Fukushima and Vermont Yankee
While a Japanese cleanup crew struggles with a worsening nuclear crisis, an American corporation announces that it will shut down a nuclear reactor in Vermont
A year and a half ago, in an article on the continuing nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, I reacted with skepticism to reports that the crisis at the damaged plant was under control. I wrote, “The situation at the Fukushima reactors is still far from stable. … Since the containers at the Fukushima Daiichi are severely damaged by melted fuel and can’t hold water, Tepco needs to pour hundreds of tons of water over the molten fuel every day.”
Over the past few days, we’ve learned that the situation in Fukushima is worsening, and that the overworked cleanup crew is jumping from crisis to crisis. Tepco, the operator of the Fukushima plant, recently admitted that large quantities of radioactive water are leaking into the Pacific Ocean. This admission came after Tepco issued a series of denials over several months that any water was leaking.
To get a flavor of the ongoing disaster, here are quotes from a few news sources:
- Wall Street Journal: “Every day, the utility has to find a place to store an extra 400 tons of contaminated water pumped out of the radioactive reactor buildings, while another lightly contaminated 300 tons flow into the ocean. Storage tanks hurriedly set up during plant emergencies have started springing leaks, and Tepco can’t replace them with sturdier ones quickly enough.”
- Radio Free Europe: “‘It’s really not under control. I mean, we have no other way but to put water into the reactors to cool them down,’ [Komei] Hosokaway [professor of environmental sociology at Kyoto Seika University] says. ‘But the water is a problem because the whole structure of the reactors and the buildings are all damaged, so there are so many leaks. And the water is contaminated with the nuclear fuel, so it contains very strong radioactivity.’”
- CNN: “[After] the leak of hundreds of tons of radioactive water from a storage tank, the NRA said it was planning to issue the [Level 3] alert, its gravest warning since the massive 2011 earthquake and tsunami that sent three reactors at the plant into meltdown. … The decision to issue the level 3 alert came two days after a Japanese government minister had compared the plant operator's efforts to deal with worrying toxic water leaks at the site to a game of ‘whack-a-mole.’ … The operator has stored hundreds of thousands of tons of the contaminated water in huge tanks at the site. There are now about 1,000 of the containers, 93% of which are already full of radioactive water.”
- Bloomberg News: “In addition to the leaky tank, Tepco has admitted that irradiated water is flowing into the Pacific Ocean, which the government estimates at 300 tons a day. … Measures under consideration for the next one year to two years include fencing off the reactors with what would be the world’s longest underground ‘ice wall.’ These comprise coolant pipes, sunk as deep as 40 meters (131 feet) underground, to turn soil into a square-shaped barrier of permafrost. … The government is still working out how much this would cost, according to the Prime Minister’s office.”
- The Vancouver Sun: “Tokyo Electric Power Co. has accumulated the largest pool of radioactive water in the history of nuclear accidents and must now decide what to do with it: dump into the ocean, evaporate into the air or both. The more than 330,000 [metric] tonnes of water with varying levels of toxicity is stored in pits, basements and hundreds of tanks at the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant. … Processing and disposing of the water … will be one of the most challenging engineering tasks of our generation, former nuclear engineer Michael Friedlander said. … Tepco has 300 tonnes of water flowing into the reactors each day for cooling, while another 400 tonnes of groundwater from hills behind the plant is seeping into basements and mixing with contaminated runoff. Tepco is then pumping hundreds of tonnes out of the basements each day to store in tanks to await treatment to extract cesium and strontium via two filter systems.”
- BBC: “Mycle Schneider is an independent consultant who has previously advised the French and German governments. … ‘The quantities of water they are dealing with are absolutely gigantic,’ said Schneider, who has consulted widely for a variety of organisations and countries on nuclear issues. … ‘What is the worse is the water leakage everywhere else — not just from the tanks. It is leaking out from the basements, it is leaking out from the cracks all over the place. Nobody can measure that. It is much worse than we have been ledLight-emitting diode. Illumination technology that produces light by running electrical current through a semiconductor diode. LED lamps are much longer lasting and much more energy efficient than incandescent lamps; unlike fluorescent lamps, LED lamps do not contain mercury and can be readily dimmed. to believe, much worse,’ said Mr Schneider, who is lead author for the World Nuclear Industry status reports. … Dr. Ken Buesseler is a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who has examined the waters around Fukushima. ‘It is not over yet by a long shot,’ said Buesseler.”
Meanwhile, back in Vermont …
These reports from Fukushima have been particularly worrisome to Vermonters, since the only nuclear power plant in our state, Vermont Yankee, was built to the same General Electric design as the Fukushima plants that melted down in 2011.
In my 2012 article, I made the following prediction: “The eventual demise of the nuclear power industry is likely to hinge on economics, not moral or environmental issues.” The truth of that statement was reinforced this week by a surprise announcement: Vermont Yankee will be shut down permanently in 2014. The decision was made by Entergy Corporation, the company that owns and operates the plant.
Nuclear-generated electricity is extremely expensive. In addition to the costs that nuclear power plant owners have to bear — huge construction costs and security costs — there are all kinds of hidden costs borne by taxpayers: the cost of insurance, the cost of fuel disposal, the cost of cleaning up after nuclear accidents, and a variety of unquantifiable environmental costs.
Announcing the decision to shut down Vermont Yankee, William Mohl, the president of Entergy Corporation, said, “This decision was based on the economics of the plant, not operational performance, not litigation risk, nor political pressure. Simply put, the plant costs exceed the plant revenue, and this asset is not financially viable.”
While many Vermonters cheered the announcement, there are still clouds on the horizon. Entergy has refused to commit to a reasonable decommissioning schedule; instead, the company has obtained permission from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to delay full decommissioning and cleanup for 60 years. Entergy has only $580 million in its decommissioning fund, an amount that most analysts call insufficient.
According to the Burlington Free Press, “Critics want a quicker [decommissioning] timetable that would cost the company more money. ‘It’s a ridiculous notion to think that Entergy will exist and will fulfill its responsibilities 60 years from now,’ [Leo] Schiff said. [Governor] Shumlin, who has long argued for more immediate decommissioning, declined to specify Tuesday what he’ll push for, but estimated decommissioning could cost $800 million to $1 billion.”
Considering Entergy’s irresponsible track record — company executives have repeatedly lied under oath to Vermont legislators — many Vermonters are are skeptical of any promises made by the company. Since Entergy’s decommissioning fund is insufficient, there’s a good chance that taxpayers will end up footing some of the enormous costs to clean up the contaminated site on the banks of the Connecticut River.
Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Getting the Biggest Bang for Your Air-Sealing Buck.”
- International Atomic Energy Commission
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