Thursday, April 18, 2024

More than a century is enough to know there is NO solution to the nuclear waste problem.

April 18, 2024

by Ace Hoffman

Yesterday evening (April 17, 2024) the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held a live and online public meeting ("NOT a hearing" they reminded us at the start) regarding the possibility of restarting the Palisades nuclear reactor in Michigan, located only a few dozen miles from hundreds of thousands of people, along the banks of a source of drinking water and food for many millions.

Palisades was[/is] an old 800 Mw Combustion Engineering Boiling Water Reactor that opened in 1971 -- making it three years older than the Agency that regulates it. BWRs are the least efficient type of currently operating reactor (and that will remain true until/unless Small Modular Reactors come along, which promise to be even less efficient -- IF they ever come to fruition).

Palisades was shuttered in May, 2022. Later it was sold to a company that has been collecting decommissioned reactors all over the country, but which has suddenly decided to try to reopen Palisades and become a nuclear reactor operator. The NRC says this is the first time anyone has attempted to reopen a closed reactor, but is hopeful there may be more in the near future. For a variety of reasons, this is a terrible idea. For Palisades specifically, it's insane.

Generally yesterday's NRC meeting was horrible: It was poorly managed, and the NRC speakers were evading the real issues (the dangers, the risks, the costs, the alternatives).

But once the Q&A portion started, finally, there were some really terrific speakers opposing restart, especially the very first opposition speaker -- and it's a good thing she spoke early on, because she needed a bit more than the two lousy minutes the NRC was allowing each speaker. (And only one question per speaker, with no follow-up, unless they got back around to you (which didn't even come close to happening).)

Throughout the meeting it seemed as if the NRC was only there to defend themselves and the industry -- specifically Holtec (the current owner) and Entergy (the previous owner). Neither corporation was represented.

The NRC representatives had absolutely zero sympathy for anyone worrying about the mountains of nuclear waste that already sits at the Palisades site, which they are threatening to start adding to: "I sleep well at night" one NRC official said about that.

And as always, the NRC is completely ignoring how incredibly more dangerous "fresh" nuclear waste actually is, let alone the numerous and inherent dangers of an operating reactor. Both issues are, by themselves, perfectly good reasons to keep Palisades closed forever.

Since it closed almost two years ago, none of the waste currently stored at Palisades is "fresh" (recently removed from the reactor). Therefore, at Palisades, a considerable amount of the danger from spent nuclear fuel, if a breach does occur, has already subsided, because many of the most hazardous, short-lived isotopes have already decayed, at least somewhat. But it is still far from safe! And the NRC is also completely ignoring the fact that even spent nuclear fuel that is many centuries old -- and even many millennia old -- will still be extremely toxic, hazardous, useless, and difficult to contain.

Neither the NRC nor anybody else on the planet has figured out to safely manage nuclear waste yet and (spoiler alert!): They never will.

Perfect containment is an impossibility in this world, in this solar system, in this universe. Even a small asteroid impact can ruin your day -- and make the entire globe uninhabitable if it strikes a high-level nuclear waste dump such as currently exists at Palisades.

When one speaker mentioned that the previous plant operators had destroyed vital records, the NRC claimed they'd somehow recreated the data and therefore it wasn't a problem, never grasping the concept that destruction of records is likely to have been a systemic problem at the plant, not an isolated one.

And when another speaker complained that there had been numerous violations of NRC policy at the facility in the past, the NRC merely said their policy is not to let bad things happen, and if any company does anything against NRC regulations, they'll...give them a waiver after the fact.

Oh wait, they did say that, in essence, but they worded it differently, as in loudly saying: "They would be punished severely" then much more quietly adding: "...unless we applied a waiver." And they almost always can apply a waiver (after the fact) and when that's just not possible, the fine never fits the crime anyway.

The nuclear industry has had OVER 100 YEARS to figure out what to do about the waste problem. Nuclear promoters have known -- or could have known, if they'd wanted to -- how incredibly dangerous anything radioactive actually is, at least since the Radium Girls, if not longer. That scandal was more than 100 years ago. Over 100 years to realize how difficult this problem will be to solve. Over 100 years to fully grasp what an incredibly small quantity of radioactive nuclear "quap" (as H. G. Wells called it) is required to kill, disfigure, and otherwise harm a person or other living thing.

Recall that Vladimir Putin had nuclear whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko murdered with approximately less than 1/20th of a teaspoon of Polonium-210 -- and everyone near him was put in danger as his body decomposed right before our eyes. That's what radiation does. But in microscopic doses it merely does it on a microscopic -- but not harmless -- scale. Even the least powerful radioactive decay (for example, a Tritium decay) can destroy thousands of chemical bonds in the human body. One radioactive decay.

So there's just no excuse for making ever-more piles of radioactive nuclear waste that is so highly toxic and so impossible to isolate from humanity. And so worthless.

But instead, the NRC representatives ignored every issue the attendees brought up: The issue of the shifting sand dunes on which the reactor was built, as well as the risks from climate-caused large waves that are possible from the nearby Great Lake. They ignored threats from terrorism and war as well, despite ample current evidence that it is no longer reasonable to assume terrorism against nuclear power plants is somehow magically "off the table" (as if it ever actually was) and several wars are going on as we speak, requiring and/or getting huge U.S. materiel involvement.

