By Geoffrey Sea
Southern California Edison (SCE) has abandoned plans to restart its two nuclear reactors at San Onofre. The announcement this morning comes exactly one week after termination of operations at the Paducah, Kentucky, uranium enrichment plant, which for decades had provided the fuel for San Onofre. It drops the number of operating nuclear reactors in the U.S. below one hundred for the first time since the early 1980s.
The San Onofre decision ends 18 months of wrangling between the utility and environmental opponents, after serious leaks were detected in a steam generator that had been newly installed. The news release by SCE has a detectable tone of relief that the company will no longer have to defend the indefensible. Similar tones have emanated from the Washington headquarters of the Department of Energy (DOE) around the Paducah decision, sending a message that the era of illegalities involving USEC privatization may be nearing an end.
The Paducah and San Onofre shutdowns have a number of important connections beyond that the former facility provided the latter with fuel, and that the two sites are located in earthquake red zones. In both cases, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) proved itself incompetent and incapable, unable to take the most basic actions to insure nuclear safety. NRC should have flatly denied the San Onofre reactors permission to restart, and NRC should have revoked USEC’s operating license at Paducah after the company clearly could not meet financial capacity requirements. But the NRC failed in both cases, locked up in a kind of containment cell of quantum indeterminacy. Schrodinger’s cat, dead or alive, could do a better job of regulating the nuclear industry than the NRC as now constituted.
The news in both the California and Kentucky cases also goes to show that the Attorney Age has banished the Atomic Age. The most important line in the SCE news release is the last one: “SCE intends to pursue recovery of damages from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the supplier of the replacement steam generators … ” Likewise, USEC filed suit against the Department of Energy on May 30. Nuclear energy, once billed as providing unlimited power, is fulfilling its promise—the power of lawyers. “Don’t radiate: Litigate!” may be coming soon to a button or bumper-sticker near you.
And then there is the future marketing linkage. USEC has long been in financial decline, but its fortunes took a precipitous plunge after its star customer, TEPCO—the utility that had headlined demand for new nuclear fuel services—had that little mishap in Japan, a mishap that might have been worsened, by the way, by contaminants in the USEC-supplied uranium fuel. With Japanese customers gone down the uranium drain, USEC fell back on the booming American market. Booming in a virtual-reality gaming way, that is. The San Onofre decision lowers the boom on demand for future sources of enriched uranium, just when USEC says it will apply for a new $2 billion federal loan guarantee to build a new enrichment plant.
Good luck with that.
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The future of nuclear power now hangs on a single decision by President Obama—and us.
His Office of Management and Budget could cave to the unsustainable demands of reactor builders who cannot handle the standard terms of a loan agreement.
Or he could defend basic financial procedures and stand up for the future of the American economy.
You can help make this decision, which will come soon.
It's about a proposed $8.33 billion nuke power loan guarantee package for two reactors being built at Georgia's Vogtle. Obama anointed it last year for the Southern Company, parent to Georgia Power. Two other reactors sporadically operate there. Southern just ravaged the new construction side of the site, stripping virtually all vegetation.
It's also stripped Georgia ratepayers of ever-more millions of dollars, soon to become billions. This project is in the Peach State for its law forcing the public to pay for reactor construction in advance. When the project fails, or the reactors melt, the public still must pay. A taste of what's coming has emerged in shocking defects in poured concrete at the site which will cost millions to correct and months of delay on a project whose construction has barely begun.
Nonetheless, Southern runs virtually no financial risk. It actually has an interest in never finishing. Florida is now in turmoil, trying to rid itself of a similar Construction Work in Progress law.
Worldwide estimated reactor costs have jumped from $3-5 billion each a few short years ago to $10 billion or more, and rising.
Uranium prices are set to soar as the supply of Russian weapons-based fuel is about done. And renewables have long since outstripped atomic energy as being cheaper, faster to build, cleaner, safer, more reliable and open to community ownership.
There are virtually no private investors willing to back new reactor construction. There are no private insurers willing to take the risk on operating reactors. There is no place to store the radioactive wastes they generate.
Operating reactors in Vermont, New York, California and elsewhere now face ferocious public uprisings to get them shut.
They are being joined by governors, U.S. senators and entire legislatures. Peter Shumlin, Governor of Vermont, has appeared at a major public rally to shut Yankee. The legislature long ago voted (26-4) the same way. Shumlin was joined by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has issued a stunning denunciation of the loan guarantees. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Orgeon has published a serious warning about the on-going dangers of Fukushima, which he recently visited.
Once the public kills one of these elderly reactors, a tsunami of shutdowns among the 104 currently licensed in the U.S. will follow.
Germany and much of the rest of Europe have abandoned the technology. Bulgaria has just scrapped plans for two proposed generators. Major banking institutions have warned potential investors in Britain's planned reactors that if they proceed, they will lose their financial standing. Mexico has also said it won't build new nukes.
