California To Grapple “Indefinitely” With Nuclear Hangover

Meltdowns have almost no probability of occurring, we’re told incessantly; nuclear energy is not only cheap but safe. So, there are currently 434 active reactors and 147 permanent shutdown reactors in the world, for a total of 581 reactors. Four of them have melted down so far – one at Chernobyl and three at Fukushima. The meltdown probability, after six decades of history, is 4 out of 581, or 1 out of every 145. If 1 out of every 145 pedestrians got hit by a car, no one would ever cross a street until we’d come up with safer crossings.

The costs of a major nuclear accident are catastrophic and come due for generations (plural!). But there are also the routine costs when reactors stop producing revenues while the expenses for decommissioning pile up. These costs are largely unknown and haven’t been priced in. It’s just easier to extend the lifespan of the reactors.

So California regulators are grappling this week with how much it will cost to decommission the scandal-plagued San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station – artfully baptized SONGS. It sits by the beach in northern San Diego County; 7.4 million people live within 50 miles. It’s supposed to be able to withstand an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 on the Richter scale. But a fault has since been discovered nearby, capable of producing 8.0 earthquakes. Ten times more powerful than a 7.0 quake. San Onofre is also protected against tsunamis, much like Fukushima Daiichi.

San Onofre has had by far the highest number of safety complaints in the US, as measured by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s “Allegations from On-Site Sources” – employees and contractors. The plant’s 171 complaints from 2007 through 2012 blew away the next worst in line, the 115 complaints at the Susquehanna plant in Pennsylvania. On the low end were the 6 complaints at the Kewaunee plant in Wisconsin, which was also shut down this year.

The current nightmare bubbled up in January 2012 when an alloy tube in Unit 3’s steam generator broke and hot pressurized radioactive water leaked out. Officials assured everyone – after first denying radiation had escaped – that it was only a trace of radiation, and that there was no danger to anyone.

In the subsequent investigation, Unit 2 was also inspected (the smaller, older Unit 1 had been shut down in 1992). Turns out, hundreds of these alloy tubes in both units were heavily worn. These tubes had been installed in 2009 and 2010 as part of an expensive overhaul. No one could figure out why they’d worn out so rapidly.

By June 2013, with both units still off line, Southern California Edison (SCE) decided to shut them down permanently, bringing the total for US reactors in “permanent shutdown status” to 32. That was the easy part.

Now the plant will have to be decommissioned. Among the “known unknowns,” as Donald Rumsfeld said so eloquently: how long it would take, how much it would ultimately cost, and who would pay for it. Then there were the “unknown unknowns,” because this could take decades and possibly, centuries, or even millennia.

The NRC has given SCE two years to develop a blueprint for decommissioning the dangerous hulks. Thank God, utilities can’t just walk away from their old plants. The NRC tried to reassure us: it has “strict rules” that govern the decommissioning process – including the “cleanup of radioactively contaminated plant systems and structures and the removal of the radioactive fuel.” That last phrase, removal of radioactive fuel, is doomed to become a blatant lie.

There were three options for decommissioning. “They can probably disassemble most of the equipment on site, they can go that path,” explained NRC spokesman Victor Dricks two weeks ago. “They can let time go by 10, 20, 30 years, up to 60 years,” before even trying to dismantle the plant, he said. “Or they can choose a third option, which is called entombment, where they basically could build a giant sarcophagus around the plant.”

No manmade structures exist that would survive until the radioactive materials in the spent-fuel rods – including plutonium, one of the most toxic substances on earth – have decayed enough to where they’re no longer dangerous: 100,000 years?

A timeframe beyond human comprehension. Generation after generation would have to rebuild the sarcophagus, and pay for it. That number – 100,000 years – was one of the reasons Junichiro Koizumi, former Prime Minister of Japan, recently turned against nuclear power. Because nothing was more expensive, he said [read…. The End Of Nuclear Energy In Japan?].

These three options have unappealing technical terms: decon, safestor, and entombment.

SCE Media Relations Project Manager Maureen Brown was more gung-ho – which was her job – when she told the California Report that the idea was to dismantle everything, thus “removing and disposing of the radioactive components and materials,” she said. “And then longer term, we make sure we release the site for what is known as ‘unrestricted use’ which involves, you know, reducing any residual radioactivity.”

The missing element in her explanation: time. The 100,000 years.

VP Steven Picket suggested during a State Senate hearing in August that option 2, safestor, would be “most cost effective to our customers,” and trying to keep costs down was critical because this wasn’t going to be cheap, he warned. So decades before they’d do anything major.

SCE’s current decommissioning estimate was $4.1 billion. Conveniently, the company has a rate-payer financed trust fund of $4 billion, surrounded by questions and doubts. “They’ve got this rigged up so that there is very little oversight available for the public to follow the money as it gets spent,” groused Ray Lutz of Citizens’ Oversight Projects on air. And it would have to last a long, long time.

Biggest concern: the spent-fuel rods.

When the plant entered service, the Federal Government promised to build a repository for highly-radioactive-waste. But the proposed facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada got tangled up in a thicket of thorny issues and was defunded. So these spent-fuel rods that have accumulated since the reactors started operating in the early 1980s remain where they are, in on-site pools – by a fault line and exposed to tsunamis, needing a constant flow of chilled water to keep them from igniting and melting down. Unlike reactors, these pools have no steel containment vessels and no concrete bunkers around them. It would trigger a catastrophe beyond human imagination.

And these fuel rods will be stored there indefinitely.

That’s the plan. Eventually, after radioactive materials decay enough and generate less heat, the rods can be encased in dry casks of steel and concrete, which would offer some protection. But they would have to survive – there’s that word again – indefinitely. And all these processes have to be monitored indefinitely by the NRC.

This is what happens when hype, false promises, special interests, and billions of dollars come together to lead to the widespread use of a technology without mastering its phenomenal risks and its long, dangerous, and horridly expensive tail end.

Enjoy reading WOLF STREET and want to support it? You can donate. I appreciate it immensely. Click on the beer and iced-tea mug to find out how:

Would you like to be notified via email when WOLF STREET publishes a new article? Sign up here.