Saturday, February 03, 2007

Episode 42

Listen to my Nuclear Podcast Here

1. Tactics by Australia's Anti-Nuclear Groups
2. No Hudson River Strontium from Indian Point
3. Water Purification via Nuclear Energy in Pakistan
4. More Energy Concerns in Eastern Europe
5. US Supreme Court Refuses to Hear PG&E Appeal

Anti-Nuclear Silliness in Australia

The people in Australia who would like to perpetuate that nation’s reliance on coal as the only large-scale energy source started out the new year attacking PM John Howard’s pro-nuclear position on several fronts.

A government study concluded late last year concluded the nuclear energy is const-competitive with coal in Australia, and if some kind of carbon trading system is put in place nuclear is even cheaper than coal. Well, anti-nuclear groups and the coal lobby didn’t like those conclusions, so they brought in a hand-picked panel of so-called experts to find holes in the report. The panel included former US NRC commissioner Peter Bradford. The most significant difference of opinion raised by the external panel was the timeframe in which nuclear plants could be built – the report states plants could be on line in 10 to 15 years, and the external panel said that was unlikely.

Now tell me this, if nuclear plants can be built around the world in 40 to 50 months, why wouldn’t Australia be able to do it in 10 years? Heck, China is building close to 40 plant in the next 25 years! There certainly are no technical barriers, only political ones. You can rest assured that the coal industry, the labor party, and the anti-nuclear groups will do everything in their power to stretch it out for as long as they can. It somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophesy: the anti-nuclear groups claim nuclear plants take to long to build, then they do everything in their power to slow down the process through political and legal fights. Then they gain the right to say “I told you so!” I hope that when Australia embarks on building nuclear plants that they put in place some controls to prevent that from happening.

Another angle of attack is to spread irrational fear of negative economic consequences in regions where nuclear plants might be built. For example, Tourism Queensland CEO Daniel Gschwind says nuclear plants and tourism are not compatible and predicted dire economic impact to coastal towns like Townsville that rely heavily on tourism as the primary source of income. I have to say this is the silliest argument I’ve heard yet! There are nuclear plants all over the world near key tourist destinations and I’ve never heard of any adverse impact. Some that I’m personally familiar with in the USA include Turkey Point near Miami and the Florida Keys, Oyster Creek on the South Jersey Shore, and San Onofre on the California Pacific coast. If you think about it for just a minute you’ll agree – would you alter your vacation plans if you knew there was a nuclear plant somewhere near by? Of course not! Tourists know that in the unlikely event that there’s a problem at a nuclear plant they can pack up and go home. The same article said they were afraid that a nuclear plant would cause accelerated destruction of the coral reefs. That’s an incredible argument when you consider the tons of mercury, sulfur dioxide, and arsenic that are dumped into Australia’s air every day by coal plants. All of those make their way in to creeks and rivers that discharge into the sea. Nuclear plants emit none of those deadly contaminates!

No Strontium in Hudson River from Indian Point

That remind me of another interesting story I read this week. Technicians at Indian Point in New York are doing additional sampling along the Hudson River to determine if there is any measurable Strontium-90 coming from the plant. They didn’t find ANY strontium from the plant, but you’ll never guess what they DID find … while ALL the samples were barely detectable, the samples taken more than 20 miles upstream of the plant had higher levels of Strontium than those taken around the plant and downstream. What does that tell you? Well it could be one of several things – the levels measured were so low there could be statistical variations affecting the samples, or there could be other sources of strontium upstream that are far greater sources than Indian Point’s miniscule leak. In fact, there’s a lake a few miles from the Hudson River in Dutchess County, NY called Nuclear Lake where years ago the US Government did some kind of nuclear weapons research and production. That’s a possible but unlikely source. There are also DOD experimental and test reactors near Albany, NY on the Mohawk River, a tributary to the Hudson. If the samples turn out to be valid, then I would look to those places as possible sources. There’s also the possibility that the samples reflect run-off from decades old weapons testing fall-out. Again, the amounts were talking about are incredibly small, and pose absolutely zero risk to aquatic life or the environment in general.

Australian Media Focuses on Nuclear “Non-Story”

In another story from Australia, police near Sidney arrested a group of “home-grown terrorists” who had a rocket propelled grenade and launcher. The police said the group was planning to attack several targets in Sidney including the research and medical isotope reactor at Lucas Heights. Why a terrorist group would seek to target a research reactor is beyond me. These are not high powered explosives, and would be unlikely to cause any real damage. Case in point, the RPG fired at the US Embassy in Athens last week hit the wall of a parking garage and did almost no damage. I find it interesting that the Newspaper headlines the fact that the reactor was a target, but doesn’t mention any other softer buildings were also on the hit list. Any of the other targets would have had a much higher chance of hurting someone than to shoot at a hardened industrial facility. Media bias against nuclear energy is found in many forms, and this is an example of newspapers sensationalizing stories associated with nuclear reactors, and choosing to ignore the real issues of concern.

