Posts Tagged ‘Nuclear power plant’


Salem Nuclear Reactor Unit 1 resumed operations Saturday after crews repaired a leak in the containment building that was discovered two days earlier.  The plant operator says about 4,800 gallons of radioactive water leaked out, and the water went through the plant’s drain system as designed. The entire system holds 90,000 gallons.

This was a quick fix compared to STP’s recent outages.  One from November 29, 2011 to April 24, 2012 and one from January 8, 2013 to April 22, 2013.  When outages last this long, it can have an affect on consumers pocketbooks.  These two outages cost just the City of Austin, TX, which owns a 16% portion of the nuclear plant, $27 million in replacement power costs, which the utility just passed along to consumers in the fuel charges.  That averaged out to $64 per customer since November 2011.

Could the cost to consumers of replacing old and deteriorating parts that have the plants down for long periods have been the deciding factor in retiring the San Onofre plant in California permanently.  What will be the fate of the aging nuclear plants across the country.

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Two years after the earthquake and accompanying tsunami that resulted in three of the reactors melting down at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, nuclear engineers are still grappling with how to bring the facility under control.  This plant was heavily damaged and to date, no one has been able to repair it.  So it’s still badly broken and it is no wonder that power outages and water leaks continue to hamper the clean-up.

The United Nations atomic monitors, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), arrived at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant to review how contaminated water is being stored at the disaster site and assess decommissioning risks.  Their arrival was met with reports that a large amount of radioactive water had leaked from the plant.  The IAEA has made irregular visits to the Fukushima site since the March 11, 2011, disaster occurred. Their last visit was in December, 2012.

Currently, about 280,000 tons of highly radioactive water are stored at the Fukushima plant, according to Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the company that owns the plant. That’s enough to fill about 112 Olympic-sized swimming pools, according to Bloomberg News calculations.

So here is how we got to that much radioactive water.  The reactor cores still have fuel inside that needs to be kept cool.  To cool the cores, Tepco has had to continuously bring in water from outside and pour it in.  That water flows down into the basement of the plant. From there, they pump it out, do an initial decontamination (they are able to remove some radioactive elements like cesium from the waste water, but other elements, like tritium, require more time to scrub) and store it.  Initially, they were storing the radioactive water in metal tanks on site, but these tanks have been filling up because groundwater has also been coming into the basements so they recently switched to reservoirs – really just earthen pits that have been lined with sheets of plastic. It is somewhere in this complex process that these leaks have occurred and right now they believe the reservoirs are leaking.  Here is a cleanup strategy as jaw-droppingly “maybe should have gone with something a bit less duct-tape home repair” short-sighted as the cleanup of the Pegasus Tar Sands spill in Arkansas with what appears to be paper towels that was ridiculed on the Rachel Maddow Show and the Colbert Report.

There are monitors around all the reservoirs, so they have pin pointed which ones are leaking, but they don’t know how much has leaked.  What we do know is that fish and mollusks within 12.4 miles of the Fukushima plant have surpassed baseline measures of radioactivity, according to Tepco’s  most recent environmental monitoring report published April 12. One specimen tested near the port entrance to Fukushima Dai-Ichi was 4,300-times more radioactive than what Japanese officials consider standard and may pose health risks.

Some say clean up is decades away, I say that is a nice fairy tale. Fukashima still has fuel inside, the spent fuel that was being stored above the reactors is still there, and no one can get to any of it right now. The area is just too radioactive. So they will have to wait for all the fuel to cool down and then figure out how to go in there and get it out.  It will be years before they can even open up the reactors. But the reality is that nuclear power plant disasters of this magnitude will take generations to clean up.

In six days we will commemorate the 27th anniversary of the nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.  Only 2 miles away from the reactor, the company town of Pripyat, remains deserted and unfit for human habitation for hundreds of years to come.

