New Nukes is Bad Nukes
Bush's plan for your radioactive
by Chris Clarke
Earth Island Journal, Summer 2005
Boiled long enough, even the toughest
nut will eventually soften. Faced with criticism from a united
global community and an increasing portion of the US business
community - as well as burgeoning scientific unanimity - on climate
change, the Bush administration has finally begun to retreat from
its position that "more study" is needed before we reduce
our profligate consumption of carbon fuels. Even longtime oil
industry insiders such as Bush crony James Baker have started
to express reservations about burning all that oil. In a speech
to Texas oilmen at the Houston Forum Club on March 3, Baker went
so far as to say, "When you have energy companies like Shell
and British Petroleum, both of which are perhaps represented in
this room, saying there is a problem with excess carbon dioxide
emission, I think we ought to listen."
The problem for Bush in retreating from
a fossil-fuel economy, of course, is that many climate-friendly
alternative energy paths - solar, wind, and (most importantly
in the short term) conservation - are not exactly amenable to
centralization. This means that energy companies stand to lose
control of their markets. Burning oil or coal or natural gas to
produce electricity favors the development of large generating
plants and expansive, "gameable" grids. Wind power development
can be centralized, but people can also put windmills in their
backyards. Solar electric, due to the low amount of energy per
square foot of generator, fairly demands decentralization: rooftops
are about the only environmentally neutral surface area available
in sufficient quantity to power most cities. And conservation
is the least profitable strategy of all, at least until the energy
companies figure out a way to charge you for turning light bulbs
In an age in which more and more people
agree we must drastically cut our use of fossil fuels to mitigate
the damage we've done to the climate, where can the energy lobby
turn to protect its profitability?
Enter nuclear power. Or perhaps that should
be "re-enter." Widely considered a dead industry since
the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island and the subsequent
Chernobyl disaster solidified its bad reputation, the nuclear
power industry is poised to make a post-Kyoto comeback as a putative
"clean" source of energy. That's right: "Clean,
safe nuclear power," just like the president said.
Of course, this is the same president
that talks about "Clear Skies" initiatives and "clean
No new nuclear power plants have been
built in the US since the Three Mile Island incident. Many of
the US's existing plants were designed for a 40-year operating
life, which for the youngest plants would end in 2019 or so. But
the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already granted 20-year
extensions to 26 of the nation's 103 operating nuclear power plants,
with another 42 extensions in the works.
The Bush administration wants to make
new nuclear power plants a federal priority, and it's putting
our money where its mouth is. A proposed 2006 budget, which featured
massive cuts in almost every social program, grants a $25 million
increase to the Department of Energy (DOE)'s Nuclear Energy, Science
and Technology division, $20 million of that for research and
development. An Advanced Fuel Cycle initiative, the brainchild
of nuke-friendly Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), would receive $2.5
million more than in 2005 to research reprocessing of nuclear
waste into fuel - an increase of four percent over the 2005 budget.
"Nuclear Power 2010," a Bush initiative to promote new
nuke plant site permits and operating licenses, won a 13 percent
budget increase to $56 million in 2006. Twenty million dollars,
up from nine million last year, will go to promote nuclear generation
of hydrogen gas to fuel what Bush bizarrely referred to in the
2004 debates as "hydrogen-generated automobiles."
And the 2006 budget also includes a $5.3
million boost for research into new nuclear reactor technologies,
called "Generation IV" reactors.
But lest you get the impression that no
part of the federal nuclear power budget suffered cuts, you can
rest easy. The overall 2006 DOE budget was cut by $475 million
relative to 2005, and a significant portion of that cut will affect
cleanup of sites contaminated by radioactive waste.
Brave nuke world
In late February, the Bush Administration
signed onto the Generation IV International Forum (GIF), a multilateral
partnership - with Canada, Japan, France, Argentina, Brazil, South
Africa, South Korea, Switzerland, Britain, and the EU as a whole
- to research and promote six Generation IV reactor designs. The
designs differ in a number of respects from the nuclear reactors
currently producing 17 percent of US electricity.
The new reactor technologies - the Gas-Cooled
Fast Reactor, the Sodium Fast Reactor, the Lead-Cooled Fast Reactor,
the Molten Salt Reactor, the Supercritical Water Reactor, and
the Very High Temperature Reactor - each have their proponents
and their detractors. To distinguish among them, let's first describe
the method by which present-day nuclear power plants, of a type
known as "thermal" or "slow" reactors, operate.
Nuclear power plants, like coal-, oil-,
or gas-fired power plants, operate by heating water (or some other
fluid) that then turns turbines to generate electricity. While
fossil-fuel plants heat the water through direct combustion, nuclear
fuel (usually uranium, sometimes plutonium or thorium) generates
heat when the unstable, radioactive substances in the fuel "decay"
- their atoms split apart, releasing energy.
