Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Facing Reality But Still Striving Toward Change

The title of this painting by Karen Kilimnik is “Chloe (from Blood on Satan’s Claw).” 
It is an oil on canvas work from 1996 that was shown in an exhibit called
 at the Neuberger Museum of Art.

Since the Fukushima Disaster on March 11th of 2011 I have been on a quest to discover as much information as I could digest on the subject of nuclear energy. Deep in my heart what I really wanted was a magic wand that I could wave that would make all the nuclear reactors in the world go away. But the reality is that can’t be done.

So I set out in pursuit of knowledge and to find a way to share this knowledge with everyday people with the hope they too would be moved to action.

There are so many facets to nuclear power; it seemed by concentrating on one element, spent fuel, I could focus more clearly on a possible solution.

In the United States we have 104 commercial nuclear reactors. Because of actions taken by our government over the past thirty years there is no permanent long-term disposal facility for the spent fuel being generated by these 104 reactors. Instead of one or two disposal sites we now live with 104 storage facilities, most of which are Spent Fuel Pools.

Spent Fuel Pools were designed as the first stop for spent fuel rods when removed from a reactor’s core. It was the Spent Fuel Pool which would serve to cool the rods for a time period of three to five years. Then when the rods were cool enough they could be moved to Dry Cask Storage and then on to a permanent disposal facility.

One of my concerns with the process of reracking the rods in the Spent Fuel Pools to allow for more storage capacity was the worry that eventually these rods would become so crowded they could reach criticality and set off nuclear fission. In my search for answers, I have been assured by two different industry sources that criticality would not occur due to reracking because:  a) Fuel racks which are more closely spaced contain neutron-absorbing material which precludes criticality. The water in the pool is also borated which absorbs neutrons. b) When pools can no longer be re-racked the spent fuel will be placed in Dry Cask Storage.

There is one caution that should be noted here, these Spent Fuel Pools must be actively cooled. That is to say if electrical power is lost for an extended period of time, the decay heat of the fission products of the spent fuel eventually will cause the water in the pool to evaporate and the fuel to melt, which would release significant amounts of radioactivity in the immediate vicinity of the reactor plant.

So I guess the experts and I agree on one thing, eventually the spent fuel will need to be moved to Dry Cask Storage. And so with that little fact in hand I am able to walk out of my door each day with the assurance that the nuclear power operators will make this move at precisely the correct time.

Another reality for the foreseeable future is the Department of Energy (DOE) doesn’t really have a plan to move ahead with a permanent disposal site. Some, but not all of the recommendations that came out of the Blue Ribbon Commission On America’s Nuclear Future – Report to the Secretary of Energy in January of 2012 were:
  •     Prompt efforts to develop one or more geologic disposal facilities.
  •     Prompt efforts to develop one or more consolidated storage facilities.
  •    Prompt efforts to prepare for the eventual large-scale transport of spent nuclear fuel and      high-level waste to consolidated storage and disposal facilities when such facilities become available.
Again as a reminder here is the definition of terms used in the above items: “Disposal” is understood to mean permanent disposal; and “storage” is understood to mean storage for an interim period prior to disposal or other disposition.

The Blue Ribbon Commission did not define the word prompt however when stating “prompt efforts to”.  I tend to think of quick, rapid, and punctual and without delay when I hear that word, so I might assume the BRC had similar meanings in mind when they made their recommendations.  The problem is that even if the wheels were in motion this very minute with everyone on board and all systems were go, it could take at least ten to thirty years before a disposal site could be selected and made ready. So to toss in a quote from Lewis Carroll, “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.”
So each day I get up and find myself facing REALITY along with advancing age, but for right now I don’t intend to give in to either one.  I will continue to strive on with the hope that maybe, just maybe I have prompted at least one other person to take up the quest to gain some knowledge on this complex subject. And armed with that knowledge you will go forward without fear of being bullied by the big and powerful and demand that safety should and will never be compromised in the use of nuclear energy. That profits do not come before assuring a safe community and environment and demand that the NRC work to assure that safety standards are met and violations on any level are enforced.


  1. I think one big benefit of your posting about nukes is that it straightens out our talking points for us. This way, when we're with people who think "nuclear = clean" we can tell them the real story. Expanding the knowledge base on this is crucial. Too many Americans have swallowed the company line. Nuclear is anything but clean. I've learned a lot by reading your posts and I'm sure others have, as well. It's never a waste of time to blog honestly about a heartfelt topic.

  2. Thank you for that nice comment. I have learned so much and continue to learn about nuclear energy. You know it wasn't that long ago I thought nuclear power was the greatest thing next to sliced bread, an answer to all our energy needs... but I have learned that is not true. The risks out weight the benefits. What I want is truth from the operators of nuclear power plants. If there is no safety risk then telling lies wouldn't be needed. When people begin to cover up, that's when you know there is something very wrong.

    I won't completely diss the NRC, but they have to know that they are there to look out for us and not the power companies. There are a few things in this world people can't do for themselves and being the watch-guard for the commercial nuclear industry is one of them. The NRC needs to be above reproach in carrying out their duties.

    My mission continues while at this very moment the Missouri legislature considers a second nuclear plant for Missouri. One must never sleep for too long.