The trouble with nuclear power

Q & A | published in Real Change on Mar. 23rd, 2011
Interview with: Tom Carpenter

With the nuclear crisis in Japan weighing on people’s minds, activist Tom Carpenter talks about how nuclear energy works — and what happens when it fails


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It all happened so fast.

First, the earthquake: a 9.0-magnitude temblor fewer than 100 miles off the coast of Japan. Next, the tsunami: a giant wall of water that crashed into the eastern coast of Japan, pushing ships on to land, pulling houses from their foundations and claiming countless lives. And then trouble at two nuclear reactors: the Fukushima Daini plant in northeastern Japan, then the Fukushima Daiichi plant reported failures, following the double impact of the March 11 disasters.

No one could be certain at first what kind of failures had occurred at the nuclear plants and of what magnitude. But as an explosion occurred at the Daiichi plant, then another explosion, then a fire in the ensuing days, gradually it began to dawn on people: We were dealing with a nuclear crisis. But how severe? And what did it mean?

Tom Carpenter has special insight, if not easy answers, to these questions. Now executive director of Seattle-based nonprofit the Hanford Challenge, he has been tracking the impacts of nuclear power plants for decades. His education in all things nuclear began in the late 70s, when Carpenter was in his 20s, with news that a nuclear plant was scheduled to be built outside of Cincinnati, where he lived at the time. He and others discovered problems with the proposed plant and successfully prevented it from opening. After obtaining a law degree, he worked for the Nuclear Oversight Campaign, a watchdog group, for almost 22 years. That position drew him with increasing frequency to issues at the country’s most radioactive location, the 586-sq.-mile Hanford Site, a largely decommissioned nuclear facility that sits near the confluence of the Columbia, Yakima and Snake Rivers in Washington State. Feeling the issues there to be critical, he decided to focus on the site full-time. He founded Hanford Challenge in 2007.

The idea to ask Carpenter to offer his perspective on the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant arose out of proximity: Hanford Challenge’s office sits one floor below Real Change’s editorial office. Like any gracious neighbor, he agreed to talk without a moment’s hesitation. Seated in his well-lit, plant-friendly office, Carpenter explained the finer points of nuclear activity, spoke of the particular events at the Daiichi plant and projected what might happen if an earthquake ever hit Hanford.

At its most basic level, what is a nuclear reactor?

It’s a device to boil water, using radioactive materials. It makes steam to turn a turbine, just like a dam. A turbine is turned to generate electricity.

A nuclear plant is the same principle, except they make the heat by taking uranium and putting that through a fissioning process and that generates heat. Unfortunately, that also generates dangerous byproducts like radioactive waste. But the heat, that’s the point of a nuclear plant: to make heat to turn turbines to make electricity.

And what is fission?

It’s a process where certain radioactive elements — in this case, uranium, element 235 — react with each other and cause other radioactive elements to break apart. So uranium-235 is a special radioactive isotope, that when it’s in the vicinity of other uranium-235 atoms, interact and split apart and that process of splitting apart is called fission. That process releases energy and one of the kinds of energy it releases is heat. Now, if you release a lot of energy all at once from uranium-235, then that makes a big nuclear explosion. That’s an atomic bomb.

Another radioactive element is plutonium. Plutonium doesn’t naturally occur on the planet. It comes from the fissioning of uranium-235. Then you have plutonium-239 and plutonium-239 is even more efficient at fissioning than uranium-235, so most of our nuclear weapons are plutonium weapons. That was the Nagasaki bomb, for instance. Our nuclear arsenal is plutonium fuel.

But nuclear reactors are mostly uranium reactors, because we don’t want the big release of energy from plutonium. We want the slower release of energy from uranium. [Pause.] Complicated. Complicated, but helpful.

So what does a reactor core look like and how big is it?

A reactor core is not that large, physically. It’s a room encased in a steel tank. So imagine a great, big steel tank and in that tank are positioned long rods or tubes and in those tubes, you’ve got uranium pellets. In between the rods, you have control rods, which are not uranium, but are made of material that absorbs neutrons, which is what happens when fissioning occurs.

So in order to start a nuclear reaction, really all you’re doing is lifting out the control rods and it lets the neutron interaction happen. So that, again, generates heat, the uranium reacts and, over time, the uranium transmutes to plutonium and cesium and a lot of other byproducts.

The process, because it generates so much heat, has to be cooled with water all the time. The water itself has to be cooled, so it’s refrigerated water that spends a very short amount of time washing over the fuel and they re-circulate [that] out, cool that water, then put it back in. So there’s a continuous loop of cooling water to make sure the reaction doesn’t get too hot. Already it’s at 1,500 degrees (F) or more, so it’s very, very hot.

If it’s allowed to run away with no cooling, then it gets so hot that it melts through anything that it’s in. So it melts through the steel core that’s surrounding it and will generate more heat and steam, and can actually result in an explosion, which can’t be contained. And that explosion then causes atmospheric dispersion of radioactive materials into our environment. That’s a bad thing.

