Monday, March 14, 2011

Reconsider Nuclear Power - Is It Ever Safe?

Below is the text of a post I made on nuclear power, from July 2009, titled "Nuclear Nuts." It seems appropriate to bring this to the fore, since the Japanese nuclear reactors have begun having serious problems. The pro-nuclear crowd is, for the most part, congratulating themselves over how well the Japanese nuclear reactors have held up, with only a few (six or eight or so) having any problems. Plus, they point out, it was not the March 11th earthquake that caused the problem but the giant tsunami that followed it.
I'm an engineer. I know what engineers can do, and I know their limitations. I'm also an attorney, with a law practice that deals with engineers and the myriad of issues that arise in engineering. I'll expand this post over the next few days as my time permits, but for now, the following observations.
First, no plant has ever been designed to withstand what natural forces can dish out. The earthquake in Japan was a 9.0, yet we have evidence of larger earthquakes occurring. The tsunami was 10 meters (30 feet, more or less), yet we have evidence of much, much larger tsunamis in the past. As but one example, there is a tsunami that will smash the entire US West coast from Hawaii, when a portion of the big island collapses into the sea. It is not a matter of IF, but a matter of WHEN. The tsunami will be hundreds of feet high. There are at least six nuclear power plants along the west coast, with four reactors right on the beach in California at San Onofre, and at Diablo Canyon. What Japan is dealing with now, California will be dealing with then.
Second, even the Japanese designs were not sufficient for the earthquake and tsunami that followed. The large initial quake was followed by many smaller aftershocks. It is also apparent that insufficient fuel was available for the Japanese reactors' emergency diesel generators, so even if they had generators that still worked, they would have been out of fuel.
Third, concrete containment structures may or may not maintain their integrity after a large earthquake and multiple aftershocks. It appears that the world is about to learn if the Japanese concrete containment has leaks or not, following the reactor core meltdowns.
Fourth, evacuating people in Japan involved a few hundred thousand people. For the San Onofre plant, which is near San Diego and suburbs of Los Angeles, there are likely millions of people who must be evacuated. That is a logistical problem of immense proportions.
Below, "Nuclear Nuts" addresses the question of nuclear plant safety. I did not include the safety and radiation release aspects of an earthquake plus a tsunami when I wrote that in 2009. Clearly, they are not safe when subjected to such stresses.
Another aspect of nuclear power plant safety must be mentioned. The plants are getting old, and things deteriorate, break, malfunction, and wear out with age. The Japanese are finding that old plants, (40 years old is one reactor with a melt-down), just don't work after an earthquake. The reactors in the USA are also from the 1970's and a few in the 1980s, so are also in the 40 year age bracket. Some are receiving extended operating licences for their third twenty-year period, meaning they will operate to age 60. This is a recipe for disaster.
Yet another aspect of a serious malfunction is a total loss of grid power, then the loss of cooling water, and having spent nuclear fuel stored on-site. The spent fuel also produces heat that must be removed by pumping water through a pool where the fuel is stored. When that water no longer circulates, the spent fuel also overheats.
-- Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
March 14, 2011 at 11:31 p.m. PDT
Marina del Rey, California
Nuclear Nuts, reproduced here and found on SLB here.
A few weeks ago [in June, 2009]I crossed the internet path of one internet nuclear advocate [the "gentleman" hereafter], a self-proclaimed “knowledgeable nuke” and one who fervently believes that nuclear energy is “safe, reliable, and affordable, a huge boon to mankind.” He is an advocate for very small nuclear power plants, with thousands to be built and located in city neighborhoods and industrial facilities.
Further, this gentleman states that nuclear power via atomic fission does not release any deadly materials in an uncontrolled fashion into the environment, unlike burning fossil fuels. [note: this is false, just ask the Japanese]
And last, the gentleman states that I am dead wrong when I stated that atomic energy is the most dangerous and toxic form of energy man has ever devised.
I have run across his type before: a true zealot, a true believer, and one who is not to be swayed by the force of any evidence supported by facts, as his mind is closed to any new or contrary information.
So, knowing in advance that this is a hopeless endeavor, that is, persuading the gentleman and others of similar ilk of the error of his beliefs, I press on, but only this one time. I have far too many things to accomplish in this life to waste more time arguing with one who will not listen to compelling arguments. Taking his assertions in order, “1) safe, 2) reliable, 3) affordable, and 4) a huge boon to mankind.”
Is nuclear power safe? As an attorney highly familiar with negligence and liability, both strict and otherwise, nothing is perfectly safe at all times. Safety is a matter of degree. Measuring sticks one can use to determine the level of safety include how many safeguards are required, how many injuries or deaths occur, and how the law views the matter. For example, driving a car may be considered safe. Yet a car (at least in the U.S.), must have quite a number of safety features before it is allowed to operate on the roads. These safety features include side impact doors, crash-absorbing bumpers, frame crumple zones, air-bags, seat belts, padded headrests and dashboards, the list goes on and on. In addition, there are laws for operating motor vehicles that are designed to increase safety, such as no talking on cell phones and no texting while driving, stopping required at red lights and stop signs, speed limits, operating the headlights at night, not driving while impaired by drugs or alcohol, and others. Yet thousands of people are killed or injured each month while driving. Even though driving a car kills people, driving is not considered an ultra-hazardous activity under the law.
An ultra-hazardous activity is defined under the law as “an activity that necessarily involves a risk of serious harm to the person, land or chattels of others which cannot be eliminated by the exercise of the utmost care, and is not a matter of common usage. Examples of ultra-hazardous activities include blasting, other uses of explosives, radioactive materials, and certain chemicals.
Nuclear power from fission uses radioactive elements, and is by definition an ultra-hazardous activity. The legal consequence of this is that no matter what happens, and no matter the contributory negligence of the plaintiff, the owner of the ultra-hazardous material is at fault when the plaintiff is harmed by the ultra-hazardous material or activity.
Next, safety can be measured by the amount of harmful material released into the environment, and the harm resulting from that material. Nuclear power plants have exploded (Chernobyl), have leaked radioactive water into the ground and streams (numerous times), and have sunk to the bottom of the sea in submarines, thereby poisoning the surrounding seas. The preparation of nuclear fuel leaves in its wake devastating damage to the environment, as for example the uranium mines in the U.S. Southwest. The Kerr-McGee plant that processed plutonium is another example of nuclear radioactive material that poisoned people, as the Karen Silkwood lawsuit clearly showed.
From the above, it can be seen that nuclear power is anything but safe. The industry makes claims to a safety record, but in reality the record is not yet written. Many thousands of tons of deadly radioactive waste material, as spent fuel rods, are stored in the more than 100 operating nuclear power plants in the U.S. These deadly radioactive wastes will likely be processed in one form or another someday, and the accidents, radiation burns, early deaths, radiation sicknesses, and long-term health consequences such as cancers from radiation have not yet occurred. But they will.
The removal from service and disassembly of many of the oldest nuclear power plants have also not occurred, with the attendant disposal of the radioactive portions of those plants. How many more radiation-related illnesses and premature deaths will occur at that time?
Further, nuclear fission that occurs in power plants produces the raw material for nuclear bombs: plutonium. No amount of denial by pro-nuclear forces can alter that fundamental physical fact. Also, the other, non-plutonium portion of spent nuclear fuel can be used to deadly effect in a dirty bomb, in which conventional explosives are wrapped in nuclear fuel and exploded. The resulting spread of toxic radioactivity is deadly to lifeforms. For those who deny that nuclear power plants produce bomb material, why is there so much angst in the world over some nations acquiring nuclear power plants, such as North Korea and Iran?

