Countering the Perilous Myth of Immortal Nuclear Reactors
By James Heddle – EON – Cross-posted on Substack
Tin Lizzies of Yesteryear
When I was a boy, way back in the ancient 1950’s, my grandfather Charlie kept his first car, a Ford Model T, in his garage as a memento of his own fondly-remembered boyhood.
Affectionately nicknamed the Tin Lizzy, Henry Ford’s classic Model T’s were the first mass produced, affordable cars and they made travel possible for many middle-class Americans, defining an era. The popular cars came off the assembly lines from 1908 to 1927, so, by the mid ‘50’s, Granddad’s beloved car was already over 30 years old.
Every once in a while Granddad would (literally) crank Lizzy up and we’d go for a rattling, sputtering spin around the neighborhood, to the great amusement of the neighbors – ‘how quaint,’ they would laugh, pointing at the spectacle. Finally, sometime in the ‘60’s, no amount of cranking could any longer awaken Lizzy from her terminal slumber.
Tin Lizzies of Today – Atomic Nuclear Model T’s
Just past mid-night, after a hasty, superficial discussion in the hectic closing hours of its session, large majorities in both houses of the California Legislature voted to extend the operation of the state’s last 2 operating seaside nuclear reactors at Diablo Canyon for an indefinite period of 5 to 20 years past their currently scheduled shutdown dates in 2024 and 2025.
The rush-to-judgment decision was based on computer projections purporting to show Diablo’s output would be necessary to prevent future electric grid blackouts.
In a radio interview earlier that day, Attorney Loretta Lynch, former president of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) observed, “If it’s true that we need Diablo Canyon, we should take more than three days to debate that, look at the facts, and make the decisions so that the ratepayers don’t pay excess billions of dollars in this rush to judgment….those billions add up on top of the outrageously high rates that PG&E customers already pay, and I’m concerned about the state of the California economy if you’re going to pay platinum prices for this nuclear jalopy.”
The eleventh-hour license extension in California is part of a national pattern. As far back as 2005, the Nuclear Monitor reported, based on U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission data, that nuclear reactor license extensions were already projected to extend the fleet’s operation into the 2030’s and ‘40’s.
Now, extensions are being contemplated even beyond 2050.
Poster Child Atomic Jalopy Diablo
Construction of the Diablo Canyon reactors began in 1968. Nearly 20 years later, after many mistakes and a redesign caused by the discovery of a nearby earthquake fault, the reactors came on line in 1985 and 1986, respectively. So, by now in 2022, Diablo is about the same age Granddad’s Tin Lizzy was back in the ‘50’s.
What is being proposed, then, with talk of keeping PG&E’s beloved Diablo Tin Lizzies running another 5, 10 or even 20 years, is essentially like Grandpa keeping his 1915 Model T on the highway well past its use-by date.
It will be like me dreaming of still driving my parent’s ’57 Chevy in to the 2050’s, when both of us will be centenarians.
Antique Reactor Enthusiasts
Like a club of antique car collectors, nostalgic jalopy nuke devotees want to keep reactors designed and built in the middle years of the last century operating far into this one.
According to a 2011 AP story, ““Regulators contend that the 40-year limit was chosen for economic reasons and to satisfy safety concerns, not for safety issues. They contend that a nuclear plant has no technical limit on its life.”
But, au contraire, the story goes on to say, “…an AP review of historical records, along with an interview with an engineer who helped develop nuclear power, shows just the opposite: Reactors were made to last only 40 years. Period.”
Nevertheless, an NRC webinar on January 2, 2020 was held to garner public input on the advisability of extending the licenses of U.S. nuclear plants for 100 years. A subsequent report noted, “Ultimately, public opinion was not in favor of the idea of 100-year plant life. Combined with the need for further research, the issue was essentially closed for now.” [Emphasis added.]
It’s the last highlighted phrase that should give us pause. The NRC – the poster child for captured regulator status – does not seem shy so far of granting ailing, aging reactors up to 60-year operating license extensions.