In Asia, only one of Japan's 54 licensed reactors now operates, and it may soon shut. Huge demonstrations and hunger strikes are raging against a proposed project at Koodankulam, India. The Philippines says it won't build any reactors at all. China, the last bastion of any apparent large-scale interest in multiple nukes, seems to be wavering, in part because of the rise of a No Nukes movement there.
Here, two reactors barely beginning construction in South Carolina are also in deep trouble. Their builders need massive rate hikes in North Carolina to proceed, and the opposition there is fierce.
But the lynchpin is Vogtle. The construction loan guarantee program got $18.5 billion from George W. Bush in 2005. With the industry in deepening chaos, it took until last year for a president to designate less than half that money. For the first time in years, there is no executive or congressional request to put more money into the fund.
The French National Utility EDF did step forward to get funding for Maryland's proposed Calvert Cliffs project. But haggling over terms contributed to its demise.
Now Southern faces the same abyss. It refuses what the mortgage community would consider a normal 20 percent down payment on its taxpayer-funded loan. Southern wants to put virtually none of its own money into the project, leaving the radioactive gamble totally to the public.
But the Office of Management and Budget is apparently demanding something more reasonable. Because the OMB is a White House agency, Obama holds the key. It's our job to make him turn it in a green direction.
A short while ago, this package was considered a done deal. But the GOP uproar over the failed $535 million loan to the solar company Solyndra changed to context. Initiated by Bush, Republicans have made Solyndra the poster child for bad federal loans.
Vogtle involves some 15 times Solyndra's liability. And it's all Obama's. At least three petitions are circulating against the package.
There are many ways to finally shut down what has been the most expensive technological failure in human history. Fukushima and the killing power of radiation, the unsolved problem of radioactive waste, the campaigns against failing reactors such as Vermont Yankee, Indian Point, San Onofre and Davis-Besse—all are key. The first weekend in May, a conference convened by the Sierra Club in Washington, D.C., will weigh the various strategies.
But killing this loan guarantee package could finally kill the prospect of new reactors in the U.S. The astonishing rise of Solartopian green technologies has far outstripped atomic energy in the marketplace. Every delay deeply diminishes the possibility of building more of these profoundly uneconomic anachronisms.
In the long run, Vogtle, Summer and any other new nukes that seem to slip through in the short term will almost certainly be stopped by what has become one of the most powerful non-violent social movements in human history.
But right now, it's up to Obama—and us. Does he really want an atomic Solyndra on his hands? Will we really let this happen?
Let's relieve the President of this radioactive burden. Let's kill these reactors before they kill us, and take the most significant leap of all toward a green-powered Earth.
Many of the significant safety lapses at U.S. nuclear power plants in 2011 happened because plant owners—and often the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)—either tolerated known problems or failed to address them adequately, according to a report released Feb. 28 by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
The report, The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety in 2011: Living on Borrowed Time, is the second in an annual series on the performance of U.S. nuclear plants and the NRC. This year’s report documents the special inspections the NRC conducted in response to safety equipment problems and security shortcomings at 13 plants. None of the 15 “near-misses” that triggered special inspections in 2011 harmed plant employees or the public, but their frequency—more than one a month—is high for a mature industry.
In addition to reviewing the special inspections, the report provides examples of where the NRC did an outstanding job addressing safety problems before they could lead to a potentially dangerous situation. It also covers instances in which NRC negligence has allowed plant owners to flout agency regulations, sometimes for decades.
“Last year’s record shows that the NRC is quite capable of being an effective watchdog that protects the public and saves the nuclear industry from its worst tendencies,” said Dave Lochbaum, the author of the report and the director of UCS’s Nuclear Safety Project. “But the agency too often does not live up to its potential, and we are still finding significant problems at nuclear plants that could too easily trigger a serious accident.”
The 13 plants that experienced special inspections last year were Braidwood and Byron in Illinois, Callaway in Missouri, Cooper in Nebraska, Millstone in Connecticut, Monticello in Minnesota, North Anna in Virginia, Oconee in South Carolina, Palisades (two incidents) in Michigan, Perry in Ohio, Pilgrim (two incidents) in Massachusetts, Turkey Point in Florida, and Wolf Creek in Nebraska. The near-misses at Millstone Unit 2 and Pilgrim were the most threatening. Both involved an infrequently performed operation—a test of the valves controlling steam to the turbine at Millstone and a reactor startup at Pilgrim.
Three plants where the NRC nipped a problem before it became serious were Fort Calhoun in Nebraska, which was surrounded by Missouri floodwaters last summer; the Hatch plant in Georgia, where NRC inspectors found that safeguards instituted years before were inadequate; and LaSalle in Illinois, where agency inspectors identified a safety deficiency that had been overlooked for decades.
