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Weather Forecast: A Cloudy Future for Nukes

In the 1950s, when the first nuclear reactors were conceived, there were few computers. Engineers created blueprints using lead pencils and slide rules. Back then the atmosphere’s carbon content was a mere 310 parts-per-million and a “storm of the century” came along about once every 100 years, as you would expect.

We now inhabit a different planet. With CO2 levels the highest they’ve been in 15 million years, complex computer models warn of increasing dislocations from climate chaos. Mega-storms are coming to seem the norm. The argument that “low-carbon” nuclear technology offers a solution to global warming overlooks the fact that the world’s 437 reactors were not designed to withstand unforeseen extremes of weather change. Aging reactors, dangerous from their infancy, are becoming increasingly vulnerable in this new epoch of unstable weather.

The government’s Third National Climate Assessment confirms the fears that we have tipped the climate. Global temperatures, accompanied by increasingly severe fires, floods, and hurricanes, continue to break records. Last year’s heat wave left the Midwest as parched as the blistered plains of East Africa, while Superstorm Sandy brought a taste of Bangladesh to the boroughs of New York.

Sandy knocked three reactors offline. A reactor at Indian Point, 24 miles north of New York City, had to be manually powered down. At Oyster Creek, a “Fukushima style” reactor on the Jersey shore, the storm surge came within six inches of disabling emergency pumps needed to keep spent fuel assemblies from overheating.

Sandy was only the latest warning. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew slammed into Florida, briefly putting the Turkey Point reactor on the path to a meltdown. In June 1998, a tornado hit Ohio’s Davis-Besse reactor, exposing the spent-fuel pools to the risk of ignition. In 2010, a tornado took down the power grid protecting Michigan’s Fermi 2 – the largest Fukushima-style Mark 1 reactor on Earth. (Note: The 2011 North American tornado season was the most deadly in 50 years.)

Today, nine coastal reactors, from California to the Gulf to the East Coast, are at risk from rising seas. And it’s not just that sea levels are rising. On August 12, Connecticut’s Millstone reactor had to be shut down when cooling water – drawn from the ocean – became too warm to use.

As storms and floods become more frequent and fierce, 88 US reactors remain at risk from “inland tsunamis.” In April 2011, Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun reactor was swamped by the flood-swollen Missouri River. The reactor remains offline and may never reopen. Last year, two Nuclear Regulatory Commission engineers revealed the NRC hid a report warning that 34 reactors were at risk of catastrophic flooding from the collapse of aging dams. (Note: There have been more than 700 dam failures since 1975.)

When New Yorkers begin discussing how to defend Manhattan against rising seas, you know the climate change “debate” is over. But for all the talk of spending billions to protect coastal cities, scant attention has been paid to the equally pressing need to start dismantling at-risk nuclear (as well as oil, gas, and chemical) facilities located along our shores and rivers.

Because decommissioning is costly and time-consuming, plant operators and the NRC prefer to extend the status quo – fudging safety records to extend the lives of reactors that should have been retired after 40 years of use. While it takes massive amounts of time and treasure to decommission a nuclear plant (the NRC estimates $1 billion and 10 years per reactor, but the latest operator’s estimates have doubled that figure), the costs of addressing a nuclear accident can be incalculable. Dealing with the Fukushima cleanup is expected to take 30 years and cost in excess of $250 billion.

Damage from a nuclear accident is, essentially, eternal. Radioactive isotopes blasted into the air at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, as well as many lesser-known reactor accidents worldwide, are still being detected by radiation monitors around the globe. As a result, Earth’s atmosphere is not only choked with CO2, it also is ablaze with life-altering isotopes.

All in all, the forecast is clear: The weather’s getting worse and reactors aren’t getting any safer. It’s time to de-nuke, decommission, and dismantle.

Gar Smith is editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal and author of the new book Nuclear Roulette: The Truth about the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth (Chelsea Green).


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From Gar Smith:
A Response to Dave M:

The article doesn’t say Oyster Creek was one of the three reactors shut down by Sandy. The three nuclear reactors that were forced offline by Superstorm Sandy were Nine Mile Point’s Unit 1 and Indian Point’s Unit 3 (both in New York State) and the Salem’s Unit 1 in New Jersey. Apologies if that was implied. As Mr. Morris notes, Oyster Point was already offline for refueling when the storm hit. The reactor was put on “alert” when, as the Journal reported, the rising flood waters “came within six inches of disabling emergency pumps needed to keep spent fuel assemblies from overheating.” In an emailed correction to his original letter, Mr. Moore says the claim that the flood surge came within six inches of flooding emergency pumps was “incorrect.”