Point two, is nuclear power reliable? One must put the question in context, reliable in relation to what? If the comparison is to intermittent renewable energy sources such as wind, or solar, nuclear power is a bit more reliable. But compared to coal-fired plants, nuclear is no more reliable.Compared to gas-fired plants, it is no more reliable. And, compared to load-following gas-fired plants, it is less reliable. No utility can place a phone call to the nuclear plant on its grid during a peak power situation and ask the operators to crank it up another 20 percent for the next few hours, but a gas-fired plant can easily do that. No nuclear plant can be brought from a cold condition to full generating power within an hour, as can a gas-fired peaker power plant. The nuclear plant is designed to run at a steady output, and no other. Furthermore, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can, and does, order nuclear power plants to cut back production or shut down entirely for various reasons. This certainly adversely affects the reliability.
Third, is nuclear power affordable? Many experts thought so in the 1970’s, but few would agree today. In fact, with a 2008 / 2009 cost estimate of $17 to 20 billion for a 2200 MW twin-reactor plant, nuclear power is one of the most expensive options around. That cost estimate was made before the NRC issued a new ruling, that every new nuclear power plant in the U.S. must be designed and built to withstand the impact of a large commercial aircraft. That alone will increase the construction cost by another 10 percent or more. As Craig Severance, CPA, has written, to justify the enormous initial cost and long construction time, the sales price of nuclear-generated power from a new plant must be 25 to 30 cents per kwh. By my estimates, when the aircraft impact design features are included, that will likely be 30 to 35 cents per kwh. In stark contrast, power from a new gas-fired plant is around 12 cents, and from a new coal-fired plant 9 to 10 cents.
Also under the subject of affordability, the gentleman claims that U.S. states with the highest nuclear power generation have the lowest costs of electricity. He cites the southeastern states for this proposition. The opposite turns out to be the case. In all modesty, I took a look at published, reputable data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency, EIA. From my engineering days, I have simple yet adequate skills in plotting data points on a graph, and determining the coordinates of the best-fit linear trend line through those points (see Figure 1 below). In all fairness, developing a trend-line is rather easy these days, when one uses a commercial spreadsheet such as Microsoft’s Excel™.The trend-line shows a positive slope, indicating that power price increases as the percentage of nuclear power generation increases in a state. The data showed that 31 U.S. states have nuclear power plants, with the lowest percent of total generation in Ohio at 6 percent, and the highest in Vermont at 70 percent. Interestingly, the average price for residential retail power in Ohio was 9.5 cents, and in Vermont was 48 percent higher, at 14.1 cents per kwh, in 2007. Connecticut was the highest of all, at 19.1 cents per kwh. The slope of the trend line shows a 0.75 percent increase in power price for a 1 percent increase in nuclear power generation in the state. For a 15 percent increase in nuclear power, the average power price will increase a bit more than 0.9 cents per kwh, or roughly 10 percent of the 2007 price nationwide. For those who advocate increasing nuclear power up to the level achieved by France, 80 percent, this chart clearly shows that would increase the average power price in the USA by 40 percent.
Yet, this data for 2007 uses power produced from mostly aged, nearly-paid-for nuclear power plants.New nuclear plants would, as shown above, require much higher power prices and would increase the cost of power to customers by much more.

