US Licenses First Nuclear Reactors Since 1978

Last week the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the construction of two new nuclear reactors for the Southern Company, to be added to their existing Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia. These reactors are the first to be added in the US since 1978, before the Three Miles Island incident. As such, it made the news and was a highly debated decision, both on the NRC panel, among scientists and in the media. The final decision was made on Thursday and it wasn’t unanimous, with the chairman voting against the other members. After the events in Japan from last year, this is sure to cause a lot of controversy around the country.

The licensing that was just approved covers $14 billion worth of reactors, two in all, to be added to an existing facility. This is part of the company’s aim to reduce energy dependence on cold burning and other unclean energy sources, and keep growing their nuclear facilities. But in the aftermath of Fukushima, not everyone sees things this way. The public confidence in nuclear power has been shaken. The chairman wrote “I cannot support this licensing as if Fukushima never happened. I believe it requires some type of binding commitment that the Fukushima enhancements that are currently projected and currently planned to be made would be made before the operation of the facility.” But the other members of the NRC panel voted yes because they believe the recommendations made after the disaster are well under way to be implemented, and the industry has learned those lessons.

According to scientists, those recommendations are mostly aimed at the current reactors, who adopt some of the same design from the Japanese one. New constructions like these two new reactors are different. The CEO of Southern Company said “There will be issues that apply to the U.S. nuclear fleet, but they apply much more closely to the current fleet, not this newest generation of nuclear technology.” Still, not everyone is on the same side. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a group of scientists that say they want improved security in the nuclear standards, said that it’s too soon to be approving new reactors, and more time is needed to fully comprehend what happened in the Tsunami disaster. The Obama administration is for nuclear power, and as such now that the decision has been made, it’s unlikely to be repelled. Construction has already begun and the new reactors are expected to be online in 2016.

In the end, it seems like an increase to the US nuclear fleet is going to happen, and older coal plants may see themselves being replaced by even more nuclear reactors in the future. The public concerns are apparently being addressed, and all of the reactors around the country are being checked by regulators to make sure they are compliant with the latest regulations. Nuclear power currently provides around 20% of the energy in the US, and is likely to grow in the future.

Virginia Shuts Down Reactors After Summer Quake

Taking notes from Japan, perhaps. Two Virginia nuclear reactors have been shut down since an earthquake hit the state in August; an event which thankfully caused little damage.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s review, however, is continuing and the agency hasn’t decided whether the reactors at the North Anna Power Station in Mineral, Virginia should return to service.

The reactors are some eleven miles from the quake’s epicenter. Seismic vibrations from the 5.8-magnitude earthquake last summer caused the reactors to shut down. The NRC is holding a public hearing on Nov. 1 at Louisa Middle School in Mineral to discuss the status of the review. The plant is located some fifty miles northwest of Richmond, the Virginia capital.

In an interview after the meeting, Leeds said that there is no timetable for making a decision on restarting the plant. NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said later on that it would be reasonable to expect a decision before the end of November.

Apparently, the earthquake caused the ground to shake more than the North Anna plant was designed to withstand, exceeding its “design basis”, which was a first at an operating nuclear plant in the United States. The company says that lack of damage from the earthquake shows that the plant’s seismic capability is even higher than that design basis.

Last Friday, a coalition called Beyond Nuclear said it had filed a petition with the NRC requesting that the agency suspend the plant’s operating license until several enforcement actions are taken.

Nuclear Energy Protest in Tokyo

Waving banners and chanting “Sayonara nuclear power”, tens of thousands of people marched in central Tokyo recently to call on the Japanese government to jettison all atomic energy in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident.

The peaceful demonstration indicates how deeply a Japanese public sphere long -accustomed to nuclear power was affected by the March 11 crisis, when a deadly tsunami caused core meltdowns at three reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex.

The accident – the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl – caused the spewing of radiation across a wide part of northeastern Japan, forcing the evacuation of some 100,000 people and raising fears of contamination in everything from fruit and vegetables to water and fish. Police estimated the crowd at the protests was some 20,000 people, organizers, however claim there were three times that many people.

In addition to fears of radiation, the Japanese public and corporate world have had to deal with severe shortages of electricity amidst the sweltering summer heat after more than 30 of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors were shut down to undergo inspections.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who took office earlier in the month, has said Japan will restart reactors which have cleared all the safety precautions. He also insists that the country should reduce its reliance on atomic energy and explore alternative energy.

Prior to the recent disaster, the earthquake-prone country derived 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. However, Japan is also a resource-poor nation, making it an increasingly hard and time-consuming process to invent and discover viable forms of alternative energy.

Prior to the march, the protesters gathered in Meiji Park to hear speakers address the large crowd.

Those Japanese citizens who were evacuated from around the plant remain uncertain about when, if ever, they will be allowed to return to their homes.

An AP-GfK poll showed that 55 percent of Japanese citizens are in favor of reducing the number of nuclear reactors in the country; while some35 percent want to leave the number about the same. Four percent want an increase while 3 percent want to eliminate them entirely.

