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Monday, September 16, 2013

Nuclear news

  • Worker dies at Millstone Power Plant
  • Just a little fire
  • Dominion dumps Brayton Point
  • Millstone opens emergency operations center in Norwich
  • And distributes potassium iodide pills
  • They might also have to build cooling towers
  • Fukushima radiation leak worsens
  • Good news: new job opportunities

Catching some nice two-headed fish
By Will Collette

Most Charlestown residents are probably not aware that we are all down-winders from a large nuclear power plant. The Millstone Power Plant, located in Waterford, CT just west of New London, is only 20 miles to the west. 

Recent experience after the Fukushima nuclear disaster after the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami shows that high-levels of radiation exposure can spread by air as far away as 50 miles from the site. Radioactive water from the site will reach the US West Coast in 2014.

So unlike other forms of energy generation, Millstone is for all practical purposes in our own backyard. That makes it worth watching.

Worker dies at Millstone nuclear power plant

There was a mysterious death at Millstone on August 22. An electrician working for a Millstone contractor, Day & Zimmerman, was found dead in a stairwell in the “Condensate Polish Facility[1]near Unit 3. The unidentified woman was transported to L&M Hospital where she was pronounced dead.

Condensate polish system
The local newspapers did not reveal the woman’s name or any added detail other than to say the woman was found in a “non-radiological area,” which means the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was not involved. 

The NRC said that the worker’s death fell under the jurisdiction of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). 

However, as of September 3, there was no record of an OSHA inspection at the site which is standard procedure after a work-related death or serious injury.

Millstone spokesperson Ken Holt told the New London Patch that “the injury does not appear to be related to industrial work activities.” Millstone uses 135 contract workers from Day & Zimmerman at the Millstone plant.

Just a little fire

Millstone also had a little mishap in its training building the morning of September 4. A fire broke out in the power supply room for the computer simulator for reactor Unit 3. The building was evacuated, local fire companies turned out, no one was injured and the company says it was no biggie. The building is outside the power plant’s security zone.

Millstone’s owner sells Brayton Point Power Station, two others to private equity firm

One of New England’s dirtiest electrical power generating stations, the Brayton Point power plant located between Providence and Fall River is being sold by Virginia-based Dominion Energy, owner of the Millstone nuclear power plant. 

Dominion is also selling its Elwood and Kincaid Power Stations in Illinois. All three plants are coal-fired and pretty dirty.

Brayton Point was the scene of a July 28 mass demonstration and civil disobedience that resulted in 44 arrests. Dominion made the deal for $472 million from Energy Capital Partners, a private equity firm that invests heavily in energy generated by burning fossil fuels. Very nice people, I’m sure.

Some Somerset, MA residents are already starting to worry what will happen to the town if Brayton Point - one of the biggest sources of tax revenue for the town - should close. The plant pays more than $10 million in local taxes. Eventually, Brayton Point will close - all power plants, regardless of their energy source, eventually close. But residents' alarm seems premature since the venture capital buyers like coal-fired power plants and probably won't shut down unless they are forced to.

Millstone plans big emergency ops center in Norwich CT

What we learned about danger zones from the Fukushima disaster
Norwich is about to get a much-needed boost to its construction industry due to plans announced by Dominion Energy to build a new 18,000 square foot emergency operations center for its Millstone Power Plant. The building will cost between $5 and 10 million to construct.

Millstone needs a site away from its facility to deal with worst-case scenarios. Even though they don’t happen often (e.g. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima), they do happen, and when they do, they can be catastrophic. The Norwich site is around 20 miles almost due north of the plant in Waterford, CT. Their existing emergency center is just outside the power plant.

Prevailing winds tend to blow westerly, pretty much in our direction. Charlestown is also about 20 miles from Millstone, but almost directly downwind. When the Fukushima power plant suffered its catastrophic meltdown and radioactive waste fires after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011, severe airborne contamination spread over a 50 mile radius.

Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom is very excited because this building will bring in new tax revenue. He told the New London Day, "This really gives them a foothold in the city and adds another asset to the business park."

