Buried pipes versus buried pipelines – hype versus hazard
Several months ago, I signed up to receive press releases from Representative Ed Markey, mainly so you don’t have to endure the pain yourself. On June 21, 2011, I received one titled Markey, Welch to GAO: No Way to Assess Integrity of Buried Pipes at Nuclear Reactors that offers some food for thought about the coordinated effort to instill fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) about nuclear reactor safety and the effectiveness of our current regulatory system.
In coordination with Markey’s press release about the completion of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation on the issue of leaks in buried pipes at nuclear generators, the second installment of the Associated Press attack on nuclear energy production facilities hit the presses. Surprise, surprise, it also focused on the manufactured issue of leaks and spills of water from pipes that are buried underneath US nuclear plants.
Not surprisingly, Rep. Markey picked out the phrases from the GAO report that he wanted people to read, just like he did from the Inspector General report on the deceptive political tactics employed by the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. (Reminder – Rep. Ed Markey gave Greg Jaczko his first job in Washington when he was freshly minted PhD in imaginary particle physics.)
Knowing a bit about how both Markey and the GAO work, I noted the words that Markey emphasized and compared them to the findings as written by the professional investigators. It is an interesting contrast. Here is what Markey thought was the most important take away:
Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and licensees “cannot be assured that underground safety-related pipes remain structurally sound without having information about degradation that has occurred. Without such assurance, the likelihood of future pipe failures cannot be as accurately assessed, and this increases the uncertainty surrounding the safety of the plants.”
Here is how the GAO reported its findings:
What GAO Found
While experts in our public health discussion group generally agreed that radioactive leaks at the three nuclear power plants in our case studies of actual events had no discernible impact on the public’s health, these experts noted that additional information could enhance the identification of the leaks and the characterization of their impacts. The experts in our environmental impact discussion group concluded that environmental resources beyond the plant site have not been impacted discernibly, but that on-site contamination could affect plant decommissioning; for example, the licensee may have to conduct costly remediation to meet NRC regulations for unrestricted release of the site. Experts also identified the need for licensees to transparently report monitoring data and for licensees’ groundwater monitoring programs to be independently reviewed.
In other words, as a taxpayer and as an electricity rate payer, I have to ask – what is the big deal? Why does something that has no impact on the public health and no impact on the environment rate a 25 page report from the General Accountability Office that could not have cost less than a million dollars for the GAO to produce, and must have cost at least two million dollars for the NRC to participate and respond. It must also have cost tens of millions for utilities who have to build programs to prove that they are still not harming the public health because they happen to have pipes that are, by design necessity, located below their industrial facilities.
Having spent some time investigating issues like hydraulic fracturing and pipeline explosions, I cannot help but compare the way that contribution-hungry politicians and the advertiser-supported media hype up discharges of a maximum of a few hundred thousand gallons of fluid that is at least five nines (99.999%) H2O compared to the way they obfuscate fires, explosions, and pollution caused by ruptures that release millions of gallons of petroleum or millions of cubic feet of methane.
When gas drillers are asked to specify the makeup of their fracking fluids, they will often respond with something like the below, which comes from a web site devoted to providing the gas industry’s perspective on hydraulic fracturing.
Chesapeake uses water for drilling, where a mixture of clay and water is used to carry rock cuttings to the surface, as well as to cool and lubricate the drillbit. Drilling a typical Chesapeake deep shale gas well requires between 65,000 and 600,000 gallons of water. Water is also used in fracking where a mixture of water and sand is injected into the deep shale at a high pressure to create small cracks in the rock allowing gas to freely flow to the surface. Fracking a typical Chesapeake horizontal deep shale gas well requires an average of 4.5 million gallons per well.
When antinuclear activists like Arnie Gundersen or Ed Markey want to instill a negative image of nuclear energy production into the public consciousness, they might make a loud public statement about an issue like Vermont Yankee’s year’s worth of undetected leakage of about 100,000 gallons of water that contained a total of approximately 0.035 milligrams of tritium. (One curie of tritium has a mass of 0.1 milligrams.)
Of course, even people like Gundersen and Markey must recognize that no one could be scared by a number like 0.035, especially when it is connected to a tiny, reasonably well understood unit of measure like a “milligram”. Their press releases or public statements frequently translate that same quantity of tritium into something really scary sounding like “350 billion picocuries!” or “a third of a million liters containing 50 times the safe drinking water limit”. (I’ll leave the math to the wizards who read and comment.)
