Saturday, March 28, 2009

Remember Three Mile Island?

With Earth Hour tonight (hence the dark page today), an observation of mine.

Thirty years ago today, a little movie was playing in the theatres and was struggling to get business. It was doing so poorly that many cinema owners were threatening to pull it off the screens, making it yet another in a series of Hollywood busts. Then, in a life imitates art situation, people suddenly started flocking to it and became one of the most popular movies of 1979.

That movie was The China Syndrome (which was as much about the cover up attempted in the film as the actual incidents), and the all true life event which saved it from oblivion was the "incident" at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania (near the state capital of Harrisburg) and the conflicting "explanations" about what happened in the days that followed. This, plus the public uproar over nuclear anything at the time, effectively ended any plans for new civilian nuclear plants in the United States. Not one has been built, or even considered, since, even though the population has grown by a third and demand for electricity nearly triple even that.

Right now, Pointy Head says Ontario needs more nuclear power. It's just a question of siting. While the current facilities at Darlington, Pickering and Bruce are among the obvious choices, another possibility is to place one or two reactors where there used to be a thermal (i.e. coal) plant but are now in the process of being decommissioned. They now say 2014 but the date keeps getting pushed back. It seems pretty obvious at first -- you have all those power rights of way that would be totally useless once the coal plant shuts down so just have a nuclear plant ready to go -- one goes offline the other goes on. Think of the coal plants shut down at Lakeview (Mississauga), Hearn (Toronto) and the ones still operating in Thunder Bay, Nanticoke, Lambton and Atikokan.

It's not that I'm totally against nuclear power. Many countries have proven it can be used in significant amounts, and when run properly (and that's a big if) it can be efficient. France for instance relies on nuclear for about 85% of its power, Belgium 54%, Finland 27% (and which is looking to build more so it can be less reliant on its neighbour, Russia) and the UK 20%.

The problem is that as a general rule, nuclear power has always had cost overruns just in the building of the facilities. Then you have to run them. It takes about seven years to properly train a plant operator, according to Ontario Power Generation. While our CANDU technology can handle so-called "incidents" better than reactors used in other countries, such incidents still can happen and they cost a fortune to clean up.

Plus, where do we store all the nuclear waste? Right now, for the most part, they are being stored on site, and often under very lax security. A goldmine for terrorists. Plans to bury the waste in caverns, near Las Vegas and under northern Saskatchewan, are half baked and even outright dangerous concepts. Now we learn there may be another cavern, right next to Bruce. Yeah, like residents want that in their backyard but the waste will have to go somewhere eventually; it takes 10,000 years to cool after all.

Plus, little is being said about real alternatives. What about wind, solar, biomass and geothermal? Natural gas -- isn't there a huge pool of it under Lake Erie and along the shoreline?

And how about good old energy conservation? We don't need to keep the lights on all the time now, do we? And what some department stores and supermarkets are doing today, turning off only a third or a half of their normal lighting -- well, they can do that every day, and alternate days on which lights will be turned on or off -- it's still just as bright in the stores for heaven's sake! Same in most manufacturing facilities and office pools.

As it is, Three Mile Island is still in business and is about to get another twenty year extension on its operating license. You know they'll find ways of keeping Bruce, Pickering and Darlington running well past their expiry dates and again at taxpayers' expense.

As for one of the "cleaner" alternatives, water -- well, the tunnel they're building right now to double capacity at Adam Beck in Niagara Falls is going to cost triple what they thought. There's also plenty of water power potential up north, but there are outstanding land claims still to be settled and the process could be just as acrimonious as in Northern Québec with the Cree.

I'll be the first to concede, as I have before, that nuclear will inevitably be part of the mix of power generation for the next twenty to forty years. But it should be the last option considered, not the first. There are better options for new plants, especially for Nanticoke.

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dblbassbill said...

nsesThree mile island is a classic case of people over reacting to evidence that isn't there. much of what is said about tmi sounds like conspiracy theories and plain nonsense. while the safety systems worked the embarrassing handling of the aftermath by the plant operator has made room for cranks to yell about unfounded disaster. If tmi released enough radiation to cause serious health problems on a massive scale then the evidence would be plain and overwhelming . radiation doesn't hide from geiger counters.

and when talking about nuclear powers safety remember that north America's worst instance of failure can have said to have caused 0 death's and gave thousands of people the same amount of radiation as an x-ray.

BlastFurnace said...

Thanks for the comment, dblbassbill. It may be true there were no deaths or injuries caused by TMI but the coverup and changing stories those first few days is what still sticks out in many people's minds. I was only six at the time, but even then the bs detector in my little head was reading "red alert, these guys are effing liars."

If they had told the truth the first time, there wouldn't have been so much panic and North America's nuclear industry would have a better reputation than even the one in the EU states. They have only themselves to blame for being so discredited.

JimBobby said...

Whooee! Good piece, Robert.

We're only just learning about the cover-ups at TMI.

People died.

In 1983, Metropolitan Edison was busted for falsifying documents related to the accident and reactor safety. They pled guilty to six, and no contest to one, of the 11-count indictment.

Those thousands of people who received the same dose as an x-ray included pregnant women and children under the age of five. Pregnant women, fetuses and young children are more easily damaged by small doses of radiation. Acceptable doses are based on "reference man" -- a 20-30 YO Caucasian male.

Until we have a permanent, safe, passively secure site for storing spent fuel, we sure as hell shouldn't be adding to the stockpile.

While your assertion that CANDUs are safer than other types is arguable, AECL has abandoned the old heavy water CANDU and is promoting the ACR 1000, a EPR (Generation 3) type reactor. All 3 of the reactor designs shortlisted for Ontario are EPR types.

In the past couple weeks, Britain’s Oxford Research Group think tank released a paper for the Institute for Public Policy Research warning that the new generation reactors, like the three models short-listed for Nanticoke, risk proliferation that could lead to “nuclear anarchy.” The report notes that the new type of reactor produces high grade plutonium as a by-product. Plutonium is used to make the most efficient nuclear weapons.

It's been nearly 60 years since the "Atoms for Peace" campaign started promoting nuclear electricity generation. Back then, the scientists were heady from successes like the Manhattan Project. They saw the problem of spent fuels but were understandable confident the problem would be solved quickly. After all , the world's best minds were working on a solution. After 60 years, the best they came up with was Yucca Mountain and that has just been kiboshed by Obama after 20 years work and $11 Billion thrown down the drain.

Reprocessing doesn't work either. A reprocessing plant in West Valley, NY, just across Lake Erie must be decommissioned at taxpayer expense. The operator went broke. NY State taxpayers are looking at a $27 billion estimate to decontaminate the site. Remember though, nuke projects typically come in at least 50% over budget.

Why on earth would any sensible person even consider a technology that leaves behind waste that must be guarded by paramilitary swat teams for 250,000 years?


BlastFurnace said...

Thanks JB. As a sidebar, I remember two really good editorial cartoons from the time. One showed a guy driving a tractor towing a flatbed -- on which was the entire state of Pennsylvania. He was pulling up to the first tollgate in the next state (I presume it was the Ohio Turnpike) and asked the collector: "Which way to the nuclear decontamination zone?"

The second were two children (who bore a remarkable resemblance to Katy and Clayton Newman in the comic strip Adam @ Home), with the siblings fishing in the river next to Three Mile Island. The sister looks up at the cooling towers and asks her brother, "What do you want to be if you grow up?" Not when, but IF.