By Todd Morehead
While officials in Washington continue to pass the political hot potato of nuclear waste production and disposal, the Palmetto State has been left holding the bag. The issues on the ground surrounding the nuclear industry in South Carolina are as perplexing as the national policies at the heart of the debate. On one hand, the Savannah River Site and the two new slated nuclear reactors in Jenkinsville and Cherokee County provide jobs and utilities; on the other hand we face the necessary evil of nuclear waste production and storage, a prospect made grimmer after the federal government recently backpedaled on plans to open the Yucca Mountain Repository in Nevada.
The good news: the four new nuclear reactors slated to be built in our state will be constructed using a state of the art, efficient design, but the bad news: a recent (still disputed) study found a potential flaw in the design that could spew radioactive particles to the four winds. Good news: the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) has rescinded an order to triple waste canister density at SRS, but the bad news: the waste that was supposed to be temporary is still there indefinitely... sort of a black mushroom cloud with a silver lining.
For the first time in decades, utility companies are gearing up to build 21 new nuclear power plants nationwide. South Carolina is currently slated for four: VC Summer 2 and 3 (SCE&G) in Jenkinsville and Lee 1 and 2 (Duke Energy) in Cherokee County. The projects still face a number of regulatory and financial hurdles, but perhaps the biggest hurdle of all is how the region and country can handle a new generation of nuclear waste.
In the waning days of the Bush Administration, the DOE signed contracts to accept irradiated nuclear fuel from the proposed new commercial reactors, including VC Summer and William States Lee. At the time, taxpayers and the federal government had already paid around $565 million in breach of contract charges to other utilities for failure to dispose of the existing inventory of irradiated fuel from present nuclear power utilities.
Starting in 1983, the DOE signed radioactive waste disposal contracts with around 100 commercial nuclear power plants. The contracts gave the government a 1998 deadline to have waste removed and safely stored at a site like the underground Yucca Mountain Repository in the Nevada desert. Utility companies paid a percentage of their revenue into the national Nuclear Waste Fund to cover costs for shipment and storage. Currently, the fund has a balance of around $33 billion.
When the DOE missed the 1998 storage deadline, lawsuits for breach of contract started to flow in, currently 71 in total, according to the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. The federal government has paid around $565 million in damages, so far, and the payments will likely come from the U.S. Treasury if courts rule that the Nuclear Waste Fund shouldnâ€™t be used to pay out on breaches of utility waste contracts. In addition to damages, the Department of Justice is expending tax dollars trying to defend the DOE in litigation against the damage awards.
The IEER estimates that taxpayers will be liable for $12.3 billion in fines by 2020, or a little over $1 billion a year for the next decade. And those estimates donâ€™t include the 21 new nuclear plants â€“and their future wasteâ€”that were commissioned in 2008.
The 2008 contract between the DOE and SCE&G (V.C. Summer), for example, outlines Nuclear Waste Fund fees, puts the responsibility of disposal squarely on the federal government, and sets the amount of breach of contract charges at $5 million per year.
Diane Curran is a national nuclear safety law expert who represents citizens groups and local governments in cases before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and federal appeals courts. Curran believes adding new reactors to the national nuclear waste burden may not have been in the countryâ€™s best interest.
â€œThere was no apparent justification for the Bush Administrationâ€™s rush to sign these spent nuclear fuel disposal contracts for new reactors,â€ Curran says. â€œThese [utility] corporations have already reaped tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded contract damages, and stand to get hundreds of millions more. The funds for the damages are coming from the taxpayer-funded Department of Treasuryâ€™s Judgment Fund.â€
A number of utility companies have joined forces with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Nuclear Energy Institute and are asking the U.S Court of Appeals to challenge a 2009 decision that requires utility companies to continue paying their fees into the Nuclear Waste Fund, when the DOE has not yet met its obligations.
Expert alleges fatal flaw in new S.C. reactor design
Two of the new reactors slated for construction, V.C. Summer 1 & 2 in Jenkinsville, are on the short list for receiving a loan guarantee from the DOE to offset the cost of the build. Westinghouse and The Shaw Group have been commissioned to construct two AP1000 reactors at the site. The two reactors proposed for the William States Lee III nuclear plant in Cherokee County will also be AP1000 models. Yet, a recent â€“and disputedâ€”study alleges that the AP1000 has potentially fatal design flaws. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not yet fully approved the reactor for use.
The AP1000 is intended to be safer than existing designs by using gravity and natural heat flow, rather than pumps and valves, as a cooling mechanism. The design features an all-steel, freestanding containment unit, like a large pressurized kettle, with a pocket of air between it and a concrete encasement. The pocket of air between the steel and concrete is intended to promote cooling airflow from the outside and direct the heated air off the metal, then upward and out through a chimney-like opening.
