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California’s Nuclear Headache is Only Just Beginning

Meltdowns have almost no probability of occurring, we’re told incessantly; nuclear energy is not only cheap but safe. So, there are currently 434 active reactors and 147 permanent shutdown reactors in the world, for a total of 581 reactors. Four of them have melted down so far – one at Chernobyl and three at Fukushima. The meltdown probability, after six decades of history, is 4 out of 581, or 1 out of every 145. If 1 out of every 145 pedestrians got hit by a car, no one would ever cross a street until we’d come up with safer crossings.

The costs of a major nuclear accident are catastrophic and come due for generations (plural!). But there are also the routine costs when reactors stop producing revenues while the expenses for decommissioning pile up. These costs are largely unknown and haven’t been priced in. It’s just easier to extend the lifespan of the reactors.

So California regulators are grappling this week with how much it will cost to decommission the scandal-plagued San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station – artfully baptized SONGS. It sits by the beach in northern San Diego County; 7.4 million people live within 50 miles. It’s supposed to be able to withstand an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 on the Richter scale. But a fault has since been discovered nearby, capable of producing 8.0 earthquakes. Ten times more powerful than a 7.0 quake. San Onofre is also protected against tsunamis, much like Fukushima Daiichi.

San Onofre has had by far the highest number of safety complaints in the US, as measured by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s “Allegations from On-Site Sources” – employees and contractors. The plant’s 171 complaints from 2007 through 2012 blew away the next worst in line, the 115 complaints at the Susquehanna plant in Pennsylvania. On the low end were the 6 complaints at the Kewaunee plant in Wisconsin, which was also shut down this year.

The current bubble up in January 2012 when an alloy tube in Unit 3’s steam generator broke and hot pressurized radioactive water leaked out. Officials assured everyone – after first denying radiation had escaped – that it was only a trace of radiation, and that there was no danger to anyone.

In the subsequent investigation, Unit 2 was also inspected (the smaller, older Unit 1 had been shut down in 1992). Turns out, hundreds of these alloy tubes in both units were heavily worn. These tubes had been installed in 2009 and 2010 as part of an expensive overhaul. No one could figure out why they’d worn out so rapidly.

By June 2013, with both units still off line, Southern California Edison (SCE) decided to shut them down permanently, bringing the total for US reactors in “permanent shutdown status” to 32. That was the easy part.

Related article:How Our Inability to Calculate Risk Opened the Doors for Fukushima

Now the plant will have to be decommissioned. Among the “known unknowns,” as Donald Rumsfeld said so eloquently: how long it would take, how much it would ultimately cost, and who would pay for it. Then there were the “unknown unknowns,” because this could take decades and possibly, centuries, or even millennia.

The NRC has given SCE two years to develop a blueprint for decommissioning the dangerous hulks. Thank God, utilities can’t just walk away from their old plants. The NRC tried to reassure us: it has “strict rules” that govern the decommissioning process – including the “cleanup of radioactively contaminated plant systems and structures and the removal of the radioactive fuel.” That last phrase, removal of radioactive fuel, is doomed to become a blatant lie.

There were three options for decommissioning. “They can probably disassemble most of the equipment on site, they can go that path,” explained NRC spokesman Victor Dricks two weeks ago. “They can let time go by 10, 20, 30 years, up to 60 years,” before even trying to dismantle the plant, he said. “Or they can choose a third option, which is called entombment, where they basically could build a giant sarcophagus around the plant.”

No manmade structures exist that would survive until the radioactive materials in the spent-fuel rods – including plutonium, one of the most toxic substances on earth – have decayed enough to where they’re no longer dangerous: 100,000 years?

A timeframe beyond human comprehension. Generation after generation would have to rebuild the sarcophagus, and pay for it. That number – 100,000 years – was one of the reasons Junichiro Koizumi, former Prime Minister of Japan, recently turned against nuclear power. Because nothing was more expensive, he said [read.... The End Of Nuclear Energy In Japan?].

These three options have unappealing technical terms: decon, safestor, and entombment.

