Zombie Power: Abandoned Nuclear Projects Rise From Their 1970's Graves

Zombie attack survival kit. Image credit:iPower

Dave Levitan writing for SolveClimate has published an excellent survey of what the future may hold for the 'More than 60 proposed US nuclear projects, scrapped in the 1970s and early 1980s.' Some are nothing more than unapproved plans on paper (there was no CAD back then - so hand drawn), others are in various states of completion and "mothballed," some were started up but not commissioned for long term use, and some were demolished, with scrap sold. Now, several of these long-buried projects are once again rising from the earth.

Let's review the variety of reasons that these 60 zombies were buried in the first place and whether there is anything to fear.First, a few factual reminders to save our commenting readers some time.

  • France is the size of Texas and has a far smaller nuclear capacity than the USA currently does.

  • Uranium mining can be as damaging to the environment and property values as mountain top removal - even worse it it is done in drought plagued regions. New best practices must be defined to make it sustainable.

  • There have been plenty of accidental releases of radiation at operating plants in the USA and around the world, but never has there been a serious release of nuclear fuel during transportation or when stored as 'waste' in the USA.

Oil got cheap.
As Dave hints at in his article, one of the reasons the economics of nuclear power changed drastically in the 1970's, burying the zombies, is that oil became really cheap. At that time it was a much more common practice than it is now to generate electricity by burning oil in boilers. (To my knowledge, only Florida and Hawaii still rely heavily on oil to generate electricity) Guessing that the Saudi's and oil importers saw their opportunity for market development during the early 70's and jumped on it.

Overshoot mode.
A seldom-mentioned but key factor with the zombies is that the utility industry was over capitalized. They went nuts with capacity additions in the 70's. Public Service Commissions faced rate payer rebellion. The market said 'whoaa.'

The TMI meltdown.
Yeah. We all know about TMI. But that near-catastrophe was but one of many contributing factors to creation of the 60 nuc Zombies. It's probably misleading to infer that it was the key factor.

Clue to reporters and environmentalist-hating scapegoaters: TMI had the near melt-down on March 29, 1979, well after many of the Zombies had their fate sealed.

Some of the projects were simply too costly. Public Service Commissions of the mid-70's to early 80's decided that the rate burden would be too much.

Adverse environmental impacts.
Some of the 60 nuclear zombies were planned based on poor initial siting choices. Example: when you have alternatives, why locate it directly over a fault line? Seriously. (We have to remember that similarly poor wind power siting choices were made in the same time frame - Altamont Pass CA for example.)

Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) on some of the abandoned projects may have been badly prepared, leading to licensing and design controversies that dragged on forever. (These are the situations constantly pointed to by the scape goaters.) One has to wonder if deficient EIS' were an effort to tip a card into a cocked hat: covering up for bad siting decisions made early in in the planning. These Zombies will have the hardest time climbing out of the dirt.

Property values
Many of the zombie graveyards were reached and then surrounded by a network of new highways and sewer systems, feeding the millions of acres of high-cost suburban development which led up to the "housing bubble" which burst in late 2009. Environmental Impact Assessments will definitely have to be revised to reflect the potential impact on property values. Otherwise, the licensing hearings will make the Tea Party look like a tea party.

One last comment on design. None of the zombies were designed with digital process controls. No one builds any kind of industrial operation with analog controls. These archaic devices are hard to find as in-kind replacements.

When nuclear plants built in the 1970's need to re-license (which many are doing right now) they face the investment choice of going digital, or staying with their 40-year old process control specs. This choice is likely to be a significant issue at any Zombie-re-licensing hearing.

Because of project economics and the intervening sprawl since the 70's, only a small subset of the 60 Zombie nucs will ever rise from the earth. You probably don't need to buy the zombie survival kit if you live near one.

One has to ask, however, where will the needed nuclear capacity additions be located if not at the zombie sites? Can't really integrate a nuc with a wind farm because of differing elevation requirements and water consumption.

My guess is that we will soon see proposals to swap new nuclear capacities for existing or recently abandoned coal-fired project sites. The new nucs could have a greater output than coal units or planned coal units they would physically replace. The environmental impacts of a nuc-for-coal swap could be net plus if the single-pass water cooling loop of the new nuclear plants were to be similar or less than the volume that the coal plant required and if the existing permitting limits can be transferred to the swapped in nuclear plant, pretty much as they are.

Tags: Electricity | Nuclear Power

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