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Quaking in your boots?

The east coast received a rare, but powerful earthquake earlier this week, which struck very close to a nuclear power station, causing it to be shut down.

How lucky were we?

First of all, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission rated that plant as the seventh most likely nuclear plant to receive core damage from a quake.

The plant was designed and built to withstand a 5.9 to 6.1 magnitude earthquake, and Tuesday’s quake was 5.8. Pretty close.

And after the plant shut down, it lost power, so diesel generators were used to power the cooling system. Recall that it was the loss of power that caused all the damage at the Japanese nuclear power plant when its cooling system failed. And in this case, one of the diesel generators did fail. Luckily another generator kept working.

But what makes this ironic is that seismographs around the plant used to detect earthquakes had been removed … due to budget cuts.

Oh, and there are plans to add a third nuclear reactor at that plant.

UPDATE: The owner of the plant has now notified the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission that last week’s earthquake may have shaken the plant beyond its design levels.

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18 Comments

  1. No u wrote:

    OMG FOR REAL? BULLET DODGED! Thanks for contributing to the fear america plan. That earthquake was not “powerful” it was hardly anything.

    No nuclears plants on the east cost because they get a minor earthquake once every 10-20 years!

    Give me a break

    Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Permalink
  2. Sam Foster wrote:

    Aren’t seismographs passive devices that just sit there? How much of a budget savings could there possibly be?

    ^waves hello at the NO U troll and walks on by^

    Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Permalink
  3. Iron Knee wrote:

    I should be clear — I’m not against nuclear power. I’m against the US nuclear power industry.

    Even so, if they would switch to Thorium reactors, I’d be all in favor of them. See http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2010-08/thorium-reactors-could-wean-world-oil-just-five-years

    Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Permalink
  4. Laurie wrote:

    Storage of the spent rods seems to be an issue as well.

    Friday, August 26, 2011 at 7:56 am | Permalink
  5. PatriotSGT wrote:

    Your right Laurie, the fed is supposed to oversee that and the Nuclear sites pay pay to have them picked up and stored. Problem is none have been picked up and they are all still on site. The money paid for the disposal has been spent on other more important stuff I’m sure.

    We need to lift the ban on building reactors, and set/enforce life spans for the existing ones We can require the latest technologies to be employed as IK was indicating to greatly reduce the risks. I suspect the environmental and green lobbies are opposed to that, while energy companies are for it. Meanwhile every year that passes puts us at greater and greater risk as our existing plants pass by their intended wear out dates and their older technology continues to deteriorate. The other is people don’t want to have nuclear plants close by, so in places like California they are danger close to major earthquake fault lines. Now thats reassuring isn’t it.

    Friday, August 26, 2011 at 11:44 am | Permalink
  6. starluna wrote:

    My husband teaches an energy policy course and he’s come to the conclusion that he is on the fence with nuclear. At least as of the last time we talked about it. From a pure risk based and economic assessment, nuclear is better than coal or oil for electricity production. But, the biggest hurdle over the long term is the storage of waste. Up until very recently, Native American reservations were almost exclusively saddled with the burden and the risks of nuclear waste.

    Personally, I see nuclear as an unnecessary risk. There are important lessons to learn from what happened in Japan. Even though the risk of the worst case scenario was low, when the worse case scenario came true, the damage was extensive, long term, fell on the most vulnerable (as usual), and generally ended up outweighing the long term benefits.

    I’d rather see the money that is being put into trying to get nuclear plants built go into developing more sustainable sources of electricity generation and in changing the ways Americans use electricity. In the long run, nuclear is not really as sustainable as reducing the amount of electricity people think they need.

    Friday, August 26, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Permalink
  7. Iron Knee wrote:

    Starluna, you make good points and I too am on the fence about nuclear power. But let me argue the other side for a minute. For every disaster related to a nuclear power plant, there is one or more stupid wars for oil. Not to mention all the pollution produced by fossil fuels and other “externalities” related to other energy sources. As a technologist, I believe that it is possible (without much difficulty) to create nuclear power plants that are safe and do not generate dangerous waste.