SCE Media Relations Project Manager Maureen Brown was more gung-ho – which was her job – when she told the California Report that the idea was to dismantle everything, thus “removing and disposing of the radioactive components and materials,” she said. “And then longer term, we make sure we release the site for what is known as ‘unrestricted use’ which involves, you know, reducing any residual radioactivity.”

The missing element in her explanation: time. The 100,000 years.

VP Steven Picket suggested during a State Senate hearing in August that option 2, safestor, would be “most cost effective to our customers,” and trying to keep costs down was critical because this wasn’t going to be cheap, he warned. So decades before they’d do anything major.

Related article: France’s Areva Says to Buy Uranium Now

SCE’s current decommissioning estimate was $4.1 billion. Conveniently, the company has a rate-payer financed trust fund of $4 billion, surrounded by questions and doubts. “They’ve got this rigged up so that there is very little oversight available for the public to follow the money as it gets spent,” groused Ray Lutz of Citizens’ Oversight Projects on air. And it would have to last a long, long time.

Biggest concern: the spent-fuel rods.

When the plant entered service, the Federal Government promised to build a repository for highly-radioactive-waste. But the proposed facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada got tangled up in a thicket of thorny issues and was defunded. So these spent-fuel rods that have accumulated since the reactors started operating in the early 1980s remain where they are, in on-site pools – by a fault line and exposed to tsunamis, needing a constant flow of chilled water to keep them from igniting and melting down. Unlike reactors, these pools have no steel containment vessels and no concrete bunkers around them. It would trigger a catastrophe beyond human imagination.

And these fuel rods will be stored there indefinitely.

That’s the plan. Eventually, after radioactive materials decay enough and generate less heat, the rods can be encased in dry casks of steel and concrete, which would offer some protection. But they would have to survive – there’s that word again – indefinitely. And all these processes have to be monitored indefinitely by the NRC.

This is what happens when hype, false promises, special interests, and billions of dollars come together to lead to the widespread use of a technology without mastering its phenomenal risks and its long, dangerous, and horridly expensive tail end.

As the Fukushima fiasco hobbled from cover-ups to partial revelations, mega-utility TEPCO – famous for its parsimoniousness with the truth and lackadaisical handling of the fiasco – always pretended the situation was under control. But days after Tokyo scored the 2020 Olympics, that pretense fell apart. Now Prime Minister Abe begged for international help. Read....  After Snatching Olympics, Japan Suddenly Admits Fukushima Not “Under Control,” Begs For International Help

By. Wolf Richter

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Leave a comment
  • Eddie Smith on October 10 2013 said:
    At least 1 out of 145 city pedestrians gets hit by a car in their lifetime, would guess its closer to 1 in 4 or 5 (frequency/lifetime), though definitely not 1 in 145 crossings (probability/crossing). For regular cyclists, car impacts probably exceed 1 per lifetime. For drivers, accidents probably occur more than 5 times per lifetime though the probability/mile is low. Cyclists that ride on 2-lane country roads have the greatest faith because they believe every car that passes them will (1) see them, (2) slow down, and (3) competently steer towards the left lane as they pass. With just 1 in 10,000 drivers not paying attention, you can see how the expected number of impacts hits one in a few hundred miles of biking (that is, 10,000 cars could pass a cyclist in a few hundred miles on some routes). Admittedly, didn't finish the article after the distracting confusion of probability and frequency.
  • Fabio Geraci on October 11 2013 said:
    you should get your data source correct, from a rapid search in goggle, only in UK, 12 people get hit by car on crossing everyday. The average is 12% a year.
  • gonzo on October 11 2013 said:
    There are many reasons why nuclear power is a bad idea but even putting all of them aside, nuclear power is too expensive. End of story. Great article.
  • David Hrivnak on October 13 2013 said:
    So what is the plan to replace the nearly 1,000 megawatts of capacity? More coal or natural gas plants? I think you will find far more have died in coal or natural gas accidents than nuclear accidents? Nuclear has proven safer than any of the alternatives and is CO2 free energy.
  • Atom man on October 14 2013 said:
    Sorry - this is a deeply and painfully stupid article.

