Recycled Fuel: A Rebuttal to Harper’s Spent Fuel
By Erica Procopio
Harper’s Magazine recently published an article titled Spent Fuel written by Andrew Cockburn. As the title suggests, this article looks at the nuclear power industry in a tired rehashing of all the old fears that dog the technology. Indeed, while the article starts with a list of highly intelligent, highly educated people who support nuclear power, it goes on to exhort its readership to be afraid, very afraid, anyway. We won’t address the blatant emotionalism disguised as plain-facts reporting (leading off with a picture of former residents returning to Fukushima in 2017 fully kitted up, really?), we will be taking a look at the charges leveled, and see if any of them hold water, or molten salt as the case may be.
Cockburn starts off, after his litany of experts that apparently should not be trusted, with a tale about the Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) run by the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in Southern California. Unveiled in 1953 the reactor went on to provide power to the nearby town of Moorpark in ’57 and experienced a partial meltdown in ’59. Cockburn spins a tale of vented radioactive gasses released into the atmosphere, 260 times that released during the Three Mile Island accident, and endangering the lives of the communities that had sprung up around the plant. Not only were these communities endangered, but they were not even informed of this danger due to government cover-ups and pro-nuclear propaganda. Serious claims indeed. Let’s have a look, shall we?
The SRE did experience a partial blockage of the sodium coolant that resulted in partial melting of 13 of the 43 fuel rods. However, all of the safety measures functioned as designed and the reactor was safely shut down. Most of the radioactivity released as a result of this event was contained in the sodium coolant, however some was collected in what is known as cover gas, above the sodium coolant. This gas was transferred to tanks in the SRE facility specifically designed for the purpose of holding radioactive gasses.
Fission products release mechanisms, SRE (Credit: etec.energy.gov)
In the tanks, the radioactive element was allowed to decay and the gas was then diluted and vented, with heavy filtration for decay, into, yes, the atmosphere over a period of two months. All this was done with the knowledge and oversight of the Atomic Energy Commission, a regulatory precursor to the Department of Energy. Today, the Department of Energy’s annual dose limit for unrestricted areas surrounding nuclear facilities is 100 millirem per year, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s limit for airborne releases is 10 millirem per year. The vented gasses released at Santa Susana were well below the federal regulations of the day for radiation and were in fact well under today’s federal regulations at 0.099 millirem for the maximum off-site exposure to radiation, and 0.018 millirem for the nearest resident. Iodine isotopes, which was the main concern for the public, were retained within the plant. Almost all fission products–atomic fragments produced during fission that are radioactive in nature — or nuclear fuel were filtered by the plant and none were released into the environment. Not quite the stuff of nightmares. And as for that 260 times figure, since the amount of fuel used at the SRE was 30 times less than the amount of fuel used at Three Mile Island, it is impossible for that figure to be accurate. After this event, the SRE continued providing power until it was shut down in 1964. A summary of the Santa Susana cleanup can be found here.
Cockburn then jumps forward twenty years to 1979 and the most serious nuclear accident to occur on American soil: Three Mile Island. It frightened the nation and changed the face of American nuclear infrastructure and oversight. Three Mile Island is another example of a partial meltdown, however, unlike Santa Susana, the Three Mile Island plant utilized water-cooled reactors, as opposed to molten sodium. Here we come to an important point: most of the new and modular nuclear technologies, like TerraPower’s Natrium reactor, currently proposed are variations on molten salt reactors, which may explain why the article spends more time on Santa Susana’s SRE and barely a few sentences on Three Mile Island’s water-cooled plant.
