Archive for the ‘Nuclear Power’ Category

Fukushima Washes Ashore

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

This month the Government Accountability Office released a report on measures taken by countries around the world in response to the Fukushima disaster. Fukushima has been a slow-motion calamity. Public awareness of its continuing effects ebbs and flows like the water that courses intermittently through damaged reactor vessels.

Governments around the world are not oblivious to the implications of the Japanese experience for their own nuclear programs. The GAO examined what steps sixteen countries have taken in response to Fukushima. The GAO notes that Germany, for instance, accelerated the shutdown of its nuclear power reactors, and Jordan reassessed plans to establish a civilian nuclear power program. A number of countries are addressing their failure to plan for more than a single incident, and are now planning for more imaginative accident scenarios, such as those that could involve multiple reactors at a single power plant. A half a dozen countries are instituting automated systems for monitoring and transmitting critical data to regulators and technicians responding to potential accidents. The report details how international nuclear organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Association of Nuclear Operators, and the European Union are trying to coordinate efforts to strengthen nuclear regulatory bodies to help them identify key elements of the Fukushima incident, and promote nuclear safety worldwide. Unfortunately, the report also concludes that, so far at least, no international organization is able really track the impact and effectiveness of the renewed safety and regulatory efforts.

The report’s release coincided with the arrival of the first radioactive water from Fukushima on North American shores. In late February, researches announced that radioactive cesium isotopes from the crippled power plant had reached the waters off the Canadian coast near Vancouver, British Columbia. The plume of radioactive water is expected to reach the U.S. coast later this year. Before you decide to move from Seattle to Missoula, bear in mind that the trace amounts of radiation in the water are not expected to reach levels unsafe for human consumption. According to a report in The New Republic, scientists predict the West Coast will see its cesium levels rise by between one and 30 becquerels per cubic meter. To put that number in perspective, the Environmental Protection Agency caps the quantity of cesium-137 in safe drinking water at 7,400 becquerels per cubic meter. In fact, the radiation recently measured in a single tuna—a fish that travels near Fukushima on its migratory route—is equivalent to the natural radiation in nine bananas. Whatever the dangers posed by the minute quantities of radiation which are drifting here might be, the fact that it is arriving at all is causing all sorts of people to make political hay. As The New Republic details, the boogeyman of radiation is uniting both the left and right wings of American politics to practically glow in the dark with suspicion and alarm. Perhaps they can buy up all the copies of the new GAO report. And use them to sop up the cesium.

Still Not Gone

Via Wikimedia Commons

Via Wikimedia Commons

I hate to keep beating the proverbial dead horse, but Fukushima is the gift that keeps on giving. Or the problem from hell.

Last week I wrote about how the Fukushima disaster had re-entered the news cycle, and not in a good way. After largely vanishing from public consciousness, the stricken reactors had emerged from the memory hole after Tepco, the plants’ operator, announced that massive amounts of radioactive water had escaped from temporary holding tanks and was headed for the open seas. In that post, I described Tepco’s response to the disaster from the get-go as hapless. That adjective hardly seems sufficient to describe the Inspector Clouseau of energy companies.

Following hard on the heels of last week’s announcement that, its prior multiple protestations notwithstanding, the situation at the devastated plants was not contained (and notwithstanding its hallucinatory plan to freeze the ground to prevent contaminated water from leaching into the ocean) comes word that the situation at the stricken plants is even worse than Tepco has ever let on. Or, more to the point, ever knew.

All along, Tepco has reported that the radiation emitted by the leaking water was around 100 millisieverts an hour. Well, the equipment the company was relying on to make those readings could only measure up to 100 milisieverts.  So, apparently, they took that as the actual reading of the radiation level.  Turns out the actual amount of radiation is 1,800 millisieverts an hour.  Garbage in, as they say, gives garbage out.

And how much is that? Enough to prove lethal in a mere four hours. Pause a moment to think of the workers who have been struggling to contain those leaking tanks.

