11 September, 2006

nukes & terror - under the sun - in the golden state

The federal government's assumption of 'responsibility' for storing radioactive waste forms one of the nuclear industry's largest subsidies, enabling it to produce power, profit & toxic wastes without the worry of finding a solution to a problem that has eluded scientists ever since the dawn of the nuclear age: what do with all those waste materials for thousands of years. The status of the proposed Yucca Mountain repository (more info at Citizen Alert) is up in the air with no realistic opening date in sight (officially it's Mar 31, 2017), and a plan for "temporary storage" at a private facility on a small Goshute Indian reservation in Utah fell apart last week (in part due to a recently designated wilderness area!) when "the U.S. Interior Department on Thursday rejected the lease to build the facility." Power plants across the country are now storing the waste they generate on-site, both in pools which are filling up, and in 'dry cask storage' which has led citizens to question if those plants are little more than terror targets awaiting an incident, and are demanding that the plants' safety plans account for a terrorist threat.
According to the 9/11 Commission, the Al Qaeda plans for that fateful day included hijacked aircraft attacks on two U.S. nuclear power plants. This time we were spared such a catastrophe. But day to day while atomic reactors keep running, we live with the reality of what such attacks could do.

We are surrounded by sitting-duck nuclear targets – more than 100 of them, mostly east of the Mississippi in high-density population areas. Reactors and their fuel pools and waste casks remain inadequately protected. These atomic sites have no protection plan for attacks from the air. A 9/11-style attack on the Millstone plant in Connecticut could render the state a sacrifice zone, uninhabitable for millennia. With the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident fast approaching, the image of that nuclear wasteland should serve as a ghostly warning.

Yet, thirty-six existing nuclear power plants have been approved for 20-year license extensions while the public was repeatedly denied requests for hearings on the security vulnerabilities. Thirty-two reactors house their waste fuel pools on the top story of the reactor building, outside containment and protected only by sheet metal. link

The utilities & NRC want no part of such considerations, which are being brought up in license extension hearings across the country; they contend they have adequate safe-guards in place. Realistically, there is no 'good' solution -- even if Yucca Mountain were indisputably "safe" & could be opened tomorrow, transporting the more than 50,000 tons of radioactive waste stored in the US today would turn thousands of trucks & trains into potential targets (or unintentional accident - 'Mobile Chernobyls' - click for map). The NRC though, is reluctant to seriously consider these questions.

Although a decision on whether terrorism should be made part of a special safety review of the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant was postponed . . . one of the nation's chief regulators disagreed with the delay, saying the threat should be analyzed.

In a lone dissenting opinion, Gregory B. Jaczko, one of the five top officials at the federal agency that regulates nuclear reactors, agreed with a challenge filed by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

The DEP argues that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is wrongfully excluding the threat of terrorism from its review of Oyster Creek. Regulators are evaluating the Lacey plant to determine if it is safe enough to run for another 20 years under a renewed license.

At issue is whether the DEP officials, and now Jaczko, are correct in their view that the National Environmental Policy Act requires license-renewal reviews to include vulnerability to terrorism. [snip]

The operators of six other plants have applied for renewed licenses, while those running 22 others have notified the NRC that they intend to do the same. The NRC initially licensed all reactors for 40 years, then later presented the option for a 20-year renewal. [snip]

Four of the five NRC commissioners voted Wednesday in Rockville, Md., to postpone their vote until the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether it will review an appellate court decision on the terrorism issue. link

be afraid! (just don't interfere with the business plan):
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court a ruling that requires federal regulators to analyze the effects of a terrorist attack on an above-ground, radioactive-waste-storage facility now under construction at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. [snip]

"PG&E believes that the (appeals) court erred in its decision and the U.S. Supreme Court should have an opportunity to correct it" [snip]

An appeal to the Supreme Court will give the Diablo Canyon case greater national significance.

Legal experts have said the appeals court ruling is already causing government agencies to reconsider the amount of public involvement they allow in defending against terrorist attacks.

. . . casks, made out of concrete and steel, would be mounted above ground on a hillside behind the power plant

Crews at Diablo Canyon are constructing thick concrete pads upon which the large dry-cask cylinders loaded with used reactor fuel assemblies will be mounted. The legal wrangling does not stop work on the project, Lewis said. [snip].

PG&E is running out of room to store used fuel rods in its two waste storage pools. The federal repository for such spent fuel, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, is nowhere near ready for shipments. So PG&E has come up with the dry-cask method as an interim way to store the used fuel. link

Is there any doubt what the business-oriented Roberts' Court will do, weighing the interests of the nuclear industry (no doubt, a matter of 'national security') against the possibility of a catastrophic attack on a domestic nuclear facility? The nuclear industry is currently trying to renew itself, both domestically & abroad. False promises of safety & security feature prominenty in the promotion of the industry's welfare throughout its short history. I took part in the large protests of the late 70's against the opening of Diablo Canyon -- now as then, one of the least controversial issues is the economic one. In my hometown of Sacramento, our municipal utility had its very own reactor, Rancho Seco, until it was shut down by citizen opposition riding mostly on the economic arguments. CA legislators are currently considering a bill that would require the CEC to consider the "costs and impacts" of dealing with the tons of radioactive waste piling up in the state.

While new laws concerning greenhouse-gas emissions and solar power have made headlines in recent weeks, a bill that has passed through the Legislature with little fanfare may answer a question critical to California’s energy future: Can the state live without nuclear power?

The bill, Assembly Bill 1632, pertains to the state’s two remaining nuclear power plants, Diablo Canyon and San Onofre, located respectively near San Luis Obispo and San Diego, along the Central and Southern California coasts. If signed by the governor, the legislation requires the California Energy Commission to weigh the costs and impacts associated with nuclear waste accumulating at the two facilities against the state’s ongoing energy needs.

