“In a climate-disrupted world, nuclear power plants are not reliable partners.”
– David Kraft, director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service to InsideClimate News
A torrent of editorial comment about climate silence followed in the path of the powerful hybrid storm Sandy – a silence that pervaded the presidential and vice presidential campaign debates and that stubbornly persisted during and since this complexly dangerous storm. The 2012 debates were the only ones since the 1988 debates to omit any reference to climate change.
Climate silence in the debates was matched by editorial silence about President Obama’s and his challenger Mitt Romney’s mutually steadfast support for nuclear power. A grievous omission given the unprecedented risks this mammoth storm (and earlier extreme climate events in 2012) posed to nuclear plants.
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More than a dozen nuclear power plants stood in the mega-storm Sandy’s path, some having reactors with the same flawed GE Mark 1 design that failed at Fukushima. The Oyster Creek, New Jersey, nuclear plant was put on alert when flood water overwhelmed four of six massive pumps, thus jeopardizing the cooling system for its spent fuel rods, a potential radioactive catastrophe. Three other reactors went into automatic shutdown because of grid and offsite power issues caused by the storm. These shutdown events, called scrams, induce premature “wear and tear aging reactors can ill afford.”
While silent on climate change, both President Obama and Republican contender Romney reserved a sizable niche in their energy independence portfolio for nuclear power. And both tout nuclear power as “clean” – code for no global warming emissions; “safe” – that is, safely managed and regulated; and “reliable” – meaning steady energy output. Nonetheless, the nuclear emperor has no clothes.
March 2011’s meltdown and explosions in three Fukushima nuclear reactors triggered a sea change in much of the world’s faith in nuclear power. The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2012 graphically conveys an industry reeling and in decline from the multiple impacts of world recession, the Fukushima disaster, and immense competition from renewable energy development and natural gas, with costs growing and credit ratings and share prices plummeting. Nineteen reactors were shut down in 2011 while only seven came on line. Five industrial countries announced phase-outs of their nuclear power plants: Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Japan . At least five countries that planned for nuclear power have delayed or suspended plans: Egypt, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait and Thailand. Australia is the latest country to opt out of a nuclear energy future. China and other countries have delayed new construction starts. This is merely a partial portrait of the industry in free-fall.
Superstorm Sandy could be – and should be – the climate’s counterpart of Fukushima for the United States. Coming near the end of a year of record-shattering weather events, with dire assessments of climate change by scientists, the insurance industry and business analysts, the catastrophe of Sandy should compel both major parties to confront the joined-at-the-hip reality that climate change is upon us and that it magnifies risks of nuclear plant accidents.
Nuclear power was designed with climate scenarios and risk analysis of the 1950s and 1960s, pre-dating the severe climate change epoch we have entered. Extremes of weather are reducing its reliability and rendering it more dangerous in five interrelated ways:
- Reliance on massive amounts of water, more than any fossil fuel plants, thus competing with agriculture for water during extended periods of drought;
- Growing production losses and shutdowns from record-breaking heat and drought, causing high water temperatures and low water flow, with consequent reliance on fossil fuels to fill the electricity production gap;
- Plant shutdown and potential meltdown due to extreme flooding, with subsequent reliance on fossil fuels;
- Overheated cooling water from heat waves causing severe thermal pollution of aquatic ecosystems; and
- Threat of drought-induced wildfires potentially spreading radioactive contamination.
Intensive water use
Nuclear power as presently configured is a technology designed for a water-rich world. Plants are sited on the shores of lakes, rivers and oceans because vast quantities of water are needed to cool the plant and equipment generating the electricity during operation. Nuclear plants are different from fossil fuel plants in needing water during shutdown and accidents to cool the reactor core so as to prevent a hazardous core meltdown as well as for on-going cooling of the even more highly radioactive spent fuel rods in pools of water stored onsite.
A majority of nuclear power plants (60 percent) use the most water-intensive cooling process available, an antiquated open-loop system in which cooling water is drawn in from a water body, circulates through the plant system, and is discharged 20 to 30 degrees warmer back to the water body. A typical 1,000-megawatt nuclear power plant consumes 30 to 40 million gallons of cooling water an hour – equivalent to hourly domestic water use for 4 to 5 million residents.
