.Margaret Harrington, host of Nuclear Free Future on Channel 17 BCAT, speaks with Arnie Gundersen about fuel pools, emergency planning and nuclear power subsidies. Hat tips to US Senators Sanders and Markey for introducing a bill requiring emergency planning continue after closure. Entergy and the other nuclear power operators are proposing they be exempt from any emergency plans after a reactor is closed, because they say there is no risk. But the taxpayer is still paying for Price-Anderson insurance, because there is risk. The industry can’t have it both ways. If they want to eliminate emergency planning, then it’s time they pay for their own insurance
MH: This is Burlington and here we are in the Channel 17 newsroom for our ongoing Nuclear Free Future conversation. I’m Margaret Harrington, your host. And viewers welcome with me Arnie Gundersen, the Chief Engineer of Fairewinds Energy Education, who has been on our show before. Welcome back, Arnie.
AG: Hi, Margaret. I’m glad I’m here.
MH: Thank you. And I’m so happy that we have chosen for the title of this show “Nuclear Industry – Profit before Public Safety.” And we can cut to the chase on this and look at the press release in the Vermont Digger on-line newspaper, the independent newspaper. There was a press release put out 5 days ago that says “Senators to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission” – and this includes Senator Leahy and Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont, and four other senators – and it says senators to NRC do not exempt decommissioning nuclear reactors from emergency response and security measures. So what does that mean, Arnie? What is going on? Is it in reference to Vermont Yankee and other decommissioning reactors?
AG: This is a real big deal, because 5 nuclear plants – 4 shut down last year, and at least Vermont Yankee and perhaps others will shut down this year. And it’s something that no one ever faced before. So what’s happening is nuclear plants are shutting down, and the utilities don’t want to spend the money on emergency planning after the nuclear plants are shut down. So they’ve convinced the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that they don’t need any emergency plans when the nuclear plant has reached the end of its life and it’s being mothballed.
MH: This is amazing that they should try to do this, because emergency plans include evacuation plans and all kinds of things. Could you run us through some of the emergency plans?
AG: Yeah, let’s talk about Vermont Yankee, which is the identical reactor to Fukushima. The fuel pool will have 37 years worth of nuclear fuel in it, and that’s the equivalent of 700 Hiroshima bombs worth of radioactive material. One would think that you’d want an emergency plan to make sure that there’s no problem with the fuel pool. When a nuclear plant shuts down, all of the safety systems are deactivated and the fuel pool has no safety systems. It’s considered non-safety related. So what that means is that in the event you lose off-site power – and that happens – we all experience the lights going out for longer periods of time – the fuel pool would begin to boil and left long enough, could burn. And that’s what happened at Fukushima Daiichi unit 4 that caused the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to evacuate out for 50 miles. So just because a nuclear plant has shut down doesn’t mean it’s safe. There’s 700 bombs worth of nuclear material sitting in the fuel pool. But here in Vermont – and a hat tip to Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy – both our senators – for trying to convince the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that this is not a good idea. (3:38) We have the most hazardous material known to mankind and you’re saying there’s no need for an emergency plan. So they’re trying to push the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to maintain an emergency plan at Vermont Yankee.
MH: So presently Vermont Yankee has an emergency plan which they can activate in case of an emergency.
AG: Right. Any operating plant has to have – out to 10 miles, they have to be able to evacuate people on the order of 2 or 3 hours. They’ve got to get everybody out of a 10-mile zone. But what Entergy is saying is that they don’t need to worry about the people outside of the plant boundary after the plan has permanently shut down. Now there’s an interesting dichotomy there because they want to keep the taxpayer-funded nuclear insurance. So they want us to pay their insurance in the event there is an accident, but they are claiming there can’t be an accident because the plant’s already shut down. So my opinion is, if you’re going to allow them to eliminate their emergency plan, then it stands to reason that they don’t need taxpayers to pay their insurance, either. And they don’t want that. There’s a fundamental problem. If you’re running a nuclear plant, you want that Price Andersen insurance because no insurance company in the world is going to accept the risk.
MH: So presently the taxpayer is paying this Price Andersen insurance.
