Friday, January 22, 2010

Tritium: Fuel for Antinuclear Reactions

podcast-150x150Fast Fission Podcast #22 - Get the MP3 File Here

There is a political and public relations cauldron boiling in Vermont over a recently discovered tritium leak at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.   Tritium is a mildly radioactive isotope of hydrogen and has a 10 day biological half-life when it is ingested by humans. 

The leak is minute and completely inconsequential from a safety standpoint: the tritium levels very low.  Only one ground water sample is slightly above federal drinking water standards (even though the sample points are far away from any sources of drinking water).  In fact, the levels are so low that even if you drank water from the test wells, and nothing else, for an ENTIRE YEAR your radiation exposure would be only about 1/10 of what you would receive from one medical x-ray, and a small fraction of your exposure from the natural background radiation.  Eating the same quantity of brazil nuts every day, one of the most naturally radioactive foods, would result in MORE exposure to radiation than bathing in the water in these test wells!

These facts have not stopped the antinuclear groups in the area from going berserk.  They know when they have the upper hand on a public relations issue, and they are doing everything they can to take advantage of it.   Adding fuel to the fire are allegations of false statements by plant officials.  At a PSB hearing last spring a plant executive stated he did not believe there was any active buried piping containing radioactive fluids.  The official said the plant would verify that was the case and would get back to the board, but reportedly they did not.  Potentially adding to the communication difficulties -  the phrases “Buried piping” and “underground piping” do NOT mean the same thing.  To an engineer the term “buried” piping refers to piping that is buried underground in direct contact with the soil.  Underground piping means the piping is below grade and could be located in a vault or concrete trench. 

Plant personnel have apologized for the miscommunication and are actively looking for the source of the leak.  Timing could not be worse because the VT public service commission has yet to make a ruling on Entergy’s proposal to create a new nuclear only generating company, and the VT state legislature has yet to vote on the plant’s request for a license extension.

Vermont Yankee has passed every NRC inspection in flying colors and is operated both safely and reliably.  In fact, the plant recently earned the highest possible rating from the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations.

John Wheeler

This Week in Nuclear

Cloudy Days Ahead for the Sunshine State

podcast-150x150Download the MP3 Here

This past week the Florida Public Service Commission voted to deny requests by the state’s two largest utilities to upgrade the state’s electrical systems by adding renewable energy, new gas turbines, a new gas pipeline, new reactors, and transmission lines.  This politically motivated decision is mind-numbing in a state with an over-taxed grid and an electricity supply that has not kept up with population increases.

In this podcast Rod Adams of The Atomic Show and the Atomic Insights blog joins me for a chat about this terribly near-sighted decision, some possible motivations, and what it means for the people of Florida.

Some other links related to this story:

Renewable Energy plans will be scuttled by the FL PSC Decision.

Westinghouse condemns the FL Decision.

This Week in Nuclear Begins It's 5th Year!

podcast-150x150Download the MP3 Here

Last week the Pakastani government arrested five American citizens on the suspicion that they were planning to attack the Chashma Nuclear Plant.  All five men are dual nationals of Pakistan and the USA and they recently lived in Washington DC. 

According to news reports all five have been questioned by both the Pakistani police and the FBI.  They were arrested while trying to make contact with Al-Qaeda terrorist groups.  Another news report indicates the five have been charged and will stand trial in Pakistan.

The Chasma Nuclear plant is a small 300 Mw pressurized water reactor that was built in Pakistan with the assistance of China.  It is very similar to the Quinshan nuclear plant.  The plant is very reliable – during a recent fuel cycle it ran at 95% capacity factor.  It’s unclear what sort of threat the men posed to the plant, but it is doubtful that there was much of a risk to the plant or to the public.  Even if the men had taken control of the plant, without detailed knowledge of the plant’s safety systems it would be very difficult for them to cause reactor damage.  Core damaging events usually take many hours to reach the point at which the fuel begins to over heat and by that time the military would be able to retake control.khan20091226181810718

Happy Holidays everyone!  This week marks the 4th anniversary of the first episode of This Week in Nuclear.  Wow!  Time has flown by!

Producing the show has been an amazing experience for me; I’ve met people from all around the world, many of whom I consider my friends; I’ve been exposed to new ideas and new situations; and I’ve expanded my knowledge of the nuclear business in areas like politics, communications, and financing.  While I came into this adventure with a lot of experience operating nuclear plants and training nuclear workers, and the longer I do this the more I learn.  God willing I’ll be at this for at least another four years!  Thank you for your support!

I apologize for the slow down in the number of shows over the last three weeks.  I’ve had a very busy time at work since the beginning of December trying to get the typical end of year things taken care of in time for the holidays.  I’m taking some time off, too, so I had to make sure everything was set before I left.  Thank you for your patience and I’ll be starting back up again the first week in January.  Until then I’m taking a little time off.

