Pockets of lethal levels of radiation have been detected at Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in a fresh reminder of the risks faced by workers battling to contain the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.
Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) reported on Monday that radiation exceeding 10 sieverts (10,000 millisieverts) per hour was found at the bottom of a ventilation stack standing between two reactors.
On Tuesday Tepco said it found another spot on the ventilation stack itself where radiation exceeded 10 sieverts per hour, a level that could lead to incapacitation or death after just a short period of exposure.
Abu Dhabi is commissioning a new set of nuclear plants for the first time in 2018, that will generate 25% of its power. I find this a bit hard to understand, since it’s happening just as countries like Germany and Italy are decommissioning their nuclear power. Also, Abu Dhabi has huge peaks; their ratio of peak to average load is one of the largest on Earth, due largely to air conditioning, which represents 85% of load — even more surprising for a country that has huge energy needs for water desalination and the petrochemical industry.
In a total defiance to what happened in Fukushima, and the negative reaction of Germany, Italy and Sweden to nuclear power, French president Nicolas Sarkozy reaffirms the country’s reliance on nuclear power by announcing the investment of a billion euros in this field.
“We are going to devote a billion euros to the nuclear programme of the future, particularly fourth-generation technology,” Sarkozy said at a news conference. “We are also going to release substantial resources from the big loan to strengthen research in the sphere of nuclear safety,” he added.
On the other side, France will also invest 1.35 billion euros in renewable energies, despite the fact that 80 percent of their grid juice comes from nuclear.
Meanwhile, the nuclear plant at Fukushima is still leaking and people are still mourning for their lost ones. This is no reason for stopping for some, though. Each state knows its strengths and what it is relying on, and cannot make decisions that could jeopardize the national security.
Germany already has enough wind and solar power to sustain the loss of their nuclear arsenal, Sweden and Italy are also well developed. Although the numbers say renewables can’t yet sustain everything, by the time they’ll have dropped the idea of nuclear there will be enough wind turbines and solar panels to compensate for the loss. Time will tell.
Getting old isn’t pleasant: things start to creak or stop working all together. The good news, you would think, in the case of nuclear power plants is that you can replace worn, corroded or cracked parts with new ones.
But an impressive year-long investigation into the US nuclear power industry by Associated Press reveals how the regulators and the industry have repeatedly found a much simpler solution to ageing: weaken the safety standards until the creaking plants meet them.
On yesterday’s post, some commenters argued the engineering safety issue is not unique to nuclear power, meaning it is unfair to criticise the nuclear industry for failings that pass unnoticed elsewhere. I disagree for the simple reason that the stakes are so vastly higher for nuclear reactors: safety standards have to be far more stringent because the consequences of serious accidents have such huge economic and social costs. Remember, the pact you sign when you build a reactor is to control that atomic inferno for decades and then look after the waste for thousands of years.
That leads to the point that underlies the AP investigation. The incentive to maintain costly safety regimes runs entirely counter to the primary incentive of the nuclear power plant operators, which, perfectly reasonably, is to make money. The problem comes when, as years roll by without serious incidents, that heavy, expensive regulation starts to look like an unnecessary burden.
And that’s exactly what AP’s reporters found:
Federal regulators have been working closely with the US nuclear power industry to keep the nation’s ageing reactors operating within safety standards by repeatedly weakening those standards, or simply failing to enforce them. Time after time, officials at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have decided that original regulations were too strict, arguing that safety margins could be eased without peril, according to records and interviews.
Examples abound. When valves leaked, more leakage was allowed — up to 20 times the original limit. When rampant cracking caused radioactive leaks from steam generator tubing, an easier test of the tubes was devised, so plants could meet standards.
Failed cables. Busted seals. Broken nozzles, clogged screens, cracked concrete, dented containers, corroded metals and rusty underground pipes — all of these and thousands of other problems linked to ageing were uncovered. And all of them could escalate dangers in the event of an accident.
Yet despite the many problems linked to ageing, not a single official body in government or industry has studied the overall frequency and potential impact on safety of such breakdowns in recent years, even as the NRC has extended the licenses of dozens of reactors.
The problem of ageing is another where the incentive to close old reactors down in favour of newer, safer reactors is easily overwhelmed by the incentive to keep it running. The plant exists and the capital costs are paid off, so as long you can sell the electricity for more than the maintenance costs, you have a money-printing machine.
At the time, the 30 to 40 year licences granted to nuclear power plants were seen as the absolute maximum period for which they would run: the period matched their design lifetimes. Now, AP found, 66 of the 104 operating units in the US have been relicenced for 20 extra years, with applications being considered for 16 more.
Globally, the oldest operational nuclear power plant is in the UK: the 44-year-old Oldbury reactors, 15 miles north of Bristol on the bank of the river Severn. Of the 440 reactors in the world, 22 are older than 40 years, and 163 are older than 30 years.
AP quote NRC chief spokesman Eliot Brenner defending the licence extensions: “When a plant gets to be 40 years old, about the only thing that’s 40 years old is the ink on the license. Most, if not all of the major components, will have been changed out.”
But a former NRC head, Ivan Selin, has a different view. “It’s as if we were all driving Model T’s today and trying to bring them up to current mileage standards.”
So here’s the choice. You can back nuclear, an industry far more inherently dangerous than its rivals, with a history of capturing its safety regulators and dumping its costs on taxpayers. Or you can do all you can to back energy efficiency, renewable energy and energy storage plans.