Such vast intakes of water suck in debris, seaweed and marsh grasses, and aquatic life that not only clog filtering screens and cause plant shutdowns, but also kill massive amounts of river and marine life in all stages. One power plant can destroy annually millions of adult fish and billions of fish eggs and larvae; heated water discharged from the plant further damages surrounding ecosystems. Taken together, these impacts cause billions of dollars in economic losses to fisheries and recreation industries.
In 2003, the water drawn into the San Onofre nuclear power plant in Southern California water entrained and killed nearly 3.5 million fish, essentially functioning as a “giant fish blender.” According to the Long Island Soundkeeper’s calculations, the Millstone nuclear plant on the Sound is responsible for killing more than 150 billion, from larvae to adult fish, over more than three decades. More specifically, Millstone is responsible for killing “well over 4 billion winter flounder between 1976 and 2003.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has failed to enforce regulations for existing steam-electric generating power plants – including nuclear and fossil fuel plants – that require the industries to retrofit their plants with closed loop water-cooling systems. These systems use significantly less water than open loop systems and would kill far fewer aquatic organisms. Seeking to avoid costly water-saving retrofits, the industries have besieged EPA; and the agency has acquiesced to their pressure.
What happens when a water-dependent power plant doesn’t have enough water to cool its plant and equipment or the intake water is too warm for cooling the plant – while energy demand for air-conditioning is peaking? To wit: the record-shattering summer of 2012.
Drought and Heat
On August 9, the US Drought Monitor’s data and maps portrayed a parched continent, with nearly two-thirds of the country under moderate to exceptional drought conditions and one-quarter experiencing severe drought. Much of the drought has been in areas that rely on nuclear plants for energy: the upper Midwest, the Southeast and parts of New England. High water temperatures and low water flow caused by prolonged heat and drought forced a number of power plants to cut production. Many received exemptions to their water discharge permits and are releasing hot water to aquatic systems; one plant had to suspend operations.
Millstone nuclear power plant in Waterford, Connecticut, shut down one of its two reactors because seawater was too warm to cool it, something that its designers could not have conceived. This was the first time in the reactor’s history of 37 years of operation that water withdrawn from Long Island Sound was too warm to use.In mid-August 2012, the
Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vermont, had to limit energy output four times in July 2012, and it once reduced power production to 80 percent because of low flows in the Connecticut River due to a dry spell and problems with a condenser. The river flow was 50 percent below normal in July in the upstream Vermont and New Hampshire portions of the river.
The most deadly impact of heat and drought on nuclear power occurred in summer 2003. The worst heat wave in nearly 500 years gripped half of Europe and killed tens of thousands of people, primarily elderly. Hydro production lessened, and 17 nuclear reactors in France reduced their power output or shutdown. Related impacts included industrial shutdowns, computer systems crashing, harvest failures and excessive cost for replacement energy.
Power plants in the United States currently account for more than three quarters of total thermal pollution, a severe form of ecological stress that is generally tolerated by public regulatory agencies. Thermal pollution causes a decrease in the amount of oxygen in water that, in turn, causes a more rapid metabolic rate in fish and other aquatic animals. They consequently eat more food in less time, creating a damaging imbalance to the aquatic ecosystem. Thermal pollution also triggers reproductive problems in aquatic organisms, massive bacteria and plant growth, and algal blooms.
As of July 22, 2012, Illinois issued a record number (29) of exemptions to four nuclear and four coal-fired plants to discharge overheated “cooling” water into rivers and lakes to provide peak demand electricity due to extended use of air-conditioning. State law sets the threshold for discharge water at 90 degrees Fahrenheit but the limit allowed under emergency variance nearly reached 100 degrees – as record numbers of fish were dying across the state from drought and heat effects in aquatic environments.
From the perspective of River Network, whose mission is to protect the country’s freshwater resources, “this has been a problem for years, and it’s only getting worse.” Wendy Wilson, director of rivers, energy and climate for the River Network, said of the this trend, “We have terrible thermal pollution problems in this country, and the result is dead and dying rivers. Nobody’s managing the system. We’re all just praying for rain.”
Yet, extreme rains in a climate-changed world pose risks in a nuclear energy world.