There may be thousands of feet of piping encased in concrete and installed in inaccessible locations underneath uranium fueled electrical generation facilities. Some of that piping has leaked in the past and some will leak in the future. No harm will be done to anyone, no drinking water will be contaminated and no plant safety functions will be impaired.
If you really want to have something to worry about, think about the fact that the oil and gas industry has millions of miles of large diameter pipelines carrying toxic and explosive chemicals and gases, often at significantly elevated pressures and often right underneath your home, office building, or school. Talk to some of the survivors in San Bruno whose neighborhood was destroyed by a methane explosion in the fall of 2010 about the potential hazard of buried pipelines.
Find some of the relatives of the extended family that perished when buried pipelines carrying natural gas leaked explosive gas and caused an enormous burst of deadly flames in August of 2000. That August rupture and pipeline explosion reduced the flow of gas into California by 33% for more than 6 months and contributed to the energy crisis that toppled Grey Davis and led to the election of Arnold Schwartzenegger.
I am not saying that stories about gas pipeline ruptures are never told. I am saying that they are rarely repeated and rarely strung together by a coordinated attack effort to produce a GAO report, issue press releases, hold hearings and issue scary press articles – when there is no new event to talk about. As a former teacher and coach, I can testify that repetition and using several different transmission paths is quite effective when you want your students (or the public) to remember something.
If you wonder why you may hear so much more about tritium than you do about gas or oil leaks, think about how many commercials for “clean natural gas” you have seen in the past month and think about the fact that the US gas producers sell about 23 trillion cubic feet of methane (aka natural gas) every year at an average price of somewhere between $3 and $15 per thousand cubic feet – depending on the balance between supply and demand.
When nuclear plants are forced to shut down, demand for gas increases. When utility executives defer new nuclear plant investments due to the way the public, the politicians and the regulators reacts to issues like tritium leaks, the demand for gas experiences a nearly permanent increase. (In other words, the revenue from selling gas, and the money available to pay for more advertising and more political contributions experiences a nearly permanent increase.)
PS Hat tip to my friends on the No Agenda Podcast for the phrase “so you don’t have to”. In their case, they claim to watch hours and hours of C-span so their listeners do not have to endure the eyestrain and anger that can come from watching political sausage get made. Their premise is that you can learn a lot more about how the world works from sources that do not boil 2.5 hours of testimony into a 15 second sound bite.
Both of the hosts, John C. Dvorak and Adam Curry, have spent their professional lives in “the media”. John is a prolific columnist on business and tech matters while Adam has been a disk jockey since he was about 14 years old and is best remembered – among those of us of a certain age – for having been one of the early “VJs” on MTV. That was way back when that network actually filled most of its air time with music videos. John and Adam label themselves as “media assassins” and help people to understand how selected stories are often coordinated, manufactured and promoted to further preexisting strategies and agendas. End PS.
Associated Press article on nuclear regulation in the U.S.: can you spot the bias?
Note – deleted for being way off topic
Deleted – response to off topic post
Note- comment removed as being way off topic. Cold fusion or LENR is not a topic of interest on Atomic Insights
A story in ‘Business China’ :
illustrates a more pragmatic approach, to wit that the risks of nuclear cannot be seen in isolation, but rather compared to the alternatives.
You called yourself a proud liberal in a recent post. Ed Markey is one of yours and you can have him. You can also keep governor of Vermont Peter Shumlin while you are at it.
This is likely going to set off a flame war, but, as an ideology, liberalism is supposed to favor reason, rationalism, enlightenment, science, and technological and social progress over superstition, irrationalism, romanticism, and luddism, so I would argue that Markey and Shumlin’s anti-nuclear antics give liberalism a bad name.
I know this is the no true Scotsman fallacy, but I question the true allegiance to the ideology of liberalism of any “liberal” who is reflexively anti-nuclear. I can see where liberals could be cautious and hesitant around nuclear power, or be opposed due to being misinformed or disinformed about it, but I cannot see where any true liberal, knowing all the facts, would oppose it all together.
Rod – thanks, as always, for the post. It reminds me that on walks I took around the last subdivision I lived in, I would see signs identifying the location of a pipeline. (I’m not sure if it was oil or gas – I think it was gas; IIRC the signs mentioned pressure.) The line ran under a lane and within 10 meters of an elementary school; I’d see kids walking in the lane and entering the school. We accept what the people around us accept; thinking for ourselves isn’t very common at all.
