Their ads always say “clean safe nuclear energy.” Why is that?
This is the first post in a series on clean safe nuclear energy. It takes a brief look at history, then it discusses safety. Future posts will cover how clean nuclear power is and will look at the Palisades plant, on Lake Michigan near South Haven. Much of this post may seem like stuff everyone knows, but I knew hardly any of it until recently. It seems important for me to do my small part in helping people learn what I haven’t known about “clean safe nuclear energy.” Important note: After its original publication on December 10, 2015, this piece was updated on December 14. Thanks to Jan Boudart, Michael Keegan, and Kevin Kamps for providing additional information, clarification, and improved accuracy. My education continues.
In your browser’s search field, enter clean safe n. Most likely, that’s all you’ll enter before clean safe nuclear energy appears near the top of your suggestion list. The words just go together. About the only time you see the phrase “nuclear energy” without “clean” and “safe” is when it’s coming from someone who’s not trying to turn you into a nuclear energy believer.
Nuclear plant operators and utility companies are so consistent with their “clean safe nuclear energy” message that most of us believe them without thinking about it. We’ve heard it for decades. Back in the beginning, some of us wondered, “Why do they keep calling it clean and safe all the time? Are they afraid someone will think it isn’t? Do some people already think it isn’t?”
In the 60s and 70s, the shadow of The Bomb – Hiroshima, Nagasaki, mushroom clouds, instant vaporization, radiation poisoning, fallout – gave safety top billing in nuclear energy’s PR work.
That’s just a power plant next to the beach at South Haven. It’s not The Bomb.
Clean was important, too. Rachel Carson and Silent Spring convinced us to stop using our waterways for sewers. We invented Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, emission standards. Nuclear plant builders and operators knew they had to tell us, “Nuclear energy is clean!” And keep telling us. No billowy black smoke. No dusty coal piles. No oily brown goop going into our lakes and rivers.
I’m learning how ignorant I’ve been.
Air raid drills in the 50s and fallout shelters in the 60s kept me and my schoolmates scared. Over the decades, my fear faded to mild apprehension. While I’ve never been completely sold that nuclear power is all that safe, it was easy to brush off Three Mile Island as a freak accident. As for clean, all I knew was, They’re not burning oil or coal, so, okay then.
Nuclear power is not safe. Period. People trying to shut down the nation’s nuclear plants aren’t scaremongering extremists. I’ve been wrong to dismiss them, wrong not to pay attention.
What about clean? Mining and delivering uranium doesn’t seem as environmentally harmful as removing mountaintops to get to the coal, or depleting and contaminating our water supply the way fracking does, or dealing with oil spills like Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon, Enbridge 6B. But ask people who work in – or live near – a uranium mine about environmental harm:
…165 million tonnes of radioactive mill tailings left on the surface – requiring monitoring, and in some cases treatment of the run-off, in perpetuity.
And there is waste from using uranium for fuel. It’s called nuclear waste. It’s not clean and it’s not safe. We can’t see it in the air or smell it in our water, but that doesn’t make it clean and safe. In fact, nuclear waste will stay unsafe much much longer than people have lived on the Earth. We’ve been creating it for more than five decades, and no one has figured out what to do with it.
Thanks to my educators, I’m becoming less ignorant.
- Jan Boudart of Nuclear Energy Information Service was the first to start educating me when she contacted Sierra Club Southwest Michigan Group through our website’s contact form.
- Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear soon joined the conversation. Through my subscription to Kevin’s “Palisades Perspectives” email list, I keep learning from him and from other subscribers – Michael Keegan, Bette Pierman, Becky Mandrell, and others.
- Iris Potter of Michigan Safe Energy Future has been a fountain of knowledge. She’s had answers for every question I’ve asked her – and for loads of questions that I haven’t been smart enough to ask.
- Mark Muhich of Sierra Club’s Nuclear Free Michigan has also been a good teacher.
- Special thanks to Becky Mandrell for sharing her copy of We Almost Lost Detroit.
I’m learning how safe “clean safe nuclear energy” is.
I didn’t even know how power plants work.
All the smoke that a conventional power plant puts out comes from fires that don’t do anything but heat water. Steam pressure turns the turbines that generate electricity. A nuclear plant, instead of burning coal to heat the water, uses heat from a nuclear reaction. A few tons of uranium can keep a reaction going for years. Nuclear power’s early champions figured that would be a cheaper way to run a power plant than burning tons and tons of coal every day – so much cheaper that experts predicted a thousand nuclear plants all over the U.S. would be producing untold gigawatts of cheap energy by the turn of the century.
What happened to our thousand nuclear plants by the turn of the century? Sixteen years into the new century, we have 61 plants with 99 nuclear reactors. Some plants have two reactors. A few have three. All get government subsidies that make the energy seem less expensive by burying its true cost in the taxes we pay. (Yes, that’s how it works with fossil-fuel energy, too.)
