Nuclear Denial

Nuclear power plants have a productive life of at least forty years. Unfortunately unlike other power plants, after forty years they cannot simply be decommissioned, razed and the site redeveloped into other uses.

Fuel rods used in nuclear power plants are actively exothermic (generating heat) for up to seventy-five years after removal from the reactor. The fuel rods require active cooling to be safely stored for those 75 years. Today, this storage and cooling is usually done in storage ponds on the site of the power plant. In other words, a power plant site, even when it has reached the end of its electricity-generating life, must remained staffed to operate the cooling ponds, with full security to prevent site intrusions and theft of the spent fuel rods.

Today, the fuel rods have to stay in the ponds on the site because there is no other place for them to go. The U.S. doesn’t operate a fuel rod processing plant (like BNFL does for the United Kingdom) and has no current plans for such a vitrification facility (imbedding the active radio active waste within glass). Even then the glass-encased radioactive material must be actively cooled for 75 years, so it must be kept somewhere with human management of the site.

Who is going to pay for this? Consider the cost of staffing for 75 additional years when there is no revenue stream from electrical generation to cover this, and there is no easy way to pass the cost onto the electrical customers. This problem is only starting to be recognized since so few reactors have actually reached the end of life in the U.S. If you check the balance sheets of the major electrical utilities that own and operate nuclear power plants, you will not see any allowances for this future cost. It would be simpler to spin off the plant, let it go bankrupt and leave it to the taxpayers to deal with the mess.

More to the point, even after 75 years of controlled storage in a pond, the material will remain harmfully radioactive for somewhere in the vicinity of 100,000 years. We have no real solution for the first 75 years, so you can just guess how good the solution is for the next 99,925 years…NONE!

Why do we have no storage solution for either short term or the long term? Start with NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard. A nuclear waste storage solution isn’t like a temporary construction project in your neighborhood that might impact home value, neighborhood safety and traffic flow. A long-term storage facility will continue to receive “spent” but still highly radioactive fuel rods for as long as America operates its power plants. This means a steady traffic of nuclear materials from all over the U.S. to this site. The site itself must be capable of holding in the entire radioactivity, without site collapse, without ground water contamination and/or flooding and do this without failure or error for 100,000 years.

The oldest structures built by mankind that haven’t been completely erased by the forces of nature are around 5,000 years old. These are clearly no longer habitable or functional, they are “ruins.” The long-term nuclear storage solution requires a facility that can remain structurally sound and sealed to air and ground water for at least 20-times more years then mankind has ever achieved. The very concept borders on nonsensical.

No human civilization has survived such a test of time (most civilizations last less than 1,000 years), no spoken or written language (to mark the site, provide maintenance instructions, etc.) has lasted more than a couple thousand years. No objects, metal tools or vessels created by man have survived corrosion and structural failure for more than a couple thousand years. Suddenly we can build fuel rod containers will magically last 100,000 years?

The operation of existing nuclear power plants, labs and facilities has been fraught with accidents, incidents and discharges throughout the 50-year history of nuclear power. Full and open disclosure of the accidents and risks taken by operators (including the U.S. government) remains dubious at best.

In a recent case, the U.S. government failed to disclose on a timely basis that a U.S. nuclear submarine may have leaked radioactive water inside a Japanese harbor. In this case, the incident came at an “awkward time” for the U.S. government because it was replacing a Japan-based U.S. oil-powered carrier with a nuclear-powered carrier, which the Japanese were already uneasy about. Disclosure would have made the negotiations much more difficult.

U.S. electrical utilities have billions tied up in each nuclear power plant. Any incident can require shut down, failure analysis and corrective action, retraining (on new equipment and procedures) and potential suspension of the license to operate. All down time means zero revenue from the plant even while most all of the operating expenses remain (including serving the billion dollar debt), so it is in the interest of every plant operator to run as many hours as possible, to have as little down time as possible and to keep “incidents” under wraps as much as possible.

We’d all like to believe that public utilities and the U.S. government have a safety-first, do-the-right-thing, and keep-the-public-informed approach to nuclear power. Practical experience with the nuclear industry over the past 50 years, combined with the actions of respected CEO’s and financial managers in America who have given us the dotcom-bubble, Enron, Worldcom, Tyco, Global Crossing and the current banking crisis, must be a warning to Americans to not so freely hand their trust over to those who support a nuclear power rebirth in America or the world.

Consider also that our current President repeatedly rejected the notion of climate change, the necessity of taking action to use clean energy to address climate change as well as cleaner air and water for America. The avocation of nuclear power by George Bush’s proposed replacement, John McCain, may just be the wake-up call that Americans need to see that presidents and presidential candidates are not immune to the financial greed that has plagued America for the past 25 years.

Ask any consumer who can remember the cost hit they took to purchase a KWh of electricity once their utility started to operate. Nuclear power plants always cost more than promised, take longer to construct and have considerable down time periods for refueling, refurbishment and retraining. During the downtime, high-priced electricity from other sources must be purchased to replace this capacity. This leads to price hikes to the local consumers in nearly every case.

Uranium mining and processing of uranium ore to fuel grade is hardly a “clean” activity. Vast quantities of overburden must be removed to mine the ore (with all the attendant pollution problems). The ore itself is quite difficult to process, separating the useful material U235 from its counterparts clearly produces significant quantities of radioactive waste products, dust and chemical wastes from the separation process, all of which are quite nasty.

Uranium isn’t a renewable energy source, it is a mineral. Once mined, processed and consumed in power plants it is gone forever, leaving behind toxic and radioactive by products. It cannot be “recycled” like copper, iron or aluminum to use again. It is estimated that if the whole world turned to nuclear power, we would consume the uranium on earth in as little as 50 years.

We need renewable, carbon-free energy solutions to sustain the American economy and the American dream through this century. We need to stiff-arm attempts to deny the need for green energy, to divert the renewable energy effort into dead ends, and we need to be wary of attempts to use the desire of Americans to take action as a means to hand out bailouts for dying industries.

Michael Mellish is a process and system consultant with 30 years of experience in power quality and energy management, substation automation and electrical distribution.  Michael holds patents in digital signal processing applications, object-based software for automation and manufacturing execution, and automated diagnostics systems. Michael is a graduate of the University of Lowell with a B.S. in chemical engineering.