You have to wonder where Tepco got their Geiger counters. Army surplus? Did Tepco simply not have the equipment to accurately measure the radiation? Did it know the amount and hope to keep mum about it? At this point, it scarcely matters. The company, the devastated plants, and Japan at large seem destined to stumble from one appalling revelation to another. Please join me in hoping I don’t have to post about Fukushima next week.

Forgotten But Not Gone (Godzilla Edition)

via Giant Freakin Robot

via Giant Freakin Robot

Last May, I wrote about the strange cloud of amnesia that seemed to have settled over the Fukushima nuclear site in Japan and how the disaster had faded almost entirely from public view, at least in the U.S.  At the time, Tepco, the plant owner and operator, was pouring water into the crippled reactor buildings to keep the nuclear cores cool. Unfortunately, all that water had to go someplace, so it was being stored in a massive 42 acre tank farm. Already, the tanks had started leaking. That jury-rigged system was intended to keep the cooling water (and the copious amounts of ground water flowing into the reactors) from being dumped at sea. Japanese fishermen really aren’t keen on radioactive fish.

Since that post, things have only gotten worse at Fukushima. This week Tepco officials reported that 300 tons of highly radioactive water has escaped from a storage tank and is making its way inexorably towards the sea. Indeed, it may already be flowing into the ocean. This is really a pretty dire situation, and certainly the worst turn of events since the original disaster. Monday’s discovery has definitely put Fukushima back into the news.

Tepco’s response has been hapless from the beginning. Now, in keeping with the whole Godzilla, sci-fi nightmare quality of the situation, the company has hatched a bizarre and improbable plan to keep the radioactive water from entering the ocean. It proposes to build a gigantic, upside down comb-shaped device to freeze the ground between the stricken reactors and the coast. Nothing else has worked so far, so maybe The Big Chill will succeed where every other attempt to contain the free-flowing waste has failed. But this latest scheme smacks of desperation. Perhaps recognizing the almost slapstick nature of the scheme, Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said “It’s like a haunted house, one thing happening after another. But we must take any steps that would reduce risks to avoid a fatal accident.”

Freezing the ground indefinitely may strike us as an absurd solution. It’s easy to invoke images of Godzilla and low rent B-movie nightmares, and crack wise about the sci-fi weirdness of Tepco’s frantic efforts to stay on top of the Fukushima disaster. But it’s important to remember that the original Godzilla movies were not the chuckle-inducing late night movie fare we remember. They were grim and fiercely anti-nuclear parables made in a country which had only recently been devastated by nuclear weapons. For all the mad scientist vibe of Tepco’s latest folly, the consequences aren’t funny. They aren’t funny at all.

Storing Renewable Energy: Is It All In the Spin?

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve been discussing the double edged sword that is nuclear power and what role it should play in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. The reason nuclear power keeps climbing out of its crypt, no matter how many stakes seem to be driven though its heart, is that other alternatives to dirty fuels like coal have been hobbled by a major flaw: even the most vocal proponents of wind and solar energy agree that energy storage is renewables’ Achilles heel. No doubt, windmills churning away in the breeze produce electricity, as do banks of solar panels in the Tucson sun. The problem is what happens on those hot still nights when turbines are stilled, the panels are dark, and you really, really want to turn on the air conditioning. The beauty of carbon energy and nuclear energy is that they can be relied on to provide electricity all the time, not just when the weather is cooperative.

All sorts of solutions have been proposed to the problem of storing the electricity from wind and solar generators so it can be used when it isn’t being generated. Good old reliable lead acid batteries like the one under the hood of your car predate the Civil War and are hardly models of efficiency (and are made up of lead and, uh, acid). Water pressure storage, thermal storage, and a host of other means of keeping electricity handy have been put forth to solve the conundrum posed by solar cells’ uselessness at night and wind turbines’ fickleness in the doldrums.