On LENR – from what I’ve read about Rossi’s demonstrations, James Randi would not be fooled. Rossi doesn’t pretend to be supernatural, but a friend who knows some stage magic agrees that the demonstrations are far more likely to be illusions than new physics.
One comment from an experimental physicist in the blog post Rossi energy catalyst – a big hoax or new physics? is particularly telling. There’s a long list of measurements that could be made, and the measurements would settle the matter quickly.
Everywhere, not just in the States, the glaring difference between the coverage that coal and gas accidents get in comparison to the slightest nuclear incident is very telling.
A few years ago several houses, including mine were evacuated for several hours while GazMet looked for a leak, which was found and repaired without incident. Despite the fact that a news reporter for a local radio station was among those affected, nothing made it to any broadcast I saw that night. When I asked the reporter she only said the item that she had suggested on what had happened was bumped by what was deemed more interesting news by her editor. No doubt I assume by the story of the cat-lady that had been evicted by the city which ran that night.
Had this been a nuclear related story, we all know that the reporting would have been such that it would have made not only local but national, if not international news. This is at the root of nuclear’s PR problems – the media is very biased, and while that is the case we will always be swimming against the current.
This statement in the GAO quote caught my eye:
This is a classic example of extra costs being imposed on the basis of zero evidence/b> that this contamination is at significant levels likely to cause harm. Tritium is almost completely benign, with exactly zero studies showing evidence of human health concerns, and its presence in slow-moving groundwater is not an adequate rationale for direct remediation. It is worth triggering investigation of cause as part of general alertness to unexpected consequences of plant operation, of course.
Andrew; liquid and gas transmission pipelines will both operate under pressure; most way-marking signs will tell you which it is. You will not have to walk very far in Alberta to cross such a pipeline.
Also, since tritium has a half-life of just over twelve years, by the time the site might be decomissioned and released for some other use, this non-hazard will have naturally reduced itself to an even lower level of non-hazard.
What really should happen? The site be released as a “brownfield” to build a new, modern nuclear power plant.
When I read the two AP articles by Donn, I was shocked when A) he used preliminary NRC event reports in his tallying, and B) he referenced himself from the previous day (“The AP has previously reported…”) to try to lend more legitimacy to his arguments.
Can anyone tell me how those NRC Event Reports work? If a preliminary report is issued, I understand it can be retracted – is there then an additional report issued saying it’s been retracted, or is the original one marked retracted or removed? Could this, then, essentially double the reporter’s tallies?
Tritium leaks are never reported with any sense of what the actual risks to public health are (which is what this should all be about). How do these tritium leaks compare to gasoline leaking from underground tanks at gas stations all across America? Not only are many tanks leaking, but the ethanol added accelerates the transport of the hazardous components through the ground.
Perhaps it was a mistake giving tritium its own name. We should just call it H3. It could be marketed as the top-of-line hydrogen, equipped with two additional neutrons. Use H3 today. Give your system the extra Boost it needs.
It certainly does wonders for boosting some systems (much higher yields).
Why isn’t there a concern for leaking Exit signs? There are millions of Exit signs with tritium all over the place, yet no one seems to be concerned these are filled with tritium. I bet most people don’t even know these signs are filled with tritium.
Mr Adams, you seem to be falling into the trap of “if you think my industry is unsafe, wait till you check out the other guys” mentality.
Although I haven’t had a “long” career by most standards, my career in engineering has taken me from nuclear plants, gas fired plants, coal fired plants, pipeline operators, petrochemical plants, refineries, and OEM’s. One thing I learned along the way is that they all, nearly without exception, work pretty hard at safety. Some of this is purely profit driven (safe operations mean less downtime), some regulatory driven but judging from my interactions with the old timers there has been a definite culture change in industry over the past 40 years.
With respect to pipeline incidents, there are 2.3 million miles of buried transmission and distribution pipelines in the US. They carry everything from oil and natural gas (primarily) to anhydrous ammonia, gasoline and petrochemcial feedstock. From 1984 to the present there have been 43 fatalities associate with pipeline accidents. That translates into 2.15 fatalities per year. As much as any fatality is, on an individual level, a tragedy for those involved you are playing into the hands of the deep ecology folks when you use this to compare the safety of nuclear power.
It’s a similar story with the hydraulic fracturing debate. There has yet to be one single groundwater contamination case positively shown to be the result of HF operations (with the rare exception of methane contamination from leaking well head casings).
