Sunday, October 10, 2010

Carnival of Nuclear Energy (Fresh New Information) and Tritium (Old News Rewarmed)

The 22nd Carnival of Nuclear Energy

The latest Carnival of Nuclear Energy is posted now at ANS Nuclear Cafe, the American Nuclear Society blog. Gail Marcus introduces her new book, Nuclear Firsts, which covers the early days of nuclear power development. Dr. Marcus has been Deputy Director at the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Energy Agency at the Office of Economic Development. She holds a Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering from M. I. T. Her book describes advances during the development of nuclear power, covering eighty facilities and ten countries. This book is a real asset to the industry. I sometimes get tired of reading about Mr. J. Robert Oppenheimer and the big boom. I'd rather read something upbeat once in a while, and Dr. Marcus has provided the book.

Meanwhile, at Nuclear Green Revolution, Charles Barton reverse-engineers the future of energy, and makes an excellent case for advanced reactors that can provide load-following and process heat. At PopAtomic, Suzanne Hobbs has designed a nutritional label for utilities. Gosh, who knew coal had so many calories? Oops, I mean: Who knew coal had such huge carbon dioxide emissions? Well, yeah, we all knew it, but the graphic makes it visible.

And there's more! Update on Vogtle construction, the true story of the SL-1 reactor accident, the future of nuclear fabrication. Always something new at the Carnival!

Something Old: Tritium

Rewarmed news. The tritium leak has been fixed for months, but you would never know it if you read the papers around here.

Months ago, when Vermont Yankee found tritium in shallow wells near the plant, they immediately closed down an on-site drinking water well. A sample from this well now shows 1,300 picocuries per liter of tritium. The drinking water standard is 20,000 picocuries of tritium per liter. On the banana scale, the sample in this well isn't even measurable. Maybe 1/400th of a banana? Since two liters at 20,000 picocuries is about 1/20 a banana's worth of radiation, then 2 liters at 1,00o picocuries is 1/20th of 1/20th of a banana. Feel free to check my math (20 x 20 equals 400)

Of course, the local outcry from plant opponents is terrific. People who were very anxious that the tritium was going into the river are now equally anxious that some of it may go into an aquifer. They generally admit that the tritium will be diluted and probably undetectable but Dilution is No Solution to Pollution.

Aside: Plant opponents say Dilution is No Solution to Pollution frequently, whenever someone says that the amount of tritium is not detectable in some body of water. I have noticed that the opponents still get their chimneys cleaned. They cheerfully put all their combustion pollution into the atmosphere, instead of blocking their chimneys and containing the smoke in their homes. Don't they know dilution is no solution? I hope they learn the error of their ways. End Aside.

Anything special happening with this warmed-over news? Well, according to the Brattleboro Reformer, Arnie Gundersen is worried about radioactive strontium turning up in the groundwater, despite the fact that radioactive strontium has never found in test well water. (A small amount was found in a soil sample near the leak.) Mr. Gundersen believes the situation is a gravity problem.

What worries Gunderson (sic) and many others is the possibility of Strontium-90 and Cesium-137, radioactive isotopes, moving into the ground water. "If Entergy keeps shucking and sucking the tritium out of the soil, it'll prevent the isotope from moving," he said. Gunderson (sic) added that the recent rainfall had nothing to do with the sample being found. "Rainfall can't be attributed to anything 2 or 3 feet below the ground," he said. "This a gravity problem, which is pulling the tritiated water down further into the groundwater."

According the same article: more than 265,000 gallons of tritiated water have been remediated from the ground into storage tanks.

The Worst Thing That Ever Happens To You

No Vermont Yankee problem would be complete without a pronouncement from Peter Shumlin. Here's Shumlin's take on the problem, according to WPTZ.

"I have been saying for some time, the leaks at Vermont Yankee from the underground pipes will result in the biggest environmental disaster in the history of the state. The next governor needs to have the courage to stand up to Entergy Louisiana."

This reminds me of my grandmother. She didn't put up with whining. If I complained about something, she would stare me down and say: "May that be the worst thing that ever happens to you." Kind of kept my problems in perspective.

