Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A miracle or a meltdown... one or the other...

March 24th, 2010

Dear Readers,

Tonight in Dana Point, California, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will be holding its annual hearing on the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station's recent performance, which has been lousy. They'll give San Onofre an overall "B" where it should be getting a failing grade. San Onofre should never have opened, and should be closed for good immediately. For safety. For economics. Forever.

At the hearing, the public will be allowed to speak for two, maybe three minutes each. Nothing said by the public will be considered. Nothing will be under oath. Nothing will be officially recorded. Only a few reporters will show up, who will dutifully interview the spokespeople for San Onofre and the NRC, and perhaps one or two of the most staid activists, and then they'll report whatever platitudes are said as if they are facts. The plant is safe, they'll say.

But the plant isn't safe. Not even close. A trillion-dollar accident, costing America a million lives, waits quietly for the perfect opportunity... The plant is a nightmare, and numerous workers from the plant have come forward in recent months, to myself, to other activists, to the media, and to the NRC, at great risk to their careers (in fact, usually knowing ANY exposure will mean the end of their careers) to say that THEY are scared.

Right now at San Onofre, one reactor, Unit Two, is down for a major overhaul that's taking much longer than expected, and the remaining reactor, Unit Three (Unit One was shut down in the early 1990s) is conserving fuel for the summer by operating at half power. After months and months of projected start dates (all missed), suddenly the expected start date for Unit Two has become "proprietary."

One cannot help but think they do not expect to have Unit Two up and running reliably anytime soon, and they are hoping they can keep Unit Three running until Unit Two is restarted, because there is nothing they fear more than to have both reactors down for extended periods of time. People might get used to it, especially since the lights would probably stay on. And later, epidemiological studies can more easily use those times to show that YES, nuclear power plants DO harm children and other living things even when they don't have an accident.

The overhaul project was supposed to take six to ten weeks, but it's been over six months. They were about to start the reactor without an unfueled water test. They ALMOST skipped that final test, they were so sure of themselves. They almost went straight to running the reactor with fuel in it!

But people within the company complained. Despite the fear of retaliation, they complained.

And the company relented, and did the test. And it didn't work right!

Even so, one of the San Onofre executives recently told a local activist that he expects the plant will continue running for 60 MORE years -- a total of one hundred years!

This in a state which banned NEW reactor construction decades ago, until a solution to the waste problem has been found. Instead, the utilities just keep rebuilding the old reactors, to get around the state law! At the time the ban was enacted, the nuclear waste was supposed to be removed soon after it was taken out of the reactor. But it wasn't. Virtually all the waste from all of California's reactors is still in California.

And what of the federal government's ACTUAL attempts at nuclear waste management? Utter failures: Yucca Mountain would be a disaster if it ever got built (it's currently "on hold"). Hanford, Washington, the nation's main military nuclear waste dump and the only high level waste dump America has, is considered by many to be the most polluted place on earth, and if it isn't, God help those who live near whatever is.

To keep a nuclear reactor designed for 20 years of operation -- perhaps 40 -- operating for one hundred years will be very difficult, if not impossible. Parts unknown to anybody fail imperceptibly. Constant vigilance would seem to be the order of the day, but true vigilance is impossible: Not only is much of the reactor off-limits for months at a time during operation, and difficult to get at in any case, but vigilance costs money. At San Onofre, every old pipe they tap on falls apart. So to as great an extent as possible, they simply don't tap.

What about old wiring? Nobody at the plant is worried about it! When a transformer or breaker or something explodes or shorts out, they figure they can just emergency-shut-down the reactor and replace whatever is damaged. The fire department will come put out the (non-nuclear) fire -- like last time (which bent the turbine shaft, and took five months to fix).

Old pipes? No worries! Even if they don't actually know where all the pipes are (they don't) or what condition they're in, they don't care. If tritium leaks into the ground, nobody will notice until they dismantle the reactor (like what happened with Unit One). And if the deadly tritium leaks out, but instead of accumulating in the ground it evaporates into the air, no one will notice at all! (And since tritium is usually found as part of an otherwise-normal water molecule, it is excessively good at simply evaporating, thus destroying the evidence of its escape from the facility.)

Old thinking? Who cares? The NRC actually believes that nuclear power is still good "baseline" power for America, even though offshore wind turbines combined with hydro-energy storage ("pumped storage") works perfectly well at no significant risk to the environment. Solar power is far cheaper than nuclear power (even ignoring all of nuclear's subsidies and hidden costs) in a very reasonable time frame. There are energy systems available for use, well-studied by qualified scientists, just waiting for the funding breaks that nuclear gets every day, let alone what it got in its heyday. But they don't need as much, since renewable energy doesn't even NEED a "Price-Anderson Act" insurance fraud to operate. Simple business insurance will do. Renewables don't need the unkept waste management promises. They certainly don't need to "mitigate" their cost to the environment, since they ARE the preferred mitigation! I'm referring specifically to things like Atmospheric Vortex Engines, Wave and Tide Energy systems, and other things the NRC doesn't know about and won't learn about. After all, you can't be an expert in everything, and they aren't.

