Enough tritium for almost a million liters at 8,000,000 pCi/L

Sometime between June 24, 2015 and January 21, 2016, a building remodeling project in Steamboat Springs, CO resulted in the loss of 7.5 curies of tritium. A reasonable guess is that the container holding the tritium was tossed into a construction debris dumpster and carted off to a local landfill.

The incident was reported to the NRC by the state of Colorado via email. The building owners have conducted an inspection of their building and reported they could not find the container. The report to the NRC included a corrective action letter (CAL). Though including more details, the CAL is summarized as follows in the NRC Current Event Notifications for February 8, 2016.

The property management company is reviewing all properties to verify if a Tritium exit signs are still in use and providing the current tenants of regulatory requirements to correct and prevent any future displacement or loss of exit signs containing Tritium.

The NRC’s response to this loss of “less than Cat 3” level of radioactive material was to accept the report and file it in the appropriate location for event notifications.

Aside: From NRC event report: “Sources that are “Less than IAEA Category 3 sources,” are either sources that are very unlikely to cause permanent injury to individuals or contain a very small amount of radioactive material that would not cause any permanent injury. Some of these sources, such as moisture density gauges or thickness gauges that are Category 4, the amount of unshielded radioactive material, if not safely managed or securely protected, could possibly – although it is unlikely – temporarily injure someone who handled it or were otherwise in contact with it, or who were close to it for a period of many weeks.” End Aside.

If the exit sign reported lost in Steamboat Springs was broken and the tritium was dissolved into water, it would contaminate 940,000 liters of water to the “alarming” level of 8,000,000 pCi/liter that has Governor Cuomo in a tizzy about the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant.

So far, I have been unable to find out how much water from the monitoring wells was contaminated to that “alarming” level, but that headline grabbing number — frequently reported as a 65,000% increase over the normal levels found in the wells — was the highest level measured. All of the other reported measurements were far lower.

Early reports indicate that the source of the elevated tritium levels found in three out of approximately 40 monitoring wells was tritiated water from an overflowing sump whose pump failed to start due to a mechanical or electrical problem. The pump was repaired promptly, but a certain amount of water containing tritium was spilled onto the ground.

I’m confident that Entergy either has already reported the total amount of water that could have been spilled along with its tritium concentration or that the company will be making that estimate and report in a reasonably short period of time.

I’ll bet that the total tritium release is substantially less than the lost exit sign in Steamboat Springs and that the proper reaction to the event would be to simply file the report and accept the company’s plan to try to avoid spilling tritiated water in the future.

Aside: I’m well aware of the perfectionist attitudes associated with nuclear energy and radioactivity. The idea is that ANY leakage is unacceptable and that trying to avoid it isn’t good enough. My crude response is that farting in a crowded elevator is unacceptable as well, but it happens without much overreaction. End Aside.

I’ll make an even safer bet that there will be a whole lot more wailing, gnashing of teeth, and accusations of dishonesty or incompetence before this already overblown event is over.

It’s almost a 100% certainty that groups like the UCS will self-righteously proclaim that nuclear power plants are not allowed to leak ANY tritium through unmonitored pathways like overflowing sumps. I’m pretty sure that some activists have already made statements to the effect that this violation of the license requirement of zero leakage should result in an immediate closure of the facility.

My advice to anyone who applies for a reactor operating license in the future is to stubbornly refuse to promise perfection. Good enough is good enough.

Before allowing carefully created and stoked panic to rule the day, I hope New Yorkers take the time to wonder why their elected leader is so worried about a release of a “less than Cat 3” level of radioactive material. I’d like them to consider the incredible cost that closing the plant — even temporarily — would impose, especially when the replacement power would most likely be provided by burning about 300 billion cubic feet of fracked methane every day.

Save Diablo Canyon so it can continue to supply massive quantities of clean power

dcpp_without_textCalifornia has one of the most confusing energy policies in the country. Though it loudly proclaims itself as an environmental leader, with some of the most strict air and water pollution regulations in the world, it has a state law that prevents consideration of new nuclear power plants. It has forced the early closure of 5 completed and operable reactors, replacing their output with additional electricity imports or with local natural gas combustion plants.

