Posts Tagged ‘Fukushima’

Spent Nuke Fuel (No Swimming Allowed)

Spent Nuke Fuel (No Swimming Allowed)

Nuclear Energy Insider reports that Ukraine has begun building a central storage facility for spent nuke fuel:

Ukraine constructs Central Storage Facility for spent nuclear fuel | Nuclear Energy Insider.

How embarrassing would it be for the United States if, on the competent handling and storage of spent nuclear fuel, Ukraine makes more progress in two years than we’ve made in the last fifty.

Of course, Ukraine also has an incentive to become more energy independent. His name is Vladimir Putin.

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Fukushima's Spent Fuel Pool

Fukushima’s Spent Fuel Pool

Tokyo Electric Power Company has started a year-long operation to remove more than 1,500 spent fuel rods assemblies from a damaged cooling pool with radiation thousands of times higher than normal:

Fukushima: Dangerous operation of removing fuel rods begins | Nuclear Energy Insider.

Unlike Las Vegas, what happens in Fukushima will not stay in Fukushima, but will affect public perceptions of both nuclear power and nuclear accident remediation everywhere.

Here’s hoping this will go as smoothly as possible.

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S Korea Nuke plant

There’s a YouTube video in which one boxer tries to punch his opponent, but his glove skids off the other man’s face and he winds up hitting himself just above his own eye.

Players in the nuclear generating industry are distressingly similar to this poor boxer, with one notable exception: there’s no opponent whom they’re slugging away at. Rather, the nuclear industry just keeps hauling off and punching itself in the head. Here’s the latest example.

South Korea, with little in the way of natural resources, has twenty-three commercial nuclear power plants that together supply about one third of that nation’s electricity supply requirements. Over the past ten years those plants have had to shut down 128 times because of faulty parts. That’s more than once a month, on average.

Yesterday, the government in Seoul announced that it had indicted 100 people, including a former chief executive of Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power, one of the country’s biggest electric utilities, for faking certifications of safety equipment used in nuclear reactors.

Yes, you read that right. Safety equipment. For nuclear reactors. Faked.

It’s difficult to believe that anyone could be that shortsighted, but look again at that video of the boxer hitting himself in the head. That symbolizes the current state of the nuclear generation industry.

Imagine that an event like Fukushima happened at one of Korea Hydro & Nuclear’s nuke stations. As the plant’s engineers frantically try to keep the disaster from spiraling out of control, they attempt various operations in the control room, only to find that the power switches, fuses or control cables aren’t working. They aren’t working because the equipment didn’t meet the minimum standards required for use as safety equipment in a nuclear generating station. As bad as Fukushima was, substandard equipment would only have made it worse.

Nuclear power should be part of a varied array of United States generation assets, but as we’ve said before, the industry needs to address and resolve two critical flaws before that type of diversification begins to get back on track: disposal of spent fuel and regulatory capture. Fukushima embodied both of these problems.

If the U.S. nuclear industry discounts these incidents in South Korea, then they are viewing the events through far too narrow and legalistic a perspective. Only the most insular of minds could maintain that Fukushima did not adversely affect the perception of commercial nuclear generation in the United States. As far as the public is concerned, a Japanese nuke, a South Korean nuke and an American nuke are one and the same as far as anything that could go wrong is concerned.

Protesting nukes in South Korea

Protesting nukes in South Korea

And for any project that takes at least 10 years to go from the drawing board to energization, its promoters should understand that perception is reality. The nuclear generation industry needs to broadly clean up its act. Doing so will help it to stop hitting itself in the head.

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About a week ago, Southern California Edison announced that it was going to shut down its troubled San Onofre nuclear generating station because in addition to extraordinarily expensive repairs that would be required to bring the plant back up to safe operating condition, SoCal Edison would be facing a difficult and protracted political fight before it could even get to “yes” on the question of whether it could continue to run the plant.

There are two reactors at the San Onofre site, but these have been idle for some time now due to degradation of steam tubes caused by unusual vibrations. (Those were not good, good, good vibrations.) Both California Senator Barbara Boxer and San Diego Mayor Bob Filner expressed great relief that the nuclear plant would stop operation.

Their feelings of relief are misplaced.

Recall that in the Fukushima disaster, none of the generators at the TEPCO plant was running; in fact, the plant had been shut down for safety reasons once news of the earthquake broke. Rather, it was the loss of electrical power to the plant that caused the cooling tanks for spent fuel to stop operating. The water started to boil away, which was followed by the formation of explosive gases, and the consequent explosions spewed radioactive material over a wide area in that prefect.

