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Shutting Down an Ancient Nuke

With its October decision to end the 39-year-old Kewaunee nuclear power experiment on Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan shore, Dominion Resources has shown the over-hyped “nuclear renaissance” to be a “reactor reassessment.” Calling its decision final, Dominion said it will close the pressurized water reactor permanently next spring, store tons of ferociously radioactive waste onsite indefinitely, and send its workforce of 655 to unemployment lines in “phased layoffs.” Dominion’s chief job creator Thomas Farrell, unable to find a buyer for the clunker said the closure is “based purely on economics.”

The industry’s early advertising dream of electricity “too cheap to meter” has become a radiation nightmare too costly to quantify. Initial shutdown expenses for the creaking, leaking 39-year old monster — waste management and reactor dismantling, containerizing and transporting to dump sites — are roughly predictable. According to the Associated Press, Dominion, which bought Kewaunee in 2005 for $220 million, will “record a $281 million charge in [2013’s] third quarter related to the closing and decommissioning.” But that’s just the earnest money. Literally endless expenditures will be required to keep Kewaunee’s radioactive wastes contained, monitored and out of drinking water for what federal appeals courts have declared is the required minimum — 300,000 years.

The Green Bay Press-Gazette reported that Dominion has 60 years to see that Kewaunee’s giant footprint is “returned to a greenfield condition.” Just don’t dig under that “greenfield” Virginia. In August 2006 radioactive tritium was found to have been leaking for an unknown period, from unidentified pipes somewhere beneath the reactor complex. With a radioactive half-life of 12.5 years, those unnumbered tankers of tritium will be part of Kewaunee’s groundwater for at least 125 years.

Considering Wisconsin’s nuclear power history, Kewaunee’s extremely hot and highly radioactive waste fuel will need expensive management for decades. The La Crosse Boiling Water Reactor near Genoa, Wis. was closed in 1987, and 25 years later its deadly waste fuel is still there, on the banks of the Mississippi.

Governor Scott Walker announced his disappointment with Kewaunee’s termination and said it “highlights the need to decrease unnecessary federal regulations.” Walker’s de-regulation agenda has caused disasters like Three Mile Island and Fukushima, and wouldn’t save nuclear power in any case because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) rules are hardly ever enforced.

According to a year-long investigation of reactor aging problems by the Associated Press last year, when operators are found violating federal rules, the NRC routinely just weakens the requirements. (Jeff Donn, AP, “Safety rules loosened for aging nuclear reactors,” June 20-28, 2011) For example, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the industry and regulators said unequivocally that U.S. reactors were built to operate for a maximum of 40 years. Today they insist the nukes can run for 100 years. True to form, the NRC rubber stamped a 20-year license extension for Kewaunee in March 2011 — like it’s done previously with 71 other 40-year-old reactors.

The AP’s four-part series found that such relicensing often lacks independent safety reviews, and that paperwork of the NRC sometimes matches word-for-word the language used in a reactor operator’s application.

As reactors age, the AP investigation showed, wear and tear, corrosion and radiation-caused “imbrittlement” of high-pressure steam tubes increase the frequency and likelihood of accidents. Kewaunee won its license extension in spite of a string of age-related accidents and outages that put the public and the Great Lakes in harm’s way: a 2009 emergency shutdown caused by improper steam pressure instrument settings; a 2007 loss of main turbine oil pressure; an emergency cooling water system design flaw found in 2006; a possible leak in Nov. 2005 of highly radioactive primary coolant into secondary coolant which is discharged to Lake Michigan; a simultaneous failure of all three emergency cooling water pumps in Feb. 2005, etc.

As author and senior Greenpeace consultant Harvey Wasserman concluded, “The real worry is that one or more of these old reactors might just blow before we can get it decommissioned. In that light, the shut-down of Kewaunee and the rest of its aging siblings can’t come soon enough.”

John LaForge has been on the staff of the nuclear watchdog group Nukewatch since 1992, and edits its Quarterly newsletter.

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John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.

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