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Our Ongoing Nuclear Disaster: One CA Reactor Leaks, The Other Doesn't... Yet

Tuesday, 07 February 2012 05:01 By Gregg Levine, Capitoilette | Op-Ed
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For those who thought that, with the new year, nuclear power had turned a page and put its “annus horribilis” behind it–as if the calendar were somehow the friend America’s aging reactors–let’s take a quick look at January 2012.

First, a glance across the Pacific, where the month began with the revelation that the Japanese government purposely downplayed their assessments of the Fukushima disaster–hiding the worst projected scenarios from the public from soon after the March earthquake by classifying the documents as personal correspondence–and ended with discovery of yet another large leak of radioactive water from one of the crippled reactors.

Closer to home, the lone reactor at Wolf Creek, Kansas, was shutdown on January 13 after the failure of a main generator breaker was followed by a still-unexplained loss of power to an electrical transformer. Diesel generators kicked in to run the safety systems until external power was restored, but the plant remains offline while a Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspection team tries to figure out what went wrong.

On the morning of January 30, a power failure caused a reactor at Exelon’s Byron Generating Station to scram, which in turn required a wee bit of venting:

[At] Exelon Nuclear’s Byron Unit 2 atomic reactor near Rockford, IL, primary electrical grid power was lost and safety and cooling systems had to run from emergency backup diesel generators when smoke was seen coming from a switchyard transformer. However, when the plant’s fire brigade responded, they could not find the fire. . . .

As revealed by Exelon’s “Event Report,” offsite firefighters were called in, Unit 1 is still at full power, and Unit 2′s cool down “steam [is] leaving via atmospheric relief valves.”

An initial AP report on the incident stated: “The steam contains low levels of tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, but federal and plant officials insisted the levels were safe for workers and the public…[NRC] officials also said the release of tritium was expected. . . .

Because, you know, a scram without some steam is like a coffee with out some cream. Or, as noted in the past, these emergency shutdowns are not subtle, quiet events. They are like slamming the breaks on a speeding car, and they cause all kinds of stresses and strains on reactor systems. Even when backup power kicks in, the process can require the venting of steam to relieve pressure in various parts of the reactor (where depends on the type of reactor and the kind of “unusual event”)–and that steam will often contain tritium, which has molecules so small they can pass from the closed loop that runs through the reactor into the secondary loop (in the case of pressurized water reactors) that powers the turbines.

So, lots of places in the system with varying levels of tritium, which, as Beyond Nuclear points out, is in no way “safe”:

[T]he linear no threshold theory, endorsed by the U.S. National Academies of Science for decades, holds that any exposure to radioactivity, no matter how small, still carries a health risk, and such risks are cumulative over a lifetime. It would be more honest for NRC officials to states that the tritium releases from Byron are “acceptably risky,” in their judgment, but not “safe.” After all, tritium is a potent radionuclide, a clinically proven cause of cancer, mutations, and birth defects, and if inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin, can integrate anywhere in the human body, right down to the DNA level.

And to add insult to the dishonestly undersold injury, the NRC says it can’t yet calculate just how much tritium escaped in this event.

But Wolf Creek and Byron were really just steamy warm ups (as it were) for January’s main event–the Grand-Guignol-meets-the-Keystone-Kops tragic-comedy commonly referred to as SONGS, or the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

San Onofre sits on the California coast, about halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles, and has a long, infamous history of construction screw-ups, safety breaches, lax reporting, falsified records and unusual events. Unit 1 was brought online in 1968–and decommissioned 25 years later; Units 2 and 3 started up in the early ’80s, and are still operating today. . . .

Well, uh, about that. . . .

Officials at the San Onofre nuclear power plant shut down one of the facility’s two units Tuesday evening [January 31] after a sensor detected a possible leak in a steam generator tube.

The potential leak was detected about 4:30 p.m., and the unit was completely shut down about an hour later, Southern California Edison said.

The next day, SCE revealed that yes, indeed, it was a leak that caused them to scram Unit 3, and that they were dealing with it by “reducing pressure“. . . which other people might call “venting.” SONGS is also a PWR, and this leak was also in the loop that spins the turbines and not the one that runs through the reactor, but as noted above, that system still contains some radionuclides. Edison does admit to the release of some radiation, though they make the same “no threat/no harm” assertions common to the other unusual events.

Beyond the usual pushback on that “no harm” claim, it should also be noted here that the leak did not occur in the reactor’s sealed containment building, but in an auxiliary building. . . with doors. . . and people that go in and out through those doors. . . so the question is not whether some radiation escaped into the atmosphere, but “how much?”

But that’s not the scary part.

The leak occurred in Unit 3, and so that had to be shut down, but Unit 2 was already down–offline for two months of refueling and repair. However, the accident in Unit 3 prompted quite the revelation about Unit 2:

Unusual wear has been found on hundreds of tubes that carry radioactive water at Southern California’s San Onofre Unit 2 nuclear plant, raising questions about the integrity of equipment the company installed in a multimillion-dollar makeover in 2009.