It heavily subsidizes or mandates wind and solar energy, giving the impression that it is replacing clean nuclear power with other forms of clean power, but the numbers show that those sources are not providing anything close to the same total amount of electricity as the shuttered nuclear units. They are certainly not providing the other forms of grid stabilization services provided by moderate to large thermal power generation systems like nuclear energy.

My studies into the history of the state’s schizophrenic energy policies has led me to the conclusion that they have been strongly influenced by the fact that California has a long tradition as a natural resource state and as the home of several major oil and gas producers. They have always known that abundant nuclear energy threatens their business model.

Now that Diablo Canyon is the last remaining nuclear power plant operating in California, the organizations, individual citizens and political leaders that have made nuclear energy opposition one of their significant activities have been forced to concentrate their efforts. We’ve covered some of the pressures being applied to force the plant owners to give up and shut the plant down in previous articles.

Fortunately for people who care about rational thinking and clean air, the pressure to protect Diablo Canyon and enable it to continue providing safe, clean, affordable, and reliable power is also growing. Many well-informed, experienced people are realizing that good decision making in a democracy requires their input and actions.

Californians for Green Nuclear Power (CGNP) is an outstanding group that has been working hard to publish op-ed pieces, participate in public meetings, provide docketed comments to policy actions, and speak to community groups all with the goal of helping their fellow Californians understand the importance of nuclear technology. Headquartered on the central coast, they have focused much of their effort on one of their most productive neighbors, Diablo Canyon.

There are other groups that have been focusing their efforts on helping the enormous “tech” industry in Silicon Valley and San Francisco remember that not all technology is based on silicon. They are working to generate excitement about technologies that use thorium, uranium, and plutonium in new and powerful ways to make life better for humanity. At least one of the advanced reactor start-up companies – Oklo – has chosen to locate in Silicon Valley so they they can more easily tap the tech industry’s resources, both human and financial.

Michael Shellenberger, one of the co-founders of the Oakland, California based Breakthrough Institute, has been supportive of efforts to improve public knowledge and acceptance of nuclear energy for several years. He was one of the converted former antinuclear environmentalists who were the main characters in Robert Stone’s Pandora’s Promise. He’s still an environmentalist and an ecomodernist who fully supports what Breakthrough is doing, but at the end of 2015, he decided it was time for a new challenge.

He left the Breakthrough Institute and began raising money for a new venture to build an organization that can focus on clean, reliable, affordable energy. The new group, named Environmental Progress, has chosen to Save Diablo Canyon as one of their first campaigns.

Shellenberger has a strong network. He is a professionally trained and experienced campaign organizer who is passionately committed to making a positive impact. Even though Environmental Progress is so new that I was unable to locate its home page, its effort to SaveDiabloCanyon has already been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle with both a front page article titled Yes nukes! Conservationists rally to save state’s nuclear plant and an op-ed by Shellenberger and Peter Raven titled Diablo Canyon is needed to save the climate, coasts.

The news story that helped attract the attention of the SF Chronicle writer was the publication of an open letter to elected state officials and heads of state agencies with assigned areas of responsibility affecting Diablo Canyon informing them of the importance of the plant and petitioning them to take actions to keep it open.

The letter was initially signed by an “international group of scientists, conservationists, and philanthropists”; the campaign also established a capability to add additional signers who want their voices to be heard.

Steven Weissman — Lecturer at the Goldman School of Public Policy and Director of the American Jobs Project, and a former administrative law judge at the California Public Utility Commission — published a rather piqued reaction to the Chronicle’s decision to cover the open letter with a front page article. Here is a quote from his post on Berkeley Law’s Legal Planet blog titled The Future of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant.

The role that nuclear power could or should play in helping to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions is worthy of serious debate, but the latest nuclear-related front-page story in the San Francisco Chronicle is a head-scratcher. Above the fold, the headline reads “Nuclear plant’s surprise backers,” followed by the following subheading: “Environmentalists push for Diablo Canyon to stay open.” The accompanying article reports on a letter sent by a new coalition identifying itself as “Save Diablo Canyon,” calling on regulators to relicense the plant. The stated concern is that a closed nuclear plant would make it harder to meet the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals. Constructed on a cliff along the central California coast, Diablo is the last remaining commercial reactor in the state and it soon must either receive a new license, or cease operation.