New Jersey Anti-Nuclear Groups Fight On


Fast Fission Podcast #20 – MP3 File

In April of 2009, after a long fight with well-funded anti-nuclear groups, the Oyster Creek Nuclear Plant in New Jersey was granted a 20 year license extension.  At the time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission called Oyster Creek’s application “the most extensive license renewal to date.”  It’s worth noting that the NRC commissioners voted 3 to 1 in favor of the license extension, the only dissenting vote was from Gregory Jaczko who was subsequently appointed NRC Chairman by President Obama and continues to serve in that position.

Image of Oyster Creek FacilityAnti-nuclear groups viewed the plant’s license extension as a temporary setback, and they are again trying to shut down the plant.  They have been unable to show any safety or environmental basis for their cause, so they are taking another approach – trying to force the owners to make enormous plant modifications they hope will make the plant too expensive to operate.  They have succeeded in getting a bill in front of the New Jersey state government that would force the plant to install cooling towers, something that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.  They argue that the plant’s cooling water intake from Barnagat Bay kills fish and a forcing the plant to use cooling towers would reduce the number of fish killed by the plant’s cooling water system.  The anti-nukes are trying to get the State to require cooling towers as a condition of renewing the plant’s water discharge permit.

A similar tactic was attempted by the anti-nuclear group Riverkeeper in New York against the Indian Point nuclear plant.  That case went all the way to the US Supreme Court.  In the end Riverkeeper’s claim was denied.

Local newspapers are predicting large crowds will be on hand Monday, December 14 at the State House Annex in Trenton where the hearings will take place.  This will be an interesting case because similar bills are before both houses of the NJ legislature, and lame duck Governor, Jon Corzine opposed the plant’s license renewal.

These attempts to portray nuclear plants as evil fish killers are laughable.  All central station power plants use large quantities of cooling water.  They pull the water in and discharge it back a few degrees warmer.  Environmental permits already specify how much the plants are allowed to heat the water, and I’ve known of times when power plants have reduced power because they were approaching the water discharge thermal limits, particularly in the heat of the summer.  Also, many plants like Indian Point were forced years ago to install multi-million dollar fish catching systems on the water intakes to gently redirect the fish away from the intake screens to safety in the warm discharge water.

I for one am tired of hearing the newspapers and television news refer to anti-nuclear organizations as “environmental” or “public advocacy” groups.”  It is easy to argue that ill-informed anti-nuclear activism has resulted in serious damage to the environment and cost many lives by slowing down the growth of nuclear energy.  Air and water pollution caused by the alternatives, burning fossil fuels, has far more impact on our health and environment.  Let’s stop calling groups like Riverkeeper, New Jersey Public Interest Research Group, and the Radiation & Public Health Project “environmentalists” and “public advocates”.  Instead, let’s call them what they are: anti-nuclear groups.

Let's also acknowledge it's quite possible to be both pro-nuclear AND pro-environment.  In fact, the two go hand in hand.

John Wheeler

Indian Nuclear Workers Poisoned - Media Botches Story (Again)



Fast Fission Podcast #19 – mp3 file

On November 24th a strange thing happened at the Kaiga nuclear plant in southern India.  During a routine check for radiation exposure, about 65 maintenance workers tested positive for higher than normal levels of tritium in their urine.  The plant is a CANDU reactor which uses heavy water as a moderator, and heavy water contains tritium.  Tritium is an isotope of hydrogen with two neutrons and one proton.  It is radioactive with about a 12 year half-life.

When plant officials investigated the source of the exposure they discovered someone hadindian radiation leak intentionally contaminated a cooler of drinking water with a vial of water containing tritium.  The workers were sent to the local hospital for monitoring and were later sent home.  No one required hospitalization and the highest exposure any of them received was about 3 rem, about 60% of the annual limit in the USA for occupational exposure.  The tritium-containing heavy water is not chemically poisonous – it behaves in the human body like regular water.  It has a biological half-life in humans of about 10 days, and that can be shortened by doing things to speed the fluid exchange process like drinking extra water, administering intravenous fluids, and in severe cases dialyses.  Based on what I’ve read of the event and the levels of exposure it is most likely the workers were sent home and told to drink lots of water for the next several days.

Tritium decays by firing off a beta particle (essentially a high energy electron) leaving behind a helium-3 atom.  Beta particles are relatively weak and can not penetrate the dead layer of skin on your body.  It is of most concern when it is ingested into the body as it was in this case.  As I said the total exposure here was nothing for the workers to be concerned about.  There are some reports that the workers were sickened, but I’m unsure of the accuracy of these reports.   It is more likely that people not familiar with the details believed the workers were sickened because they were sent to the hospital for monitoring.If the reports are true, then the illness was not caused by radiation.

The Indian authorities are investigating to determine who poisoned the drinking water, and why.  There are several theories being considered; one related to anti-nuclear sentiments surrounding India’s expanding commercial nuclear energy plans, another related to the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Bopal chemical plant disaster that happened on December 3, 1981.

