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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Local nuke has more problems

Security, bad pumps and heat pollution raise concerns
By Will Collette
Just 20 miles to the west of Charlestown, and well within the danger zone in the event of a Fukushima-scale accident, is the Millstone Power Plant. 

Its Virginia-based owners, Dominion Power, dropped “nuclear” from the name some years ago as people might not like the idea of living so close to something so dangerous.

Thanks to some excellent reporting by the New London Day, and in particular reporter Judy Benson, we know a lot more about the problems at Millstone than Dominion Power or lapdog regulator the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) would like you to know.

The latest: a former contractor at Millstone wants Congress to look into ignored problems at Millstone that he reported as a whistleblower. Stephen Lavoie of Niantic worked at Millstone as an insulator for contractor Day & Zimmerman. Lavoie claims he was fired for reporting co-workers who were using drugs on the job and asserted that there is a work culture that makes workers afraid to report safety problems.

There is plenty of cause to take Lavoie’s statements seriously, even though Millstone’s management pooh-poohs them. In early April, the NRC issued a notice of violation to Millstone for the second time in less than a year for security problems uncovered during an inspection. The NRC does not detail what the security problem is – for obvious reasons – but says it is subjecting Millstone to heightened scrutiny. Again.

Millstone’s latest security violation occurred right around the time that South Korean officials accused North Korea of a major cyberattack aimed at disrupting South Korea’s nuclear power plants. The North Koreans managed to cause malfunctions at one of the targeted reactors. The North Koreans' successful hack of Sony's computers shows that they can penetrate sophisticated corporate computer systems in the US. How challenging would Millstone be, given its track record of gaffes and security problems?

The NRC already has three inspectors at Millstone daily. When Millstone screws up, the NRC brings in more, but rarely does anything further to give Millstone and its owners some real incentives to run the plant in a safer way.

The Day coverage also summarized the numerous environmental and safety violations Millstone has had recently in addition to these security problems. The Day also disclosed that according to NRC records, Millstone has required more enhanced NRC scrutiny for its problems than any other nuclear power plant in the northeast.

Some of those problems include undisclosed security issues that were uncovered when Millstone ran its first simulation drill of how they would respond to a terror attack in 2014, only 13 years after the 9/11 terror attack made it obvious that sensitive facilities needed to prepare for a terror contingency. Not only was Millstone thirteen years late in running the drill, but they messed up and drew sanctions from the NRC.

Other regulators, including the EPA and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) are also considering whether it is time for Millstone to address a long-running problem – the ecological damage caused by its use of seawater to cool its reactors and radioactive waste ponds, where the heated water is immediately dumped back into Long Island Sound.

Millstone: We don't need no steekin' cooling towers....
Unlike most nuclear power plants, Millstone does not have the characteristic, vase-shaped cooling towers that are used to reduce the temperature of water used for cooling so that it is discharged more or less at ambient temperatures.

For the past 45 years, Millstone has been drawing and then dumping 1.3 million gallons of water per minute (that translates into two billion gallons per day) and causing unnatural and largely unknown effects to the ecology of Niantic Bay and Long Island Sound.

Dominion Energy estimates the cost of the retrofit, if required, would be $2.6 billion and an annual loss of $17 million in revenues. For that, they are getting some local sympathy, especially from those who are concerned about the economic impact on a major local employer.

But there’s been talk for many years about changing the rules to require Millstone to stop polluting local waters with its discharge and it looks like the new focus on the need for cooling towers will go through years of study and debate, if not litigation. One factor driving this debate is the expiration of Millstone’s current operating license on August 31.

Millstone Nuclear Wastewater into Long Island Sound-Atlantic Ocean
"....As long as we can dump straight into Long Island Sound."
The Suffolk County (NY) Legislature approved $79,435 to fund its own hydrothermal study of Long Island Sound to help them frame their own position on the issue of requiring Millstone to install cooling towers. Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences has data that already shows that the average temperature in the Sound has gone up by one degree per decade since Millstone opened.

Charlestown Town Council members have passed resolutions of concern about matters a lot more trivial than the threat posed to Charlestown posed by Millstone, but somehow I doubt the current controlling CCA Party leaders really care all that much about nuclear power. If we were talking wind energy, that would be a different story.

When an accident happens at a nuclear power plant, it is never trivial given the potential for a mass-casualty catastrophe. If Millstone’s chronically malfunctioning cooling pumps should happen to break down entirely, it won’t be anything like a busted wind turbine throwing a blade.

Millstone is also the site of indefinite storage of millions of pounds of high-level radioactive waste. All nuclear power plants are also radioactive waste dumps because the long-promised national nuclear waste repository has not been built and may never be built.

The government’s attempt at running a pilot project (WIPP – the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, NM) to show that such a repository can be built met with spectacular failure when there was an underground fire that ruptured several casks filled with wastes and irradiated more than a dozen workers.

WIPP is now closed and may remain so for quite a while as it undergoes a clean-up where costs are currently estimated at $500 million. Meanwhile, the state of New Mexico has fined the US Department of Energy and Los Alamos Labs $54 million but may decide to increase the fines if DOE doesn’t pay up.

The cause of the accident would be laughable if it wasn’t so awful and scary – apparently, the operators of the waste site used a mixture of organic kitty litter and nitrate salts to pull moisture from the radioactive waste. The mixture instead created a chemical reaction that corroded and breached the containment casks.
"Ah, my kitty litter seems to be a little too warm."

I am not making this up.

Consider this: Millstone just received approval to expand the amount of radioactive waste it stores on site to 3.6 million pounds. Some waste fuel rods sit in pools full of water. When the rods cool off enough, they are to be placed into casks.

Presumably, Millstone will have to do what WIPP did which is figure out how to get the water out of the waste before inserting them into casks.

I wonder this means they’ll have their guys buying up kitty litter from every supermarket and pet store within a 50 mile radius. If you should happen to see some guys wearing Millstone hard hats at the Stop & Shop in Westerly with their carts loaded up with Tidy Kat and Fresh Step, it might be time for a long vacation at some far away destination.