Updated: More Citizen Involvement For US Nuclear Power Plant Siting, Design, & Upgrades


Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, Buchanan, New York. Caption & image credit:Flickr, Tony The Misfit photostream

It's been about 35 years since large numbers of US citizens immersed themselves in nuclear power plant design and location issues. (Most readers of this probably weren't even born until well after the US nuclear fleet was built.) That's about to change. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission will report on lessons learned from the Japanese nuclear melt down(s) and it is reasonable to expect some mandatory changes growing out of that work. Pending proposals to re-license existing plants also are going to be looked at more closely. As a result, citizen involvement in nuclear decision making is certain to increase.

Update: a legal challenge to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Design Certification of the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor has reportedly just been made. Details can be seen here. Member of Congress, lacking nuclear power expertise, are likely to take a hands off approach to the NRC's deliberations for the time being have some wack-a-doodle House of Representatives hearing with think tank 'experts' on hand to confuse everyone.

But, that's OK...there are other ways citizens can have a say on design, safety procedures, and siting at the state and the local level: licensing; public hearings; cooling water withdrawal permits; zoning hearings; and so on.

From 'under water,' to 'radioactive' mortgages.
There's more at stake with coming decisions than personal health and safety. How many Tea-Party supporters can see nuclear power plant cooling towers out their suburban windows? Plenty, I bet. Wealthy traditional Republicans? A lot of them. Until now, I doubt they gave much thought to what might happen to their home's market value if they had to evacuate and have the place decontaminated after a nuclear plant incident.

More than dirty stinking environmentalist hippies against a free market.
Owners of aging nuclear plants, many of them surrounded now by suburban development, have been skating by on the 'hidden-in-plain-sight' factor and probably are none too excited about going to public hearings for NRC-mandated safety upgrades.

Cable TV's talking heads and Rush Limbaugh will not be able to spin the resulting uproar as an 'environmental socialist plot' (although they may try). Every imaginable interest group has skin in the nuclear safety game. Mutual funds, institutional pension investors, real estate developers, GE...the list goes on.

Political plate tectonics: once the NRC's safety cat is out of the bag and people in all walks of life have thought about how it may affect them, all the old political and social stereotypes about environmentalists which have been fueled by mainstream media and stuck in the mud environmental activists will be up in the air and new political alignments will result.

Where experts dare not tread alone.
Colin Macilwain, in Nature News, Concerns over nuclear energy are legitimate,, writes:

Fukushima houses six reactors on one site, despite the fact that even the most basic analysis of failure modes and effects would come out resoundingly against such an arrangement. Not only are all the reactors exposed simultaneously to the same dangers -- whether flood, earthquake, war or terrorist attack -- but radiation release at one reactor or fuel tank could cripple recovery efforts at the others. Everyone in nuclear engineering knows this. Yet such co-siting is the central organizing principle of current nuclear-build plans in Britain, the United States and elsewhere, because the only communities that will accept new nuclear plants are those that already have them.
Colin's last sentence is important. He is right to say that sprawl has corralled the nuclear beast and to infer that this will make it very hard to unleash it elsewhere, regardless of what the Obama Administration suggests as a matter of energy independence and climate protection.

The six-pack dilemma
I'd add to Colin's assessment that it's not only sprawl and fear that provide an incentive for utility owners to host multiple reactors on a single nuclear plant site. One plant with six generators - per the case in Japan - has many cost advantages over six widely dispersed units feeding the same grid. A six-pack plant takes a single land parcel, accesses one transmission line, needs one license, deals with one local government and one state, prepares one environmental impact statement and one evacuation plan, can share a single cooling water intake/discharge pipe and intake crib/diffuser for all six reactors, needs one safety department, has one safety program, prepares one annual report, and so on.

Compromise layout
If you put all six reactors spread out across one much larger parcel more land is needed and pipe runs have to be longer, fatter, and need larger pumps to move water: adding cost. More wires, possibly several control rooms, etc.

It's going to be a tough, national decision process and we can't trust only the experts. US nuclear power had originally to compete mainly with with coal-fired electricity. Now it competes against abundant cheap natural gas as well. Because of that added competition, and as long as Wall Street demands a return on investment from a nuclear-based utility, and while sprawl still exists, I can't believe that nuclear utilities will on their own move create a distributed generation business model (mini nucs or whatever).

The only way to make a redistributed nuclear industry happen would be for government to take a very strong hand with eminent domain and licensing: buy out suburban landscapes and turn them into clustered nuclear parks. Can you imagine the public row?

Got some good ideas how to solve the problem? Post a comment please.

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