Figure 1.
Power price increases 0.63 cents per kwh
for each 10 percent increase in nuclear power

This brings me to the gross unfairness of nuclear power on electricity prices. The poor and those on fixed incomes suffer the most from high power prices, as they have few options but to pay the price or do without. This is dangerous to health and safety in extreme heat and extreme cold.
Fourth and finally, is nuclear power a huge boon to mankind? Given the above, that nuclear power is by definition ultra-hazardous, produces vast quantities of toxic, radioactive wastes that can be used to manufacture nuclear bombs and dirty bombs, is not reliable due to mandatory power reductions or shutdowns, and is one of the most expensive forms of power on the planet that causes grossly disparate effects on the poor and those on fixed incomes (the elderly), the answer must be an emphatic and resounding NO.
The only thing positive about a nuclear power plant is the fuel is cheap. But, there are energy sources that are cheaper still. Four of those energy sources are solar, wind, wave, and ocean current.A fifth is geothermal, but it is very limited. Yet a sixth is hydroelectric, but there is virtually no possibility of increase. The natural resources of those first four power sources are enormous, and have scarcely been tapped to date. Each has features to recommend it, and each has certain drawbacks. But the drawbacks to not include the use of ultra-hazardous materials, do not include generation of deadly toxic wastes that endure for decades or centuries, and do not include power sales prices at 35 cents per kwh or more. Even the reliability issue is minor and getting smaller with new developments. Innovative and cost-effective storage systems are under development and testing in the national laboratories for wind, wave, and solar, which will forever make moot the reliability issue. Ocean current will not require energy storage systems, as the ocean currents flow no matter what is happening in the environment around them.
In conclusion, the propositions that nuclear energy is safe, reliable, affordable, a huge boon to mankind, and releases no toxics to the environment are clearly wrong. The facts clearly show this. No amount of dreaming or wishing or hoping by the gentleman or anyone else with similar opinions will change that.
UPDATE 1 (Nov 4, 2009): After several months and many comments, it is instructive to compare my assertions and facts to the beliefs stated by some of the commenters. First, much more natural gas has been found, just as I said. So much so that gas storage in the U.S. is completely full, and gas prices are very low. So much so that wind power projects are at a reduced rate because wind power generally replaces gas-fired power. Europe is drilling for and finding gas in their shale deposits, especially in Poland. New LNG import terminals are being delayed due to the vast amount of natural gas now available in the US. No need to import it if we can open a valve on land.
On the nuclear power plant front, South Texas Nuclear Project's proposed expansion is on the ropes - due to cost. This is just as I predicted. The cost estimate was $13 billion, and just recently was increased to $17 billion. The City of San Antonio is rethinking their involvement, and postponing their decision. How could such a thing happen, since nuclear proponents insist (indeed, shout it out loud) that such plants are proven technology with well-known cost estimates?
A second major event rocked the new nuclear power plant world this week, as the Areva company (the French vendor for the Finnish plant under construction) has just received a slap across the face for inadequate safety systems. The design must be revised to satisfy the nuclear regulatory agencies from France, Finland, and U.K. How could that be, since we are equally assured by the nuclear proponents that such plants' designs are safe? One would think that the design as approved was truly safe. Apparently not.
And a further point on the cost increase to withstand an impact from a large commercial aircraft. Some commenters stated that all 103 of the US plants already meet that safety standard. This is not true. The new safety standard applies to more than just the reactor dome, it also applies to the cooling system, and spent fuel storage.
It is also increasingly apparent, after a very cool summer and early killing frost, increasing polar ice at both poles, and almost zero hurricanes in the Atlantic, that CO2 has nothing to do with the earth's temperature. If the IPCC and AGW alarmists were correct, the increased CO2 (from 350 all the way up to 388 ppm) should have roasted the earth already. We should already have islands underwater (where are they?), seaports and seashores disappearing (where are they?), an early Spring and late Fall (not in the northern hemisphere, nor the southern), many more hurricanes (did not happen), and Arctic ice almost gone (it is increasing back to the 2005 level). [end update 1]


