Scuttlebutt: Nuclear Energy

Scuttlebutt: Nuclear Energy

     This month I decided to write about the nuclear industry again.  As long as there are still people advocating for nuclear power, I will continue to point out what an incredibly expensive source of energy it is.  Even if nuclear fusion was “too cheap to meter”, it still would be way too expensive a means to produce electricity because of the costs of clean-up and storage. These costs will be with us for thousands of years.  Make that tens of thousands of years.

     Usually my ideas for articles come from some headline I read, but, frankly, there is very little interest in the national media in the nuclear industry.  Because there are no new plants currently being licensed, there apparently is an assumptions that nuclear power has sort of gone away as an item of interest.  The only time something hits the national press is when someone suggests that we need to build more nuclear power plants to meet our future electrical needs.  

     Since I had to go looking, I decided to check in on my old friend the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.  That is the multi-billion dollar storage facility where we are suppose to store the low-level nuclear waste for the next several dozen centuries.  As you may recall from previous columns of mine, it has not worked out too well.  There was an explosion caused by an improperly labeled drum and the plant has been closed since February 2014 and will cost $2 billion to clean up (slightly more than the Three Mile Island clean-up).

     Try googling anything having to do with nuclear power safety and you will see an avalanche of information that should sour you forever on nuclear power.  Most of the information you will find is from investigative reports by government agencies, scientific organizations, and, most importantly for the layman, local news outlets.

     Here is a tidbit:  there is something called the  mixed oxide nuclear program, or MOX, that is intended to convert plutonium from surplus nuclear weapons (what is a “surplus” nuclear weapon?) into commercial nuclear fuel. The costs of the program however have ballooned to $47.5 billion and the DOE is looking at disposal alternatives. 

     That cost-effective alternative would be sending the surplus plutonium to WIPP. Unfortunately, WIPP has been closed, recuperating from "a series of critical failures of leadership at every level" and the resulting fire and radioactive leak in 2014.  Oh, and the 1992 WIPP Land Withdrawal Act explicitly PROHIBITS all high-level waste, all spent nuclear fuel, and all commercial waste. 

     The Obama administration negotiated a deal with the Russians to participate in the MOX program, but they have backed out.  The official reason: US did not officially inform them on the planned change of PU disposal method (from MOX plant to WIPP disposal) as required in 2000 pact.  Current relations with the Russians didn't help.

     The Department of Energy (DOE) is also proceeding with finding a “volunteer” site for the nation’s high-level defense waste, and some officials in southeastern New Mexico say publicly that WIPP should be that repository.  I should also mention that the ventilation system will not be restored to the pre-2014 levels until 2021 or later - the new system is not designed and how much it will cost is unknown. Oh, well, WIPP re-opened in January anyway.

     Scientists at Stanford University have pointed out that the plant was designed to hold low-level waste for 10,000 years.  The high-level waste being proposed for storage is plutonium-239 with a half-life of 24,500 years and its decay product, uranium-235, which has a half-life of 700 million years.  Humans can't even think in terms of 700 million years, much less act flawlessly for that time period.

     In 2006 U.C. Berkeley was operating the Los Alamos National Laboratory.  Because of serious mismanagement issues Congress decided in 2006 that they should bring in a private contractor to assist.  Bechtel Corp. was brought in to clean up the mess because, as we know, private industry always does a better job than government.  Just ask any Republican.  To insure proper operation performance bonuses are awarded for excellent performance.

     It turns out there was a fair amount of clash between profit-driven Bechtel and the research-oriented university.  Also, according to watchdog groups and former lab employees, the incentives may have induced contractors to put a premium on meeting deadlines despite safety risks.  Proper operation of the contract allows automatic renewal, but federal officials told Congress in December that they will put the LANL contract up for competitive bid for only the second time since the lab opened in 1943. This is due to four straight years of failing to meet performance standards on the $2.2 billion/year contract.

     Shall we check in with the Savannah River nuclear site?  This sprawling 320-acre facility is teaming with activity.  The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board found an uptick in safety concerns, but the potential poisoning of the planet is not the concern of this column.  I'm only concerned here about the money.  The  cost estimate of nuclear cleanup at Savannah River is between $91 billion and $109 billion.  Final cleanup of Savannah River Site’s Cold War nuclear waste has been pushed back to fiscal year 2065.

     Then there is the Yucca Mountain nuclear disposal site that was suppose to solve a lot of our disposal problems.   Some $15 billion was spent on the Yucca Mountain project before the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission unilaterally pulled the plug on it in 2010. NIMBY!

     Oh, and the Obama administration's plans for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, including modernization of bombs, delivery systems and laboratories, will cost the country about $355 billion over the next decade.  Trump thinks that not enough.

     Do bear in mind that none of the hundreds of billions we are discussing will produce a single watt of electricity.  

     Are you still conscious?  Have you noticed how I have been throwing around the word “billions” like it was pocket change?  It's not.  But it is your pocket.

    Why is this not a public issue?  Are the facts so staggering that our brains can't process it?  How does this make any sense?  When you find yourself in a hole, aren't you suppose to stop digging?

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