“The poll, which surveyed 1,000 adults between July 29 and Aug. 10, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points…” according to Associated Press.

According to an AP article, Japanese author, Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel literature prize in 1994 and has campaigned for anti-nuclear and pacifist causes addressed the crowd. He and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, who composed the score to the movie “The Last Emperor,” were among the demonstration’s most famous and notable supporters.

Latest on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Last Friday, a divided Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowed the Obama administration to work on their plans for shutting down the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Nevada.

The commission was split, 2-2, on whether they should reject or uphold a decision by another independent nuclear licensing board. The board voted last year on blocking the Energy Department from extracting its application for Yucca Mountain, a remote site more than 90 miles away from old Las Vegas. The licensing board claims that the government failed to make a scientific case for why exactly the application should be withdrawn.

Notwithstanding a split in the vote, the NRC has said that in an order that the licensing board should continue moving in the direction of shutting out work on Yucca Mountain by the month’s end, citing “budgetary limitations.”

The Energy Department has not asked for additional funding for Yucca Mountain, and NRC spending on Yucca expires at the end of the month.

The NRC decision seemed to be a victory for NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who just last year ordered NRC staff to cease work on the Yucca project.
NRC Commissioner William Ostendorff agreed with Upton and Shimkus. Ostendorff, a Republican, is in favor of using Yucca Mountain for storage of nuclear waste and has clashed with Jaczko over the NRC’s handling of the situation.

Congress decided that Yucca Mountain is the topcandidate for disposal of radioactive nuclear waste. However, opponents are worried about contamination, and the Obama administration has said it would not consider the site and would look for alternatives.

The appeals court ruled in July that it would not intervene in the case because the NRC had not made a final decision on the status of Yucca Mountain. As a practical matter, work on Yucca Mountain will not continue in the short term, Ostendorff and others said, because neither the Energy Department nor the NRC has allocated money for the project.

Jaczko’s actions on Yucca Mountain have been harped on by House Republicans, by Jaczko’s own scientific staff and the NRC’s Inspector General. The IG report claimed Jaczko acted within his authority and broke no laws. But it also concluded that to get his way on the issue he failed to be forthcoming with other commissioners

Jaczko did not comment last Friday, and a spokesman for the NRC didn’t reveal how exactly individual commissioners voted. However indeed it is widely believed that Jaczko and fellow Democrat William Magwood voted in favor of overturning the decision by the licensing board, while Ostendorff and fellow Republican Kristine Svinicki voted in favor of upholding it.
Commissioner George Apostolakis, a Democrat, excused himself from voting because he has worked on Yucca-related issues in the past.

Strolin expressed was vexed that Nevada must continue a legal and technical fight while a political battle continues in Congress over the fate of the stalled project.
Shimkus and Upton said that is just what they intend to do. The GOP-led House approved a spending bill last July that includes $45 million for the Yucca project. The bill has little chance of approval in the Senate.

Japan’s Radioactive Beef

Japanese Radioactive BeefWorry regarding radiation-tainted beef intensified in Japan on Sunday as officials struggled to determine the problem’s scope and prevent further contamination of the meat supply.

The government is readying itself to suspend cattle shipments from Fukushima amidst a growing number of cows that eat rice straw containing high levels of radioactive cesium. This straw was harvested from rice paddies in the prefecture after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami almost wrecked cooling systems and released radiation from the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.

Chain operator of the supermarket giant, Aeon Co. says more than 703 pounds of this meat ended up at 14 of its outlets in Tokyo.

Aeon says it will protect consumers by strengthening its radiation testing systems for beef.

Kohei Otsuka, senior Vice Health Minister said the government could consider expanding the expected cattle restriction beyond

Fukushima. These comments came a day after Fukushima’s government said 84 head of cattle shipped from five farms were fed contaminated straw.

This issue first came up on July 8, when the Tokyo Metropolitan Government told the press it detected radiation in beef originating from a farm in Minami Soma, 16 miles north of the crippled nuclear plant.

National and local government officials say they are trying to trace the location of the suspected meat and will be improving safety checks.

The Problem with British Jelly Fish

A foray of jellyfish into a cooling water pond at a Scottish nuclear power plant kept its nuclear reactors offline last Wednesday, a phenomenon that could become more common in the future.

Two reactors at EDF Energy’s Torness nuclear plant on the Scottish east coast remained closed for one day after they were manually shut down due to masses of jellyfish blocking cooling water filters.

Power plants draw water from nearby rivers or seas to cool down their reactors, however, if the filters that keep out marine animals and seaweed are clogged up, the station shuts down to maintain its temperature and safety standards.

Britain’s Office for Nuclear Regulation said that power plants follow a pre-planned program when such situations occur.

The most recent plant availability data from network operator National Grid showed Torness reactor 1 would be returning to service on July 5 and reactor 2, July 6, although, operator EDF Energy was unable to give a restart date.

Operators often take the opportunity presented by an unplanned stoppage to carry out maintenance work.

A spokesman for Britain’s largest nuclear power operator, EDF Energy, said:

“We are working to clear the jellyfish from the waters near the power station. This work, as well as monitoring the area for more jellyfish, is ongoing.”