And as always, the NRC completely ignored the cleaner better cheaper safer alternative energy sources, the likely embrittlement issues throughout the plant, the loss of trained personnel... The entire NRC staff was all-in on restart. When someone asked about their response to a recent General Accounting Office report which indicates the NRC needs to take competing advantages of alternative energy resources into account when balancing the options, the NRC spokesperson simply assured attendees that they hadn't had time to review the GAO report!

There's lots of offshore wind on Lake Michigan.

The NRC is hardly an unbiased regulator. Yet that's why they were cleaved from what became the Department of Energy in the first place -- to be unbiased (the DOE is an unabashed promoter of nuclear energy, much to its lasting shame). The NRC NEVER fulfilled their charter. If they had, we wouldn't have nuclear power at all, anywhere, and we'd all be better off for it.

The NRC "spokesliars" rambled on for over an hour, telling us how good they are at regulating and how to contact them later if you want your written comments to also be ignored. Then they left just one hour for the public they supposedly came to listen to -- and a lot of "our" time they took back for their lame responses. With dozens left to speak, they extended it by about 20 whole minutes so they could act like they cared.

The NRC didn't even bother to hire a professional facilitator like they should have -- and used to. This meeting was done on the cheap -- but the government has over eight billion dollars to give to Holtec for restart? What a sham!

But at least they showed up: After San Onofre closed down permanently in 2012 (at least the locals ASSUME it's permanent!), the NRC stopped showing up entirely: No more hearings despite a mountain of hot nuclear waste that will need constant attention for longer than human civilization has existed. And while we're at it, does anyone recall WHY San Onofre shut down long before its license expired?

NRC maleficence. And utility maleficence too, but I guess that's expected.

The utility (Southern California Edison) tried to slip in a new design for their steam generators as "like-for-like." They supposedly did this so that the NRC wouldn't scrutinize the changes they made to generate more income (changes which caused the reactors to fail miserably -- almost catastrophically -- a few months after installation). The NRC blithely let the utility scam them. But it's not like they didn't know how different the S.G.s really were -- they must have known -- its that neither the NRC nor the utility WANTED the necessary public disclosures, hearings and scrutiny, since the math just wasn't there to spend well over a billion dollars to upgrade the reactors rather than let them retire a few years prematurely and be done with it. And put the money into renewables.

Instead, with future governor Gavin Newsom's approval, the utility separated out about half a billion dollars worth of additional upgrades that would also be needed if operation were to continue (including reactor pressure vessel head replacement for both reactors) to make the total apparent cost for just the S.G. replacement portion somewhat under a billion dollars. But the new S.G.s were faulty. And any competent technical review would probably have caught the problems with the new design.

This year, at Diablo Canyon (California's only remaining pair of still-operating reactors) the NRC is helping California's pro-nuke Governor push for extending the reactor licenses to 60 years. Doing so would void an agreement the utility previously made with the public, the regulators and the state to shut those old decrepit reactors at the end of their planned 40-year life-span.

At first the extension was just going to be for five years "during a transition to renewables" but the NRC doesn't offer five-year license extensions, only 20 years at a time. So suddenly a closing, decrepit pair of reactors in one of California's most earthquake-prone areas might keep generating nuclear waste for 20 more years -- not five, and not closing when their license actually should expire.

It's an insane decision in today's renewables-rich environment. Nobody -- least of all California -- needs nuclear power over wind/wave/solar, and California has been proving that every day, generating more energy from those sources than it uses for part or all of nearly every day this year, in a trend that will only grow exponentially over the next few years -- with or without Diablo Canyon -- but much more so without it. And much safer without it, too. And much cheaper.

California can do MUCH better without Diablo Canyon, and Michigan can do MUCH better without Palisades.

So why does Gov. Newsom want to keep DCNPP open anyway? The claim, of course, is they want to keep it open for the environment: The nuclear industry has decided to claim to be "carbon free" even though it's a blatant lie when looking at the whole industrial cycle of uranium extraction, processing the uranium ore into nuclear fuel, reactor construction, operation, maintenance and the never-ending decommissioning phase. And the accident risk.

But the real reason Gov. Newsom is desperate to keep DCNPP open is because if Diablo Canyon closes, California will be nuke-free at last, and no place for Small Modular Reactors. California's current state statutes forbid "new" reactors, but there is a plan to either rescind that old ruling or, failing that, to call any site that has -- or had? -- an operating reactor license an "old" site that can replace its "old" reactor with "new" SMRs. Even if the reactor hasn't been there for decades!

Seriously demented thinking, but that's true with ALL nuclear reactor "wisdom." Most if it based on distorting the truth, when ignoring the truth isn't an option.

One last tidbit:

Considering what is happening at Palisades and at Diablo Canyon, the next time a community gets a reactor closed for ANY reason, it should be sure to require the control room be immediately destroyed so that restart becomes impossible. If they say they need to keep the control room to monitor to spent fuel pool or something, that's a bogus excuse. Don't buy it.

Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, California

The author has been studying nuclear energy and nuclear weapons independently since before Palisades opened...