Heat isn't the only energy produced when
the atoms split: radioactive decay releases electromagnetic radiation
(from long-wave types such as visible light to energetic gamma
rays) and subatomic particles. Among those particles are neutrons,
one of the basic building blocks of the atomic nucleus. The guiding
principle of all nuclear reactors is to assemble sufficient nuclear
fuel in a tight enough pile so that each neutron released by a
decaying atom stands a good chance of smacking into another atom
of fuel, splitting that atom, which releases more heat (which
drives the turbines) and more neutrons, which strike more nuclei.
This is what nuclear physicists mean by the phrase "chain
The problem is that a chain reaction in
a large enough quantity of nuclear fuel is the precise mechanism
behind nuclear weapons as well. The trick is to keep the chain
reaction humming along just fast enough to keep the turbines moving,
but not so fast that the whole pile goes up in a blinding flash.
The solution - first implemented successfully by Enrico Fermi
at the University of Chicago in 1942 - is to include a neutron-absorbing
substance to control the chain reaction. These are traditionally
used in the form of "control rods" that can be slid
into and out of the reactor core to fine-tune the rate of reaction.
Graphite, a form of carbon, was first used for this purpose, and
still is in some reactors. Control rods of other materials such
as boron compounds are also used.
Uranium-fueled reactors generally rely
on the unstable isotope Uranium 235 as the most important fissile
material in the pile. Unfortunately, U-235 is far less common
in uranium ore than the more stable isotope U-238, and "enriching"
uranium to increase the percentage of U-235 is messy and expensive.
To reduce the degree to which the fuel needs to be refined, most
older reactors incorporate "moderator" substances that
slow down neutrons, increasing the likelihood that any particular
neutron will strike an atom of U-235, to drive the chain reaction.
The basic premise is simple enough. Protecting
the outside world from the reaction products, however, introduces
a bit of complexity. Water heated by the reactor core becomes
highly radioactive, and so it is generally used to heat theoretically
uncontaminated water in a heat exchanger: the clean water drives
the turbines. Decades of bombardment by neutrons can make steel
containment vessels brittle and more likely to rupture under extremes
of temperature. As happened at Three Mile Island, if temperature
control systems fail, the nuclear fuel can overheat and melt,
breaching containment and causing catastrophic release of radiation
into the environment. The control rods become highly radioactive
after some time: storage is a problem. And of course, spent fuel
rods pose an extreme threat, with no acceptable current solution
to the problem of storage for the many thousands of years it would
take the waste to decay to a minimally safe level.
Fast cheap, and out of control rods
Many Generation IV nukes are "fast
reactors" - they maintain chain reactions with "fast"
neutrons that have not been slowed down by a moderator. As water
slows neutrons, GIV reactors must use other substances as coolants
- an important consideration as the new reactors generally operate
at much higher temperatures - from 7000 to 1,000° Fahrenheit
- than do conventional light water reactors, which max out at
about 300°F. Alternative coolants under study include lead,
sodium, and uranium salts - all of which would be used in molten
form - and non-reactive gases such as helium, nitrogen or carbon
Backers claim that these high temperatures
suit many of the designs for direct production of hydrogen, through
thermal hydrolysis - heating water molecules until they break
apart into hydrogen and oxygen, in a more efficient method than
the typical running of an electric current through water. As Financial
Times columnist John Dizard put it in a January essay:
[H]ydrogen isn't a source of fuel - it's
a storage medium. It is produced by expending some other primary
source of energy The source the government, energy industry, and
the automotive industry has in mind [for Bush's hydrogen car initiative]
is nuclear power. We are talking about literally thousands of
new nuclear facilities dedicated to the production of hydrogen
through fission powered electrolysis (the splitting of water into
hydrogen and oxygen gas).
The hydrogen economy is really a nuclear
economy Investors and the rest of corporate America may not realise
how close the country is to making a gigantic bet on a nuclear
Though each design has its fans, the model
that seems to excite the most interest - and that the Bush administration's
nuclear advisors seem to be considering most closely - is a type
of Very High Temperature Reactor called the pebble-bed reactor."
Rather than being assembled into long fuel rods, the nuclear fuel
in a pebble-bed reactor is contained in small, tennisball-sized
Backers of pebble-bed technology claim
significant improvement in reactor safety over traditional designs.
The nuclear fuel is fabricated into very small grains, each with
a hard coating, and folded into a matrix of pyrolitic graphite
for inclusion in each pebble. Pyrolitic graphite is a theoretically
fire-resistant carbon polymer often used in missile nose cones.
