Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The reign of nuclear power is over!

Japan Raises Nuclear Alert at Troubled Plant to Highest Level, Equal to Chernobyl (April 11, 2011)

TOKYO - Japan's nuclear regulators raised the severity level of the crisis at a stricken nuclear plant Tuesday to rank it on par with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, citing the amount of radiation released in the accident.

The regulators said the rating was being raised from 5 to 7 - the highest level on aninternational scale overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency. However, there was no sign of any significant change at the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. The new ranking signifies a "major accident" with "wider consequences" than the previous level, according to the Vienna-based IAEA.

"We have upgraded the severity level to 7 as the impact of radiation leaks has been widespread from the air, vegetables, tap water and the ocean," said Minoru Oogoda of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. NISA officials said one of the factors behind the decision was that the cumulative amount of radioactive particles released into the atmosphere since the incident had reached levels that apply to a Level 7 incident.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the plant, is still estimating the total amount of radioactive material that might be released by the accident, said company spokesman Junichi Matsumoto. He acknowledged the amount of radioactivity released might even exceed the amount emitted by Chernobyl.

Aftershocks on Monday briefly cut power to backup pumps, halting the injection of cooling water for about 50 minutes before power was restored. A month after the disaster, more than 145,000 people are still living in shelters, and the government on Monday added five communities to a list of places people should leave to avoid long-term radiation exposure.

A 12-mile (20-kilometer) radius has already been cleared around the plant. The disaster is believed to have killed more than 25,000 people, but many of those bodies were swept out to sea and more than half of those feared dead are still listed as missing.

"The reign of nuclear power [on Earth] is over. In the hands of third density minds it always has been dangerous and it has no place whatsoever in higher densities. But it is not our prerogative to shut down your facilities or prevent construction of new ones, it is yours, and only your collective demand for that could make it happen. Replacement energy sources already are there, they've just been suppressed because they aren't money-makers like nuclear and fossil fuels are. You will see those "hidden" technologies starting to emerge, again by your forcefulness." ~ Star Commander Hatonn of the Confederation of Planets

Why No Nukes? The Real Cost of U.S. Nuclear Power
By Michael Grunwald - Mar. 25, 2011 - TIME.com

The chaos at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant — explosions, fires, ruptures — has not shaken the bipartisan support in partisan Washington for the U.S.'s so-called nuclear renaissance. Republicans have dismissed Japan's crisis as a once-in-a-lifetime fluke. President Obama has defended atomic energy as a carbon-free source of power, resisting calls to halt the renaissance and freeze construction of the U.S.'s first new reactors in over three decades.

But there is no renaissance.

Even before the earthquake-tsunami one-two punch, the endlessly hyped U.S. nuclear revival was stumbling, pummeled by skyrocketing costs, stagnant demand and skittish investors, not to mention the defeat of restrictions on carbon that could have mitigated nuclear energy's economic insanity. Obama has offered unprecedented aid to an industry that already enjoyed cradle-to-grave subsidies, and the antispending GOP has clamored for even more largesse. But Wall Street hates nukes as much as K Street loves them, which is why there's no new reactor construction to freeze. Once hailed as "too cheap to meter," nuclear fission turns out to be an outlandishly expensive method of generating juice for our Xboxes.

Since 2008, proposed reactors have been quietly scrapped or suspended in at least nine states — not by safety concerns or hippie sit-ins but by financial realities. Other projects have been delayed as cost estimates have tripled toward $10 billion a reactor, and ratings agencies have downgraded utilities with atomic ambitions. Nuclear Energy Institute vice president Richard Myers notes that the "unrealistic" renaissance hype has come from the industry's friends, not the industry itself. "Even before this happened, short-term market conditions were bleak," he tells TIME.

Around the world, governments (led by China, with Russia a distant second) are financing 65 new reactors through more explicit nuclear socialism. But private capital still considers atomic energy radioactive, gravitating instead toward natural gas and renewables, whose costs are dropping fast. Nuclear power is expanding only in places where taxpayers and ratepayers can be compelled to foot the bill.

In fact, the economic and safety problems associated with nuclear energy are not unrelated. Trying to avoid flukes like Fukushima Daiichi is remarkably costly. And trying to avoid those costs can lead to flukes.

The False Dawn

In 1972 a federal safety regulator, worried that GE's Mark 1 reactors would fail in an emergency, urged a ban on containment designs that used "pressure suppression." His boss was sympathetic but wrote in a memo that "reversal of this hallowed policy, particularly at this time, could well be the end of nuclear power" and "would generally create more turmoil than I can stand thinking about." Four decades after this bureaucratic pressure suppression, Fukushima Daiichi's Mark 1 reactors seem to have failed as predicted. And while newer reactors don't have those problems, 23 Mark 1 reactors still operate in the U.S., including a Vermont plant that was relicensed for 20 more years the day before the disaster in Japan.

