Thursday, May 21, 2015

Fermi 3, Round 2

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has given DTE Electric (DTE) the license it needs in order to build Fermi 3. They plan to build this new nuclear reactor on the shore of Lake Erie adjacent to Fermi 2.

The Sierra Club along with the Alliance to Halt Fermi 3, Beyond Nuclear and other anti-nuclear groups, was opposed to this license. We delayed its issuance by more than 3 years. There are still open objections which should have been resolved before the NRC issued the license, but that part of the process is finished for practical purposes.

We're still opposed to Fermi 3. The grounds on which we continue to fight have now shifted to Michigan state government. In particular, DTE will need the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) to issue a "Certificate of Need" for "Construction Work in Progress." Once they have it, DTE can put an extra charge on the electric bill of every customer to cover the cost of building the reactor.

That cost is already estimated to be in the range of $7 billion to $15 billion. That would translate to an average cost of thousands of dollars (over a decade or more) on every electric bill in the DTE service area. Customers would be forced to pay for many years before a single watt of electricity is generated. DTE could make a profit on construction even if the reactor is never finished and never generates any electricity.

You may have heard that DTE does not actually plan to build Fermi 3. Don't believe it for a minute. If you were not planning to build something, would you spend $100 million developing the plans?

$100 million is DTE's number, not something made up for effect. They have already applied to the MPSC for "compensation" for $100 million to be added to their rate base.

We need to convince our state officials, both the elected ones and the appointed ones, that Fermi 3 is a bad idea. The facts are on our side. There are better - faster, cheaper, cleaner and safer - ways to generate electrical power in Michigan. If $7 billion to $15 billion were spent on solar and wind generation plus conservation and efficiency measures, we the people of Michigan would be much better off.

To start with, new electricity would start coming on-line in the first year, not in 10 years or 15 years or never. The new electricity would come with no danger of a meltdown. There would be no spent fuel and other radioactive waste to dispose of. There would be nothing spent on fuel that comes from far out of state. Finally, there would more jobs installing and servicing solar panels and wind turbines than there would be in reactor construction.

The problem, from DTE's point of view, is there would be less opportunity for them to profit, and definitely no guaranteed profit. The question is, what is the priority for our state government? Is it the people of the state, or DTE shareholders? That's the question we should put to the governor, our state legislators, and the members of the MPSC.

DTE did not ask for our permission to spend $100 million planning to build Fermi 3. We should not be forced to compensate them for it. We should certainly not be forced to pay for construction of an obsolete, dirty, dangerous and expensive nuclear reactor when so many better alternatives are available.

We don't have DTE's paid lobbyists on our side. We do have the ability to write letters - to the editor, to legislators and to the MPSC. We do have the ability to talk to our state elected officials - in Lansing and in their districts. We have the ability to bring up this issue to city councils and county commissions, even if all they can do is pass a resolution. We can certainly hold our own educational meetings to make the public aware.

We had better do all of these things, and more. Act now or pay later.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Without Warning

Not a lot of people living near the corner of Michigan and Ohio see stopping Fermi 3 and shutting down Fermi 2 as a high priority. That's understandable. Neither the current operation of Fermi 2 nor the prospect of building Fermi 3 poses an immediate threat comparable to the immediacy of numerous other issues.

Tar sands, for instance, have brought us very visible piles of petroleum coke on the banks of the Detroit River. The Marathon refinery in southwest Detroit which produces petroleum coke also produces choking fumes rising from the basements of nearby houses because of toxic chemicals the refinery dumps into the sewers. It also produces the occasional fire, explosion and neighborhood evacuation.

Enbridge's tar sands pipeline dumped over a million gallons of diluted bitumen into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. As the components separated, the bitumen sunk to the bottom where much of it remains five years later. The more volatile chemicals of the mix evaporated, causing enough air pollution that people living near the river had to be evacuated.

Fracking also causes a host of immediate problems. Before fracking even begins, drilling sites are cleared and a steady stream of tanker trucks and construction equipment dominate roads around the sites for months. Multi-thousand horsepower pumps producing multi-thousand horsepower noise run for days on end. Cancer-causing fumes travel downwind; cancer-causing chemicals show up in nearby wells; millions of gallons of contaminated water must be disposed in injection wells. In case of flooding, this contaminated water ends up downstream, as it did from thousands of well sites in Colorado in 2014.

Fracking is also responsible for the oil coming out of North Dakota. This fracked oil is more volatile and more flammable than typical crude oil. It's generally shipped by long trains of tank cars. These have earned the title of "bomb trains." National Geographic recently published a mapo sillustrating the astounding increase in bomb train accidents; 143 in 2014, up from 9 in 2010. ( The worst so far killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) also cause intense and immediate problems. In North Carolina, a single spill from a sewage lagoon sent 25 million gallons of concentrated sewage into the nearby river. With widespread flooding, sewage lagoons containing months or years of waste from thousands of animals ended up downstream, resulting in "black tides" along the seacoast when it finally reached the ocean.

Just operating "normally," CAFOs expose everyone nearby and downwind to ammonia and other components af bad odor. We have plenty of CAFOs in Michigan and Ohio which you can visit if you doubt the odor problems.

The possibility of a nuclear reactor disaster just does not have the same sights, sounds and smells that put our brains and bodies on high alert for immediate danger.

