Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The other thing Vogtle has revived: Nuclear hysteria

Kitchen sink
They say no one likes a buzzkill, but almost as if on queue, the NRC's announcement of its issue of the first combined operating license (COL) in over three decades has drawn out the usual suspects committed to reassuring us that this both simultaneously meaningless (read, "The Nuclear Renaissance is still dead!") and yet somehow at the same time, an imminent danger. Call it the nuclear equivalent of the "double-tap" - anti-nuclear activists will throw out everything (kitchen sinks included) as an effort to kill off an apparently "moribund" comeback of nuclear energy. The Vogtle announcement seems to have put this process into overdrive.

One probably needs to learn to develop thick skin when working in this field, but sometimes the arguments get obnoxious enough to be called out on their own. Take for example a recent facts-optional anti-nuclear jeremiad published over at The Energy Collective (Disclosure: On occasion my posts are syndicated over there), entitled, "Rethinking the Nuclear Renaissance." The piece is essentially a warmed-over serving of recycled arguments (one can suppose at least that part of it makes it "green"), made somehow new and interesting by the fact that there has been some incremental forward motion on reactor construction in the United States. (But never fear, readers - as our intrepid author assures us, "...only 5 reactors including the two in Georgia that are likely to be completed in the next decade," and yet another of those was one which started in the 70's [Watts Barr] and never completed.)

At this point already one may wish to don their wading boots, because at the risk of falling into the classic XCKD trap, we're about to go debunking.

Getting down into the thick of it, the author, Holbert Janson, implies that the process of licensing the two Georgia units was rushed, citing as his evidence the lone dissenting vote by Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who expressed concerns that the licensing process had not adequately addressed issues raised by the Fukushima disaster. Let's run with that point for a moment, shall we? Not only is the design being licensed - Westinghouse's AP1000 design - one which relies exclusively on natural circulation for cooling in an emergency scenario (i.e., no diesel-powered pumps are required to circulate coolant within the core, obviating the failure mode which actually occurred), but the Vogtle site is also nowhere near an active seismic boundary.

Further, many of the concerns raised over Fukushima - such as allowing for better instrumentation and monitoring in spent fuel pools - are ones which do not impact the actual facility design itself. Perhaps most tellingly, the only Commissioner to vote against the license was the one with absolutely zero experience in nuclear engineering or reactors whatsosoever (Chairman Jaczko's background is a Ph.D. in theoretical particle physics, and his prior experience has been confined to serving as legislative staff to Rep. Ed Markey and Sen. Harry Reid); compare this to the near century of combined nuclear experience of the other four Commissioners. (Again, while an argument from authority is never an argument unto itself, the break in the vote along experience lines is telling - especially given that these four Commissioners represent both Republican and Democratic appointments.)

With little logical connection to the prior point, Janson then segues into attempting to imply nefarious politics at work responsible for all of this:
The erstwhile nuclear power renaissance was the result of decades of lobbying and spending by players in the nuclear industry after the Three Mile Island incident effectively halted any new nuclear power in the U.S. for over a generation.
Frankly, if it's taken three decades of "lobbying and spending" to achieve a paltry five reactors (one of which isn't even new - an obviously important point according to our author), the nuclear industry has gotten the raw end of the deal on this one. What about the very lucrative (and from the results, if one measures by direct subsidies) lobbying by the "renewables" industry, to which if Spain is any example, would implode without generous government support? Janson is of course silent on this point.

Janson then goes on to question the green bona fides of nuclear power, pointing out of course that yes, in fact, we have to mine uranium ore. In other news, we also have to smelt iron and aluminum to build wind turbines (and lots of it if you plan on generating any kind of serious power) - but I suppose we'll assume those are consequence-free operations.