What did you first think when you heard that Japan was dealing with a nuclear crisis because of the earthquake and tsunami?

I knew it was bad because under normal conditions, nuclear reactors are fairly stable but complicated machines. When things get wonky in the operation and you start losing your ability to know what’s going on in the reactor core, and water doesn’t get into the fuel rods on time, then the whole process becomes very unstable very quickly. You could do things that seem like the right thing to do that turn out to be the wrong thing to do.

That’s what happened, for instance, at Three Mile Island, where they were doing this whole series of things they thought were right, except they were getting the wrong signals from their instruments in some cases. They may have made bad judgment calls in other cases, but in every case, they thought they were doing the right thing. And they got caught and there was a big core melt.

Well, when an earthquake happens, and then a tsunami, then everything gets upset. This is what happened in Japan. Their back-up generators were wiped out, which is what they relied on to send the cooled water through the reactor loop, and their instruments were thrown out of whack, so they weren’t sure what was happening to the reactor; they lost the power to run the instruments and a lot of their valves and pipes were damaged, because of the earthquake and because of the tsunami. So therefore their ability to control the reactors became a problem. So my first reaction was, ‘It’s trouble.’

And it’s been worse trouble than we ever imagined and we’re hoping that it doesn’t get worse, but it can. It can be a meltdown accident, where the contents of a reactor core are released to the environment. And if that were to happen, it could make access to the other reactors, which are in close proximity — and there are six reactors in this complex — very hard to maintain. In other words: It’s going to be hard to be there, it’s going to be hard to stay in that environment, it’s so radioactive.

So we’ve got three partial melts, and they’re just barely keeping on top of it, desperately pumping sea water into those cores. And there’s another facet of this called the spent nuclear fuel pools, which I’ll talk about in a second. But if they’re not on top of it, to maintain what’s happening, even their desperation measures, then you can have multiple core accidents. And that could wipe out a large portion of Japan and there would be radioactive gases and particles washing over the West Coast of the United States, moving onward. So we’re all hoping very much that’s not going to happen.

You just mentioned spent nuclear fuel pools.

Remember the uranium rods in the reactor? After a certain period of time, say, two to three years, you’ve used up uranium. There’s a lot of contaminants that have built up. So the fuel is removed and fresh nuclear fuel is loaded into the reactor. Well, you still have this spent fuel that’s hot and full of radioactivity and they put those in this specially designed pool. They look like Olympic-sized swimming pools. The water is refrigerated and constantly circulated.

Now, think about this: There is no place to put spent nuclear fuel on the planet. There is no repository in operation on the planet anywhere, even though we have hundreds of nuclear power plants going. So all of it is being stored on site, with various projects in play to eventually dispose of nuclear waste spent fuel rods.

So this plant in Japan, it’s been in operation for forty years. So you’ve got, what, eight iterations of nuclear fuel rods in this spent fuel pool? So a large inventory of elements like cesium-137 and strontium-90 that [stay] around for three hundred years and they’re incredibly toxic: Even microscopic particles can be a lethal dose.

So we hear about the reactors and they’re in these steel cores. They’re very thick steel and they’re designed to withstand all kinds of trouble, including earthquakes. And in fact these reactor cores survived a 9.0 earthquake, which is impressive. Except now it’s going through all this instability and at some point, it may not survive.

But the spent fuel pools, in contrast, are not behind any containment. In fact, they’re on the upper floors of the buildings that we’ve all seen the videos of these explosions. That’s where the spent fuel pools were. Now, obviously the pools didn’t go up or there would be massive amounts of radiation spread all over the place and you couldn’t hide it: You’d have to run like hell.

Are you concerned about what’s going on?

Very. This is a life-changing event. This is a world-changing event. And if the worst happens, the planet won’t be the same afterward, depending on how bad it gets. The Japanese government, the utilities, are not helping matters. One Japanese reactor designer went on TV [Sun., March 14] and said, “They don’t know what they’re doing. They’re desperate, they’re lying, they’re covering things up.” He’s designed these plants and he’s very, very nervous about where things are heading. So this is a really bad situation and the effects probably won’t be confined to that country. Russia is probably the closest country that’s going to get it in the face. But winds travel across the ocean, over Hawaii and over the West Coast. And so there is a concern about that.

Having said all that, of course, people are working furiously to contain the meltdowns and cool those reactors. If they continue to do that, eventually, the reactors will cool off enough that the threat or concern will go away, although it will still be venting mildly radioactive gases for weeks or even months to come. So there will be radiation releases, but nothing as bad as a core melt. So yeah, I’m a little concerned.

How long is it going to take for us to know the extent?

Well, we’ll know pretty quick if there’s a core meltdown and explosion. It won’t be a secret. Clearly, it’s not happened yet, although the true extent of radiological releases is not yet known that have happened so far. Again, we’re praying that it does not go the Full Monty and release it all. That would just be an incredibly bad event.