The NRC has raised concerns that the containment structureâ€™s concrete shield building couldnâ€™t withstand an earthquake. Westinghouse plans to submit a second detailed report this month to demonstrate the buildingâ€™s safety.
However, Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer commissioned by Friends of the Earth, the South Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club, and other environmental groups, says another potential flaw with the AP1000 could be even more worrisome. According to Gundersenâ€™s report, the cooling design could lead to a containment leak if rust accumulates on the steel.
Gundersen, who acted as an expert witness in analyzing the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, worries that if the steel liner is flawed or rusts through, radioactive particles â€“at 10 times the dose allowed by the NRCâ€”would leak straight out into the cooling pocket and be pushed up into the atmosphere with the heated air like chimney smoke.
â€œThis gap between the concrete â€˜shield buildingâ€™ and the AP1000 steel containment allows for numerous locations where rust can develop on the steel containment,â€ the report states. â€œMoisture and corrosive agents can flourish in this gap outside the containment. Inspection of these inaccessible locations in the AP1000 is extraordinarily hard to detect until the rust creates a hole completely through the steel.â€
Westinghouse maintains that the steel structure has been designed to avoid corrosion and that the steel used will be 1.75 inches thick, whereas steel liners in traditional, sealed reactors are only around half an inch thick.
â€œIn the unlikely event that there would be some corrosion,â€ Vaughn Gilbert, a spokesman for Westinghouse recently told the New York Times, â€œit would be readily determined in inspections, and remedied.â€™â€™
All burned up and nowhere to go
When the new reactors go online and begin to produce, the issue of nuclear waste storage will undoubtedly seep back to the surface. The Savannah River Site in South Carolina is at the center of that issue, as well, but for a different type of radioactive waste.
Last month, the federal Blue Ribbon Commission on Americaâ€™s Nuclear Future, a consortium of nuclear experts, held its first meeting in an effort to analyze existing and potential policy options for managing nuclear waste. The meeting came just one month after the federal government announced the cancellation of the Yucca Mountain Repository in Nevada that would store spent nuclear fuel deep in a mountain in the desert.
South Carolina and Washington State filed suit last month in effort to keep the Yucca Mountain site on the table. A number of utility companies have filed separate suits against the DOE because the department never met its various deadlines to remove the waste and they are having to continue to store spent nuclear fuel on site.
Even Aiken County jumped into the mix and filed a suit to keep Yucca Mountain open and accept waste from the Savannah River Site â€“which had been the plan for the last few decades. A group of Aiken community leaders made a trip to Washington earlier this month to urge their elected officials to keep the project moving forward.
SRS currently stores around 35 million gallons of weapons grade nuclear waste.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing board denied the DOEâ€™s withdrawal of Yucca Mountain license, pending the outcomes of the suits and a June 30 hearing on the administrationâ€™s plan.
Many politicos believe the Obama Administrationâ€™s backpedaling on Yucca Mountain is fueled more by politics than science, as Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, (D-Nev.) is facing re-election and has been an outspoken opponent of the project.
Considering the Yucca Mountain plan was conceived prior to the 21 new reactor projects, the federal government will need to draw up a proposal for not one but two new disposal sites. According to the IEER, the government has agreed to store enough spent fuel to fill two Yucca Mountain-sized depositories.
â€œYucca Mountain was known to be a poor repository site when it was chosen,â€ says Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the IEER. â€œNow, after 10 billion dollars of ratepayer money has been wasted and Yucca has rightly been abandoned, even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not expressed confidence that a repository will open within ten years of the expiration of the first new reactor.â€
â€œThe bottom line here is that we have an industry and a White House proposing to race ahead with new reactors when we havenâ€™t figured out how to clean up the mess created by the first wave of reactors,â€ says Kevin Kamps, spokesperson for environmental group, Beyond Nuclear.â€œInstead, 28 years after passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, 35 years after the repository search began, 53 years into commercial nuclear power, and 68 years after Fermi first split the atom during the Manhattan Project, the U.S. still has no safe, sound, permanent storage plan for high-level radioactive waste.â€
In the meantime, the Savannah River Site recently caught one lucky break. The DOE recently rescinded an order that would have required the Defense Waste Processing Facility at SRS to triple the amount of liquid radioactive plutonium it coverts to glass for long-term storage. Currently, plutonium levels are at 897 grams per cubic meter; the new order would have increased the level to 2,500 grams per cubic meter.
Tom Clements, a campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth, believes the DOE put the new order on hold due to uncertainty of what the future holds for waste storage at SRS.
â€œRight now, where it will eventually go is uncertain,â€ he recently told the Augusta Chronicle. â€œSo how do they know they will meet the waste acceptance criteria for any repository, wherever it might be? The answer is, they donâ€™t.â€
Thursday, May 20, 2010
This is not a test!
By Todd Morehead