As the summer went by, not much really happened in the nuclear world that would aspire confidence in a resurgence of nuclear power as the industry is continuing to tout. In spite of Japan restarting one or its 48 reactors idled for the past four year, numerous plants are being cancelled, closed, and/or at least under strong economic scrutiny.
Here in the US, construction on four new reactors continues, although all are now seriously behind schedule and way over budget. Current discussions about the two Vogle plants in Georgia are centered around the cost savings to rate-payers and taxpayers from abandoning the projects entirely versus the exorbitant projected lifecycle cost of $65 billion, excluding decommissioning and waste disposal; and a projected $0.15/KWH wholesale cost for the electricity it would produce. It will be another four or five years before any of these actually come o line. A fifth reactor, begun in the ‘70s in Tennessee, may come online sometime soon; but the concern there is that this is 40 year old technology…sort of taking that ’72 Buick, finding an old V-8 engine and transmission, and hoping it will make the run cross country a couple of hundred times.
The industry is all a flutter in the wishful thinking that the new generation of small modular reactors will hit the market in the next ten or so years, and that they will be so cheap and cost effective that the utilities will order them by the hundreds. I really don’t think so; this overall scenario has been widely argued and dismissed as realistic. I will discuss small modulars in the future. I do hope all the money that is going into this research can lead to a small reactor that can be used under very appropriate conditions; but their large scale development will never compete with the low costs, safety, pollution-free, and non- terrorist potentials that renewables have to offer.
The other new direction some are hoping for is a thorium-based reactor, will also prove to be uneconomical if it can be made to work by the huge investment in its supportive infrastructure.
We’ve yet to build a working model of a thorium reactor! The same hold true for the pipe dream of fusion power.
The other big publicity push by the industry involves the management of nuclear wastes. Again, there are two major components to this problem. The first is decommission of the 100 reactors we have in this country, most of which will reach the end of their designed useful life within the next 20-30 years. The industry wants to extend their operating licenses by rebuilding and upgrading these old power plants. It cheaper for the utilities to run these into the ground, rather than build new ones. Just the other day 5 old reactors failed to sell their electricity at auction in the east because their electricity is too expensive. These same utilities are asking Public Utilities Commissions for subsidies and rate increases to upgrade and keep their nukes running. We will soon see more reactors retired. Again, safety issues comes into play with the biggest battle soon to be openly fought involving the twin reactors at Diablo Canyon. Will these reactors be allowed to run in today’s knowledgeable environment of earthquake risks and old design; and the fact the PG&E deliberately colluded with the California Public Utilities Commission over the years with faulty design information.
The closed reactors at San Onofre, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Florida are all limbo as the utilities argue over what/when deconstruction will begin, and more importantly, how/who will pay the huge undetermined cost. Most utilities do not have enough money in their supposed decommissioning trust funds as required by law, and closing reactors before the end of their supposed life has serious consequences on how, when, and who will pay the bill. We’ll see how many plants close in the next few years, and how they will impact the discussion.
The whole quagmire of spent nuclear fuel continues to stew with false promises and technical challenges. I still contend that there is no real solution to this issue other than the long-term storage in containers that can be monitored and repaired/replaced when needed. Dry casks were originally designed with a lifespan of 50 years, although today the industry hopes for 100 years.
Humboldt Bay has 6 casks, 5 of them holding 12 tons of fuel each. The 6th cask has very high-level reactor internals. These cost about $1m each, and about $9m each to load, seal, and place in the storage facility (ISFISI.) The US has about 80,000 tons of spent fuel which it needs to deal with. This will be a very expensive issue for the future, since we will probably have to secure some 7000+ casks in the future, at a cost of $70 billion+? There is a lot of talk about reviving Yucca Mountain once Senator Harry Reid retires, but again, this is a technical and environmental issue, and less a political one. (Interesting how politicians trust certain scientists and not others!) The leaks at the WIPP facility in new Mexico, where materials containing hugely significant lower amounts of heat generating radiation have been placed underground, have been blamed on human error…doing the wrong thing! Not much confidence in storing more dangerous stuff for a minimum of 10,000 years.
The latest scheme comes from Texas, where the owners of Low Level Waste site now want to begin accepting dry casks from around the nation to one centralized location. Industry is pushing Congress to privatize waste storage, so that the huge amounts of money could go directly to firms like Holtec, Westinghouse, and Bechtel, and bypass authority that all Administrations and Congresses since the ‘50s have ceded to the Federal Government.
Centralized storage has been brought up before. In the ‘90’s, DOE tried to bribe a small of Goshute Native Americans in Utah with millions of dollars to give up a portion of their reservation land for a monitored retrieval site. That didn’t happen because of concerns of safety from having a large amount of spent fuel in one location, that the proposed site would most likely become a de-facto High Level Waste dump, that the costs and problems with transporting all this material from across the nation, and the fact that the land was in the direct path of a major Air Force testing range. This, too, was before 911, and the new founded concerns of terrorism must enter into the new scenario. Storing thousands of casks above ground in one place is not really a great idea, unless you were to make a lot of money doing so!