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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Worse than wind turbines?

While Charlestown obsesses about wind turbines, feds give final OK to permanent storage of 3.6 million pounds of high-level radioactive waste just 20 miles upwind from Charlestown
By Will Collette

Tonight, Hearing #4 of the ZOning Board of Review's summer series, "Whalerock: Dar She Blows" takes place. 

While Charlestown focuses on the almost religious belief that wind turbines will make your brain explode, Virginia-based Dominion Power received final approval from the Connecticut Siting Commission to permanently store 3.6 million pounds of high-level nuclear waste at the Millstone Power Plant, just 20 miles due west of Charlestown. 

That’s well within the danger zone if Millstone should suffer an accident. Considering that the Fukushima, Japan accident's nuclear hazard zone had a 50 mile radius, Millstone is practically in Charlestown's backyard.

Connecticut is already host to permanent storage of just under one million pounds (412 metric tons) of high-level waste at the decommissioned Connecticut Yankee plant in Haddam near Middletown.

The state granted approval for the greatly expanded storage at Millstone because there simply is no other place for this waste to go. Opponents of nuclear power warned from the beginning that this would be the ultimate undoing of the industry.

Fukushima's radioactive waste ablaze
Senator Murphy invoked the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster to call for the federal government to fulfill the promise it made almost 50 years ago when nuclear power plants were first envisioned. Fukushima became the world’s most recent example of how bad things can get when a nuclear reactor breaks.

Overwhelmed by Japan’s March 11, 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, Fukushima could no longer keep its radioactive waste cool, and it caught fire and exploded, sending plumes of radioactive fallout over a 50 mile radius. One of its reactors suffered a melt-down.

Charlestown – we’re 20 miles and downwind from Millstone and we just learned that the southern New England coast experienced a minor tsunami on June 13. 

That was actually the second recent East Coast tsunami. There was an earlier one on April 11.

The 1755 Lisbon tsunami
Some experts say underwater landslides in the Atlantic could produce tsunamis as bad as those seen in other parts of the world. Experts point to the Canary Islands or the Puerto Rico Trench as potential sites for major underwater, tsunami-producing landslides.

Devastating tsunamis have occurred in the Atlantic. The worst on record happened in 1755 and killed as many as 100,000 people in Lisbon, Portugal. A 1929 tsunami hit Newfoundland, generating a 40-foot high wave that killed 28 people.

Maybe there’s some useful perspective to be gained at looking at what Japan has had to deal with since the Fukushima disaster happened. Much of the area is permanently evacuated and likely to stay that way for generations. Japan is having a terrible time simply recruiting workers for the clean-up (a.k.a. “decommissioning”) work.

Fried rat at Fukushima
The decommissioning problem has also been plagued by rats who have repeatedly crippled systems vital to preventing more problems from failing and to the clean-up. Fried rodents have been found next to chewed up wiring for cooling systems and switchboards.

Workers are struggling to keep reactor cores and waste piles cool – generally with water – but that creates its own problem of what to do with the now radioactive water. It can’t be dumped into the sea so workers are racing to clear enough space to build holding tanks.

They are also trying to solve the problem of groundwater seeping in and potentially infiltrating the reactor cores. Uncontrolled contact of water could cause steam build-up, more explosions and more releases of radioactive gas into the air.

At a news conference in April, Shunichi Tanaka, chair of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, said “The Fukushima Daiichi plant remains in an unstable condition, and there is concern that we cannot prevent another accident.”

Millstone's on-site waste storage site
The Millstone plant just outside of New London has had its share of issues, more than enough to raise concerns. It has been cited for these violations by our notoriously lenient Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Last summer, Millstone had to shut down operations because the sea water it was using to cool reactor #2 was too warm. Millstone's answer has been to ask the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to weaken the safety standard to allow it to use warmer water. 

Contrary to its usual practice of rolling over for the industry, the NRC has asked Millstone for more information to validate its request. It is not expected to make a decision until next year. 

Millstone is also one of eight nuclear facilities nationwide where the NRC is spending extra time and conducting more inspections to make sure that safety measures to deal with flooding are put into place. Millstone had drawn NRC notices of violation for such problems in the past.

After earlier article, Mac and Beth Richardson asked me where Millstone
discharged, hot cooling water. In this Google Earth photo, near the center of
the image (click to enlarge), you can clearly see the outflow going into an
inlet leading to the ocean. That inlet is an old quarry site.
Other issues of concern are its owners’ business practices. Dominion is notorious in the industry for playing hardball. They are one of the few non-union nuclear power companies, based as they are in the “right-to-work” state of Virginia. None of the 1200 workers at Millstone are union. 

They’ve beaten back union organizing efforts before, but the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) is mounting a new campaign that they think will work.

The success or failure of the organizing effort affects our self-interest in two ways. It was my experience as a researcher and analyst in the labor movement that union companies are almost always safer than non-union companies. So to me, it’s not just the fact that I believe in unions, but that, by the numbers, union shops tend to have a lot fewer accidents.

The downside of a union victory is the potential that Dominion might decide to close the plant (although maybe that’s also an upside). Again, Dominion has a reputation for hardball. In an on-going dispute with regulators in the state of Wisconsin over whether the state should regulate energy prices to guarantee Dominion a profit, Dominion has announced its intention to close its Kewaunee nuclear power plant in Carlton township, WI.

Said Bill Sheehan, chair of Wisconsin’s Nuclear Energy Advisory Council, “it’s being closed for economic reasons –Dominion’s pretty cut-throat in that area.”

Though I care about the future of the 1200 workers at Dominion, I worry more about what will happen to those three million pounds of high-level nuclear waste that will be stored on site for generations.

Nuclear accidents don’t happen very often, but when they do, they tend to get everyone’s attention in a hurry. 

Truth be told, accidents at power generating stations of all types – coal, oil, natural gas, wind, solar, etc. – tend to be rare largely because it is very much in the operators’ self-interests to prevent them from happening. However, they do happen.

To make an intelligent risk-benefit decision, you have to take into account whether the risk is worth it. 

You should certainly compare the difference in the consequences of failure. What happens when a wind turbine fails? Or a nuclear reactor? Or a fossil-fuel power plant? Or an oil refinery? Or a coal mine?

Of course, that’s only one of many factors. To me, the differences in safety between wind power and nuclear power, or for that matter, fossil-fuel generated energy are worlds apart. I believe that our energy future must include wind power among an array of green energy options – with the right technology in the right place.

For our area, the best prospects for cost-effective power generation is off-shore wind. I just don’t see how the Whalerock project is going to be viable and, besides, I believe the best use of that land is as open space.