How Long Is Long Enough To Debate Nuclear Energy?

When someone brings up the words Nuclear Energy, it brings a lot of emotions to the forefront. When emotions get involved, it’s often difficult for people to behave in a rational manner. As a result, nuclear power is a lightning rod, both for those for it and against it. Those in favor often times brush aside the risks involved, while those against will regularly overhype them to the point of hyperbole. As a result, it is often times difficult to get down to the actual story when nuclear systems are involved.

Earlier this week, the United States Court of Appeals, 2nd district, ruled that a case against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Brodsky vs the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission could proceed, overturning an earlier courts decision that it lacked jurisdiction. A routine procedure, but going over the case raises some serious concerns, from both sides.

The case itself is over a 2007 decision by the NRC to grant an exemption to the Indian Point Energy Center just outside of New York City. The exemption was granted over a particular form of fire-retardant material used at the plant, which is now nearing its scheduled shutdown in 2015. The material, as it aged, had lost some of its fire protecting properties, and had its burn duration reduced from 60 minutes to 24 minutes for one area of the plant, a redundant system according to documents released by the Government Printing Office. The plant asked for an exception, citing that it was a redundant system, and was granted the exception a year later.

The lawsuit alleges that the exception was passed without public notice and debate, therefore broke the law and should be revoked, and the power plant shut down immediately as a result. There was nothing about if the exception was warranted or acceptable, just that the NRC did not cross its t’s and dot its i’s, therefore the plant must be shuttered immediately, and permanently. Recall, this plant is due to be shut down, forever, in 2015. Already one of its three reactors has been shut down and partially disassembled. The second one will be shut down in September of this year, with the last reactor due to go dark by the end of 2015. There have been some discussions of granting 20 year extensions to the two reactors, but at this time there is no sign if they will be granted.

Of course, checking with the NRC, one will find the inspections, and reports, on this very issue, embedded inside of larger reports. Checking other reports with the NRC can be time consuming — they process thousands of reports every month. For the month of July 2006, when the extension application was asked for, Indian Point had 26 different reports filed. The exception was to give a 9-month extension to bring the system up to compliance as well, and the system is now back to its original 60 minute safety levels.

One thing found was that these exceptions are very rare. Of the dozens of requests, asked for by the facility, the NRC has granted only 6 for the entire operational history of the facility, one of the nations oldest with the first reactor going online in 1962. It began life as a research facility, using Thorium for its fuel source instead of the Uranium used today. While Thorium can produce as much power as Uranium, and does not have the long term radioactive waste problems, the US Governments subsidizing of Uranium for reactor fuel beginning in 1966 resulted in the almost universal use of Uranium for nuclear power production today. This was done as one of the waste by-products of Uranium was Plutonium, used for nuclear weapons, and enabled the United States to maintain its stockpile of Plutonium after the first nuclear treaties between the United States and Soviet Union limited purposeful production of Plutonium for weapons. This energy-production derived plutonium was a loophole in the treaty, as it were.

The issue of nuclear energy needs to be discussed. The role it will play in the future has to be part of any such discussion. The lawsuit in this case attempting to shut down the plant is really an attempt to shut down the discussion as well — “Shut them down or we’ll make you shut them down.” Time will tell if their efforts will succeed or not. If they do succeed, it bodes poorly for all industries, beyond just nuclear, for it will, in effect, put a large target on the backs of any energy producer, whether dirty or clean. While one may not want nuclear power, is this the right fight when it would open up the door for highly financed lobbying groups to turn around and use it as the necessary precursor to shut down wind turbines, solar power or hydroelectric generation?

There is a reason why the Koch brothers finance anti-nuclear agents after all.

Nathaniel Downes is the son of a former state representative of New Hampshire, now living in Seattle Washington.
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