AG: Yup. You and I and everybody in the country are on the hook for – if there’s a nuclear accident, the first 10 billion dollars are paid for by the nuclear industry. That sounds like a lot of money, except that Fukushima Daiichi cost 500 billion dollars. So the taxpayers would be on the hook for 490 billion dollars in nuclear costs. And that’s money that insurance companies will not insure. That’s a risk they will not take. So through well-funded lobbyists, the nuclear industry has convinced Congress that we should pay – you and I and everybody in Vermont and everybody in Wisconsin and everybody in Texas.
MH: Okay. I didn’t understand about what the Price Andersen insurance is. It’s particularly for nuclear.
AG: It’s the only reason nuclear plants continue to operate. What happened in the 50’s – two Senators – Price and Andersen – realized that to get the industry going, there was no actuarial basis about accidents. So they had five years worth of insurance. And that was called Price Andersen Insurance. Well, every five years – and that was paid for by citizens – every five years, Congress has renewed that again and again and again. And there’s a bill working its way up to the floor by Bernie Sanders that is going to try to force the industry to pay for its own insurance. They’ve been at this now for 70 years. You would think that they’d have a good basis to go to an insurance company and say it’s time that we pay the insurance. But that’s one of these hidden subsidies in nuclear power. (7:10) The owners want all the profit and they want to minimize the cost. Well, if you and I are paying for their insurance, that’s effectively minimizing their cost.
MH: And the decommissioning process for Vermont Yankee and for the other nuclear reactors, they are pulling out, then, on all of these things, if they can under the good wishes of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
AG: Yeah, the lax guidance of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is allowing these companies to eliminate their emergency planning staff despite the fact that the most toxic material known to mankind sits in the fuel pool. And that’s really what Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy were saying – and others – Ed Markey from Massachusetts and a few others as well – are saying this is wrong; if you’re going to have the most toxic material known to mankind, you need an emergency plan until it’s no longer on the site.
MH: But they are – Entergy is just forging ahead with their decommissioning plan. Do they have a decommissioning plan?
AG: They haven’t published their final plan. And they have until the end of 2015. They have a year after shutdown to publish the final plan. But they have said that within a year after shutdown, they’re going to eliminate all of the emergency planning staff. And to me, that’s frightening. And I’m glad to Vermont Senators that’s frightening. And it’s not just Vermont. There’s a plant that shut down in Wisconsin, the same thing. There’s two plants that are shut down in California – the same thing. So the industry is putting enormous pressure on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to eliminate emergency planning. But to me, it just makes no sense whatsoever.
MH: And again, going back to the title of our program, “Nuclear Industry: Profit Before Public Safety,” – this is – the common denominator is the money that’s involved with this sort of safety measure.
AG: Well, both those things are money – the emergency planning, they want to reduce their cost, and Price Andersen Insurance, they’re not paying anything now. So yeah – and the complicit regulator at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows that to happen. Effectively, we’re subsidizing nuclear power by eliminating emergency planning and by paying for their insurance even though one would think with 70 years of actuarial basis, they could get an insurance company to step up.
MH: And this is unprecedented, as you say, with 10 nuclear power plants that will be decommissioned, that they will be on their own then.
AG: There’s five. Five plants have shut down in the last year – two at San Onofre, one at Kewanee in Wisconsin, one down in Florida, Crystal River; and of course, Vermont Yankee is within a couple months of shutting down permanently. And the industry never had to face that before. (10:33) A lot of times a plant is shut down, like Millstone 1 in Connecticut or Dresden 1 in Illinois. But there are still two other operating reactors on those sites. What’s happened in the last year, though, is each one of these entire sites has shut down. So they can’t rely on the emergency plan for the other reactor and the NRC is just rolling over and allowing it to happen.
MH: Arnie, could you tell us what the prospect is if the decommissioning goes ahead without the emergency response and security measures? What can we see happening down there at Vermont Yankee? That they will have 60 years of a fuel pool that is going to be kept there? Take us from there.
