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    No Country for Old Reactors

    Written by

    Alex Pasternack

    All gadgets get obsolete, but not all old gadgets are as dangerous as an old nuclear reactor. The costs of nuclear upgrades are huge however, but are they bigger than the costs of an accident? According to U.S. law, that’s for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to decide, through a process of review and relicensing that is increasingly coming under suspicion. The NRC, many point out, has deep ties to the industry; hence the many questions that linger about the safety of reactors. Even those that have undergone upgrades have been susceptible to problems: a new investigation into problems at a recently idled twin-reactor plant between Los Angeles and San Diego found that pipes were so badly corroded that they could fail and possibly release radiation.

    The Fukushima reactor accident did lead to a re-review of reactors in the US, and led NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko to vote against the approval of two new AP-1000 reactors designed with passive safety features (they rely on gravity, not electricity, in the event of an accident). But after a safety review, the reactors should be up and operating in Georgia by 2016, making them the first new nuclear reactors to be approved in the US in 34 years. They will join 104 older reactors – half of them over 30 years old – whose age and sometimes fraught locations pose a slew of outside safety risks, as pointed out by a documentary recently released by Al Jazeera, above. The video is tinged with alarmism, but along with the Frontline film Nuclear Aftershocks, also gives some hard examples of what precisely there is to be worried about.

    In 2007, a cooling tower collapsed at the 40-year-old Vermont Yankee nuclear facility, gaining notoriety when an employee distributed a photo to the news media. The plant suffered another electrical failure yesterday.

    Concerns about the intimacy of regulators and the nuclear industry has also stirred the fears of Japanese nuclear critics even before Fukushima. New steps are being taken by the Japanese government to undo any conflict of interest, but even after the government decided to take all of the country’s reactors offline last year, the influence of the nuclear industry in Japan is still strong. And so is the need for energy. That’s why, over public protests and a seven million-strong signature campaign, Japan turned back on two of its reactors yesterday.

    Japan closed its nuclear reactors and then re-opened them

    In the U.S., there are over 100 reactors like those, many of them over 40 years old. “The time is now to begin to deploy new nucleas,” David Christian, CEO of Virginia-based utility Dominion Generation, told Scientific American recently, even though his company has no plans to develop new designs before the end of the decade. And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as one commissioner told me last year, is not yet prepared to begin reviewing new designs. (The NRC has internal troubles too: in a hearing last year, Jaczko was accused of usurping his authority, keeping key information from other commissioners, and bullying commission staff.)

    The stakes here don’t just involve safety but also competitiveness with India and China, who are both building new kinds of reactors to meet fast growing demand; they’re even exploring thorium as a nuclear fuel in innovative reactors. Of course, whether investing in new nuclear at all is a good idea depends largely on what the alternatives are; renewables are promising but aren’t yet capable of supplying enough baseload power. And from strictly an air quality and climate perspective, a new nuclear reactor looks better than a new coal plant, or even a new natural gas plant.

    None of that would matter if an old reactor met the force of an earthquake, or, as almost happened last year at an already troubled reactor in Nebraska, a fire and a flood. The plant, which had been relicensed in 2006, is closed now but scheduled to reopen once it passes the NRC’s mandatory safety upgrades. Until then, the utility that owns it will be buying cheap coal power.

    See a map of “at risk” U.S. nuclear reactors.


    Photo illustration by Bethrezen.