Here’s my report on the June 23 NRC Palisades Review. Sorry it took so long. I had a hard time figuring out what to say. I also apologize for my two mess-ups.
My questions about embrittlement at the NRC Palisades Review
The moderator alternated among those who had signed up to talk, people participating by phone, and written questions from audience members who preferred not to speak. He happened to call me to the microphone first. I started by saying I’d have followup questions. I promised my total talking time would stay under the three-minute limit. I said I wanted to learn more about embrittlement.
I asked, “What would happen if inspection and testing were to show that the shell that keeps the nuclear reaction contained – the reactor pressure vessel, or RPV – is too brittle to be safe?”
The moderator introduced Mark Kirk to answer my question. I recognized his name. He’s the NRC official who told MLive about a year and a half ago that “Palisades is one of the most embrittled nuclear reactors in the country.”
In answer to my question, Kirk named a few other things that inspectors would check if Palisades were to flunk an embrittlement test. He said nothing about a possible shutdown.
I asked, “When was the most recent embrittlement test, and when is the next?”
Kirk wasn’t sure. He thought the most recent was 2003. The next, he believed, would be in 2021.
“Knowing that Palisades has one of the nation’s most embrittled RPVs, how is it okay to go 18 years between tests?”
Kirk explained that the 2003 test showed that the RPV would be safe “far beyond” the expiration of Palisades’ operating license in 2031.
“Didn’t it take two license amendments last year to let Palisades delay its embrittlement tests?”
Kirk’s answer was that last year’s amendments were not about embrittlement. Then the moderator said my time was up. I left the mike and sat down.
As it turns out, Kirk was right. That was my first mess-up. I’ve since learned that I was wrong about the timing. Kirk could’ve corrected me. He could’ve said that NRC granted Palisades that 18-year test exemption long ago. Instead, he let the audience believe that NRC had never handed Palisades this huge favor. He left the impression that maybe a nuclear plant avoiding embrittlement tests for 18 years is normal.
My second mess-up was when I gave up and sat down. I should have insisted that my three minutes weren’t up. I should’ve gone on to my followups.
- How many other nuclear plants in the U.S. get to go 18 years without an embrittlement test?
- How can the NRC believe that a test in 2003 can predict embrittlement far beyond 2031 – beyond 28 years into the future?
- How much money does Palisades save by skipping embrittlement tests for 18 years? How much does an embrittlement test cost? How much would it cost if testing indicated unacceptable embrittlement?
- Since keeping the public safe from nuclear disaster is why the NRC requires embrittlement tests, isn’t this 18-year exemption for one of the nation’s most embrittled RPVs purely a money-saving favor from the NRC in spite of the huge risk that embrittlement poses to public safety? Isn’t this the same short-term money-saving mentality that poisoned Flint?
Mark Kirk’s answers to the questions I was able to ask – essentially, “Don’t worry. Palisades is safe.” – became the theme of the evening.
Other questions and comments at the NRC Palisades Review
- The aging steam generator.
- Nuclear waste storage on unstable sand dunes right next to Lake Michigan.
- Tritium and other radioactive contaminants routinely released into air, ground, and water.
The NRC response? “Don’t worry. Palisades is safe.”
Tritium was a serous concern for several participants. Tritium is a radioactive and carcinogenic nuclear waste product. Palisades has had four tritium leaks in the past five years. NRC Senior Health Physicist John Cassidy assured us the NRC hasn’t found dangerous tritium levels in Lake Michigan’s fish.
Karen Schuur asked, “How much tritium does Palisades release, and how often?”
As for how much, Cassidy answered in “curies.” His answer could not have been more meaningless. What’s a curie? He unhelpfully translated curies into millirems, which still didn’t tell us how much tritium Palisades releases. Curies per ounce? Millirems per liter? Per gallon? Per release? Cassidy made his answer a complete non-answer when he said he didn’t know how often. Per day? Per month? He told us we could find the answer on NRC’s website. But, anyway, it doesn’t matter. It’s not enough to hurt anyone. Don’t worry.
“Does Palisades notify its neighbors before a tritium release?” No. Because there’s no danger. Don’t worry.
Ginger Miller asked if the NRC knew of any health studies confirming that there’s nothing to worry about.
Cassidy said that the National Cancer Institute conducted a study in 1990. In 2010, the National Academy of Science started a study but abandoned it for lack of meaningful information. He didn’t mention an MLive report from two years ago. The report says, “A new study from a controversial group alleges there is a link between Palisades Nuclear Power Plant and an increase in the death rate and cancer rates in Van Buren County.”
