Public perceptions of problems at nuclear reactors are being cut down to size
Getting an accurate bead on nuclear energy controversies is often more an issue of changing perceptions than the reshaping the physical dimensions of a problem. Also, the realities of having nuclear reactors that generate electricity in place can trump idealistic visions of replacing them with something new. These principles apply to three nuclear reactor projects which are the subject of much anti-nuclear ire.
Plans for a proposed third reactor for Dominion’s North Anna site were tested in a stockholder motion to cancel the project. However, growing demand for electricity in Virginia, which imports more of it than any other state except California, quickly made firewood of that idea.
Replacement of the 2 GWe of electricity generated by Entergy’s Indian Point site with high cost fossil fuel, and the limits of the existing transmission lines to bring it to the New York city region, have got some opponents having second thoughts. The possibility was raised that if reactors are shut down it could seriously impact the tri-state region’s extensive network of electrified commuter rail lines which keep tens of thousands of cars a day off the highways.
Finally, the NRC issued a statement saying that leaks of radioactive liquids at Entergy’s Vermont Yankee resulted in “no violations of NRC requirements,’ and “no findings of significance were identified.”
What’s remarkable about these three projects is that media attention swarms around them like bees in a field of newly bloomed clover. This plant is the Vermont state flower which is why it is mentioned here.
Public controversy over nuclear energy is a sweet spot for the news media which loves “he said she said” type stories that balance the protests from nuclear energy opponents with the efforts of the utilities and regulatory agencies to put things in perspective.
Sometimes it is a mater of investing a large amount of money and sometimes is is a matter of measurement of very small amounts of radiation. Both types of quantifiable items can get people excited out of proportion to reality. Here are three examples where reality impinges on perception and prevails.
Stockholders uphold plans for new reactor
An effort to stop Dominion (NYSE:D) from building a third reactor at its North Anna site in Louisa County, Virginia, failed May 14 to convince the utility’s stockholders it was the right action for the region.
The Peoples Alliance for Clean Energy (PACE), based on Charlottesville, VA, voted its 400 shares of common stock, worth approximately $16,000, but the motion did not pass. At market close May 21 the firm has market capitalization of $23.6 billion with 596 million shares outstanding. By all accounts the measure had no chance of passage, but its symbolism may be have been one of the opponents’ objective.
Jerry & Faye Rosenthal said their case against a new reactor is based on financial concerns caused by “the unhealthy concentration of all assets, and especially an overconcentration in nuclear generation assets" in a new reactor.
They also object to "unreasonable reliance on government" via loan guarantees. Paradoxically, while loan guarantees add financial stability to a project, their absence adds uncertainty in cost and schedule, which is another of the objections from the couple. It seems the couple is objecting to one of the very things that could contribute to the success of the project, but perhaps that is also their objective.
They argued for the "existence of much better opportunities for diversification, timing and return on investment," in wind, solar and natural gas generation. "It's a bad business model," Rosenthal said. it would be interesting to know if PACE or its members hold stock in wind energy companies doing business in Virginia.
The Rosenthals were aided by another PACE member, who serves on its steering committee, named Paxus Calta (right 1996 photo) who is a self-described anarchist. That may account for the group’s opposition to a government loan guarantees. Calta has a long history of activism being involved in campaigns to stop nuclear power plants in six countries in Central Europe. Dominion can probably expect to hear more from PACE.
Even if the measure had passed, the effect on plans for the reactor wouldn’t amount to much other than optics. Jim Norvelle, Dominion spokesman, told the local press the measure is “purely advisory.”
Norvelle said the reactor is needed because of the “desperate” need for new baseload capacity, which means meeting customer requirements for electricity 24 x 7 365 days a year.
"We strongly believe that it's going to take every form of energy efficiency, conservation and generation to meet the increasing demand for energy of our customers," Norvelle said. "Our responsibility is to meet that demand."
Dominion also announced at the stockholders’ meeting it is seeking investors to help it build the reactor. CEO Thomas Farrell told the Richmond Times Dispatch May 19 an electric coop in Henrico County wants an 11.6% share of the new reactor. At 1,500 MW design capacity, that would amount to 174 MW of power. At $3,500/Kw, it would represent an investment of $609 million.
Financing of partnerships may be easier for Dominion that raising all of the money itself. A financial analyst agrees. Steve Marascia of Capitol Securities Management, told the Dispatch, “Utilities in our region would love to tap into a nuclear plant.”
The reason is Virginia imports most of its electricity and the prospect of carbon taxes will raise rates for portion of it fueled by coal.
Dominion recently changed the reactor design reference in its COL application to the NRC from GE-Hitachi’s ESBWR to A 1,500 MW version of Mitsubishi’s APWR. The decision followed a round of competition among reactor vendors.