More Energy Trouble in Eastern Europe

There’s an interesting feud taking shape in Eastern Europe between Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland. Last year the four nations agreed to form a joint venture to finance and build a new nuclear plant at the Ignalina site in Lithuania. Apparently the original discussions were about a four-way even spilt of the cost and the power that will be generated by the plant. Now Lithuania is arguing for a greater share of the energy. That’s a tough position to take because the plant will come on line in 2015, just as forecasts predict a serious energy shortage in the region. Lithuania suffered the same fate as Bulgaria - they were forced by out-of-date agreements to shut down older reactors to gain entry into the European Union, and now they need to replace those nuclear plants. The entire region is subservient on Russia for natural gas, and nuclear energy offers the best hope of ridding themselves of that dominance. Even Sweden and the Czech Republic have expressed interest in getting involved with the project – they need more energy, too! There is a relative easy solution to the problem; build more nuclear plants!

That way each nation can get the share of the energy they need to keep their economies growing and the standard of living rising.

Bulgaria Fights Back for Nuclear Energy

Since I’m talking about Eastern Europe, I have to spend some time talking about what’s going on in Bulgaria. In the past I’ve talked about the injustice done to Bulgaria by the European Union who demanded the closure of Kozloduy units 3 and 4. On December 31, 2006, at about 10:00 PM, two hours before the deadline, operators shut down the units and in doing so turned Bulgaria into a net importer of energy when, with the two nuclear units running, they were an energy exporter. In fact, they exported 7.8 billion KW-hours of electricity in 2006, and filled 80% of the electricity deficit in the region.

This is ironic in light of the EU’s report on climate change and energy that was released on January 10, 2007. In the report the EU acknowledges that it will be almost impossible to meet CO2 emissions targets while simultaneously shutting down nuclear plants (full report is here). This may be a hard pill to swallow in places like Germany where years ago the Green party pushed through a program to phase out nuclear altogether.

Bulgaria is not taking the shutdown of Kozloduy sitting down. They’re fighting it every way they can. In fact, now that they are officially EU members, they are using that status to lodge a petition before the EU Executive Body. The EU has offered Bulgaria 570 million Euros in compensation for shutting down the units. One report states Bulgaria will seek to increase that amount to one billion Euros if the plants can’t restart.

Here’s an interesting development: Pakistan announced this week that they’re working with the IAEA to couple seawater desalination equipment to the 125 MWe Kanupp Nuclear plant near Karachi. The desalination skid will produce 1600 cubic meters of potable water per day. I’m impressed by the quantity of drinking water that will be produced by this relatively small nuclear plant – 1600 cubic meters per day! They are calling the project the “Nuclear Desalination Demonstration Plant (NDDP) and stated engineering work is complete and construction is underway. Kanupp is a CANDU reactor, and the desalination system will use extraction steam diverted from the unit’s feedwater heaters.

US Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Appeal by Nuclear Utility

The US Supreme Court decided on Tuesday NOT to consider an appeal by Pacific Gas & Electric in a legal battle between the utility and anti-nuclear groups who argued that the NRC should have considered the threat of terrorist attacks in their environmental impact review of dry cask storage at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant. Here’s a summary of the case: Diablo Canyon, like so many other nuclear plants in the USA, applied to the NRC for a license to build a dry cask storage facility.for used nuclear fuel. During the process anti-nuclear groups argued that the NRC should consider the potential impact of a large scale terrorist attack such as a bomb or 911-style airline attack. The NRC denied the petition because of the remote possibility of such an attack, and because this kind of attack is outside the design basis. The NRC also ruled that the terrorist threat should be addressed by the Atomic Energy Act, and not by the National Energy Policy Act as the anti-nuclear groups claimed. The NRC issued the license and the utility began construction of the storage facility. The anti-nuclear groups didn’t like that answer and filed a lawsuit in the California Appellate Court. The California Appellate Court ruled in favor of the anti-nuclear groups and stated the NRC violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it did not include the possibility of a terrorist attack in the environmental impact report for the storage facility.

The utility appealed the appelalate court’s ruling to the US Supreme Court, and this past week the supreme court decided not to hear the case. This means the appellate court’s ruling will stand. The ball is back in the NRC’s court – they have to decide how they will consider the NEPA in environmental impact analysis of licensing applications.

It’s unsure how this will affect future licensing actions, but it could have far reaching affects. The same argument could be applied in other similar cases, and might be expanded to include applications for operating license extensions, and for new nuclear plants. The NRC is reportedly considering how to respond to this recent development, so the industry is in a “wait and see” situation. This is an important case for a coupld of reasons; the most obvious one is the potential impact to future licensing actions. The more subtile but potentially far reaching impact is this could be viewed by investors as a test of the NRC and the new licensing process. There’s a lot of concern that regulatory uncertainty will discourage investors from backing new nuclear plants in the USA, and the threat or even the perception of continuously evolving licensing standards could have a significant impact on new construction plans.


John Wheeler