March 23, 2011
10th Interview with My Dad, a Nuclear Engineer, about the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Disaster in Japan
|Picture of a Boiling Water Reactor Nuclear Power Plant like the Fukushima Plants. My dad refers to this image in his interview.|
Update: Gerald has kindly hosted all of the new audio files.
I will update all the audio links (some of which are broken) soon– I meant to do this yesterday or today but was overwhelmed with work. DONE Meanwhile, you can listen to all the audio files on the new vimeo channel Brandon and I created. You can also listen to most of the interviews on Brad Go’s YouTube channel.
Here’s the vimeo channel:
This evening my dad and I recorded our 10th interview on the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. Please see the rest of the blog (sidebar) for previous interviews. Please keep sending questions and comments to [email protected]. You can also follow me on twitter @GeoEvelyn but please do not send questions via twitter.
In today’s interview:
1. My dad gives his usual update
2. My dad and I step up on a soapbox and discuss: a) why nuclear organizations and the media need to be better about providing information about nuclear power and nuclear disasters, b) why the US should reprocess (recycle) nuclear fuel rods, c) long-term storage of nuclear fuel, and d) nuclear power, power plants in general, and the world’s energy needs
3. We address the questions “How do you move fuel rods?” and “Should the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant license have been renewed?”
Here are some websites we refer to in today’s interview:
Here is a statistic we discuss (from wikipedia, let me know if you have a better source):
Here is the audio file:
Hope to have an audio link soon. Here is the interview on vimeo:
Please see the announcement page for more information about these interviews:
If you have time and interest, please transcribe this interview. Our next interview will be on Thursday, March 24th. Thanks (again!) to Michelle, there is now a transcript after the jump.
Q: Good evening, Dad.
A: Good evening.
Q: Are you ready for our interview tonight?
A: I am.
Q: OK. Let me first say that my name is Evelyn Mervine and I’m gonna be
interviewing my dad, Mark Mervine, who’s a nuclear engineer. This is actually the
10th interview in a series of interviews that we’ve been doing about the Fukushima
nuclear power plant disaster in Japan. We’ve done interviews pretty much everyday
since the earthquake and tsunami. We’ve only missed a couple of days, we missed
yesterday because my dad was traveling and I had quite a bit of work on my
plate yesterday, and then also on Saturday, a few days ago, my dad was actually
interviewed by Anthony, who’s a Japanese citizen living in Japan, so other than
that, we’ve done these interviews everyday, but as I said, there wasn’t an interview
yesterday, so today we actually are going to do an update for the last 48 hours. And
then after my dad does his usual update, we’re gonna take some questions. And
since we’re doing many interviews, before we start, let me just say that today is the
22nd of March. And it is currently 9PM, Eastern Daylight Time. So with that, Dad, do
you want to give your update for today?
A: OK, so as a reminder to everybody, the Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant actually
consists of 6 reactors. We’ve been most concerned about Reactors 1 through 4.
And less concerned about Reactors 5 and 6. And there’s been a lot of activity in the
past 48 hours, but I will say that as I think is typical in most events, there’s a lot of
interest and information in the beginning, and then as time goes by, the press moves
on to something else and the amount of information gets a little harder to come by.
Now, maybe that isn’t the case within Japan, but it certainly is from North America.
So I’ll give the best update I can, based on the fact that information is getting a little
harder to come by.
Q: Is that mostly in the mainstream news? Are there still reports being released by
nuclear agencies in Japan and internationally?
A: There are, but the updates aren’t quite as frequent. Especially in the past couple
of days, there hasn’t been as many updates coming from Japan. But anyway, let me
give what I know. So probably the biggest news item is we now have power form
the grid to all 6 reactors.