One solution that has been proposed but proven more technically tricky than expected, is a variant of a toy you may have had in your toy box – the top. Flywheels, in the form of gyroscopes, have been used for years as stabilizers. More recently they have been put to use to store energy. A flywheel spinning at high speed (and I do mean high speed) can store energy for use on demand. The trouble has been that the technology involved in using flywheels as a form of mechanical battery is complex, expensive, and heavy, principally because of the ridiculously high RPMs required to produce a usable amount of electricity. As a result, flywheel batteries have been largely confined to service as backup power supplies for hospitals and emergency services that require steady, reliable power delivery. But those flywheels are intended to supplement existing electricity as uninterruptible power supplies rather than long-term storage. In an effort to advance the state of the art in flywheel batteries, the federal government gave a $43 million loan guarantee to Beacon Power, but that company went on to join Solyndra in the bankrupt alternative energy graveyard.

Now a new venture is raising money for a new flywheel technology. Appropriately for such an undertaking, it’s turned to Kickstarter for funding. Inventor Bill Gray has come up with something he calls the Velkess. It is not a Nordic god from a Wagner opera, but an acronym for VEry Large Kinetic Energy Storage System.

Gray has high hopes for his new machine, which he claims avoids many of the problems that have stood in the way of previous flywheel batteries: exacting tolerances, the wobbling and stresses produced by rapid rotation, and the possible catastrophic failure of the ceramic or high tensile steel of traditional wheels. Gray’s new flywheel is made of common fiberglass, and designed to be more flexible and forgiving than prior iterations. Gray claims his machine could store electricity for one tenth the cost of the units Beacon was proposing.  His company is aiming first at the residential and small commercial market and then expanding out into the utility-scale market. This is the reverse of previous attempts to build out flywheel technology which usually started large and hoped to go small.

There is probably no silver bullet to reining in greenhouse gases. Combating global climate change will take a much broader armory than the traditional fuels we have relied on in the past. Maybe, just maybe, these grown up spinning toys will prove an important component.

Old Wine in New Bottles: Can Nuclear Power Pull Us Out of Global Climate Change?

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

We wrote recently about how the Fukushima disaster seems to have slipped from our collective ADD-addled memory. We also wondered whether global climate change was best characterized as a calamity, a catastrophe, or a cataclysm.

Without a doubt, Fukushima has cast a pall over the nuclear industry around the world. A number of countries are taking a long hard look at the risks involved in nuclear energy production, Germany, which produces 20% of its electricity via nuclear energy, is vowing to eliminate its nuclear program within a decade and replace it with renewable energy, a task Chancellor Angela Merkel describes as Herculean.

But even in the midst of all the hand wringing over the risks of nuclear energy, support for our old friend the atom continues grow, and in some surprising places. Those over a certain age may remember Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalogue, the combination Bible /Sears Catalogue of the 60s counter culture. From his old haunts of Sausalito, Brand is now proselytizing nuclear power as the best (or at least the least-worse) remedy for a carbon-choked planet.  Originally a staunch opponent of nuclear power, he feared we would be handing off the problem of nuclear waste to future generations, a solution that struck him as “poor civilizational behavior.” But he now believes nuclear energy is the most promising path towards a carbon emissions-free future.

Brand is hardly alone in perceiving that nuclear power might still offer a future of comparatively clean carbon-free energy. Nuclear reactors might still produce radioactive waste and pose grave environmental risks – look no further than Fukushima if you doubt that. But the relative (and relatively local) risks nuclear reactors pose may pale in comparison to the cumulative effects of burning oil, coal, and natural gas. It can even be argued that nuclear power is more economical than alternative energy sources, such as wind energy, despite its long history of dramatic cost overruns and the ever escalating costs of storing spent fuel.

