published Sunday, July 21st, 2013

Nuclear power needs a fresh look

The TVA Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Athens, Ala.
The TVA Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Athens, Ala.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

For at least the ninth time in three years, the Tennessee Valley Authority has been cited by federal regulators for violating safety standards at one of its three nuclear plants that operate in a half circle around Chattanooga.

Perhaps we just hear it so much that we tune it out.

Perhaps Tennessee is so engrained in the nuclear tradition — Oak Ridge, after all, is basically where nuclear power began — that we just automatically dismiss it.

Perhaps we shouldn’t. Perhaps we need to look again without the rose-colored glasses.

No matter how many times TVA and our politicians and the nuclear power industry chant that nuclear power is clean, safe, affordable energy, we shouldn’t just smile and nod.

It is none of those things.

Energy is not clean when its waste doesn’t decay for hundreds of years and there is no permanent storage place for it. Right now, TVA stores more than 3,262 metric tons of highly radioactive spent fuel at its three nuclear plants in Soddy-Daisy, Spring City, Tenn., and Athens, Ala.

Energy is not affordable when building a nuclear plant automatically translates to cost overruns and delays: TVA’s Watts Bar Unit 2 has doubled in cost and is three years delayed. And did we mention that major banks won’t finance nuclear power plants anymore because they are so financially risky? That’s why there are government subsidies for nuclear energy.

And energy is not safe when human error introduces so many problems that TVA has the worst rating in the country at its Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, and one of the worst fleetwide, when you tally up all of safety findings of recent years.

Of the nation’s 101 operating commercial nuclear reactors, 23 are currently receiving extra oversight from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission because of safety problems. Six of those 23 — more than a fourth — are our TVA reactors. And all of TVA’s reactors are on that extra-oversight list.

But it isn’t just human error that throws a wrench in nuclear power plant operations.

In Japan, an earthquake and tsunami began the domino-effect downfall of reactors at the Fukushima plant in March 2011.

Now up to 100,000 people can’t go home again.

Think about that.

The earthquake didn’t disable the plant. The tsunami washed away the equipment to cool the reactors and the spent fuel pools where waste was stored.

The result — over days — were meltdowns that played out over national television.

Now the news camera lights are turned off, but the site continues to leak radiation into the air and into the Pacific Ocean. Steam found in a reactor building there this week prompted renewed concerns that radiation may be spiking there again. The plant’s operator denies it, saying rainwater sitting on the reactor was the source of the steam.

Whatever the truth, the steam was one more reminder of the continuing precariousness at the crippled facility two years after the meltdowns. Direct access to the reactors is extremely difficult because radiation levels make it unsafe for people to go near. A worker watching a camera feed of the site spotted the steam, according to news reports.

In recent months, a series of radiation-contaminated water leaks there renewed concerns in Japan, as did a blackout caused by a gnawing rat that left cooling pools without power for more than a day.

The company, TEPCO, has admitted in recent weeks that water and soil samples taken at Fukishima are showing high readings for potentially dangerous and cancer-causing isotopes, including caesium-137, tritium and strontium-90.

That couldn’t happen here?

We don’t have tsunamis, but we sure have tornadoes. In April 2012, tornadoes very nearly targeted Brown’s Ferry, and did shut it down after twisters made bowties of the massive power towers that carry electricity away from the plant.

With no where for the power to go, the plant essentially blew a fuse and went into automatic shutdown — as it should. The trouble was, as at Fukushima, there was no power to cool the reactors and spent-fuel pools. Fortunately unlike at Fukushima, the diesel generators and the fuel to run them were not swept away, so the three reactors at Brown’s Ferry were cooled with diesel generators for a week before TVA was able to get emergency power lines back into the plant.

If there is a silver lining to the fact that we are living close to six of the nation’s least-safe reactors, it is that they are getting most of the federal reactor scrutiny right now.

Another downside is that we ratepayers are paying for that extra scrutiny — to the tune of millions of dollars a year when NRC sends a bill to TVA for the inspection oversight cost: $274 an hour for every inspector’s time.

Browns Ferry for more than a year has been under what NRC calls a “red” finding — the highest safety flag NRC makes, and only the fifth issued nationwide. The only NRC action tougher than that is ordering the plant’s shutdown.

Typically the costs for increased inspections at a red-flagged plant have been about $200 million, according to nuclear industry experts.

In reality, that’s a small cost.

