Echoes of Fukushima: Will Duke Energy Avoid Oconee Nuclear Meltdown?
Oconee Nuclear Station is located on Lake Keowee in Oconee County, S.C.
Duke Energy and government regulators have been hiding a not-so-little secret from the people of the Carolinas. Duke's Oconee nuclear power plant—three aged nuclear reactors 30 miles from Greenville, SC—is at risk of a meltdown should an upstream dam fail. If that were to happen, a meltdown of all three reactors on the scale of the Fukushima meltdowns and subsequent containment failure are virtual certainties according to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) documents obtained by Greenpeace.
We've also received a tip that the cost to upgrade the Oconee nuclear plant site to address this triple meltdown threat would cost Duke Energy a billion dollars.
A billion dollars.
So at Duke Energy's annual shareholder meeting yesterday in Charlotte, NC, I asked Duke CEO Jim Rogers a question about his company's dangerous nuke plants and the billion dollar cost to protect and upgrade. Tellingly, Jim Rogers did not dispute the billion dollar price tag nor the need to better defend Oconee from flood waters.
Here's Rogers' response (you can listen to it at the 51:35 mark):
With respect to the billion dollar expenditures ... I mean the reality is we're the most capital intensive industry in the country, and what we try to do is—we reinvest and take our nuclear because you're thinking about our Oconee plant and how do you deal with the dam and that situation—that's a—our nuclear fleet because of the investments we make in it—over the last several years—our cheapest electricity—our nuclear fleet is the—provides electricity at a lower price than of other nuclear fleet in the United States. So cost is really important to our consumers—so our ability to invest that money and maintain that fleet is important ...
It's worth noting that Rogers didn't deny the potential billion dollar price tag of the Oconee repairs. Even for Duke, that's a serious amount of money.
I wonder if Duke's shareholders know that the company could end up being on the hook for that kind of a pricey fix?
Greenpeace appreciates Rogers acknowledging the threat to Oconee and the enormous expense of fixing it. If Rogers wants to do the most fiscally prudent thing for Duke's investors, he should retire the reactors. Duke and its regulators have known about this threat for decades and have utterly failed to address it. While regulation of nuclear power can be very complex, the issue at Oconee is pretty simple to understand. According to documents, the potential flood height at Duke Energy's Oconee nuclear plant is well above the height of Oconee's flood walls leaving important safety equipment vulnerable.
Does this sound familiar? It should. In Japan, the nuclear industry knew that the flood wall at Fukushima was too low and did nothing about it there either.
Other nuclear laden electric corporations face steep costs to upgrade old and dangerous reactors. Dominion recently testified that Fukushima fixes would cost their corporation between $30 and $40 million. But the billion dollar price tag to reduce the risks at Oconee is truly staggering. Rather than wasting a billion dollars on old reactors that will never be safe, Duke Energy should invest in renewable energy and efficiency. Wind turbines and solar panels don't threaten the Carolinas with the prospect of nuclear meltdowns.
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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