The clearly nuclear-industry-captured Biden Administration has just cast a life-preserver to ‘distressed’ nukes with its Inflation Prevention Act, and Presidential Aspirant-in-Waiting California Governor Newsom is the first to grab ahold on behalf of PG&E and Diablo Canyon.
In practice, that means that most of the U.S. jalopy nuke fleet will continue to imperil all life on earth many generations into the future.
The United States has the largest nuclear power plant fleet in the world.
The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports, “At the end of 2021, the United States had 93 operating commercial nuclear reactors at 55 nuclear power plants in 28 states. The average age of these nuclear reactors is about 40 years old.”
According to the EIA, “With the bulk of the existing nuclear fleet licensed before 1990, nearly all existing reactors will be more than 60 years old by 2050.”
Timebombs-in-Place from the Past Threatening the Present and the Future
The battlespace now surrounding Ukraine’s six Zaporizhzhia reactors and vulnerable spent fuel pools has focused world attention on the dire dangers of nuclear plants in a warzone. In fact, the full current Ukraine battlespace includes all of the country’s 15 nuclear power facilities, as well as the sarcophagus-covered, still-smoldering wreckage of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster – which, be it noted, occurred in ‘peacetime’ – with its surrounding 1,000 square mile ‘exclusion zone,’ still too dangerous for human habitation.
You don’t need a surrounding warzone to make nuclear power plants dangerous. To get a sense of the scope of the risks involved, just draw a 1,000 square mile ‘exclusion zone’ around your nearest nuclear power plant and note where your present home neighborhood lies in relation to it.
Nuclear Welfare Program
The United States is spending billions of dollars on nuclear power plants that are losing money based on the assertion that it needs ‘emission-free energy’ to meet its decarbonization goals.
Despite nuclear revivalists’ denials, there is nothing ‘emission-free’ about nuclear power plants. Even without an accident, ‘permitted radioactive routine emissions’ occur daily in normal operation. Radioactive particles and gases are released into the surrounding air and water causing documented environmental damage. Studies from Europe show an elevated occurrence of leukemia in children living within 5 kilometers of nuclear plants.
One of the routine emissions is radioactive carbon-14, an inconvenient fact that belies claims of ‘decarbonization.’
According to CNBC, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law President Joe Biden signed into law in November includes a $6 billion program intended to preserve the existing U.S. fleet of nuclear power reactors – even though they are all losing money. Again, the rationale includes ‘decarbonization’ and is based on dire, but legitimately scientifically disputable computer model projections of impending catastrophic climate change.
Aging Degradation Cover-Up
What’s wrong with this picture is that nuclear plant components, including non-moving parts, degrade with age. According to Beyond Nuclear’s Paul Gunter, there “are 600 miles of electrical cable in a typical nuclear power plant.” These components, along with miles of pipes and many pumps, are subject to long and constant exposure to radiation exposure as well as extreme temperatures and vibration. Then there are the impacts of embrittlement of the concrete and metal in the pressure vessel and containment structures.
In Karl Grossman’s invaluable December 2020 report, Gunter reveals that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is actively suppressing investigation of these widespread aging degradation effects in the country’s elderly reactors.
The NRC commissioned the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to do a report titled “Criteria and Planning Guidance for Ex-Plant Harvesting to Support Subsequent License Renewal.” Gunter reports that the resulting document, published in December 2017 on the Laboratory’s website, as well as those of the Department of Energy Office of Scientific and Technical Information and the International Atomic Energy Commission’s International Nuclear Information System, “report raised many significant issues regarding extending the operating licenses of nuclear plants.”
But the NRC subsequently ““wiped all three websites of the report” and republished a version which, ““scrubbed clean of dozens of references to safety-critical knowledge ‘gaps’ pertaining to many known age-related degradation mechanisms described in the original published report.”
