Next generation nuclear power is just around the coroner

If the disaster at Fukushima were not enough, it turns out that the perpetually dismal economic profile for nuclear power has gotten even worse.  At the level of sheer business calculation the question about nuclear power plants has always been whether they were even remotely feasible without huge government subsidies as well as the legal regulations (oh, no -- not regulations!) that shifted most of the liability for any nuclear accidents to US taxpayers.  As the nuclear industry and the Obama administration boldly plow ahead with plans for "the next generation" of radiation producing plants and their occasional byproduct --  electricity --,  a significant voice has begun speaking out.  

John Rowe, former CEO of Exelon, the nation's largest producer of nuclear power, has now pulled away the curtain to reveal the industry's wizards frantically twisting the dials on what now seems to be a six decade long failed experiment.  As reported in Forbes, Rowe offered his well-informed, no-nonsense assessment at a University of Chicago conference last week. 

Nuclear power is no longer an economically viable source of new energy in the United States, the freshly-retired CEO of Exelon, ... said in Chicago Thursday.
And it won’t become economically viable, he said, for the forseeable future.
“Let me state unequivocably that I’ve never met a nuclear plant I didn’t like,” said John Rowe, who retired 17 days ago as chairman and CEO of Exelon Corporation, which operates 22 nuclear power plants, more than any other utility in the United States.
“Having said that, let me also state unequivocably that new ones don’t make any sense right now.” 
“I’m the nuclear guy,” Rowe said. “And you won’t get better results with nuclear. It just isn’t economic, and it’s not economic within a foreseeable time frame.”

It's always refreshing to hear straight talk from well-placed business peopleToo bad frank confessions of this kind usually arrive a the person is flying skyward on a golden parachute.  (Did I hear the faint echo of the word "suckers!" as the sail vanished over the horizon?)   Why didn't Rowe tell us this before all the excitement about the new nuclear boondoggles in the U.S., like this one in today's news for example?
Scana Corp. has received approval to build two nuclear reactors at its Virgil C. Summer plant in Cayce, S.C., at a cost of US$10.2 billion.
Scana applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2008. The first reactor is scheduled to begin generating electricity in 2017, about a year later than expected because of delays in the NRC's licensing process, the company said in a statement. But the second unit will be commissioned in 2018, a year ahead of schedule.

Don't worry about the national debt or the "austerity" attacks on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps, etc.  Just get those big nuke subsidy checks in the mail, Barack. 

For those interested in the mindset of nuclear power and similar obsessions, here's an always reliable handbook.


Radiation at Fukushima is killing robots (What about us?)

The news from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant seems to get worse day-by-day, more than a year after the calamitous earthquake, tsunami and subsequent multiple meltdowns at the site.  Because levels of radioactivity have reached 73 sieverts per hour in the reactor 2 containment structure, it is no longer safe for human beings to enter the wreckage.  According to the Tokyo Electric Power Company, owners of the plant, "People exposed to such high levels of radiation in just a minute would become nauseous and could die within a month."  Uh oh.....

Earlier reports about efforts to contain the disaster waxed enthusiastic about wonderful new robots that could withstand levels of radiation far in excess of what humans can endure. Yes, we have the technology!  Here's one such account from last November.

Unique video sequences, authorized by Tokyo Electrical Company (TEPCO), have been published by Japanese Robonable showing U.S. military robots operating inside Unite 3 reactor building at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. The iRobot PackBots  are preparing for the establishment of a system to reduce gas pressure in the reactor containment vessel. A similar system had been installed in Unit 1 and Unit 2 of the damaged nuclear reactor leading to reduction of emissions of radioactive material.

Alas, hopes of this kind have been dashed.  Current levels of radioactivity at Fukushima quickly destroy the smart, durable military robots sent in to hoist the plant's simmering trash.  In a report from The Epoch Times:

Even robots, endoscopes, and other devices cannot be deployed inside of the containment chamber, because the high radiation would render them useless, the company said. Radiation can damage computer chips and alter images taken via cameras.

The radiation levels are the highest discovered by the company since the plant was crippled during the earthquake and tsunami a year ago. 

Like many of the actual and brewing disasters of our times, the predicament could prove to be a godsend for research and "innovation." "TEPCO spokesperson Junichi Matsumoto noted that the company needs to develop devices and robots that are resistant to high levels of radiation." 

So get  those grant proposals written, folks!  Think of it as boost for the great "Singularity" and its contributions to the "Next Generation of Nuclear Power" just around the corner (or is it "coroner"?).
                                       TEPCO officials surveying the situation at Fukushima

Fukushima radiation -- free at your doorstep from TEPCO

                                     Cartoon  of "Our Friend the Atom" from the 1950s  
                                           Disneyland television show

I don't know if anyone has ever done the math, but it's an interesting question whether or not nuclear power would ever have paid its way as a domestic energy source if one had counted all of the costs involved in its creation including research & development, construction, liability insurance, accident clean ups, radioactive waste disposal, decommissioning aged reactors, etc.  And as Helen Caldicott has argued over the years, one also needs to count the enormous burden of human costs in illness, disability and death, along with the economic burdens of caring for people stricken with diseases caused by radioactivity emitted by the plants and their malfunctions.  

Of course the genius of modern capitalism is to avoid all costs of this kind.  Privatize the profits, pass the bills on to someone else, "externalities" as those amusing economists call these things.  In the wake of the ongoing calamities of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) now argues that radioactive isotopes released from plant are no longer its property.  Evidently, they're giving away the deadly particles, free of charge, to anyone (mis)fortunate enough to have them arrive on their property or in their bodies.  In the spirit of the holidays, think of them as gifts that keep on giving.  

One of the earliest victims of this insidious policy is a Japanese golf course.  Here's a report from The Australian newspaper.

In defending a lawsuit from a Fukushima Prefecture golf club, lawyers said the radioactive cesium that had blighted the Sunfield Nihonmatsu golf course's fairways and greens was the club's problem. The utility has taken a similarly hard line defending claims from ryokan (inn) and onsen (spa) owners.

TEPCO's lawyers used the arcane legal principle of res nullius to argue the emissions that escaped after the tsunami and earthquake triggered a meltdown were no longer its responsibility. "Radioactive materials (such as cesium) that scattered and fell from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant belong to individual landowners, not TEPCO," the utility told Tokyo District Court.
The chief operating officer of the prestigious golf course, Tsutomo Yamane, told The Australian that he and his staff were stunned: "I couldn't believe my ears. I told my employees, 'TEPCO is saying the radiation doesn't belong to them', and they said 'I beg your pardon'."

The court rejected TEPCO's argument, but ruled it was the responsibility of local, prefectural and national governments to clean it up.

The case - and the club's bid for $160 million in clean-up costs - has proceeded to the High Court amid fears the ruling could result in some local governments being bankrupted.

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By the way, I'm wondering who will pay for the damages to the world's seafood industry from the radioactive debris now floating away from the shores of Fukushima and into the Pacific Ocean.  Certainly, it won't be TEPCO.  Will shoppers and restaurants need to take geiger counters to seafood markets?   How much do those things cost?