The mystery about the article is that it only mentions three of those who signed the letter, and each of those three has been on the public record for years as favoring nuclear power. So, where is the surprise? Where is the news item?

After challenging the newsworthiness of the letter, Weissman questions the credibility of claims that the people signing the letter because they care about clean air and water are environmentalists. He seems to believe they are simply good at getting attention as people who have donned the easy-to-assume moniker of “environmentalist” and then challenged environmental orthodoxy.

Weissman ends with a litany of reasons that he opposes the plant, including what he considers to be a poor siting choice, mistakes during construction and a series of “reported incidents.” There are several lengthy comments attached to the article, including an exchange between Shellenberger and Weissman that is worth reviewing for civil expression of differences of opinion. Here is the comment that I contributed to the discussion.

February 4, 2016 at 4:49 pm #

I’d like to challenge some of the points you asserted and for which you can probably find plenty of supporters. Nuclear energy has been controversial in CA since the early 1960s, when two of California’s largest companies (Chevron and Gulf) recognized that it was going to threaten their dominance of the state’s energy production and take market share. Shell Oil, though headquartered in Europe, also played a role as did several smaller oil companies, notably ARCO.

You assert that a new nuclear plant being built in CA today wouldn’t be located at Diablo Canyon, but you stated that judgement as if it was a known fact with which “everyone” would agree. I can guess the basis for your assertion, but did you know that the Sierra Club specifically worked with PG&E to select the Diablo Canyon site as preferable to several others under consideration? The “cliff” that you mention is a safety feature, it is what puts the plant’s safety related systems, structures and components out of reach of any conceivable tsunami.

Since the site is already the location of nuclear power plants, it is probably the best place in CA to site new ones. There is a supportive local community — outside of the Mother’s for Peace — and there are knowledgable professionals who can train a new generation of plant operators. There are transmission corridors that could be expanded, and readily available cooling water.

There is a good bit of controversy in the scientific community about the overall environmental effect of once through cooling versus other ways to dissipate the heat from a thermal power plant. The volume of ocean that is affected is minute compared to the size of the body of water, so the effect on living creatures is equally minute. Many other nations have made no attempt to regulate the long established practice of once through cooling out of existence.

There has been plenty of ink spilled in opposition to Diablo Canyon and in an effort to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about its performance in an earthquake. I’ve been suspicious of that heavily promoted earthquake risk ever since I learned that the Hosgri fault was discovered and named by two Shell Oil geologists who delayed promoting their findings until after PG&E had already completed much of the facility. That seems to have been calculated to impose huge costs on a competitor but no one seems to have batted an eyelash at the time.

I don’t claim to be a converted former anti-nuclear activist. I’ve been in favor of the technology ever since I was 8 and my dad explained how his company’s new power plants didn’t need smokestacks. I know a bit about transmission lines, unreliable power sources, and power generation and believe that Jacobson’s studies are build on dreams or mirages, not reality. His employer at Stanford is named the Precourt Institute for Energy. It’s named after a generous alumni donor named Jay Precourt, who has given the institute at least $80 million since it was formed in 2006.

No surprise to me, but Jay Precourt earned his BS and MS degrees in Petroleum Engineering and made his fortune in a variety of positions in the oil and gas industry. He probably knows full well that wind and solar projects are really gas projects with nice PR and signage.

I encourage all readers to recognize the importance of full participation in what is going to become a rather loud and contentious discussion about whether or not Diablo Canyon should continue to operate. Like Shellenberger, I believe that this is a great opportunity for people who favor the use of nuclear energy to clearly explain their reasons. Including a bit of passion and honest concerns for current and future generations in that explanation will likely help strengthen the statements.

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Dr. Rachel Slaybaugh “It’s an exciting time to be in nuclear engineering.”

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Bipartisan support for advanced nuclear energy development

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Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) supports nuclear because it reduces air pollution

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Another day, another model “proving” capabilities of weather-dependent power

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Vermonters say they want industrial wind to go the way of the billboard

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NCSE Food-Water-Energy Nexus – Day 1

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