Announcements of US nuclear power plant permanent shutdowns in 2013 came seemingly in a flurry.
Crystal River in Florida on February 13. Kewaunee in Wisconsin on May 4. San Onofre in Southern California on June 13. And Vermont Yankee in the Green Mountain State on August 27.
Together this comprises five nuclear reactors with an electrical generating capacity of nearly 4300 Megawatts.
Yet the lights haven’t gone out, or even dimmed, in any of the communities these plants served.
The causes of these nuclear plant closures are multiple. Ultimately, however, they all add up to an industry in decline, desperate to squeeze as much profit as it can out of aging, increasingly dangerous nuclear plants.
Cracks, Competition, Totaled Tubes and Radioactive Lakes
The Crystal River nuclear plant’s operating life goes all the way back to 1969, making it one of the oldest in the nation. Situated on the river whose name it bears, this nuke is 70 miles north of Tampa.
In 2009 then owner Progress Energy decided it could save $1.5 million by undertaking installment of two new steam generators into Crystal River’s containment building.
Steam generators are key major components in nuclear power plants, about which we’ll hear more later, in the case of San Onofre. Containment buildings house nuclear reactors, and are designed to keep radiation out of the environment.
No utility had ever carried out a steam generator replacement project on its own before. During work on the project, probably because of Progress mandated cost cutting measures, a big crack appeared in the containment building.
That crack was fixed, but others followed. They in turn were repaired, but still more developed.
A restart date was set, and Duke Energy, which had bought up Progress and assumed responsibility for the repairs and steam generator project, spent $336 million to get Crystal River going again.
But last February Duke let it be known that it was retiring the old nuke plant, which had never run again after its 2009 shutdown.
On October 10 last year, in the Tampa Bay Times, former US Nuclear Regulatory Commission chief Gregory Jackzo said:
“That’s a multi-billion asset that had to be shut down because of improper work planning, improper understanding of how to do a containment retrofit.”
The Kewaunee nuclear plant is a 556 Megawatt facility situated on Lake Michigan in Wisconsin that ran for 40 years. It’s about 35 miles southeast of Green Bay.
During its operating life Kewaunee had multiple owners, ending up in the hands of Dominion Resources of Richmond, Virginia.
Towards the end of 2012 Dominion announced that it would be shutting the plant in 2013, and on May 7 the following year it did.
The reason: Kewaunee simply couldn’t compete with the cheaper prices of natural gas generated electricity, and so Dominion cut it loose.
Kewaunee was one of a number of aging nuclear plants that were bought up on the cheap (as nuke plants go) earlier in this century by nuclear utilities looking to squeeze every last penny out of them.
But when nuclear plants shut down, that’s not the end of the story. Remaining on site is lots of high level radioactive waste, in the form of “spent” nuclear fuel rods. Its radioactive life can stretch into millennia. And at this point, there’s pretty much no other place to put this very hot stuff.
And the potential dangers of transporting the radwaste have led it to be dubbed a“ Mobile Chernobyl.”
In Kewaunee’s case, according to the May 7, 2013 New York Times, workers will “move the fuel out of the reactor into the spent fuel pool.” Unfortunately such pools are vulnerable to catastrophic accidents and/or attacks. The water must be constantly cooled or it will boil off , and the fuel rods will melt down, releasing massive amounts of radiation.
Dominion’s fact sheet on Kewaunee states:
“The translation of Kewaunee is uncertain, but it is commonly believed to be a Native American word meaning ‘river of the lost.’ “
Perhaps the Big Enchilda in this story is how the permanent shutdown of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station came to be.
Sitting between Interstate 5 and the Pacific Ocean, above a beach famous for its surfing (and mentioned in the Beach Boys song “Surfin’ USA), two reactors comprising 2200 Megawatts of electricity generating power were capable of providing juice to 1.5 million Southern California households.
Over eight million people live within 50 miles of these nukes. They’d been operating since the mid ‘80s. Another reactor ran there from 1969 to 1992.
During its operating life San Onofre certainly had its share of problems. Unit 1’s early retirement was due to “fears it couldn’t withstand a major earthquake,” according to San Diego’s Channel 10 News.
In 2006, 14 years after Unit 1’s closure, workers found radioactive water underneath it 16 times higher than EPA levels allowed in drinking water. In 2008 the Los Angeles Time reported, “Injury rates at San Onofre put it dead last among US nuclear plants when it comes to industrial safety.”
Later that year it emerged that a battery system key to providing backup power to a major safety system in Unit 2 had been inoperable from 2004-8,
And in 2008, a report in the European Journal of Cancer Care stated that the counties nearest San Onofre had the highest child leukemia mortality rates of counties near nuclear plants during the years 1974-2004.
Concerns about all these issues intensified after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant in March 2011. San Onofre too lies in an area vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis.
Then, in January 2012, Unit 3 released radiation into the environment because of a defective tube in its steam generator. Southern California Edison, the nuke plant’s principal owner, had spent $680 million in 2009 and 2010 to replace the four steam generators in units 2 and 3.
