Monday, May 23, 2011

Nuclear Updates

Monday updates on Fukushima have nothing new to report. The situation remains “very serious” at all three damaged reactors, and it will take months, if not years to achieve some state of stability and control. The main focus now is to try and keep everything cool to avoid reaching criticality. The spent fuel pools at the other two reactor sites appear to be stable, although the collapse of building #4 is of concern.

On the American nuclear front, more bad new for the industry. Aside from the industry line that the 104 reactors operating now are “perfectly safe,” the new generation of plants we would build would be even MORE perfectly safe. The shining new technology is the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor, designed over the last 30 years, and now under review by the NRC. (The French version, the Areva EPI reactor is having it’s problems in its construction in Finland and France…cost overruns, years of delay, etc.) A few years ago, it was back to the drawing for Westinghouse to revamp the containment structure against terrorist attacks.

Now, with Fukushima, the NRC is under pressure to basically do what it is supposed to do…seriously look at and regulate the nuclear industry; and it seems they have found some very serious design flaws in the AP1000, based on faulty compilations in the computer modeling of the plant. Remember, we haven’t actually built and tested one of these new “perfectly safe” reactors…they are just computer models. The folks in Georgia will serve as guinea pigs for this design!

Thirty years of work on the design, and they still can’t get it right. What else have they missed? How much will the re-evaluations cost? Who will pay for that? The ratepayers in Georgia are already paying for their two reactors that aren’t even off the drawing boards! Is the Federal subsidy and loan guarantee going to cover the cost of this failure, or will the industry absorb the cost? Gee…any guesses on that one?

As Donald Rumsfeld once said, our biggest problem is the “unknown unknowns.”

More news leaking out about the future of spent fuel storage. As I have said before, there is no viable solution to this issue. The president’s “Blue Ribbon” panel will release its recommendations in July, but their conclusions are already leaking out.

Deep geologic disposal is still considered to be the ultimate option, but we just can’t do it now. We don’t have the technology, the thermodynamic and geotech information and knowledge, nor the suitable geographic location to do this. Even though politicians and the industry say we should just stick it in the ground, scientifically we know we can’t just do that. This waste is radioactive, and thus thermodynamically hot for thousands of years! Maybe we will figure it out in the future, but not right now. So, the other two options are (1) to store the wastes in dry casks either on site or at one or two centralized locations; and our present technology should be good for about 100 years. The latest MIT study concurs with this. What will happen after 100 years, nobody knows; and it will be up to future generations to deal with it. Again, we’re talking about 75,000+ tons of this stuff, in thousands and thousands of canisters that will have to be constructed, loaded, transported. Stored and monitored. What cost? What transportation problems? Accidents? Environmental releases? Terrorist attacks? Floods, tornados….human stupidity?

The other option would be reprocessing; but that does nothing to solve the problem. It only exasperates the whole issue; but the industry has a way of trying to simplify issues and keep themselves knee deep in the problem, and play it up as the ONLY solution to the ONLY energy source we have for the future. Besides, we can’t afford reprocessing…period.

So life goes on. The weather is setting records…flooding, tornados, drought, wildfires…hurricane season is coming…I wonder what FEMA is thinking about these days. The insurance companies are starting to get worried. From a global insurance conference last year, “…if pricing of existing products can reflect the underlying risk, then climate change is an opportunity—if not, then it's a threat…” Raise those rates, boys…somebody has to pay!

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