The fate of Diablo Canyon and San Onofre--and perhaps the future of nuclear power in the state--hangs in the balance. Tipping the negative end of the scale is the ongoing lack of a federal repository for nuclear waste. Tipping the scale in favor of nuclear power is the diminishing supply of natural gas, which currently generates 38 percent of the state’s electricity. It is by no means a black-and-white issue, explained James Boyd, one of five members who make up the CEC.

“I’m torn,” he said. “I won’t say nuclear power has no role in our future. I don’t know. For me, the overwhelming concern is the waste problem, as it is for many people. link

Both Diablo Canyon & San Onofre are aging rapidly; both have had recent 'incidents.' Meanwhile, the solar industry continues to mature, depsite the fact that the major energy companies are literally putting pennies on the dollar from their current massive profits into sustainable, alternative energy sources (stock buy-backs to minimize public corporate input are big these days).

DRESDEN, Germany - September 6 - Two billion households worldwide could realistically be powered by solar energy by 2025, according to a joint report launched today by the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA) and Greenpeace (1). The report concludes that thanks to advances in technology, increasing competition and investment in production facilities, solar power has now become a serious contender in the electricity market; able to provide low-cost, clean, CO2 emission free energy.

The report also concludes that the global photovoltaic (PV) industry could potentially create more than 2 million jobs by 2040 plus a cut in annual CO2 emissions of 350 million tonnes (2) - equivalent to 140 coal power plants – by 2025, and become the energy of choice for consumers. [snip]

Competition amongst the major manufacturers has become in­creasingly intense, with new players entering the market as the potential for photovoltaics (PV) opens up. The worldwide PV industry, particularly in Europe and Japan, is investing heavily in new production facilities and technologies. At the same time, politi­cal support for the development of solar electricity has led to far-reaching promotion frameworks being put in place in a number of countries, notably Germany, Japan, the United States and China. However, more investment is needed if solar is to fulfil its potential of providing 16% of the world’s energy demand by 2040.

“In 2006 the solar industry will invest well over 1 billion Euros along the whole value chain in new solar factories and R&D in order to increase the economy of scale and to lower the costs for solar photovoltaic systems,” said Dr. Winfried Hoffmann, President of the European Photovoltaic Industry Association and member of the managing committee of SCHOTT Solar. “The global PV industry is ready to invest even more for years to come, but there must be a stable political framework for the next ten years to enable this investment to pay off.”

“Solar energy is on the brink of leading the highly competitive consumer energy market, therefore the industry must invest now in mass production to bring the costs down,” concluded Sven Teske. “The next two years are crucial for solar electricity to move out of the niche market and into mainstream energy production where it belongs. For the expansion of solar power to be successful, commitment from not only the industry but also Governments must play their part in the energy revolution. The industry is ready – where are the Governments?

In 2005 the total installed capacity of solar PV systems around the world passed the landmark figure of 5000MW (= 10 average size coal power plants). Global ship­ments of PV cells and modules have been growing at an average annual rate of more than 40% for the past few years. Such has been the growth in the solar electricity industry that business only of the European PV industry in 2005 was worth more than € 5 billion; on a global scale the industry’s turnover was approximately €10 billion. link

We may be at one of those proverbial 'tipping-points'- a decisive moment to choose where crucial financial resources are to be invested. In Mar, 2001, there was:

[a] significant accident February 3 at Southern California Edison's San Onofre-3 nuclear power reactor . . . a major cause of the rolling blackouts that have plagued California this week.

According to published reports, California has lacked up to 800 Megawatts (MW) of power during the blackout periods. When running at full power, San Onofre-3 produces 1120 MW of electricity. Had the reactor been operating, the blackouts almost certainly would not have occurred. [snip]

"This serious accident, which has gone virtually unnoticed in the daily attention given to California's electricity problems, highlights the vulnerability of electrical systems that rely on nuclear power, and is a clear demonstration why atomic reactors can never be counted on to meet our energy needs. Not only have nuclear plants always been too costly, they are too unreliable as well," said Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), a Washington-DC based nuclear watchdog group. "When one of these large reactors goes down—and as reactors age, they will go down more often—large amounts of replacement power are needed—but are not always available. This situation is likely to worsen as time goes on, not improve."

In January, California's electricity shortage was prompted in part by a storm which washed large amounts of kelp into the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant's water intake system, forcing those two reactors to reduce power to 20% to avoid a potential meltdown accident. [snip]

"At the time [of de-regulation], Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison were eyeing some $25 Billion in 'stranded costs' charged under the deregulation scheme to California ratepayers to pay for San Onofre and Diablo Canyon," explained Mariotte. "Much of that money seems to have been distributed to their holding companies, and has not been used for the benefit of Californians. And the bailout certainly hasn't made their reactors any more reliable, nor any safer."

"Anyone who believes nuclear power is a way out of California's (or the nation's) energy problem should simply consider how much electricity could have been provided by safe, clean renewable energy and energy efficiency programs for the $25 Billion California spent on its unreliable nuclear reactors," concluded Gunter. "The choice is clear: we can meet our energy needs economically, or we can have nuclear power. We can't have both."
link


Five years later, Diablo Canyon, suffering from corrosion problems, was briefly shut down by a water leak this month. Last March, San Onofre "shut down its nuclear reactors . . . after discovering faulty gaskets in some of its backup water tanks used to cool reactors in an emergency." The previous month, "a contractor's tanker carrying radioactive wastewater from San Onofre to a Utah dump site leaked at a Utah truck stop because of a faulty gasket."

As America memorializes 9/11/01, consider the danger of a plane slamming into a bank of photovoltaics or a hillside of windmills . . .

& that truck rumbling down the highway.

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