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.