And the Department of Energy? They support nuclear power, as always. Their standard line is that, since the NRC says the plants are safe, they assume they are safe, and see the plants as a benign source of energy. No consideration of all the issues the NRC won't even consider, such as renewable energy alternatives, or the science of radiation damage to fetuses. These are beyond the NRC's, and the DOE's, areas of expertise (the NRC has NO medical doctors on their staff, and certainly no pediatricians specializing in radiation damage to infants, for instance).

San Onofre is a tremendous risk to the environment, and every day it operates, it leaks deadly, carcinogenic radioactive effluent into our air, soil, and water. It piles even more of these carcinogens up on our coast, with nowhere on earth to put the waste. It just piles up, waiting for a disaster. Most years, San Onofre's owners make billions of dollars from this criminal arrangement. This year things aren't going so well.

Right now, San Onofre is limping along at 25% of capacity. The plant could even be shut down by its owners due to economic reasons (that's what shut down Unit One). Their employees are expensive, their new equipment, which cost about a billion dollars to install, doesn't work because it wasn't built or assembled properly, the employees at the plant -- even the hordes of new ones -- falsify records, they are intimidated and intimidating, they poison the atmosphere with their lies about being a clean energy source, as well as with radioactive particles.... San Onofre is costing their parent company, Edison International, a fortune just to stay in business in the hopes they can get things squared away for another 20 years of high-risk, dirty, dangerous operation... or maybe 60.

Is it worth it? They've tried everything to cut costs, from delaying virtually all maintenance until the last possible minute, or until a failure has actually occurred, to forcing every employee who wins a lawsuit against them for a radiation-induced cancer to sign a promise not to talk to anyone about their agreement -- these things cost money!

In short, San Onofre can't even operate at a profit when the government promises both to pay for any catastrophic accident damage that might occur (reducing their insurance costs from prohibitive to piddling) and further promises to take all the waste off San Onofre's hands somehow, someday. San Onofre is even suing the government over the waste issue, since it's costing them money to build semi-permanent and highly-dangerous dry-cask storage systems in the meantime.

Other cost-cutting measures have occurred at San Onofre besides fix-on-fail, such as giving up on finding a permanent home for the Unit One Reactor Pressure Vessel, which sits on the crowded site spewing radiation to the universe right off of Interstate I-5, as do Unit Two's old steam generators. Nobody wants this crud, and the cost of disposal is only going up. So instead, such things just sit there. And they aren't one ten-millionth as radioactive as the so-called "spent" fuel, which, pound-for-pound, is the deadliest stuff on earth.

If they can't get the new steam generators in Unit Two to work properly any time soon, or at all, they may not get permission to replace the leaky steam generators in Unit Three. Despite the federally-funded push for new reactors, and new reactor designs, nuclear power is not working out for the corporations who bought up reactors across the country. Generically they are financially unstable corporations. For example, the owner of Vermont Yankee is trying to create a new limited-liability corporation to avoid upcoming decommissioning costs for Vermont Yankee and half a dozen other nuclear power plants, and to avoid other liabilities. It's not very profitable to be a nuke operator these days, even with all the additional "gimmes" many reactors enjoy, such as rate guarantees and stifled competition.

Of course, the NRC doesn't see it that way. They think "SONGS" is singing a fine tune, humming along at quarter power. The NRC thinks the managerial / behavioral / team player problems that San Onofre is experiencing can be solved by showing minor improvements in their human performance metrics charts. Any improvement is considered proof that the problem is solvable, and to just keep going. Any decline just shows that "more needs to be done."

The NRC doesn't see that there is a culture of defiance and cover-up, of lies to the public and lies to each other, of peer pressure and hidden fears and doubt at ALL nuclear power plants, and even within their own staff! They try to hire smart people. But smart people ask: What if the activists are right? Why ARE so many highly respected scientists dead-set AGAINST nuclear power? Sure, there are a few highly qualified nuclear power supporters. But they are almost invariably specialists associated with nuclear energy. For the most part, nuclear supporters are NOT geneticists, epidemiologists, microbiologists, physicians.... humanitarians, philosophers, poets, artists... And they are not "Generalized Thinkers" who try to assess the "Big Picture." They are specialists who have, intentionally or unintentionally, MISSED the big picture.

In an Op-Ed in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Energy Secretary / pro-nuker Steven Chu admired "Small Modular Reactors" (SMRs) as "affordable" (they aren't) and says they will be "plug and play upon arrival" (I doubt it). He estimated their earliest arrival at ten years in the future, but I wouldn't put money on that time frame (he expects Wall Street to, though). These proposed new reactors will create hazardous fission and activation products just like their big brothers, and there remains no waste solution, because radioactive waste destroys any container you put it in. Even many layers of gold would not suffice forever (though it would be a good start)...

Every nuclear power plant, including Chu's proposed SMRs, are weapons for terrorists and other enemies of humanity. They are prone to failure and even constant vigilance clearly wouldn't be enough -- if it existed.


Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA