Not all reactors are created equal. In the global fight against nuclear power, there are some especially dangerous reactor types which clean energy activists take unusual pleasure in shutting down. I remember the day (in June of 1997) i heard that the French SuperFenix breeder reactor was going to be shut down permanently. I whooped so loud the folks in the WISE office all looked at me funny.
It looks like it will be time for another loud noise soon. Japan’s Monju breeder reactor is sitting on top of an active fault line and this plus the countries new more strict nuclear regulator plus the unusually poor management of the plant, might just be enough to shut it down.
Monju has had a troubled life. At a cost of US$12 billion, this advanced technology went critical for the first time in April 1994. However in the following 19 years, the operators have only gotten it to run for a single hour, due to two major accidents. In December of 1995 a leak in the sodium coolant pipes caused a leak of liquid sodium (which ignites in air and explodes in water) caused a fire of such great intensity it deformed hardened steel structures at the reactor. The operator then tried to cover up the accident, which was discovered and created public outrage.
In 2010 the reactors was finally repaired. Three months later a 3 ton crane was dropped into the reactor vessel, shutting the plant down again. It remains closed today.
The confirmation that there is an active fault line under the reactor combined with the operators skipping over inspection of over 10,000 components, including critical safety ones has spurned the new Japanese nuclear regulator into action.
The reason breeders are especially nasty is that they perpetuate the especially toxic myth that there are accessible technologies which will take radioactive waste from existing reactors, burn this waste and create power. This has long been the holy grail for pro-nuclear folks. This makes great sense for the only problem with nuclear power besides the terrible economics, declining public acceptance world wide, terrible safety danger, captured and corrupt nuclear regulators, weapons proliferation risks, that real renewables are cheaper, that it is vulnerable to climate change induced weather problems, destablizes grids because of its large size, requires tremendous idle back up redundancy is the waste problem. So if you can solve the rad waste problem for power reactors, you can pretend that there are no other problems, and some people will believe you.
If Monju closes, then the US, UK, Germany, France and Japan will all have scraped their breeder program. Leaving the only operating production breeders in unmonitored Russia military facilities.
i missed the Dominion Resources shareholder meeting this year after having attended faithfully every year for perhaps half a dozen. Perhaps CEO Tom Farrell missed my annoying questions about how the utility which i own two shares of continues to waste money on plans for another reactor at North Anna, which will likely never be built. [I am told that Farrell finds annoying shareholder questions to be one of the most headachey part of his job, which i have to say gives me quite some satisfaction.]
The decision was viewed as an early sign that the wave of retirements of old generating stations across the Midwest is now stretching from the coal industry into nuclear power, driven by slack demand for energy and the low price of natural gas.
Also in this NYT article Dominion’s Farrell said of the closure of the plant:
“This decision was based purely on economics.”
It will not surprise people who watch nuclear power closely to hear that this is not what Dominion often says about how they make decisions. As with the North Anna 3 project we often hear that we need “a mix of fuels”. This is the marketing plan the PR people have cooked up to rationalize the poor economics of this plant. They are not doing it to make money for the company, they are doing it because it is important to have a diversified portfolio of energy types. Using this pathetic logic, Dominion should be opening day care centers where they were harnessing kids on treadmills.
No, the real reasons are always they same. They build reactors for the money, but the reason they can not be direct about it is because if it public where the money was coming from, there would be additional problems. For example, the utilities in Georgia and Florida are able to charge their customers now for reactors they are in the process of building or even some that they are thinking about building.
Then there are other tricks, like the “stranded assets” gambit, where the utility says “We built these reactors thinking we were a monopoly, and now that you are changing the rules and we are not a monopoly, we should get the profits from these poor investments as if the market did not exist.” As crazy as this sounds, this scheme has resulted in hundreds of billions of dollars being transferred from rate payers to utilities.
How Dominion’s plans to make money on North Anna 3 is not completely clear. But rest assured it is not because they think there will be a carbon tax in the US (this was used as a justification for a while) and not because they believe they need to keep all options open (otherwise they would be more serious about renewables). Dominion is not the largest contributor to political campaigns in the state of Virginia because it feels candidates don’t have enough money to run their campaigns. The reason is that they have a clever plan to bilk customers (and sometimes the state) for money and they are confident that they can pull it off.
