Tag Archive | nuclear power

I hate it when that happens – Volcano erupts near restarted Sendai reactor

Despite Japanese polling 2:1 against restarting the reactor fleet which has been completely shuttered for the last two years, the Abe government forced through the first restart of a reactor at Sendai complex.  Sendai was chosen for a number of reasons.   Comically, one of the reasons was that it was far from possible natural disaster.  Perhaps the most important (not listed in the excellent BAS article) is that it is the farthest from Tokyo (over 1000 km), where anti-nuclear protests continue.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan at protest of Sendai reactor restart

Former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan at protest of Sendai reactor restart

Former PM Kan spoke at the protest.  He was in office when Fukushima melted down and it destroyed his political career.   Now he is reminding fellow citizens that 1) Many new safety standards (like separate control rooms) have been skipped in restarting this reactor. 2) Tens of thousands of people remain unable to return to their homes because of radioactive fall out in the Fukushima area. 3) Japan does not need nuclear power to have a vibrant economy.

And as if  Mother Nature had a sense of humor, five days after the restart the nearest Volcano to the Sendai complex started erupting.    In all fairness, the active volcano at Sakurajima erupts quite regularly.  This time however it has reached level 4, which is the second highest warning level meaning that the 4,000 local residents should be prepared to immediately evacuate.  Level 5 is immediate evacuation.  The last major eruption of Sakurajima was in August 2013 (see above video), when ash and debris flew 5 km from the volcano.  Sendai is 50 km from the volcano.

sendai reactors

The first reactors to start in over 2 years in Japan.

Should Japan Restart it’s Reactors?

Japan was the third largest nuclear power in the world, with 50 operating reactors on March 10th, 2011.  Then the 3/11/11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami hit, leading to 3 meltdowns and 5 other reactors being crippled or permanently decommissioned.  There are now 42 reactors in Japan which could theoretically be restarted.  For technical and political reasons they have all been idle for the last year.

Should Japan restart these reactors?  At first the answer might seem an obvious yes.  These reactors represented almost 30% of the countries generating capacity.  Without them, as the Abe government has claimed the economy will suffer as will the environment.  Without them, as the nuclear utilities have claimed, there will be blackouts and brownouts.   Except that has not been what has happened.

From Greenpeace Happy First Nuclear Free Birthday Report

From Greenpeace Happy First Nuclear Free Birthday Report

Despite a significant increase in fossil fuel use for energy generation, the total CO2 emissions have only increased minimally (on the order of 8% in 2010 to 2012).  This is because overall energy use is way down through energy efficiency and conservation and CO2 emissions have also been mitigated by renewables coming online.

Nor has the Japanese economy crashed in response to the lack of nuclear power.  In fact in 2012, the first full year after Fukushima, still reeling from the tsunami and earthquake, and with most of it’s nuclear fleet shut down,  Japan had it’s highest recorded GDP ever.

How is this possible?

Japan fuel replacement

The short answer is Japan has dramatically changed it’s relationship with energy.  In the last year when it has been fully nuclear free, it has put in place conservation and efficiency programs that are replacing 13 reactors worth of power.  In addition generous feed in tariffs are inspiring both home owners and businesses to install renewable sources of energy and this has amounted to another 3 reactors worth of power being saved.  At this rate in just 2 more years all the reactors capacity will be replaced.  So given how the last few years have been, why don’t we just wait and see.  As many other countries have delayed nuclear projects including Bangladesh, Jordan, Lithuania, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Vietnam.

Japan renewable growth

So it turns out the not at all obvious answer (given the government and utilities misstatements) is that seismically and volcanically active Japan is better off leaving all it’s reactors turned off.   It is better off economically, environmentally and in terms of energy services. This is also what 59% of the Japanese public want.

