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Questions for Nuclear Generators and Regulators

Environmentalism from Nuclear Generators?

I have worked with more than a few graduates of the US Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point and at times when my rhetoric may have conflicted with my actions, they reminded me of their academy motto “Acta Non Verba” which translates from the Latin to “Deeds not Words”. 

As the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities gets ready to consider additional nuclear subsidies, it may be a good time to reconsider the benefits of nuclear energy and its effect on our environment.  Specifically, we might want to ask whether the claims for nuclear energy are consistent with professed values, often reflected in the industry’s raison d’être as a champion of environmental issues and sustainability? Or are nuclear positions merely a cleverly concocted smokescreen from creative public relations folks to attain immediate-term financial goals while diverting attention from more serious issues?

The nuclear industry has skillfully laid the groundwork, seizing the emotional high ground with public statements supporting the gospel of environmentalism and even earning the blessing and concurrence of long-time antagonists.  Phrases like, “sustainability motivates us” and “climate change is real” earnestly season their press releases and investor presentations.  They favor a carbon tax, defending nuclear, the impoverished red-headed stepchild, by pointing out that it is not compensated for avoiding the burden of carbon, nor does it enjoy the subsidies of solar and wind. 

No question, carbon-free generation is a worthy goal yet, given the variability of solar and wind, most reasonable energy watchers have reluctantly concluded that nuclear and natural gas generation will be around into the foreseeable future to assure adequate power when needed.  Nonetheless, playing the environmental card with nuclear can seem a bit sanctimonious.    

Nuclear is the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the power generating world.  Along with the attractiveness of carbon free generation, nuclear has its dark side, the frightening specter of both horrific accidents along with its deadly waste that will be coexisting with humanity for tens of thousands of years. 

Environmental Challenges of Nuclear Energy

In a nuclear reaction the nucleus of an atom breaks into smaller pieces and releases an immense amount of energy.  The process is known as nuclear fission.  Uranium atoms provide the nucleus that is broken apart in nuclear generating plants. To start the chain reactions that produces energy in a nuclear generating station, uranium is bombarded with high-energy neutrons which break into two smaller nuclei while ejecting additional high-energy neutrons that cause more uranium to undergo fission.  This chain reaction produces energy in the form of intense heat without emitting any carbon dioxide.   The heat is then used to heat water, producing steam which rotates a steam turbine, connected to a generator that ultimately produces electricity. 

Given the amount of energy (heat) produced by nuclear fission, the core of the nuclear reactor where fission takes place requires cooling.   Components of the core can melt from all the energy released by these reactions if it is not controlled.  If a breach of the containment vessel occurs from melting or other forces, extremely radioactive material dangerous to living creatures is released and can react in damaging ways giving rise to cancer, and other deadly effects.   

Nuclear reactions also produce a dangerous residual product, the radioactive waste which is composed of unconverted uranium along with other byproducts such as plutonium and curium which stay radioactive for extremely long periods of time.   This waste needs to be stored until it is relatively harmless, presenting yet another significant environmental challenge.

The mining and processing of nuclear fuel can also present many destructive environmental effects but, the most adverse environmental consequence from nuclear energy comes from radiation produced by fission and the generated waste once the fuel is spent.   Radioactive material remains with us for eons.  Sitting in storage casks in concrete containment structures and / or water pools just short distances to major metropolitan areas like Philadelphia and New York, home to millions of people, our current practices with nuclear generators define brinksmanship.

A History of Disaster and Unintended Consequences

Despite the best of intentions and conscientious practices, nuclear generation has had its share of unfortunate events.  Some of these have been the result of mechanical failure or careless and inadvertent human error like those at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, while others have resulted from the wrath of Mother Nature like that at Fukushima.   

At Three Mile Island, mechanical and electrical failures set off an unanticipated series of events that led to a partial meltdown at one of two reactors there.  Compounding the mechanical problems, plant staff did not realize that the reactor was losing coolant and took actions which made the problem worse, starving the core of water flow and causing it to overheat.  As hot nuclear fuel began to seep through its containment, almost half of the reactor core melted. Trace amounts of radioactive gas escaped into the surrounding area as a geyser of steam erupted from the reactors.  The melting fuel also created a hydrogen bubble inside the unit that could have caused an explosion releasing huge amounts of radioactive material into the nearby community.