. . . .

The problems at Unit 2 were discovered during inspections of a steam generator, after the plant 45 miles north of San Diego was taken off-line for maintenance and refueling. The two huge steam generators at Unit 2, each containing 9,700 tubes, were replaced in fall 2009, and a year later in its twin plant, Unit 3, as part of a $670 million overhaul.

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, more than a third of the wall had been worn away in two tubes at Unit 2, which will require them to be plugged and taken out of service. At least 20 percent of the tube wall was worn away in 69 other tubes, and in more than 800, the thinning was at least 10 percent.

This level of wear might be typical to systems in use for several decades–still not comforting, considering the age of America’s nuclear plants–but to see this degradation in virtually new tubes gives one pause. . . especially one Joram Hopenfeld, retired NRC engineer and researcher:

“I’ve never heard of anything like that over so short a period of time,” Hopenfeld said.

“The safety implications could be very, very severe,” Hopenfeld added. “Usually the concern is in older steam generators, when they have cracks all over the place.”

According to the regulatory commission, the tubes have an important safety role because they represent one of the primary barriers with the radioactive side of the plant. If a tube breaks, there is the potential that radioactivity from the system that pumps water through the reactor could escape into the atmosphere.

About two-thirds of US reactors are of similar design to those at SONGS.

That’s the scary part.

It is scary, of course, because it raises questions about the manufacturing, the installation, and the maintenance of the $670 million rehab at San Onofre–but it also should raise concerns about the repairs, refurbishments and retrofits at dozens of other domestic facilities.

And it also provides another object lesson on the real costs of nuclear power. To put it in context, the San Onofre makeover cost $135 million more than the much-maligned federal loan guarantee extended in 2009 to the now-defunct solar panel manufacturer Solyndra Corporation. (And, unlike it could ever be for a nuclear loan guarantee, the federal government will recoup most of the Solyndra money when company assets are sold.)

Atomic energy advocates will argue that while construction costs are high, once built, nuclear plants run pretty much round-the-clock–24/7/365, as they say.

Except, of course, as the events just described or any of the dozens of other incidents documented here over the last year show, they don’t. Right now, SONGS is generating zero power. None. The same can be said for Wolf Creek, and one of the two reactors at Byron. The Palisades plant in Michigan was shut down five times last year. Ohio’s Davis-Besse facility, offline much of 2011 because of major repairs and a series of questions about cracks in the reactor building, was just given the green light to restart by the NRC, despite the objections of many nuclear watchdogs and US Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH).

Reactors at North Anna, VA, Calvert Cliffs, MD, and Fort Calhoun, NE, were all offline for substantial amounts of time in 2011. A swarm of jellyfish took out Florida’s St. Lucie nuclear plant for several days last summer, and Crystal River, also in Florida, has not produced so much as a single kilowatt in almost two-and-a-half years. And it likely won’t produce any more until 2014 at the earliest, assuming Florida ratepayers pony up another $2.5 billion for repairs.

All of which again underscores that nuclear power is not just phenomenally expensive in every phase of its life, it is an expense always born by ratepayers and taxpayers. And that, of course, just refers to the financial costs.

Those tritium leaks will take some toll on the health of residents in regions near Byron and SONGS, though it will debated just how much. Less debatable now–thanks to a French study released, yes, in January–the everyday dangers of having a nuclear facility in your general area:

In a report certain to cause fear and loathing in the global nuclear industry, an eminent French research institute published a study in the International Journal of Cancer, which notes increased rates of leukemia in children living close to French nuclear power plants (NPPs.)

How much greater?

The study by the Institut National de la Sante et de la Recherche Medicale (French Institute of Health and Medical Research, or INSERM) found a leukemia rate twice as high among children under the age of 15 living within a 3.1-mile radius of France’s 19 nuclear power plants.

France, of course, has a universal health plan, so those costs will directly hit their national budget. The US does not embrace a similar level of responsibility for the health of its citizens, but the costs of increased numbers of childhood cancers will ripple through the economy all the same (well, in reality, even more then all the same).

Still feeling nuclear power’s worst year is behind it?

But, wait, there’s more–a sort of microcosmic calamity to put a grace note on nuclear’s macro-farce: A few days before the leak and the revelations about tube decay, an Edison employee at San Onofre fell into a fuel storage pool while trying to retrieve a dropped flashlight. The worker was not injured in the fall, though he did ingest some unspecified amount of radioactive water–but (and you know what’s coming here. . . wait for it. . . wait for it) SCE said the man “did not suffer harmful radiation exposure.”

Welcome to 2012. One mensis horribilis down, 11 to go.

Gregg Levine

Gregg Levine is a contributor to Truthout and the former managing editor of Firedoglake. For more of his work, please visit his site, capitoilette. Follow Gregg on Twitter: @GreggJLevine.


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