Subsequent investigations found that well over 3000 tubes, which were supposed to last for decades, had turned to junk in a couple years.
Further investigations found that Edison and its contractor, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, had changed the design of the steam generators, which in turn had caused vibrations that had wrecked the tubes.
Over a year went by. No blackouts or brownouts occurred. Edison was forced to spend millions for repairs and replacement power each month. But it remained steadfast in its determination to restart the reactors.
In February 2013 CA Senator Barbara Boxer and MA Rep Ed Markey released a letter reading, in part, “Southern California Edison and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries were aware of a series of problems with the design of San Onofre nuclear plant’s steam generators before they were installed. Further, SCE and MHI rejected enhanced safety modification and avoided triggering a more rigorous license enhancement and safety review process.”
Public opposition to restart mounted. Protesters marched on the plant. Local communities successfully urged their school boards and other municipal bodies to reject restart. Perhaps most notably in this respect, in late April the Los Angeles City Council voted 11-0 requesting that the NRC delay giving Edison permission to restart San Onofre until it could guarantee its safe operation.
Undeterred, Edison pressed ahead for a June restart of Unit.2.
But after the NRC granted environmental group Friends of the Earth’s request for a more vigorous safety review, Southern California Edison threw in the towel and announced the permanent shutdown of San Onofre on June 7.
If San Onofre was the Big Enchilada of 2013 nuke plant closures, Vermont Yankee was the Big Cheese, presumably sharp cheddar.
This 620 Megawatt reactor, situated on the Connecticut River in southern Vermont, started up in 1972.
It had the misfortune to be located in a hotbed of antinuclear resistance, within striking distance of the Clamshell Alliance, organized to stop the opening of the Seabrook nuclear plant on coastal New Hampshire.
That struggle has yet to prevail, but many members took root in Vermont while VY was operating. I participated at a protest at the plant in 1998. Right across the road from it is an elementary school.
In 2002 Entergy Co. of New Orleans bought Vermont Yankee for the fire sale price of $180 million. As part of this deal, Entergy agreed that the state would have to approve a 20 year extension of VY’s operating license, which would expire in 2012.
Entergy began taking aggressive measures to squeeze more profit out of the old reactor. For example, it instituted an “uprate.” This means it reconfigured the plant to run at a higher capacity than it was designed to. Obviously this would put more stress on the aging plant’s components. Critics charged it was an unsafe practice.
Coincidently or not, one of Vermont Yankee’s cooling towers subsequently collapsed, in 2007.
In early 2010 tests revealed that, as at San Onofre, there was tritium, radioactive hydrogen, in groundwater under Vermont Yankee. Entergy initially claimed the tritium couldn’t have come from Vermont Yankee.
But soon thereafter the public learned that the contamination had indeed originated from VY underground pipes. The leaks kept worsening, until a virtual radioactive lake accumulated under the plant, and then was found to be emptying into the Connecticut River.
Anger at Entergy’s leaks and lies surged through the state. In February 2010 the Vermont Senate voted 26-4 to close down VY.
Entergy refused to yield, and continued to pursue a 20 year license extension.
In March 2011, days after the Fukushima meltdown, the NRC granted Entergy’s request for that license extension. Hundreds occupied the plant grounds in protest.
As part of the VY purchase deal in 2002, Vermont’s Public Service Board was required to issue a certificate of public safety to VY in order for it to continue to operate. The board refused to do so.
Entergy filed suit in federal court, asserting that the federal, not state government had authority in the matter. The judge issued a ruling siding with Entergy, saying the NRC held the trump card in this high stakes game.
In response over a thousand people marched on Entergy’s nearby headquarters in Brattleboro, VT. Well over a hundred people were arrested.
Nevertheless Entergy kept running Vermont Yankee, whose operating license, at least in Vermont’s view, had expired by this time.
But ultimately Entergy realized that doing so wasn’t worth all this trouble, and, more importantly to them, there wasn’t really that much money to be made off VY anymore. So on August 27 of last year Entergy let the world know that as of the end of 2014 Vermont Yankee would run no more.
Entergy Chairman and CEO Leo Denault said:
“This was an agonizing decision and extremely tough call for us.”
In the meantime, Peter Shumlin, who in 2010 as president of the state senate had led the vote to shut down Vermont Yankee, has become Governor Shumlin, and is leading shutdown negotiations with Entergy.
Back in 2010, after Entergy’s leaks and lies surfaced, Shumlin said, ”Tritium right now is leaking into the Connecticut River and floating towards Massachusetts. And the time is well past when we can pretend we have a new, modern nuclear plant sitting on the banks of Connecticut River. We don’t. It was designed to be shut in 2012. We should land this airplane on time.”
That arrival is going to be a few years late. And it’s still unclear if Entergy will come up with the money to dismantle the plant, or what will become of all the spent fuel.
But what is clear is that, in 2013, a new, and hopefully final, chapter opened in the history of nuclear power in the US.