What is the Cost of Nuclear Power?

Listen to this article

One of the streaming services I have is HBO Max. It’s a great service because it has all of its current HBO programming plus much of their past shows and movies as well.It has all the Christian Bale Batman movies, plus the latest with Robert Pattinson as Bruce Wayne, aka The Batman, Jeffrey Wright as Lt. Jim Gordon,  Colin Farrell as the Penguin, Zoe Kravitz as the Catwoman, Paul Dano as the Riddler and Andy Serkis as Alfred Pennyworth, superbly I might add.

This isn’t about the Batman movies or even all the great qualities of HBO Max. In fact, much of what you can find on Max you can get with HBO On Demand. The difference between the two is that it is much more convenient when pausing and using the rewind and fast forward functions and Max has some movies and series we don’t find  with On Demand.

That’s kind of a tangent , talking about HBO Max and the various Batman movies. No, this is about one of the HBO mini-series, or as they call them limited series, Chernobyl.

Obviously the producers and directors take some artistic license with the story, combining several Soviet era nuclear physicists into one character, but for the most part the facts and science behind the disaster are accurate.

Many of the primary characters are also real, including the top two members of the Chernobyl Commission, Boris Shcherbina who was, at the time, the Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers, and Valery Legasov who was the chief scientific advisor to the Chernobyl Commission. Both men had spent so much time at the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, they had enough radiation to be fatal, within a few years. Shcherbina died in 1990 of cancer, but it was not related to the nuclear accident because Shcherbina and the Soviet Central Committee made it illegal to connect any deaths to the Chernobyl disaster.

On April 27, 1988 Valery Legasov committed suicide by hanging. He became disillusioned with the Communist Party apparatus and how it lied and manipulated the truth and facts of that terrible night, 26 April, 1986 and the after effects.

The only reason the rest of the world found out about the explosion of Reactor #4 at Chernobyl was that a cloud of radiation-laced smoke and ashes began appearing over Western Europe a few days later. Oh yeah, that’s right. Prior to the nuclear reactor’s melt down, it exploded, which Soviet authorities wanted to insist wasn’t possible with Soviet-made RBMK nuclear power plants. That’s what made Legasov so depressed and disillusioned. The Soviets didn’t want to do the much-needed repairs to the other nuclear power plants — over three dozen —  to make them safer.

In the HBO limited series, the character of Legasov asked the ultimate question: “What is the cost of lies?”

What is that cost?

Over the years I have watched that series several times and it always makes me think of the big domes of the San Onofre nuclear power plant on the border of San Diego and Orange counties — right next to San Onofre State Beach. I’m reminded that  the spent nuclear fuel rods stored at San Onofre are mere feet from the Pacific Ocean and those fuel rods are improperly stored.

As clear as a bell I remember when Yucca Mountain was selected as a repository for nuclear waste. President George W. Bush signed it into being and then President Barack H. Obama reversed the decision. The problem is, we — the U.S. of A.  — still have no permanent solution to all the nuclear waste that is accumulating around the nation.

If we’re going to talk about the climate crisis then we have to talk about how to rid ourselves of nuclear waste. What is the plan for the used up fuel rods? We better find a solution soon because energy companies in particular want to help save the planet with fuel that isn’t drilled out of the ground. Wind, solar and nuclear energy, with an emphasis on the nuclear energy.

There appears to be a concerted effort to make nuclear power the best — and safe — solution to fossil fuels. But how safe is it? We’ve watched Three Mile Island, then Chernobyl and the Fukushima disaster.

Geez, the Fukushima accident. That is another nuclear power plant built on the coast, just a few yards from the ocean — like San Onofre. A tsunami hit the facility and knocked out all three reactors releasing large amounts of water with isotopes of radioactivity into the ocean. Because of the currents those of us on the west coast of the U.S. had contaminated water on our beaches.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Granted, I know very little about nuclear physics or how to safely store spent nuclear fuel rods. One of the people that read my post from last September, Donna Gilmore, replied with some important information. I’m reposting it here because I couldn’t put it any better..

“The nuclear fuel waste at San Onofre is unsafely stored in thin-wall (only 5/8″ thick) canisters that the NRC admits are vulnerable to cracking yet have not been inspected for cracks. No technology exists for finding cracks once the highly radioactive and thermally hot fuel rods are loaded in the thin-wall canisters.

“The concrete overpacks are not sealed. Large air vents in the concrete overpacks are needed for convection cooling.

“Other countries use thick-wall metal casks (10″ to over 19″ thick) that don’t have these cracking problems and are designed to be maintained and monitored in a manner to PREVENT major radioactive releases. Only thick-wall metal casks can meet American Standards of Mechanical Engineers (ASME N3) certification.

“The NRC gives exemptions to these American standards for nuclear pressure vessels. The ASME N3 codes are specifically designed for storage and/or transport containers of spent nuclear fuel.

 Legislation should be passed immediately to stop the NRC from approving exemptions to ASME N3 safety requirements.

This is a now problem. Thick-wall metal casks survived the Tsunami and 9.0 earthquake at Fukushima. Thin-wall canisters with partial cracks have no earthquake safety rating according to former San Onofre Chief Nuclear Officer, Tom Palmisano.

“Thin-wall metal canisters are used throughout the U.S. Until these unsafe canisters are replaced with thick-wall metal casks, none of us are safe. Focusing on transporting these unsafe thin-wall canisters somewhere else will no more make us safe than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic would have stopped it from sinking.”

You can bet I’m going to keep repeating this until the state and federal governments do something to make us safe. If Fukushima can be swamped by a tsunami, than it can happen to San Onofre. If those thin-walled canisters are leaking, we already have a serious problem.

If we are going to tackle the climate crisis, we’re already into the sixth mass extinction, we cannot do so thinking nuclear energy is the way to go.

•••• •••• ••••• •••• ••••

Post Script: As I was writing this we got the news that there was another mass shooting, this time at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Eighteen children and one teacher dead.