Thursday, August 6, 2015

South Australia Nuclear Prospects Q9-12

Subtitle: Nuclear Power For South Australia Not Justifiable

This is part 3 of my responses to the 17 questions.   South Australia's Royal Commission on the Nuclear Fuel Cycle requested written responses to 17 questions on the topic of nuclear power reactors.  see link The reactors are but one of four topic areas, with the others being 1) uranium mining, 2) uranium enrichment into civilian power fuel, and 3) nuclear waste management and storage.  I was unable to submit answers to the questions for formal consideration by the Royal Commission, however, the answers are below for the third set of 4 questions.  Answers to the remaining questions will appear in separate posts.   The conclusion is that a nuclear power plant cannot be justified.  A small nuclear reactor would be required, which suffers from reverse economy of scale and is, therefore, very expensive for the amount of power produced.   The usual safety concerns also apply: operating upsets and radiation releases, population evacuation plans, spent fuel storage or reprocessing, and sabotage and terrorist attacks, to name a few.

The Commission's Questions and Responses  (9-12)

3.9 What are the lessons to be learned from accidents, such as that at Fukushima, in relation to the possible establishment of any proposed nuclear facility to generate electricity in South Australia? Have those demonstrated risks and other known safety risks associated with the operation of nuclear plants been addressed? How and by what means? What are the processes that would need to be undertaken to build confidence in the community generally, or specific communities, in the design, establishment and operation of such facilities?

The primary lesson from Fukushima is that a loss of cooling accident, LOCA, is a serious event and should be the primary concern.  LOCA have two versions: short-term and long-term duration.  A short-term duration may be manageable with proper design and operating procedures, as happened by sheer luck at Three Mile Island in 1979.  LOCA of long-term duration is what happened at Fukushima where meltdowns, explosions, and extensive radiation releases occurred.  One lesson from Fukushima is that emergency generators, cooling pumps and motors, and associated electrical equipment must not be positioned where they will be inoperable after or during a grid failure.  This is true no matter what causes the grid failure, tsunami, flood, earthquake, wildfire, sabotage or terror attack, ice storm, cyclone, tornado, or any other cause.  At Fukushima, emergency generators were placed in basements that flooded during the tsunami.   

In Japan, nuclear reactors are shut down at present following Fukushima's 3 reactor meltdowns.  Detailed studies are being performed at each existing reactor to determine if the reactor can be restarted and operated safely.   In the US, the NRC required detailed study of each operating reactor to determine if changes must be made to ensure safety.  In addition, the NRC required several new facilities to be constructed that store emergency generation equipment that can be rapidly deployed to any nuclear reactor that cannot sustain its own emergency generating system during a grid outage or for any other reason. 

Even Germany, with little risk from tsunamis, recognized the high risk of multiple and simultaneous system failures in nuclear plants that endanger the public.  The government chose to shut down the entire reactor fleet in an orderly fashion while new non-nuclear generation facilities are built to supply the grid. 

The primary lesson to be learned from the Three Mile Island meltdown is that human operators are fallible and will make mistakes.  Even when the grid is operating normally, meltdowns can occur.  That meltdown incident began with the simple failure of a water pump.  Operator errors compounded the problems leading to intentional shutdown of a reactor cooling water pump. Only by sheer luck was the reactor cooling water pump started again, after approximately one-half of the reactor fuel had melted down. It is noteworthy that the Three Mile Island operators were supposedly some of the best in the world, being former US Navy atomic submarine operators.

Additionally, recent events in Japan related to the Fukushima meltdowns include criminal charges filed against utility executives.  The criminal charges include what would be termed involuntary manslaughter in the US, the loss of human life due to negligence.  In Japan, the charge is professional negligence resulting in death and injury.  The utility executives allegedly knew the seawall to protect against tsunamis was too low for the expected, foreseeable tsunami.  They also knew the nuclear plant designs had placed the emergency generators in the building basements where they would be inundated by flood or tsunami waters.  Then, when a foreseeable tsunami occurred, knocking out the grid for days, the emergency generators would not operate.

