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Pushing nukes at the NRC

SA’s power plants skirt pressure test as federal regulators exempt industry from terrorism studies

 

The day before Hurricane Ike roared into Galveston Island and pressed deep into the Houston Ship Channel, a surge in internet search traffic googling “STNP” washed into my humble enviro blog. “So,” a smaller, less-charitable part of myself exhaled as I charted the numbers, “now they’re worried.”

Employees at South Texas Nuclear Project, a 2,700-megawatt complex of twin Westinghouse reactors located 10 miles from the impetuous Gulf, were getting ready to take the plant that supplies roughly 33 percent of San Antonio’s power offline while dispatching comforting press releases to the media. Outside the plant’s perimeter, netizens were eyeballing approximate storm-surge threats thanks to a University of Arizona computer model I had embedded at harman on earth.

A press release from the recently renamed South Texas Project, a partnership of the City of San Antonio and NRG Energy, preened over the hardiness of the reactor’s bunkers, the “steel-reinforced concrete walls, four to seven feet thick, that are built to withstand Category 5 hurricanes,” guarding the reactors and spent radioactive fuel stored onsite.

The actual risk to the region’s residents dodged like an apparition between the industry’s assurances, red-lining computer models, and the eye of Ike itself, a growing Cat 4 now recognized as the largest Gulf hurricane ever recorded.

It would have been the perfect time for one of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s focus groups to break out the folding tables and plant a circle of chairs in the sand. After all, if you want to honestly gauge public attitudes about nuclear power, meltdowns, and evacuation knowledge, as the NRC busily set about doing in 2007, the place for unvarnished truths would have been under the eye of Ike.

NRC’s survey of those living inside the 10-mile evacuation zones of nuclear power plants was released last week. Most participants “were generally well informed about what to do in a nuclear power plant emergency” and “agreed they would evacuate, shelter-in-place or monitor for more information” in a radiological “event.”

The findings will no doubt be used to provide additional support for the reviving industry. However, as coastal Texans know, the best intentions often fall by the drainage canal when the evacuation sirens blow.

Stealing heavily from the NRC’s survey framework, I reimagine a “live” survey proceeding slightly differently.

Sound of sand compressing under the weight of shifting chairs. Rising winds steadily rustling the Moderator’s papers.

Moderator: Hi. My name is <NAME>. Would you like to play a game?

Focus Group (FG): (Collective pause. Bead of sweat falls.)

Moderator: Great! I am going to walk you through a made-up story about what might happen if a nuclear-plant emergency took place.

FG A: Do I need my glasses? (Glasses, unfolded, fly from hands.)

Moderator: It’s 12:30 in the afternoon. You are getting ready to have lunch. You hear warning sirens at the South Texas Nuclear Power Plant. The sirens are not normally tested during the day. How do you rate your degree of concern, if any?

FG B: What am I having for lunch?

Moderator: Great! An Emergency Alert System message is broadcast. You hear the Texas Bureau of Emergency Management has declared a GENERAL EMERGENCY at South Texas Nuclear Power Plant ...

FG A: Did you go to Bay City Middle School, sweetheart?

FG B: I don’t listen to the radio.

Moderator: Great! All residents north and west of South Texas Nuclear Power Plant are ordered to evacuate. Those to the east are asked to shelter in place. Do you have, A) General knowledge about seeking shelter? B) Little knowledge of shelter? C) Gnawing concerns of unspecific origin?

FG C: Is this going to be on TV? I mean, should I fix my hair?

FG A: Will it be a long drive, dear?

Moderator: Do you know how to shelter in place?

FG B: (Crawls under foldout table, tucking head between knees. Table blows away.)

FG C: That’s for an atomic attack. We’re not being “attacked,” are we?

FG A: (Pulling roll from purse) Duct tape?

Moderator: Your potassium-iodide pills aren’t where you remember leaving them. The dogs want to come inside. There is a pizza-delivery car abandoned in your driveway.

FG B: Just like in Left Behind!

FG C: Was that pre-rapture or post?

FG A: (Working sand from ear) Would I like some toast?

Moderator: Great! On behalf of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, I’d like to thank you for participating in our survey of community attitudes and behaviors. The resurgence in interest in new nuclear power plants has only been made possible by the sustained safe and reliable performance of the current fleet of operating reactors. The nuclear industry is now, and may always remain, just one accident away from retrenchment.*

(Alarm sounds. FG A, FG B, and FG C run in three diverging directions as moderator unfolds umbrella and spins off into vortex.)

If there’s a point to the preceding 428 words of fictionalized NRC smear it would be to suggest that public attitudes about nuclear power, having risen from 28-percent favorable to 35-percent favorable during the Bush years, according to MIT, are today the least of the nuclear industry’s worries.

After all, millions of gallons of tritium-contaminated groundwater leaking from a trio of Exelon nuke plants in Illinois and a leaking reactor vessel at the Davis Bessie plant in 2005 didn’t exactly gain traction in the popular press or incite the masses to action.

The industry’s real challenge will be getting the subsidies they need from Congress to move forward. However, Congress is already over-committed by trillions in bailouts already flowing to banks and lenders and (possibly) Big Auto in the hopes containing the current economic
recession.

While President-elect Obama cannot be called anti-nuclear, per se, he has committed himself to stopping Yucca Mountain, Nevada’s high-level radioactive waste dump in the making, from opening — a step that will only increase the cost of nuclear power by forcing the utilities to continue to stockpile their highly toxic wastes onsite. And he’s not expected to lean on Congress for nuke subsidies the way McCain had committed to do.

In an effort to avoid a perfect storm capable of wiping the industry’s ambitions from the face of U.S. energy policy, and help salvage nearly two-dozen pending reactor applications, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been busy these past weeks.

Last Monday, NRC Commissioner Kristine Svinicki gave a pep talk to nuclear-industry reps in Reno, stressing the agency’s vigilance.

Two days later, NRC officials exempted STP from key provisions of its 10-year testing of the structural integrity of its containment vessels. STP officials complained the test would expose workers to too much radiation. NRG and the City of San Antonio, which last year filed the first new construction and operating licenses for new nuclear power plants in 29 years, are working to expand STP by two more plants.

Meanwhile, Exelon escalated its buyout offer to NRG Energy into a full-scale hostile takeover bid. NRG’s President David Crane chided Exelon CEO John Rowe, whose company has applied to build a pair of nukes near Victoria, in an open letter dated November 9:

Exelon … continues to pour development resources into an unproven design, not yet certified by the NRC, never before built and involving substantial first-of-a-kind engineering. As such, we are concerned that you are on a path to repeat the nuclear construction experience of the 1970-80s by taking nuclear completion risk ‘on balance sheet;’ and that is a risk which, no matter how much you intend to grow your balance sheet, concerns us (on behalf of our shareholders) immensely.

And so, utility titans battle over the bottom line as the $18 billion in federal nuke subsidies look increasingly unlikely to stretch to the $122 billion the pending applications would require from the Fed, according to industry observers.

With spent fuel rods piling up at the nation’s plants — high-level radioactive waste that requires tens of thousands of years to degrade back into non-lethal matter — a small group of objectors suggested recently that a series of terror-attack scenarios should be considered. While a federal judge concurred, NRC’s Commissioners, in the midst of all their other activities last week, refused.

In a resounding pro-industry, three-to-one ruling Thursday, the NRC again made the economically challenging course as smooth as possible for new plants.

Terror be damned.

* NRC Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, November 10, 2008

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