Inexplicably, this then appears in the midst of his deconstruction of nuclear's green credentials:
Unlike other alternative energy sources nuclear power does not enjoy strong public support.  Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima all served, and rightfully so, to frighten the public over the potential catastrophic risks inherent in nuclear power.
First, since when did "public support" have any bearing on scientific facts? Were that the case, evolution and climate change would certainly be in dangerous territory (and the theory of a geocentric universe might well be in for a revival). Second is his telling choice of phrase - "Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima all served, and rightfully so, to frighten the public." So, a nuclear accident in which not one person died (Three Mile Island) and another - the worst in a generation in which still no one has received a fatal dose of radiation (Fukushima) - should be serving to "scare the public?" Nevermind the tens of thousands who died from the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami - people should be scared of something which has yet to kill anyone.  (Meanwhile, the case of Chernobyl is one which is one which strictly speaking could not happen in the U.S., specifically because the nature of this reactor - the reaction "speeds up" as the temperature increases - is specifically prohibited by law in the U.S., for compelling safety reasons). 

Further, if mass casualties should serve to "frighten the public," one wonders then why Mr. Janson does not consider the case of the Bhopal disaster - an industrial accident at a Union Carbide chemical facility in India which killed over 3000 people within a few weeks and injured tens of thousands more. By this estimate, a single industrial accident - Bhopal - has killed more people itself than the combined fleet of over 400 reactors across the globe. So where is the campaign to cease large-scale chemical and industrial facilities? Chances are you won't find it - some risks, it would seem, are more tolerable than others.

In his next paragraph, Mr. Janson takes an extended vacation from reality, asserting:
The spent uranium left over from the process of generating nuclear power is dangerous material that remains radioactive and deadly for many humanlike [sic] times. There is still no good answer as to how to deal with this problem or even where to store it so that it isn't a hazard to the environment and human life. This is an expensive problem, the cost of which is never fully accounted for when weighing the true cost of nuclear power. The waste problem has to be solved and, regardless of the solution, will cost billions of dollars most likely coming from taxpayers. This is on top of the billions already spent in unsuccessful attempts to solve the storage problem. Plans for the Yucca Mountain Waste Repository were finally cancelled by the Obama administration in 2009 leaving the U.S with no real option other than to continue to store nuclear waste on location at nuclear power plants.
Where does one begin with this? Is there the fact that uranium, while greater than 90% of used nuclear fuel by mass, is only weakly radioactive (an alpha emitter), capable of being handled with minimal protection (read: garden gloves). The uranium component which comes out of the reactor is chemically the same as what is put in - something which requires very minimal exposure precautions.

Instead what Mr. Janson is obviously referring to are the other, more radioactive constituents of used fuel - transuranic elements (plutonium, neptunium, americium, and curium - everything "above" uranium on the periodic table) and fission products. Of these, a key distinction exists - the "long-lived" parts of spent fuel are the heavy elements - plutonium and the like. These elements aren't even waste - they, along with the remaining uranium, are capable of being fashioned into new fuel, depending upon your reactor type. (Plutonium can be immediately re-used in conventional light-water reactors, while the surplus uranium can either be re-enriched or consumed in advanced reactors along with the other heavy elements). As far as fission products go, nearly all of their radioactivity is gone after 300 years; those that remain are only weakly radioactive and comprise a tiny fraction of spent fuel.

But then we get to the canard that "no technical solution exists" - again, something patently false which can be disproven with the most trivial degree of effort. Until 1977, when President Jimmy Carter suspended commercial reprocessing in the U.S. by executive order, the U.S. was actively engaged in building reprocessing facilities to separate useful elements from short-lived radioactive "waste." Currently, both Japan and France separate plutonium for re-use in reactors.

Then of course we get to Yucca Mountain - ah, Yucca Mountain. Let's just set aside the fact that Yucca Mountain was pulled off the table not for any scientific or technical basis (there is an overwhelming paucity of evidence indicating Yucca Mountain was unsuitable as a repository - a fact confirmed by the GAO) - otherwise, one should question why the Obama Administration withdrew the license application for the facility before the Atomic Safety Licensing Board had a chance to review it and decide upon whether or not to grant the facility a license. (Let's also set aside that in unilaterally cancelling the Yucca Mountain Project, the Obama Administration has directly and unambiguously placed itself at odds with federal law - specifically, the amendments to the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which designate Yucca Mountain as the nation's sole geologic repository).

There is then of course the recurring nonsense that Yucca Mountain is a gift by the taxpayer to the nuclear industry - despite the fact that per the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, a one-mil ($0.001) per kilowatt-hour tax has been levied on all nuclear generation for three decades. As a result, the Nuclear Waste Fund has collected over $25 billion in receipts, of which less than half has actually been spent upon the construction of the now-defunct Yucca Mountain repository. Some subsidy.