    The pedestrian statistic is, I think, intentionally misleading. "1 out of every 145 pedestrians got hit by a car, no one would ever cross a street until we’d come up with safer crossings." Well, if one pedestrian were killed out of 145 over the course of 60 years of walking in the streets, everyday, all day and night, then we would probably take no action at all, and remark on how very safe walking in the street really is.

    Nuclear reactors run for years and years. Many studies have shown them to be, kilowatt per kilowatt, the safest possible source of power. Sorry, but the stats don't lie.

    How many people were killed at Fukashima? Right. NONE. Zip. Zero. Nada. A huge earthquake, 40 foot tsunami, and...nothing. Meanwhile a 220,000-barrel per-day oil refinery of Cosmo Oil Company was set on fire by the quake at Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture. It was extinguished after ten days, injuring six people, and destroying dozens of storage tanks. In addition to refining and storage, several power plants were damaged. These include Sendai #4, New-Sendai #1 and #2, Haranomachi #1 and #2, Hirono #2 and #4 and Hitachinaka #1.

    So - is nuclear less safe than other forms of power? Seems like all forms of power were impacted, with the nuclear pants suffering less damage than most other power stations.

    I've heard the tired statistic that plutonium is "toxic" many times. My response is...so? Lots of things are toxic. Cyanide, mercury, heck, ammonia and chlorine. Fortunately, plutonium has low solubility, meaning the only way for someone to be exposed to the toxicity of plutonium is to injest the stuff. How many people have died, worldwide, from the ingesting plutonium? Right. Zero. I humbly suggest that preventing people from physically eating plutonium is the least of our concerns in this world.

    Regarding radioactivity, we had a plan to dispose of the high level radioactive waste (Yucca Mountain), but it was prevented by Obama and Harry Reid solely for political reasons. So...talk to them. The plan was in place for decades before SONGS was closed. There would be no high level radioactive waste at SONGS at all if not for Obama and Reid. And yes, Yucca Mountain is not perfect, but it is a heck of a lot better than storing the waste indefinately at San Onofre....

    So what is probably going to happen is pretty simple. The low level waste is going to get taken to a landfill, along with the non-radioactive waste. The high level waste, after cooling a five years in a cooling pond, will get stuck in concrete casks and stored on-site on a concrete pad until congress and the democrats figure out what to do. During its storage it will be fenced and monitored, but not much else. No worries - the casks are practically indestructable. We have been using them for 40 years with no significant problems.

    There is no reason to demo the containment structure -it is not radioactive.
  • Say What? on October 22 2013 said:
    @ Atom man

    "The pedestrian statistic is, I think, intentionally misleading. "1 out of every 145 pedestrians got hit by a car, no one would ever cross a street until we’d come up with safer crossings." Well, if one pedestrian were killed out of 145 over the course of 60 years of walking in the streets, everyday, all day and night, then we would probably take no action at all, and remark on how very safe walking in the street really is"

    That is weak logic. The probability of one thesis states that if there is even a 1% chance something will happen, with frequency, it will happen.

    Why the PROB1 thesis is important to your comment, is that you are predicting the future (not a good idea) and suggesting your statistics represent the average pedestrian could walk the streets without being hit for 60 years. Says who? Thew PROB1 thesis has no measurable time component meaning, under your scenario, the pedestrian could get hit at lunchtime today, or as you suggest -- in 60 years.

    Furthermore, the POB1 thesis suggests that there will be, with out question, more meltdowns and accidents. That is a statistical fact. But as stated, we have no idea when. Maybe tonight, maybe 100 years -- but it will absolutely happen. To my understanding, every major nuclear accident has gone from topical "what if" planning to the moment of praying to God. That is not a plan.
  • Chris on November 02 2013 said:
    WR: This article could benefit from a better understanding of nuclear power. Statements like "It would trigger a catastrophe beyond human imagination." would be laughable if it were not for the fact that it takes more effort than a typical person can invest to fully understand the issues around spent nuclear fuel. Hyperbole is not helpful, it reduces the amount of true knowledge your readers have and betrays the trust they invest in you by reading your work. If you wish to have a more informed (and honest) ability to represent energy issues there are many excellent resources available. I especially recommend whatisnuclear.com as a simple and well balanced information source. Best wishes, Chris.

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