Antinuclear activists are too modest

Jim Conca has published a couple of recent posts on Forbes.com about the premature closure of nuclear power plants in the United States. One titled Are California’s Carbon Goals Kaput? focuses on some of the environmental aspects of the San Onofre debacle; the other, titled Closing Vermont Nuclear Bad Business for Everyone focuses on the economic and environmental costs of the not-yet-implemented plan to close Vermont Yankee for the New England region.

Both posts have attracted the attention of several antinuclear activists, including at least one professional named Paul Gunter. One of the memes that Gunter and his cohorts in crime seem to have agreed to propagate is that the decision to close the plants was purely economic and rests solely on the shoulders of the plant owners. The antinuclear movement is too modest by failing to claim proper credit for their successful, multi-year, multi-front campaigns.

Atomic Insights is not the only one that has noticed the close ties between antinuclear activism, powerful politicians, and big money with deep ties to people that will benefit from the energy supply constraints that are the inevitable result of closing operating nuclear power plants.

On September 30, 2014, the minority on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee published a scathing blog post titled Environmental Lobbying to Shut Down One Nuclear Power Plant at a Time that exposes the coordinated and well-funded actions taken to destroy the productive capacity of several nuclear power plants.

Unfortunately, Senator Vitter (R-LA) refers to the groups by the misleading term of “environmental groups” and states that the funding is driven by the political left. I believe a more accurate appellation is to call the groups “antinuclear” and to recognize that the funding is coming from organizations and groups that have a financial interest in driving up energy prices by reducing available supply and creating a situation where there is an artificial scarcity.

Despite our different interpretations of the same facts, I think that Senator Vitter and his investigators have performed an important task and have added to the momentum that is building to understand how much money is involved in antinuclear activism and decisions about our energy supplies. Here is a pertinent extract from the blog post:

At the forefront of this effort are Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and their allies, including Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth (FOE) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Each has advocated for the immediate shut down and decommissioning of nuclear facilities.[10]

“We aim to stop proposed new nuclear plants and license extensions of old plants.”[11] – Sierra Club, Nuclear Free Campaign

In recent years, Sierra Club/Sierra Club Foundation received millions of dollars, in total, from Billionaire’s Club Foundations that include Energy Foundation, Rockefeller Family Fund, SeaChange Foundation, Wallace Global Fund, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Schmidt Family Foundation, and Tides foundation.[12] In recent years FOE has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Tides Foundation, Energy Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Park Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Marisla Foundation.[13] Likewise, UCS has received generous funding from David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Energy Foundation, Park Foundation, Wallace Global Fund, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Rockefeller Family Fund, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, ClimateWorks Foundation, Marisla Foundation, and Tides Foundation.[14]

By attacking the industry at every turn, this coordinated campaign succeeded in obtaining the closure of the San Onofre Nuclear General Station (SONGS). Senator Boxer and her allies aggressively sought to shut down the facility by targeting a technical issue with one of the SONGS new steam generators – in spite of the fact that the concern had not caused any injuries.[15]


[10] [A] http://www.epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Majority.PressReleases&ContentRecord_id=c0a594e4-802a-23ad-4c55-7578565a257a&Region_id=&Issue_id

[B] https://www.boxer.senate.gov/en/press/updates/060713.cfm

[11] https://content.sierraclub.org/grassrootsnetwork/teams/nuclear-free-campaign

[12] Tides Foundation IRS 990, 2010, 2011, 2012; Energy Foundation IRS Form 990, 2010, 2011, 2012; Rockefeller Brothers Fund IRS Form 990 2010, 2011, 2012; Park Foundation IRS Form 990, 2011, 2012; Rockefeller Family Fund IRS Form 990, 2011, Marisla Foundation IRS Form 990, 2010, 2012; Schmidt Family Foundation IRS Form 990, 2010, 2011; SeaChange Foundation IRS Form 990, 2011; Wallace Global Fund IRS Form 990, 2012.

[13] Tides Foundation IRS 990, 2010, 2011, 2012; Tides Foundation Grants Database 2013, available at http://www.tides.org/fileadmin/user/pdf/Tides_List_of_2013_Grantees.pdf ; Energy Foundation IRS Form 990, 2012; Energy Foundation Grants Database 2013, available at http://www.ef.org/grants-database/#!/keywords=friends%20of%20the%20earth; Rockefeller Brothers Fund IRS Form 990 2010, 2011, 2012; Park Foundation IRS Form 990, 2011, 2012; David and Lucile Packard Foundation IRS Form 990, 2010, 2011, 2012; Marisla Foundation IRS Form 990, 2010, 2012.