But, sadly, this is nothing like a done deal.   These reactors represent hundreds of billions of dollars in investments for the nuclear utilities.  The nuclear utilities and the Abe administration have no intention of giving them up without a fight.   This is possibly the biggest industrial fight in the history of the planet.  A back of the napkin calculation is that these reactors have several trillion US dollars worth of life in them.  Only big wars are more expensive.

Much of the data and all of the charts for this report come from the excellent new Greenpeace “Nuclear Free Japan year one

Chernobyl is 28

i had the option to see the Chernobyl site 18 years ago today when i was in Kiev, i did not go.  i still don’t regret my choice. Oh, i was certainly tempted and curious.  It was the 10th anniversary of the disaster and we had brought over one hundred anti-nuclear activists from around the world to Kiev to talk about how to end nuclear power world wide.  The Ukrainian event organizers planned a field trip out to the melted down reactor and dozens of safe energy campaigners went donning protective Tyvek suits and face masks.

Chernobyl Reactor #4 - Circa 1987

Chernobyl Reactor #4 – Circa 1987

But i knew about hot spots.  i knew that the clean up effort had been wholly inadequate.  i had seen the endless pictures of negative health effects.  Kiev was as close as i was willing to get to this human created toxic mess.  i did not go, because radiation is a probability game and i did not want to take risky chances. We don’t know how many people died due to Chernobyl.  WHO (the UN’s health agency) with the help of the pro-nuclear IAEA estimate 4000 premature deaths.  Using the same model, the Union of Concerned Scientist estimate 27,000 deaths.  Greenpeace says 93K additional deaths between 1990 and 2004.  The New York Academy of Science brings in a number of 985K deaths.  We know that 600K Liquidators worked on the clean up were mostly late teenagers and 20 somethings at least 60K of them were dead by 2006.  [There is a good recent article on exactly this issue in the Ecologist Magazine.]

One of the easy disaster porn images.

One of the easy disaster porn images.

Similarly, we don’t know how many will die from Fukushima.  If you read the popular media, you will often hear none.  This is like calling the death toll at Chernobyl 28.  We already know that in the Fukushima province more have died from the effects of the meltdowns than the 1600 who were killed on March 11, 2011 by the tsunami.  And many more have serious adverse health effects, plus over 80K who remain displaced.  Japan will be studied more than the Ukraine was, expect bad news. The Chernobyl accident had shocked the world and seriously damaged the credibility of the nuclear power industry.  Less than half a year before the meltdown the IAEA (the US’s “nuclear watchdog”) had inspected the Chernobyl plant and given it high ratings.  The nuclear industry continued to assure the public that the chances of catastrophic accidents were barely worth talking about, much less planning for.

What has kept nuclear power alive since Chernobyl is a combination of factors none of which we can be proud of.    The first is money.  As a utility, if you can build a reactor and largely get other people to pay for it AND you can get the government to pay for the insurance AND you can avoid paying the full cost for handling the waste AND you can block cheaper renewables, then you can make money with nuclear power plants .  A lot of money.

The second thing which serves the nuclear industry is our collective lack of memory.  The US especially is guilty of choosing to look forward rather than bothering to look back.  We can see this in today’s US press, which seems to be completely ignoring the Chernobyl anniversary.  [There is an excellent piece today in Al Jazeera on how Chernobyl birthed the resistance movements across the Soviet Union. and how the lingering health effects of hundreds of thousands are the real lesson.] Instead it is excited about the marketing promises of those who want to build new reactors underground or out at sea.

This is a US reactor you have likely never heard of

This is a US reactor you have likely never heard of

I like to remind people of the flooding which happened at Fort Calhoun in the summer of 2011.  One of the dramatic pictures is above.  We very nearly lost a big piece of Nebraska, but unless you are carefully following the nuclear news, you have likely never heard of this near accident.     The nuclear industry likes to remind us that the Fukushima earthquake was 1 in 10,000 years.  They say nothing of the flooding that happens increasingly often and severely  in Nebraska.  Add to this a US regulator who is downplaying and censoring dam failure information and you have a high risk situation.