Other nuclear accidents of lesser harm occur regularly as documented by the Union of Concerned Scientists in their annual reports on US reactor safety.  An unplanned, emergency reactor shutdown, or a serious security breach, occurs approximately once every 3 weeks in the US reactor fleet over the past five years, 2010-2014 inclusive.  Some of these incidents resulted in radiation releases to the environment.  Also, leaks of water laced with tritium occur regularly.  Radioactive steam is also released, as occurred at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in California. 

The Union of Concerned Scientists reports mentioned earlier have much to say about reactor safety, from operating procedures to replacement parts to operating training.  

Instilling public confidence in nuclear power plants is difficult, if not impossible, given the nuclear industry’s long and abysmal record of false information, cover-ups, and secrecy.  The internet information age now enables information sharing that was not possible before, so that industry falsehoods are more easily exposed.  One such area of critical information is the evacuation zone around nuclear power plants, and emergency preparedness. 

From the NRC’s backgrounder on emergency preparedness, “[b]efore a plant is licensed to operate, the NRC must have “reasonable assurance that adequate protective measures can and will be taken in the event of a radiological emergency.” The NRC’s decision of reasonable assurance is based on licensees complying with NRC regulations and guidance. In addition, licensees and area response organizations must “demonstrate they can effectively implement emergency plans and procedures during periodic evaluated exercises.”

Also, “[f]or planning purposes, the NRC defines two emergency planning zones (EPZs) around each nuclear power plant. The exact size and configuration of the zones vary from plant to plant due to local emergency response needs and capabilities, population, land characteristics, access routes, and jurisdictional boundaries. The two types of EPZs are:

1) The plume exposure pathway EPZ extends about 10 miles in radius around a plant. Its primary concern is the exposure of the public to, and the inhalation of, airborne radioactive contamination.

2) The ingestion pathway EPZ extends about 50 miles in radius around a plant. Its primary concern is the ingestion of food and liquid that is contaminated by radioactivity.”

For instilling public confidence and assurance that people will be safe near an operating nuclear power plant, the very fact that an evacuation plan is required is sobering, if not heart-stopping.  Children are particularly susceptible to nuclear radiation effects.  Property values near nuclear plants necessarily decline.  

The NRC uses the least-alarming measure by stating a 10-mile radius around the plant defines the plume exposure pathway EPZ.  The fact is, the smaller, plume exposure pathway EPZ is a circle 20 miles across, with an area of 314 square miles.  The larger, ingestion pathway EPZ is a circle 100 miles across with an area of more than 7,800 square miles.  Clearly, using the numbers 10 and 50 sound much more reassuring than 314 and 7,800.  

Yet another rather clever method of minimizing alarm and concern is the nuclear industry's use of acronyms for some phrases.  As seen just above, the acronym EPZ is used instead of 'emergency planning zone.'  

The facts of nuclear power, related to instilling public confidence, are illustrated by the following. Over the decades, the nuclear industry’s position on reactor safety has changed from “no one has ever been injured”, to “no member of the public has ever been injured”, to “no member of the public has died”, to “nuclear power is safer than coal or natural gas.”   That is an interesting progression, as it implies that non-industry people, the public, have been injured and have died from nuclear plant radiation.  

With legal settlements of one million US$ or more for deaths caused by a defendant’s actions, the deaths of 100,000 people from a nuclear plant radiation release amounts to US$ 100 billion.  It is also noteworthy that the US EPA uses US$ 6 million for the value of a statistical life saved.  Therefore, 100,000 deaths from a radiation release would require payment of US$ 600 billion.  If the event were to kill 200,000 people, the payment would be US$ 1.2 trillion. No nuclear plant owner can absorb such an amount. Even a national government, such as Australia, that absorbs any excess liability from nuclear radiation releases would find such an amount staggering.  