The Fort Calhoun, Nebraska, nuclear power plant has been shut down since April 2011 due to the plant being partially submerged by extreme flooding from the Missouri River and longstanding safety violations, including deficiencies in flood planning. As for the integrity of the soil underneath the facility, tests are ongoing and nothing yet has been determined regarding its load-bearing soundness. Nor has there been any study of on-site contaminated soil carried downstream with the floods. The power plant is also downstream of two dams that, if breached, would overwhelm the plant.
Risk of Upstream Dam Failure
A Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reliability and risk engineer-turned-whistleblower, Richard Perkins, recently revealed that the NRC has concealed the risk of large dam failures capable of causing extreme flooding that could result in a nuclear reactor meltdown. He was lead author of a July 2011 NRC report (four months after Fukushima) assessing risks of dam failures and flood preparedness for nuclear power plants. The assessment concluded that a dam failure upstream of a nuclear power plant could render safety equipment inoperable and cause a reactor meltdown. More than 30 reactors are sited downstream of major dams. In the case of the Oconee plant in South Carolina, another NRC risk engineer stated, “the probability of Jocassee Dam catastrophically failing is hundreds of times greater than [the chance of] a 51-foot wall of water hitting Fukushima Dai-Ichi.” Further, it is certain the dam’s failure would overwhelm the three downstream Oconee reactors and their containment structures, resulting in core meltdowns. In a letter to the NRC Office of Inspector General, Perkins asserted that the NRC deliberately redacted certain information in the report and mischaracterized it as “security sensitive” to withhold it from the public and avoid public exposure for the agency’s failure to exact more stringent flood safety protections in the face of such catastrophic risk.
In August 2010, wildfires caused by record-breaking drought and heat wave consumed huge swaths of western Russia and choked Moscow and other large cities with air pollution. The Russian Emergencies Minister and other experts warned that fire-induced winds could carry radioactive particles hundreds of miles from the burning trees, plants and forest soil around Chernobyl, reaching cities in Russia and beyond. Given the 30-year half-lives of strontium-90 and cesium-137 released from the core meltdown and explosion at Chernobyl, these radioactive isotopes will take 300 years to fully decay and thus remain hazardous for the growing risk of worsening droughts and fires.
In summer 2011, the largest forest fire in New Mexico history burned almost 50,000 acres in and around the nuclear weapons research laboratory and waste storage facilities at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Among the endangered radioactive materials and waste were as many as 30,000, 55-gallon drums of plutonium-contaminated waste stored above ground under fabric tents, awaiting transport to a radiation dumpsite in southern New Mexico.
Lest the risks of nuclear power colliding with those of climate change don’t convince people that nuclear power is not the clean, safe, and reliable answer to climate change, consider the trends and voices from the industry and market.
Rejection by Industry and Wall Street
“Enjoying virtually every conceivable advantage at its birth – from high public popularity to lavish government spending to virtually unanimous government support – the commercial nuclear power industry in the United States is . . . moribund.” 
The US nuclear industry and financial markets are walking away from nuclear power. John Rowe, the former board chair and CEO of Exelon, America’s largest producer of nuclear power with 22 nuclear power plants, said in March 2012 that nuclear power is not economically feasible. “I’ve never met a nuclear plant I didn’t like . . . [b]ut it just isn’t economic, and it’s not economic within a foreseeable time frame.” Dominion Resources recently announced the spring 2013 closure of Kewaunee nuclear power plant in Wisconsin. Not able to find a buyer, the company acknowledged that the closure is based solely on economics. A domino effect is predicted by nuclear experts, based on the costs of post-Fukushima safety measures and repairs needed on older reactors.
Nor will Wall Street invest in it: In 2009, Moody’s Investor Services concluded that investment in nuclear power was a “bet the farm” risk. Leaving the door open to nuclear power’s survival, though, Moody’s added, “. . . we believe regulators will generally continue to support the long-term financial health of the utilities they regulate.” Which is why the 60-something-year-old industry survives as a lifelong welfare recipient of the federal government, with taxpayer-funded construction loan guarantees and the Price-Anderson Act underwriting accidents that would bankrupt the industry. It’s called “nuclear socialism.”
1. Outdated Geology
Dr. Allison Macfarlane, new Chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the NRC’s first geologist, deems the nuclear industry’s risk analysis for earthquakes antiquated and inadequate. Nuclear power plants were designed to survive the strongest earthquake the site has had historically. “[That] will not do,” she said. Knowledge of geology has advanced since US power plants were built, and it continues to do so; new earthquake risk studies and new safety measures for nuclear power plants are critical. Dr. Macfarlane also directed her staff to examine the “‘broad array of natural events that could affect nuclear power operations in the future,'” including climate change.
