I was recently involved in an exchange on John Edwards One Corps blog that got me digging into an old issue. If you have been following the nuclear industry for a long time, you might remember an incident about three years ago where there was a lot of attention paid to unaccounted for fuel rods or fuel rod segments.
Apparently, someone had decided to take a hard look at used fuel accountability. As a result, there were three plants that reported that they could not successfully account for 100% of the fuel material that had passed through their plant. There was a massive effort to perform paperwork investigations and actual inventories of used fuel pools. A GAO report was prepared (http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d05339.pdf) and a lot of effort was expended. Several procedural changes were made that will probably succeed in preventing the problem in the future.
This topic has apparently become a political drum to beat. Based on the exchange I had with a One Corps person, I would guess that fuel storage accountability – with reminders about the still “missing” fuel segments at Millstone – is on a list of talking points. It may be a little out of context, but here is my response in the exchange, which should be able to be found at http://blog.johnedwards.com/story/2007/4/23/154331/302 once the moderator has a chance to approve the comment.
You are correct. As a former nuclear submarine engineer officer, I have passed through the home of US submarining a couple of times, once in the very early 1980s for the Submarine Officer’s Basic Course, and once in 1987 for the Submarine Officer’s Advanced Course. It was a fine place to live, even though I was only there for a few months each time.
I particularly like the first period – it followed six months of 12 hour per day shift work learning my craft as a nuclear power plant operator.
Your comment about the missing fuel rod segments, however, caused me to do a little looking around for some reminders and follow ons to a dimly remembered event. As someone who keeps pretty close tabs on the nuclear power industry out of deep interest, I did recall the story, but I also recalled my frustration at the publicity and the hand wringing.
It was not as if there were any instances of someone being hurt or injured by exposure to used fuel, or any case of used fuel being found somewhere where it even had the potential for harm. It was a case where nuclear power plant operators were forced to perform very extensive and expensive inventories with paperwork reviews digging into the entire plant history (some going back three decades or more) just to prove that they were not guilt of loosing track of any amount of their waste product.
With all of that effort, three instances in the entire industry were discovered, one at Vermont Yankee where the missing segments were located http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/plant-specific-items/vermont-yankee-issues/location-spent-fuel-rod.html, one at Millstone in CT and one at Humbolt Bay in CA.
Each instance included just a few segments of fuel material that had been separated from a large fuel bundle for special tests. What seems to have really happened is that the paperwork tracking the segments got lost over the years.
However, the incident led to a complete GAO report (http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d05339.pdf), a number of procedural changes at all operating nuclear plants (all of which have been implemented), and millions of dollars worth of expense and increased oversight – even though separating segments of large fuel elements is a relatively rare event that has little to do with the normal process of storing used fuel and even though this event never hurt or even threatened to hurt anyone.
My analysis is that the press attention was driven by numerous press releases and public statements by people who are professional anti nuclear activists. The government attention was driven by the press attention – we are a political society, after all.
Some might bristle at the characterization of anti nuclear activists as “professional”, but there are a number of people and organizations that do nothing else for income. When I have tried to understand how these people actually make money, I have found black, sooty, but often smudged fingerprints indicating numerous links to companies, foundations, and individuals whose income is related to the massively profitable task of finding, producing, refining, transporting and selling coal, oil or natural gas.
All of those fossil fuel industries have lost market share to nuclear power and many of them are led by people that deeply understand the economics of supply and demand. They also understand that capital equipment designed to handle petroleum, coal, and natural gas is useless in the nuclear industry. They clearly understand the Tanya Harding school of competition – if you cannot beat them, knee cap them.
The anti nuclear activists are often simply unwitting hired guns that are the tool of the fossil fuel industry in its effort to spread Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt about a hugely capable competitor.