A Problem for the Future

A nuclear power plant requires a vast investment of money and resources, it has to be decommissioned after a few decades of useful life– a process so expensive and politically unprofitable that we let plants run beyond their original expiration date, as in Vermont.

Nuclear plants produce radioactive waste, some of which is deadly for thousands of years. A commission set up by the Department of Energy will be offering recommendations, and a close reading of the following article suggests that temporary storage is the most likely outcome…

The quest for a national repository for spent fuel has been a festering issue for decades but gained higher visibility after a March 11 earthquake and tsunami hit the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. The disaster not only damaged reactors but led to the loss of cooling water in at least one pool of spent radioactive fuel, raising the risk of the release of radioactive materials.

At nuclear plants in the United States, pools of spent fuel are far more heavily loaded. The National Academy of Sciences warned in a study in 2005 that the presence of vast stores of radioactive fuel could make the plants an attractive target for terrorists.

For now, members of the waste commission say, the panel is unlikely to make a recommendation for starting work on two controversial disposal methods: reprocessing the spent fuel to recover plutonium for reuse, as France and Japan do, or building a new class of reactors that would break up the most troublesome wastes into materials that are easier to handle. Instead, it will recommend more research, the members said. “Neither the technology nor the economics are ready to compel us to make a decision on that at this point,” said Phillip A. Sharp, an Indiana Democrat on the commission.

If we had addressed this problem thirty years ago, with conservation and smart energy use, and invested in better technology, we would not be arguing about whether coal or nuclear was the more deadly option.

We can continue to use tax dollars to subsidize a Soviet-style mega technology of the 20th Century, or use our tax dollars to reduce the waste of what we have, and take advantage of promising new options.

Other nations, such as Germany and China, will move ahead in the clean energy race, if we keep subsidizing Big Oil and underwriting the risk of nuclear power.

Bills Come Due

One of the disadvantages of nuclear power is the problem of waste disposal, and the enormous costs both of building a plant, and safely dismantling it about thirty years later. From Reuters News Service…

IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] Director General Yukiya Amano this week said international safety standards needed to be strengthened but the agency was not a “nuclear safety watchdog,” stressing safety was the responsibility of individual countries.

But a senior former IAEA official, Olli Heinonen, said in a blog comment that Fukushima “should be a wake-up call to re-evaluate and strengthen the role of the IAEA” in boosting nuclear safety.

Amano’s safety report for last year noted that of the 441 reactors now in operation around the world, many were built in the 1970s and 1980s, with an average lifespan of about 35 years. The Fukushima plant also dates back to the 1970s.

“Their decommissioning peak will occur from 2020 to 2030 which will present a major managerial, technological, safety and environmental challenge to those states engaged in nuclear decommissioning,” it said.

“The need for national and international mechanisms for early planning, adequate funding and long-term strategies applies not only to decommissioning, but also to radioactive waste management and spent fuel management.”

Giving no details about which reactors faced closure, it also said some countries had started to consider extending operations of their nuclear plants beyond the planned timeframe.

The United States has most operating nuclear reactors in the world with 104 units, followed by France with 58 and Japan with 54, according to the IAEA’s website.

In this economy, in this political climate, who is going to sell the notion of paying dearly to ensure that a used up nuclear plant will not be a permanent hazard?

Cold War Still Too Hot

Demolition of a Cold War nuclear facility in upstate New York had to be halted when radiation was detected on worker’s boots.

They’re doing tests on the air and water at the site. This stuff never goes away, even when it’s long forgotten.

Human error never goes away either. MSNBC reports on alcohol abuse among truckers who transport nuclear weapons.

It’s time for an Apollo energy mission, and relearning some old ways– like conservation and the smart building practices used to take advantage of natural light and solar warmth.

More Trouble at Vermont Yankee

The aging nuclear plant is down for repairs.

MONTPELIER, Vt. – Technicians at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant will begin work Monday morning to fix a pipe that leaked radioactive water and forced the plant to shut down.
The nuclear reactor was taken out of service at 7 p.m. Sunday. Plant spokesman Larry Smith estimated it would take 13 hours to cool down enough for workers to enter the area and make repairs.
Smith said the leak of about 60 drops a minute was spotted earlier Sunday during routine surveillance. It was coming from a 2-foot-wide pipe that was part of the circulation system involving the reactor, he said. The water was being collected by a sump pump and cycled back through the system, he said.
The cause of the leak was not immediately known. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said the public was not in any danger.

It was the second shutdown within an hour at a plant owned by New Orleans-based Entergy Corp.

Entergy’s petition to renew the license may be denied, but Vermont will be left with a vast cleanup job at the site.