Finally, my own series of articles on nuclear power plants included 12 articles on nuclear plant safety, out of 30 total articles.  These 12 articles addressed the topics of: safety regulations are routinely relaxed, many serious near-misses occur (one every 3 weeks), safety issues with short term and long-term storage of spent fuel, reprocessing safety issues, radiation illness and deaths, Chernobyl explosion, Three Mile Island meltdown, Fukushima Dai-ichi meltdowns and explosions, the San Onofre Shutdown Saga, the St Lucie plant imminent tube rupture, the Price-Anderson Act details, and evacuating populations to escape radiation.  These articles are Truth About Nuclear Power, numbers 15 through 26, inclusive. See link.
The conclusion can be none other than instilling confidence in the public is essentially impossible.

3.10 If a facility to generate electricity from nuclear fuels was established in South Australia, what regulatory regime to address safety would need to be established? What are the best examples of those regimes? What can be drawn from them?

In the US, the NRC regulates safety for nuclear reactors.  The regulatory regime is extensive.  Australia is also a signatory to the International Atomic Energy Agency and must follow its requirements.  

The US NRC is criticized for not being sufficiently pro-active in its enforcement, in not requiring safety modifications in a timely manner, and for relaxing safety requirements instead of requiring reactors to comply.  

3.11 How might a comparison of the emission of greenhouse gases from generating electricity in South Australia from nuclear fuels as opposed to other sources be quantified, assessed or modelled? What information, including that drawn from relevant operational experience should be used in that comparative assessment? What general considerations are relevant in conducting those assessments or developing these models?

A greenhouse gas emissions inventory for nuclear reactors ordinarily concentrates only on Carbon Dioxide, of which little is emitted during normal operations.  However, a much more important greenhouse gas is water vapor, which is produced in far greater amounts from a nuclear plant due to the large cooling requirements. 

It must be noted that almost every form of renewable energy has near-zero emissions of carbon dioxide and water vapor.  The exceptions are those technologies that use renewable heat to produce steam to turn a turbine, and that exhaust steam is condensed against cooling water.  As noted above, a cooling tower produces water vapor into the atmosphere.  Three examples of renewable energy that produce power via a steam turbine are geothermal, concentrated solar power, and bio-gas. 

Typically, carbon dioxide emissions accounting from an operating nuclear power plant do not consider, nor count, the emissions from off-site manufacturing to support the nuclear power plant.  Examples include the oil refineries that produces the vast quantities of lubricants, oils and greases, that are used in the great number of pumps, motors, turbines, generators, transformers, and electrical switches.   Also, petrochemical and plastic plants that produce the myriad compounds that are formed into electronics and plastic parts used in maintenance and upgrades.  The same is true for every metal part replaced over the operating lifetime, because fossil-fuel combustion is almost certainly used to mine, refine, then fabricate the metal parts.  

3.12 What are the wastes (other than greenhouse gases) produced in generating electricity from nuclear and other fuels and technologies? What is the evidence of the impacts of those wastes on the community and the environment? Is there any accepted means by which those impacts can be compared? Have such assessments making those comparisons been undertaken, and if so, what are the results? Can those results be adapted so as to be relevant to an analysis of the generation of electricity in South Australia?

Nuclear wastes include long and short-lived radioactive products and the heat they produce.  Community and environmental impacts from long-term storage and cooling of the nuclear wastes include fear of radiation exposure, actual radiation exposure from loss of cooling to a spent fuel pool, and water vapor from cooling towers where those are the cooling source.   One must also consider transportation issues where spent nuclear fuel is moved from place to place, and the inevitable accidents and consequences. 

Coal-fired power plants produce waste as fly ash and sludge from the stack scrubber.  The amounts and relative composition depends on the coal, plus any pre-treatment. 

Renewables typically produce zero wastes, such as solar, wind, biogas, ocean current, waves and tides.  A renewable that does produce some wastes is geothermal, with various minerals brought to the surface in the hot water.  

Questions 1-4 and answers, see link
Questions 5-8 and answers, see link
Questions 9-12 and answers, this article
Questions 13-17 and answers, see link

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Marina del Rey, California
copyright (c) 2015 by Roger Sowell

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