Op-Ed: Nuclear must walk the environmental walk, not just talk the talk

Do we turn a blind eye to nuclear accountability by our silence on its environmental challenges, while passively accepting the benefits of its carbon-free nature?
Fred Fastiggi

I have worked with more than a few graduates of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, and at times when my rhetoric may have conflicted with my actions, they reminded me of the academy motto “Acta Non Verba” which translates from the Latin to “Deeds not Words.”

As the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities gets ready to consider additional nuclear subsidies, it may be a good time to reconsider the benefits of nuclear energy and its effect on our environment.  Specifically, we might want to ask whether the claims for nuclear energy are consistent with professed values, often reflected in the industry’s raison d’être as a champion of environmental and sustainability. Or are nuclear positions merely a cleverly concocted smokescreen from creative public relations folks to attain immediate-term financial goals while diverting attention from more serious issues?

The nuclear industry has skillfully laid the groundwork, seizing the emotional high ground with public statements supporting the gospel of environmentalism and even earning the blessing and concurrence of long-time antagonists.  Phrases like, “sustainability motivates us” and “climate change is real” earnestly season their press releases and investor presentations.  They favor a carbon tax, defending nuclear, the impoverished red-headed stepchild, by pointing out that it is not compensated for avoiding the burden of carbon, nor does it enjoy the subsidies of solar and wind.

No question, carbon-free generation is a worthy goal, yet given the variability of solar and wind, most reasonable energy watchers have reluctantly concluded that nuclear and natural gas generation will be around in the foreseeable future to ensure adequate power when needed.  Nonetheless, playing the environmental card with nuclear can seem a bit sanctimonious.

Nuclear is the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the power-generating world.  Along with the attractiveness of carbon-free generation, nuclear has its dark side, the frightening specter of both horrific accidents along with its deadly waste that will be coexisting with humanity for tens of thousands of years.

Environmental challenges of nuclear energy

In a nuclear reaction the nucleus of an atom breaks into smaller pieces and releases an immense amount of energy.  The process is known as nuclear fission.  Uranium atoms provide the nucleus that is broken apart in nuclear generating plants. To start the chain reactions that produces energy in a nuclear generating station, uranium is bombarded with high-energy neutrons that break into two smaller nuclei while ejecting additional high-energy neutrons that cause more uranium to undergo fission.  This chain reaction produces energy in the form of intense heat without emitting any carbon dioxide.  The heat is then used to heat water, producing steam that rotates a steam turbine, connected to a generator that ultimately produces electricity.

Given the amount of energy (heat) produced by nuclear fission, the core of a nuclear reactor where fission takes place requires cooling.   Components of the core can melt from all the energy released by these reactions if it is not controlled.  If a breach of the containment vessel occurs from melting or other forces, extremely radioactive material dangerous to living creatures is released and can react in damaging ways giving rise to cancer and other deadly effects.

Nuclear reactions also produce a dangerous residual product, the radioactive waste that is composed of unconverted uranium along with other byproducts such as plutonium and curium, which stay radioactive for extremely long periods of time.  This waste needs to be stored until it is relatively harmless, presenting yet another significant environmental challenge.

The mining and processing of nuclear fuel can also present many destructive environmental effects, but the most adverse environmental consequence from nuclear energy comes from radiation produced by fission and the generated waste once the fuel is spent.  Radioactive material remains with us for eons. Sitting in storage casks in concrete containment structures and/or water pools just short distances from major metropolitan areas like Philadelphia and New York, home to millions of people, our current practices with nuclear generators define brinksmanship.

Disasters and unintended consequences

Despite the best of intentions and conscientious practices, nuclear generation has had its share of unfortunate events.  Some of these have been the result of mechanical failure or careless and inadvertent human error like those at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, while others have resulted from the wrath of Mother Nature like Fukushima.

At Three Mile Island, mechanical and electrical failures set off an unanticipated series of events that led to a partial meltdown at one of two reactors there.  Compounding the mechanical problems, plant staff did not realize that the reactor was losing coolant and took actions that made the problem worse, starving the core of water and causing it to overheat.  As hot nuclear fuel began to seep through its containment, almost half of the reactor core melted. Trace amounts of radioactive gas escaped into the surrounding area as a geyser of steam erupted from the reactors.  The melting fuel also created a hydrogen bubble inside the unit that could have caused an explosion releasing huge amounts of radioactive material into the nearby community.

At Chernobyl, while doing routine testing, Ukrainian workers inadvertently shut off the safety system.  The reactor ramped up to one hundred times its normal power, heating the steam in its pressurized system until the reactor exploded through the roof of the building that housed it.  The explosion released radioactive material over miles of Ukrainian countryside.  Thirty workers on site were killed and many others have since died from acute radiation poisoning.  Today the area surrounding Chernobyl remains an uninhabited wasteland.