At Chernobyl, while doing routine testing, Ukrainian workers inadvertently shut off the safety system.  The reactor ramped up to one hundred times its normal power, heating the steam in its pressurized system until the reactor exploded through the roof of the building that housed it.  The explosion released radioactive material over miles of Ukrainian countryside.  Thirty workers on site were killed and many others have since died from acute radiation poisoning.  Today the area surrounding Chernobyl remains an uninhabited wasteland.

At Fukushima, nature as opposed to human error, presented yet another unanticipated test to nuclear generator preparedness and practices.  In 2011, less than ten years ago, an earthquake spawned a forty-foot tidal wave which breached the sea wall at Fukushima and flooded everything in their containment buildings including backup generators, their fail-safe method of powering pumps for water cooling at their four nuclear reactors.  The pump breakdown caused a halt in the cooling of the reactors and their spent fuel storage areas.  As pressure relief valves were overpowered it caused the release of uncontrolled radioactive steam.  Fires erupted, explosions occurred and the leakage of thousands of gallons of contaminated water combined to contribute to an environmental disaster that displaced over 250,000 Japanese citizens.  Deaths from radioactive exposure are still being tallied from this latest of the major nuclear “accidents”. 

Fortunately to date, no nuclear events have resulted from the deliberate actions of terrorists but in the view of many, this remains perhaps the largest, and most potentially uncontrollable threat.   In an era where cyber, or old-fashioned terrorism have continued to become more sophisticated, is it beyond reason to believe that a dedicated terrorist, hell-bent on making a statement, will find a way to circumvent security and safety precautions that are currently in place?

Nuclear Decommissioning Players - Savior or Convenient Scape Goat?

Closer to home we are faced with the prior owner of Oyster Creek, selling their interest in the shuttered nuclear generator to a company with little discernable pedigree in successful nuclear decommissioning or the actual processing, warehousing, and transportation of nuclear waste.  Indeed, there might be more questions concerning their performance, than there are accomplishments, on their resume. 

The decommissioning fund at Oyster Creek was funded by ratepayers and amounted to almost $1 billion when it was sold, presumably for significantly less than its billion-dollar fund balance.  Authoritative sources had previously estimated the cost to decommission Oyster Creek at over $1.4 billion which was to occur over a sixty-year period but, the new owners are betting that they can decommission the plant faster, and for significantly less than their investment, pocketing the difference.  The quicker they can do this, the more they earn.  Of course, if they find they bit off more than they can chew and look like they are on a pathway to failure, they can pack up their wrenches and backhoes and abandon the project, leaving New Jersey rate payers to fund whatever actions remain to safely complete decommissioning.  Seems like a win-win for both buyer and seller.  For the new owner, if the challenges exceed their abilities, can they simply cut and run before depleting their newly acquired billion-dollar decommissioning fund?  For the seller, they have unloaded an unpleasant responsibility sadly reminiscent of the actions of a deadbeat dad.

Current Question on Additional Nuclear Subsidies

The current question before the Board on subsidies presents a rare opportunity for regulators to exert some leverage considering tangential, but critical, questions on nuclear energy.  Are safety practices sufficient to deter today’s technology-savvy terrorists?  How reliable are their storage processes for spent fuel and what are the long-term plans for its disposal or relocation?  What are the plans for the eventual decommissioning of remaining New Jersey nuclear reactors which combined are almost five times the size of Oyster Creek?  Are we comfortable following the path blazed by Oyster Creek with the potential of a pre-emptive sale where owners make their way out of Dodge before the sheriff shows up?

Utility holding companies who still have their principal source of earnings coming from the regulated transmission and distribution of power in limited franchise areas have severely limited earnings potential.  Operating under a holding company structure which combines businesses that should be regulated, with businesses that should not, management is pressured into taking greater risks to satisfy a new breed of shareholder, focused on earning growth rather than safety of principle.   With limited growth potential from regulated operations, hybrid utility holding companies (those having regulated and unregulated operations) pursue strategies that would never have been considered in the past when an allowed rate of return on regulated assets was sufficient to satisfy traditional risk-averse shareholders.    The sale of nuclear property and, ventures into new businesses that are clearly a step out from core capabilities are examples of hybrid utility strategies aimed at alleviating the natural limitations of a mature service territory but, is this causing us to lose focus on the core mission of a utility?  That being the provision of safe, reliable, and economical electrical power.