    As for your last comment, I believe that we are literally awash in energy. Not just nuclear, but solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, and so on. The sun alone dumps millions of times more energy on the earth than we could ever conceive of using. Think about the world’s vegetation, which uses huge amounts of energy and turns it into food and other things, while reducing carbon dioxide. Would you want your goal to be to reduce the number of plants so they use less energy?

    So my desire is not to reduce the amount of energy we use, but to reduce unwanted side effects from that energy usage.

    Friday, August 26, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  8. Cell phones in the future will be charged by dispersed kinetic energy, forcing us to go out for jogs every once in a while. And since cell phones will be computer links to virtual reality that gets laser beamed into our eyeballs and smartwaved into our brains, we won’t need to power anything but them. Problem solved. You’re welcome.

    Friday, August 26, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Permalink
  9. starluna wrote:

    IK – I see what you are saying and I agree with you about the relationship between oil and oppression (whether it be outright war or supporting/tolerating dictators). At the same time, I think one of the reasons that we see the negative externalities of oil is because the effects are more widely dispersed across people, space, and even domains. Air pollution affects the environment and people’s health (although mostly lower middle through the impoverished classes). People understand air pollution. They understand oil spills too. So the political conflict is much wider than the chronic externalities of nuclear.

    In the US, mines for nuclear material are mostly located on Native American reservations. It is these communities who are suffering from the dangers of working in the mines, from mine tailings being dumped in their communities, and from “hosting” nuclear waste. They aren’t getting rich off it. The reservations where this occurs are forced into doing this because they are so impoverished, natural water flows have been diverted for non-Native purposes which prevents them from providing for themselves in other ways, and sometimes because they were pressured to by the federal government. For nuclear, the conflict is very small and narrow and generally does not affect the rest of us. The vast majority of us don’t see it and will never see it, so we don’t really take into account the human costs that have been imposed on this marginalized group. As an environmental justice advocate, I believe that it is unjust to place these kinds of unnecessary, and certainly uncompensated, burdens are one of the most oppressed and vulnerable groups in US history.

    Friday, August 26, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Permalink
  10. PatriotSGT wrote:

    IK and Starluna – excellent points and discussion. We need to improve much about our energy system, including it’s delivery which is very inefficient, but improved over the past.
    IK – it irks me greatly when people refer to the present and past wars as “stupid”. There are many other adjectives that could be used and care should always be given. I understand you are opposed and I to would like to see us end them or at least greatly reduce our presence. I doubt you would look a grieving parent, wife or child in the eye and tell them they died for a “stupid” reason, so please choose your words more carefully. It’s not the Soldiers fault and we shouldn’t come close to labeling their efforts because we disagree with the politics that sent them. :)

    Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 8:02 am | Permalink
  11. Anonymous wrote:

    I’m curious about designing something to a range as a maximum, I wonder what that means.

    Also, if the core did crack, would they tell us about it?

    Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink
  12. Iron Knee wrote:

    PatriotSGT — I want to point out that I was not just referring to wars where the US is involved, I was referring to all wars that have been caused by the desire to control oil supplies (including wars that nobody here has heard about, such as the low level war between Ecuador and Peru over oil in the Amazon basin). I also want to say that this is not the fault of the soldiers and I would never presume to label their efforts.

    Starluna — you are of course talking about Uranium mines. Please see the link above about the use of Thorium for power generation. Thorium is a waste product of existing mines for rare earth minerals and is plentiful. So your argument is not so much against nuclear power, but our current Uranium-based reactors.

    Second, I have been in the Amazon region, and seen the devastation inflicted on native cultures there by oil drilling. I have also seen the war fought between Ecuador and Peru over land in the Amazon basin that lies over oil reserves and what that has done to the indigenous people there. I find it hard to believe that there is a good environmental justice argument to be made that oil is better than nuclear power (even our current Uranium-based plants, and it will be even better if we switch to a better fuel).

    Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink
  13. starluna wrote:

    I speak about the Native American mines because they are the ones I know best. Keep in mind that Native American reservations are also where most off-site nuclear waste of all kinds is stored and reprocessed. So my comment isn’t just about the mining but about the storage of it.

    I can’t say I know anything about thorium, but I will admit to any skepticism regarding mining in general. My husband is incorporating mining into his environmental justice course this Fall and we’ve been screening a lot of documentaries to help him choose which ones to use in class. My courses focus mostly on the experience of environmental injustice in urban environments, so this is all relatively new for me. From everything I’ve seen, it’s really hard to do mining without causing unnecessary and uncompensated risks for workers and nearby communities. Not just nuclear but coal, gold, and all kinds of metals (including lots of stuff in the electronics we depend on). This discussion is about electricity generation but if thorium comes from other mining operations, you’ll have to forgive my default skepticism.

    There is no EJ argument that oil is better than nuclear, at least not that I’m aware of. The contemporary EJ argument is to push for clean, renewable forms of energy generation where the risks and benefits of these technologies are spread equitably across peoples. Currently, that does not happen. I can’t say that it would be more likely to happen if we switched to thorium without learning more about how it is extracted, handled, and disposed of and who those processes affect. If it can be done in a way that equitably distributes risks and benefits, then as an EJ advocate, I’d be all for it.

    Sunday, August 28, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Permalink
  14. Iron Knee wrote:

    My understanding is that Thorium is currently a waste product of mining for rare earth elements, so using Thorium to produce power would not require additional mining. Also, Thorium does not produce as many waste products as Uranium.

    But of course, skepticism is always warranted when talking about something like this.

    Sunday, August 28, 2011 at 8:18 pm | Permalink
  15. russell wrote:

    US shut down its thorium research reactors about 30 years ago. India is researching it more than anybody now, but using it in hybrid reactors. Nobody has figured out how to make a large reactor. Theoretically it would have to be liquid core, which nobody is willing to risk.

    Seismographs? Surely somebody meant seismometers. Which don’t protect equipment, just measure ground movement. There are enough seismometers in the current matrix to measure (and pinpoint) any significant quake anywhere on the PLANET.

    IK – A year ago you ridiculed my comment that wind energy is very hard to distribute. In that context you bragged about power production in the NW. A few months ago the utilities up there announced they were taking wind turbines off the grid because of control problems. The turbine owners went nuts, not because of lost revenue from energy production – but because they lost tax credits if the turbines were disconnected.

    Texas is spending $600M to try and figure out how to get power from Permian Basin wind farms to DFW. Meanwhile, the producers have had to *pay* to get rid of excess power when demand is low. When demand is high (this year is a record-setter), we are buying power from Mexico. I reckon they must be EPA compliant ;)

    Dude, I don’t make this sh!t up, it just is what it is.

    Monday, August 29, 2011 at 9:26 pm | Permalink
  16. russell wrote:

    Luna – “Native American reservations are also where most off-site nuclear waste of all kinds is stored and reprocessed”

    Almost all high-level nuclear waste is stored at the reactors that generated it. A little is stored at West Valley, New York, Morris, Illinois, and Idaho National Laboratory.

    Those are reservations?

    http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/radwaste.html

    There is a long-pending application for a storage facility on Goshute land in Utah. The tribe overwhelmingly voted for it but the state has fought it tooth and nail.

    http://www.ncai.org/ncai/advocacy/nr/docs/NWskullvalley.htm

    Monday, August 29, 2011 at 9:45 pm | Permalink
  17. starluna wrote:

    Russell – I was very specific to say “off-site” in that statement. I know that most of the spent rods have been stored onsite because of the lack of waste facilities. This, of course, being the primary challenge with nuclear energy. But you are right that I should have explained what I meant by “nuclear waste of all kinds.”

