Green to the Core? — Part 1 | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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Green to the Core? — Part 1 

How I tried to stop worrying and love nuclear power

Thursday, Nov 10 2005
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Page 3 of 4

—George W. Bush, speaking at the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, June 22, 2005

 

No new orders for nuclear plants have been submitted in the U.S. since 1974, and none have been built since 1985. This is in part due to the accident at Three Mile Island, which happened 12 days after the popular movie The China Syndrome hit the theaters, and in part because of economics — many of the early plans were “turnkey” operations, so named because the manufacturer — General Electric, Westinghouse or Bechtel — paid for their construction (all the utility had to do was “turn the key”). When subsidies for new reactors disappeared, so did plans to build them.

Nevertheless, nuclear fission still generates a full fifth of the country’s power. And to replace that energy with the other most readily available source, coal-fired power, would add 600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year. But either we replace it or lose it, because those 103 light-water reactors are fast closing in on the end of their natural lives. Thirty-two of the original licenses the Atomic Energy Commission (later the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC) granted to nuclear plants have already expired and been renewed; applications are pending on another 16, and many more will run out in the next 20 years, including licenses granted to the 2,200-megawatt San Onofre Units 2 and 3 and the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, whose two reactors power some 2 million homes. Like many other aging plants around the country, both San Onofre and Diablo Canyon will require extensive repairs to continue operating to the end of their licensing periods: Southern California Edison claims that the tubes in San Onofre’s steam generators are up to 11 percent cracked (the NRC allows 21 percent cracking before replacement) and has set the regulatory gears in motion to replace them for nearly $700 million; Pacific Gas & Electric already has preliminary approval from the California Public Utilities Commission to repair Diablo Canyon.

But it isn’t enough to repair the old plants. “Without new construction,” explains the Department of Energy’s Rebecca Smith-Kevern at a workshop at the California Energy Commission during the second week in August, “nuclear capacity will fall off rapidly in the mid 2030s and be nonexistent by 2056.” If that happens, she warns, “the crucial challenge of capping and ultimately reducing U.S. and world greenhouse gas emissions would be considerably more difficult.”

Eleven countries around the world are now constructing 30 nuclear power reactors, including India and China, which has plans for, literally, dozens more in the next half century — not necessarily to save the planet but because oil won’t last forever. Uranium, by contrast, is abundant, inexpensive and not controlled by any cartel.

The Department of Energy’s “Nuclear Power 2010” program aims to jump-start the process of building new reactors — to explore new sites, speed the regulatory process and streamline licensing. At the August workshop, Smith-Kevern unveils a raft of new reactor designs — “evolutionary, not revolutionary” reactors, such as GE’s “simplified boiling water reactor,” and Westinghouse’s “advanced passive” pressurized water reactor. Next in line are the “Generation IV” technologies, such as gas-cooled fast reactors, lead-cooled reactors and molten-salt reactors. All reduce waste, have the potential to burn existing waste and produce economically competitive electricity, says Smith-Kevern, at 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour (electricity from coal-fired plants costs just over 2 cents per kilowatt hour; gas-fired electricity runs upward of 3 cents a kilowatt hour, according to the Utility Data Institute). They feature passive safety systems — controls that kick in without operator action — and address proliferation concerns by never separating plutonium from the waste.

With the help of the new energy bill President Bush signed August 8, nuclear ambitionsmay actually have a prayer. Bipartisan efforts on nuclear power’s behalf secured benefits for the industry ranging from generous tax credits for new nuclear generation to a 15-year extension of the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries IndemnityAct — a controversial 1957 law limiting the industry’s liability in the event of major accident. The energy bill also directs the NRC and the DOE to develop a strategy for licensing a “Next Generation” nuclear reactor that will produce hydrogen for transportation. The first Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) is scheduled to be online at the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory by 2021.