Would a better use of ratepayer funds be to assure the provision of improved nuclear safety, security and solutions to the risks presented by spent fuel rather than funding electric vehicle chargers and even efficiency?   First things first.  Operating a nuclear generating plant and improving the reliability of the transmission and distribution grids, would seem to present enough potential for reasonable earnings that would satisfy traditional utility shareholders who are looking for safety of their investments and a predictable return, rather than growth.

Do we turn a blind eye to accountability that should rest with nuclear generators by our silence on nuclear’ s environmental challenges, while passively accepting the benefits of its’ carbon free nature?  Our approach seems a bit suggestive of the writings of Voltaire in his masterpiece Candide.  In it he suggests that unfortunate effects like syphilis which came to Europe courtesy of Columbus’ bawdy sailors, was the price we pay in exchange for luxury goods like chocolate, which would have otherwise never made its way to Europe.   

Radiation, nuclear waste, and the eventual decommissioning of nuclear generation are elephants in the room that should be considered whenever future policy on nuclear energy is discussed. The rationale for future nuclear subsidies that go for things other than safety and disposal of waste, should be probed a little more deeply concurrent with the granting of approvals in the sacrosanct name of environmental stewardship and corporate good citizenship. 

One of the world’s first environmentalists, Saint Francis of Assisi once said, “preach the gospel and when necessary use words”.    Good advice and not much different from that of my former Kings Point coworkers. 

Discussions

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 11, 2021

Radiation, nuclear waste, and the eventual decommissioning of nuclear generation are elephants in the room that should be considered whenever future policy on nuclear energy is discussed.

Agreed-- whether nuclear advocates like it or not, these are the conversations that are going to continue to take place. The best approach is a calm, deliberate, and continued engagement with it to educate people. What have you seen to be the best approaches to these conversations when talking to a concerned citizen one-on-one about them? 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 11, 2021

Matt, what's the best approach to take with someone who fears the sky is falling?

Is calm, deliberate, and continued engagement appropriate with someone who is irrationally afraid of something he/she doesn't understand?

Is explanation helpful with someone who has no interest in learning the truth, but seeks only confirmation of previously-held beliefs?

With anti-nuclear advocates who insist a conspiracy must be afoot, sometimes it's possible to force a comparison. For example: which is more likely, an industry with total fuel sales of $6 billion/yr (uranium) is guiding the public dialogue, or one with $700 billion in annual fuel sales (oil, gas, and coal)?

That there is surprisingly little profit in nuclear energy would shock anyone who is truly interested in understanding the industry or the technology. For those uninterested in learning, I suggest medication or psychiatric counseling. Your irrational fear is gettting in the way of protecting the world my children will inhabit.

Stop Letting Your Ridiculous Fears Of Nuclear Waste Kill The Planet

Fred Fastiggi's picture
Fred Fastiggi on Jan 11, 2021

Frankly I haven's seen a lot of calm, deliberate engagement or conversation between nuclear generators and citizens.  It would be a difficult discussion to have for the generators for a couple of reasons.  When you consider the downside of nuclear, there isn't a lot that can be said, despite being carbon free, to bolster the nuclear case.  Bringing it up will only focus attention on the negatives which the industry does not want to do.  

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 11, 2021

Trying to inform uninformed people who don't want to learn is always a difficult discussion.

By the way - what nuclear "industry" are you talking about? Do you really think GE, or Hitachi, or the few other reactor manufacturers in western countries make their bread and butter building nuclear plants?

Of course not. GE makes much more money selling gas and wind turbines - in that order. And even more selling dishwashers, microwaves, and other kitchen appliances.

The only company of which I'm aware with revenue solely related to nuclear energy is Holtec, which decommissions nuclear plants. However, I read today they've filed an application to develop a small modular reactor at Oyster Creek - good sign. Maybe upper management was having trouble sleeping at night.

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Jan 11, 2021

Fred, The article states that Nuclear energy does not get the incentives that Solar and wind have. Yet everything I have read shows Nuclear gets the biggest subsidies of all power and has for over 50 years. What do you base your data on?

