Renew On Line (UK) 58
Extracts from NATTA's journal
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12. Nuclear News
NuStart for US Nuclear?
The expansion of nuclear power was in effect halted in the USA by the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. More than 35 plants then being considered were stopped at various stages of planning and construction. However now President Bush wants to start up again. In a recent speech he commented ‘Nuclear power is one of the safest, cleanest sources of power in the world, and we need more of it here in America’. He went on ‘That’s why, three years ago, my administration launched the Nuclear Power 2010 Initiative. This is a seven-year, $1.1 bi effort by government and industry to start building new nuclear power plants by the end of this decade.’
In parallel he has proposed changes to legislation that will reduce uncertainty in the nuclear plant licensing process. He also wants Congress to provide Federal risk insurance to protect those building the first four new plants against delays beyond their control. In anticipation of a nuclear revival, Westinghouse (currently owned by BNFL) and rival General Electric have teamed up with power companies to form the NuStart Consortium, which has applied for building permits near existing plants in Virginia, Illinois & (still?!),Mississippi.
However there are a lot of problems ahead- not least with the 103 existing nuclear plants, many of which are now old and ready for decommissioning. That will lead to a lot of extra waste to be stored somewhere- and plans to bury waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada have been delayed for years. And, despite recent rises in the price of gas, there are still major concerns in the industry about the economic viability of new nuclear investment- cleaned up coal is seen as a better commercial bet. Exelon, the largest nuclear operator in the United States, told the New York Times (May 2) that although it is seeking approval from the nuclear commission for a new reactor site next to its existing reactor near Clinton in central Illinois, it was at least five years from a decision on whether to build there.
The New York Times noted that the last reactor commissioned in the USA was the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar reactor, in 1996, 23 years after the construction permit was obtained. It added that in the intervening years, there had been ‘persistent rumors that a new plant had been ordered, but no one could confirm it; in October 1993, a trade publication, Nucleonics Week, joked that the phantom plant should be called Elvis 1.’ Peter Bradford, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told the New York Times that in the last 20 years, predictions of a revival had ‘rivaled- in frequency and in accuracy- forecasts of the second coming of the messiah’. He pointed out, there is still the risk of accidents, which could devastate the industry even if no one outside a plant was harmed. “The abiding lesson that Three Mile Island taught Wall Street was that a group of N.R.C.- licensed reactor operators, as good as any others, could turn a $2 bn asset into a $1 bn cleanup job in about 90 minutes”.
...but not for UK ?
The nuclear push in the UK came a bit unstuck when, in the spring, just as the new Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) was taking control of the Sellafield site, the ‘Thorp’ nuclear fuel reprocessing plant sprung a major internal leak, with 83cu metres of highly radioactive liquor seeping out of pipework onto the floor of a containment cell- enough, as the Guardian put it, to half fill an Olympic-size swimming pool. Worse still it seems that the leak had been undetected for 9 months. It eventually contained around 20 tonnes of uranium and about 200kg of plutonium- enough in theory for 20 nuclear weapons. There was said to be no risk of external release, but the plant was shut down. The Managing Director of British Nuclear Group, the BNFL offshoot that now runs Sellafield for the NDA, commented: ‘Let me reassure people that the plant is in a safe and stable state’. However, with the clean up process being seen as quite a challenge, it could stay closed for some time - BNG evidently will seek agreement from the NII for a partial restart by Feb/March next year, but that’s still uncertain. CORE, Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment, said: ‘We warned the NDA, from the start, that in taking on the floundering Thorp plant it has landed itself with a dead duck that was neither capable of meeting its operational targets nor producing the revenue claimed by BNFL. The current leakage accident in the Head-End, suspiciously similar to one in 1998, suggests that it will produce little or no income for the NDA this year.’
Earlier on Sellafield had been celebrating success at cleaning up radioactive sludge from some old waste tanks. They do seem to have bad luck. The shut down is likely to be a major problem for the NDA since income from Thorp is supposed to offset the cost of its cleanup programme. It has a £2.2bn cleanup budget for this year, of which £560m was to come from Thorp. The NDA has even, it seems, been considering leaving Thorp closed down. But, with the BNG now being readied for sale, that could be unwise.
· The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management have urged the Government not to make any decisions on new nuclear plants until the completion of ongoing public consultations on the waste issue- their report is due in July 2006 and a final decision will then require local consultation. CORWM Chair Gordon MacKerron is concerned that the consensus that has been reached by the various interest groups, including environmental groups and local councils, on what to do with the existing wastes, might breakdown if their support was seen as a leading to more plants and more waste. But as he made clear at the Labour Party Conference in Sept, Tony Blair wants to push on, and get a decision by the end of 2006, following a new Energy Review.
‘Information about nuclear power stations, including safety issues and potential hazards, will be concealed from the public under guidelines drawn up by the government because of terrorism fears,’ the Guardian reported (6/5/05). It noted that the guidance would prevent objectors from seeing detailed plans of the nuclear plants at planning inquiries and that ‘instead, the attorney general would select an “appointed representative” to argue the case on their behalf, for which the objectors would have to pay’.
The guidelines, were it seems drawn up by the Office for Civil Nuclear Security, a DTI agency. Information which should be kept secret falls into 70 categories, including details of potential hazards, where nuclear waste is stored, annual threat assessments, the results of security investigations, and the function of certain buildings.
In parallel, the Scottish Herald (3/5/05) reported that ministers were seeking ‘unprecedented powers which will make it virtually impossible for objectors to block developments such as nuclear power stations, motorways or airport expansions’, under a new streamlined planning process, which would mean that public inquiries into such projects in Scotland ‘will be neutered or even scrapped if the schemes are designated of national strategic importance’.
New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, who unlike the Federal government, has backed the Kyoto Protocol, has said that nuclear energy should be reconsidered. He told the Australian, 3/6/05: “The planet is warming up and we need some new energy source until wind and solar and hydrogen become available. They’re not available yet- you could have a wind farm across all of outback NSW that would kill every kookaburra, but it wouldn’t provide the baseload power we need.” But Greenpeace’s Catherine Fitzpatrick said “Far from being a solution, the nuclear option is a convenient distraction from the problem of climate change and stalls real action to combat it.”
Meanwhile, a national Senate Committee has attacked the governments current energy plan and wants the renewables target to be increased to at least 5% by 2010, 10% by 2020, & 50% by 2050 in the context of at least a 60% greenhouse gas emissions cut by 2050. At present Australia emits 30% more GHG per capita than the USA.
Russia- a global nuclear dump ?
Rosatom, Russia’s Federal nuclear power agency, is keen to take in nuclear waste from around the world for reprocessing, but, even if that is done, the resultant wastes could end up being dumped in Siberia. Two possible sites are Krasnoyarsk and Mayak, where the main reprocessing plants are located. The International Atomic Energy Agency is keen on the idea. While Greenpeace Russia has pointed to the poor safety record with existing wastes, the attraction for the Russian government is the possibility of earning $20bn over 10 years. Independent 3/5/05
…but Russian Greens oppose Nuclear
Over 40 leading Russian environmentalists have written an open letter to president Vladimir Putin and prime minister Mikhail Fradkov urging them to renounce plans for developing new nuclear power plants, noting the recent arrest of former Atomic Energy Minister Yevgenii Adamov in connection with possible lapses in nuclear security. The plan to build 50 reactors is, they say, “madness” - wind power in the northwest Kolskii Peninsula could generate more power than the local nuclear reactor while, in southern regions, attempts to use solar energy have shown promising results. Renewables provide less than 10% of Russia’s energy, and environmental groups estimate that the potential is at least 20%.
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