[14] ClimateWorks Foundation IRS Form 990, 2010, 2011, 2012; David and Lucile Packard Foundation IRS Form 990, 2010, 2012, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation IRS Form 990, 2010, 2011, 2012; Wallace Global Fund IRS Form 990, 2010, 2011, 2012; Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation IRS Form 990, 2011; Tides Foundation IRS Form 990, 2011, 2012; Energy Foundation IRS Form 990, 2010, 2011; Marisla Foundation IRS Form 990,2011, 2012; Rockefeller Family Fund IRS Form 990, 2011

[15] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/06/barbara-boxer-san-onofre_n_2633202.html

I’ve been actively engaging with Gunter and the other antinuclear commenters on Conca’s posts on Forbes. It has been quite amusing to me to be able to counter the arguments with better information and to see the consternation that my comments have caused. Here is an example that I recently posted in response to a Gunter comment that accused Dr. Conca of engaging in revisionist history.

@Paul Gunter

The victors may get to write history, but this battle is not yet over and your side has not yet won. Conca’s article should not be labeled as revisionist because the history is still being investigated and understood. The early drafts are still in progress.

Your slant is certainly evident and is portrayed by some as being the “real story,” but it is false in several ways.

For example – the tube in question did not “rupture.” It began leaking at a rate of less than 150 gallons per day which is about one tenth of a gallon, less than two cups, per minute. My drip coffee pot produces more fluid than that.

Because the primary coolant the tubes contain has just passed through the reactor core, it contains a relatively high concentration of a highly radioactive isotope N-16. That isotope is both easily detected and completely decayed away just 2 minutes after the water has been out of the reactor. (N-16 has an 8 second half life.)

Detectors installed in the secondary system immediately registered the leak by sensing the N-16. The operators on shift took appropriate immediate actions and began a controlled shutdown so that the leak could be isolated.

The most exposed person from the radioactive material that leaked out of the single tube that was leaking could have received a dose of just 0.00000052 mSv, which is a billion times lower than the annual occupational limit for a radiation worker.

Studies of tens of thousands of occupational workers have shown that the limits under which they work are safe and result in no detectable health risks.

By the letter of the law in the form of its operating license, SCE never had to ask the NRC for permission to restart the plant. It could have taken the assertive approach. The better path would have been to notify the NRC of the unusual event, inspect the steam generator, plug the leaking tube and other tubes that indicated some thinning and then restart the plant.

The leak rate never violated their operating license (the allowable leak rate for continued operation is 150 gallons per day) and is not really all that unusual in pressurized water reactors. In the early years of commercial reactor operation, steam generator tube leaks were more common than they are today – plugging tubes was never a good thing but it was expected in the design and almost routine.

Unfortunately, too many corporate leaders in the nuclear industry are overly conservative and quite fearful of debating the federal regulator — even when they are on solid technical ground.

That was especially true during the reign of Greg Jaczko, a man who had been actively fighting nuclear energy since his days as a University of Wisconsin graduate student. (I have several friends who attended the same school at the same time in the late 1990s and used him as an opponent in several nuclear energy debates.)

SCE made the tactical error of filing a document with the NRC that committed the company to obtaining approval before restarting the plant. Until then, the NRC had no basis on which to intervene in what should have been a routine system repair.

Steam generator tubes are similar to the tubes in fossil fuel boilers, which are also known to leak on occasion. The rugged, but not perfect, components are designed with a margin; in most cases 10% of the tubes can be plugged before needing to reduce the power output.

The tube-to-tube wear in SONGS unit 3 was not expected, but it is not completely unheard of in heat exchangers. Industry experience outside of nuclear is that tube-to-tube wear caused by unexpected vibration in a small section of a heat exchanger can be permanently fixed by plugging the tubes in that section of the heat exchanger. Tubes that do not vibrate in the first couple of years will not start vibrating sometime later.

I wrote a number of contemporary articles on this topic at Atomic Insights. I recommend reading them.

The company is not innocent; it should have fixed the steam generator and moved on. However, the political pressure applied to the NRC, the delays that the regulator imposed, the contentious public meetings on what should have been an engineering decision, and the uncertainties imposed finally led the company to determine that it was better for its stockholders to close the plant.

It was not the right decision for SCE’s customers, but the regulatory bodies whose job was protecting the customer and public interests failed in that task by forcing a valuable asset to shut down more than 20 years earlier than it should have.

A California journalist named Dan McSwain wrote an article in U-T San Diego on July 27, 2013 titled “The Secret Decision to Kill San Onofre Nuke” that calculated that the debacle will end up costing a total of $13.8 billion including the cost of replacement power over the period when the plant should have been producing low marginal cost power.

Congratulations, Paul. You and your professional antinuclear, pro-natural gas friends have made an impact with the help of the corporations and the regulators that you love to criticize. You have helped to impose significant costs on a large number of people in order to provide enormous sums of money to a few select fuel suppliers and contractors.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights

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