Still, let’s do a quick review of what happened on Three Mile Island and the official response. The Three Mile Island Plant housed two reactors: TMI-1 and TMI-2. The accident occurred in TMI-2, due to a loss of cooling water that led to partial melting of the fuel rod cladding as well as the uranium fuel itself and ultimately resulted in the leakage of a small amount of radioactive material. Studies directly after the accident concluded that the radiation released into the atmosphere was too small to result in discernable health effects, a result upheld by the epidemiological studies conducted since. President Jimmy Carter visited the site after the accident, which did much to soothe the local residents, not least because President Carter was a trained nuclear engineer. The Three Mile Island accident caused no direct injuries or deaths, and it led to the establishment of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations to promote excellence in training and plant management. A more in-depth look into what caused the Three Mile Island accident can be found here.
Cockburn skips forward again, to the late 1980s and the beginning of our awareness of the climate crisis. He quotes Hans Blix, then chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), telling the United Nations that “the public should be aware that nuclear energy emits…no carbon dioxide whatsoever.” Cockburn seems to have a problem with this noting in parenthesis that this claim “discounts the enormous quantities of carbon dioxide generated by plant construction.” Which begs the question: Just how much carbon dioxide equivalent does nuclear energy generate in comparison to other forms of energy, plant construction included? Nuclear reactor plants are large, complex buildings and the mining of nuclear fuel is energy-intensive as well. If fossil fuels are burned to facilitate either or both of these processes, then yes, we are looking at quite a hefty toll, and it should be folded into the lifetime emissions of a plant, though nuclear fission itself, and the energy it produces, creates no CO₂ equivalent itself, as Blix stated. With the mining of the fuel and the construction of the plant included, nuclear energy produces approximately 12 grams of CO₂ equivalent per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity generated. This is about on par with wind-generated electricity (12g/kWh for offshore and 11g/kWh for onshore), and markedly less than all forms of solar energy (48g/kWh for utility solar on the high end and 27g/kWh for concentrated solar on the low end). And of course, it is well below coal (820g/kWh), natural gas (490g/kWh), and biomass (230g/kWh).
The next section of Cockburn’s article is devoted to the mismanagement of more contemporary nuclear projects, objectionable funding practices, a few cases of corruption, and touches on the very salient problem of environmental racism. In these, he is quite correct and we agree. Nuclear projects, like every government-backed program, should be subject to the highest degree of oversight, and transparency of that oversight. It is not enough to simply create an energy infrastructure that does not damage our environment, we must strive to do so in a socially equitable manner. Our world should be safe and healthy for everyone.
There are, however, a few points we wish to address from this section as well. First is simply that the mismanagement of projects and the criminally fraudulent actions of politicians are not the fault of the technology itself and are a side issue when considering whether or not new nuclear technologies ought to be explored and invested in. We should demand better management, not abandon the technology altogether. Second, on the charge of environmental racism and nuclear power, Cockburn cites the community of Shell Bluff, Georgia.
Shell Bluff is a low-income, largely Black community in Burke County, Georgia adjacent to the building site for two new nuclear reactors: Vogtle 3 and 4. A “traditional…placement of such industrial facilities,” as Cockburn notes. Residents vociferously objected to the proposed reactors and, understandably, felt ignored and voiceless when construction was approved anyway. Shell Bluff was already a community experiencing high rates of cancer and other illness since the early 1980s, which Cockburn claims the residents ascribe to existing nuclear plants. Shell Bluff is located along the Savannah River, which is the fourth most toxic waterway in the United States. Directly across the river from Shell Bluff is a defunct nuclear weapons manufacturing plant. Nuclear weapons manufacturing is of course a different process than nuclear energy production and subject to its own set of regulations. There, unfortunately, appears to be few if any studies conducted examining causes for the illnesses plaguing Shell Bluff. We would like to see more research being done specifically with the aim of protecting low-income and Black communities.
Despite the appalling lack of research being done in communities like Shell Bluff, existing studies into radiation-caused health risks continue to state that even the most exposed residents near nuclear power facilities in the United States are exposed to amounts of radiation too small to result in health risks. Additionally, a 2011 study in Illinois found that there was no significant increase in childhood rates of leukemia or other cancers for populations around nuclear power plants.
