Your Forever Plant

The Times has a good run-down of the mediocrity of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which probably isn’t as bad as Japan’s toothless, brainless agency, but is far from the strict regulator it should be:

Situated on the banks of the Connecticut River, the 39-year-old Vermont Yankee, whose reactor is similar in design to the stricken plant in Japan, suffered the partial collapse of a cooling tower in 2007. In January 2010, the plant’s operator, Entergy, discovered that nearby soil and groundwater had been contaminated by radioactive tritium, which had apparently leaked from underground piping. Just months before, the company assured state lawmakers that no such piping existed at the plant.

The Vermont Senate, concerned about the problems, voted overwhelmingly last year to prevent the plant from operating beyond the scheduled expiration of its license on March 21, 2012 — invoking a 2006 state law, unique to Vermont, that requires legislative approval for continued operations.

But one day before the quake and tsunami that set Japan’s crisis in motion, the N.R.C. approved Vermont Yankee’s bid for license renewal — just as it has for 62 other plants so far. Its fate is now the subject of a federal lawsuit.

The major issue with the NRC is that they are handing out 20 year extensions to plant licenses like t-shirts at a minor league baseball game. Since new construction is virtually halted, we’re left with a set of 40+ year-old plants, a lot of them with the same design as the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. Each new generation of reactors and plant designs incorporate improvements, and in light of the recent Japanese experience, I have to believe those improvements are important. Fukushima Daiichi, the older of the Fukushima sites, is a multi-billion dollar disaster. Fukushima Daini, which was designed and built a decade after the first Daiichi reactors, made it to cold shutdown. If we had a tougher NRC, I’d be less worried about the 51 year-old plant 21 miles from my front door.






33 replies
  1. 1
    DecidedFenceSitter says:

    As a Vermonter who moved south for college and stayed for the job and the wife, thank for this. I hadn’t heard about the ’07 fiasco.

    Working where I do now, I can’t make any specific comments – but needless to say I don’t trust DOE or NRC as far as I can throw the entire bureaucratic mess.

  2. 2
    Scott P. says:

    The inability to license new plants will simply exacerbate the situation. If we cannot build new plants to replace the old ones, we will simply continue to operate the old ones until they literally fall apart. Nuclear power provides around 20% of our electricity so it’s not like we have an easy alternative.

  3. 3
    PeakVT says:

    Safety costs money.

  4. 4
    Robert Sneddon says:

    Fukushima Daini achieved cold shutdown because they were able to get the plant reconnected to the local grid before the backup generators ran out of fuel and active cooling stopped. This didn’t happen at Fukushima Daiichi and the reactors went bang after they overheated. Mostly this was due to geography and the luck of the draw; the power lines to Daini were not as badly damaged by the earthquake as the lines supplying Daiichi and one line was repaired in time to keep the cooling systems running.

  5. 5

    @PeakVT:

    Safety costs money.

    That’s short term thinking. Safety costs some money, but nothing compared to the cost of a disaster. Of course with liability limits and the ability to declare bankruptcy, who gives a fuck how much a disaster costs. It’s not like the plant operator will be paying it.

  6. 6
    ant says:

    @Robert Sneddon:

    they were able to get the plant reconnected to the local grid before the backup generators ran out of fuel and active cooling stopped. This didn’t happen at Fukushima Daiichi and the reactors went bang after they overheated.

    So is that what actually happened? They ran out of fuel?

    I remember hearing that when this was unfolding, but I have a hard time believing that this all happened just cause somebody didn’t fill up the diesel fuel tank…

    Really?

  7. 7
    DecidedFenceSitter says:

    @Roger Moore: Yes, but you are talking possible costs in the future versus real costs now, and humans are very bad at dealing with future costs. Especially when real costs now will either get you fired, demoted, or miss a bonus depending on the severity.

    There are times when working in the safety and security field sucks.

  8. 8
    mistermix says:

    @ant: The Daiichi backup generators were situated in the lower level of the reactor buildings and were destroyed by the tsunami. The Daini generators were not, apparently, so they could achieve cold shutdown.

  9. 9
    PeakVT says:

    @Roger Moore: Yes, exactly. Also, too, shareholders and, more importantly, senior management, get rewarded on time scales that are much different from when cost-cutting might result in an accident small or large.

  10. 10
    ant says:

    @mistermix:

    ok. that sounds like a more likely story to me.

    well i sure hope that the nuclear plants all over the world have reviewed how they’re gonna keep these fucking things cool in the event that tomorrow aint quite the same as today.

    sheesh.

  11. 11

    @DecidedFenceSitter:

    Yes, but you are talking possible costs in the future versus real costs now, and humans are very bad at dealing with future costs.

    Which is why we’re supposed to have regulations with real enforcement: so it’s cheaper to be safe than to take shortcuts. But that would get in the way of rich people making even more money, so it has to be stopped at all costs.