You should know better. The goal of the Arnie Gundersons, Ed Markeys, National Resource Defense Councils and Greenpeaces of the world is not to make industry operate more safely but to make industry stop operating. These people share cultural values: anti-capitalism, anti-growth, anti-consumerism and they would just as soon see every nuclear plant shuttered as they would see every steel mill or every combined cycle natural gas plant closed down. Add into the mix a pop culture machine that very much shares these values (Gasland, The China Syndrome, Erin Brockovich, Musicians United for Safe Energy, etcetera) and has a very wide and impressionable audience. Top it all off with a news media whose technical expertise doesn’t exceed programming a DVR and who is ideologically sympathetic to these groups and we have a recipe for misinformation and disinformation on a massive scale.
Either industry hangs together in face of these attacks or we will all hang separately.
“That translates into 2.15 fatalities per year. As much as any fatality is, on an individual level, a tragedy for those involved you are playing into the hands of the deep ecology folks when you use this to compare the safety of nuclear power.”
I don’t see how it plays into their hands. It still verifies, via numbers, that nuclear is safer. By my ciphering, the following is true:
2.5 fatalities/year > 0 fatalities/year
@ Mike H
If the fossil fuel industry doesn’t want interference from “Arnie Gundersons, Ed Markeys, National Resource Defense Councils and Greenpeaces” They they ought to stop paying them.
Do a search on Atomic Insights using the words “smoking gun”
Someone should create a new tritium unit-perhaps number of tritium dial watches or number of tritium exit ramp signs.
That would make it clear to the public just what a tiny amount 0.035 grams is, and even more tiny when viewed as a concentration of one watch per gallon, say in a release of 100,000 gallons.
Quote from the above link…
“Tritium emits low-energy beta radiation that cannot penetrate a sheet of paper or clothing. If inhaled, it leaves the body relatively quickly.”
So this massive threat to all humanity is foiled by Cotton and Paper….
First of all, your comment inspired me to check my units and math one more time. It turns out that I was off by a significant amount – the total amount of tritium released by the Vermont Yankee leak was 0.35 curies, but a curie of tritium has a mass of 0.1 milligrams, not 0.1 grams. Therefore, the amount of tritium should have been 0.035 milligrams, not 0.035 grams. I am going to correct the post as soon as I finish this comment.
According to Meredith Angwin at Yes Vermont Yankee, a tritium exit sign will typically contain about 30 curies of tritium.
100,000 gallons (roughly 370,000 liters) at slightly less than one million picocuries per liter contains approximately 0.35 curies. (370,000 x 970,000 picocuries x 1 curie/10^12 picocuries = 0.35 curies)
If you want to extract tritium from that source of water to produce exit signs, you would need to have 30/.35 or 86 times as much water. Let me say that one more time – you would need 8.6 MILLION gallons of water containing nearly 50 times the drinking water standard in order to produce enough tritium for a single exit sign.
See why I truly believe that the reports about tritium leaks need some perspective?
I wonder how that compares to the amount of activity that’s flushed out of hospitals from patients undergoing radiotherapy treatments?
And how many of those signs end up in the dump when they break, quit working the building is remodeled or tore down? With only about 100 nuclear power plants it would be a safe bet that more than that number of signs get thrown away a year even though there are warnings on these signs to dispose of properly. Why the big concern about the NPP but none about the dump? How close do you live to a land fill? Is your municipal water source near the land fill? Does the runoff enter the nearby lake/river? I think your chances are much higher of getting tritium from your land fill than from a nuclear power plant.
Which reminds me where do you readers dispose of the burnt out CFL? For that matter any florescent light bulb? And where do you dispose of the broken fire detector?
Why don’t we change the units and get them really riled up about that exit sign they just walked under leaving Wal-Mart? Just state it in Becquerels, sounds like instant death:
“How much tritium does a tritium exit sign contain?
The quantity of tritium contained in each tritium exit sign varies with the size of the sign. The tritium exit sign used in Hong Kong may contain tritium with total activity ranging from 0.3 to 0.8 TBq (300 to 800 billion Becquerel (貝克勒爾)).”
I think you found a post worthy topic with that comment, Rod. It would be nice to have a graphical representation of that comparison. People need to understand this is a trivial quantity of a substance they most likely walk under everyday.
Thanks for the extra info.
