CBSNews.com – a company whose lineage includes a period when its corporate name was Westinghouse and its basic nuclear plant design was the basis for approximately 2/3 of the plants built in the United States – has published an opinion piece by Chrisian Parenti titled What To Do With Zombie Nuke Plants. The piece originally appeared in The Nation under the title of Zombie Nuke Plants. The basic premise of the article is that existing US nuclear power plants are being run into the ground and that the situation is being enabled by a regulator that is not paying attention.
The article angered me, especially since it has no relationship to the reality that I have seen in numerous visits to US nuclear plants or in many years worth of association with nuclear trained professionals working for both industry and government agencies. There is little doubt within the nuclear industry that safety is the number one mission and no doubt at all that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a tough minded regulator that will not hesitate to halt operations or levy a fine if they believe that there is a problem.
From the day that I initially began nuclear power training, I recognized that I had entered a demanding profession with exacting standards of performance. That first impression remains strong – even in a period in our American history when most fields have adopted cost-cutting as their modus operandi and when the Wal-Mart philosophy of “cheaper is better” is endemic. Nuclear power remains an area where the participants know that performance is important, procedures are meant to be followed, and the word “shall” in a document means exactly what it says.
According to Mr. Parenti, a professional journalist and book author who cannot have spent much time at any plant or among the professionals who man those plants, our current fleet of reactors are “leaking, rickety old wrecks” that were only designed to last 30-40 years. Nothing could be farther from the truth, something that any honest journalist would be able to determine through the use of recorded facts or observation during a visit. For a good description of the conditions in a typical nuclear plant written by an questioning and critical outsider, I encourage you to pick up Gwyneth Cravens excellent book titled Power to Save the World and read her descriptions of visits to the Oconee and McGuire Nuclear power plants in chapters 11 and 12.
As a former steam plant engineer, I can tell you that it would be impossible to achieve an average capacity factor of more than 90% over a sustained 5 year period from a fleet of machines that have any resemblance to the words “leaky and rickety”. Steam is an energetic and dangerous tool that must be retained in resilient piping systems – if it routinely leaks, people will get hurt, equipment will get damaged and even hardest to hide – power output will decrease. That is simply NOT happening in our nuclear plants; when a component approaches a point where it is leaky or unreliable, that component gets replaced to enable continued dependable operation. When you are operating a plant that produces a couple of million dollars worth of revenue every day that it operates – and will keep doing that for another 30-40 years, you want to take good care of that plant.
Radiation is also impossible to hide; there is a good reason why doctors like to use radioactive isotopes in medical diagnostic procedures – they can use sensitive equipment to follow those tracers through all of the body’s systems. The levels that can be measured are FAR lower than the levels that will cause any negative health effects for human beings.
A good way to understand the current physical condition of US nuclear plants is to go to an old car show and talk to the owners of fine, vintage automobiles. Crawl around and look under the hood and into the nooks and crannies of the vehicle. What you will see is machinery that has received a lot of tender loving care over the years by people who take pride in what they do. You would feel perfectly safe in getting in and taking a ride, just as anyone who lives near a US nuclear plant should – and generally does, according to many surveys – feel comfortable and proud to have that plant as a neighbor. Here is a quote from a July 2009 survey titled Third Biennial Nuclear Power Plant Neighbor Public Opinion Tracking Survey conducted by Bisconti Research
Opinions of nuclear power plant neighbors toward nuclear energy and the local nuclear power plant continue to be highly favorable in 2009. Now, 90 percent hold a favorable impression of the local nuclear power plant, and 76 percent would find it acceptable to add a new reactor at the nearby nuclear power plant site. Compared to 2007, attitudes on a variety of measures are slightly more favorable.
Critical thinkers who understand the world and are not motivated by the rewards that can come from spreading fear and using sensationalism as a way to sell books and articles will recognize that surveys conducted in the neighborhoods near nuclear plants include a sample population of plant workers, suppliers, families and friends. Some will see the plant regularly, but all will be exposed to gossip and casual conversation. For Parenti to be correct, those people would have to all be hypnotized or lobotomized to be able to ignore any rumors about poor working conditions, improper maintenance or sloppy adherence to operating procedures.
Either tens of thousands of people living near the plants plus thousands of professional regulators plus thousands of professional, licensed operators are wrong about the condition of their plants or Parenti, a rather lonely voice, is wrong. I have no doubts about who to believe – Parenti is obviously a man with an agenda whose grasp of reality is questionable. (I have to admit, I almost used the word “idiot” instead of “man” in the previous sentence, but I thought that might be a bit too harsh. I could, however, be wrong on that point.)
If you want to see the man in action promoting his agenda, you can find a video clip of his interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now at As U.S. Probes Radiation at Three Mile Island, Christian Parenti on Enduring “Zombie Nuke Plants” Nationwide. My impression is that the video is a pretty fair illustration of why Parenti’s work should be taken with a huge dose of salt and needs to be exposed for the claptrap that it is.
Update: (Posted on 2 December 2009 at 0502) The Nation has published some web letters in response to Christian Parenti’s op-ed about “Zombie” nuclear plants. Mine is included in the list, but Dan Yurman’s got a red star indicating it was one of their favorite responses. Way to go, Dan!