  12. 12
    Robert Sneddon says:

    @ant: The Daini plant had a couple of days supply of diesel for their generators but the roads around the area were knocked out by the earthquake and trucking in extra fuel was pretty much impossible in the timescales involved. Shipping it via tanker to the shoreline facilities might have worked but it would have been tight timing given the general disruption in the area resulting from the double-whammy of the earthquake and tsunami. Jury-rigging a safe method of transferring diesel from a ship to the fuel tanks without causing a fuel fire would have been tricky too.

  13. 13
    Jazz Superluminar says:

    @ant
    what mistermix said, and there’s also the reconnection issue. I’m still baffled why it took so long to reestablish a grid connection to Daiichi, even given the tsunami.

  14. 14
    Uloborus says:

    My feelings about this incident and reactions to it are very mixed. On the one hand, I think we need new investment, the most modern safety technology, and to treat the nuclear industry responsibly and like adults. On the other hand I seem to be the only person here who’s impressed as Hell that a set of nuclear reactors got hit by the fourth largest earthquake ever AND the tsunami that followed it, and they managed a complete shutdown of all but one. That one is merely bad enough that they’re evacuating the area within 25 miles until it cools down. And not even because the area is a death trap, but because there’ve been just enough radiation concerns that they won’t take chances.

    Seriously, there is not much technology man has ever made that can survive that kind of abuse. But the very, very important flip side to that is that if we can do better, we must. I’ve been following MIT’s coverage and it reinforces both sides of the issue for me.

    EDIT – @Jazz Superluminar: I couldn’t tell you for sure, but a 9.1 earthquake levels cities, so I wouldn’t be surprised at any amount of damage or how hard it was to restore.

  15. 15
    ant says:

    In January 2010, the plant’s operator, Entergy, discovered that nearby soil and groundwater had been contaminated by radioactive tritium, which had apparently leaked from underground piping. Just months before, the company assured state lawmakers that no such piping existed at the plant.

    WTF?

  16. 16
    Freemark says:

    I don’t know why everybody so worried about this nuclear issue? I live 4 miles from a nuclear plant that sits on a three mile long island in the middle of the Susquehanna River and it seems to be just fine. Of course chances of a problem are reduced by the fact it is only running 1 of its 2 reactors. I forget why they aren’t running the other one. But I guess I should consider myself lucky because it reduces the chance of a major problem ever happening by 50%.

  17. 17
    PeakVT says:

    @ant: You’re not expecting a nuclear plant operator to know the details of its plant, are you?

  18. 18

    @PeakVT:

    You’re not expecting a nuclear plant operator to know tell the details of truth about problems at its plant, are you?

    FTFY. My money is on dishonesty rather than ignorance.

  19. 19
    MikeJ says:

    The NRC actually used to be better, until the GOP threatened to defund them if they kept enforcing regulations.

  20. 20
    vheidi says:

    Student at a nearby college in the early 80’s, and we camped out in March in the frickin’ parking lot for a week to “shut it down.” Naive, I know, but really? It’s frickin 30 YEARS AGO
    ETA The state cops singing Happy Birthday to Amy S. – tells you something about Amy S.

  21. 21
    PurpleGirl says:

    @Roger Moore: But you realize that American business has been short-term thinking for a few decades now. Quarterly earnings, quarterly projections…. quarterly, quarterly, quarterly everything.

  22. 22

    @PurpleGirl:

    But you realize that American business has been short-term thinking for a few decades now

    It’s been longer than a few decades. Most businesses throughout history have been run for the short term. Screwing over your workers and customers- both classic short term thinking- has been the norm whenever the government has been too weak to stop it. The few businesses that have been run for the long term are the exceptions. It’s just that you’re more likely to have heard of them because they’re the ones that have tended to last long enough to be heard of.

  23. 23
    PanAmerican says:

    One way to solve the Tritium problem.

    Nuclear Regulatory Commission Investigates Radioactive Water Dump into Flooded Mississippi River

    This is an industry that fights like hell to not put scrubbers on 60 year old coal fired plants. Why would their bottom line half-assing be any different with fission?

  24. 24
    ChrisS says:

    We’re going to need every drop of nuclear energy and then some over the next 40 years, so my preferred plan of action involves progressive pricing and build as many reactors as possible. Follow the French.

    Once peak oil hits, while were fighting off scavengers for food by coal gas light, the frogs will be enjoying their Brie and wine without too much fuss.

  25. 25
    Lahru says:

    I read the end result of Entergy’s lawsuit with the State of Vermont will be the transfer of the responsibility for the shutdown costs to the federal gov’t, should Entergy not have the money when needed to do so, since they not the Sate of Vermont, have agreed to allow Vermont Yankee to operate beyond 2012.

  26. 26
    Asshole says:

    No mention of the annoying radio advertising deluge by Vermont Yankee? I haven’t been able to listen to the radio for more than 10 minutes in a year or so without those fuckers talking about how many jobs their plant creates and how awful it will be for the state if Vermont Yankee shuts down.

