Archive for October, 2012

In an earlier post, we noted that the explosions at the Fukushima reactors that caused plumes of radioactive material to spread over parts of Japan were caused not by a breach of the reactor’s core, but rather by loss of the heat sink, or pool, in which spent fuel is stored. To maintain the heat sink, large quantities of water have to be continuously pumped through the spent fuel pool. When Fukushima’s backup generator failed because of flood damage, that heat sink was lost and hydrogen explosions soon followed.

Hurricane Sandy caused Exelon’s Oyster Creek (NJ) nuclear station, the oldest operating nuke station in the United States, to lose grid electricity, compelling Exelon to rely on a backup generator. And elsewhere in New Jersey, the pumps at PSEG’s Salem nuclear station (also partly owned by Exelon) were damaged by the storm surge. The station was shut down but suffered a release of steam with “trace elements of tritium.”

“No cause for concern by the public,” a spokesman for the plant said.


Remember that for several days after the Three Mile Island partial meltdown in 1979, officials had no idea of the extent of the danger. After Fukushima, Japanese authorities implemented a 10 mile evacuation zone, while U. S. authorities halfway around the globe recommended that Americans in Japan evacuate beyond a radius of 50 miles. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of Fukushima, some leading nuclear experts averred that Fukushima would not be another Chernobyl. A few weeks later, it was ranked second only to that Russian nuclear disaster.

The media even reported that Oyster Creek was at a lower risk of a serious incident because it was undergoing refueling.

Again, really?

When they remove the fuel rods from the reactor core, they don’t put them in FedEx boxes and ship them to Yucca Mountain. Those rods go to the spent fuel pool on site, which, as we’ve seen is a much more dangerous situation if there is a site blackout compounded by a problem with backup power.
The truth is that utilities and regulators often do not know the full extent of the damage or danger within the first hours and days after a nuclear accident. What they do know is that they want to avoid at all costs a panic among the public in the surrounding area. Panic is never a good thing, but the public does need to know what’s going on.

We may not know for a while how close Oyster Creek and Salem came to Fukushima. From appearances, they made it through the night, but not by much. As Wellington said of Waterloo, “It was a damn close-run thing.” The need for continuous cooling dictates that nuclear plants always be located near some body of water, and the failure to plan for extraordinary weather events, including storm surges, is something that cannot be allowed to continue. Nuclear power should be part of the United States generation portfolio, but the continuing occurrence of events such as Fukushima, Oyster Creek and Salem risks the loss of public trust, which will ultimately foreclose any prospect of a nuclear renaissance.

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I remember playing with Chinese handcuffs when I was a kid. They were small, rolled-up paper things, and you would put one end on your finger and the other end on your friend’s finger. When you tried to pull away, the bond would only get tighter. (I forget how we got out of them, but here I sit with no paper novelties on my fingers.) The situation between the United States energy market and potential Chinese investors is reminiscent of those days with the toy handcuffs.

President Obama recently blocked the proposed acquisition of four wind farm projects in Oregon by Ralls Corporation, a firm owned by two Chinese nationals. This is the first time in more than 20 years that a president has taken that step. But it is an election year, and China must know that it’s likely to get bashed on trade and surpluses now and again. The key factor in the decision was that the projects are located in restricted airspace near a naval weapons facility where drones are tested. Ralls says that it will fight the determination, which looks like a certain waste of time, effort and money.

Things look a little brighter for the Chinese on the solar energy front, though not by much. True, the Commerce Department just affirmed its earlier finding that Chinese manufacturers dumped their panels in the U. S. market (that is, sold them below cost). In November, the Commerce Department will determine whether U. S. firms were in fact hurt by the dumping before finally imposing tariffs that range from 24% to 36%, depending on the manufacturer. There’s a lot more smoke than fire here. Even if commerce makes that determination, Chinese manufacturers can sidestep the tariffs by purchasing a few components for their solar panels from other countries while still making everything else in China. This is because the tariffs apply only to Chinese-made solar panels. Remember, this is an election year.

If Santa Claus determines that China has been a currency manipulator, he may not have the option of leaving a lump of coal under their tree. The coal may already be there. Sinopec, a Chinese petrochemical company, is set to provide $2.5 billion in equity for the Texas Clean Energy Project near San Antonio, a coal gasification/generation project which has a 25-year power purchase agreement lined up with the city.

With trillions in foreign currency reserves, principally U. S. Dollars, China will likely be a player in energy projects in the United States, but political mistrust and trade disputes will impede these efforts.

Expect to see a fair amount of pushing and pulling, not to mention finger-pointing.

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