Monday, July 4, 2016

Nuclear reactor safety versus Kelly Ripa's tattoo

Cooling towers of a nuclear power plant
James Marvin
The overall impression one gets of internet searches is that, in general, there are more people Googling pictures of Kelly Ripa’s new tattoo than there are looking for news stories that could have a significant effect on their lives. Nevertheless, there was an important story in the news today. (Stick with me, and I’ll put a link to Kelly Ripa’s tattoo at the bottom of the story.)

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about nuclear power plants in which I mentioned that Vermont Yankee – and two dozen other nuclear plants – had been found to have been leaking radioactive material into the ground water. After the column, a friend of mine suggested I had not told the whole story.
According to him, nuclear power doesn’t inherently need to be unsafe. Rather, nuclear power in America is unsafe because the ‘greenies’ forced a halt to nuclear research and improvement. So, at his suggestion, I began re-researching nuclear power, intending to do a rebuttal, if necessary, of my own column. Here’s what I found:

It’s true, newer reactors in other countries built on the lessons learned here. There are now nukes referred to as “Generation 3+” reactors, that have a more hands-off design – that is, if every plant worker got hit by a bus on the way to work, the plant would simply cycle down to a safe state – and “Generation IV” reactors that will recycle up to 95% of their fuel, making them more efficient and, more importantly, making them produce far less radioactive waste. 

Generation 3 nuclear reactors in some countries, notably France, have an enviable safety record, having resolved, they claim, most of the safety issues years ago. France gets over 70% of its electricity from nukes, and sells a considerable portion to its neighbors.
However, Generation 3+ is in the prototype stage. Generation IV is still a twinkle in the designers’ eyes, and the first one won’t be online until about 2035. And even with a reduced waste stream, there is still waste, and it is still deadly to humans for thousands of years.

My friend also encouraged me to learn about the latest proposal for dealing with the waste product, a technique called vitrification. Okay, I did look into it. Basically, it involves using a furnace to reduce nuclear waste to ashes, then mixing the ashes into molten lead crystal, then pouring the molten glass into a stainless steel container and welding it shut. The containers must them be put, uhm, somewhere, for safe storage, because vitrification doesn’t render the radioactive waste less radioactive… it simply makes sure it doesn’t leak. The process must, of course, be done entirely by robotic equipment. People must monitor the process from behind 3-foot thick lead-glass windows.

Hanford, Washington, the site of the earliest nuclear reactor in the country, has over 50 million gallons of highly radioactive waste held in aging, corroding tanks. The cleanup is expected to take decades and cost billions. Every other nuclear plant in the country has similar contaminated storage facilities.

And now comes a nuclear bombshell: Yesterday, the Vermont state senate voted down a proposal that would have renewed the license for Vermont Yankee to continue operating for another 20 years. Their current license will expire on March 21, 2012. Unless something changes, it will be the first time in US history that a legislative body effectively closed a nuclear power plant. The owner, Entergy Corporation, will either shut the plant down on that date, or (far more likely) get busy greasing palms and changing laws.

On the other side of the issue, President Obama has announced that the Fed will back an $8 billion loan for a new nuclear power plant to be constructed in Georgia. His rationale is that:
  1.  America should not be dependent on foreign oil. No argument there.
  2.  Nuclear power plant designs are safer today due to technological improvements. True, but “safer” doesn’t mean “safe.” It’s “safer” to fly than to drive, based on fatalities per mile. But try telling that to a passenger aboard a jet whose engine has just stopped. Unfair comparison, sure. But when you consider that the meltdown at Chernobyl touched the lives of many millions of people, it isn’t enough for nuclear to be “safer.”
  3.  Building the nuclear plant will create jobs. True. But so would building a solar plant, or a windmill farm, or tidal generating plant. They are not “planes,” they are “cars.” If they fail, you can safely pull to the side of the road, get out and raise the hood, so to speak. Well, unless we’re talking about Toyotas. The simple fact is that $8 billion spent building any kind of truly safe power plant would reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, advance America’s technological abilities, and create jobs.
Frankly, I can’t help thinking that money is pumped into nuclear for a very simple, albeit sinister, reason: it’s too complicated for you to ever build one in your own backyard. If the money poured into nuclear were spent on solar, wind, or tidal power, technological advances in these simpler areas would trickle down to you and me, making it possible for more people to produce their own power, and the power companies would lose business.

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Oh, yeah here is the link to Kelly Ripa's new tattoo.

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