Chernobyl sits inside a fenced area known as the Exclusion Zone. Radioactive remnants of the failed reactor continue to smolder inside a modern day sarcophagus, a concrete and steel encasement hastily erected after the accident. Leaky and structurally unsound, it now threatens to collapse, shaking loose enough radiation to cause a second disaster of similar magnitude. Work has already started on a new encasement, which will slide over the existing sarcophagus to seal in the remaining nuclear fuel. In the mean time desperate efforts are underway to shore up the sarcophagus to protect it from collapsing.

While our nation has avoided a disaster equal to these, our nuclear fleet of 104 reactors is an aging one, many of which are close to heavily populated areas of the country, and there is no absolute guarantee that the U.S. is invulnerable to a disaster of this magnitude.  We should all keep this in mind as nuclear plant after nuclear plant applies for a license extension that will go well beyond the expected life planned for these plants.

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According to the Huffington Post, not one, but two, whistleblower engineers at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have accused regulators of deliberately covering up information relating to the vulnerability of U.S. nuclear power facilities that sit downstream from large dams and reservoirs and failing to act to despite being aware of the risks for years.

One plant in particular — the three-reactor Oconee Nuclear Station near Seneca, S.C. — is at risk of a flood and subsequent systems failure, similar to the tsunami that devastated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility in Japan last year, in the event that an upstream dam fail.

The Fort Calhoun nuclear facility in Nebraska was surrounded by rising floodwaters from the nearby Missouri River in 2011.

Given the extreme weather patterns the world has seen in the last decade, that likelihood seems greater than it did when these plants were built.

A report, completed in July of 2011, after the earthquake and subsequent tsunami flooded the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was heavily redacted in a move, the whistleblower claims, to prevent the public from learning the full extent of these vulnerabilities, and to obscure just how much the NRC has known about the problem, and for how long.

The report examined vulnerabilities at the Oconee facility, the Ft. Calhoun station in Nebraska, the Prairie Island facility in Minnesota and the Watts Bar plant in Tennessee and concluded that the failure of one or more dams sitting upstream from several of these nuclear power plants “may result in flood levels at a site that render essential safety systems inoperable.” High floodwaters could conceivably undermine all available power sources, the report found, including grid power, emergency diesel backup generators, and ultimately battery backups. The risk of these things happening, the report said, is higher than acceptable and warranted a more formal investigation.

The heavily redacted copy of the report is publicly available on the NRC website.

Click here to read the Huffington Post’s entire investigatory story.

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Had a nuclear power plant meltdown in your neighborhood and need to check radiation levels?  Well, there’s an iphone app for that.

Crazy as it may sound, Safecast, a global project created after the March 11th earthquake and tsunami that caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster in Japan, has been building a radiation sensor network comprised of static and mobile sensors actively being deployed around Japan.  To facilitate deployment of small handheld devices, and Japan being Japan, the project also developed iGeigie – a portable Geiger Counter with an iPhone dock.

Don’t know how you would get one (and wouldn’t it make the perfect gift for the person who has everything), but you have to admire the technology advancements that could give us such a device in a few short months.

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In an earlier blog we mentioned the hearings on Capitol Hill being held by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on the implications of Japan’s nuclear accident for the United States.  Besides the concern that the nation’s nuclear safety rules had failed to consider the possibility of losing both off-site power from the electric grid and on-site emergency diesel generators. (NRC Commissioner George Apostolakis said that this condition produces a station blackout, and the commission has a rule covering such blackouts, but Mr. Jaczko said that the thrust of the statement was that the agency had not thought enough about a single event that would damage both the grid and the diesel backup generators, causing a plant to take longer to recover), there was testimony about the spent fuel rods.

At Fukushima, the spent fuel rods stored on site posed as grave a threat as the reactor cores. They are packed with uranium, are very unstable and generally not well-protected. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, when asked by Sen. Tom Carper about the spent fuel pools in the United States, admitted that “we have not given that enough attention.”

