Saturday, March 26, 2011

Spent Fuel Pools

We dodged a big bullet here in Humboldt County.

One major unforeseen part of the nuclear events in Japan involves the spent nuclear fuel that is typically stored in “swimming pools” located on site near a reactor. Water is circulated to keep the fuel rods cool, and to remove the radioactive materials that naturally get into the water. Freshly removed fuel is extremely “hot”, and if exposed to air it will react to produce gases, will heat up and distort, and even catch fire and melt…all releasing radioactivity into the air. Although we don’t really know what happened, the hydrogen explosions which occurred in Fukushima destroyed the buildings containing the spent fuel pools at several of the units, reactor #3 being the most severely damaged, and a loss of water in the pool where MOX fuel (mixed-oxide fuel containing larger amounts of Plutonium) is stored. Thousands of gallons of seawater has been squirted into the building to cool and cover the exposed fuel to no avail; now fresh water is being barged over by the US Navy to replace the corrosive seawater that has probably created more problems than it solved.

How they will contain the materials in these spent fuel pools is anybody’s guess. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Here in Humboldt County, we dodged a big bullet. At our now being decommissioned nuclear power plant, we had about 150 tons of spent fuel stored in a somewhat leaky spent fuel pool. Those fuel rods are now safely stored in dry casks on site. Two years ago, a below grade bunker was built, and the fuel was put into 5 heavy duty concrete/lead canisters, sealed, and lowered into place. The fuel had cooled down enough after 30 years of water storage; but it will continue to put out some heat for the next thousands of years as radioactive decay occurs. The heat emitted today is low enough to allows for passive air cooling. The rods are stored in an inert helium gas environment, so there are no real chemical reactions possible with oxygen from air or water. The casks are firmly secure in the vault; they won’t tip over or roll around in a big earthquake, they won’t really be affected by a huge tsunami since they are below grade, and in the event anything should happen within their lifetime, they are monitored and readily accessible for repair, modification, etc. It’s the best storage option for High Level Waste until something better comes along…Yucca Mountain????

The cost for this dry storage was around $64 million dollars….that’s almost one-half million dollars per ton. In light of Japan, the nuclear industry will now be forced to examine its spent fuel storage in swimming pools, and probably move more quickly towards dry casks. If we take all the estimated 78,000+ tons of spent fuel scheduled for Yucca Mountain (which may never open), the cost to put that in dry casks would be somewhere around $40-50 billion. Gee, who do you think is going to pay for that? In 2007, Yucca Mountain was estimated to cost $106+ billion, with $13 billion already spent on digging tunnels and site characterization. If we add the costs of managing the spent fuel over the last 30-50 years, the future costs of managing the dry cask storage sites (about $5 million/yr at Humboldt Bay), and the future costs of transporting and handling all these thousands of huge canisters to their ultimate disposal site, we’re guessing $200 billion? $300 billion? $half a trillion???????

Guess who is going to pay for all that? Probably not us…all this will be kicked around for years so our kids, grandkids, great-grand kids will ultimately have to pay!

As I said, we spent a lot of rate-payer money dodging a potentially disastrous bullet. The $64 million for dry storage is part of the $500+ million PG&E ratepayers have paid and will continue to pay into the decommissioning trust fund. Over the next year or so, the reactor vessel will be robotically segmented, packaged, and shipped away; the remaining building and components will be cut up, packaged and shipped away; and the site will be put back to its “natural” environment. The end of an era.

And yet, I wonder and think of what could have happened here. Suppose the fuel pool building had been damaged…by explosion, accident, terrorism; it really doesn’t matter how…what impact would that have on me and my community. I live about 20 miles from the nuke…would I have to evacuate (I could go up and stay with friends in Portland and Seattle and play music!) Would I permanently lose my homestead to radiation? Even without that extreme, what would happen to Eureka and Arcata? Our new gas-fired power plant is located on site with the nuke; another local wood fired generator is just a few miles away. Would these be shut down and evacuated? Where would we get our electricity? We have lots of fire trucks in our communities, and luckily we have lots of fresh water…we could extend a pipeline from the Samoa peninsula where the now defunct pulp mills used to suck up 40 million gallons per day. What would happen to beautiful Humboldt Bay? What would happen to all the wonderful people in my community. What about all my fellow Americans in Southern California, New York, all the 30+ locations where nuclear power plants exist? All this for “cheap?” electricity?

Nuclear power generates about 18% of the electricity in the US…this accounts for about 6% of all the energy we use in this country. Expensive energy? Ask a fifth grader to do the math….uuhh…well maybe! We’re not at the point that where we are so dedicated to nuclear that we can’t turn back.

Oil accounts for about 40% of the overall energy we use…about 78% of it for transportation in the form of gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, etc. Less than 1% of our oil is used to generate electricity. Building more nukes would do NOTHING to make us more energy independent. Actually, we import most the uranium we use!

Putting aside safety, environment, proliferation and terrorism, it has always boiled down to dollars. Hopefully in these economic and political times, nuclear socialism will finally meet its demise.

The potential for a sustainable renewable energy economy is REAL, in spite of the musings of all those old school hard energy advocates. Here comes the SUN!

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