It is true that back in 1966, the original Fermi reactor experienced a fuel meltdown. This turned out to be a kind of partial and contained meltdown. Several hundred million dollars (1966 dollars, not todays much less valuable dollars) worth of rquipment was wrecked, but no evacuation was required. Many people living nearby did not even know it happened. There were more important things to worry about, such as being drafted to fight in Vietnam.

Today, Fermi 2 just sits there, producing electricity when it is not shut down because of one failed part or another. The cancer rate in the area has increased considerably since 1966, but that just quietly takes out one person at a time, and it is impossible to say which particular case of cancer came from radiation and which came from some toxic chemical. There's not much going on that would alert the whole community, and the authorities tell us there is nothing to worry about in any case.

For "Fermi 2," substitute the words "Chernobyl" or "Fukushima" and the above paragraph would be an accurate description of life around Chernobyl or Fukushima before those infamous disasters. Well, the worst did happen there, without a lot of warning. It can happen here.

Unfortunately, we have nothing but our intelligence to warn us. But fortunately, we do have our intelligence to warn us. It's up to each of us to listen to the warning, and act on it.

It's too late to prevent the meltdowns at Chernobyl and Fukushima. It is too late to prevent the meltdown of Fermi 1. It is not too late to prevent more meltdowns in Monroe, Michigan. Fermi 3 does not have to be built. Fermi 2 can be shut down (it has been shut down many times) and it can be dismantled. That's the only way we lill ever be safe from a local meltdown. If there is one, it's not hundreds or thousands of people who will need to be evacuated; it's at least hundreds of thousands; it could be millions. (About 5 million people live within 50 miles of Fermi.)

It's not fair, but that's the way the world is. We have to deal with tar sands and fracking and CAFOs and meltdowns and more (even an occasional personal issue) all at the same time. They are all important, and we can't just pick one and focus on that. If you do, you're setting yourself up to be blindsided.

Friday, May 1, 2015

DTE Doubles Down on Danger of Disaster

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued the final operating license that DTE Electric (DTE) needs in order to build Fermi 3, a new nuclear rector. They plan to build it on the shore of Lake Erie adjacent to Fermi 2, the world's largest example of a Fukushima-type reactor. Fermi 2 was already built next to the site of Fermi 1, DTE's first reactor which melted down in 1966. DTE is planning to double down on the risk of another meltdown.

The NRC, according to the law which created it, is supposed "to ensure the safe use of radioactive materials for beneficial civilian purposes while protecting people and the environment." We could count many ways in which they have failed, but the main failure is that they invent ways to justify building commercial nuclear reactors at all. They insist that commercial nuclear reactors are safe. Let's examine that claim.

In round figures, around less than 500 large nuclear power reactors have been built world-wide. Of these, one at Chernobyl and three at Fukushima have experienced meltdowns resulting in gross contamination of the surrounding areas. In the United States, the less catastrophic meltdowns at Fermi 1 and Three Mile Island are well known. These events both resulted in wrecked reactor cores and permanent decommissioning. Substantially the same was true of the Saint-Laurent Nuclear Power Plant in France in 1969 and the KS 150 reactor in Czechoslovakia in 1977 (the year of the most serious incident).

That gives us 8 meltdowns (so far) of varying severity out of less than 500 commercial reactors. That's an actual failure rate of well over 1%. If you only look at the two spectacular failures in the United States' reactors, out of a base of just over 100, then the US rate is closer to 2% than 1%. This reality shows the deception involved in official reassurances that nuclear power is safe because the chances of a catastrophic failure are calculated (by the NRC) to be vanishingly small. Apparently, there is something wrong with their calculator.

There have also been numerous meltdowns in smaller military and experimental reactors:  The NRX reactor at Chalk River, Canada, in 1952; the Windscale Piles in the UK in 1957; Chapelcross, in south west Scotland in 1967; The Lucens reactor at Lucens, Vaud, Switzerland, in 1969. And and there have also been meltdowns for a number of nuclear submarines - a sunken submarine is beyond anyone's control.

The actual odds of a catastrophic failure at Fermi 2 are already unacceptably high. If Fermi 3 is built on the same site, then any disaster at the new reactor makes it harder to control the old one. Any disaster at #2 will make it harder to control #3. Any big release of radioactive material from one reactor will heavily contaminate the entire site (and beyond), making it very difficult or impossible to operate the other reactor. That's how DTE is doubling down on the risk of disaster.

While we (Alliance to Halt Fermi 3 and other organizations) lost our fight to keep the NRC from granting a license for Fermi 3, that does not mean we are finished. The fight now moves into the arena of the Michigan Public Service Commission and Michigan state government generally. We need to convince our state officials, both the elected ones and the appointed ones, that Fermi 3 is a bad idea. There are better - faster, cheaper, cleaner and safer - ways to generate electrical power in Michigan.

DTE could make a profit from building Fermi 3, even if it never generates any power. If the Public Service Commission grants DTE a "Certificate of Need" for Fermi 3, the construction costs get added to our electrical bills. We, the people of Michigan, can't afford the cost or the risk. We don't want Fermi 3. We don't need it. We do need to persuade our state officials to represent us instead of DTE on this issue.

It's time for a lot of us to speak up:  letters to legislators and editors; guest editorials on all kinds of media; tweets; Facebook posts; speaking up at any relevant meeting, from city council to legislative session; and any other way you can think of to get the message across. Just say no to Fermi 3.