The third factor, in my opinion, is that there is not really an international anti-nuclear movement.  i said this in Kiev and it is still true.  i can count on two hands all the people i think are active international anti-nuclear activists (i would not be on this list), most of them i am honored to call my friends.  The economic loss from Fukushima alone is estimated between US$250 and 500 billion – more than all but the top 21 countries make in a year.  Contrast this with the well under US$1 million spent annually on international anti-nuclear campaigning.  The Fukushima and Chernobyl meltdowns did not stop at the borders, yet our efforts to halt radioactive poisons largely do.

The problem is not tsunami's

The problem is not tsunamis

Fukushima has also shocked the world and seriously damaged the credibility of the nuclear industry.  But the wealthy nuclear industry plus a forgetful public maybe just the combination needed to create a perfect storm and cost us the opportunity to leave nuclear behind forever.   We continue to take risky chances.   The lessons for Chernobyl and Fukushima are not how to make reactor technology safer, it is that this is a technology which we should retire.

Dominion wants money for their mistakes at North Anna 3

[Update:  This legislation passed, largely without comment from the media.]

The Virginia State Legislature is rushing thru legislation that would give Dominion half a billion dollars for the money they have already spent on third reactor at North Anna.

A HALF BILLION DOLLAR FOLLY AND DOMINION WANTS MORE?

Dominion wants to be reimbursed $570,000,000 by ratepayers for a project unlikely to be built. Dominion last year abandoned its Wisconsin nuke as “uneconomic”, yet wants Virginia customers to pay even if this uneconomic new dinosaur never produces one kilowatt (exactly what happened in the 1980s with the first North Anna 3).

PEOPLES ALLIANCE FOR CLEAN ENERGY (PACE) OPPOSES GENERAL ASSEMBLY WILLINGNESS TO ACCOMMODATE DOMINION

SB 459 sponsored by Sen. Stosch – Henrico  for Dominion Virginia Power is currently making its way through the General Assembly. It has already passed the Senate 40 -0 and will likely pass the House. (Dominion is the largest contributor to Virginia legislative campaigns and does not discriminate between Democrats and Republicans.)

Dominion will be authorized to recoup up to 70% of  $570,000,000 it has already spent to obtain licensing and construct North Anna Nuclear Unit 3 by passing on costs in ratepayers’ monthly bills.  The bill will also permit Dominion to pass on future construction costs to Virginia ratepayers.

cash for nukes

PACE asserts that SB459 is yet another attempt to bilk the VA ratepayers by socializing the risks of new nuclear constructions and privatizing the profits.

The plant might never come on line, but ratepayers will have been committed to pay costs of construction, and if the plant never generates electricity, for costs associated with subsequent dismantlement. This has happened before with VEPCO on the same site in the early 80’s. Ratepayers paid the dismantling costs of two units that were never completed.*

Jerry Rosenthal of the Peoples Alliance for Clean Energy said “Virginia homeowners, businesses and industry are offered higher electric rates with increased risks  and less regulatory oversight in exchange for a pie-in-the-sky proposal. This is a lose-lose situation for the taxpayers and ratepayers.”

nukes no solution to climate chance

Dominion has not officially committed to build North Anna 3.    Furthermore, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will not be approving any new projects until October 2014 when the Waste Confidence ruling is expected.

It is irresponsible of Dominion to build a third nuclear unit on a site adjacent to an active earthquake fault (knowledge of which they suppressed in the 70’s) and also because to date no solution has been found to the ongoing accumulation of high level radioactive waste on site.

PACE believes that the VA ratepayer should not be paying for Dominion’s poor planning or to assure shareholders high dividends. PACE would prefer that Dominion abandon the third nuclear unit and instead invest in conservation, energy efficiency, smart meters, smart grid and renewables.

PACE  would hope that Virginia legislators put ratepayers’ interests above those of Dominion and its shareholders.