Just ask the tens of thousands of Japanese people who can’t go home again and can’t go open their businesses again or grow their crops.

We can still go home. And we can demand cleaner, safer more affordable energy.

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LaughingBoy said...

Any luck yet finding proof on Zimmerman using racial slurs that night, and using them all the while? Or are you following Harry Austin's playbook and forgetting you ever typed that.

July 21, 2013 at 9:11 a.m.
Plato said...

Nuclear Power may need a fresh look, but not the myopic one reflected in this piece.

First the big picture is being avoided here. We have to produce enough energy to sustain our way of life and our economy. In order to produce that energy we utilize a variety of methods. Most of those methods have a negative effect on the environment. Coal mining takes a sever toll on the environment and coal combustion produces byproducts like surfer dioxide that cause respiratory and cardiovascular disease, as well as green house gases. Natural gas burns cleaner but still has harmful byproducts and requires "fracking" a controversial technique that can lead to contamination of ground water.

On the other hand Nuclear Power has none of those negative side effects and has a phenomenal safety record. Yes storage of spent fuel is a legitimate issue, but the government built a modern safe disposal cite in Nevada - Yucca Mountain, that address the issue but politics has prevented its utilization. The NRC has always had a history of over-regulating since the TMI accident. The safety reviews cited in the article are just an indication that it's doing it's job. No one runs a perfect nuclear energy program 100% of the time, but the probability of you ever suffering injury or death from a nuclear power plant is much much less than that of commercial air transportation, which is safer than taking a bath in your bath tub.

Alternative energy sources are the best but they are not at the point technologically or economically to replace the 20% or so of our national energy requirements that nuclear power provides.

That leaves us with the choice of either continuing to enjoy safe, clean affordable nuclear power, and accept the one in a million chance there could be an accident; replace it with more dirty, unhealthy and destructive fossil power, or consume 20% less energy in our homes and businesses. For me that's an easy choice.

BTW I live one mile from an active TVA nuclear plant and I have never lost the first second of sleep over it.

July 21, 2013 at 10:29 a.m.
ChrisSteves said...

I live 2 miles from the plant and the only thing I worry about is the TVA running it instead of a private company. And you correctly point out ALL the TVA plants are an issue. Hmmm.. looks like government run plants are a serious problem. Banks don't finance nuclear power plants because a) government regulations can halt projects and create cost overruns. b) government politics pandering to the likes of you stop projects after they have been given a go ahead. c) Green lawsuits for no good reason d) Not the final reason but the best reason is... Big Banks get Big Money free from the government, why risk your capital?

July 22, 2013 at 3:19 p.m.
Howard said...

If you do a "fresh look" as you have suggested, may I suggest you do the following: Do an indept study of what the industry has done over the years to further the already excellent safety record, especially after the Three Mile Island Accident. The industry is not a stagnet one, but an evolving one. Increased training, new safety equipment, replacement of out of date control systems, new operating procedures, the creation of an oversite entity called INPO (Institute Of Nuclear Power Operations) are just a few of the many changes that the industry has been going through the last few years. And, of course, the new design of reactors has enhanced the safety even more. Lastly, kudos to Plato and ChrisSteves.

July 22, 2013 at 4:12 p.m.
BigRidgePatriot said...

I notice there is no description of the violation that has the writer in another uproar. Another paperwork problem?

July 22, 2013 at 7:31 p.m.
conservative said...

I worked for a very large company for over 30 years that preached safety constantly. I and everyone else worked "unsafe" everyday because it was impossible to keep all the rules and get anything done.

Liberals constantly misuse words and terms such as "pollution" and "unsafe" and "safety violations" to fool and scare the frail of mind.

There is no way this writer would live in Tennessee if she feared for her safety and there is no way a nuclear plant would be permitted to operate if our lives were in danger.

I like this writer because you don't even have to read what she writes. She is as predictable as day and night.

July 22, 2013 at 8:03 p.m.
inquiringmind said...

Nuclear Power is the safest and most direct way to combat greenhouse gases, now if we could get regulators to do their job and press for innovative technology with no, or extremely little solid nuclear wastes floating around for terrorists or disposal we would really be cooking. The technology exists, there is little reason to use submarine reactor technologies for commercial power generation...that was a free pass for GE/Westinghouse, ORNL, etc not to invest in newer reactor technology.

July 23, 2013 at 11:39 a.m.
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