Duke energy has announced that it will not be building two new reactors at the Shearon Harris site in North Carolina after wasting $70 million on the ill conceived pipe dream, which it wants the rate payers to reimburse. Duke, which is the largest utility in the US, decided in February to shutter it’s idled Crystal River reactor both because it had one of the most expensive malfunctions in US history and because the utility was able to bilk rate payers for $1.6 billion for closing the plant.
And while both of these announcements are good news, Duke is hardly retiring from it’s plans to build reactors, because it has been so profitable to plan them even when they are not going to build them. The case in point is the two Levy reactors Duke “plans” to build in Florida, the most expensive reactors in US history at $24.7 billion. [Remember that this is the proposed cost going into the project. Typical reactors in the US are well over 200% overbudget, meaning the actual cost of this project might well be over $75 billion]. Despite there not being a single brick laid at the Levy plant, Duke has already gotten $1.5 billion from Florida rate payers for the proposed project, which means it can simply pocket $150 million in profits – even if it never decides to build the reactor.
This nuclear cost crime is so unpopular in the state that the unusually pro-nuclear Florida legislature just tightened cost recovery requirements to include that the Public Utilities Commission needs to determine that the project is not just feasible but “reasonable”. This will make it slightly harder for corporate criminals like Duke to get away with these tricks, but sadly only slightly.
When I first heard about fracking, I knew it was bad. I just didn’t understand much beyond that.
Then my friend Tom said something about getting payments from his parents’ land and a Natural Gas lease. Yes, it turns out, they have signed a lease with the natural gas company allowing fracking on their land. Last night I watched the rivetting documentary Gasland, which is essentially Tom’s story. Living on the beautiful piece of land he grew up in in PA, one day Josh Fox (creator of Gasland) got a gas lease form in the mail. Curious, he started asking questions. Talking to people. Collecting samples of people’s tap water. Travelling to other fracking sites in the west and midwest.
And the story slowly comes together. Turns out its really quite simple. Ten years ago, 1% of our natural gas came from fracking. Today its 30%.
This is largely because in 2005, then Vice President Dick Cheney, a former CEO of natural gas drilling company Halliburton, got congress to exempt natural gas fracking from the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. The result was that fracking for natural gas expanded quickly, and that expansion has happened in an entirely unregulated, cowboy-like fashion.
So just what is fracking you may ask? Its pretty simple actually. Here’s a great basic definition from Don’t Frack with NY :
“Short for hydraulic fracturing— a drilling technique which involves injecting toxic chemicals, sand, and millions of gallons of water under high pressure directly into the ground to release natural gas in shale deposits. This mixture of toxins and sediment, along with any natural gas released, can leak to the surface and enter rivers and groundwater in the process.”
Doesn’t bode well for having clean, drinkable water from your tap.
This is one of those cases where if I really let myself be open to the facts of what is happening, and to the emotional experience of the people it is most impacting, I feel rage, overhwhelming sadness, and utter helplessness. And all I can see to do is try to stay open to the information that is coming at me so that when the opportunity arises I am able to take action.
Tom recently wrote the following about his family’s experience:
“My mom, dad and I have a lot to talk to about when it comes to the future and vision of our family’s property. The natural gas drilling has increased rapidly and soon we will know details about potential financial gains from the drilling. This is a confusing (whats the REAL cost of the drilling to the land, people and overall health?!) time for myself and my family as this process has taken about five years….It has been incredibly hard for me throughout this process due to my home in Pennsylvania always being “the safe place” to go home to and now with the drilling my home land has the potential of being physically harmful. This is incredibly hard to take. Its hard to believe this is happening to a place so serene, beautiful and close to my heart.”
[guest written by Kassia]
Most people don’t follow the news in Japan, but some encouraging things are happening in the wake of the Fukushima accident. It turns out my pessimistic forecasts about the current pro-nuclear government and it’s ability to restart nuclear reactors closed after Fukushima were overly pessimistic (usually not my problem). There are several things which are happening in Japan which make the worlds former third largest nuclear power (after the US and France) seem like it is almost completely retiring from this field, as Germany has, despite it still having a pro-nuclear government and a technophilic culture.
