Is the Era of Nuclear Power Coming to an End in the US?

Nearly one year after the Fukushima disaster, 23 nuclear power plants of the same model are still operating in the United States, many of them pushing 40 years old -- and despite the risks they pose, a recent federal court decision will make it harder for states to close them down.

On January 19, federal District Court Judge Garvan Murtha ruled that the Vermont legislature had exceeded its power when it voted in 2010 not to let the Vermont Yankee nuclear-power plant operate after its 40-year operating license expires on March 21 this year. Under federal law, the judge wrote, only the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has the power to rule on issues related to radiation safety.

Vermont Yankee is a telling example of the dangers that nuclear power in the US could pose and of the regulatory red tape (bolstered by political might) that communities face when they try to take on the industry.

The NRC renewed Vermont Yankee's license last March despite the state legislature's desire to have the plant closed after several safety lapses. The 40-year-old plant, on the Connecticut River just north of the Massachusetts border, will stay open while the Vermont Public Service Board ponders whether the plant serves the public good. The court decision "did not preclude the state's process," says Sarah Hoffman, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Public Service Commission. The board can still judge the plant on other criteria, such as its reliability and environmental issues not related to radiation.

Vermont Attorney General William H. Sorrell has appealed Judge Murtha's decision.

Vermont Yankee is the poster child for the country's aging nuclear plants, says Allison Fisher of Public Citizen's Climate and Energy Project. About half of the nation's 104 nuclear power plants opened in the 1970s, and their operating licenses are beginning to expire. Indian Point 2, a longtime bugaboo of environmental activists because of its location 24 miles north of the New York City line, comes up for renewal next year. Pilgrim, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, will in June. Like Vermont Yankee, it is a General Electric Mark I boiling-water reactor -- the same model as the three that blew at Fukushima.

How Safe Are We?

If there's going to be an accident at a U.S. nuclear plant, it's going to be at one of the Mark I reactors, predicts Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear engineer who served on the state's Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant Oversight Panel in 2009.

"Fukushima showed us that it's a very unstable, unforgiving design," he says. The "fatal flaw" in the Mark I design, he explains, is that the structure containing the reactor is only a tenth the size needed to contain the pressure generated by an accident; at pressures of more than 100 pounds per square inch, the bolts that hold the structure's top down will stretch, letting radioactive gases and explosive hydrogen escape. In 1989, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended that Mark I reactors be retrofitted with vents, which would allow the release of radioactive material, but were supposed to relieve pressure buildup in time to prevent an explosion. At Fukushima, Gundersen says, "the vents were open, but the reactor still blew."

The NRC has known about this problem for decades, he says. In 1971 and 1972, S.H. Hanauer, a senior engineer at the Atomic Energy Commission, the NRC's predecessor, wrote to director Joseph Hendrie that the Mark I reactor's container was small enough that valve failure would lead to dangerous increases in pressure that might cause a "blowdown" -- and that the valves were "not easily inspected" and "do not have a very good reliability record."

"GE wants us not to mention the problem publicly," Hanauer wrote. "In any event, this is probably trouble for the Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim hearings; it will have to be faced and a real solution found." Hendrie replied that other designs were safer, but that acceptance of the Mark I design was "firmly embedded in the conventional wisdom," and that "Reversal of this hallowed policy, particularly at this time, could well be the end of nuclear power. It would throw into question the continued operation of licensed plants."

Another problem with the Mark I design, Gundersen says, is the core shroud, the doughnut-shaped concrete rings that surround the reactor to absorb neutrons and keep the reaction from getting out of hand. By the late 1980s, he says, these had become so brittle they were "literally beginning to shatter" in some reactors.

The Japanese shut down reactors to replace these core shrouds, interjects Maggie Gundersen, her husband's partner in the Fairewinds Associates energy consultants in Burlington, Vt. The Americans just put bolts in to reinforce them, says Arnie Gundersen.

Two other safety issues at Vermont Yankee, says Maggie Gundersen, are the plant's "uprating" -- after Entergy bought the plant in 2002, it began running the plant at 650 megawatts, 20 percent over its previous capacity -- and waste storage. As the U.S. has no permanent facility to store radioactive waste, Vermont Yankee now has 33 years worth of spent fuel on the site. These old fuel pools contain 10 times the amount of radioactive cesium-137 that was released at Chernobyl and three times as much as there was at Fukushima, she says.