In this spirit, I do hope these leaks are the worst environmental disaster Vermont ever has. However, Vermont already has some environmental problems that are far worse.

Strafford is a lovely town about ten miles from me. It is home to a beautiful Meeting House with a summer series of poetry and fiction readings. Less elegantly, Strafford is home to an old copper mine, the Elizabeth Mine, an unremediated Superfund site that leaks acid drainage into the Ompompanoosuc River, occasionally turning the river orange.

I usually don't write about such things, because I have taken the informal Vermont Oath. According to this oath, I have promised to always say that Vermont is lovely and unspoiled and free of industrial pollution. I have broken the Vermont Oath now! But I had to say it.

The Elizabeth Mine is an environmental disaster, and the VY tritium leak is no big deal.


JD said...

My favorite part is how Shumlin seems fond of saying "Entergy Louisiana". I guess it makes it easier to demonize them if they seem to be out of state.

VY's ownership could just as well (or better) be characterized as "Entergy" or "Entergy Nuclear".

I appreciate your hard work in support of rational decision-making. The banana scale of radioactivity is pretty good, but I'm sure will be ignored. Still, part of me hopes Vermont's leadership will get exactly they're asking for, then we'll have a nice case study for whether renewables can effectively replace baseload power in the northeast. (I live out of state so I don't have to worry about what happens when VT finds out Germany only gets 1% of its power from solar, not 30%.)

Paul Lindsey said...

According to this wikipedia article , the Bureau of Reclamation periodically released acidic water to coincide with water released from the Shasta Dam, in order to purposefully dilute the effluent. This link has a better description of the hellhole:

Martin Langeveld said...

Sorry, but with this latest revelation, there is no way you can consider the tritium leak "fixed", and VY's favorite candidate, Brian Dubie, agrees. In today's Reformer, his campaign statement is quoted: "[Friday's] discovery demonstrates the plant has much more work to do in order to regain the trust and confidence of Vermonters. I am calling on plant management to be open and forthright with information about the latest discovery. Questions must be answered. Trust must be rebuilt."

That's what needs to be fixed: Trust. VY and Entergy need to get rid of their secretive, overly macho, controlling corporate culture — the kind of culture that has spokesman Larry Smith saying (in the same Reformer article): "No tritium has been detected in any on-site or off-site drinking wells which are sampled regularly by Vermont Yankee." That's deceptive hairsplitting of the same nature as the infamous "no underground pipes" statement. The well in which this latest tritium was found was, in fact a drinking water well until the initial tritium contamination was detected, so it is deceptive to say that no drinking water was affected. This is a drinking water well, whether it is "active" or whether it is "decomissioned." Also, this finding indicates that tritium is still moving in the direction of the aquifer, which lies at a depth of about 360 feet - the same depth as my own drinking water well a few miles down the road. A positive finding at the 200-foot level means the contamination has already traveled more than halfway down to the aquifer. If that's "fixed" heaven protect us from "broken."

Yes, I realize this contamination is well below acceptable standards, and that a lot of additional dilution would happen before it would ever be detectable in my well. That's not the point. The point is that VY is trying to whitewash the situation rather than being forthcoming about it. The point is that VY's culture of secrecy is seriously hurting its chances of building trust and winning a renewal. A pretty clear illustration of this is in one of the ads VY is running where the employee says he invites anyone to have a look around the plant and see how well-run it is. Well, fine, and I happen to agree, having had a detailed media tour myself, except, there are no tours for members of the public, and there is not even a basic visitors center for the public.

I urge VY to open up their culture, open up their visitors center, start interacting with the public via a blog of their own, a Facebook page of their own, a Twitter account of their own. And most importantly, to level with the public about their problems, and what they are going to do about them, rather than trying to find weasel words like "no tritium in active drinking wells" when tritium is found in what was a a drinking well nine months ago.

As it stands, VY is on a clear course toward shutdown. There's a deal to be made for license renewal — one that includes full funding (in cash, not guarantees) of the decommissioning fund, reconstruction of all sub-surface pipes into accessible tunnels, reconstruction of the rotting wooden cooling towers, and other upgrades — but if it wants a deal, VY should be taking a proactive lead here instead of its perennially reactive statements.