 

* Nuclear  power has a history of cost overruns and construction delays.  Some companies have abandoned the projects but ratepayers are still paying construction and other costs. (In the case of Crystal River 3, Duke Energy  closed the plant after spending $2 billion for worthless upgrades, repairs, and replacement power.  These costs were passed on to Florida ratepayers.   In Florida by law, Duke Energy can collect up to $1,466 billion for repairs, operation maintenance and construction.)  It’s been called “the gift that keeps on giving” and it appears Virginia ratepayers will be giving as well.

For other disturbing information on Dominion – see this report on their shareholder meeting

Closure of the Kewaunee Reactor

The World Bank Says “no” to nukes. Again

As much as i don’t like them, sometimes the World Bank has it right.  In the early days of fighting reactors we often quoted the WB analysis on why reactors (especially for small countries) don’t make sense.

“Nuclear plants are thus uneconomic because at present and projected costs they are unlikely to be the least-cost alternative. There is also evidence that the cost figures usually cited by suppliers are substantially underestimated and often fail to take adequately into account waste disposal, decommissioning and other environmental costs. Furthermore, the large size of many nuclear plants relative to developing country systems leads to risk of substantial excess capacity should demand fail to increase as predicted. A nuclear investment strategy lacks flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. The higher costs would require large increases in tariffs and could threaten the financial viability of the systems if nuclear power were a significant part of the total…”

“Operating costs must be added to capital costs to obtain final electricity costs. Even with low operating costs, the high capital costs of nuclear preclude their being selected as the least cost alternative under any reasonable assumptions concerning prices of coal and oil. ”

White Elephant is a flattering description

White Elephant is a flattering description

“Catastrophic Failures: Both nuclear and hydro plants have only a small probability of catastrophic failure, but some experts point to experience of systems failure in nuclear plants, where the exposure is much greater than in hydro dams (where the safety issue is a structural one). The worst case catastrophe for a nuclear plant is much worse than for a hydro plant because of the long-run health impacts (as at Chernobyl). In both cases, the consequences are borne by involuntary population.”

“The environmental community is therefore strongly anti-nuclear. It emphasizes that the risk is one of involuntary exposure and that the environmental costs are high enough to rule out nuclear power even if it were otherwise economic.”

The power of international trade

The power of international trade

“Further complicating the issue is a perception of secrecy and lack of candor that characterizes the operation of nuclear power plans. In recent years, a number of accidents have raised doubts in the public mind about the competence of the industry and the safety of the process. Many doubt the credibility of the industry.” From World Bank Technical Paper #154: Environmental Assessment Sourcebook Volume III Guidelines for Environmental Assessment of Energy and Industry Projects by the World Bank Environment Department, April 94, p 83-89

Recently, the World Bank has again said it does not plan on lending for nuclear power plants.  This time using the weaker argument that it is not familiar with the technology.   Instead the WB is looking to fund real renewables in the developing world.

 

Will the Axis powers win WW3?

[The first part of this article is how these countries got out of nuclear power, the second half is about what they are replacing it with.]

In 1940, Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Hirohito’s Japan were the original 3 Axis Powers in World War 2.

axis flags

Since WW 2 these three nations have built and operated 80 production nuclear reactors (54 in Japan, 22 in Germany 4 in Italy).   Today across these 3 countries there are only 9 operating, all in Germany, all of which will be phased out in 2022. Here is what happened to them:

In 1987, after Chernobyl, Italy had a referendum and voted to close its four operating reactors in three years.  In 2011, to re-affirm this decision 95% of Italians voting again repudiated nuclear power.

On May 4, 1986, less than two weeks after the Chernobyl meltdown, a thorium fuel pebble bed production reactor in Germany had an accident and released radiation into the environment.  Plant management tried to hide the release behind the Chernobyl releases.  This accident undermined German trust in pebble bed reactors.  It did not seem to dampen the global endless fringe enthusiasm for thorium reactors.

