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ISIS Report 24/09/08

Old Nuclear Cash Cows Exposed

The “nuclear renaissance” may be a convenient charade to distract people while industry milks the old nuclear cash cows to drain the public coffers and endanger the nation Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

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The “nuclear renaissance” charade

As I was researching the present series of articles on nuclear energy, it began to dawn on me that the “nuclear renaissance” may be nothing more than a convenient charade put on by the nuclear industry to distract attention away from its enormous debt to the nation and at the same time allow it to milk the old nuclear “cash cows” for all they are worth, i.e., make huge profits from old, unsafe, nuclear stations..

Just how much is owed to the British taxpayer is made clear in a recent report [1] by environment correspondent of The Guardian Paul Brown (see Nuclear Industry’s Financial and Safety Nightmare [2], SiS 40). The largely private company

British Energy is making profits while the taxpayer foots the industry’s bills and liabilities. British Energy’s profit stood at £243 million for the first half of 2007 [3], Since 2004, the British taxpayer has underwritten all its debts so it could never go bankrupt, and is now paying £3 billion a year just to keep the rapidly failing Sellafield nuclear fuel reprocessing complex open. The cost of keeping Sellafield open is escalating fast, but the alternative of closing it down would be financially much worse, at least for the immediate future. It would mean no nuclear power station could operate, and the cost of decommission will have to be faced, which currently stands at £73 billion, much more than what it would cost in the United State (see below). That is at largely because of Sellafield, which has also become the world’s nuclear dustbin through importing foreign spent fuel it is unable to reprocess or repatriate. British Energy’s profit, even at best, is a pittance compared with its liabilities of £14.5 billion in 2007; and enforced plant closures due to safety concerns are eroding the profit. It slumped 66 percent in the three months to the end of June 2008 as electricity production dropped by a quarter due to the closure of the Hartlepool and Heysham 1 reactors last year following the discovery of corroded wiring [4].

The threat of closure hangs over all British Energy’s ageing reactors because of safety faults, for example, distortion of graphite blocks or corrosion, both of which have already been identified as life-limiting problems [1]. The closure of Mox plant Thorp on the Sellafield site could add billions to the liabilities. So far the company and the UK Government are avoiding these eventualities by extending the life of Thorp to at least 2015, along with extensions for the three advanced gas-cooled reactors (AGRs) that were due to be closed soon. Despite boiler cracks, Hinkely Point in Somerset and Unterston on the Ayrshine coast due to close in 2011, had their lives extended to 2016 in December 2007. Because of safety fears, they were operating at an uneconomic 60 percent capacity at the beginning of 2008, but the company hoped to raise this to 70 percent and get them back into black. Dungenese B in Kent, due to close in 2008, has already had its life extended to 2018, Next in line for extensions are Hartlepool on Teeside, and Heysham 1 in Lancashire, both due to close in 2014. It is only by extending the lifetime of the nuclear power stations and Thorp that British Energy and the Government are spared of having the liabilities of the industry fully exposed to public view.

 “Cash cows” galore

The fact that new nuclear power stations make little economic sense does not mean that old ones are not profitable. As Christian Parenti points out in The Nation across the Atlantic [5], “these nightmarishly complex radioactive boondoggles have recently been turned into cash cows.”

Beginning in the 1990s, most US energy markets were deregulated one state, one region at a time. This allowed utilities to pass on to rate payers the “stranded costs”, i.e., the outstanding mortgage payments of the nuclear power plants.

Perhaps the most egregious example of that occurred in California. In 1996, the State Assembly passed legislation written by utility lobbyists that allowed Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric to hold rates high as prices dropped nationally. The two utilities were to receive $28 billion over four years. This money would pay off the stranded costs of the Diablo Canyon and San Onofre atomic plants. Halfway through the deal, the California power crisis hit and deregulation was suspended. But the state floated bonds to soak up the remaining stranded costs.

Similar deals were struck across the country. Relieved of old debts, the nuclear plants with relatively low overhead costs became valuable assets. A new generation of firms began buying them up, often for a song. By 2002, ten companies owned seventy of the country’s 104 reactors, among them are Exelon, Entergy and Dominion Resources.

Vermont Yankee, a thirty-five-year-old reactor was bought by Entergy seven years ago for a mere $180 million, about half what it would cost to build a coal plant or wind farm with the same generating capacity. Entergy is now trying to run the power station as hard and as long as possible to maximise profits. In 2006 it received approval to increase power output by 20 percent. This means the plant operates with 20 percent more pressure, heat and flow. And in just one year it earned Entergy $100 million in profits. Over the last decade, almost all US nuclear power plants have received uprates; but few match Vermont Yankee’s 120 percent capacity.

The next big nuclear accident waiting to happen

Just after the uprate, one of Vermont Yankee’s twenty-two cooling towers collapsed [5]. Entergy officials said the collapse “baffled” them. A spokesperson admitted that their “inspections were not effective enough.” Gregory Jaczko at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), admitted that the collapse “didn't look good”, but went on to reassure the public that the plant is essentially safe.

Entergy is now petitioning the NRC to extend its operating license so that it can run the old plant for twenty years longer than was intended.

Nationally, forty-eight facilities have had their licenses extended. In fact, despite critics’ arguments that ageing plants pose serious dangers, no license renewal requests have ever been turned down.