Charles Bell said...

Shumlin forgot about all the chemical spills, fires, flooding incidents that ever occurred in Vermont. Its as if there is only one thing dangerous in Vermont and that in his mind is a small nuclear power plant. He forgot about all the old gasoline underground storage tanks at old gas stations, runoff of pesticides with rain water, lead based paint, hazardous cleaning chemicals dumped into storm drains, radiation fallout from nuclear weapons tests, tritium in hospital, school and government building exit signs, radiation treatment centers, dental, hospital, doctor office, security screening x-rays, alpha emiitters from the concrete he walks around on, .... totally oblivious to technology and science. If you guys elect this person as governor, then that's your right. Keep him up there please.

Martin Langeveld said...

@Charles Bell:
Kind of irrelevant, don't you think? What is your point? There's pollution elsewhere so we should ignore VY's pollution? And, why should he bring those things up when asked about VY? Brian Dubie doesn't. Neither does Shumlin, and both for good reason: It's not relevant.

BOTH of them, the Democrat and the Republican, are now talking about the fact that VY has lost TRUST in this state with its attitude, its lack of transparency, and the degree to which it is just out of touch with things that concern people about its operation.

Meredith Angwin said...

Mr. Langeveld

I agree with you that Entergy should be have kept the visitor center open and done a lot more public outreach. Including social media. In my opinion, many of their communication choices have been penny-wise and pound foolish. I was on radio this a.m., and the interviewer asked me what could be done to change people's views of nuclear. I said "education." I mean education. Entergy should have been putting bucks behind education. Not today, but years ago.

But I cannot agree with most of the rest of your posts.

Charles Bell was commenting on the following quote from Shumlin from my blog posting. Shumlin said (I did not make this up!)
"I have been saying for some time, the leaks at Vermont Yankee from the underground pipes will result in the biggest environmental disaster in the history of the state"

Your first post agreed:
"Yes, I realize this contamination is well below acceptable standards, and that a lot of additional dilution would happen before it would ever be detectable in my well. That's not the point."

It isn't the point? Shumlin says it is the biggest disaster in history, you agree it is "well below acceptable standards"...but that is not the point?

What point? Not the point I was making in my post. Your point, perhaps. That's okay. But Charles and I were just re-iterating the point I made in my post. The tritium leak is NOT the greatest environmental disaster in Vermont history, no matter how excited Shumlin gets about it.

Thank you for engaging in the conversation.

Meredith Angwin said...


Thanks for the description of the Iron Mountain mine. Compared to some mines, Elizabeth Mine Superfund site is pretty small potatoes. But we are a pretty small state.

There is a group of people near Brattleboro who want to replace Yankee with a thorium reactor (still in the design stage). One of their selling points is that thorium could be mined in Vermont.

More mining in Vermont? I don't think that is going to happen.

And thanks to everyone who commented!

Martin Langeveld said...

Just because something is "not the biggest environmental disaster in the history of the state" doesn't mean it is not a disaster, not serious, not worth talking about. My point is that the discussion should focus on the bigger issue, which is, after all, whether VY should relicensed. And that will not happen without trust, without education (as Meredith says), without openness. Nor will it happen if VY keeps up its attempts at obfuscation and hairsplitting.

Why not:
- A detailed video tours of VY posted on its site and on YouTube?
- A VY Facebook page in which VY officials and employees respond to people and answer questions?
- A VY blog (no offense to Meredith, but this ain't it) so people can hear directly from VY officials and employees?
- Clear statements in which VY says, "Yes, we will fully fund the decommisioning fund, not with promises but with cash, and the decomissioning will proceed immediately when the plant closes, not 60 years later, whether it closes in 2012 or 2032."
- And clear statements about improvements and renovations that VY will undertake to its infrastructure if it is granted relicensing.

Those are essential ingredients to rebuilding trust. Not only that, they would change the focus of the debate away from things like the leaks, which only reflect negatively on VY, to things that put VY in a positive light.