Zombie Nuke Plants
November 19, 2009
Oyster Creek Generating Station, in suburban Lacey Township, New Jersey, opened the same month Richard Nixon took office vowing to bring “an honorable peace” to Vietnam. This nuke plant, the oldest in the country, was slated to close in 2009 when its original forty-year license was ending. It had seen four decades of service, using radioactively produced heat to boil water into high-pressure steam that ran continuously through hundreds of miles of increasingly brittle and stressed piping.
If constructed today, Oyster Creek would not be licensed, because it does not meet current safety standards. Yet on April 8 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)–the government agency overseeing the industry–relicensed Oyster Creek, extending its life span twenty years beyond what was originally intended.
Seven days later workers at the plant found an ongoing radioactive leak of tritium-polluted water. Tritium is a form of hydrogen. In August workers found another tritium leak coming from a pipe buried in a concrete wall. Radiation makes metal brittle, so old pipes must be routinely switched out for new ones. The second leak was spilling about 7,200 gallons a day and contained 500 times the acceptable level of radiation for drinking water.
That leaking pipe had erroneously–or perhaps fraudulently–been listed in paperwork as replaced. How this error occurred remains unclear. What seems likely is that the plant’s previous owner, GPU Nuclear, was deliberately skimping on maintenance as it approached the end of the plant’s license. Then Oyster Creek was sold to Exelon and won relicensing. How many other mislabeled, brittle, old components remain in the plant’s guts is impossible to determine without a massive audit and investigation. Unfortunately, stories like this are all too common: crumbling, leaky, accident-prone old nuclear plants, shrouded in secrecy and subject to lax maintenance, are getting relicensed all over the country.
In the face of climate change, many people who are desperate for alternatives to fossil fuels are considering the potential of nuclear power. The government has put up $18.5 billion in subsidies to build atomic plants. As a candidate for president, John McCain called for forty-five new nuke plants.
Environmentalists have rightly pointed out the dangers this would entail. But new nukes are not the issue. As laid out in these pages last year [see Parenti, “What Nuclear Renaissance?” May 12, 2008], new atomic plants are prohibitively expensive. If enough public subsidies are thrown at the industry, one or two gold-plated, state-of-the-art, extremely expensive nuclear power stations may eventually be built, at most.
The real issue is what happens to old nukes. The atomic power industry has a plan: it wants to make as much money as possible from the existing fleet of 104 old, often decrepit, reactors by getting the government to extend their licenses. The oldest plants, most of which opened in the early 1970s and were designed to operate for only forty years, should be dead by now. Yet, zombielike, they march on, thanks to the indulgence of the NRC.
More than half of America’s nuclear plants have received new twenty-year operating licenses. In fact, the NRC has not rejected a single license-renewal application. Many of these plants have also received “power up-rates” that allow them to run at up to 120 percent of their originally intended capacity. That means their systems are subjected to unprecedented amounts of heat, pressure, corrosion, stress and embrittling radiation.
These undead nukes are highly dangerous. But constant, careful (and expensive) inspection and maintenance would mitigate the risks. Unfortunately, the NRC does not require anything like that. And the industry often operates in a cavalier profit-before-safety style.
At the heart of the matter is the culture of the NRC. During his campaign Obama called the NRC “a moribund agency…captive of the industry that it regulates.” Unfortunately, since then Obama’s position has softened considerably.
The NRC is run by a five-member commission. When Obama came to office he inherited one open seat; another opened soon after. Filling those seats with safety-conscious experts not in thrall to the industry would have done much to change the culture of the NRC.
The president’s first move was a good one: he made commissioner Gregory Jaczko chair of the commission. Jaczko has openly questioned the safety culture of both the NRC and the industry and is respected among environmentalists as a serious and safety-oriented regulator.
But in October Obama nominated two people for the open seats. In classic fashion, he cut it down the middle. The relatively decent appointment, in the view of environmentalists, is George Apostolakis, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT. He sits on a safety oversight board within the NRC. His academic specialty is probabilistic risk assessment of complex technological systems, risk management and decision analysis.
“He is safety-minded,” says Ed Lyman, senior staff scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “But I worry that his approach might be a little too theoretical, too academic. He might not be ready to really regulate the industry.”
The other nominee, William Magwood, is described by environmentalists as a disaster. Magwood worked at the Department of Energy as the director of its nuclear energy program. In that capacity, he acted as a booster for the industry. He’s made numerous public speeches promoting atomic energy. And most recently he worked as a consultant for the nuclear industry.
Because the NRC is an independent regulatory agency, the president’s nominees must be confirmed by the Senate. A key player there–notorious climate-science denier Senator James Inhofe, ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee–greeted the appointments with a backhanded compliment to the president: “At the very least, the selection of these individuals indicates President Obama understands the importance of the NRC in rebuilding our nation’s nuclear capabilities.” Given the source, this was damning praise indeed.