  27. 27
    Thad says:

    We should have switched to molten salt reactors a long time ago. They do use high pressure steam in the reaction chamber, so there is no risk of hydrogen explosion or pressure vessel breach. They also passively shut down if power is lost to the cooling system, so no risk of melt down either. I personally am interested in Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors because they consume almost all their fuel, leaving fraction of the waste of a conventional uranium reactor.

    Search on LFTR if you want to learn more about thorium reactors.

  28. 28
    Judas Escargot says:

    Batteries would be ideal, then the need for external supplies goes away. But no current battery design (to my knowledge) could power those cooling systems for the required amount of time.

    You could, in theory, use a deep pool of molten salt underneath the reactor (kept molten by excess heat during better times) as a power source for backup systems. But in practice, nobody really knows how to build such a system.

    Same with the thorium reactors. If they were easy to build, they’d have already been built.

  29. 29
    PeakVT says:

    @Judas Escargot: MSRs may be harder to build than LWRs, but the technology hasn’t researched enough for us to say for sure. The AEC and now the DOE are basically in thrall to the established players, who had a leg up because of the Navy’s selection of PWRs for their ships. MSRs are being studied as part of the Generation-IV initiative, but the concept has received the least interest from participating nations out of the six designs selected.

  30. 30
    mclaren says:

    Since the Fukushima Daichi reactor withstood a series of disasters of absurd improbability, significantly more extreme than (say) a Richter 9.0 earthquake in downtown San Francisco, this is good news.

    In fact, the only significant problems at Fukushima resulted not from the reactor design, but from the negligence in disposing of spent fuel rods.

    The disposal of spent fuel rods has nothing to do whatsoever with the design of the Fukushima plant. It’s an entirely separate issue. If America got its head out of its ass and opened up the Yucca Flats disposal facility and emptied out all those cooling ponds by shipping the spent fuel rods to Yucca Flats, even an earthquake that leveled San Francisco wouldn’t produce any problems with America’s nuclear plants.

    With regard to the wild scare stories about “leaks of radioactive tritium” from the underground pipes, did anyone bother to sum up the total amount of tritium released? Does anyone realize that your basement releases more radioactivity than the typical nuclear plant over its entire lifecycle due to the presence of radon gas?

    Incidentally, I find it interesting to question why we don’t hear screaming scare headlines about the prospect of a big quake in northern California. We know it’s coming. We know that the loss of life and the property damage and the number of injuries will be vastly greater than any possible nuclear accident. Yet people in America obsess with hysterical frenzy over the prospect of even a minor nuclear plant malfunction which would result in no loss of life and no injuries and no significant radioactive contamination, while utterly ignoring the much more likely scenario in which thousands of people die and tens or hundreds of thousands of people are injured and billions of dollars in property damage get inflicted.

    Humans are very peculiar creatures. The likely hurricanes due to blast into the Florida coast or the probable “big one” that eventually hits Northern California will inflict many orders of magnitude more damage and more deaths and more injuries than a Fukushima-type nuclear incident here in the U.S.

    Yet the American public regards with nonchalance the insane policy of continuing to build vast numbers of condos on the Florida coastline, or the continued building of structures in Northern California not remotely able to stand up to a Richeter 9.0 quake. But suggest that America build some new nuclear plants, and the American public erupts in wild hysteria.

    Utterly bizarre.

  31. 31
    mclaren says:

    @Judas Escargot:

    Same with the thorium reactors. If they were easy to build, they’d have already been built.

    Not true. No nuclear reactors have been built in America for nearly 40 years, entirely due to emotional hysteria — and America’s bizarre legal system.

    There’s a close analogy with the production of small planes, which has collapsed over the last 40 years, and for the same reasons. Small plane manufacturers have been sued out of existence in America. Small planes are easy to build: we just don’t build ’em anymore because the legal libaility is too great. Same issue with nuclear reactors.

  32. 32
    Thad says:

    Same with the thorium reactors. If they were easy to build, they’d have already been built.
    Reply

    We actually have built molten salt reactors, including a thorium based reactor, decades ago… so it is not technology holding us back, just regulatory inertia and a public resistance to all things nuclear. Our choice of solid fuel, liquid cooled reactors is more a legacy of our cold war weapons research than anything else. We’ve built research reactors that prove there are better, safer reactor designs for generating electricity. Some can even consume our existing stockpiles of spent fuel rods. We just need the will to do it.

  33. 33
    Thad says:

    We should have switched to molten salt reactors a long time ago. They do use high pressure steam in the reaction chamber, so there is no risk of hydrogen explosion or pressure vessel breach.

    A correction to my earlier post: I meant to say molten salt reactors do not use high pressure steam. The whole point of the molten salt is it stays at atmospheric pressure while at very high temperature. You can then use a heat exchanger outside the reactor chamber to create your steam and run a turbine.

    It also allow continuous filtering/processing of the fuel so it can be completely burned, unlike solid fuel that uses only a small portion of the fissile material before being discarded (leaving the nasty nuclear ‘waste’ we all worry about). In comparison, an LFTR reactor would generate more than 200 times the energy for the same amount of fuel and leave waste products that break down in decades instead of thousands of years.

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