Millstone might face billion dollar tab for cooling towers

Click to enlarge - you can see Millstone's outflow near the center of
the photo at the top of the inlet which was an old quarry.
Last summer, Millstone had to close down one of its reactors because the water they pull from Long Island Sound was too warm. They have since petitioned the NRC to allow them to use cooler water. But the NRC is also working on general standards for cooling water that might not only spoil Millstone's effort to get an exemption, but may require an expensive solution. 

Millstone does not use cooling towers. All three active reactors are cooled with ocean water - 1.3 MILLION GALLONS PER MINUTE - drawn from the Sound and then dumped into an old quarry that is open to the ocean, thus sending the warm water back into the Sound.

New EPA standards are due to come out on November 4 and may end Millstone's practice of directly drawing and dumping coolant water. Instead, Virginia-based Dominion Energy, Millstone's owner, might need to come up with around $1 billion to build three 500-foot tall cooling towers under an anticipated NRC standard that will require "best technology available for minimizing adverse environmental impacts."

Those 500-foot towers will be just fine, as long as nobody sticks wind turbines onto them. Then, who knows what horrors might unfold. Dominion will need to make a profit analysis and decide whether to spend another billion dollars on Millstone, or close it.

Just a little precaution

Connecticut’s Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection will be sending staff from door to door in the 10-mile emergency zone around the Millstone nuclear power plant to distribute more than 1 million potassium iodide tablets. These tablets are to be taken right after a nuclear accident at the plant to prevent thyroid cancer. As noted, Charlestown is 20 miles downwind from Millstone, so no pills for you.

Each household will get two tablets for each adult and one for each child. Families are being told to keep the pills with their “to-go kit” packed with water, food, maps, medications, etc. in case they have to bug out if things go south at Millstone. No cause for alarm.

Radiation problems worsen at Fukushima

It’s now been more than two years since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan and caused the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. A series of foreseeable failures led to both meltdowns at three reactors and fires at radioactive waste holding areas at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Radioactive clouds spread more than 50 miles from the site. A plume of radioactive sea water is expected to reach the United States early in 2014. Throughout the disacters, TEPCO, the Japanese nuclear power company has been unable to find a solution to the spreading problems and instead has resorted to underplaying the seriousness of the threat, if not outright lying. Something to remember when you read official statements from other nuclear plants, such as Millstone.

Finally, the Japanese government has decided to take over control of the effort, though it’s pretty late in the game. Latest reports show record radiation readings from leaking holding tanks for irradiated water, levels that would kill an unshielded human being in just a few hours. The latest containment scheme is to construct a $500 million ice wall around the plant site that would extend both above and below ground (question: where is the power to freeze this ice wall going to come from?)

While we usually think of the Pacific region when we think of earthquakes and tsunamis, the Atlantic region has also had devastating earthquakes and tsunamis in the past and will certainly have them again in the future.

Always look at the bright side of life

The United States has pretty much stopped building new nuclear power plants (hooray!) and its array of older plants are reaching the end of their useful lives. The most recent plant to get scheduled for final shut-down is the old Yankee Power Plant in Vermont. That makes five plants scheduled for shut-down in the next 12 months, a new record.

Bloomberg News reports that one promising area for employment growth is for “Nuclear Trashmen” [SIC]. A lot of the new jobs will be with the same companies that built the plants in the first place, such as Bechtel. 

It’s steady work – it takes about ten years to tear apart and secure an old nuclear power plant. The amount of material – equipment, surfaces, soil - that gets irradiated during the life of a nuclear power plant is staggering. All of it has to be handled carefully to reduce exposure to workers, the community and the environment.

Some of the material can be classified as low-level radioactive waste which can be stuck in containers and shipped off to sites in Utah, South Carolina and Texas and other communities too unfortunate or gullible to have blocked the sites from being built there. Fuel rods and other high-level waste have no place to go, so they are stored temporarily in cooling pools of water until they can be placed in sealed casks for more permanent on-site storage.

Millions of pounds of high-level radioactive waste are currently stored in nearby Connecticut where they will stay for a lot longer than the lifetimes of any Progressive Charlestown reader (or their children or children’s children).

But think of the jobs!

[1] I looked up “condensate polish” and discovered it’s an important process in power plants where condensed steam gets stripped of impurities it picks up (rust and particulates) before the water gets fed back into the loop. These impurities can cause corrosion and other serious maintenance problems.