Our political class has never been able to carry through on its promise to provide a nuclear waste repository (e.g., Yucca Mountain). So at San Onofre, as in other nuclear stations across the country, spent fuel is stored in water-filled cooling tanks on site – just like spent fuel was stored at Fukushima. It will be years before the spent fuel at San Onofre is cool enough to be removed from spent fuel tanks to a more permanent storage solution in steel and concrete casks.

If an earthquake or tsunami should hit San Onofre and the station were to lose power for a sufficient period, we could have another Fukushima at Surf City, USA.

This danger is not going to go away until the problem of spent fuel storage is dealt with adequately. Given that the 113th Congress can hardly cooperate sufficiently to order paperclips, don’t expect change anytime soon.

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Years ago the Virginia state tourism agency’s campaign slogan was “Virginia is For Lovers,” which was the wind-up for ads filled with golf courses, elegant seafood dinners and couples walking hand-in-hand on some sandy beach at sunset. But if you’re interested in mining uranium in Virginia, stay home.

Last Thursday, the sponsors of a bill to lift Virginia’s 3-decades old ban on uranium mining pulled the bill just before it was to go to the state senate’s natural resources committee, where it was sure to be defeated. There’s a farm outside Chatham, Virginia that’s sitting on an estimated 119,000,000 pounds of uranium oxide, the largest known undeveloped uranium deposit in the U.S., said to be worth at least $7 Billion.

A coalition of environmentalists, municipal leaders and farmers (presumably excluding the farmer sitting on all that uranium) opposed the legislation lifting the ban, which was being pushed by Virginia Uranium, Inc.  Their concern is that uranium mining would endanger the environment and the water supply. The bill’s sponsor said that any radioactive pollution at the mine could be contained, and he was frustrated that he was unable to convince his colleagues that uranium mining can be done safely and economically in Virginia.

Virginia is an example of the Deepwater/Fukushima Dividend at work. The public no longer believes that government regulators, much less the energy companies themselves, are credible.  This comes at a time, after the Wall Street-driven financial meltdown, when Americans’ confidence in public institutions has fallen to record lows. That Virginia is either a “purple” or “red” state doesn’t matter that much if voters think that their drinking water will be giving them and their children cancer in a few years.

In the Deepwater Horizon case, the regulators were (literally) sleeping with the regulated and sharing illegal drugs. The contractors on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig cut corners on cementing the well and other safety measures because the rig was costing them $525,000 a day to rent from Transocean, and the project was already $58MM over budget. Those were the considerations driving operational and safety decisions on the Deepwater Horizon. The amounts are laughable when compared to tens (if not hundreds) of billions of economic and environmental damage done to the Gulf of Mexico from the worst oil spill in the history of the United States. Even during the height of the oil spill, BP claimed falsely that the oil leaking away a mile below the surface was only a fraction of what government officials were estimating.

Those steps are not well-calculated to inspire confidence.

Fukushima and its surrounding region learned the real meaning of Japan’s “nuclear village,” a euphemism for the state of regulatory capture in which the country’s nuclear regulators would leave the agency, usually in their 50’s, and take a nice cushy job at Tokyo Electric Power Company that paid far above what they earned working for the government. There was even a name for it: amakudari, or “ascent into heaven.” The ascent of these bureaucrats was, of course, not as momentous as that of the radioactive plume that contaminated a large swath of Japan’s countryside north and west of the Fukushima plant. If you think regulatory capture happens only in Japan, think again.

The fact that the Virginia bill’s sponsor said it would take a few more legislative sessions to get the ban lifted shows that the energy industry has not yet come to grips with the effects of Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima.  They have a lot of catching up to do, and if the public believes that government watchdogs will soon become industry lapdogs, it’ll be long time before that farmer in Chatham gets a warm glow from all that uranium under his land.

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Today’s New York Times reports that during the height of the Fukushima nuclear plant crisis, Japan’s Prime Minister and other officials feared what might happen if the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) evacuated its workers from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. This would have allowed that plant to spiral out of control, releasing even larger amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere that would in turn force the evacuation of other nearby nuclear plants, causing further meltdowns. Officials feared that such a “demonic chain reaction” of plant meltdowns could result in the evacuation of Tokyo, 150 miles to the south. Read the full article here.

Yet even as officials considered the possibility of evacuating Tokyo, they tried to play down the risks in public.

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