    What you will not see in the NRC reports is where medical nuclear waste is sent (for all those MRIs, CAT scans, and other tests that use radioactive materials). Some of this is actually sent overseas (which I heard is technically illegal but happens anyway) and what remains in the US very often goes to hazardous waste dumps on Native American reservations. Medical nuclear waste is treated differently than nuclear waste from electricity generation which is how this happens.

    What you will also not see in NRC reports is where military nuclear waste is stored. Here is where I could have been more careful with my language. As you may know, many Native American reservations in the West and Southwest abut military sites. The Western Shoshone, for example, live partly in and next to the Nevada Testing Site. Their land has been contaminated by both testing of nuclear bombs, as well as the storage of this waste, some of which is actually on Western Shoshone land and some of which is on the border (quite literally).

    Another, more complicated example is the Native American relationship to the Hanford Engineering Works facility in WA. As you may know, this facility processed nuclear material for the US military. Most Pacific Northwest Indians actually do not live on reservations. The location of the Umatilla reservation does not abut this site, but the Treaty of 1855 provided the Umatilla, Walla Walla and Cayuse tribes almost unrestricted off-site fishing rights in all of the 6.4 million acres they ceded to the US when they agreed to move to a reservation (there is a federal ruling around this treaty that is quite fascinating to those of us who study law and a key decision related to tribal rights to natural resource). The contamination of the Hanford site is directly related to both the operations of the facility as well as the waste storage practices. The contamination of the Columbia River fishing grounds that directly impact both tribal rights, tribal members health, and their way of life.

    The practice of targeting (and I use that term quite consciously) Native Americans for storage and processing for the nuclear power industry goes back much longer than the Goshute Reservation controversy. The NRC has been trying to shove this down the throats of the most impoverished reservations since the late 1980s. The federal government and the private operators of nuclear power plants went after the most impoverished tribes in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Utah (including the Goshute) and Oregon. It took a concerted effort on the part of tribal members to resist this first onslaught. This is an important part of the beginning of the history of the environmental justice movement. If you read the documents that came out of the People of Color Environmental Leadership Conference in 1992, you will see the threat of creating nuclear sacrifice zones was a prominent concern, especially since uranium mining was already a problem.

    The Goshute controversy comes on the heels of the almost successful attempt to build a massive (supposedly temporary – and we know what that really means for Native folks) storage facility at the Mescalero Apache reservation by bribing Wendell Chino and the tribal council. This was interesting in that the Mescalero Apache were actually one of the few economically well off reservations (compared to other nations). Chino was very much a capitalist and acted not unlike your average 19th century railroad baron. Just like Goshute, there was the appearance of support from the tribe that was all smoke and mirrors in fact. And like Goshute, a few people pushed it through despite opposition from the tribe. Indeed, the only reason it wasn’t built there was because negotiations eventually broke down, in part because the consortium of private companies involved in the negotiations began to doubt that the site was needed and decided that the Yucca site was a better proposition.

    As you can tell, this is kind of important to me. I come from the Southwest and some of my father’s family used to live on the reservations in southern Arizona. I have seen the devastation wrought on Native peoples by US natural resources “management” policy. My husband has seen it with the First Peoples in Canada as well. The life cycle of nuclear for electricity generation to medical research and testing to military purposes has been nothing but an environmental and health burden for Native Americans. Should nuclear power, as it has traditionally been operated, were to become a more important part of our energy portfolio, I would predict that the pressure would increase on Native folks to “accept” not just more mining but also storage and processing and that the they suffer would be the leverage to make it happen. As Keith Lewis says, “There is nothing moral about tempting a starving man with money.”

    Tuesday, August 30, 2011 at 10:54 am | Permalink
  18. russell wrote:

    Wow. This may be little consolation, but those folks are lucky to have you looking out for them. You are correct about the military, although my impression is the demise of Cold War sensibilities is causing them to clean up their act.

    In W. Texas they bring in trainloads of sewer sludge and spread it around. Similar situation, the locals want the work but environmentalists oppose it. Makes for odd politics.

    Tuesday, August 30, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Permalink