Conversely, lax NRC oversight has allowed some problems to fester for decades. For example, the report points out that nearly half of the U.S. fleet—47 reactors—still do not comply with a fire regulation the NRC established in 1980 and amended in 2004. Fire represents 50 percent of the risk of reactor core damage. In other words, fire hazards are the equivalent of the risk from all other causes of core damage combined. Likewise, the NRC is aware that 27 reactors are currently operating with inadequate protection against earthquakes. The two reactors at the North Anna plant in Virginia, which sit 12 miles from the epicenter of the 5.8 quake that happened last August, are on that list.
Although UCS reviewed all the special inspections from last year, it did not cover all NRC actions, so the examples in the report do not necessarily represent the best and the worst of 2011. Regardless, these case studies shine a light on patterns of NRC behavior that contributed to both good and potentially dangerous outcomes.
“The serious accidents at the Fermi plant outside Detroit in 1966, Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima Daiichi last year happened when a handful of known, uncorrected problems resulted in a catastrophe,” said Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who worked at nuclear plants for 17 years. “The fact that U.S. plant owners could have avoided nearly all the near-misses in 2011 if they had addressed known problems in a timely manner suggests that they and the NRC have not learned the lessons of these accidents. Someday their luck may run out.”
Note—For more information about the safety status of each of the 104 operating nuclear power plants across the country, check out the Nuclear Power Information Tracker on UCS’s website.
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The Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading U.S. science-based nonprofit organization working for a healthy environment and a safer world. Founded in 1969, UCS is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and also has offices in Berkeley, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Despite the opposition of its chair, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved the first new construction of a new design of nuclear reactor on Feb. 9 since the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in 1979. Friends of the Earth stated on Feb. 14 that the decision to give the green light to building two nuclear reactors at Vogtle, Georgia raises fundamental safety and economic concerns.
The NRC ruling, the first such approval in the U.S. in more than 30 years, will saddle Georgians with higher electricity rates and leave American taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars—all for a dangerous energy source with a long history of construction delays, cost overruns and safety lapses.
“The license may be granted, but these reactors are far from a done deal. As in the past, expect delays and cost overruns, and rest assured that we will challenge the validity of this license in court,” said Damon Moglen, director of Friends of the Earth’s climate and energy project.
In a shocking dissent by NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jazcko against the four other commissioners who approved the decision, Jazcko said that the approved designs did not take the lessons of Fukushima into account. “I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima never happened,” Jazcko told his colleagues.
The approval grants a joint construction and operating license to Southern Energy for two new reactors at its existing plant south of Augusta, Ga. It is the first-ever such combined nuclear construction and operation license. The last construction license issued was in 1978 for a reactor at the Shearon Harris site in North Carolina. That reactor took nine years to complete, and three other units planned for the site were cancelled.
Southern Energy claims that the two Vogtle units will be completed within five years at a cost of $14 billion, but the history of such projects indicates that rosy projections of nuclear construction timelines and costs should not be taken at face value. For example, two French-designed nuclear reactors under construction in western Europe are already years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. At the Vogtle site, extensive pre-construction has already led to 12 sizeable construction “change order” requests, while long-running site-specific design and fabrication problems have confounded Westinghouse and its lead contractor for more than two years. At the same time, clean renewable energy has been booming in the U.S., growing 38 percent between 2007 and 2010 according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Major safety issues with the design of the planned Vogtle reactors remain unresolved, with the NRC failing to address key vulnerabilities. The safety of the reactor design has been challenged over many years. An engineering study commissioned by Friends of the Earth and other groups opposed to the project identified seven key safety areas, including failure risks for the reactor containment, cooling functions and spent fuel pool integrity. The Fukushima-Daiichi accident highlights the dangers of these oversights as it continues 11 months after it began, with leaks of highly radioactive water and rising temperatures in the molten fuel occurring in recent days.
“This is a valentine sent by the Obama administration to the nuclear industry, but it translates into a nightmare for the public, which gets handed increased nuclear hazards and inflated costs for a dangerous, outdated energy source,” said Moglen.
The Vogtle project is entirely dependent on an $8.3 billion pre-emptive bailout promise from the federal government, which comes from the same loan guarantee program as Solyndra’s much ballyhooed $535 million. Vogtle’s loan guarantee is well over 10 times as large as that of the solar company.
“Contrast the enormous risks in economic and public health terms from nuclear projects with the reality of renewable energy and energy efficiency, which are already cost-competitive with nuclear and continue to fall in price. Furthermore, renewable energy promotes rather than endangers public health by cutting global warming pollution, not dirtying the air and, of course, not producing dangerous radioactive waste,” said Moglen.
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