According to the list of “emergency declarations” submitted by Oyster Creek’s operators and included in the NRC Special Investigation Report (SIR) cited by Mr. Moore, at 11:27 pm: “The intake water level was read as 4 inches above the base of the service water pumps. The ABN-32, revision 19 value for tripping the service water (SW) pumps was 6 inches below the pumps’ motors (33 inches above the SW pump base).” [Emphasis added.]

A further review of the NRC’s January 10, 2013 SIR raises additional concerns about Oyster Creek’s performance during the storm. The following extracts are drawn from the NRC report:

On October 29, the impact of the storm on the OCGS required Exelon to declare two emergency events due to the rising water level at the station intake structure…..
At 7:54 p.m., offsite power line R144 tripped and caused a resulting trip of the fuel pool cooling system. Operators entered ABN-16, “Loss of Fuel Pool Cooling.”
At 8:08 p.m., the modem that was relaying intake level data to the control room recorder (points 23 and 24) failed and rendered the primary means of measuring intake level unavailable…. Control room operators had to rely on these secondary indicators to make emergency action level decisions.
Offsite power to OCGS was lost at 8:18 p.m., and operators entered ABN-36, “Loss of Offsite Power.” The loss of offsite power caused a trip of the shutdown cooling sy[s]tem. Subsequently, the senior reactor operator (field supervisor) overseeing equipment operators at the intake structure reported to the emergency diesel generators (EDGs) to facilitate post-start checks of the EDGs that automatically started on the loss of offsite power…
At 8:32 p.m., the field supervisor reported that he could no longer safely monitor the local pressure indicators (PI-533-1173 and PI-533-1172) to determine intake level due to the rising water level….
At 11:11 p.m., intake level on the staff gauge was 7.0 feet (Note: the staff gauge is not available above 7 feet). At approximately 12:18 a.m. on October 30, 2012, the maximum intake level of 7.4 feet was reached as determined by water level measurements above the base of the service water pumps.

Far from the reassuring conclusions that the NRC released to the public, these detailed internal notes serve as another reminder that operating a nuclear power plant is an responsibility fraught with considerable uncertainty and risks.

I do share Mr. Morris’ relief that the Oyster Creek reactor had been taken offline for refueling prior to the storm’s arrival but it is important to note that, even when a reactor is “offline,” there are still inherent operational dangers that could expose the public to considerable risk.

Editor’s Note: Mr Smith’s response was provided on February 28. Its posting was unfortunately delayed.

By Maureen Nandini Mitra on Wed, April 24, 2013 at 6:04 pm

We have to be careful not to step outside the bounds of science. The IPCC stepped outside, and still claims things that aren’t true because it wants to satisfy its funders and keep all the jobs in their industry*. The consequences are that people throw out the baby with the bathwater - if IPCC are liars, then the whole climate debate is worthless. They claimed that the sea level had already risen a metre above 100 years ago so that parts of Bangladesh are now under a metre of sea. For starters, all river deltas are sinking under their own weight. then, low atmospheric pressure is a bigger factor than sea level rise. I could go on. *If all the money thrown at global warming was thrown at ambient conditions energy generation, we might be winning the power supply game.

As to climate, the 20th century was exceptional for its calmness but also exceptional for the destruction of nature. Rivers were straightened, concrete and tarmac and desert sand replaced green and cool ground and heated up the air and changed local weather. Soot from burning forests and crop residues turned the arctic dirty grey and warmer. If we’d had no carbon dioxide increase, the weather would have reacted to the new Earth surface. Yes, let’s take care and stop piling up problems for our children as payment for our unnecessary living standards, but just read the back story of storms in the UK over the last 500 years and you’ll find that the lesser damage was because there wasn’t so much stuff about to be damaged.

By Frances Bell on Mon, March 04, 2013 at 1:08 am

Article has the facts wrong.  Sandy did not “knock out” Oyster Creek reactor. It was offline prior to Sandy for refueling.  The plant’s maximum estimated flood level due to a worst-case hurricane is 22 feet above mean sea level.  Flood levels only rose to 7.5 feet (nowhere near 6 feet from flooding as stated in this article and that has been misreported elsewhere) 

Full NRC report with details can be found here

Author should update article to reflect what actually occurred.

By Dave M on Thu, February 28, 2013 at 10:52 am

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