Nuclear Newsreel, Monday, March 17, 2014

Nearly 30 years later, radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear accident continues to plague life in the region.

Nearly 30 years later, radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear accident continues to plague life in the region.

Some days I really wish this global warming stuff would hurry up and happen…ok, just a lame  joke but really, it’s another snow day here in Washington, DC–in mid-March!–our tulips are halfway up already; the government is closed and so are the schools and the little ones are running around the house demanding to be fed and entertained for about the 7th weekday this winter….it’s just not the easiest way to keep up with the news…..

It’s well known that the Chernobyl nuclear accident has greatly affected all kinds of life in the region, which encompasses northern Ukraine and southern Belarus. As a new article from Smithsonian Magazine puts it, “Birds around Chernobyl have significantly smaller brains that those living in non-radiation poisoned areas; trees there grow slower; and fewer spiders and insects—including bees, butterflies and grasshoppers—live there. Additionally, game animals such as wild boar caught outside of the exclusion zone—including some bagged as far away as Germany—continue to show abnormal and dangerous levels of radiation.”

Now, a new study by University of South Carolina biologist Timothy Mousseau finds that the forests around Chernobyl are not decaying properly. The microbes, fungi and insects that normally aid in the decay of organic matter–for example, leaves and dead tree branches, have been affected by the continued contamination in the region, and just aren’t doing their job. The article concludes with a warning from Mousseau that the lack of decay could lead to forest fires that could release catastrophic levels of radiation still contained in the organic matter. Having personally witnessed such a forest fire during a visit to Chernobyl in 1996, I can assure you this is a very real problem.

*The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has released its final decision on replacement power for the shuttered San Onofre reactors but there doesn’t seem to be much agreement on its implications.

On EcoWatch today, Sierra Martinez of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) hails the decision as a “major and symbolic step…to rely significantly on energy efficiency and other clean energy resources” to replace San Onofre. Martinez says the plan uses “efficiency and other “preferred resources”—those resources with lower environmental impacts—like demand response (ways customers can consume less energy at key times during the day) and renewable energy such as wind and solar, as well as some upgrades to the electric system, to replace the vast majority of the lost SONGS generation.”

Not so fast, says this article by Jeff St. John on GreenTech, which starts: “It’s official: the long-range plan to replace 2,200 megawatts of shuttered Southern California nuclear power will include new natural gas-fired power plants, as well as a hefty share of green alternatives.” While Martinez played down the possibility of new natural gas as a replacement power option, the decision requires only 575 MW of the 1500 MW of new generation allowed under the order to be from those “preferred resources.” Anywhere from 300-900 MW could come from “any source” procurement and Southern California Edison is on record as saying that it “is not aware of a preferred resource ever prevailing against a conventional resource in an all-source RFO [request for offer].” That would mean, from their perspective, more natural gas. The Sierra Club held a protest at SCE offices last Monday against possible new natural gas plants in the region.

Adam Browning of the Vote Solar Initiative said the CPUC order underestimated how fast new energy efficiency measures, solar power, energy storage and other advanced technologies could be implemented in California, and thus gave those technologies an insufficient share of the replacement power.

While the shutdown of San Onofre certainly eliminates the possibility of new radioactive pollution from reactor operation, it so far hasn’t ensured that clean energy will be the replacement. That larger goal will need continued effort.

The Calvert Cliffs MD nuclear reactors. Photo, NRC.

The Calvert Cliffs MD nuclear reactors. Photo, NRC.

*The NRC will not charge Constellation Energy with any violations as a result of the sudden shutdowns of both Calvert Cliffs, MD reactors during a snow and ice storm in January. That may let Constellation off the hook for fines, but it doesn’t solve the larger problem. As NIRS’ Tim Judson pointed out, “But if we can take NRC at their word, it sounds like Calvert Cliffs really isn’t the ‘reliable, full-time’ power source Constellation likes to say it is,” he said. “This outage came during a really cold winter right before the polar vortex, and the shutdown caused a large spike in natural gas and electricity prices, which really hurt consumers.”

*Our partners at WISE International in Amsterdam have released a major new report on nuclear security issues in conjunction with a conference next weekend expected to bring 50 heads of state to The Netherlands to discuss that topic. WISE says the talks are focusing on “the wrong agenda”: “end-of-pipe-solutions; more protection, repression and military-type of protective measures to prevent further proliferation of radioactive materials into the hands of-mainly-terrorists.” Instead, the world should be addressing issues including the “origin and availability of fissile materials and of highly radioactive materials, potential terrorist actions with nuclear explosives; security and civilian nuclear power issues,  and nuclear security and economics.” The full report, Nuclear Security: In Cauda Venenum can be downloaded here.

*The Department of Energy has concluded that the truck fire that shut down the WIPP transuranic radioactive waste plant in February was “preventable.” The root cause of the event “was the failure of the current and previous contractors running the site to ‘adequately recognize and mitigate the hazard regarding a fire in the underground'”. The report said trucks used at the site were inadequately maintained nor “cleaned often enough to prevent the build-up of combustible materials,” according to this article from the BBC. The report added that “…a number of safety systems and processes failed….Emergency strobe lights were not activated for five minutes and not all workers heard the evacuation announcement. One worker also switched the air system from normal to filtration mode, which sent smoke billowing through the tunnels.” The report apparently did not address whether there is any connection between the truck fire and the latter release of radiation, including plutonium, from WIPP a couple weeks later that continues to keep the site closed.

*Speaking of fires, a “small” fire forced the shutdown of Unit 2 of Electricite de France’s (EDF) Hartlepool nuclear station in the UK over the weekend. Investigations continue, but one “possible cause of the fire was excess oil on the pipework from maintenance which has overheated.”

Michael Mariotte

March 17, 2014


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