I would not be surprised to find out that this salvo of 4 articles was part of an antinuclear PR push originally aimed at the 25th Chernobyl anniversary. Certainly, I had been waiting for Greenpeace’s 25th anniversary efforts==However, the focus of that effort has been somewhat blunted and confused by the reality of Fukushima, where it appears 3 nuclear reactors melted down, negligble plutonium was released, and no one died.
I will be very happy to quote you on the exit sign / tritium calculation to my politically oriented friends in VT.
I’m put in mind of the term used by natural gas suppliers: “NORM” – “Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material.” Mainly radon, I gather, which decays down through bismuth and lead isotopes, among others. It’s not even federally regulated.
I wonder how that routine lifetime exposure compares to a tiny speck worth of tritium? I wonder how much radioactive material is dumped into the air by gas flaring?
http://www.irpa.net/irpa5/cdrom/VOL.3/J3_78.PDF – says that as much as 1,450 pCi/l at the wellhead has been measured.
I found an article about Nigerian gas flaring at oil wells where they said a beginning industrial delivery volume was 175 million cubic feet per day that they are currently flaring off. The article above reckons a little less than 1 pCi/l of radon-222 for gas at the wellhead for North Sea wells, so that Nigerian volume is 4,955,448,174.6 liters, and thus 1.8 curies of radon per year dumped into the air for just a portion of Nigerian oil well flares.
Radon dissolved in petroleum follows the “C3 (propane) cut” in terms of its volatility, so most of the polonium contamination (caused by radon decay during refining) is limited to the LPG fractionation piping. The rest remains dissolved in the LPG (until it decays). This is also why little radon is present in the methane flared at the well.
Used oilfield equipment is often found to be significantly radioactive, due to encrusted radium containing sludge. It can’t be reused or recycled, and must be buried as low-level waste.
“If you really want to have something to worry about, think about the fact that the oil and gas industry has millions of miles of large diameter pipelines…”
This reminds me of the never-ending political/media uproar over fault lines near Indian Point (engineered to withstand ten times the biggest postulated quake), when no one ever mentions the potential impact of sudden failure of two 300 foot tall, 100-year old stone dams nearby (at Valhalla and Croton River), with tens of thousands of people immediately downstream,
Which was more dangerous, Fukushima Daiichi or Banqiao Dam?
On September 29, 1950 in a town on the Gota River in Sweden, a pile driver began operation for a foundation. Without warning a whole section of the town started sliding toward the river carrying 31 homes, the highway and railroad. This area consists of what they call “quick-clay.” Major portions of the New Jersey flat land areas consist of this same type of material. All it takes is the right strength earthquake and these areas will turn into a quick-sand like material and many thousands of homes, businesses, etc will disappear. It is possible this also happened at one of the communities at the mouth of the river in Japan that is now 10 to 20 feet lower in elevation. I have been told that you could not climb the steps fast enough to avoid harm if you were in an area where this happened.
If you are worried about Indian Point, Oyster Creek, etc. I would move to the mountains.
Probably the dam. One thing that got very little coverage in the media was the renewable energy disaster that occurred in Japan after the March earthquake. The Okura dam in Sendai collapsed and washed away an entire village of 1800 people. That is a death toll likely over a thousand for renewable energy, zero deaths for nuclear. Even anti-nooks can do the math on that (although they’ll probably interpret the results incorrectly).
@Wayne – There is no “probably” about atomikrabbit’s allusion.
When he asked about Banqiao Dam, he was talking about an historical event, not a hypothetical one.
That dam failed following a typhoon. The estimated death toll was >170,000 people.
IIRC that had 26,000 immediate fatalities, the rest resulted from disease/famine that followed the disaster. Still, 26,000 in itself is 26,000 more than Fukushima has tallied to this point.
Renewable/hydro disasters are terrible for another reason: the public bears all of the risk associated with this energy source. As much as the anti-nooks like to diss the nuclear industry about things like insurance, at least we provide some measure of risk management to the public. Hydro/renewable provide none. Dam failures always result in all the risk being borne by the people. It has happened in this country as well. 450 fatalities and hundreds of millions of losses from the St. Francis dam failure. The Teton Dam collapse in Iadho was another. 2,220 killed by the Lake Conemaugh dam collapse, that caused the infamous Johnstown flood. Renewable energy has killed thousands in this country and caused probably tens of billions in property damage in today’s dollars, yet no one ever hears about these things. They go on and on about Chernobil and Fukushima and TMI, but say nary a word about these far worse diasters caused by renewable energy. Based on that aslone, renewable energy has to be classified as far more dsangerous than nuclear has proven to be.
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