Entergy, a Louisiana-based power company that operates 12 nuclear power plants at ten sites in seven states (including Pilgrim and Indian Point), declined to comment. The company Web site for Vermont Yankee says it produces more than one-third of the state's electricity, and says the uprate was important "because more electricity will be needed in the coming years." When a federal waste-storage facility opens, it says, "Vermont Yankee will be among the first plants in the country eligible to ship spent fuel there." (A 1982 law says one was supposed to be opened by 1998, but the federal government's plans to do that at Yucca Mountain, Nevada have been stalled by opposition from state residents and the engineering difficulties of designing a structure that would last for 10,000 years.)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission insists that the Mark I plants are safe. At Fukushima, says Northeastern-region spokesperson Neil Sheehan, "a severe earthquake knocked out the offsite power, and then a tsunami knocked out the backup power" -- a combination highly unlikely to happen in the United States, especially at inland plants.

There have not been any issues with the core shrouds since the 1990s, he says, since they were repaired at the Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey and Nine Mile Point in upstate New York.

Since Fukushima, Sheehan says, the NRC has begun reviewing seismic conditions around nuclear plants and their operators' plans for coping with flooding, supplying backup power, and emergency preparedness. These reviews are "still in the early stages," he says, but "in the meantime, we think the plants can continue to operate safely."

The NRC believes the plants can run safely for at least 60 years, he says. Its "aging management" program includes inspecting the condition of the reactor-coolant pump; assessing the frequency of maintenance, testing, and replacement of parts; and testing the structural integrity of pipe supports. The 40-year length of the initial operating licenses, he says, had more to do with economic and antitrust concerns than with safety.

"That's not my understanding," responds Public Citizen's Allison Fisher. The reason for the time limit, she says, was because a nuclear plant contains thousands of components, and a breakdown is more likely the more those parts age. But not only is the NRC relicensing 40-year-old plants for another 20 years, she says; the industry is "pushing them to produce more power, a lot harder than they were designed for."

It wouldn't take an earthquake-tsunami combination to cause a nuclear accident, environmentalists contend. A blackout, terrorist attack, flooding, human error, or any combination thereof could cut off the electricity that powers the pumps that cool the reactor and the spent-fuel pools and keep them from blowing up, they say.

What We Can Learn from Vermont

Vermont's Public Service Board, a three-member panel, still has to decide whether to approve letting Vermont Yankee keep running. Though the court decision barred it from considering safety issues, it can still consider the economic effects on Vermont and the environmental issues surrounding decommissioning the plant and cleaning up the site, says Sarah Hoffman.

The plant was built by a group of eight New England utilities, and the original deal required it to sell them power at a discount. When Entergy bought it, it was required to set one rate that would last a full year, providing a stable price for customers, Hoffman explains. That agreement also expires on March 21, and the area's utilities have begun purchasing most of their power from other sources -- hydropower from Quebec, wind from New Hampshire, and to the dismay of environmental activists, nuclear from the Seabrook plant in New Hampshire, which in in 1977-78 was the scene of the Northeast's first big anti-nuclear protests.

"I don't think anybody's worried about our utilities having enough power," says Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. It's likely that Vermont Yankee will end up selling all its power out of state under the new license, he adds, as it has not signed any new contracts with utilities in the state.

Others say the board could also consider the viability of Entergy's evacuation plan, which currently covers the area within a 10-mile radius of the plant.

The PSB is now hearing arguments on whether it should only consider evidence presented up through 2009, as Entergy wants, or consider new evidence, such as Fukushima and a 2010 leak of tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, into the Connecticut River.

The NRC's Sheehan says the radioactivity that leaked, which has been detected near the river's west bank, was "well within permissible limits." By the time it reaches the river's center, it will be diluted enough to be "virtually undetectable."

Entergy has "sentinel wells" to check groundwater contamination, he adds, and was able to find the leak's source in an underground drain box. "We were satisfied that they had done the right things, with the caveat that they have to continue."

George Harvey of the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, a Brattleboro-based antinuclear group, agrees that the tritium leak was relatively minor. The issue, he and other activists say, is that it raised serious questions about Entergy officials' honesty. The tritium "leaked from underground pipes that Entergy had sworn didn't exist," says Paul Burns.

Another issue is that Vermont has not granted Entergy a permit to take water from the Connecticut River. The state has filed a lawsuit on that issue.

Environmental activists also question Entergy's upkeep of the aging plant. In 2007, a wooden cooling tower collapsed. "How bad must your maintenance be for a cooling tower to actually collapse?" wonders Burns. "It's astonishing."