David Lochbaum of the nuclear watchdog, Union of Concerned Scientists, spoke recently of the NRC’s custom of allowing unsafe nuclear reactors to operate, referring to “47 reactors that the NRC knows to violate fire protection regulations and 27 reactors with seismic protection known to be less than the seismic hazards they face. These pre-existing vulnerabilities mean that the American public is protected more by luck than by skill.”
2. Carbon Emissions and Nuclear Power Plants
Nuclear power is a wolf in zero-carbon clothing. In its life cycle, a nuclear power plant is equivalent in CO2 emissions to one-quarter of a natural gas plant. Cradle to grave, every step of the nuclear power process – from uranium mining to spent fuel storage, cooling, and reprocessing – uses fossil fuels intensively. New nuclear power is so costly and slow to complete that using cheaper, faster alternatives instead would save about 20 to 40 times more carbon per year. These alternatives are (a) efficiency, (b) renewable sources and (c) cogenerating electricity and heat for factories and buildings. Finally, scrapping nuclear power can speed the transition to renewables. Countries in Europe with the most ambitious solar and wind goals are either phasing out nuclear power (Germany) or have adopted a no-nuclear-power policy (Denmark and Portugal). The age of renewables will arrive when fossil fuels and nuclear power decline irreversibly and renewables increase irreversibly.
New generations of safer nuclear power plants that would purportedly reduce the risk of catastrophic Fukushima-like accidents are decades away from market readiness, too late for stemming the climate change juggernaut.
3. Waste and Weapons
Two problems unique to nuclear power – so perilous they should have caused this power source to abort at conception – are nuclear waste, with no long-term storage solution, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Radioactive waste is the bête noire of the nuclear industry, most currently so in Fukushima Dai-chi, where spent fuel rods lie in damaged, unsound structures and at risk of a catastrophic fire if another earthquake strikes the region. Bringing the lesson home, nuclear reactors in the United States store on average four times the waste they were designed to handle and far more radiation than in the reactor itself. Overpacked in pools of water without the safety containment measures of the reactor, they are vulnerable to containment failure and fire. A fire in one spent fuel pool in the United States “could render an area uninhabitable that would be as much as 60 times larger than that created by Chernobyl” states nuclear policy specialist Robert Alvarez. Additionally, spent fuel is a deadly target for terrorism: a 2005 federal government study reported that terrorists could mount a successful attack on reactor spent fuel pools. Yet, the FAA allows aircraft to fly within 1,000 feet of nuclear power plants.
As for nuclear weapons, every nuclear reactor enables a country to develop its own nuclear weapons because both the uranium mined for nuclear power reactors and the spent fuel from a nuclear reactor can be reprocessed to make plutonium bombs. (This fact has been used to justify Israeli and the US war mongering with Iran.) As early as 1946, a federal report concluded “the development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes and the development of atomic energy for bombs are in much of their course interchangeable and interdependent.” It called for a global authority to control all nuclear materials, from mining to waste, to “block the spread of bombs.”
No such authority exists. What we have in its stead are nuclear “haves” deciding who can and cannot join their nuclear weapons club. “Peaceful nuclear technology” is an oxymoron, a sleight of words that duped the 1950s world into a bargain with the devil. “Nuclear winter” from global or even regional nuclear war would generate unprecedented and catastrophic extremes of climate change, with cold weather and reduced sunlight for a period of years, rendering agriculture impossible.
Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Future: The Best Kept Secret
For leadership, we may have to look beyond our borders to the Danes or the Germans. They have taken stock of who owns oil and gas in the world, carefully reviewed what Japan is suffering in the wake of Fukushima’s multiple nuclear meltdowns, and both countries have said: We are committed to going both fossil-free and nuclear-free.