Could protecting fish imperil NYC commuter trains?
Closing the twin reactors at Energy’s (NYSE:ETR) Indian Point could slash 18% (base) and by 38% (peak) of the electricity available to the New York City region causing potential brownouts and put strains on the existing transmission network. William Miller, a professor of nuclear science at the University of Missouri at Columbia, told the Associated Press May 18, there isn’t enough backup power in the region if the plant is shut down. This means it would have to come from other power providers.
Even people with an environmental perspective question the drive by Alex Matthiessen, president of Riverkeeper for “early retirement” of the 2 Gwe of power generated by the reactors. Charles Warren, a former EPA official, told AP there has to be a compromise about the future of Indian point because the replacement power isn’t available.
However, surprising comments come from the anti-nuclear camp. David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer working for the Union of Concerned Scientists. He also told AP, there are “bottlenecks” in the transmission and distribution networks that will get worse if Indian Point isn’t on the grid. He says that despite the current economic downturn, “demand will go up” which points to a need for Indian Point or its replacement.
Riverkeeper’s Matthiessen isn’t swayed by these arguments. He claims the industry and its supporters “are trying to scare the public into believing that Indian Point and its power are indispensable.”
Energy analysts have argued the a significant shortage of power could impact the tri-state region’s electrified rail transportation systems. Matthiessen claims rhetorically, and without offering data to AP to back up his claims, that isn’t true.
The State of New York, responding to demands from environmental groups like Riverkeeper, has denied a water quality permit to Indian Point in the grounds its once through cooling system kills fish, specifically, a species of sturgeon. The alternative is construction of huge and hugely expensive cooling towers which are unlikely to ever be built resulting in the shutdown of the reactors at the end of their current licenses in 2015 and 2016. The NRC cannot issue new 20-year licenses, even if everything related to nuclear operations is in order, if the plant doesn’t have the required state permits.
In the end, the case of the water permit may wind up in federal court. There a 2009 Supreme Court ruling requires regulatory agencies must assess costs against benefits in determining whether they can order power plants to make changes to the plants to protect fish. It may turn out that reasonable outcomes will have to be found in the courts to keep the lights on in New York and the trains running
Vermont Yankee’s radioactivity not a public health threat
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff issued its inspection report May 21 on groundwater contamination issues at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. The focus of the inspection was Entergy’s response to the leak radioactive liquid into groundwater at the site identified earlier this year.
The NRC staff report states that its extensive reviews have found that "Entergy took prompt and effective action to identify the source of the leakage, halt it and develop an effective plan to address any resulting groundwater contamination."
This finding stands in stark contrast to widespread public angst encouraged by the gubernatorial ambitions of State Senator Peter Schumlin (D-Windham). Also, Shumlin's paid consultant Arnie Gundersen told the Vermont Legislature the radioactivity had migrated to the Connecticut River.
The NRC said that with respect to any groundwater from the site migrating to the nearby Connecticut River, a calculation performed by Entergy – and independently verified by the NRC – estimated a dose of 0.000035 millirems of maximum exposure to members of the public from contaminated groundwater reaching the waterway.
A millirem is a measure of exposure to radiation. The measurement is miniscule by any scale. The affected groundwater at Vermont Yankee is not used for drinking-water purposes. The average American is exposed to about 360 millirems of radiation each year from natural and manmade sources.
Highlights of the NRC report include:
- Based on the results of the inspection, the NRC determined that Entergy-Vermont Yankee (ENVY) appropriately evaluated the contaminated groundwater with respect to off-site effluent release limits and the resulting radiological impact to public health and safety;
- Entergy complied with all applicable regulatory requirements and standards pertaining to radiological effluent monitoring, dose assessment, and radiological evaluation;
- No violations of NRC requirements or findings of significance were identified;
The NRC said in a statement it continues to closely monitor and assess Entergy’s remedial actions to resolve leaks. A copy of the report is available on the NRC web site.
This is where we get down to the question of what all the shouting has been about in Vermont? If the legislature and the public have been in an uproar over allegations of harm from leaking radioactive tritium, and the NRC says the measurements are infinitesimal, then we are left with political and social questions about how our society deals with risk, or how politicians exploit risk communication to suit their own ends. In either case, the problem has been cut down to size.
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Update 5/25/10 - the Union of Concerned Scientists sends a note expressing concern about being characterized as an "anti-nuclear" organization. Full text follows below.
You mischaracterized our organization in your Mountains into Molehills posting. The Union of Concerned Scientists is not in the "anti-nuclear camp." We are not anti-nuclear. We are agnostic. The best way to characterize us is as a nuclear industry watchdog.
Elliott Negin, Media Director,
Union of Concerned Scientists