But as for no real options to deal with waste? What our intrepid reporter has neglected to mention is that with President Obama's decision to cancel the Yucca Mountain project, he convened a panel of experts to address alternatives - the Blue Ribbon Commission, who recently released a voluminous report on their findings. The only failure here is one of research (and perhaps of imagination).

And again, I go back to an issue I've raised before - if the spent fuel issue was truly unsolvable, this problem would not change even if every reactor were shut down tomorrow. We would still need to produce a solution which mitigates the public risk from long-term disposal of used nucelar fuel. And if it were solved? Well now - that kind of makes the whole issue moot, now doesn't it? (One suspects that coming in with the attitude that Mr. Janson does that he does not wish to see a solution, either).

Jumping again to a different topic, Janson (in keeping with the kitchen sink theme) latches onto the issue of the hazards of uranium mining, specifically in how it was carried out in Navajo lands during the mid-20th century. There is of course no denying how the cavalier means of handling mining during this period did lead to widespread problems for those impacted - although one should be clear that the problem was not in the mining of uranium as much as it was in the management of uranium mill tailings, which were left exposed to simply blow away in the wind. (When uranium ore is processed from the ground, the naturally occurring daughter products - like radon, and radium, are left in the mill tailing pile. Normally, these products are trapped within the earth, although higher uranium concentrations in soil is how radon gas can enter into residential basements; thus, mill tailing piles need to be disposed of properly.) But what's telling is that Mr. Janson gives us no evidence of the supposed unavoidable harms of uranium mining past the period of 1970 - most likely because he'd be hard-pressed to find evidence, given that much more mining these days occurs through techniques such as in-situ leaching, which are not as environmentally disruptive.

He once again takes a vacation into a flight of fancy with this description of what I just explained above:
The byproduct of uranium mining is a toxic radioactive soup that has to be dealt with and somehow disposed of or sequestered.  Uranium ore is crushed to extract the uranium leaving leftover radioactive sand known as tailings.  Tailings are mixed with water to create a radioactive slurry that will remain radioactive for thousands of years. 
Here's the problem - these are the same materials which have come up from the ground. Nothing has changed with them chemically or radiologically - this is the very same radiation which has always been there as a part of the natural background. The only thing which has been done is that the useful uranium ore has been removed. This so-called "toxic radioactive soup" is also known as "ordinary dirt." (Again, radioactivity is everywhere!)

Next, Janson gets to the issue of cost - a key component of the classic anti-nuclear triad (cost, safety, and waste). Almost laughably, he makes the following assertion:
Cost is a significant challenge for any alternative energy sources. However, the expense of nuclear is not likely to fall as fast as wind or solar as a result of technological advances. Nuclear power must be heavily subsidized in order to be anywhere near cost competitive with traditional power sources. 
None of the above is provided any sources or qualifications. Again, advances in nuclear technology and nuclear construction techniques - particularly small modular reactors - will demonstrably lower the costs for nuclear energy. On the construction front, the AP1000 is evidence of this, both in its highly modular construction as well as its standard design. (Of the 104 reactors currently in the U.S., each is a "custom build" - something which is changing with the new developments, where reactors will now be built based upon standardized designs.) Small modular reactors will push the cost curve down further by lowering the up-front financing costs which contribute heavily to nuclear capital costs.

But going back to the above, it's almost laughable that Mr. Janson asserts that nuclear must be "heavily subsidized" to be cost competitive with traditional sources, given that the actual operating costs of a nuclear plant following its ammortization are lower than nearly any other source other than hydroelectric - and even factoring in capital costs, nuclear is far more cost-competitive than solar (thermal and photovoltaic) by any cost estimate, and generally on par with wind (even with its own generous subsidies, mandates, and feed-in tariffs.) And as for relying upon heavy subsidies? One might want to make that point a bit more quietly when talking about wind and solar.