singamaraja said...

Visiting your blog

rxc said...

I'm not sure how you got the figures for your correlation of price vs nuclear supply, but here in France, I pay either 5.48 or 8.86 euro cents per kWh for my electricity, depending on time of day. At current exchange rates(1.41$US/euro)), that amounts to 7.7to 12.5 cents US per kWh. For about 80% nuclear generation capability.

Oh, and the French had an event about 10 years ago at a plant near me where they had some severe flooding due to unusual weather. They learned from it and upgraded the plant's ability to deal with it. Other plants in France were similarly modified.

It will be interesting to see the final reports on exactly WHAT happened in Japan.

rxc said...

Oh, and regarding safety, I think you need to read the following NTSC report about the hazards of gas ( to see how people are roasted alive by natural gas. You could also just browse thru the NTSB website of pipeline explosion reports to see how many houses are blown up and people killed by natural gas.

But, of course, since these are deaths due to something we can see and understand, like fire and explosions, rather than deadly, invisible, mysterious _radiation_, they are somehow acceptable.

I am sorry to see that a fellow chemical engineer fell for the dark side and became a litigation engineer. Every technology has risks, and we do not need to snipe at one another. The only people who gain from this are the greens.

Roger Sowell said...

@ rxc in France, the article clearly states the data source is US Energy Information Agency from 2007.

I'm not surprised that the French pay low prices for nuclear-generated electricity, as the government subsidized and nationalized the entire industry for quite a long time. Your tax dollars at work, building too-expensive nuclear power plants. But then, I understand that France has few natural resources such as coal, oil, or natural gas.

I enjoyed my visits and work stints in France in the 80s and 90s. Great food, lovely women.

Roger Sowell said...

@ rxc, re natural gas safety. I am well aware of the hazards of natural gas, and how incredibly safe it is considering its long history of use and ubiquitous presence world-wide.

What cannot be said for nuclear power. The primary concern is exactly what happened in Chernobyl, and now is happening in Fukushima. People world-wide were exposed to radiation after Chernobyl, and it is too soon to tell yet about Fukushima. The contaminated soil is a grave concern. The cracked and leaking containment buildings are the likely source of the radioactive water that burned the workers' legs.

Leaving aside the safety issues, the cost of nuclear power cannot be justified. Only where a country, such as France, subsidizes the construction costs are these things built these days.

One of the savviest investors in the world is Warren Buffet, another is Bill Gates. Each could easily afford to construct or invest in a new nuclear power plant. The fact that they do not should speak very loudly to everyone. The plants do not make enough money to pay for themselves.

Furthermore, the new nuclear power plants, twin-reactors, planned for Texas at the South Texas Nuclear Project expansion, are now on indefinite hold because the cost to construct is simply too high for the project to be economically viable.

Ingeborg said...