The pebbles, each of which contain many thousand fuel grains,
are coated with a highly protective silicon carbide coating that
seals the graphite and fuel granules away from exposure to the
reactor coolant, typically helium.
A much-touted key safety feature of the
pebble-bed design lies in the configuration of the fuel. pebble-bed
reactors actually use the U-238 as stopgap "control rod."
When core temperatures pass a certain point, causing the uranium
atoms in the fuel to vibrate more rapidly, the U-238 atoms offer
a wider "profile" to the neutrons zipping around the
reactor core - a phenomenon called "Doppler broadening."
As the U-238 absorbs more of the neutrons, the chain reaction
slows, shutting down the reactor. This safety protocol was actually
tested with a live reactor at the Center for Nuclear Research
in Jülich, Germany. The reactor was allowed to overheat and
shut itself down; the experimenters claimed success.
Germany isn't the only place where pebble-bed
reactors are gaining serious attention from nuclear power generators.
Beijing's Tsinghua University is heading a project to build a
10megawatt prototype pebble-bed reactor, with a 200-megawatt production
plant planned for 2007, and 29 more in the next 15 years. Chinese
officials say they hope to build as much as 300 gigawatts' worth
of nuclear generating capacity - 1,500 plants the size of the
200-megawatt reactor slated for 2007. They're eyeing the plants
as a source of hydrogen for automobiles as well as for electrical
South Africa is another current center
of pebble-bed activity, with Eskom Holding Co. planning to start
building a demonstration "modular" pebble-bed reactor
near Cape Town in 2007. The modular form of the reactor would
allow for mass production, a notion appealing to developing nations
nervous about their carbon emissions. Eskom says the plant and
its successors will be used to desalinate seawater, also a tempting
lure for poor countries.
The South African plant has attracted
a firestorm of opposition, with Earthlife Africa, the government
of the city of Cape Town, and many other local groups protesting
the siting. Opposition to the Chinese plants is rather hard to
gauge. And environmental concern forced the shutdown of the German
plant after an incident subsequent to the test described above
in which a pebble got stuck in a fuel-reloading tube. Operator
error during attempts to fix the problem caused damage to the
pebble and subsequent release of radioactive material into the
surrounding environment. As the Nuclear Information and Resource
Service describes the incident, the fallout in the region was
high enough to initially be blamed on Chernobyl.
Despite the German incident, pebble-bed
backers still herald their design as safer than conventional Generation
Ill reactors. Strictly speaking, they are not entirely wrong.
The design is certainly more elegant than the multiply redundant
Gill reactors, and taking advantage of Doppler broadening is a
sensible touch. But safety depends on the world outside the lab.
Though pyrolytic graphite is called "fireproof" by reactor
backers, not all scientists agree, and thus reactor fire-safety
measures have to be implemented in case the inert helium coolant
is replaced by oxygen-containing atmosphere. Further, the very
convection-cooled design that leads to claims of enhanced safety
precludes, in many pebble-bed models, the inclusion of a containment
facility, which would hinder airflow around the reactor core.
Another claimed safety feature is the
dispersal of fissile fuel in tiny, sand-grain-sized seeds throughout
the pebbles, making it impractical to extract weapons-grade material
from the nuclear fuel - a setback for would-be nuclear proliferators.
But the sheer volume of material used to fuel a pebble bed reactor,
and the fuel's easy portability each pebble the size of a tennis
ball - may make radioactive "dirty bombs" that much
easier to assemble for any terrorist with access to a waste holding
Further, each of the pebbles must be built
to amazingly exacting specifications. Variations in pebble shape
too small to be seen by the unaided human eye could result in
unforeseen problems with the reaction. Could a failure of a misshaped
pebble to reach operating temperature interfere with the vital
Doppler broadening safety function? The technology exists to make
each pebble meet required specifications. But when we're talking
about millions of pebbles over the lifetime of each reactor (about
a third of a million inside the reactor core at any one time)
and companies looking to cut costs, one can assume that flawed
pebbles are a near inevitability.
Would you trust this manufacturer? In
fact, Exelon, one of three US companies at the center of the fledgling
pebble-bed reactor industry and a former partner in the South
African project, has been credibly accused of cutting corners
on a much less exacting nuclear technology with far greater potential
risk per individual failure. In 2003, Exelon employee Oscar Shirani
accused his employer of failing to meet government safety specs
in purchasing its high-level nuclear waste containers. These casks,
used to store spent fuel on-site at power plants until a permanent
waste repository is opened and to
transport the fuel to the repository afterwards,
were designed by the Holtec company and fabricated by US Tool
and Die. Shirani, a quality assurance engineer at Exelon, says
he reported to his superiors that unqualified workers performed
welding of critical seams in the casks, and that Holtec failed
to report holes in the casks' neutron shielding. He went so far
as to issue a "stop work order" to Holtec in May 2000.