When Karl Marx, who would have appreciated nuclear economics, wrote that history unfolds first as tragedy, then as farce, he got U.S. nuclear history backward. America's initial experiment was a cartoonish disaster, with construction timelines doubling and costs increasing as much as 1,000% even before the Three Mile Island meltdown. In the 1980s, the industry required bailouts before bailouts were cool. But the U.S. industry has matured and learned from its mistakes. It still runs the world's largest nuclear portfolio, and it hasn't had a serious accident since 1979. Meanwhile, global-warming fears have positioned nuclear power as a proven alternative to fossil fuels that works even when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing, producing 20% of our electricity and 0% of our emissions. No-nukes outrage has burned out, with a recent poll registering 71% support.

The result has been an extraordinary political coalition. Right-wingers who don't accept climate science and didn't even want the word french in their fries now wax lyrical about French reactors that reduce French emissions. Left-wingers who used to bemoan the industry's radioactive waste and corporate welfare now embrace it as an earth saver. So Congress has approved lucrative subsidies for construction, production, waste disposal, liability insurance and just about every other nuclear cost. It also approved "risk insurance" to compensate utilities for regulatory delays, even as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has worked closely with the industry to streamline its licensing process. And nuke-friendly states have required ratepayers to front the costs of any new construction — even if the reactors are never turned on.

Nevertheless, investors refuse to bet on nukes. The steady increases in electricity demand that were supposed to justify new reactors have been wiped out by the global recession, and energy-efficiency advances could keep demand flat. Natural gas prices have plummeted, Congress appears unlikely to put a price on carbon, and the U.S. still lacks a plan for nuclear waste. It also turns out that building safe places to smash atoms is hard, especially after such a long hiatus. The U.S. has lost most of its nuclear manufacturing capacity; it would have to import Japanese steel forgings and other massive components, while training a new generation of nuclear workers. And though industry lobbyists have persuaded the NRC to ease onerous regulations governing everything from fire safety to cooling systems, it's still incredibly tough to get a reactor built.

New nukes would still make sense if they were truly needed to save the planet. But as a Brattle Group paper noted last month, additional reactors "cannot be expected to contribute significantly to U.S. carbon emission reduction goals prior to 2030." By contrast, investments in more-efficient buildings and factories can reduce demand now, at a tenth the cost of new nuclear supply. Replacing carbon-belching coal with cleaner gas, emissions-free wind and even utility-scale solar will also be cheaper and faster than new nukes. It's true that major infusions of intermittent wind and solar power would stress the grid, but that's a reason to upgrade the grid, not to waste time and money on reactors.

Anyway, there aren't many utilities that can carry a nuclear project on their balance sheets, which is why Obama's Energy Department, a year after awarding its first $8 billion loan guarantee in Georgia, is still sitting on an additional $10 billion. A Maryland project evaporated before closing, and a Texas project fell apart when costs spiraled and a local utility withdrew. The deal was supposed to be salvaged with financing from a foreign utility, but that now seems unlikely.

The utility was Tokyo Electric.

Another Perfect Storm

Pundits keep saying the mess in Japan will change the debate in the U.S., but the BP and Massey disasters didn't change the debates over oil drilling and coal mining. And the nuclear debate seems particularly impervious to facts. Obama wants to triple funding for the already undersubscribed loan guarantees, but Republicans still accuse him of insufficient nuclear fervor. So don't expect the U.S. to copy German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who just shut down seven aging plants. GOP Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma has already rejected the idea of "a nuclear problem," suggesting that "once in 300 years, a disaster occurs." That's true if you don't count Chernobyl and you're sure nothing will happen for the next 250 years.

The industry's defenders may ignore Fukushima Daiichi, but the industry will not. It's serious about public safety, and meltdowns are bad for business; no company wants to lose a $10 billion reactor overnight. But additional safety measures cost money: in 2003 industry lobbyists beat back an NRC committee's recommendation for new backup-power rules that were designed to prevent the hydrogen explosions that are now all over the news.

It may sound unrealistic to require plants to withstand a vicious earthquake and a 25-ft. tsunami, but nobody's forcing utilities to generate power with uranium. One lesson of the past decade, in finance as well as nature, is that perfect storms do happen. When nukes are involved, the fallout can be literal, not just political.

The incalculable cost of nuclear power (3 April 2011)

If the costs and benefits of nuclear power are so attractive, where are the investors? At least with wind and solar power, it is possible to see the cost curve dropping to the break-even point in the near future. Nuclear power, by contrast, may never be able to convince investors to put their money down without government guarantees.The prospect of cost overruns, waste disposal and extended shutdowns are daunting enough. But mostly, it is the potential cost of catastrophic failure that scares away investors. Large-scale disasters, however rare, are colossally expensive, as well as dangerous. The first estimate of entombing the Fukushima plant is $12bn. And this doesn't include the other liabilities that could force the Japanese government to nationalise the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco).Several years ago, I heard Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, say that commercial nuclear power won't be developed in the US without federal liability or financing guarantees. The risks, however remote, are so expensive that investors don't want to take them on, no matter what the return. [From The Guardian UK]