Of course, we are then taken deep into the woods of the Twilight Zone when Mr. Janson rolls out his next argument - the dreaded nuclear black swan! (With all due apologies to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, one should note that the way to make any rare occurrence more dire and threatening is to trot out the dreaded "black swan.") It goes without saying that low-probability, high-consequence events are already a standard component of the kinds of risk analysis that goes in to nuclear reactor design and licensing.

In this respect, Janson rolls out this rather silly graphic to support his point:

scare graphic

He asserts that given that a third of the U.S. population is within a fifty-mile radius of a nuclear facility (which might happen to coincide with the fact that people in cities tend to appreciate having electricity), and that Chairman Jaczko unilaterally declared a 50-mile evacuation zone around Fukushima (absent any credible technical rationale, and now recently demonstrated to be based upon incomplete information about the Japanese reactors) that we should be in a state of collective panic. Or, if you prefer to simply use the more rational 10-mile evacuation zone radius (i.e., the NRC's regulatory guidelines for direct exposure from a hypothetical accident scenario), a chilling 5 million (with an "m!") Americans live within the evacuation zones. Let's not even get into the preposterous assumption the sum of the population "near" a nuclear unit makes any sense at all, unless one were to assume multiple, geographically disparate sites would experience sudden, spontaneous, and simultaneous failures. (In other words: scare statistic.) The argument is, in a word, specious.

Never mind of course that when such facilities are licensed, part of the licensing process includes requiring the ability to produce a credible evacuation plan in the event of a disaster - something which has never once been exercised in the history of the U.S. nuclear fleet. Further, as we saw with Fukushima, nuclear disasters tend to be of the slowly unfolding kind, rather than a dramatic single event - again granting the ability to respond and prevent risk to the public in a sensible, orderly fashion. (This also includes measures such as distributing prophylactic measures, like potassium iodine, which prevent the uptake of radioactive iodine to the thyroid - the largest potential source of radioactive release.)

Perhaps most distressing to any opponent of pseudo-science and quackery is this gem:
The publication Environmental Science and Technology recently released a report noting substantially elevated radiation levels of 50 million times normal levels in ocean waters off the Japanese coast.  As a reminder, the Pacific Ocean also lies off the coast of California.  There is a saying that all politics is local. Well, all nuclear accidents are global.
As a secondary reminder to our author's "helpful" geography lesson, the Pacific Ocean is also 165.2 million square kilometers (see: lots of dilution) - and Los Angeles is a comfortable 9,000 km jaunt from Fukushima. Nevermind of course that there have been no significant increases in the radiation levels on the West Coast - the only reason we were able to detect the minute quantities which reached the U.S. was due to advanced systems for detecting nuclear explosions. Likewise, compare these levels of radiation reaching the U.S. with those left over from atmospheric testing of atomic weapons during the Cold War. Again, don't take my word for it - the EPA has a site ("Radnet") specifically devoted to this purpose.

It's of course clear what Janson is trying to do here - stoke panic, something conveniently done without any actual reference to numbers (numbers which, incidentally, would utterly undermine his argument) - a shameful tactic which should be beneath such serious discussions of energy alternatives.

The last leg of his argument goes into the issue of nuclear facilities as a target for terrorism, something which illustrates Mr. Janson's utter unfamiliarity with the NRC's regulations post-9/11. New nuclear units - including the two Vogtle units - must be capable of withstanding a direct impact of a 747 jetliner. And further to that end, the nuclear industry has actively been engaged in security upgrades in the past decade, some mandated by the NRC and others voluntary. Again, such an argument reveals simply how little Mr. Janson actually knows about a topic in which he readily engages in marketing fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

Finally, he congratulates Germany for their "forward thinking" in their (extremely short-sighted) decision to prematurely close all of their existing nuclear plants by 2022. Of course, no mention is made of the 40 million metric tons of additional CO2 which will be released into the atmosphere as a result. Some forward-thinking environmentalism, there.

Frankly, this level of debunking is exhausting (not to mention infuriating) - particularly because all of the information is readily available to anyone who actually shows an interest in finding it rather than peddling fear. Ultimately, I accept that different individuals will have different perceptions for balancing what constitutes acceptable risk. But arguments such as the above indicate either a profound ignorance or willful deceit - neither of which should qualify one to go opining on issues as critical as energy.

2/22: Edited to tone down some of my sharper words - this is about facts, not personalities.