Credit: Illinois Department of Public Health Division of Epidemiologic Studies
Cockburn moves on to question the recent decision to allow aging nuclear reactors to apply for operation extensions. He specifically cites concerns over the process of embrittlement in nuclear reactors and the poor track records of Point Beach 1 and Point Beach 2, twin reactors on Lake Michigan. What exactly is embrittlement, and why does it matter? Embrittlement is a process that takes place in nuclear reactors over time as neutrons, subatomic particles generated during the reactor operations, collide with atoms in the steel of the reactor core reducing its toughness over time, making it more prone to fracture. The embrittlement process can be ameliorated by choosing the appropriate steels for reactor core construction and the use of neutron reflectors installed around the core. If the steel degrades enough to make it necessary, a process known as thermal annealing is used to restore the mechanical properties of the steel. So, yes; embrittlement is an important, potentially dangerous process to keep track of. The good news is, nuclear scientists and plant operators are well aware of this and have several methods by which to make sure that it does not pose an undue risk.
In regards to nuclear plants, in general, applying for operation extensions; studies in the last decade have concluded that “there are no technical limits to these units churning out clean and reliable energy for an additional 40 years or longer.” The decision to allow nuclear power plants to apply for operation extensions was agreed upon not just by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), but by the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) who worked together to perform the research.
Now, to address the Point Beach reactors. Cockburn notes that Point Beach 2 is applying for an extension and that there have been over 130 citations for safety violations and equipment malfunctions for PB-1 and PB-2 combined. Citations issued for nuclear plants can range from misuse of placards (49 CFR 172.502a) to insufficient signage (10 CFR 20.1902) to failing to limit radiation doses (10 CFR 20.1201). Untangling all the information around the Point Beach Reactors is unfortunately beyond the scope of this article. However, it is important to note that though the Point Beach Reactors have applied for a license extension, they still must pass all inspections and meet the requirements for safety to continue operations. We encourage you to take a look at the Reactor License Renewal Process if you have any questions or concerns about this trend.
Cockburn, at long last, comes to what seems to be the main point of the article and links TerraPower’s new Natrium reactors to the SRE at Santa Susana. The Natrium reactors are a variation on earlier models of Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs) and utilize liquid sodium as a coolant. Cockburn connects the Natrium reactors to failed navy experiments with MSRs in 1957. He cites the corrosive nature of molten sodium and the fact that the fuel used in MSRs expands after fissioning, making it difficult to contain. The main thrust of his argument seems to be that MSRs were tried in the ’50s and they didn’t work then so they won’t work now. This strikes us as a simplistic, shortsighted argument at best, which assumes that the technologies have not evolved in the intervening 65 years.
A modern sodium-cooled fast reactor.
Let’s take a look at how technology has improved to meet the complications that stymied the industry over six decades ago. Since it is the reactor that Cockburn references, we will use TerraPower’s Natrium reactor as an example. The Natrium reactor is a liquid sodium-cooled reactor that uses uranium fuel. The reactor vessel is constructed of stainless steel. Cockburn claims that liquid sodium is so corrosive it is completely non-viable, while the Natrium team claims that its lack of corrosion is one of the main benefits of its use. Who should we believe? Cockburn has so far proven less than forthright in his reporting, but the Natrium team has a vested interest in defending their design.
When in doubt, go to the science.
It is not entirely surprising that TerraPower is not revealing all the minute details of their reactor design, minute details that have a large impact on the rate of corrosion. Still, there are a few things we know. The type of steel most commonly used in nuclear reactor construction is nuclear grade 316 stainless steel, and reactors like Natrium are designed to have a 60-year operating life. A review of several studies conducted on this question has shown that liquid sodium has a limited effect on the mechanical properties of thick structural reactor materials. So, what does all this come to? Can this article definitively determine that Natrium’s liquid sodium coolant is non-corrosive? No. Is Natrium’s liquid sodium coolant so corrosive and reactive as to be completely non-viable as Cockburn implies? Also no. For a more comprehensive look at how modern MSRs work, there is a wonderful summary here and a look at TerraPower’s Natrium reactor here.
