Sunday, January 3, 2016

Nuclear Power Entering 2016

As 2016 begins, one can conclude that 2015 was not a very good year for nuclear power, in spite of all the praises of a bright future because of the supposed benefits it offers to fossil CO2 reduction and combating climate change.  Ten key areas are identified with major stumbling blocks, excluding the ever present and increasing danger of terrorism and proliferation.

1.    New Reactors.  The great nuclear renaissance proposed in the early 2000's is not happening, and may never happen, due primarily to COSTS.  The twin Vogle reactors in Georgia are now 26% complete, 4 years behind schedule, and have jumped from an uncompetitive original price of $14 billion to $21b.  Good chance that they may never be completed and come on line.  The reactors in South Carolina are not faring any better, even with the massive subsidies from the Federal Government. There are no proposed new construction starts in the US in the foreseeable future.
2.    Fukushima.  Almost five years after the devastation of the 4 reactors, things look worse than ever.  The lead nuclear engineer says "there is no textbook" for the cleanup they are facing.  Literally, they don't know what to do or how to do it.  Meanwhile, enormous amounts of radioactive water is either being released into the ocean or stored in some now leaking tanks; and huge bags of contaminated soil are piling up with no place for properly disposal.  Over 7000 workers are exposed daily to higher than accepted radiation levels, and specialized equipment being manufactured (such as the robots) are failing due to the extremely high radiation in the working areas.  150,000 people are refugees from their homes, and thousands of acres will remain uninhabitable for hundreds of years.  The costs are now running into the hundreds of billions of dollars, with no end to the escalation.  You don't see much of this in the mainstream media, because Japan does not want to jeopardize the enormous amount of money already invested in Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics…they need those tourist dollars.  They have restarted three out of 54 reactors, and may start a few more, but the future looks pretty grim for the industry, their economy, and the environment.
3.    Decommissioning.  More reactors are being shut down than are being built here in the US, as well as worldwide.  The cost of dismantling a plant is projected to be $1-4-? billion dollars, for work that won't take place for 40-60 years in the future.  The recent big scramble has been to re-license the old nukes to run for an additional 20+ years.  A big gamble, in terms of the cost of replacing parts, and expecting this 50+ year old technology to continue to operate safely and cost effectively. I anticipate 3-4 closures in his next year.
4.    Small Modular Reactors.  The dream of small, cheap and safe modular reactors continues to suck research subsidy dollars, in spite of the fact that even if approved and licensed 10+ years from now, they will not be cheap because of all the other infrastructure that needs to be in place.  The same is true of the MOX reactors, reprocessing spent fuel for plutonium reactors, and thorium as an alternative safer fuel.  Not cost effective!
5.    High Level Waste.  The industry and some in Congress are still trying to open Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository, even though it does not meet the required geologic and environmental conditions set by law for safe storage for 10,000 years.  In the meantime, there is talk about putting the fuel rods in dry casks, and shipping them to a "temporary" site…such as south Texas.  10,000 casks, as many shipments, canisters concentrated together in a central place…and the $100+ billion to do this?  We'll see.  Remember, there is no solution to the high level waste disposal other than keeping it on site or in small reservations, and monitoring it and managing it forever.
6.    Low Level Waste.  The burial and disposal of lower radioactively contaminated products exemplifies the fact that we really don't know what we are technologically doing.  A recent fire at the closed Beatty site in Nevada, the leakage at the West Valley dump in N.Y., and the current fire near the dump in St. Louis all threaten the release of radiation into the air, and more importantly, in out aquifers.  The WIPP plant is New Mexico, designed to contain radioactivity for thousands of years has leaked after just seven years.  New sites in Texas, Idaho, and Utah are set up as prime targets for catastrophes in the future.  Hanford continues to defy cleanup cost estimates, timetables, technological ability.
7.    Radiation Standards.  New studies are confirming that there is no safe threshold for radiation exposure, and that any radiation poses health risk.  Recent revelations of increased childhood leukemia for children living near nuclear power plants, and major health issues with military personnel exposed to radiation counters the "official" proclamations that there is no danger from the various manmade radioactive pathways our nuclear industry exposes us to.  Japan has raised "acceptable" limits for its workers (mainly poor unemployed homeless), and the industry in the US is trying to do the same. 
8.    Military/Civilian Connections.  The optimistic scheme of taking nuclear material from old nuclear weapons and reconfiguring it into commercial reactor fuel has failed, mainly because of cost.  The MOX fuel program in S.C. has swelled to $47.5b, and is 15 years behind schedule, and will soon be abandoned.  The same is true in South Carolina, and at Hanford, where the vitrification plant (process to glassify liquid radioactive sludges from reprocessing) is 17 years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.  Other old military sites in Pittsburgh, Piketon, and Paducah are having newly discovered technical operational and cleanup problems, demanding hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. 
9.    International.  As China continues to optimistically propose and build new reactors, the western nuclear industry of the US, France, and UK continues to push and promote projects in the U.K., South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and a host of poorer na├»ve countries. We are seeing most of these being delayed into the future, and in a lot of cases, actually cancelled.  The same problems of cost and technology here plague the world, and most reactors can only be proposed and built with huge government subsidies.  They are not cost effective in a free capitalistic system.  Huge subsidies!
10.     Fusion.  There has been a lot of hype this year about fusion power…unlimited power using the technology that powers the sun replicated here on earth.  We are many, many years from this, if ever.  Achieving a sustainable fusion reaction, harvesting the millions of degrees of heat, and transforming that into useable electricity is quite the engineering challenge.  Better to just let the sun do it on its own.

It is interesting in this time of instant accessible information and communication, the public is still being duped by the mass media, which is controlled by the huge industrial complex that owns our energy resources.  Just like the tobacco industries lied to us about the health risks of smoking, Exxon and the rest of the fossil fuel industries as well as the nuclear industries have manipulated and lied to us about climate change, and the denial of the vast potential of clean, cheap, sustainable, and environmentally beneficial renewable energy, which we are seeing exponentially take off today.  The world is slowly realizing that we do have the technology today to provide useable energy that will also give us cleaner air, cleaner water, less land disruption, more jobs and self reliance, and the opportunity to strive for a more just planet.  I believe 2016 will be a remarkable year of change…most of it I hope to be good!

A few very interesting sources of information:

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