Gunter continues that, ““The NRC revision also scrubbed Pacific Northwest National Laboratory findings and recommendations to ‘require’ the harvesting of realistic and representative aged materials from decommissioning nuclear power stations—base metals, weld materials, electric cables, insulation and jacketing, reactor internals and safety-related concrete structures like the containment and spent fuel pool—for laboratory analyses of age degradation. The laboratory analyses are intended to provide ‘reasonable assurance’ of the license extension safety review process for the projected extension period.”
According to Gunter, the original version of the report stated, “A key challenge will be to better understand likely materials degradation mechanisms in these components and their impacts on component functionality and safety margins. Research addressing many of the remaining technical gaps in these areas for SLR may greatly benefit from materials sampled from plants (decommissioned or operating). Because of the cost and inefficiency of piecemeal sampling, there is a need for a strategic and systematic approach to sampling materials from structures, systems and components in both operating and decommissioned plants.”
When the NRC extends nuclear power plant licenses, it also allows plants to be ‘uprated,’ which means they can burn fuel hotter and longer to generate more electricity, thus increasing the risks of accidents. This practice, known as ‘high burn-up’ also produces ‘spent fuel’ that is thermally hotter, more radioactive and more difficult to contain.
Stress Corrosion Cracking
One of the most alarming challenges to nuclear utilities’ so-called ‘aging management programs’ has been brought to light by the investigative research of independent systems analyst Donna Gilmore of SanOnofreSafety.org. Termed stress corrosion cracking, it is a condition afflicting both reactor components and radioactive waste storage containers.
As former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner, Peter Bradford explains, “Stress corrosion cracking is the same sort of cracking that has been found on one of the Diablo Canyon’s reactor pressure vessels. And it’s the same sort of cracking which plagues the entire nuclear industry.”
Bradford continues. “One key fact about stress corrosion cracking is that it is difficult to find, even more difficult to repair, and almost impossible to predict how quickly it will spread from a small problem to a catastrophic one.”
He adds, “Stress corrosion cracking also affects the thin-walled spent fuel canisters Diablo Canyon uses — the same kind used throughout the nuclear industry in America.”
It is worth noting that, according to the NRC, Diablo Canyon’s Unit 1 is rated among the country’s four “most embrittled” reactors. Expert witness nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen calls it “the most dangerous reactor in the U.S.”
The Commercial/Military Connection
Ever since the heady days of Atoms for Peace and the dream of ‘energy too cheap to meter,’ nuclear proponents have been at pains to pooh-pooh any necessary connection between commercial nuclear power and nuclear weapons production. But recently, nuclear power advocates like former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz have reversed course and are now arguing that a commercial nuclear power infrastructure and trained labor force are vital to the maintenance of America’s nuclear navy and its proudly published military doctrine of Full Spectrum Dominance (FSD).
Moniz is the President and CEO of the Energy Futures Initiative. The EFI issued a 2017 report titled, The U.S. Nuclear Energy Enterprise: A Key National Security Enabler, making clear the joined-at-the-hip symbiosis of the nuclear power and weapons industries.
Moniz and the EFI are currently celebrating the nuclear-industry-friendly Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), signed into law last month by President Biden.
As the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) reports, “The IRA has an estimated $100 billion or more in provisions that fund and incentivize nuclear power. These provisions steal resources from real climate and environmental justice solutions and perpetuate the polluting, corrupt status quo. The entire nuclear fuel chain still relies on fossil fuels, contaminates communities across the country and around the world, and generates forever-deadly waste.” The NIRS analysis of the IRA is here.
Up, Up and Away – Nukes in Space
Another key aspect of the U.S. military’s Full Spectrum Dominance doctrine is the growing belief in some circles that “space nuclear is going to be the future.”
That statement comes from Alex Gilbert, Director of Space & Planetary Regulation at the Washington, D.C.- based Zeno Power. Karl Grossman reports that, in an August 4th webinar of the American Nuclear Society, Gilbert announced, “we are at a unique moment. I call it a space opportunity.” He went on, ““we could actually see exponential growth. Right now the space economy is around $400 billion globally. By the middle of the century it could be $4 trillion.”
