Program: Nuclear Power

RtyJan10cjpgLarry Trautner is a nuclear power engineer who started his career with Bechtel Corporation, rising from engineer to VP.  Managed projects ranging from new construction, nuclear power plants, nuclear weapons and nuclear waste handling.  He enjoys gardening, tennis and volunteering and is on the Board of the Escondido Charitable Foundation.

The program began with the lights to be turned off, so he could prove he does not “glow in the dark”.  He explained that his program grew out of our previous program on the shutting down of the San Onofre Power Plant, which raised many unanswered questions about nuclear power plants. 

Presently, there are 98 nuclear power plants in the United States, most of them east of the Mississippi.  They generate more than 20% of the country’s electricity, and significantly, more than 60% of the carbon-free electricity.  He pointed out that many different countries around the world have nuclear power contributing to electricity production, including a 75% contribution in France and a small percentage in China, where most of the world’s new nuclear power plant construction is currently underway.

In the US, there are only two nuclear power plants under construction, with four more in the permitting process.  The factors that led to a decline in the use of nuclear power in the US made up a “Perfect Storm”.

First, there is the “Nuclear Boogeyman” as a response to the use of nuclear weapons at the end of WWII, but compounded significantly by atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons between 1952 and 1963.  In the US alone, there were 210 atmospheric tests in that time period, with a total of 520 worldwide. 

A fear of nuclear accidents also contributed.  There have been three nuclear power plant accidents world-wide:  Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima.  A nuclear power plant cannot explode like a nuclear weapon.  The US uses a different type of reactor than in Chernobyl’s case.  And the amount of radiation leaked in the Three  Mile Island accident was equivalent to a dental X-Ray. 

Nuclear power became very expensive relative to other sources of power production over the past 20-30 years.  It is competing against low-cost natural gas, at a time when utility companies in the Eastern States were forced to purchase the cheapest electricity. 

In California there is a mandated push for use of renewable energy in electric production.  By 2020, 20% of power produced in California must come from renewables; and 2030 this target is set at 50%.  Nuclear energy is low carbon emitting, but not included in the definition of “renewable energy”.  It is very expensive to have renewables as the major source of electricity production, and there are significant issues yet to be solved such as battery storage when the sun is not shining, or the wind is not blowing. 

Another factor is the evolution of utility companies themselves, from generators of electricity to purchasers and distributors of electricity.  SDG&E is the exception to this trend.  Municipalities are now entering the electric market and acting as purchasers and distributors of electricity.  This represents a trend moving away from the “big” utilities that generate power.

We live in “nuclear world”.  The supernovas, exploding stars, emit radiation as well as giving us the minerals we need.  The Sun is a thermonuclear reactor emitting heat, light and radiation.  The Earth is constantly exposed to radiation, although our atmosphere and molten core protect us to a large extent.  The Earth’s core emits decaying isotopes. 

In addition, we are exposed to radiation from residual sources such as buildings and the ground itself.  We also have “internal” radiation from our own bodies, and from the food we eat:  brazil nuts and bananas being the foods with the highest levels of radiation.

Then there are the medical/dental uses of radiation, which vary with the number of scans and X-Rays we are exposed to.

There are multiple exposures to radiation, such as nuclear power plants if you live within a very close radius to them, and everyday objects such as smoke detectors and radium dials on our older watches. 

Nuclear power to generate electricity is made by shooting electrons at a uranium nucleus for example, creating fission products of neutrons and heat as determined by the famous formula E=mc2.

San Onofre Power Plant harnessed this heat using steam generators, getting the boiling water from the nuclear fission.  The steam generators leaked after 25 years, although they were designed to last 40 years.  The new replacements were also leaking.  Southern California Edison has brought a $7 billion lawsuit against the designer Mitsubishi.  The decision was made in 2013 to shut down the power plant prematurely.  We were supposed to be paying for the decommissioning of the plant over a period of 40 years of use, but we only have had 25 years of use to contribute to the decommissioning fund, so there is a significant shortage of money available, which will have to come from utility customers.

The decommissioning involves several stages of dealing with the reactor fuel bundles.  First they must be cooled in a wet pool, and then placed in dry storage cans until 2019, which are steel with concrete bunkers with an air gap for cooling.  Then they must be transported to a storage facility.  Different levels of radioactive waste are treated differently.  Bulk waste with very low levels is sent to normal landfills.  The low level waste is sent to a facility in Clive, Utah.  Higher level waste must be contained in an appropriate long term storage facility.  The site itself must be restored by 2050.

The problem is the lack of a high level waste storage facility, since the Federal Government’s decision in 2008 to not proceed with the proposed Yucca Mountain Facility in Nevada, as it was deemed “unsafe”.  Alternative storage facilities are located mostly on the East Coast.  The decommissioning process is itself straightforward, but there is presently no place to ship the high level waste to.

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