Sunday, October 28, 2012

Nuclear News:

Some Positive Signs

I have become so accustomed to hearing about Fukushima, or more recently, about the trials and tribulations at some US nuclear power plants, that I have almost forgotten that there is a lot happening in the nuclear world, some of it very encouraging.  This week seems to have had more than the usual share of promising reports.  What is even more encouraging is that they come from a number of fronts.

In the US, Southern Company got a go-ahead from the USNRC to change the concrete mix in order to counter a problem discovered with the rebar in the building basemats for Vogtle 3 and 4.  In addition, Uranerz received a permit from the State of Wyoming to begin drilling deep disposal wells for in-site mining at its Nichols Branch uranium mine in Wyoming's Powder River Basin.  These reports follow closely on the heels of a public opinion survey that showed that public opinion in the U.S. in favor of nuclear power is again increasing.

Around the world, there are more positive signs.  The World Nuclear Association publishes a weekly digest of news, and this week's list includes the following headlines:
  • China flags return to new nuclear plant approvals
  • Canadian reactor returns to service after four years 
  • Brits remain positive re nuclear power
  • Queensland to allow uranium mining after 23 year ban
  • New uranium mine go-ahead in South Australia.
(Please note that the link to the October 25 weekly summary will change when next week's summary is issued, but the individual stories on these and other news items will be moved to the WNA archives.)

Of course, all this news does not obscure the fact that the nuclear industry continues to face serious challenges, both in the U.S. and abroad.  However, it does suggest that there is a broad base of support for nuclear power in many parts of the world, and that the industry is forging ahead on a number of fronts.  


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Real Waste Problem:

Not Just a Nuclear Problem

A relatively new blog (at least to me) from "a couple of MIT engineers" has had several interesting posts lately.  Today, I want to comment on one that analyzes the waste streams from solar versus nuclear power

While most public attention focuses on the waste from nuclear power plants--it is dangerous, it lasts for hundreds of thousands of years, and we "haven't solved the problem of where to put it," some of us have long noted that it is not only nuclear power that produces wastes.  ALL sources of energy do.

The MIT post points out a number of facts that are useful in comparing the waste streams from nuclear power plants versus solar power plants:

•  The volume of waste from solar plants is many times that from nuclear plants.

•  Much of the waste from nuclear plants is not really waste.  It can be recycled.

•  The cadmium and lead wastes from solar power plants are poisonous.

•  Unlike nuclear power wastes, where the radioactivity decreases over time, the poisonous chemical wastes from solar power plants last forever.

I have always been a little uncomfortable with the last argument.  It is true, but on the time scales involved for the decay of radioactivity, the reality is that both waste streams need to be sequestered for a very long time.

While both nuclear and solar wastes can potentially be recycled, the blogpost notes that recycling solar panels requires a substantial amount of energy, while recycling used nuclear fuel results in a net energy gain.

These observations demonstrate that ALL energy sources have downsides.  Even energy sources that are often thought of as natural and benign in fact have their own environmental impacts.  This does not mean that we should not use solar power.  Likewise, the existence of nuclear wastes does not mean that we should not use nuclear power.  The point is that we all need to understand that no energy source is completely clean or safe.


Friday, October 5, 2012

Emergency Preparedness:

The Role of Nuclear Power Plants 

I was not surprised to read a recent article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette about the findings and conclusions of a report from the National Academy of Sciences on emergency preparedness, particularly with regard to the link between nuclear power plants and the emergency preparedness of surrounding communities.

In particular, the report found that there was a strong and positive link between the effectiveness of emergency response measures taken during the floods in Cedar Rapids in 2008 and the emergency response preparedness at the Duane Arnold nuclear power plant nearby.  (Downloads of the Academy report, "Disaster Resilience:  A National Imperative," are available at the National Academies Press website.)

This is not at all surprising.  The fact that emergency response preparations are required for a nuclear power plant means that the community has prepared and rehearsed for an emergency.  It means that plant, city, county and state personnel have the training and equipment and facilities needed to handle a disaster.  It means that people have been assigned responsibilities and have drilled together and practiced what to do.

In the end, it often doesn't matter what the nature of the disaster is.  All disasters have some elements in common.  Information about the nature and extent of the problem needs to be obtained and assessed.  Appropriate authorities need to be notified.  Instructions need to be provided to local personnel, as well as to members of the public.  If evacuation is needed, provisions have to be made for schools and hospitals.

Mike Goldberg, director of Linn County Emergency Management, reported that, during the flooding in 2008, “Everybody came in and sat down at their usual table with their usual phone and usual maps and usual equipment,” he recalled. “It was just not a radiological event. It was a flood event. But they did the same mission.”

In fact, this is not the first time that the emergency response preparations for a nuclear power plant have been implemented for a totally different kind of emergency.  When I worked at NRC, I recall one incident where a truckload with a hazardous chemical spilled on a highway in an area that had a nuclear power plant nearby.  In that case, too, the preparations for a nuclear emergency proved to be very applicable and helpful for handling the emergency response for the chemical spill. 

Obviously, having a nuclear power plant in the neighborhood is not the only way to prepare for an emergency situation.  Most communities have some vulnerabilities, whether it be to floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, or chemical spills on highways, so all communities would do well to prepare for such incidents.  However, in practice, the more specific and stringent requirements imposed for nuclear power plants are a powerful spur to assuring that the necessary plans for an emergency are developed and maintained--usually at levels well beyond that for other potential emergency situations.  This preparation often goes unrecognized--at least until and unless a non-nuclear disaster occurs.  Thus, it was interesting to see such recognition in the case of the Cedar Rapids flood.