His view was echoed by Kate Kelly, director for Space and Emerging programs at the Lynchburg, Virginia-based company BWXT Advanced Technologies. Kelly said that the use of nuclear power in space has arrived at an “inflection point.” She explained, ““Over the last several years there’s been this re-emerging interest and investment by the government in fission systems for in-space power and propulsion.”
So, it becomes clear that the over-arching context for the current nuclear revivalism craze is that commercial and military nuclearism are mutually co-dependent and, in fact, joined at the hip.
That is the perspective required to understand the push to extend the life of PG&E’s embrittled nuclear reactors at Diablo Canyon in California, as well as the current drive for putting jalopy nukes on life-support, and the related attempt to spawn a whole new generation of so-called Small, Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMNR’s). If these plans succeed, they will further perpetuate the production of radioactive waste.
The Only Thing Immortal About Nuclear Power is Radioactive Waste
The Age of Nuclear Power began in the 1950’s. If a generation is 20 years, commercial nuclear reactors have so far been in operation for less than 4 generations, less than our lifetimes.
Paleontologists estimate that creatures, recognizable as human beings, have existed on this planet for about 7,500 generations.
Despite the nuclear revivalist religious belief that “that a nuclear plant has no technical limit on its life,” no jalopy reactor will last forever. But the radioactive waste it has produced will.
1 Generation = 20 Years
1 Lifespan = 80 Years
5 Generations = 100 Years
12 Generations = Duration of US
40 Generations = Duration of Roman Empire
75 Hundred Generations so far on earth
50 Thousand Generations =1 Million Years
100 Thousand Generations = 2 Million Years
100 Thousand Generations = Half-Life of Cesium-135
35 Million Generations = Half-Life of Uranium–235
If current plans to keep the U.S. jalopy reactor fleet running through 2050 are successful, a century of operation will have produced millions of metric tons of radioactive waste that will remain deadly to all living things and virtually impossible to isolate from the environment for millions of years – far longer than human beings have yet inhabited the earth.
That is the threatened eternal legacy of the evanescent Age of Nuclear Power.
Democracy Now & Then – Pushback Furthers – Litigation Works
However, resistance to this dire scenario is growing as awareness of it spreads. Last February, a legal appeal filed by Beyond Nuclear to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) yielded a landmark decision that threw at least one boulder in the path of the nukes forever agenda.
Historically, standard operating procedure at the NRC seems to be, “If utilities can’t or won’t comply with an inconvenient or profit-limiting existing regulation, (1) give an exemption or (2) change the regulation.
But, if the regulation or statute is not subject to NRC purview or authority, but that of some other agency, accommodation to industry desires is not so easy.
That’s the situation with NEPA, the National Environmental Protection Act, which requires all Federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of proposed major Federal actions prior to making any decisions.
In some cases, there may be more than one federal agency involved in the proposed action. This complexity can and should be used by citizen organizations in litigation contesting industry-friendly rule-making or rule-breaking. The ruling is an encouraging and empowering case in point.
Beyond Nuclear reported that their appeal had yielded a landmark 2-1 decision rescinding NRC’s policy on issuing 20-year operating license renewal for US reactors potentially extending them into 60 to 80-year periods. The ruling rescinds already-granted 60-80-year extensions and will now subject renewal applications to NEPA review of nuclear environmental risks compared to those of renewable energy sources.
A Beyond Nuclear news release explains that the “decision now requires plant owners and the agency’s staff to go back to the drawing board and update their review of the potential impacts of a worsening climate crisis, such as rising sea levels, and to provide an updated analysis of age-related degradation of the reactor systems, structures and components before approving…extreme license extension requests.”
Beyond Nuclear’s winning attorney Diane Curran called the decision, “a tremendous advance for nuclear reactor safety and environmental protection, because it commits NRC to evaluate the unique risks of renewing reactor licenses for a second term.”
The jalopy nukes agenda is not necessarily a done deal.
James Heddle co-directs EON, the Ecological Options Network with Mary Beth Brangan, who contributed research and ideas for this article. The EON feature documentary SOS – The San Onofre Syndrome will be released later this year.