invited to speak. No expert in the medical consequences of internal radioactive emitters. No, this was about getting “Small Modular Reactors” into the marketplace. It was decidedly not: “Why in the world should we do that when we don’t need it?” (the logical viewpoint) but: “What can Congress do to cut costs or even provide funding for ‘SMRs’?”

Solar and wind were not mentioned as alternatives, of course. Coal was. It was pointed out that the projected need for America was 1,000 small (~300 Megawatt) coal plants over the next couple of decades, were to we go that route. Very polluting and it isn’t going to happen. What the pronukers think will happen instead — and want you to pay for — is an equal number of equal size SMRs. The waste from these reactors will have to go in several “interim storage sites” across the country, along with the waste from the ~120 reactors that operate or have operated in America so far, all of which have nowhere to store the waste other than onsite or, in a few cases, in Idaho at a national research lab or similar facility.

In fact, nobody on earth knows what to do with nuclear waste. A few countries are moving forward with various “deep repositories” (which really aren’t so deep, considering how long the waste needs to be isolated from humanity). All those plans have elements of risk that include numerous unknowns, but one known risk is the transportation of all that waste to those sites, and the vulnerability of that waste, during that transport, to accidents, terrorism, and perhaps just cracking open due to corrosion while the waste sat for decades, waiting to be transported.

Nobody gets up in the morning expecting to die in a car accident. And yet 30,000 Americans die every year that way. No truck driver of nuclear waste will ever expect to have an accident, but 10s of thousands of shipments will be needed just to move the waste that already exists.

We don’t need 1000 more reactors, so-called “small” but really quite significant, AND — to be profitable — probably as many as a dozen will have to be located at any one site — do we really need 1000 more potential Chernobyls, Fukushimas, Three Mile Islands, or even San Onofres? When wind power and solar energy are free for the taking?

American cannot afford even one nuclear power plant accident. If Indian Point II were to be restarted and then melts down due to flow constrictions caused by these rusted-out bolts getting loose and either changing the flow in the reactor itself (causing fuel damage, if not a meltdown), or by damaging something down the line, it will cost America trillions of dollars and thousands, or tens of thousands of lives (mostly from cancer years down the road). And Unit III is quite probably suffering from the same degradation, but won’t even be inspected for two more years! Why not? Because the utility can’t make money when the reactor is being inspected or repaired. The utility looses hundreds of thousands of dollars every day it is not operating, and a reactor cannot be shut down for just an hour or two. It has to cool for weeks before the fuel can be removed so workers can go in and check the bolts. It’s expensive, so no one is in a hurry to do that.

They are driving blind.

Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA

The author, a former resident of New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, has been following nuclear issues closely for nearly half a century.

Originally published:

1 thought on “Nobody starts their day expecting to die in an auto accident”

  1. Laurin Patience

    Sorry, I skimmed this report. But found more reasons to not allow nuclear power get a foothold in Australia, let alone south Australia. I have written to my local MP who has forwarded my letter to the Federal Government. Also a copy to “Friends of the Earth”. This was sent the same day the news came out about South Australia considering nuclear waste acceptance from the rest of the world. I mostly understood this to be $ interest on the part of the politicians. It is also a divide and conquer attempt by international interests in a proposal to Sth.Australia. It is not only an ALL Australian issue but worldwide. Therefore I commend historical efforts made by Helen and associates for their valuable contribution to humanity and the planet at large. Will stay vigilant regarding this deadly frightening energy for which we humans still cannot control.

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