Matthew Wald published a column in the Green Inc. portion of the New York Times on April 20, 2010 titled Has Trust Leaked Away With the Tritium?. As many of you know, I get have been irked by the way that the industry and the federal regulators have not adequately helped the public to understand just how tiny the effect of a small leak of tritium really are, especially in comparison to the hazards of any power source that can replace the reliable power that comes from a nuclear fission power plant.
I posted a comment on the NY Times story and thought you might be interested in reading it here, just in case it does not pass through the moderation queue quickly. (Note: I have taken the opportunity provided by time and better editing tools to make a few minor corrections and improvements to my original comment.)
The public fears about tritium are the result of an incredibly well orchestrated program of spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt about the only real competition that threatens the prosperity of the producers and distributors of coal, oil and natural gas. If people like Arnie Gundersen have their way and get Vermont Yankee shut down, that action will immediately increase the market demand for natural gas in New England.
Replacing the power output from VY each year would require burning about 32 billion cubic feet of natural gas costing about $156 million – even at today’s relatively low prices of about $5 per thousand cubic feet. With the increase in demand, I suspect that the price for natural gas in New England will increase, causing widespread additional costs for heating customers and industrial users.
Of course, companies that sell gas in the northeast stand to profit handsomely. If members of the team fighting VY succeed in shutting down Indian Point as well, with its 2045 MWe of production 93% of the hours of the year, you can take the numbers above for VY and multiply them by 3.3 (2045/620). No wonder an arm of JP Morgan has invested in natural gas supply companies that will be doing business in New England.
The incredible thing is that the public has been made to fear the effects of leaking 1/3 of a curie of tritium. That amount of material is about the size of a grain from an aspirin tablet that has been broken into more than 11000 pieces. You can find the detailed computations here:
What is really an incredible piece of marketing genius is that people have been convinced that they should worry about that tiny quantity of a relatively benign chemical, but they have also been convinced to ignore the millions of tons of pollution that are dumped – by design – out the enormous smokestacks required in natural gas combustion plants.
The Kleen Energy Plant that was under construction in Middletown, CT, less than 100 miles down the Connecticut River from Vermont Yankee, exploded in February 2010 due to improper fuel handling procedures and killed 6 workers. Several dozen more were injured and the explosion cracked the foundations of houses that were a mile away from the plant.
I would much rather have Vermont Yankee as a next door neighbor than a gas fired power plant or the high pressure pipelines that feed gas fired power plants.
Pick your own poison, but I would volunteer to drink water containing all of the tritium that the leaks at VY put into the ground under the plant. I have computed that it would give me a dose that is unlikely to have any health effects at all. However, I would have to ask for the water to be really concentrated – the tritium that leaked out was so diluted that I would have to drink 138,000 liters.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast
Update: (Posted on April 22, 2010 at 0120) There is some continuing discussion about tritium and energy sources at the New York Times article linked above. One poster brought in a reference to an Amory Lovins analysis of the economics of nuclear energy. I could not let that pass without an additional comment. Once again, just in case the moderation process is slow at NY Times, here is a copy of my comment:
“Amory Lovins has done an excellent job of deconstructing the climate economics of nuclear power at tinyurl.com/forgetnuclear”
Is that the same Amory Lovins who predicted in a 1976 paper that there would be no electricity being produced by nuclear power plants in the the United States after 2000 and in the same paper advocated for a doubling of coal consumption?
He was way wrong about nuclear production – we still have 104 operating plants that produce approximately 806 BILLION kilowatt hours per year of emission free, subsidy free electricity. That compares rather favorably with the 60 or 70 billion kilowatt hours per year of heavily subsidized wind.
The total average production cost for the 104 operating nuclear plants is just 1.86 cents per kilowatt hour. Included in that amount is a waste disposal fee of that totals nearly $800 million per year given to the government, plus another $450 million in annual license fees, and another $400 million in special license fee assessments for the “service” of being regulated. (Those are totals for all nuclear plants combined.) Wind generation receives a production tax credit – a direct check from taxpayers – that is 1.8 – 2.0 cents per kilowatt hour depending on when the project entered operation.
Lovins was right about one thing in his seminal “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken” article in Foreign Affairs – published in Oct 1976, just in time to help Carter defeat Ford – coal production and consumption in the US has doubled since 1976. It was on a path of being eliminated by 2000 with new nuclear power plant construction and operation until Jimmy Carter implemented a number of programs discouraging nuclear and encouraging coal.
Perhaps one reason that no one ever calls Lovins on his failed predictions from the past is that he has some wealthy and powerful friends in the media and energy businesses. Here is what Lovins told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now on July 16, 2008:
“You know, I’ve worked for major oil companies for about thirty-five years, and they understand how expensive it is to drill for oil.”
During that interview he also said something that would make Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy smile. The context was a discussion about whether or not nuclear energy would help reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. Lovins denied that such replacement would happen with the following statement:
“What nuclear would do is displace coal, our most abundant domestic fuel.”
That is exactly what James Hansen has said would be a good thing about encouraging more nuclear energy – it will displace coal, our most greenhouse gas intense source of electricity.
Some other coal promoters, in addition to Lovins, claim that coal is also our cheapest source of fuel, but that is only because there are
so many operators who take shortcuts with the lives of miners and with the health of all of the rest of us.
Please understand – this is not a personal attack on Lovins, just an airing of some of his many statements so that you can judge for yourself whether or not you want to follow his advice or energy system analysis.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast