What Could *Possibly* Go Wrong?
Posted on June 21st, 2011 at 1:24 pm by Steve

So, rising floodwaters in Nebraska have completely surrounded two nuclear power plants. But, hey, don’t worry! The plant at Fort Calhoun Station (a full 19 miles from Omaha – stay put, Warren Buffet!) has been in “cold shutdown” since April. The plant’s managers decided not to restart the nuclear chain reaction, given the impending floods.

Of course, they did have a “small fire” that…well, actually, it only knocked out the cooling water pumps in the “spent fuel” storage pool for 90 minutes, during which time the temperature in the pool rose “a few degrees.” But, hey, at that rate of temperature increase, it would’ve taken days (well, 88 hours) for the water in the pool to start boiling away. What happens then? The fuel melts… it oxidizes… it can catch fire and spread radioactive materials over a large area.

But, don’t panic! How could a nuclear plant possibly lose all of its power? I mean, they have grid power and backup generators, right? How could the grid connection fail? (Certainly not due to a massive regional flood!) How could the diesel generators fail? (Certainly not due to being submerged by the aforementioned flood!) After all, the operators of Fort Calhoun have planned ahead! They installed a giant rubber innertube around the plant to hold back the waters:

[Plant spokesman] Gates said an Aqua Dam currently protects the switchyard and substation at Fort Calhoun, tall enough to withstand floodwaters at a 1,010 elevation (the river level is currently at an elevation of 1,005 feet, 7 inches).

[Source: OPPD: Nuclear station “safe and will continue to be safe”, The Washington County Pilot-Tribune and Enterprise, June 17, 2011]

How could the river rise another four feet, five inches? I mean, it’s not like the levees and dams upstream are stressed and starting to breach? It’s not like it might rain any more than it already has…

Perhaps the most significant impact of the [June 20] storm was the large area of 1 – 4 inches of rain it dropped on Nebraska and South Dakota. This rain will run off into the Missouri River, further aggravating the flooding that has breached two levees and overtopped two other levees in the past week. The large, slow-moving low pressure system responsible for the rains and severe weather will bring additional heavy rains of 1 – 3 inches over portions of the Missouri River watershed today [June 21], and will touch off a new round of severe weather today and Wednesday as the storm progresses slowly eastwards.

[Source: Jeff Masters, Ph.D., founder and chief meteorologist of the Weather Underground, Inc.]

Well, the good thing is that nuclear plants in the United States are designed with extremely conservative assumptions, so there’s a very high margin of safety! Oh, and also… even for plants that were built 37 years ago, like the Cooper Nuclear Station, just downstream from Fort Calhoun (and also inundated with floodwaters), they’re subject to constant inspections and tough regulations!

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 aging were uncovered in the AP’s yearlong investigation. And all of them could escalate dangers in the event of an accident.

Yet despite the many problems linked to aging, 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.


Records show a recurring pattern: Reactor parts or systems fall out of compliance with the rules. Studies are conducted by the industry and government, and all agree that existing standards are “unnecessarily conservative.”

Regulations are loosened, and the reactors are back in compliance.

[Source: “U.S. nuke regulators weaken safety rules,” by the Associated Press, June 20, 2011]

As Harry Shearer says, “Safe! Clean! Too cheap to meter! Our friend, the atom.”

Nuke New England!
Posted on April 18th, 2011 at 3:03 pm by Steve

Imagine a “station blackout” occurs at the Pilgrim Nuclear Generation Station in Plymouth, MA. Within days, a hydrogen explosion shatters the secondary containment building, possibly breaching primary containment as well. The government orders a mandatory evacuation for areas within 20 km of the plant, but the BBC World Service is saying that the British government has advised their citizens not to travel within 50 miles of Plymouth.

This catastrophe at Plymouth (or Seabrook, or Vermont Yankee, or Millstone in Connecticut) hasn’t happened…yet. But the notion that “it can’t happen here” has taken quite a beating over the last month. If and when a disaster like this strikes, we’ll have hours to evacuate. Think for a moment what it would take to evacuate just the inner “exclusion zone” around one of these reactors. Where are we going to put all the people from Brockton, Plymouth, Taunton, Fall River, Buzzards Bay, Sandwich…? And what about the more than a million people that live within 50 miles? Remember that, even now, the US government is advising Americans not to travel within 50 miles of Fukushima, a month after the crisis began. How can we avoid travel to the entire Boston metro area?

Of course, Pilgrim only has one reactor, where Fukushima Daiichi has six. On the other hand, Pilgrim has more than TWO MILLION POUNDS of radioactive spent fuel assemblies stored on site. A loss of coolant water in the tightly-packed spent fuel pool at Plymouth – which has far less containment, and far more fuel, than the reactor core – could quickly lead to a fire and a massive excursion of radioactive isotopes of cesium, strontium, iodine, and others. An explosion could spread deadly plutonium and uranium particles for miles (as happened at Fukushima). In other words, even with fewer reactors, a station blackout at Plymouth could have worse radiological consequences than the ongoing disaster in Japan.

The spent fuel pool at Vermont Yankee

The reactor at Plymouth is a General Electric Mark I Boiling Water Reactor, the same design and vintage of the “troubled” reactors in Japan. Of course, America’s Nuclear Industry and Regulators (is there a difference?) are quick to point out that American reactors have strict safety standards and have been upgraded and so on. Ask them about the spent fuel pools. Ask them how long they can run the pumps to maintain sufficient cooling in the event of a station blackout (whatever the cause). Ask them the consequences of allowing the operator to store 2,918 spent fuel assemblies in a pool that was designed and originally licensed to hold just 880 assemblies.

Of course, the spokesman for Vermont Yankee is quick to assure us, “We believe pools are perfectly safe. It was designed to be safe and there are redundant systems so there is never a loss of coolant.” Indeed. For some reason, those fools in Japan neglected to design their pools to be safe, and that’s why they suffered a complete loss of coolant and melting of the fuel rods in the spent fuel pool. Silly Japanese!

The True Cost of Wind Energy
Posted on May 2nd, 2010 at 11:20 pm by Steve

The problem with wind energy is that it drives prices down! From Bloomberg news:

After years of getting government incentives to install windmills, operators in Europe may have become their own worst enemy, reducing the total price paid for electricity in Germany, Europe’s biggest power market, by as much as 5 billion euros some years, according to a study this week by Poeyry, a Helsinki-based industry consultant.

Jerome a Paris has an excellent discussion of the article over at The Oil Drum. He also links from there to an excellent (and entirely wonky) discussion of the proper pricing of wind power. It is a great article – one key takeaway is that wind power actually brings electricity prices down! Understanding that assertion requires a discussion of marginal costs, initial investments, demand curves, spot pricing, intermittency, externalities, and Spitzenlast (see above), but it’s totally worth it.

Another key point is that “market” pricing actually tilts the playing field toward fuel-based generation of electricity, because of its lower capital and debt-servicing requirements:

selecting market mechanisms to set electricity prices (rather than regulating them) is, again, not technology neutral: here as well, deregulated markets are structurally more favorable to fossil fuel-based generation sources than publicly regulated price environments.

So while I definitely wanted to highlight the issues around wind power (and point you to some excellent, informed commentary), I mostly just wanted an excuse to show that graph! SPITZENLAST!

Public Utility Chutzpah
Posted on February 22nd, 2010 at 6:35 pm by Mutt

PG&E Building in San Francisco
PG&E Building in San Francisco

Today, I noticed an ad for California Prop 16, with the catchline “Preserve Your Right To Vote.” Thinking that this sounded like a lot of spin, I decided to look it up.

According to Ballotpedia, this is basically an initiative funded by PG&E to make it more difficult for municipalities to start their own utilities.  It would amend the California state constitution to require that any Community Choice Aggregator be approved by a 2/3 vote.

Now, I already thought that California’s system for amending the constitution by a simple majority is ridiculous, but this really takes the cake.  (Perhaps even the lemon olive oil cake.  See below.)

Let me get this straight — you’re using a simple 50% vote to require that, in the future, individual communities need a 2/3 majority to do something?  That seems really backward.

But what really gets me is that PG&E, a monopoly public utility, is planning on spending $25-35 million dollars to singlehandedly fund the campaign for this initiative — that’s money that we’re paying them!

Talk About “Toxic” Assets!
Posted on April 16th, 2009 at 11:03 am by Steve

According to Andrew Clark in the Guardian,

The rump of the bankrupt bank Lehman Brothers is sitting on a stockpile of 450,000 lb of uranium “yellowcake” which could be used to power a nuclear reactor or, theoretically, to make a bomb.

