Shining Some Sun on Nuclear Nightmares

The sense of dread was a chill that spread recognition that things are fixing to get a great deal worse. A tiny mention on my morning news feed reported that someone, likely the Russians, had successfully hacked the Wolf Creek nuclear plant in Burlington Kansas. And a dozen other power plants. Operators rushed to reassure us that only the “administrative” systems were breached, not operational ones. But anyone placing much reliance on this has never read The Nugget File. These were, until a Freedom Of Information Act filing made them public, the private files of Dr. Stephen Hanauer of the Federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). He kept them as a hobby to document lapses of nuclear plant builders and operators.

OK, it’s bad enough that there is, as Politico puts it, “a …long-running, deep-reaching, well-executed and terrifyingly effective Russian attack on American democracy.” But successfully penetrating the cyber controls of a nuke would be downright dangerous. Think Fukushima meltdowns all across the US.

The reactors at Fukushima were hit by a devastating earthquake and tsunami. This didn’t destroy the nukes themselves; it disabled the power supplies and cooling to three of the reactors. Which then proceed to melt uncontrollably over the next three days, spreading radioactive material over much of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Ocean. It continues to pour into the Pacific to this day, as the only way to keep the reactors from disaster is to pour tons of seawater over them to keep them “stable.”

The disaster forced the evacuation of 200,000 people. Some foreign governments urged evacuating Tokyo, and a former Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, reflecting on the still possible fear of a “demonic chain reaction” that would have forced the evacuation of Tokyo, said, “If things had reached that level, not only would the public have had to face hardships but Japan’s very existence would have been in peril.”

Decommissioning the plants will take decades and may never be completed. Costs are estimated as high as ¥70 trillion (more than $600 billion.) For those of you challenged by math, that’s a lot higher than the value of the electricity that the plant ever produced. And vastly more than what it would cost for solar energy to replace the nuke. It is money that is being rat-holed, producing no electricity, but hopefully, one day the final cold shutdown of the crippled plants, and the disposal (if we ever figure out how to do it safely) of the highly radioactive waste. Six years after the accident the rubble remains so radioactive that robots sent into the mess cannot function.

That couldn’t happen here, could it?

Unfortunately, yes. Nuclear plants are vulnerable in many ways. A recent study from scientists at Princeton showed that the refusal of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to require additional safety procedures at US nuclear facilities leaves them vulnerable to fires (caused by accident or terrorist attacks) at spent fuel cooling ponds (where the highly radioactive waste fuel rods from reactors are stored. Such an incident, the report warned, could result in the spread of radioactive emissions across an area twice the size of New Jersey, forcing evacuations of 8 million people and causing $2 trillion in damages. The Princeton scientists call for making nuclear power safer, warning that in the absence of this, a Fukushima-like accident could indeed happen here. To the extent that we are going to continue operating existing nukes, this seems a good idea.

Why throw good money after bad? Let’s invest instead in the technologies winning in the marketplace: solar and wind, electric vehicles, and efficiency: all the components of a secure, low-carbon future. In 2016 these far outpaced oil, gas, coal and nuclear. Stanford professor Tony Seba details how by 2030 the entire world will be renewably powered. We won’t need any nuclear power.

Back to the hacked nuke. I really don’t care about your politics here, having Russians invading our infrastructure should concern everyone living within range of the fallout from a crippled nuclear plant. This is about the security of our homeland, and we’ve been attacked.

And not for the first time. In 2013, unknown assailants shot up Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG&E) Metcalf substation near San Jose, California. This was not the work of run of the mill vandals. Having cut the external communications, snipers fired more than 120 7.62×39mm rounds (a Soviet designed caliber used in AK-47s) to take out the substation’s 17 transformers that route power to the Silicon Valley. They faded into the night one minute before police arrived. Jon Wellinghoff, who at the time of the attack chaired the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission agreed with a former PG&E executive’s assessment that the attack was a dress rehearsal.

No one knows if the attackers of Metcalf were Russians, or homegrown nasties, but Moscow subsequently attacked power facilities in the Ukraine and elsewhere. Central power stations are an early casualty of most conflicts. Instead of relying on power generation that is inherently vulnerable, we should shift, as a matter of urgent national security to renewable energy.

Former CIA director R. James Woolsey and I partnered 31 years ago to say this in the book, Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security. The first 12 chapters are out of date, but from Chapter 13 on, it remains the best treatise I know of on how to design for genuine resilience. Jim still believes it, calling recently for enhanced security for conventional energy, and microgrids powered by distributed renewables: energy “coming from your roof… and being stored in the basement.”

And it’s happening.

In 2017, the electricity generated by nuclear in the US fell below that generated by renewable energy. Nuclear plants are simply not cost effective. Nuclear is dying. Solar, wind and the other renewables are increasing. They deliver greater equity, far better urban design and 17 times as many jobs as are being created in the rest of the U.S. Economy. It’s only a matter of time before the old nuclear plants are shut down and a brighter future dawns.

Then I don’t know about you, but I’ll sleep a lot more soundly.

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