Cockburn closes his article with a look at thyroid cancer rates in the wake of both Chernobyl and Fukushima, and a brief comment on the problem of the spent fuel used by reactors.
A Treatise on the Visual Representation of Spent Fuel
(Credit: AlexAntropov86, Pixabay, and TVEL)
Cockburn does not present any new information about the Chernobyl disaster, and on the whole, does not spend much time ruminating on it, so neither have we. The main claim here is that, due to evidence of thyroid cancers in those affected by Chernobyl, intensive thyroid cancer screening was enacted for children around Fukushima. This resulted in detection rates ultimately climbing to 20 times higher than normal. What is interesting here is that Cockburn notes that the UN later attributed this steep rise in childhood thyroid cancers to the increase in screening, which is in fact a well-known effect that researchers must account for in epidemiological studies. Cockburn once again strongly implies that this is evidence of a pro-nuclear cover-up on the parts of both the UN and the Japanese government.
While guessing at the intent of the Japanese government or the UN is beyond us, we can look at what the science has to say. Let’s take a moment to clarify the numbers. What does 20 times the normal rate actually mean? In a cohort of 300,000 children screened for thyroid cancers after Fukushima, 187 were diagnosed. That comes out to approximately 0.06%, and as the study notes, it is currently impossible to concretely distinguish between radiation-caused thyroid cancer and spontaneous thyroid cancer. Looking at the actual numbers, it is easier to see how the increase in cases of childhood thyroid cancers could in fact be due to increased screening. For those interested, the same study concluded that the “accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant caused a biased risk perception.”
It is interesting that, despite the title of the article, any actual discussion of spent nuclear fuel reads as more of an afterthought than a pressing concern to Cockburn. What to do with spent nuclear fuel is a concern that needs to be addressed. But there is some good news on this horizon; many of the newer generation of nuclear fission reactors, like molten salt reactors, will be able to recycle the spent fuel of older reactors with higher efficiency. And as for the amount of nuclear waste in America, the entirety of our combined nuclear waste can fit in a single football field.
As is the case with cancer risk after Fukushima, there is often a biased risk perception when it comes to nuclear power. It is dogged by an outsized fear of radiation and vats of glowing green sludge (that’s not what nuclear waste actually looks like if you were wondering). The truth is that eating a banana will expose you to more radiation than living next to a nuclear power plant for an entire year.
Fig 1. Scary food.
(Credit: Mockup Graphics, Unsplash)
And even with all accidents and exposures included, nuclear energy still has the lowest mortality rate of any power source, well under even wind and solar. Nuclear power is responsible for approximately 90 deaths per Terawatt hour (TWh) of electricity generated. Coal weighs in at 100,000 deaths per TWh, oil at 36,000 per TWh and gas at 4,000 deaths per TWh. Taken together, coal, oil and gas are responsible for approximately 81% of our global power supply. To put it another way, air pollution may be responsible for killing 1 in 5 people in China and India. And none of those figures account for deaths due to the evolving climate crisis, and the increase in natural disasters. Nuclear may be frightening, but coal, oil and gas are literally killing us.
Fig 2.Global share of total energy supply by source, 2019
There are genuine concerns about advancing nuclear power that deserve time and discussion devoted to them. What will we do with fuel left over even after recycling? How do we prevent further cost overruns and corruption during plant construction? What is the best way to combat environmental racism? Unfortunately, in writing Spent Fuel Andrew Cockburn fails to adequately address any of these. Instead, he relies on fear-mongering, anti-authoritarian bias, and artfully portrayed numbers to carry his point. Our hope is that in the future journalists like Mr. Cockburn, and publications like Harper’s, will invest in more nuanced explorations of both the facts and the concerns.