The first thing is that Fukushima is increasingly not under control. The US press carries little about this, but in the last week 3 of the 7 newly built underwater storage takes at Fukushima have failed, dumping high level radiation into the sea again. Over 120K liters had leaked, before this third leak was discovered. These tanks have failed in fairly rapid succession, increasing the chances that all these tanks will fail in the near future. Thus with over two years experience and billions invested, one of the worlds largest utilities can not manage one of the simplest aspects of this disaster and the situation is deteriorating. TEPCO also does not know why the tanks are failing. In addition to this the plants cooling system has failed twice in the last two weeks. While not news in the US, this does influence public acceptance in Japan of the restart of reactors.
The second factor is the new nuclear regulator seems to be taking it’s job seriously, despite having a distinctly pro-nuclear bias. The NRA (no relation to the US gun lobby) has released a draft proposal for the conditions needed for restart of reactors. This includes installing filter vents in more than half of Japan’s 50 reactors. Something which will cost significantly and delay restart of these reactors by years. While the NRA has given reactor companies a 5 year grace period to build second remote control rooms for reactors, Japanese nuclear utilities will need to include this additional cost in their calculations about restart costs.
The NRA has not been lenient with regard to fire proofing cables in reactors. The regulator is not giving reactor operators a pass on this one. This means in the case of older reactor designs the entire plant will have to be rewired. This upgrade likely makes the restart of these older plants financially impossible. And even for newer plants (many of which are waiting to hear if they are on active fault lines, with the new expanded 400K time horizon for seismic activity) this upgrade could take years.
The final news is that Japan is ditching it’s highly effective government mandated energy efficiency programs this year AND there will be a 6.7% energy surplus in 2013 AND this is with 48 of 50 nuclear power plants off line. What this means is that the utilities (contrary to last years dire black out forecasts with these reactors off line) dont need to restart reactors to handle the nations energy needs.
So a slightly tough regulator plus new slow regulations plus no urgent need for the reactors to come back online plus continuing problems at Fukushima plus 160K people still displaced from their homes because of Fukushima equals likely long delays in restarts.
Things look little better for the nuclear industry here at home. Former US NRC chair Gregory B. Jaczko said that the problems of the current US nuclear fleet cannot be fixed by upgrading them and the fleet should be phased out and replaced with new technology. He also said he was opposed to reactor life extension, which is perhaps the most important remaining fight in the US. Add to this the recent GAO report pushing the NRC to expand it’s 10 mile emergency evacuation radius, which would make siting new plants more difficult and I think these last 5 reactor blocks under construction in the US will be the last full sized reactors built in this country (and they might not even all get finished).
Oh and did i mention the costs of renewables is dropping below most fossil fuel (and especially nuclear). And private investors are staying far from nuclear projects, since government guarantees for these investments are shrinking most places except the UK and France.
After 3 decades of fighting this beast, it is comforting to see it slowly dying.
Nuclear boosters and most power utility executives are fond of telling us that renewable power can’t fill the need for reliable electricity and its costs are too high. The graph below is telling because it shows that the path being blazed by Germany is actually representative of the entire European continent. Specifically, newly installed capacity of wind and solar far exceed all other fuels. And that even with record low natural gas prices, over half of the amount of new installed capacity in gas was decommissioned last year. Despite dire warnings of increased coal burning, the amount of decommissioned plants well exceeds new installed capacity. Little new nuclear went on line and a fair amount was pulled from the grid (almost all this year from Germany, but with many more countries likely to close them in the coming years). There are only 4 reactors currently under construction in all of Europe – excluding Russia.
And while it is not as sweeping, there is good news inside the US about California’s progress in supporting local, decentralized solar power for economic classes that are not at the very top of the scale. One of the leading non-profits working to provide lower coast solar installations is Grid Alternatives. Which uses volunteers and local staff to install home based renewable solutions (especially solar) at low rates. They have completed 2,000 home systems in their first 2 years.
State wide programs for single family and multiple family housing units being converted to solar are receiving increased attention and funding. And with a bit of luck we can have our national energy mix shift like our smart friends in Europe have already figuring it out.
It is deeply satisfying to wake up and read articles like this one from Bloomberg business press on how wind power is putting nuclear plants out of business. Last year in the US $25 billion were spent and new wind capacity. This raised the total grid electricity fraction to 3.4% from wind, with a forecast of it raising to 4.2% in 2013. In 2013 there will be no new nuclear reactors connected to the grid and at least one and possibly several reactors will close this year forever.