At Fukushima, nature as opposed to human error presented yet another unanticipated test to nuclear generator preparedness and practices.  In 2011, less than 10 years ago, an earthquake spawned a 40-foot tidal wave that breached the sea wall at Fukushima and flooded everything in its containment buildings, including backup generators, their fail-safe method of powering pumps for water cooling at its four nuclear reactors.  The pump breakdown halted the cooling of the reactors and their spent fuel storage areas.  As pressure-relief valves were overpowered, they released uncontrolled radioactive steam.  Fires erupted, explosions occurred and the leakage of thousands of gallons of contaminated water combined to contribute to an environmental disaster that displaced over 250,000 Japanese citizens.  Deaths from radioactive exposure are still being tallied from this latest of the major nuclear “accidents”.

Fortunately, to date no nuclear events have resulted from the deliberate actions of terrorists, but in the view of many, this remains perhaps the largest, and most potentially uncontrollable, threat.   In an era when cyberterrorism and its old-fashioned counterpart have continued to become more sophisticated, is it beyond reason to believe that a dedicated terrorist, hell-bent on making a statement, will find a way to circumvent security and safety precautions that are currently in place?

Decommissioning — savior or scapegoat?

Closer to home we are faced with the former owner of Oyster Creek selling their interest in the shuttered nuclear generator to a company with virtually no discernable pedigree in successful nuclear decommissioning or the processing, warehousing and transportation of nuclear waste.  Indeed, it appears that there are more questions concerning their performance than accomplishments on their resume.

The decommissioning at Oyster Creek was funded by ratepayers and amounted to almost $1 billion when it was sold, presumably for significantly less than its billion-dollar-fund balance.  Authoritative sources had previously estimated the cost to decommission Oyster Creek at over $1.4 billion. The original decommissioning schedule was to occur over a 60-year period, but the new owners are betting they can decommission the plant faster, and for significantly less than their investment, pocketing the difference.  The quicker they can do this, the more they earn. Of course, if they find they bit off more than they can chew and look like they are on a pathway to failure, they can pack up their wrenches and backhoes and abandon the project, leaving New Jersey ratepayers to fund whatever actions remain to safely complete decommissioning.  Seems like a win-win for both buyer and seller. For the new owner, if the challenges exceed their abilities, they can simply cut and run before depleting their newly acquired billion-dollar decommissioning fund. For the seller, they have unloaded an unpleasant responsibility in a way that’s sadly reminiscent of the actions of a deadbeat dad.

Current questions on nuclear subsidies

The current question before the BPU on subsidies presents a rare opportunity for regulators to exert some leverage considering tangential, but critical, questions on nuclear energy.  Are safety practices sufficient to deter today’s technology-savvy terrorists?  How reliable are their storage processes for spent fuel and what are the long-term plans for its disposal or relocation?  What are the plans for the eventual decommissioning of remaining New Jersey nuclear reactors that combined are almost five times the size of Oyster Creek?  Are we comfortable following the path blazed by Oyster Creek with the potential of a pre-emptive sale if the new owners make their way out of Dodge before the sheriff shows up

Utility holding companies that still have their principal source of earnings coming from the regulated transmission and distribution of power in limited franchise areas have severely limited earnings potential. Operating under a holding-company structure that combines businesses that should be regulated with those that should not, management is pressured into taking greater risks to satisfy a new breed of shareholder, focused on earnings growth rather than safety of principle.  With limited growth potential from regulated operations, hybrid utility holding companies (those having regulated and unregulated operations) pursue strategies that would never have been considered in the past, when an allowed rate of return on regulated assets was sufficient to satisfy traditional risk-averse shareholders.

The sale of nuclear property and ventures into new businesses that are clearly a step out from core capabilities, are examples of hybrid utility strategies aimed at alleviating the natural limitations of a mature service territory, but is this causing us to lose focus on the core mission of a utility?  In brief, that is the provision of safe, reliable and economical electrical power.

Would a better use of ratepayer funds be to assure the provision of improved nuclear safety, security and solutions to the risks presented by spent fuel rather than funding electric-vehicle chargers and efficiency?  First things first.  Operating a nuclear generating plant and improving the reliability of the transmission and distribution grids would seem to present enough potential for reasonable earnings that would satisfy traditional utility shareholders who are looking for safety of their investments and a predictable return, rather than growth.

Do we turn a blind eye to accountability that should rest with nuclear generators by our silence on environmental challenges, while passively accepting the benefits of its carbon-free nature?  Our approach seems a bit suggestive of the writings of Voltaire in his masterpiece Candide. In it he suggests that unfortunate effects like syphilis, which came to Europe courtesy of Columbus’s bawdy sailors, was the price we pay in exchange for luxury goods like chocolate, which would have otherwise never made its way to Europe.

Radiation, nuclear waste and the eventual decommissioning of nuclear generation are elephants in the room that should be considered whenever the future policy on nuclear energy is considered. The rationale for future nuclear subsidies that go for things other than safety and disposal of waste, should be probed a little more deeply, concurrent with the granting of approvals in the sacrosanct name of environmental stewardship and corporate good citizenship.

One of the world’s first environmentalists, Saint Francis of Assisi once said, “preach the gospel and when necessary use words.”  Good advice and not much different from that of my former Kings Point coworkers.