   Uranium is also a finite resource which I didn't see mentioned. In the USA we have 104 Nuclear plants. They get 90% of their uranium from Russia.  

   The waste is and has been a huge problem. None of it has been made safe and all of it is stored on site at each plant. They ran out of room to store it and the NRC gave them permission to store twice the amount that was deemed safe on site . There are over 100 tons at Palo Verde triple reactors near Phoenix AZ. My 120% Solar PV home is only 40 miles from that huge hazard.

   Nuclear has also been analyzed and is the most expensive power ever created. With new safe regulation it keeps getting more expensive.  Not a single Nuclear plant has ever been built without government subsidies.  Yet I installed my Solar in 2001 without any subsidy.  

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 11, 2021

Jim, your sources are incorrect.

Re: subsidies, From the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Numbers are in $billions (2018).

"Uranium is also a finite resource which I didn't see mentioned. In the USA we have 104 Nuclear plants. They get 90% of their uranium from Russia."

The supply of uranium, for all practical purposes, is unlimited:

"The extraction of uranium from seawater would make available 4.5 billion metric tons of uranium—a 60,000-year supply at present rates. Second, fuel-recycling fast-breeder reactors, which generate more fuel than they consume, would use less than 1 percent of the uranium needed for current LWRs. Breeder reactors could match today's nuclear output for 30,000 years using only the NEA-estimated supplies."

How many nuclear power plants are in the United States, and where are they located?

"As of October 31, 2020, there were 56 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 94 nuclear power reactors in 28 U.S. states."

Where our uranium comes from:

Fred Fastiggi's picture
Fred Fastiggi on Jan 11, 2021

With regard to the statement that nuclear doesn't get the subsidies of solar and wind, I was merely quoting the statements from various nuclear generators who were using that as a justification for additional subsidy.  I was certainly not agreeing that that should  be a justification for additional subsidy.  Here in NJ, the current owner of Oyster Creek has applied for permission to store additional nuclear waste on site.  Their intention is to ship in waste from another nuclear plant they are decommissioning for storage until a facility they hope to develop in New Mexico is permitted, built and ready for permanent storage.  Good luck with that.  My whole point is that unfavorable features of nuclear cannot be ignored or overlooked just because it doesn't emit carbon.  The negatives far outweigh the positives. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 11, 2021

"Or are nuclear positions merely a cleverly concocted smokescreen from creative public relations folks to attain immediate-term financial goals while diverting attention from more serious issues?"

Or are the "cleverly concocted smokescreens" imagined by anti-nuclear advocates another imagined conspiracy theory, not unlike the one fearing an election was stolen by child-molesting devil worshippers?

Nothing is more powerful than irrational fear.

Fred Fastiggi's picture
Fred Fastiggi on Jan 11, 2021

I have to remember that Bob, or is it Pangloss?

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Jan 11, 2021

The nuclear industry has skillfully laid the groundwork, seizing the emotional high ground with public statements supporting the gospel of environmentalism and even earning the blessing and concurrence of long-time antagonists.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Fred.  I think your assessment is mostly quite accurate. Regarding the above, however, I don´t think the nuclear industry has been very skillful at all. The Nuclear Energy Institute is as inept an organization as it is possible to imagine.  At least for the moment,  they haven´t fooled enough people enough of the time.  Those that have bought the con have eventually been convinced, sadly, after a great deal more of other people´s money has been spent and the risks that you mentioned are still more severe.

However, the nuclear industry is in the enviable position of being, to some extent, an industry which the national defense does not allow for simply abandoning the technology.  So, the research goes on, often disguised as in the interest of national defense but, instead, for the benefit of the nuclear lobby.  And, it must be admitted that the irony may eventually be that it yields a miracle cure for our carbon problem! I doubt it. But, I certainly don´t know.  Some very smart people are still - not withstanding largely futile efforts over the last 60+ years - thinking that fusion is right around the corner.

As you point out, serious problems remain.  The nuclear industry´s response is to falsely minimize the problem, characterize all who disagree as irrational, and continue the ruse.

As a result, for the moment, the nuclear industry is, at most, treading water.  Some would say it is on "life support."  Renewables have a clear shot at providing answers to our carbon problem for the next 6-8 years.  A lot can happen.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jan 12, 2021

Green energy is heavily subsidized, with no end in sight on the raid on taxpayer’s and consumer’s pockets. For that reason alone, nuclear power should receive the same level of subsidies.