Those are some seriously toxic assets!

Remember when yellowcake was such a big deal that the U.S. government used it as justification to invade and destroy Iraq? Here are those famous sixteen words again, in case you’ve forgotten Bush’s fabulous 2003 State of the Union speech:

The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

So, maybe the U.S. will be invading Lehman Brothers next…?

This day in history: Nuclear milestones
Posted on December 2nd, 2008 at 2:52 pm by Mutt

Dec. 2, 1942:  The first man-made controlled nuclear reaction takes place, underneath the grandstand of the University of Chicago’s football grandstand.

Dec. 2, 1957:  The first commercial nuclear power plant goes online, in Shippingport, PA.

Wired has an article, here:  http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2008/12/dayintech_1202

One interesting piece of historical nomenclature is that, at the Chicago experiment, there was a staffer prepared to cut a rope with an axe, to drop graphite rods into the reactor and stop the reaction.  This acronym, SCRAM, for Safety Control Rod Ax-Man, is still used for the emergency shutdown systems in modern reactors.



Best NYT Front Page EVER!
Posted on November 13th, 2008 at 1:21 pm by Steve

IRAQ WAR ENDS and other great headlines in today’s (fake) New York Times (courtesy of The Yes Men).

Down Is the New Up!
Posted on November 3rd, 2008 at 5:30 pm by Steve

Seriously. We’ve been hearing for years that Americans need to curb their excessive consumption habits. We’ve been told that we drive too many cars, we use too much electricity, we throw away too much plastic, we import too much oil, and on and on and on.

Suddenly, we’re using less oil; we’re driving fewer miles; we’re buying fewer cars; we’re buying fewer goods; and we’re using less electricity. But this is all being reported as “bad” news!

We obviously are in desperate need of new ways to measure economic and social well-being. It shouldn’t be a headline crisis when U.S. auto sales drop 50%, it should be a sign of much-needed progress!

Spending and growth are not the measures of a healthy and satisfying life. I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot since I read Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy. I’ll do a “dogeared” post on it soon…

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before…
Posted on October 30th, 2008 at 10:51 am by Steve

“[Oil company] reports record profits…”

That headline ran today. It also ran in July, 2008. According to my search of the New York Times archives (oil AND record AND (profit OR profits)), it also ran in April, 2008. It also ran in February, 2008. It also ran in February, 2007. It also ran in July, 2006. It also ran in January, 2006. It also ran in October, 2005. It also ran in August, 2005. It also ran in February, 2005. It also ran in August, 2004. It also ran in July, 2004. It also ran in October, 2000. It also ran in July, 2000. It also ran in May, 1997. It also ran in January, 1997. It also ran in January, 1990. It also ran in October, 1988.

It’s funny. I guess if you control the supply of something vital to every sector of the economy, and there’s no limit on your pricing power (other than “the market”), then you can pretty much guarantee you’ll earn a shitload of money.

Here’s the relevant graf from 11 years ago:

Exxon, the largest oil company in the United States, said its profit jumped nearly 49 percent to a record $2.49 billion, or $2 a share, in the fourth quarter, compared with a profit of $1.68 billion, or $1.35 a share, in the similar quarter of 1995. Revenue climbed to $37.62 billion from $31.50 billion.

And here’s the word today:

Exxon Mobil Corp.’s third-quarter net income rose 58% to a new record of nearly $15 billion… Exxon Mobil said it earned $14.83 billion, or $2.86 a share, up from $9.41 billion, or $1.70 a share in the year-ago period.

Those are quarterly profits, not gross receipts. That’s a profit rate of almost $2,000 per second!

I also enjoyed finding this little nugget in an April 27, 1986 article in the New York Times:

President Reagan urged the repeal of the ”windfall profits” tax on domestic oil in an attempt to help out those companies hit by the price drop.

That tax was repealed on August 23, 1988, and has not been reinstated – although oil prices, which were around $38/barrel in 1980 and had fallen below $20/barrel in 1988, peaked above $140/barrel this summer.

Posted on October 14th, 2008 at 11:30 am by Steve

Dome house

I want to live in a dome house! I think…

From the pretty darn cool green-blog Inhabitat.

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