Jaczko also said that until Fukushima, the NRC had never really considered the possibility that multiple reactors or even multiple plants could fail at the same time, due to some sort of large-scale natural disaster or other event. “Our traditional approach has always been to assume a single incident at a single reactor,” he said. “Clearly Fukushima-Daiichi showed us that we have to consider the possibility of multiple units at a single site, perhaps multiple spent fuel pools being affected at the same time.”

Commissioners also had no answers about how to fix backup power systems so that they continue to cool nuclear material in the event of a major power outage. The batteries at Fukushima ran for only eight hours, in the United States, the standard length is only four hours.  NRC commissioner George Apostolakis testified that he was not sure what action would/could be taken to address the problem.

Amidst these less-than-inspiring answers, larger questions loom about nuclear regulation. The NRC has frequently been criticized as too close to the nuclear industry (not unlike Japan’s admission in a draft report to the IAEA, that its nuclear regulator was run by a ministry, which has been the chief promoter of nuclear energy for decades – click here to read our earlier blog on the IAEA report).

During the 2008 campaign, President Obama, while promoting nuclear energy as the electric power source of our future, called the NRC “a moribund agency…captive of the industry it regulates,” but little was done to bring it back to it’s primary mandate of being the watchdog for nuclear safety.  Rather, the NRC has been more of a cheerleader for the industry, even after the Fukushima disaster.  A Wall Street Journal MarketWatch article highlights this point:

The Obama administration is considering whether to intervene in a legal dispute between Entergy Corp and Vermont over continued operation of the state’s only nuclear plant, two officials familiar with the matter said Thursday.

At issue is whether the state has the authority to block Entergy’s bid to continue operating the Vermont Yankee plant beyond March 2012. Typically, federal regulators have jurisdiction over the licensing of nuclear reactors.

During a Senate hearing Thursday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) and Kristine Svinicki, a member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the Justice Department is weighing whether to intervene in the case.

“The litigation posture of the United States is under active deliberation by the Justice Department and they’ve asked that in our testimony today we not comment any further,” Svinicki said, citing an exchange between her staff and the department.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.

Sanders also said the Justice Department had consulted the five-member nuclear commission about the issue and that on Wednesday, commission had privately voted, 3-2, in favor of federal intervention in the case. None of the commissioners would confirm the specifics of that vote, citing the need to keep legal matters private.

Another member of the commission, William Ostendorff, said the discussions between the Justice Department and the nuclear agency were “a matter of whether or not the NRC has an interest in this case, dealing with pre-emption issues.”

“The political reality is that the DOJ is going to have to make a decision,” Sanders responded. Earlier in the hearing, he told the commissioners, “in my very strong opinion, it is not your business to get involved in that fight.”

Entergy wants to extend the life of its Vermont Yankee plant beyond March 2012, but has run into opposition to nuclear reactors that has escalated across the country following a nuclear crisis in Japan and revelations about potentially inadequate disaster preparedness at nuclear plants in the U.S.

Both the nuclear industry and regulators have said they will make changes as a result of the events in Japan. At the hearing Thursday, the NRC members again said they expect to tighten rules governing backup power for nuclear plants.

At the same time, the regulators have not backed away from their normal business of reviewing license extensions and new reactor designs.

In March, the NRC gave the green light to Entergy, approving operations at Vermont Yankee for another 20 years. But when Entergy bought the Vermont facility in 2002, it agreed to give state regulators say over the license extension.

The state passed a law in 2006 requiring Vermont legislators to approve the extension. Now, Entergy says that law invalidates their agreement and the decision should be up to federal regulators.

Senator Sanders (I-VT) repeatedly criticized the commissioners on this point during the hearings, urging them to step back from the issue. “If the state of Vermont chooses energy efficiency and sustainable energy for its future, instead of an aging and trouble-ridden nuclear power plant, it is not the place of the NRC to prevent us from doing that,” he told them. “The NRC’s mandate is very clear. Its concerns begin and end with safety. It is not supposed to be the arbiter of political or legal disputes between a $14 billion dollar energy company and the people of Vermont.”

To view the archived webcast of the hearing, click here.

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