One of the more popular Next Generation designs is the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), a compact gas-cooled reactor with fuel assemblies the size of tennis balls filled with pellets of 10 percent U-235. Westinghouse plans to pitch a PBMR to the U.S. this year; South Africa’s Eskom Energy already has PBMRs in development. Unlike light-water reactors that use water and steam, the PBMR cools its core and drives its turbines with pressurized helium. Because the reactor’s 400,000 “pebbles” are fed into the reactor core little by little, a meltdown, at least in the conventional sense, is almost impossible. The PBMR is thought to be so safe, in fact, that it doesn’t require the four-foot-thick concrete containment building common to light-water reactors. Neo-nuclear environmentalists consider it a significant improvement in safety. Stewart Brand wrote last spring that “problematic early reactors like the ones at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl can be supplanted by new, smaller-scale, meltdown-proof reactors like the ones that use the pebble-bed design.”

“It has some good features,” says Dave Lochbaum at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Studies have shown that even if a [PBMR] cooling line breaks, it won’t melt down.

I’ve come to Lochbaum, who works out of a tiny, barely ventilated office in Washington, D.C., because he has a reputation among anti-nuclear activists and industry advocates alike for limiting his assertions to what he knows to be true. And his organization is as nervous about climate change as it is about the perils of nuclear power plants.

“By not using water you’ve significantly reduced the amount of low-level waste you generate,” Lochbaum says, and then pauses. “On the other hand, there is no free lunch. While it may not melt down, it could catch on fire. The pebble bed is like the Chernobyl reactor in that it uses an awful lot of graphite. None of our reactors operating in the United States use graphite in the core. Graphite’s just carbon. If the carbon catches on fire, it’s pretty hard to put out. It’s particularly hard if you’re using airflow to cool the reactor, which the pebble bed does. If you have a fire and you stop the airflow, you also stop the heat removal. So you may stop the fire and start the meltdown.

“You may not be able to get ‘fireproof’ and ‘meltdown proof,’” Lochbaum says. “You may have to pick one or the other.”

Which one is worse?

“I don’t know,” he says. “The Three Mile Island accident was a meltdown. It released a lot of radioactivity into the environment. We’ve never been sure how much. Chernobyl was a fire. Smoke carried the radioactivity into the environment. I guess they’re pretty much the same.”

There’s one other problem with the pebble-bed reactor, one that’s less a safety issue than a logistical one: “Because the pebble-bed doesn’t have the same power density, or octane rating, as our current plants do, it generates about 10 times as much spent fuel for the same amount of electricity.” In other words, 10 times the waste.

It is another unnaturally hot spring day when I visit Lochbaum, who cools his office with a small fan. The son of a nuclear engineer, Lochbaum worked in the nuclear industry for 14 years before the owner of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna Nuclear Generating Station ignored his warning about a potentially deadly design flaw in the plant’s spent-fuel pools. Frustrated, Lochbaum submitted a lengthy report to the NRC, from which he received no response. Only much later, when another plant owner, concerned about the same problem at his plant, requested the report, did Lochbaum learn that in his haste to submit the report, he’d made one-sided copies of two-sided pages: Every other page was blank. “It’s evidence to me that the NRC never actually read my report,” he says.

Lochbaum eventually went to Congress with his concerns, where safety improvements were mandated for Susquehanna and other plants with the same issue. He worked in the industry for three more years before joining the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1996.

Lochbaum describes himself, and UCS, as “neither for nor against nuclear power — we’re just safety advocates, and we’re concerned about global warming, too.” But he is clearly not optimistic about nuclear energy’s future. It’s not so much the technology itself; Lochbaum believes it can be made to work, and made to work safely. But as the electricity market around the country becomes increasingly deregulated and competitive, plant owners have more cause to put profit above reliability and safety. And the NRC is not working the way it’s supposed to: According to a 2003 report by the NRC’s inspector general and the Government Accountability Office, 47 percent of NRC employees don’t feel comfortable raising safety issues. “We get more calls from NRC employees than from employees of all the plants combined,” says Lochbaum.

He shows me a “bathtub curve” diagram from UCS’ ­literature: All the major accidents associated with nuclear power happened toward the beginning of each light-water reactor’s break-in phase, on the left-hand slope of the chart’s curve. “Our concern now is that all our nuclear power plants are in the wear-out phase,” he says. Lochbaum points to the right-hand, upward slope of the tub. “Left unchecked, we’ll start putting names on this side.”


Thank you most of all for nuclear power, which is yet to cause a single, proven fatality, at least in this country.

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