In 1990, after the Berlin Wall came down, but before re-unification, it was decided it was too dangerous to continue running Soviet design reactors at Greifswald and 5 operating reactors were closed.  [Interestingly, these reactors almost never show up on reactor maps of Germany, even ones including closed reactors, they have simply vanished from public view, despite their huge decommissioning costs (as of 2008 almost US$2 billion have been spent on decommissioning Greifswald, and the job is far from done)].

Mysteriously Wikipedia and other maps don't included closed east German reactors

Mysteriously Wikipedia and other maps don’t include closed eastern German reactors

In 2011 shortly after Fukushima, Germany’s long pro-nuclear Prime Minister Angela Merkel said

“when, in Japan, the apparently impossible becomes possible and the absolutely unlikely reality, then the situation changes.”

With this sentiment she temporarily closed 8 reactors.  These temporary closures became permanent and the 2022 phase out of all reactors was approved by the parliament and government of Germany.

On March 10th 2011 Japan was the 3rd largest nuclear power in the world (after the US and France) with 54 operating production reactors.  Today all Japanese reactors are either offline, melted down, irreversibly damaged or decommissioned.  Unlike Italy and Germany, the nuclear future of Japan is quite unclear.

The current government would like to re-start as many reactors as possible.  Interestingly, to this end they have decommissioned the two mostly undamaged reactors at Fukushima (blocks 5 and 6).  A largely symbolic move, since the prefecture had already voted to ban all nuclear power plants in the region.  The government has also decided to take over the largely failed Fukushima accident control responsibility for the nuclear utility TEPCO, which owns Fukushima.

All of these countries are working on renewable power sources to increase energy independence, avoid massive increases in their carbon footprints and ultimately save money.

So what is the World War 3 mentioned in the title of this blog?  There is an undeclared global war against climate change.  Unlike the two previous World Wars it will not principally be fought militarily.  Like the previous world wars it will impact almost every country in the world and to win it will require significant dedication of resources and political will.  To date the US especially has been lacking this political will.  The old Axis Powers are showing up in a different way.

Italy’s recent definitive referendum cleared the way for continued government support of renewables, though some solar feed in tariffs have been phased out.   So far this year Italy has produced 36% of its electricity from renewable sources, with an impressive 15.7% reduction in conventional energy sources.  Current renewables produce 6 times more power annually than the total of the 4 reactors closed by 1990.

one of many innovative Italian designs

Solar Wind proposed Italian design – under a viaduct

Germany is the global model for transforming 20th century energy systems into contemporary ones.  If you pay casual attention to the news, or read the oft misinformed NY Times, you might think:

  1. That the German transition model is running into problems
  2. That it is unpopular among the German people
  3. Germany is paying for this transition with higher household electricity bills
  4. By quickly closing reactors, Germany must open new coal plants

Turns out every one of these assumptions is wrong.  There are definitely challenges to implementing the full program called Energiewende (or Energy Transitions).  In my conversation with old friend Martin Rocholl he made it clear that the German grid is not ready for the shift which is happening and there are other serious problems as well.  But overall the very engineering adept Germans are on the path they have designed for themselves.  Revenue neutral Feed in Tariffs for renewables are decreasing each year having done what they were always supposed to do, which is help these technologies mature and reach market parity.

Ninety percent of Germans think implementing this energy transition is important or very important.  Fifty-one percent felt is was progressing too slowly, 30% think it is going at a fine pace.  Fewer than 8% attribute the price increases in energy to the additional cost of renewables.

Are Germans paying more?  In some ways certainly, But if we look at what German households pay for electricity as a fraction of their total expenses, it works out to be about 2 to 2.5%. In the US it is higher on average, closer to 3.5%.

As for the myth that more coal plants have opened since 3/11, it is just that, a myth.  Fossil plants (mostly coal) have dropped 3 GW (the capacity of three large reactors) since the meltdowns.  But what is most interesting about this, is it was not government action, but market effects.  Renewables on feed in tariffs are pushing coal and even some gas plants out of business at a more competitive footing each day.  The worlds largest engineering firm, Siemens, closed it’s nuclear branch.