You know, Chernobyl happened in a relatively isolated part of the Ukraine. It happened sixty miles from Kiev — not good for Kiev, big city in Ukraine — but as far as Europe was concerned, it was hit pretty hard by radiological releases. Seattle was hit. I mean, the radiation traveled around the world several times from that one event. That was a big fire and explosion. It was as bad as it gets. We’re looking at the possibility of several reactor meltdowns happening, in a very, very populated country: Japan. So it’s hard to overstate the magnitude of this event. They have to get control of these reactors. They don’t have a choice. And if they don’t, again, it’s going to be world-changing.

Let’s talk about Hanford for a moment. How prepared are we, at Hanford, for a natural disaster, an earthquake?

So Hanford itself is a former nuclear weapons center and it had nine nuclear reactors that operated for about forty-five years. It made enough plutonium to fuel some fifty thousand nuclear warheads. Those reactors are all shut down and have been for some time. There’s no fuel left in the reactors, there’s no threat from those reactors. They’re just radioactive hulks sitting by the side of the river.

There is, however, on the Hanford site, all the high-level nuclear waste and low-level nuclear waste left over from those operations. In fact, Hanford has the largest inventory of high-level nuclear waste in the United States: two-thirds of it. I’ll say it even more dramatically: It is the most toxic and radioactive site in the United States and among the top five in the entire world.

I would like to tell you that all of that is nicely secured and we’re all safe from it, when in fact, the great bulk of this stuff is stored in old, leaky underground nuclear waste tanks. There’s about a 107 of these tanks. There’s a total of about 53 million gallons of nuclear waste in these tanks. A third of these tanks have already cracked and leaked. A million gallons is estimated to be in the soil beneath the tanks and some of it is in the groundwater below those tanks.

If there is an earthquake as bad as what happened in Japan, which is now rated as 9.0 on the Richter scale, nothing is ready for that in the Northwest. No one builds something to withstand a 9.0 earthquake. The dams could go, and if that happens, Hanford is downstream of those dams and it would be inundated: 15, 20, 30 feet underwater. Whatever is underwater like that is soon mobilized in a big flood and that gets carried away, and when the flood waters go down, you’ve got all of Hanford’s inventory sitting on Washington’s soil over hundreds of square miles. There’s such a thing as wind, and it blows it around and… Anyway. It would be a bad thing. Let’s say that that shouldn’t happen.

There’s also a commercial nuclear plant on the site of Hanford. It’s not considered formally a part of Hanford. The government leases this land to a company called Energy Northwest. Energy Northwest has a boiling-water reactor plant, which is the kind that is in Japan, sitting on the shore of the Columbia. It’s been operating for thirty-plus years, and it’s one of the most unsafe reactors in the country. The reactor has the same spent fuel problem that the Japanese reactor had, which is the pool is above ground, as opposed to below ground, which is where it should be. Therefore it’s in a building and it’s not behind containment.

So, what can they do about that? Well, actually, activists like me have been calling for them to empty those spent fuel pools of the spent fuel rods that they can, because after several years, they cool down enough that you can take them out of the pool, put them in what’s called dry cask storage, and put them in great big steel tubes and put them in bunkers. That way they’re not subject to high winds, volcanoes, earthquakes, terrorist acts. They don’t want to do that. Why? For the obvious reason: It’s expensive. So that’s a little run down of risks at Hanford: the commercial reactor and of course, the big ticket item, those high-level waste nuclear tanks.

What can people do? I can’t do anything about what’s going on in Japan, can I?

No, not necessarily. But you can do something about what’s going on around here.

Right now the U.S. Congress in its budget has $54 billion of tax breaks and loan guarantees for the nuclear industry to build a slew of new nuclear plants. Instead of utilities and banks taking the risks to build these plants themselves, Congress is saying we’ll give you 100 percent loan guarantees. Now think about that: If you invest in one of these new plants, it doesn’t matter what happens to your money or the plant. If it never opens, the U.S. taxpayer will give you all your money back, so it’s a no-risk proposition. So this is where our money is going.

Now most of the money in the Department of Energy, so-called, actually goes toward nuclear weapons. But the money that does go to energy goes to nuclear. Conservation is getting some money, and solar and wind are getting pitiful amounts of money compared to the nuclear program. This is under our new president who said that he wanted to get us off dangerous and wasteful technologies. The best you can say about what’s happened is that they’ve lost all their nuclear generating capacity in Japan, which was a significant amount of their energy. And they’ve irradiated a number of people already. So even if they get everything under control, it’s not a good experience for them. Now why should we want to wish that on ourselves, when we’ve got all this other great potential, with solar, wind and conservation?

Now as far as Hanford, there are particular things we’re asking the facility to do. One is take the spent fuel out of the spent fuel pools when they can, dry cask it and put that in a bunker. Secondly, do an earthquake readiness for all those facilities out there. Get the waste out of those leaky plants and put them in new plants and speed up the effort to make sure that we have a safe and reliable treatment system for that nuclear waste. It’s a big job, it’s going to take years and years. We don’t necessarily have the time or the luxury to diddle around and hope that we come up with a solution. We’ve got to do something right away.


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