(This is an expanded version of something I had previously posted.)
When the idea of expanding the South Texas Nuclear Project (I refuse to acknowledge the PR-driven name change that dropped the word Nuclear) was first proposed, Austin had a chance to buy into the new units, and declined. The biggest reasons for not entering the project were cost, safety and the fact that we don’t know what they’re going to do with the reactors’ waste. Given that none of those factors have changed, why then is the City Council considering entering into an agreement with the plant’s owners, NRG, to buy a share of the electricity from the new reactors?
Nuclear reactors are the most complex and expensive way known to humanity to boil water. If they made economic sense, people with money would be falling over themselves to invest capital for their construction. Everyone from bond rating agencies to Warren Buffett to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is less-than-enthusiastic about anyone’s ability to turn a profit off of new nuclear construction. The CBO estimates that the chances of a new nuclear project defaulting are about fifty-fifty. (I’m tempted to say something here about the divorce rate.) That’s why the Department of Energy (DOE) is dangling taxpayer dollars as loan guarantees for new reactors. (And the loans seem to be an exception to Tea Party objections to government involvement in private business.)
There’s nothing new about the fact that nuclear power plants can’t survive without government assistance. The Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act, passed in 1957 and renewed a number of times in the last fifty years, protects owners from much of the liability that would occur if there were a catastrophic accident at a commercial nuclear reactor. In effect, the owners take advantage of a government-run insurance system. (Isn’t that another thing that folks on the Right are supposed to be against?)
I shouldn’t have to tell anyone in Austin about nuclear power plants having a history of being behind schedule and over budget, but, if you missed the first thirty years of the saga of the STNP, San Antonio’s experience with the expansion of is instructive. San Antonio was poised for a major buy-in to the new reactors, and wound up suing NRG after the cost estimates for the project rose to $18 billion. What the figure will eventually be is anybody’s guess, but it will definitely be north of $20 billion.
That CBO estimate about the chances of default, incidentally, included an assumption that new units would only cost about $2.5 million each. Sure, that’s 2003 dollars, but costs for everything from concrete and rebar to fuel for construction machinery make it unlikely that new plants will ever be built for what the CBO estimated them to cost.
Proponents of the Nuclear Renaissance (nobody should be allowed to use that phrase unless they can, without prompting, spell Renaissance) make a big deal of the safety of new reactor designs. That’s because they don’t want to be associated in any way with Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or any of the other uh-oh’s that have plagued the nuclear industry. (If you ever want to be truly frightened by nuclear power, Google “SL-1.” On January 3, 1961, three people were killed in an accident at the Stationary Low-Power Plant Number 1 in Idaho. It’s the reason the nuke industry now says: “No one has ever been killed in the commercial operation of nuclear power….” Of course, after Chernobyl, they had to add: “… in the United States.”
Let’s talk about those improvements in design for a minute. The reactors planned for South Texas are a new design, and are called Advanced Boiling Water Reactors (ABWRs.) (Advanced is one of those words you need to watch out for. In a toothpaste ad, we’d take the word Advanced with a grain of salt. Truth be told, I’d put more faith in the toothpaste industry than the nuclear industry. The Food and Drug Administration at least does safety and efficacy testing for new toothpaste.)
The flip side of the nuclear industry distancing itself from old reactor designs is two-fold. First, it means that the new reactors have only a limited safety record, and secondly, it makes the industry’s attempts to extend the life of their old plants look a little hypocritical. South Texas Nuclear, for example, has applied for a license extension for its two twenty-year-old reactors, at the same time it seeks approval for two new ABWR reactors, which it says are much safer than, say, those twenty-year-old reactors.
This week, a Japanese power company, Chigoku, announced further delays to its Shimane 3 reactor, an almost complete ABWR. World Nuclear News reported yesterday:
Chugoku has now said that it discovered in late November 2010 that it could not smoothly insert the control rods into the reactor. A subsequent inspection found that there was distortion in the driving screws in some of the control rod drives (CRDs). It was found that 18 out of a total 205 CRDs had the fault.
Chugoku is now planning to remove all the CRDs from its new reactor and return them to the manufacturer, GE Hitachi (GEH). GEH is also providing parts and is a part-owner of the expansion project at STNP.
As a result of the CRD problem, the opening of Shimane 3 has been pushed back to March 2012. This is an important point to keep in mind, since NRG has said repeatedly that ABWRs can be counted on to come in on time, once construction starts.
Finally, there’s the problem of what to do with the waste from nuclear power plants. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the lobbying voice of the nuclear industry, has a Fact Sheet spelling out when the nation’s nuclear reactors will run out of room to store spent nuclear fuel. (See it at: http://www.nei.org/resourcesandstats/documentlibrary/nuclearwastedisposal/factsheet/statusofusednuclearfuelstorage?print=true
According to the NEI, 75 of the 104 operating nuclear reactors in this country have already exceeded their capacity to store spent nuclear fuel on site. In Texas, we are rapidly running out of room to store spent fuel. Comanche Peak will run out of space in 2017, and the South Texas Nuclear Project will run out of space in 2026.
Pardon the disgusting analogy, but asking to build additional nukes when we don’t have any idea where to store the waste is like buying a home without a plumbing, and hoping that we’ll think of something before the buckets fill up.
NRG has set a deadline of June for the Austin City Council to accept its offer to sell us power from the proposed reactos, and take the Fayette Coal Plant off our hands. (Before he was a councilmember, Daryl Slusher had a list of ways to tell if a proposal was a boondoggle. One of them was: “There’s a deadline set by out-of-town investors.) That’s enough time to tell the Council that Austin’s opinion of the viability of nuclear power hasn’t changed.