Two things got in the way of the thousand-plant prediction: safety and safety.
Safety issue #1
From the very beginning no insurance company, not even an alliance of insurance companies sharing the risk, was willing to offer a policy at any premium to fully cover a nuclear plant’s liability. The 1957 Price-Anderson Act solved this problem by requiring nuclear plants to provide only part of their insurance while the U.S. government takes care of the nuclear power industry’s disaster insurance. The American taxpayer is still – today – the nuclear industry’s insurance company for disaster coverage. After the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 gave nuclear power the go-ahead, it took more than a decade of haggling over insurance before the U.S. government stepped in and said we’ve got you covered and the nuclear power industry was confident enough to move forward.
Draw whatever conclusions you want from the fact that no amount of money can convince any insurer or group of insurers – other than the government – to fully cover a nuclear plant’s liability.
Safety issue #2
Safety is expensive!
Danger lurks everywhere: mining and shipping the uranium, manufacturing the radioactive fuel rods, creating the nuclear reaction that heats the water, keeping the nuclear reaction contained and under control – all this has to work perfectly.
A nuclear reaction that’s safely under control requires:
- A lot of thoughtfully and meticulously designed and very expensive equipment that will never wear out or malfunction.
- A lot of very carefully thought-out, clear, explicit policies and procedures.
- A lot of thoroughly trained technicians.
- A clearly understood and redundant alarm system that immediately tells the technicians exactly what happened when a piece of equipment wears out and malfunctions.
Ensuring that a nuclear plant’s technicians are safe from radiation poisoning and other maladies requires a completely different set of all of the above.
What if something goes wrong?
Every nuclear plant in the U.S. has an evacuation plan. It’s required. Creating the plan can cost a million or so. It has to map out travel routes, consider air currents and population and the severity of the “incident.” (They don’t call them accidents. Clean safe nuclear energy can’t have accidents.)
If you live near a nuclear plant, do you know your evacuation plan? Do you know how you’ll find out when an evacuation becomes necessary? Do you know how much warning you’ll have? Do you know what you’ll need to grab, what you’ll have to leave behind, where you’ll go? The Palisades evacuation plan is a 28-page booklet. Do you have yours?
If Palisades has a serious accident, one of the airborne contaminants will be the radioactive isotope iodine-131. It causes thyroid cancer. Potassium iodide (KI) pills taken shortly before exposure to iodine-131 will prevent thyroid cancer. The pills won’t work after you’re exposed. (KI pills have already been delivered door to door – free – in Toronto.) The American Thyroid Association strongly recommends that residents within 50 miles of a nuclear plant should have a free supply of KI pills on hand – provided by the plant, another cost that can add up to millions, depending on population.
Right now, Michigan considers the danger zone to be only ten miles, and you have to take a voucher to a pickup point to get your free pills. Are you in the 10-mile radius? The 50-mile radius? Do you have your pills and your instructions? Beyond Nuclear has launched a public-information campaign and a crusade to get the pills delivered to every household in a 50-mile danger zone.
Safely containing a nuclear reaction takes a lot of thoughtfully designed lead and concrete and steel and welding that never gets old or brittle.
These are just the safety costs of getting a nuclear plant up and running in the first place. As a plant ages, the cost of maintaining safety keeps going up while the assurance of safety keeps going down.
How safe is Palisades?
Palisades is 44 years old. The shell that keeps its nuclear reaction contained – its “reactor pressure vessel” or RPV – is considered among the most embrittled in the U.S. Some say it’s the most embrittled. “Most embrittled” means “most likely to crack.” The RPV’s continual bombardment by the nuclear reaction inside makes it gradually more brittle. The RPV at Palisades has been getting bombarded for 44 years.
An RPV can crack or its welds can give way when there’s a “pressurized thermal shock” or PTS. That’s a change in temperature inside the pressurized ( 2,250 psi) RPV. It can happen when technicians decide they need to cool down a nuclear reaction that’s getting too hot.
Despite the RPV’s age and embrittlement, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently renewed Palisades’ operating license until 2031. Two license amendments were required to keep the plant going. One of those amendments was an “updated” safety standard.
The update was actually a safety rollback. The NRC ruled that the Palisades RPV need not be physically tested for embrittlement. Computer modelling and mathematical extrapolation based on embrittlement history at Palisades and other plants was good enough for the NRC. The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel, NRC’s own safety-oversight committee, recommended a public hearing in the matter. The NRC denied a hearing despite:
- Legal intervention by a coalition of public interest groups.
- A brief filed in the case by Sierra Club Michigan Chapter.
- Protest letters to the NRC from Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell and Kalamazoo Mayor Bobby Hopewell.
A recent MLive report quoted an NRC official who said that “the likelihood of reactor vessel fracture remains extremely low.” How reassuring! Clouds are extremely high, but fog is not uncommon.
He probably should’ve just called it “clean safe nuclear energy” and left it at that.
More info at these links: