Monday, March 28, 2011

Ten Nuclear Lessons On TMI Anniversary

I have lived within the TMI evacuation zone since 1993 when I moved to the area to become a Commissioner of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. Here are 10 nuclear lessons learned since the TMI crisis started on March 28, 1079:

1. TMI accident made everyone serious about nuclear safety and prevented others as a result. The TMI accident generated daily vigilance about safety by regulators, citizen watchdogs, and the nuclear industry that must exist to run nuclear power plants safely.

2. A culure of safety within an industry is indispensable to safe operations and regulators, citizens and industry are indispensable to building a culture of safety. To build and maintain a culuture of safety, regulation must be professional and independent.  The industry is not the client; government is not the partner of industry.  But professional, independent regulation alone will not create a culture of safety.  Citizens must be engaged and the industry itself must be open to challenge.   TMI inspired the industry itself to create the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators (INPO) that set high safety standards, audited operations, and issued performance reports.  Independent government regulation and INPO built a culture of safety within the US nuclear industry.

3. Plant operations at US nuclear plants have become safer and more efficient since 1979. Safety and efficiency can be allies.  At the time of TMI it was almost normal for a nuclear plant to not operate 40%, 50% or even 60% of the time due to one problem or another. An efficient plant operated perhaps 75 to 80% of the time.  Thirty two years later nearly all nuclear plants operate 90% of the time and efficient planst run 95% or more of the time.

4. The 104 nuclear power plants in the USA avoided using a great deal of coal and gas over the last 30 years by providing 20% of our electricity. A lot of the coal  that would have been combusted but for the 104 reactors would have been in plants with few pollution controls.  Mercury, arsenic, soot, smog, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide levels would have been much higher as a result.

5. The air pollution prevented by nuclear power saved hundreds of thousands of lives and prevented millions of illnesses since TMI.  Those who lived longer don't know that less pollution and nuclear power were partly responsible so building a mass constituency for clean air always takes organizing and education.

6. Thirty two years after TMI, new nuclear plants in US have very high capital costs of at least $6 per watt, making them  more expensive than new natural gas, coal, wind, and hydro plants.  Fukushima may increase nuclear costs.   Uprates at existing American nuclear plants to increase power production, however, have much lower capital costs and make economic and environmental sense, though the low price of gas puts at risk the bigger uprates that cost $200 million or more.  Nuclear plants once built are low cost to run with production costs below 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

7. Low natural gas prices and the $6 to $10 billion necessary per nuclear unit make it impossible to obtain financing from Wall Street for a new nuclear plant in the United States without large subsidies that include 100% loan guarantees on favorable terms and more.  Placing a price on carbon/heat trapping pollution would reduce the necessary subsidies (see point 10 below).

8.  The global concentration of heat trapping gas now at 393 ppm and increasing at about 2 ppm per year cannot be stabilized below 450 ppm without China and India building new nuclear plants in large numbers.  New nuclear plants in the USA will not be economic without a significant price placed on carbon.

9. The permanent storage of nuclear waste in the USA (and other nations) is still a major problem. The last 32 years now prove that it is not an easy problem to solve.

10. The nuclear industry and regulators learned lessons well from TMI. Fukushima, BP oil spill, Upper Big Branch mine disaster drive home that all energy choices have risks, differing economics, varying environmental impacts, and national security implications.  But risks and impacts decrease or increase depending on the performance of regulators and the industry.  Regulators must be professional and independent.  Industry must develop a culture of safety.   The American nuclear industry and its regulators have not been perfect, can still be better, but they have compiled an excellent safety track record since TMI.

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