So using a rough extrapolation, if these rates continue, in about 7 or 8 years the amount of wind generated electricity will exceed the amount of nuclear power in the US. It is important to remember that many nuclear proponents continue to say that the entire class of renewables are not up to the job of powering the country and instead we should be investing in new reactor designs, most of which cant even be in prototype phase until early 2020′s.
And thus it is worth remembering, that highly paid, well educated, well intentioned, nuclear promoters are stunningly wrong yet again.
25 Arrested at Keystone XL Pipeline Protest in Massachusetts
In the latest protest against the Keystone XL oil pipeline, 25 people were arrested after handcuffing themselves together inside a TransCanada office in Westborough, Massachusetts. More than 100 students, mothers and clergy members staged a “funeral for our future,” saying TransCanada’s pipeline would spur devastating climate change, pollution and potential spills.
Protesters: [singing] “They are digging us a hole. They are digging us a hole, six feet underground, where the pipeline will go.”
The Keystone XL pipeline would carry tar sands crude from Canada to Texas. A decision from President Obama on the project is expected soon, after a State Department review found it does not pose a serious threat to the environment. (this is from democracy now)
i watch the nuclear news. In particular i watch the nuclear reactor stories which the mainstream media promotes. This week there is a lot of excitement about the young man in this picture.
Taylor Wilson, according to the TED talk article, built a fusion reactor in his parents garage when he was 14. Only he did not. Here is what the OED says about reactors:
an apparatus or structure in which fissile material can be made to undergo a controlled, self-sustaining nuclear reaction with the consequent release of energy.
What young Mr. Wilson did is at best a fusion experiment. There is no self-sustaining aspect to this reaction, and whatever power was released was dwarfed by the energy that went into making his experiment. In fact this is a classic nuclear power deception, claiming that you are solving problems when you are at best doing nothing and at worst creating other problems.
As for fusion power as a solution to the worlds energy problems, this remains another illusive myth. In 2006, New Scientist said “If commercial fusion is viable, it may well be a century away.”
Now we are told that Mr Wilson at the age of 18 has designed a small modular reactor. Again we are bombarded with technophilic promises:
- Its underground, so is safer from a terrorism perspective
- No chance for meltdowns
- Can consume waste from nuclear weapons program
- 30 years (instead of 1.5) between refuelings
- small, built in factories and thus cheap
- passive design and intrinsically safe
- Will have on the market in 5 years
Only he will not have them on the market in 5 years. The promises are basically identical to the promises Bill Gates makes for his own Terra Power. But the folks at Gates’ very well funded research organization are now estimating 2022 for the first prototype. It is worth noting that this is being built outside the US because the permiting process is too slow, a point young Mr. Wilson seems to have no concerns about. But since he does not have a company to back up his fanciful claims it perhaps does not matter.
The point here is the one most powerfully made by Jerry Mander in his book, In The Absence of the Sacred. The people presenting the new technology are the ones who benefit from its existence and who have no interest in pointing out the problems or downsides for their proposals. This is not that surprising; why should they hype their own problems?
What is not excusable is the mainstream media’s complicit behavior in this. I have read perhaps a dozen articles on this clever young man. Not one of them points out that seasoned nuclear engineers with financial backing are not forecasting production of small modular reactors for a dozen years. Nor do any of these excited writers point out that the type of reactor Taylor is hoping to design is an existing design which has been abandoned by several countries for more promising designs. They do not even challenge the idea that this might not be a cheap solution, since all reactors currently under construction in the west (western Europe and North America) are delayed and over budget.
And while i have not studied this design in depth, it almost certainly fails the most important tests for a reactor: cost, waste and flexibility.
It was a state of the art liberal protest. There were no planned arrests at this action, to make it as accessible and low risk as possible. Celebrates had been arrested the week before. There were 34 people who got arrested after this big march of 45K participants.
What made it state of the art were the websites for the planning and the giant TV screens at the base of the Washington Monument.
What made it liberal was the frequent appeals by the speakers to patriotism and American ingenuity. There is nothing particularly American about climate change, this is a global problem.
And while leadership from the US would be great, we could be working on this from a non-nationalistic angle.
And for this protest, they are using all the tools of a classical domestic political campaign. Senators spoke at the event. The big call was for Obama to keep his promises.