Japan is still a crap shot.  The current PM and government want to restart as many reactors as possible.  But the new emboldened regulatory agent, a respected former MP going anti-nuclear and the willingness of local leaders and populace to be part of the effort to push back.  Japan historically used a “consensus” process to operate it’s reactors in which local governors must approve reactor restarts.  Currently no reactors are operating, likely some will come back on line.  But what is clear is Japan is following Germany’s lead towards:

  • home based renewable systems
  • generation solutions which don’t require centralized utilities
  • high renewable feed in tariffs which encourages investment

While it is still a tiny fraction of total generation, it is actually the first of these which i hold the most hope for.  Just making households aware of what they consume and incentivized to conserve and think differently.  While i have never been, everything i hear and read about. the Japanese is that they are as wasteful about energy as the US is.  It is changing this mindset which will win WW3.

Meanwhile here at home, the US keeps subsidizing nuclear power construction.

Nuking-Taxpayers

[Edited by Judy Youngquest]

Too big a lie to fail

Hillary Clinton is in the Czech Republic trying to convince the Czechs to “buy American”.  Specifically, the secretary of state hopes to win the $10 billion contract for the two new reactors at the Temelin nuclear power station for Westinghouse.  I fought the first two reactors built by Westinghouse at Temelin between 1991 and 1997 in the Czech Republic.

If you read the mainstream media you will find out a number of things about this project.   One of the first things you will discover is if Westinghouse wins this contract it will mean 9000 jobs for the US.  That’s great, right?

U.S. Secretary of State Clinton shakes hands with Czech Prime Minister Necas in Prague

Clinton and Czech PM Necas trade lies

No, it is a lie.  We can tell it is a lie several ways.

First we can look at number of jobs created building other similar plants.  Two Westinghouse units of the same design are being built in Georgia.  Southern Company which owns that plant estimates at the peak there will be 5,000 jobs.  But the vast majority of these jobs are construction jobs.  Temelin will create almost no US jobs in construction.  Just as they did with the construction of the last two reactors, they will hire Czechs and other laborers from eastern European countries.

Second, we can do a little math.  They are saying it will take 5 years to complete this project (it will take longer, but lets pretend it is 5 years).  The average nuclear engineer (which is most of what they Westinghouse jobs will be) makes $80K per year.  9000 jobs * 80K per year * 5 years * 2.5 mark up by Westinghouse for staff is $9 billion dollars or 90% of the estimated cost of the reactor.  Leaving $1 billion for all the construction labor and materials. Nuclear power is a capital intensive industry (meaning the materials are a bigger part of the cost than the salaries).  This number is simply a fiction.

Finally, inside the Czech Republic Westinghouse is telling everyone that 75% of the jobs will be going to local people, not US Americans.  So if the 9000 Americans are supplemented with 27K Czechs and others it will be taking 10 times more people to build these Czech reactors than it does the ones in Georgia.

So why do they tell this lie?  First off, they can get away with it.  Just like the Republicans lied about the number of job Keystone would create (claiming between 20K and 100K, when the actual number was closer to 4000), they assume no one is doing their homework.  And they are largely right.

It is worth pointing out that Westinghouse is owned by the Japanese company Toshiba, so the lions share of the profits from this venture will not be coming to the US at all.

These reactors are likely never to be completed.  In 2011 the Czech Republic exported the equivalent of nearly all of the power for the first two reactors at Temelin to Germany.  In 2012, after closing 8 reactors and dramatically increasing it’s renewables portfolio Germany is significant net exporter of power.  The Czech Republics larges energy customer is gone and is never coming back.

Unfortunately, we will still have to fight them to avoid these costly, dangerous and unnecessary reactors from being built.  Madam Secretary would do well to come home without these US jobs.