I am really tired of sanctimonious justifications for using green energy. In point of fact, renewable energy is a massive assault on the environment because of the vast amount of land required. Simple physics - a consideration beyond the ability of the green religion to understand.

Even-handily deploy a rational mix of generating resources.

 

Fred Fastiggi's picture
Fred Fastiggi on Jan 12, 2021

Mike, I am not promoting renewables at the expense of nuclear.  My point is that nuclear generators who come back to their local regulators for continued subsidy while touting an environmental justification have a weak and hypocritical story line.  Some of these generators who operated as utility holding companies are pushing ratepayer funding for risky diversification initiatives and nuclear bailouts, while ignoring what should, in my opinion, be their primary objective, resilient transmission and distribution service, and strategic responsibility for the full life cycle of their nuclear generation.  If they are looking to ratepayers to subsidize their operations, it would seem that the least that should be expected is that they are accepting all the responsibilities for operating nuclear generation including having a attainable plan for dealing with waste.  On renewables, my personal opinion is that they would evolve faster, and with greater efficacy if they were left to develop in a competitive, unregulated market, free from the inherent conflicts, and inbred generational entitlement which characterize electric utility operations. Whether viewed as rational or not, you are correct that a mix of generating resources will be the standard for the foreseeable future. 

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jan 12, 2021

Your subsidy argument rings hollow as renewables come back again and again for subsidies/handouts. As long as that is the case, then all energy resources are perfectly justified in asking for subsidies.

In passing, intermittent and unreliable green energy places the grid at greater risk as the percentage of renewable energy increases. Yet the green resources bear virtually no responsibility for the  very real grid problems and risks (as well as cost increases) they create. The nuclear issues you cite are more theoretical in nature. Again, your arguments ring hollow.

Fred Fastiggi's picture
Fred Fastiggi on Jan 13, 2021

Not sure I disagree with you - my point is that non-monopoly energy resources, whether they be on the supply side (wind, solar, etc.) or the demand side (efficiency, storage, metering, EV's etc.) should not be subsidized.  While nuclear is on the supply side, it should be classified as "regulated" rather than "unregulated" given its long tail (waste) and the fact that they operate as a monopoly, or an oligopoly, in their operating regions.  Given this, safety, security and waste handling might be a valid reason for subsidy but offsetting nuclear's periodic cost disadvantage vis a vis fossil or other forms of generation are not. This whole cacophony of regulatory subsidies started when the first electric utility was granted subsidy for efficiency in the post-deregulation era, letting the genie out of the bottle.  We would have more rational and less regulatory angst if electric utility holding companies were forced legislatively to spin off non-monopoly components of their businesses so that those businesses could operate in a free-market.  Not only would ratepayer cost burdens drop but new technologies would evolve more rapidly with accompanying cost reductions.  

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 13, 2021

"While nuclear is on the supply side, it should be classified as 'regulated' rather than 'unregulated' given its long tail (waste) and the fact that they operate as a monopoly, or an oligopoly, in their operating regions."

All public production of power in the U.S. is regulated, Fred, and though nuclear plants may appear to operate as "monopolies" (they don't), it's likely because no other source is capable of delivering so much energy, so economically, and so reliably. For utilities and consumers, that means value.

Security is expensive at nuclear plants, as might be expected. They use fuel that can cause a lot of damage if it's misused (it's why Mom kept matches in the kitchen cupboard when we were young).

"We would have more rational and less regulatory angst if electric utility holding companies were forced legislatively to spin off non-monopoly components of their businesses so that those businesses could operate in a free-market.  Not only would ratepayer cost burdens drop but new technologies would evolve more rapidly with accompanying cost reductions."

Agree with you 100%, Fred. After the Public Utilities Holding Company Act (PUHCA) was passed in 1935, holding companies owning both gas and electric subsidiaries were outlawed. Electric companies, it seems, were discovered buying gas "from themselves" then billing inflated costs to customers.

At the behest of renewables developers and oil companies PUHCA was repealed in 2005 - and unsurprisingly, energy holding companies are back to their old tricks.

Fred Fastiggi's picture

Thank Fred for the Post!

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