AG: Well, when the reactor shuts down, there’ll be 35 years of nuclear fuel in the nuclear fuel pool – 35, 37 years. Within 5 years, they have to empty the nuclear fuel pool. So the most dangerous time in a nuclear decommissioning is the first 5 or 7 years. Vermont Yankee actually made it worse, and so did San Onofre out in California, because they went to high burn-up fuel. They ran the fuel in the nuclear reactor longer. And that makes it hotter after it shuts down, which means it has to stay in the pool longer. So they got the benefit of the burning the fuel longer, but we got the risk of sitting with that nuclear fuel in the pool. Well, after about 5 or 7 years, the pool is empty and in dry casks. And those of us in the nuclear industry think that’s the best thing to do is to get the fuel into dry casks. Fukushima had dry casks and they survived the tsunami and the earthquake just fine. A dry cask is passive. It doesn’t have pumps and water to cool with. And it’s perfectly – it is a perfectly doable thing. There’s no technological reasons why it can’t be done. So the risk years are the first 5 or 7 years when there’s fuel in the fuel pool.
MH: And that is what Entergy and the other nuclear power plants are proposing to have without insurance or the taxpayer paying the insurance and without the safety measures, during those crucial years.
AG: They want us to continue to insure them because there is a risk, and yet they want us to not have an emergency plan because there is no risk. And you can’t have it both ways. If you want to eliminate the emergency plan, then it’s time to pay for your own insurance.
MH: It’s mind boggling that this should be going forward, and as you say, it is good that the senators have stepped forward. And the other Senator was Senator Gillibrand from New York who signed this letter to the head of the NRC. But besides the crucial 5 to 7 years, what other emergency plans are going to go by the wayside?
AG: After the fuel is out of the fuel pool, there will still be radioactivity in the plant. And an example would be like the Hanford Reservation out in Washington has highly radioactive buildings but the fuel is no longer there. And at that point, the issues are rodent related and infestation related. At Hanford, rabbits are getting into these old buildings and eating the wires and then becoming radioactive themselves. And then the rabbits leave and you’ve got radioactive rabbit droppings all through the woods that they pick up on helicopters and they pay people to go out and kill the rabbits. They pay them $75 an hour – it’s good money. They call it bunny money. They go out and they shoot these radioactive rabbits. The other issue is radioactive wasps. Wasps fly into the building, use the moisture to build nests in the forests nearby. So now you’re getting radioactive transportation from inside the reactor buildings out into the forest. Same with birds. Radioactive birds nests and things like that. So the sooner you can knock a plant down after you moved the fuel, the better off you are. You can do this in 10 years. The carcass only has to sit for about 10 years before it could be completely dismantled, decommissioned and turned back into a farmer’s field.
MH: Into green fields.
AG: Yeah. We call it green fields. The site at Vermont Yankee was a farmer’s field, and it could be, within 10 years, reused for that application. There’s a site in Illinois at the Zion Reactor that is a beautiful site and they want to build high rise apartments on it. So the land has value after the plant has decommissioned. So there’s no scientific reason why we should need to wait 60 years to decommission a power plant. Nothing in science says 60 years is a magic number. But again, it’s one of these hidden subsidies. If the owner of the plant doesn’t have to put much money up to decommission it, and he’s allowed to wait 60 years while the stock market grows that money, it artificially lowers the cost of nuclear power. Now here in Vermont, we’ve got the windmills on the ridge lines. To build a windmill, you have to have a completely paid for decommissioning fund before you ever start the windmill turning. Yet if you’re Vermont Yankee, you don’t have to have a fully paid for decommissioning fund for 60 years after it’s shut down. So this plant was built 40 years ago; so essentially, for 100 years, you don’t have to have all the money to dismantle a plant for nuclear, but for a windmill, you have to have it before it begins to generate a single kilowatt.
MH: Well, with Entergy and the 60 years, their plan is to – I’m referring to a letter here from Andrew Larkin and Anneke Corbett in the Gazette.com. And they criticize SafStor – S-a-f-s-t-o-r – and they say that “SafStor puts dealing with the reactor into the future for up to 60 years. Now there are workers who are familiar with the functioning of the reactors. Sixty years from now, the experienced workforce will be dead. Entergy’s plan to invest the current $620 million decommissioning fund into an unspecified financial project so that at some far time in the future there is enough money in the future for decommissioning.”
AG: What the NRC allows you to do – and I’ll try to do this backward for the audience to see it correctly – there is right now about $600 million in the decommissioning fund. And you hope that it grows in the stock market. The NRC says it’s going to grow at 5 percent a year. So the growth in the decommissioning fund is like that. (17:55) The cost to dismantle Vermont Yankee is a billion dollars. And the Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners say costs are going to grow at 3 percent. In fact, they’ve grown past that, but the NRC says 3 percent. So 600 billion growing at 5 percent and a billion growing at 3 percent, sooner or later, those lines cross. And as long as they cross in a shorter period of time than 60 years, the NRC is happy. I’m not happy about that. That’s a hidden subsidy to nuclear power that windmills don’t have.
