Nuclear Power is in Hot Water

Posted by By at 17 August, at 11 : 59 AM Print

Last week, the Nuclear Regulatory Agency put the brakes on renewing licenses for existing nuclear-powered electricity generating plants. The agency also announced it will not be approving any additional plants – at least in the near future.

And a nuke plant in Connecticut was shut down Sunday because the ocean water on which it depends has become too warm to use for cooling the plant’s processes.

One might have thought either or both of those items would have been carried top of the news on every channel serving my part of Pennsylvania. Three Mile Island is only a few miles down the road, and the county in which I live is first stop on the evacuation path, should some catastrophe befall the facility.

The Aug. 8 NRC decision to halt nuclear plant construction and operating licensing was brought about by a Waste Confidence Rule decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit, in June. The court ruled June 8 that the NRC had erred in licensing and re-licensing nuclear plants without providing for storage of the highly radioactive used-up fuel rods.

Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, NV, was chosen in 2002 to become a permanent storage site for the waste. Congress pulled development funding for the site in 2010, after years of political and civil tug-of-war between nuclear power supporters and nuclear waste opponents. With no place to dispose of their waste, plant operators have been allowed to store the used rods on-site, in the apparent belief that NRC eventually would find a suitable underground storage site.

Twenty-four opponent agencies filed a petition in June that resulted in the appeals court ruling. The court said the federal agency, charged with ensuring the safety of the nation’s nuclear power plants, had not shown that storing the rods in on-site reactor pools would provide adequate public safety for what appeared likely to become permanent storage.

The NRC decision does not shut down the nation’s nuclear power industry. Instead, the commission reportedly will allow currently operating plants to continue operating, even if their licenses expire. Proposed plants will not be built.

Meanwhile, global warming – or, for those who do not believe in global warming, the nationwide heat wave and drought – that is killing cattle and crops also is killing electricity production. Sunday, a unit of the Millstone nuclear power plant in Waterford, CT had to be shut down because the ocean – at least the part of it that is called Long Island Sound – has become too warm to be used for cooling Millstone’s systems.

The nuclear electricity generation process is a three-stage system.

Imagine, please, two pipes placed close together. One carries super-heated water from the nuclear rod pile, The heat transfers to the second pipe – similar to the way a hot stove heats a pan in which water is brought to a boil and turns to steam. The super-heated steam drives a turbine that turns a generator that makes electricity.

The pipe that carries steam into the turbine also takes it away, passing next to a third pipe carrying cooler water from a nearby ocean, river or, in at least one case, wastewater treatment plant. The cooler water absorbs heat from the steam, and, thus warmed, exits the plant.

The trouble brought on by the warmer than normal water in Long Island Sound is not that it is not cool enough to cool and condense steam.

It is that the warmer than normal water pulled into the plant, in the process of absorbing heat from the turbine water, becomes too warm to discharge back into the wild, where it can kill fish, plants and other water-residing life forms.

We are used to hearing that hot weather puts a load on the electricity generating capacity that sometimes cannot keep up with the human need for air conditioning. What we likely are about to hear more of  as we continue to heat the planet is the few nuclear power plants we have shutting down because the water used to cool them has become too warm to be used for the job.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote Don’t worry, be happy, enjoy the music – about the evening news failing to inform us about important goings-on in our lives. Most of us know there are people who think nuclear power is a bad idea, and other people who think it’s great, and we trust they will settle their differences without harm to the rest of us.

Unfortunately, while we are hearing about car crashes and jailed thieves and murders and Jennifer Anniston’s engagement, a nuclear power plant is shut down because it cannot be kept cool; a plant in Maryland shut down while technicians repaired a leak; and two other northeastern nuke plants – including the Limerick facility, on the Schuylkill River about 20 miles from Philadelphia – shut down for as yet unpublished reasons.

Local television stations and newspapers regularly organize “town hall meetings” where they ask their viewers and readers for suggestions about how the area could better be served.

How about asking them to increase coverage on some real effects of global warming – not just how sometime in the next 50 to 100 years Philadelphia will be submerged, but how – here and now – not only are crops and cattle dying, but the ocean, and maybe soon the Susquehanna, Schuykill and Hudson rivers, are becoming too warm to cool the nuclear power plants built on their shores.


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This post was written by:
- who has written 169 posts for Rock The Capital
John Messeder is an award winning journalist with more than 35 years experience writing about education, environment and local government issues. He has lived in Maine, Florida, California and Alaska, and, by temporary turns, numerous places in between. John also is an accomplished photographer, and avid hiker, conservationist, oral history buff, and author of several books he has not yet got 'round to writing. He lives in Adams County, Pa., just over a hill from Gettysburg, with his wife and Golden Retriever. He may be contacted at - Email jmesseder


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