If I was driving around today in a 1960s Chevrolet Corvair, claiming it was new and state-of-the-art, I’d likely be a laughingstock. (Even in the mid-1960s, it would have been a hard sell, thanks to the pioneering consumer safety work of Ralph Nader and his landmark book, Unsafe At Any Speed.)
But that’s exactly the spin the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and, more prominently, desperate nuclear boosters, are trying to put on Watts Bar 2, the first “new” and “21st century” US nuclear reactor.
Maybe they only meant it literally: “new” as in it wasn’t there until now; “21st century,” not in design, but because that’s when it appeared. Finally. On October 19, 2016, when Watts Bar 2 officially became commercially operational.
But the spin gets taken up by the media anyway. Thus, Watts Bar 2, a chronic old 1960s nuclear reactor design, that took a world record-breaking 43 years to get here, is trumpeted as a triumph for the nuclear power industry.
If I was TVA, I would be so absolutely hiding my light under a bushel. Not only did Watts Bar 2 take 43 years, it was automatically shut down twice in the first three weeks of grid connection. And it was the first reactor to come on line in the US in 20 years! The last one — TVA’s Watts Bar 1 — took 23 years from start to finish. This does not seem like the kind of business record one would want to boast about.
And it certainly doesn’t seem anything like a renaissance, or a boom, or whatever else the clinging-to-the-window-ledge-by-their-fingernails nuclear industry would like us to think it is.
TVA also spent more than 40 years and $5 billion on its unfinished Bellefonte Nuclear Plant units 1 and 2 in northeastern Alabama, and is now auctioning them at a minimum bid of $36.4 million and abandoning plans to develop Bellefonte units 3 and 4 there.
Luckily, TVA is government-owned, because with that kind of record, what investor would touch it? Instead, it’s been the hapless taxpayers and ratepayers who have propped up these miserable failures for decades.
TVA is hoping that in touting Watts Bar 2 as “new” and “21st century,” no one will bother to delve into the dusty history books. That is the place you actually find information about this outdated and flawed design — a 1960s vintage Westinghouse Pressurized Water Reactor with a controversial ice-condenser containment.
The ice-condenser containment design is notoriously vulnerable to over-pressurization, hydrogen buildup and containment failure. This means that in the event of a severe accident in which there actor fuel melts, the risk that the reactor containment will rupture and large releases of radioactive materials into the environment is greater with this design
Even if the ice condenser works in an accident, containment failure can still occur as a result of the combustion of hydrogen gas, which would be generated in large quantities during severe accidents when the metal cladding on fuel rods reacts with coolant water.
Even the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) — which never met a reactor license it couldn’t happily rubber stamp, no matter how glaringly dangerous — declared in 2000 that ice condensers are 100 times more vulnerable to early containment failure than other types of Pressurized Water Reactor containments.
But the NRC let Watts Bar 2 switch on anyway, which speaks volumes for the eggshell-thin safety protection this lapdog agency affords the public.
Speaking of “eggshells,” that’s precisely the term ascribed to the Watts Bar 2 ice condenser containment. It is known as an “eggshell” design — typically thin steel shells that have only half the volume and failure pressure of large dry containments. How reassuring.
It’s no surprise that during the 43- and 23-year respective odysseys of Watts Bar 2 and 1, cost overruns and delays were the order of the day. Completion costs for Watts Bar 2 rose from $2.5 billion in 2007 to $4.7 billion in 2016. Since construction of Watts Bar 1 and 2 began in 1973, TVA has spent more than $12 billion to finish the two reactors.
But $12 billion is now the lowball price for a single new reactor. The State of Virginia’s Office of Attorney General has estimated the cost of a new reactor under licensing alone to be $19 billion without a shovel in the ground. Lifetime costs for the two planned reactors at Hinkley C in the UK are currently estimated at $48 billion — which would make it the most expensive man-made project ever attempted on Earth.
The nuclear power industry is in a deepening financial crisis and global decline and still decades away from offering anything that could be considered either “new” or “21st century” in design. This renders it irrelevant for addressing climate change.
Meanwhile, renewable energy is answering the call. In an energy future where distributed and flexible generation will be the norm, renewable energy supplies can be brought on quickly when needed, a capacity that large, baseload power generators like nuclear plants do not have.
The nuclear power industry does not enjoy its growing obsolescence. Consequently, it is mustering all the misleading propaganda it can in a last-ditch attempt to justify its continued existence. But the renewable energy revolution is on an inexorable march toward rendering not only nuclear, but coal and natural gas, dinosaurs of a past age.
US renewable sources such as wind, solar, biomass and hydropower, outpaced natural gas by a factor of more than 70:1 for new electrical generating capacity placed in service during the first quarter of 2016. Globally, with prices falling, wind and solar are crushing fossil fuels.
US utilities that have closed nuclear plants in Nebraska and California are turning to renewables not shale gas. The US solar industry is adding jobs 20 times faster than the rest of the economy. American wind power supported a record 88,000 jobs at the start of 2016 — an increase of 20 percent in a year.
Members of Congress and incoming US presidents should take note of these undeniable facts. The only thing the 21st century has to offer nuclear power is a very large exit sign