Diana Sidebotham, an antinuclear activist in Putney, Vermont, thinks Entergy and the NRC are courting disaster. In 1971 Sidebotham helped found the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, and she has been trying to shut down nuclear plants ever since.

One of these days a plant will blow,” says Sidebotham. “And when it does, it will cause a great many deaths and widespread suffering, not to mention extraordinary economic damage.”

In 2002, the Davis-Besse Nuclear Plant in Ohio was forced to close for two years after inspectors found “a football-sized corrosion hole” in the reactor’s six-inch-thick steel cap. The plant was “very close” to a major accident.

Activists like Sidebotham say the real issue is not how to build more nuclear plants but how to handle the old, decrepit ones and their huge stockpiles of radioactive waste. That is precisely the same problem as in the UK and elsewhere. Most of the atomic plants in the world are reaching the end of their lifespan. In the US, 17 have been decommissioned. And increasingly the question is what to do with the accumulated waste, the extremely radioactive spent fuel rods [2]. If exposed to air for more than six hours, spent fuel rods spontaneously combust, spewing highly poisonous radioactive isotopes far and wide. This spent fuel will be hot for 10 000 years.

Since 1978, the Department of Energy has been studying Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a possible permanent repository for atomic waste. But intense opposition has held up those efforts [5]. In the meantime, the spent fuel is stored at the old power plants, in pools of water lying near great cities, on crucial river systems, in small rural towns. These pools are potentially a far greater risk than a reactor meltdown. Terrorists might attack and drain them, by driving a truck bomb or crashing an explosive-laden plane into them.

Parenti recalls [5] how, just after 9/11, when security at nuclear plants was supposed to be at its peak, lead pellets started raining down on the nuclear reactor’s containment structure and guard shack at Maine Yankee, in Wiscasset. (The plant has since been decommissioned.) A group of four armed men in camouflage had infiltrated into a swamp and were firing weapons from somewhere in the reeds. These men turned out to be local duck hunters who had no idea they were shooting at the nuclear power plant. This episode proved just how easy an attack could be made. Activists demanded, and got, a safety review, which led to a “shockingly” blunt NRC Report on Spent Fuel Pool Accident Risk at Decommissioning Nuclear Plant (NUREG-1738) published in February 2001 [6]. The report found that containment structures, such as that at Vermont Yankee, “present no substantial obstacle to aircraft penetration.” A fire in the spent fuel pool at a reactor like Vermont Yankee (which stores 488 metric tonnes of spent fuel) would cause more than 25 000 cancer fatalities over a distance of 500 miles if evacuation were 95 percent effective. But that evacuation rate would be almost impossible to achieve.

The NRC claimed to have the threat of terrorism under control, but for reasons of national security it could not explain how. But after 9/11 it admitted, “At this time, we could not exclude the possibility that a jetliner flying into a containment structure could damage the facility and cause a release of radiation that could impact public health.”

Parenti concludes [5]: “This much seems clear: a handful of firms might soak up huge federal subsidies and build one or two overpriced plants. While a new administration might tighten regulations, public safety will continue to be menaced by problems at new as well as older plants. But there will be no massive nuclear renaissance. Talk of such a renaissance, however, helps keep people distracted, their minds off the real project of developing wind, solar, geothermal and tidal kinetics to build a green power grid.”

No doubt, talk of a nuclear renaissance also helps keep people distracted to allow the industry milking the old nuclear cash cow while draining the public coffers and endangering the public.

We must bite the bullet and opt out of nuclear power

It is clearly very costly to give up on nuclear power, but much more costly not to do so. The cleanup costs of decommissioning in the UK stands at £73 billion in 2008 [1], and no permanent storage site has been identified for the mountains of nuclear wastes. But the industry is already a huge drain on the taxpayer costing £3 billion a year and rapidly rising, while more and more nuclear wastes keep piling up to add to the cost of decommissioning..

In the US, even if no new reactors are built, getting rid of the country’s nuclear waste will cost $96.2 billions and require a major expansion of the planned Nevada waste dump beyond limits imposed by Congress [7], the Department of Energy said.

This revised cost estimate came as Senator John McCain renewed his call for building as many as 45 new power reactors by 2030. The new estimate is $38.7 billion more than anticipated by the Department of Energy in 2001, and is because current reactors are allowed to operate longer and so the Yucca site will have to accept more waste. Congress has limited it to 77 000 tons.

The Yucca project has been highly contentious from the start, with Nevada politicians vigorously opposing it.

Commercial power plants currently have about 64 000 tons of used reactor fuel at power plants in 33 states awaiting shipment to Yucca Mountain, with the amount growing at the rate of 2 000 tons a year.

Existing power plants are a huge drain on taxpayer’s money while posing monumental threats to public safety and national security. We have little choice but to bite the bullet and opt out of nuclear power. We must stop the nuclear renaissance charade and start decommissioning old plants before the nuclear nightmare gets considerably worse. There is no future in the nuclear option as study after study makes clear [8] (The Nuclear Black Hole, SiS 40). Time and resources are both running out, and we need to invest them instead in truly sustainable, renewable, and safe energies [9] (Which Energy? ISIS Publication)

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