MH: So in effect, we’re waiting for their 60-year profit.
AG: Right. We’re waiting for the stock market to have perpetual 5 percent gains in growth. And of course, what happened in 2008, 2009 shows that that didn’t happen. The other example is the crash of 1929. It was 1954 – 30 years later, before the stock market ever got back to where it was. So this belief – this unfounded belief that the stock market’s going to grow 5 percent every year and costs are going to grow at 3 percent every year, is a myth. But it’s a myth that subsidizes nuclear power and makes it appear cheaper than it really is.
MH: And in the meantime during that 60 years, who is maintaining the dry casks that are remaining there?
AG: Yeah, there has to be a guard force. There has to be lights, there has to be fences with razor wire, and there have to be people measuring the radiation. We call those people health physics people. So they’re spending about 5 million dollars a year on the guards and the measuring people and the lights to guard that nuclear fuel once it’s in the dry casks. And that comes out of the decommissioning fund as Entergy is proposing it. I don’t think that’s fair, either. But Entergy is stripping the decommissioning fund to pay for dry cask storage.
MH: And Arnie, remind us where the decommissioning fund money comes from.
AG: Well, here in Vermont, the people of Vermont gave about $10 million a year from 1970 until 2000. So we contributed $300 million into our electric rates so that when the plant shut down, there’d be enough money to dismantle it. So we were contributing $10 million a year. When Entergy took over the plant, they took that $300 million and didn’t add another penny to it. And they said well, we’re going to invest it in the stock market and 60 years from now, there’ll be enough money. Trust us; don’t worry. Then they also formed something they called a limited liability corporation, which I also think Larkin and Corbett talk about. These plants have no assets. It’s not like Entergy is ensuring that this plant will be decommissioned. Vermont Yankee is its own limited liability corporation. So is Indian Point 2, a limited liability corporation – Pilgrim. Each one is their own stand-alone limited liability corporation. And what that allows them to do is to walk away from the debt rather than pay it.
MH: (21:32) If they walked away from the debt, what would happen?
AG: You know, if a gas station goes belly up, it ultimately falls on the state to clean it up – a superfund site. If there’s an asbestos problem. Here’s an example. In Moab, Utah, there was a uranium tailings mine. Uranium tailings are the stuff that comes out of the ground and they strip out a lot of uranium – don’t get it all – and the remaining dirt is radioactive. So that’s a tailings mine. And the NRC told the owner, you need $6 million in decommissioning fund. And the owner got $6 million. Well, the cleanup is going to be a billion dollars. So there’s $994 million worth of unfunded money there. You and I are paying for it. So there’s another billion dollar subsidy to nuclear power, just at Moab, Utah site. And it’s happened around the country. In Pennsylvania, there’s a site that went bankrupt and there wasn’t enough money in the decommissioning fund. So bankruptcy gets you out of that debt and then you and I have to pay to have it cleaned up – taxpayers.
MH: And what is the prospect of ever cleaning up Vermont Yankee so as you said, it could return to green fields? That is the dream and the hope of people.
AG: I ran a group that dismantled, decommissioned nuclear facilities. And it can be done. It’s not a high tech proposition. The radioactive material gets shipped to Texas where it’s stored in West Texas, which is a very arid area with very low income people that wanted the jobs and weren’t concerned about the radioactive dangers. But the radioactivity leaves Vermont, which is good for Vermont, and we get a green field back. That process could take 10 years but in fact, it looks like Entergy will drag that out to 50 or 60 years. Ultimately, all the radioactive material from the power plant itself – the radioactive pipes, the nuclear reactor, the building – all that will get shipped to Texas. And the nuclear fuel may sit in Vernon on a pad near the Connecticut River for as long as a hundred or 200 years until we have a place to store it underground.
MH: And if Entergy has their way, there will be no emergency and security measures in place.
AG: There will be no emergency measures. There will be a guard force around the nuclear fuel. But there won’t be – if the nuclear fuel were to leak or there was a terrorist attack on the nuclear fuel, there would be no emergency response people to evacuate large portions of southern Vermont. Yeah, it’s a mess.
