Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Old Nuclear Plants Online Are A Danger Overlooked

People should consider it a deeply worrisome sign that of Russia's ten nuclear power plants two recently suffered significant operating incidents in the same week. This caused multiple reactors to be taken offline. Russia's TASS reported that a "transformer short circuit" at the Kalinin nuclear power plant (NPP) resulted in "a complete shutdown of two and a partial shutdown of another power unit. In total 3 out of the 4 nuclear plant's reactors had to be "unplugged." The Kalinin plant is north-west of Moscow in central Russia and has been operational since the mid-1980s. The other incident reported by state media involved a nuclear plant in the central Russian city of Beloyarsk. There, a reactor had to be disconnected when an automatic safety mechanism was triggered. It came back online after an inspection found no issues.

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The point of this article is to underline the fact that it is only a matter of time before another disaster at a nuclear power plant occurs. This is something we have come to live with and grown complacent about.  If you live in the U.S., there’s a good possibility that you live near a nuclear power plant. More than 120 million Americans are within 50 miles of a reactor. Several nuclear disasters have taken place over the years. We tend to brush these aside and are often oblivious to the danger growing in our own backyard. As a reminder of the danger, I bring up names such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. the fact is we can paper over and ignore this danger but once this gene gets "out of the bottle" it has proven both expensive and difficult to contain. As a reminder as to the potential for disaster sitting in our backyards lets look back at a couple of these past incidents.

In the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, things went horribly wrong in the town of Pripyat, in northern Soviet Ukraine. Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, was overwhelmed by an uncontrolled reaction that could not be stopped. Two initial explosions blew the top off the reactor. This allowed plumes of fission matter to escape into the atmosphere. Before long, this radioactive material spread onto Western Europe and the Western USSR. Nine days later the fire was finally contained but not before roughly 400 times more radioactive material was released than from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Twenty-eight firemen and operators died from acute radiation syndrome in the months following the explosion.

The Chernobyl Disaster Has Faded From View
What exactly caused the Chernobyl disaster is still a matter of disagreement.  The first official explanation of the accident proved to be erroneous.  It now appears an ill-planned late-night safety test to simulate a power-failure set in motion the very chain reaction that led to the disaster.  During the experiment, the emergency safety and power-regulating systems were both intentionally turned off.  Then the operators attempted to boost the reactor output; a violation of the approved test procedure.  Soon after, all control was lost. Most accounts now assign equal blame to human error and reactor design flaws. It now appears that shortsighted engineers failed to idiot-proof the nuclear power plant for the operators and those operators succeeded at being idiots.

Disasters can also be the result of forces beyond our control. Following a major earthquake on 11 March 2011, a tsunami swept over the coast of Japan. The tsunami killed more than 15,000 people and destroying or damaging more than a million buildings. It also disabled the power supply and cooling of three Fukushima Daiichi reactors, causing a nuclear accident. The cores of reactors 1, 2 and 3 largely melted in the first three days while unit 4 was written off by a hydrogen explosion. This quickly became the most significant nuclear incident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the only other disaster since to be given the Level 7 event classification of the International Nuclear Event Scale.

Following a mass evacuation, an area now exists in Japan where people can never return to their homes. Years after the disaster we still don't know how much land must be decontaminated before people can return. Also, there is the issue of how long it will take. It won't be today and certainly not in the next few years. It took decades to clean up the reactor at Three Mile Island, and a quarter-century to clean up after Chernobyl where there's still a lot of work to be done. It might be decades before Units 1, 2, and 3 are cleaned up. Much of this delay is necessary to allow radiation dose rates to decay to the point where work can be done or villages can be reoccupied.

Nuclear Plants - A Bomb In Our Backyard?
America's big nuclear scare took place in 1979 when reactor 2 at Three Mile Island suffered a partial meltdown. At the time it sparked an evacuation and panic. Much of it was fed by a lack of information provided to the public. The incident did not result in any deaths or injuries but it spurred broad safety overhauls in the industry. The incident also inflamed worries about the safety, security, and transparency of nuclear plants that that continue to dog the industry today. While these concerns have raised the issue of nuclear plant safety they have not been enough to stop America from extending the operation of these plants well past beyond their planned useful life. 

In May 2019, Exelon Generation, the current owner of Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, acknowledged that it plans to go through with a shutdown starting in June. The last remaining nuclear reactor is scheduled to go offline in September. The domestic commercial nuclear power industry is facing economic headwinds due to the U.S. oil and gas boom and stiff opposition from the gas industry, as well as renewable energy advocates still skeptical of nuclear power. Last year nuclear power plants generated about 20% of the nation's electricity and produced the largest share of zero-carbon electricity in the country. Yet, in the face of cheap natural gas and falling prices for wind, solar and, more recently, battery storage, the business case for nuclear has become ever more difficult to prove.

Today, more than a third of the country's 60 nuclear plants are either unprofitable or slated to close. On average, it would cost $814 million annually to bring unprofitable plants back to a breakeven point. Of course, industry advocates such as Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's main trade group, still see nuclear energy as very important. she recently said, "It's in our nation's best interest for lawmakers both in state capitals and Washington to push for market solutions and policies that value all clean energy sources, or face the economic and environmental consequences for generations to come."

Another issue is that to extend their life these plants often require expensive infrastructure improvements. An example is the $478 million planned upgrade at Cook Nuclear Plant in southwestern Michigan taking place in 2019-2020. Unit 1 began operation in 1975 and unit 2 in 1978. The first had an operational license that expired in 2014 and the second in 2017, both licenses have been extended by 20 years. The owner, Fort Wayne, Indiana-based Indiana Michigan Power is asking for higher rates to help pay for it. The utility is asking the Public Service Commission to review base rates for an overall increase of nearly 19%. For a typical residential customer who uses 1,000-kilowatt-hours this would amount to about $36 a month.

While the above example is very common, more of a concern is that little has been done to improve safety at many of these plants. Two coastal reactors at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant upwind of ten million people in California are surrounded by earthquake faults. They are also in a tsunami zone like the one where the four Fukushima reactors exploded.  PG&E, the company running the Diablo Canyon plant is in bankruptcy, with its third president in two years, This brings into question whether PG&E is qualified to run two large, old, obsolete, crumbling atomic reactors which are surrounded by earthquake faults.

If a major disaster were to occur, Los Angeles could find itself under an apocalyptic cloud that could result in the death of millions. The people living there would see their lives and the state left in radioactive ruin. The bottom-line is that past disasters and the fact these plants are aging is indeed a reason for concern. Adding to the danger is that we the public are often "sheltered from the truth" and not informed of potential problems. The logic behind this is that it might elevate our fear. Still, this fear is justified when you think about being told to leave your home in the middle of the night with no place to go and never being able to return.

1 comment:

  1. As the author of this article states, people should really be concerned about Nuclear Power Plants regardless of their age. Just think, we have gone to this elaborate idea of making steam to produce energy. What's worse is that more and more Nations looking for affordable energy are producing more NPP's. Russia has built a Floating Chernobyl and China is building and deploying "low cost" Nuclear Power Planets. Can you say, "Chinese Drywall"?

    Look at all the spent fuel rods these plants generate that require maintenance after they are no longer useful for hundreds of years.

    One thing to add to the authors article is another thing to ponder as the Planet gets warmer. NPP's by design are built near water to help keep them cool. Lately, things have not been going according to plan as waters are increasingly getting warmer which means several reactors have been taken OFFLINE due to rising water temperatures because NPP's need cool water not warm water to keep the temps in the reacotrs at a safe operating level.