Scientists say jellyfish obstructing power plants is not a common occurrence in England, though it has happened more often in other countries like Japan.

Water temperatures off the east coast of Scotland are currently 13 degrees Celsius, that is one degree above average levels for this time of the year.

Increasing global warming and fishing activity are giving jellyfish populations a boost, potentially making jellyfish invasions at nuclear power plants located near the open sea increasingly common in the future.

Oconee Nuclear Station: Analog is Still Alive

Enough already about the Arab Spring, the digital revolution is now coming to America’s nuclear power plants.
In the coming weeks, technicians will finish installing digital controls for the safety systems and operating of a nuclear reactor in South Carolina.

In a country where a digital blender may be bought for about $25 at Walmart, the Oconee Nuclear Station reactor will be the first of 104 reactors in the United States not controlled with the analog technology that brought the world cassette tapes and slide rules.

It has taken nuclear power plants so long to go digital because regulators wanted assurances the new control systems were as reliable as the old ones and could not be compromised by hackers.

“The systems in the plants right now, they are doing an excellent job. The plants are very safe – they’ve been doing their jobs for years…”

The catch behind going digital is saving money. Usually, systems in a nuclear power plant are monitors that bare four sensors. If more than one of them have out-of-whack readings, engineers often have to “trip” the plant, or shut it down, until the problem is resolved. If a nuclear plant is idle for a day or more, it may end up costing the utility company upwards of $2 million.

According to Jere Jenkins, director of Radiation Labs at Purdue University:

“Those utilities need to keep those plants running. To have unplanned outages as a result of an analog system isn’t doing what we need it to do – that’s a financial risk…”

Californians Need Not Be Alarmed by Japanese Emitted Radiation

According to federal and state officials, the diminutive traces of radiation from Japan’s damaged nuclear plant that reached the west coast pose no health risk.

The doses of radiation a person normally receives from bricks, rocks, (yes rocks and bricks emit radiation) and the sun are 100,000 times the dose rates detected at a California and Washington monitoring stations.

Worries that Japan’s nuclear disaster was creating an international crisis grew as a radioactive plume, released from the Fukushima Dai-ichi, reached Southern California last Friday. The radiation, though, mostly dissipated by the time it reached the U.S. coastline.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, miniscule amounts of the radioactive isotopes iodine-131, iodine-132, tellurium-132 and cesium-137 had made their way to a Sacramento monitoring station tied to the U.N.’s Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, however, the readings were far below levels that pose legitimate health risks.

A detector at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington State earlier this week also detected trace amounts of xenon-133 – a gas produced during nuclear fission – the DOE said.

In a joint statement, the Department Of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the doses of radiation people generally get from the surrounding environment are 100,000 times greater than those detected at the two monitoring sites.

Japan Devastation

Japan has declared a state of emergency at a second nuclear plant, affected by the recent earthquakes, one of which, 8.9 magnitude – the largest in Japan’s recorded history – causing a series of vicious tsunamis. As a result, higher-than-permitted amounts of radioactivity were measured.

At two plants, authorities used sea water to cool a reactor, preventing a meltdown. However, attempts to cool the reactor at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, failed.

Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yukio Edano, fears a hydrogen explosion could occur at Unit 3 of the latter plant, near its nuclear complex.

More than 170,000 people were evacuated as a precaution, but the Japanese government says the radioactivity released so far into the environment is so meager it does not pose any health threats.

A total meltdown would release uranium and other dangerous contaminants into the environment, posing major health risks, such as at Trinabol.

No less than 160 people, including 60 elderly patients and medical staff, and 100 others evacuating by bus, might have been exposed to radiation. The severity of the exposure is not clear.

More than 1,400 people were killed and hundreds more missing, however, police in one of the worst-hit areas estimated a toll that could eventually top 10,000.

In total, six reactors, three at the Dai-ichi complex and three at a nearby complex were affected. Today, Japan, who was devastated in the major urban centers of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, when the United States Air Force dropped atomic bombs in 1945, has a total of 55 nuclear reactors spread across 17 nationwide complexes.

India to Build New Powerplant with Assistance from France

Last Sunday, the proposed 9,900-megawatt Jaitapur nuclear power plant in India received the go-ahead from the country’s Environment Ministry, provided that the project adheres to 35 conditions and safeguards. Initial planning was stalled by environmental controversy and financial considerations.

Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, said he considered a multitudinous matters like economic growth, diversification of fuel mix for power generation and environment protection.

The proposed project to be put up on the Konkan coast and jointly developed by state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC) and French giant Areva, has faced much opposition from locals and green groups.

The Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Ministry already suggested a conditional environmental clearance involving setting up of six units of 1,650 mw each.
An agreement between Areva and the NPC is expected to be signed during French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s visit next month.

The project will help energy deficient states like Maharashtra, that face obligatory power cuts and the NPC foresees the first unit of the project being commissioned by 2017-18.

The project’s opposition expressed worry about the radiological safety of the nuclear plant and its environmental impact.