Al Baker cited a nuclear waste dry cask explosion at Point Beach nuclear plant in Wisconsin. He asked about possible dry cask degradation at Palisades, where casks are stored on sand dunes very close to Lake Michigan.
The answer? Don’t worry. We inspect all the casks once a year. And a seismologist says the dunes are stable. And even if a cask falls into the lake, it’s safe to a depth of 175 feet.
By the time the moderator called on Priscilla Massie, she’d had enough. She read from an email by Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear. His email paraphrased a paragraph from “Entergy Palisades taking major safety shortcuts with degraded steam generators, with NRC complicity”:
A year after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear catastrophe began, the Japanese Parliament’s independent investigation into the root cause determined that collusion between regulators, nuclear utilities, and government officials was the reason why the reactors were so vulnerable to the natural disasters that melted them down. Such collusion exists in spades at Palisades, between NRC, Entergy, and such government officials as U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, Chairman of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee. Palisades – as well as American Electric Power’s Cook nuclear power plant, with two reactors – is located in Rep. Upton’s (R-MI) congressional district. Entergy has been a significant campaign contributor.
Ms Massie concluded by telling the NRC panel that she’s “only making a comment, not asking a question, because none of the questions are being answered. You’re just blowing smoke.”
As she returned to her seat, the evening’s biggest round of applause erupted.
What I learned at the NRC Palisades Review – and afterwards.
When a caller brought up the collusion issue again, I learned that 90% of NRC’s funding comes not from taxpayers but from the industry it regulates. Some would say that this essentially makes the NRC an employee of the nuclear power industry. NRC has never ordered a nuclear plant to shut down permanently, and has never denied an application for a 20-year extension of a plant’s 40-year license. No nuclear plant has ever gone out of business for any reason other than unprofitability.
NRC officials spent the Town Hall part of the NRC Palisades Review reassuring us, of course, that Palisades is safe. That’s the NRC’s mandate: Keep the nation’s nuclear plants operating within safety standards. This can’t happen if safety costs so much that it kills a plant’s profit and forces it to stop operating altogether. One way to keep a plant running and meeting safety standards is to roll back a safety standard. It’s called “regulatory relief.” At Palisades, this includes an 18-year exemption from expensive embrittlement testing. It includes a possibly indefinite hold – under consideration for more than a year now – on testing certain steam generator components that have not been checked since the generators were replaced 25 years ago. (Note: The original generators went bad after 20 years.)
The cost of safety and maintenance at the nation’s aging nuclear plants is not their only threat to profitability. Nuclear power is getting priced out of the electricity market. Nineteen reactors are already decommissioning – a very expensive process that can last decades. In June, Motherboard reported that “15 to 20 plants are at risk of a premature shutdown in the next decade due to economics.” According to NBC News, two Entergy plants are already scheduled to close: Fitzgerald on Lake Ontario and Pilgrim near Plymouth MA.
Financial analyst UBS recently advised Entergy that closing Palisades would be “mutually beneficial” for Entergy and for Palisades’ only customer, Consumers Energy. When Consumers sold Palisades to Entergy, part of the deal was an extremely Palisades-friendly power purchase agreement that, nine years later, looks a lot like a Palisades subsidy financed by Consumers’ utility customers. A recent U.S. Energy Information Administration chart shows that, outside of New England, the Middle Atlantic, and California, Alaska and Hawaii, no one pays a higher residential rate for electricity than Michigan’s residents.
The question no one could answer at the NRC Palisades Review
Let’s stretch our imaginations to the breaking point. Let’s imagine that Palisades is 100% safe, no threat at all. Let’s imagine that burning uranium actually does generate clean, safe, low-cost electricity. Let’s ignore all the harm uranium mining and processing does to people, land, and water. Let’s pretend that Palisades has never released an ounce of radioactive contaminants into Michigan’s water, land, or air – and that they never will.
Even if all that were true, it would not change this:
Nuclear power plants create outrageously dangerous high-level nuclear waste. This stuff will be extremely hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years. Some say millions of years. Essentially forever. And no one knows what to do with it.
Palisades has been producing nuclear waste for 45 years. The world has been producing that stuff since the Manhattan Project of the mid-1940s. The world’s reactors – 444 at last count – are mostly just stashing that stuff right where they live while everyone waits for the answer to the question that neither the NRC nor anyone else has ever been able to answer.