MH: It is a mess. And again, it seems that we’ve been at this for 70 years and these particular nuclear reactors that are being decommissioned are 40 years old. And so even with all of that time, we still don’t know the right way forward.
AG: When I was in Japan – it’s very hard to engage the Japanese audience because they’re very placid. You don’t get any facial recognition that you’re making a point. And on top of that, I had a translator. But they understood one thing. I said that nuclear has been subsidized for 70 years. We started subsidizing nuclear power in the 40’s. And every time a new design comes along, the power companies don’t pay for that. The Department of Energy pays to have that new design developed. So again and again and again, taxpayers have subsidized nuclear power. (25:40) So I said to the Japanese audience, when your kids are 20 years old and they come home, it’s okay if you subsidize them and give them their room back. And if your kids are 30 and they run into bad times, it’s okay if they come back to mom and dad and you give them their room back. And if it was really hard times, maybe when they hit 40 you’d say okay, mom and dad are here, we’ll subsidize you. But when your kid hits 70 years old, it’s time to say no. There’s no more subsidies. You are on your own. Fish or cut bait. And that never happens with nuclear power. The Japanese audience, which is very much into taking care of their ancestors, appreciated that we’re in a situation here where the ancestors are taking care of the children, which is the wrong way that this should be done.
MH: And what about the small modular reactors? Are they being built now? Is this a plan on the horizon?
AG: Well, there’s always a new thing in nuclear power. At the beginning of the nuclear renaissance, there were going to be large reactors. And nobody bought any large reactors. So the nuclear industry said, well, we’ll build small reactors called small modular reactors – SMR. And they claimed that they would build an assembly line here in the United States. That’s not going to happen. It will be made in China or something like that. But the theory was, we could build these ourselves, just like building cars or something like that. But the small modular reactor assembly line is going to cost $100 billion. And there’s no company in its right mind that is going to spend $100 billion on an assembly line to build small nuclear reactors. So again, that’s another potential subsidy coming down the road. No one is buying small modular reactors and there’s no investor interested in small modular reactors. But the Department of Energy continues to spend money on the design. It’s the next buzzword in nuclear technology. It’s the next subsidized gimmick.
MH: And that’s called research and development and it is paid for by taxpayers’ money.
AG: Yes. You know, years ago the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had a charter of regulating and promoting. At that time it was called the AEC – Atomic Energy Commission. And they broke it up and they created the NRC, which was supposed to regulate. It really doesn't; it promotes. But then they gave the promotional part to the Department of Energy. And the Department of Energy is the biggest cheerleader for nuclear power in the world. The Department of Energy is actually funding breeder reactors in Japan. The Japanese don’t want them. The Japanese can’t afford them. But American taxpayer money is being spent on breeder reactors in Japan through the Department of Energy as part of this overall strategy of subsidizing nuclear power.
MH: It’s an endless story.
MH: And do you see any kind of glimmer of hope besides the efforts of our legislators here? This is a good step forward to wake people up.
AG: Well, hats off to Bernie Sanders, who has always been on this bandwagon, and to Patrick Leahy, for his efforts to make sure we have emergency planning. Ed Markey is another one, in Massachusetts, who’s always seen how heavily subsidized nuclear power is. But the nuclear lobby is extensive in Washington. And almost every senator and congressman is influenced by the lobbyists. So if we take the lobbyists out of this, nuclear power will have to fend for itself. But that’s not the Washington way. Peter Bradford, Vermont’s own resident former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner, said in Washington, there are no democrats and republicans on nuclear power. They are all pro nuclear. There’s no political divide on nuclear power in Washington. Every single congressman lines up to support nuclear power. And that has a direct effect on who’s appointed to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Every single commissioner has been approved by the Congress. And Congress doesn’t approve them until the nuclear industry signs off. So we essentially have five commissioners who are approved by industry who are now changing hats and overseeing industry. And we all know that doesn’t happen.
MH: Thank you, Arnie, for again enlightening us on what’s going on and keeping us aware and – raising our awareness very much. So I hope that you can come back again to continue this conversation and I hope that the legislators’ letter to the NRC Commissioner gets some attention.
AG: Well, I hope so, too. Thank you for having me.
MH: Thank you, Arnie. And thank you, viewers. Goodbye until next time