Is the End of Nuclear Near -- Or a Revival?

The Fukushima disaster came at a time when the nuclear industry and the Obama administration were pushing for a revival of nuclear power in the U.S., which had largely stalled after the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979, the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, and the 1989 bankruptcy of the Long Island Lighting Company, which had spent $6 billion on a Mark I plant that never opened because the company could not develop a viable evacuation plan. (The only ways off Long Island, where New York's densely populated eastern suburbs stretch for 45 miles, are by ferry or through the city on highways that are clogged in a normal rush hour.) The last two nuclear plants to come online got their licenses in 1993 and 1996.

That may be changing. On Feb. 9, the NRC voted 4-1 to let Southern Co. construct two new reactors at its Vogtle plant in Georgia, and it is expected to approve three others in South Carolina and Tennessee. NRC chair Gregory Jaczko dissented, citing Fukushima. On Feb. 16, a coalition of nine Southeastern and national environmental groups filed a lawsuit with the federal D.C. Court of Appeals, alleging that the NRC was "violating federal law by issuing the Vogtle license without considering important public safety and environmental implications in the wake of the catastrophic Fukushima accident."

The coalition also charges that if the plant is redesigned to take the lessons of Fukushima into account, it will "add major delays and cost overruns" that will be passed on to ratepayers. Georgia and South Carolina are among the states that let utilities pass the cost of new plants on to customers before they come online, under a system known as "Construction Work in Progress." (The new Vogtle reactors are scheduled to come online in 2016 and 2017.) The Obama administration has offered Southern $8.33 billion in federal loan guarantees through the Department of Energy.

Nuclear energy's supporters tout it as a technology that's already on-line and doesn't burn fossil fuels. (Some cynics speculate that President Obama's sympathy for it might have something to do with the large contributions made by Exelon, a Chicago-based company that is the nation's largest provider of nuclear power, to his 2006 run for the U.S. Senate and then his 2008 presidential campaign.)

Its opponents say the risk is too big -- the possible damage in a disaster is almost infinite. Vermont Yankee is 17 miles from the Quabbin Reservoir, which supplies drinking water to the Boston area. Pilgrim is 38 miles southeast of Boston. Indian Point, though not a boiling-water reactor, has an estimated 21 million people within 50 miles of its location on the Hudson River in New York's northern suburbs. The oldest of the three reactors at that site was closed down in 1974 after radioactive isotopes, tritium and strontium-90, leaked from the spent-fuel storage into nearby groundwater.

"The Japanese were actually lucky," says Arnie Gundersen, because the wind blew 80 percent of the radiation released at Fukushima out to sea, instead of toward Tokyo.

Maintenance is another issue, says George Harvey of the New England Coalition. "These plants are not being run to retirement. They're being run to failure," he says. "Every nuke in the U.S. will run until it fails in some way. That's not very comforting." Rather than gamble with people's lives and safety, he contends that alternative sources such as wind power and new technologies such as carbon sequestration of natural gas can provide an adequate supply of clean energy.

Paul Burns dismisses the NRC's claims that nuclear plants are safe, saying the agency "is a cheerleader for the industry and an apologist for the industry when it behaves badly." Nuclear power is cheap only "if you don't consider the externalities," he adds.

"I gave up thinking 'shut it down,'" says Mary Lampert, a Massachusetts activist who has waged a seven-year campaign against renewing the Pilgrim plant's license. "There's a lot more that could be done to make it safer. Safe, no." For example, she says, the pressure-relief vents could be passive, opening automatically in response to high pressure instead of electrically or manually, and have filters.

The NRC has rejected her petitions. Some of those decisions may end up being appealed to federal courts, on the grounds that the agency, which is required to consider new information under the National Environmental Protection Act, did not take Fukushima into account in its relicensing proceedings.

Lampert calls the NRC's cost-benefit analyses, in which the agency weighs the cost of offsite damage from an accident against the cost of fixes needed to prevent accidents and mitigate damage, "baloney." They have failed to consider possibilities such as the effect of contaminated water in Cape Cod Bay would have on Massachusetts' marine industries, she says, and they grossly underestimate both the chances and the severity of accidents.

"If the probability is near zero, no matter how high the consequences are, they're never going to do any mitigation," she says. "This is a fantasy. They fear Fukushima might be the death knell of the industry. They're circling the wagons."  

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.