For his trouble, Shirani was reassigned to Exelon's finance department
and then laid off. The casks remain in service, with only faulty
welds protecting the environment from the hellishly hot nuclear
If Exelon has that much trouble making
sure a few thousand large concrete-lined casks are built to specs,
how will they fare when supervising the manufacture of millions
upon millions of fuel pebbles?
What a waste
The biggest liability to pebble-bed reactors,
however, is the nuclear waste they produce, a significantly higher
amount per megawatt of energy produced than conventional reactors
Pebble-bed reactors are designed for continuous
refueling. Unlike Generation III reactors, which need to be shut
down to remove spent fuel rods, a pebble bed reactor continuously
cycles the pebbles through the core. As pebbles reach the bottom
of the core, they fall into a bin where they are sorted. Pebbles
with some life left in them are dumped back into the reactor core,
while spent pebbles are dumped into an Exelon cask.
The very coating and cladding that allows
nuclear engineers to claim increased reactor safety increases
the amount of nuclear waste generated by the reactors. As the
pebbles pass through the core time and time again, the pebbles'
graphite and cladding become highly radioactive.
Existing US nuclear power plants now store
their nuclear waste on-site in casks. Though aboveground storage
in secure facilities at the point of production is likely the
least unsafe method of handling nuclear waste - second to not
producing it in the first place - the expense has been a thorn
in the side of the nuclear industry and an obstacle to siting
new plants. Corporations have lobbied intensely for a disposal
site run at government expense to which they would ship the waste
on public highways and rail.
For a number of years, Yucca Mountain
was seen as that publicly funded solution. The mountain, in Nevada's
northern Mojave Desert 100 miles north of Las Vegas, has been
touted as the best possible dumpsite for wastes that will remain
deadly for hundreds of thousands of years. But the Yucca Mountain
dump, long anathema to Nevadans, looks increasingly like a loser
for the nuclear industry. It was revealed in March that government
employees may have falsified documents relating to the hydrology
of the site, of concern when - not "if" - the dump leaks
waste into the Mojave soil. Several different presidential administrations
have claimed that scientific study of the site shows that no water
could ever leach from the dump site into nearby aquifers, due
to the geology of the mountain and the extreme aridity of the
This is laughable, as anyone with the
slightest familiarity with the Mojave's history will tell you.
The wastes in question will remain dangerous for perhaps 300,000
years, and the National Academy of Sciences advocated designing
Yucca Mountain to as close as possible to a 100,000-year safety
standard. (The EPA countered with a 10,000-year plan, based on
its experience with the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico.)
But a mere 15,000 years ago, the Mojave was much wetter. A deep
lake filled Death Valley then, and the Amargosa River - wet year-round
even today - flowed off the slopes of Yucca Mountain. Assuming
the climate will not change as radically in the next 100,000 years
as it has in the last 10,000 is foolish. Even without climate
change, instruments in test shafts inside the "arid"
mountain rusted out within a year, and there is evidence of recent
hot spring intrusion into the rock layers planned to house the
dump. These would release the waste to flow out among the many
faults in the mountain's rock found by geologists over the last
Add to all this the revelation that a
US Geological Survey employee had fabricated documentation of
his work on the mountain's hydrology, and even backers of the
site began to admit that it wouldn't open by the 2010 deadline.
The nuclear industry, which had maintained that no new nukes could
be commissioned until an offsite storage repository was established,
began to turn to other possibilities. The chief contender at this
writing is on the Skull Valley Goshute reservation in Utah's West
Desert, where a tribal council desperate for income is proposing
to lease land to a company called Private Fuel Storage - a consortium
of eight nuclear companies - for "temporary" aboveground
storage of high-level waste. Anti-nuclear dissidents among the
tribe's two dozen members are trying to block the dumpsite's lease,
and the future of the project is far from certain.
The federal government, in other words,
is hard pressed to set aside even enough long-term storage for
existing nuclear power plants, and Yucca Mountain would be filled
to capacity within three decades of opening. Imagine if a new
wave of nuclear power plants came on line, each of them spitting
out highly radioactive tennis-ball-sized waste pebbles by the
thousands! This reactor "so safe you can walk away from it
and let it shut down on its own," as one backer puts it,
will leave a legacy of dangerous waste for our great-grandchildren
to manage. Perhaps a better plan is to walk away from the notion
of nuclear power altogether.
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