The firewall around climate change did not start with Superstorm Sandy. The White House has strategically maintained it since 2009, according to environmentalists convened by the President to discuss the issue. Frame the environmental crisis as an economic opportunity, they were urged, “a chance for job creation and economic growth, rather than a crucial environmental problem.” Meet the new “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
The press compliantly followed the White House lead: From 2009 to 2011, the number of articles about climate change plummeted 41 percent. Correspondingly, so also has the American public’s belief in the science of climate change – a state of climate change agnosticism and fundamentalist denial belligerently fostered by the oil baron Koch brothers, nuclear and fossil fuel power companies and their trade associations, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Meanwhile, an under-the-radar research laboratory within the US Department of Energy (DOE) – the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) – released an initial investigatory report on the potential for renewable energy in July 2012. The report is, in DOE’s words: “the most comprehensive analysis of high-penetration renewable electricity of the continental United States to date . . .” The major finding of the Renewable Electricity Futures Study supports a nuclear-free, zero-carbon renewable energy future:
Renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting demand on an hourly basis in every region of the country.
Why didn’t this crucial finding merit a spot – whether in moderator questions or candidate responses – in the third presidential debate on foreign policy, given the equation between our oil dependence and military policy in the Middle East? And why have the Obama administration and the media failed to report dramatic growth in US wind and solar power capacity between 2008 and 2012, a growth in energy production equal to nearly 60 nuclear power plants? Wind power capacity has more than doubled, and solar capacity has quadrupled in the last 4 years – outpacing fossil fuels – while nuclear is in decline. The corporate muscle and money of the nuclear and fossil fuel industries have not only silenced dissent, but they also insidiously stymie the possible – energy independence based on renewable technologies.
The contrived frenzy in Congress and the media over the $529 million federal loan guarantee and subsequent bankruptcy of the solar company Solyndra in 2011 eclipsed the solar industry’s extraordinary growth. It also covered up the solar industry’s record jobs creation, its cost-competitiveness, and its 90 percent success rate in the federal loan guarantee program. Solar’s success is the most underreported business success in the United States.
Silence about the solar industry catapulting over fossil fuels and nuclear in job creation enabled President Obama to speciously pit jobs against climate change in his first press conference since his re-election: “If the message somehow is that we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anyone’s going to go for that. I won’t go for that.” Silence about the proven promise of renewable technologies fosters an illiterate press incapable of challenging the President’s misleading dichotomy between jobs and climate change. A one-minute fact check would corroborate that renewable technologies and reversing climate change are a “win-win” for job growth, economic growth and the climate fate of the earth.
What we have before us are some breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems.
– Johnson-era Health Secretary John Gardner
For more than a century, industrial countries passed up opportunities to build a durable energy economy based on efficiency and renewables. The energy road taken has led us to Chernobyl, Exxon Valdez, Katrina, Deepwater Horizon, Fukushima, Sandy, oil wars and climate change.
Responding to immense civil society demand after Fukushima, Germany has taken its eight oldest nuclear reactors offline and has committed to closing the last nuclear power plant by 2022. This follows more than a decade of planning and expanding renewable energy, such that the shift to renewable energy is financially benefiting farmers, small business and investors and will have only small, temporary impacts on energy prices and the economy, according to researchers there. Further, this shift to renewable energy has finally broken the axiomatic link between nuclear and fossil fuel energy on the one hand and economic well-being on the other.
Political and economic realism together with our moral obligation to present and future generations must impel us, after the climate extremes of 2012, toward energy-efficiency and tapping the unlimited power of sun, water and wind. Otherwise, we are hurtling toward greater climate change disasters and nuclear tragedies with no sense of environmental justice for the web of life that sustains us or of intergenerational justice for those who come after.
Sandy will likely be dissected less in the national press for its tragically compelling evidence of climate change than for its political effects on the outcome of November 6 elections. As the Associated Press weighed it: Hurricane Sandy dampened early voting; diluted last minute campaigns of both candidates in key states; cut power and, thus, TV ads and automated phone calls in eastern swing states; and gave President Obama “a platform to show leadership in time of crisis.”
In mid-September 2012, Japan announced a phaseout of nuclear power within 30 years, as demanded by the Japanese public. A week later, the government abandoned the commitment, given extreme pressure by powerful business interests and the US government. (Also see: “Japan drops plans to phase out nuclear power by 2040“ in The Guardian (September 19, 2012) and “Japan’s Nuclear Program; Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic,“ at The Fukushima Project on SimplyInfo.) Japan’s nuclear power network “is not planning to go out of business at home or overseas, according to the Asia-Pacific journal.”