Existing reactors are still largely based on old technology, much of it developed in the early years of the nuclear era. The Three Mile Island or Chernobyl model – a massive, water cooled centralised system using massive fuel cores date to the ‘50s and ‘60s. Newer technologies are out there, waiting to be tested and deployed. So-called Generation IV reactors , among them the Pebble Bed Reactor are designed to avoid the dangers posed by traditional generators. The federal government is aggressively funneling money towards next generation reactors.

In announcing the grant of millions for nuclear energy research, energy secretary Steven Chu stated”As a zero-carbon energy source, nuclear power must be part of our energy mix as we work toward energy independence and meeting the challenge of global warming.”

In Knowledge Mosaic’s own back yard, a consortium of utilities and nuclear reactor designers are proposing construction of small-scale nuclear reactors to meet future demands for carbon-free power.

Nuclear power has a nasty reputation. Some of it is doubtless fall out from the nuclear era’s unholy birth at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The disasters at the plants in Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima have only cemented public distrust of all things nuclear. But in an ironic twist, nuclear energy may prove to be the last best hope for weaning us away from carbon based energy. That is the argument made in the new documentary Pandora’s Promise.

The film argues that in the face of massive climate change, nuclear energy is really the only game in town. Brand, who features prominently in the movie, notes that the ill effects of the Fukushima disaster are still largely localized, and the area around Chernobyl isn’t the apocalyptic moonscape many feared it would be. The premise of Promise is that the least-bad alternative may be a very good alternative indeed. Wherever you land on the nuclear spectrum – vehemently opposed or staunchly in favor – the movie is worth taking in. It’s a profoundly thought provoking shot across the climate change bow, and a challenge to ideologues on both sides of the divide.

Fukushima Fallout – The EU Answer

Photo by Lynne Kirton. Some rights reserved.

Following the nuclear incident at Fukushima in the wake of a massive earthquake and tsunami, the EU moved to assess its nuclear power plants for their readiness in a similar situation, as well as other potential major incidents both natural and manmade. Today, the results of those examinations were released.

For those looking for quick, easy-to-digest data, the European Commission’s memo  laid out a short series of questions and answers: number of reactors tested (145); types of events checked (extreme weather conditions, plane crashes, and extreme natural events such as the tsunami hit suffered by Fukushima); and highlights of the findings (37% of EU reactors aren’t up to recent standards for earthquakes; 43% didn’t meet the standards for flooding).

The EC also made available both the Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament  (a succinct but informative 20 pages) and the Commission Staff Working Document  (62 pages of extensive detail, including the key recommendations and a breakdown of results by country). While no EU nuclear plants were found to be in such poor shape as to require immediate closure, the findings still make it clear that more can be done to prepare for adverse events. The Working Document’s recommendations regarding “Station Black-Out” (a complete loss of power) include availability of an alternative cooling system; equipment and staff prepared to deal with an event affecting all onsite reactors at once; and supply/availability of mobile equipment including emergency lights, firefighting gear, and batteries or alternative power supplies – some or all of which could have turned the tide of events at Fukushima.

Update on Yucca Mountain: Abeyance Annoyance

Photo by musicalwds. Some rights reserved.

An August 3rd Order from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held in abeyance Aiken County, N.C. et al., v. NRC, a case seeking to mandate the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to act on the Department of Energy’s long-pending license application to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. The NRC is resisting, according to one of the concurring judges, “on the ground that it does not have sufficient appropriated funds to complete action on the license application (even though it has appropriated funds available to at least start).”

However, the judge continues, “[compelling the NRC] now would entail significant expenditures of government resources […and] Congress’s upcoming appropriations decisions could well affect whether those expenditures are necessary.” Therefore, in granting the abeyance, the Court asks that the parties “file, by no later than December 14, 2012, updates on the status of Fiscal Year 2013 appropriations with respect to the issues presented.”

In a recent memo, Law Firm Van Ness Feldman has a succinct recap of the project’s background – including the recent Order, as well as speculation on possible outcomes. You can also see other Green Mien posts on the Yucca Mountain saga here.

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