This was certainly an event that will cause the Indian government some concern, not because of the consequences, but because of the security implications.  The workers affected are very lucky that the culprit used heavy water and not something truly toxic.  Power plants have many, many chemicals on hand for a variety of industrial purposes, and some of them could have been lethal. 

What REALLY caught my eye about this story was the irresponsible and inaccurate way the event was characterized in the press around the world.  Almost every major news outlet called it a “radioactive leak” that “sickened workers.”  It was not until hours later that a few started to carry scaled back headlines with more accurate accounts.  I really have to wonder if any of these international news services have anyone on their staff with a clue about nuclear energy.  If they did, and that person did just a small amount of legwork and fact checking they could have easily reached a correct conclusion:  there was no leak, and workers were not sickened by radiation. 

There are striking similarities between this story and the maintenance mishap last week at the Three Mile Island that caused airborne contamination inside their containment.  Neither involved a leak, neither resulted in risk to the public, in both cases only plant workers were affected, and those affects were essentially so small as to be undetectable.  Contrary to all this, in both cases news outlets blew their reporting: initial reports were grossly wrong, reported leaks when there were none, and reported worker health was being affected by radiation – also wrong.

Clean, Green Energy Jobs



Fast Fission Podcast # 18 - mp3 file

Duke Energy is one of the largest power producers in the Western Hemisphere.  They produce 35,000 MW of electricity in the USA, plus 4,000 in Latin America.  They have virtually every type of power plant: nuclear, coal, gas, hydro, wind, and solar. They also run natural gas distribution systems in two states.

Duke knows energy, and Jim Rogers, their CEO, knows Duke.  When Jim Rogers speaks about energy people listen.  Last week Mr. Rogers was talking energy and jobs.   Jim says Duke's experience has shown that nuclear energy provides more jobs and higher paying jobs than wind or solar power plants.

"In an operation of a nuclear plant, there [are] .64 jobs per megawatt. The wind business–and we have a very large wind business – is .3 jobs per megawatt. In the solar business – and we're installing solar panels – it's about .1. But the difference in the jobs is quite different, because if you're wiping off a solar panel, it's sort of a minimum wage type of job, [with] much higher compensation for nuclear engineers and nuclear operators.  If our goal is to rebuild the middle class, nuclear plays a key role there, particularly if coal is out of the equation."

Mr. Roger's comments made me wonder how many jobs might be created if we were to build new power plants of each type to meet our energy demands.  I started with the most recent Energy Outlook provided by the US Government at the Energy Information Administration web site.  This report states that 259 GW of new plants will be needed by 2030.  The number includes 30 GW to replace aging plants and the rest is for modest energy demand growth.

Multiplying that 259,000 MW times the Duke estimates for the number of people per MW, we get the result (rounded to the nearest 1000):
  • New Nuclear: 166,000 jobs
  • New Wind: 78,000 jobs
  • New Solar: 26,000 jobs

















These numbers ignore the 2,000 to 3,000 jobs created building each new nuclear plant during the four year construction process.  Building wind and soar would also provide temporary construction jobs.  I also did not adjust for the lower capacity factors associated with wind and solar generation. We'll assume smart grid technologies will enable improvements in wind and solar energy capacity and existing reserve capacity will back up wind and solar.  After all, these are the kinds of assumptions that wind and solar proponents make all the time.

In Episode 60 of "This Week in Nuclear" I discussed how every dollar spent building new nuclear plants provides far more energy than either wind or solar. Now we're discovering that nuclear plants also produce more jobs per MW. Combining these two findings we gain an important insight: every dollar spent on new nuclear plants provides not only more energy, but also more jobs.

It's not often that we find one solution for two very tough problems, but that's exactly what we have done: Investing in nuclear energy can provide much needed high paying jobs that can't be sent overseas, in addition to reliable, clean energy to power our economy.

John Wheeler

"Leak" at Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant: CNN and ABC News Get it Wrong


This Week in Nuclear Episode 80 – MP3 File

If you were watching CNN or ABC News last night and this morning you may have believed a major accident was underway at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant. Both news sources reported there had anc_tmi been a “radiation leak” at the plant and more than 100 workers were contaminated.

Both CNN and ABC News were blatantly wrong; there was not a “radiation leak” from the plant. What happened was a minor spread of radioactive dust and particles during maintenance activities inside the reactor building. Some workers in the vicinity got material on their clothes and skin that had to be washed off. The material was easily contained and there was no leak from the plant into the environment.cnn_tmi

I first learned about this from April Schilpp, who I follow on Twitter. April is a communications specialist in Lancaster, PA.

In this podcast April and I discuss what happened, how the social media helped get the word out, and how the companies and other stakeholders could have used social media to keep the mainstream news sources honest.