Q: But that doesn’t mean that the pumps and the valves and the switch gear in those
reactors are powered up yet. They’ve just brought the power to those buildings, and
because of the damage from the earthquake and the tsunami and the explosions,
there’s still quite a bit of work to do within the buildings to get power restored,
so that you can actually use it. So the reports are a little bit hard to interpret, but
in Units 5 and 6, if people recall from previous updates, they had gotten 2 diesel
generators in Unit 6 started and were using power from Unit 6 to also power Unit
5, via the equivalent of a long extension cord. And based on what I could read, they
now have off-site power available to Units 5 and 6. Again, kinda the same way,
through the Unit 6 plant and then feeding over to Unit 5. But that’s very good news,
and also we had reported that a couple days ago that with the diesel generators,
they were able to restore the normal cooling systems to those plants and both of
those plants were in cold shutdown and clearly they have to continue to provide
power and cooling to them, but relatively speaking, they’re in a few safe condition.
The other thing we’ve talked about is the spent fuel pools at the site. There’s
actually 7 of them – one for each reactor building and then a common one. And the
reports are that the common pool is in good shape, that the temperature’s under
control and it’s not a concern. So let’s turn our attention to Units 1 through 4. So
we’ve brought an outside power to each of those units, but we haven’t actually been
able to power up pumps and valves and switch gear and that kind of stuff yet,
because of the extent of the damage. In the past 48 hours, a lot of attention has been
turned to the spent fuel pools at Units 2 through 4. And I would encourage people
to go to the International Atomic Agency website, which is – I believe – www.ie-
Q: IAEA, right?
A: Correct. Iaea.org [www.IAEA.org] . And they gave a very good summary today of
the status of the plant and the spent fuel pools. But in any event, the-
Q: So wait, someone’s doing our job now? That’s great!
A: Heh. Well, I’ve been using information gleaned from the NEI, from Wikipedia,
from news reports, from the IEAA- excuse me, International Atomic Agency to put
it all together so that we are able to give these updates. But they got a pretty good
overview there, which is worth taking a look at, and again, in the past 48 hours, a
lot of attention has been on spent fuel pools for Reactors 2, 3 and 4. And the fire
departments have pumped a lot of water on those. Now, today, they said they put
a fair amount of water on to the number 2 pool and cooled it way down. And since
that building is the most intact of all the buildings, I’m actually assuming that they
probably did that through a fire hose that they routed up through the inside of
building, as opposed to using the pumper trucks and the riot trucks that they had
used for the other builds. But in any event, they were able to put a lot of water in
that pool and cool it down, and if you want the specifics, I would encourage you to
go take a look at the website that we just mentioned.
There was some concern in the past 48 hours about Reactor number 3. It
had been reported that the pressure within the primary containment building had
gone up and they were considering whether or not they were going to have to do
some additional venting, but the pressure stabilized and they didn’t have to do that.
But then, yesterday, there was a bit of a scare in that there was some gray smoke
sighted coming from the vicinity of the spent fuel pool. And they actually evacuated
the site for a short period of time until they were able to verify radiation levels and
allow people to come back on site. I don’t think that they ever actually determined
what the cause of that was, but they continued to pour water- or shoot water at that
reactor building. So, go ahead, you gonna have a question?
Q: I was just going to ask, I know that in our last update, the radiation around,
I believe it was mostly spent fuel pool number 4 was so high that they weren’t
actually able to get very close, they were having to use these police water cannons.
Do you know, has the radiation level dropped? Are they able to actually get close
enough with fire trucks at fuel pool number 4 as well?
A: So in general, I think that the radiation levels were most elevated at Unit 3 and
4 and with these efforts that they’ve had to pour water onto these buildings, the
radiation levels have come down. They’re not great, but they’re better. But they’re
still requiring them to stay at some distance to be safe.
So the situation, from 48 hours ago, the situation is definitely improving.
They’re not making as much progress as I think we would all would like to fully
restore power and get pumps and valves and that kinda stuff going, but I think that’s
a reflection of the extent of damage that these plants incurred, due to the
earthquake and the tsunami and the subsequent explosions. The other thing I
thought that was interesting, and I saw this at the NEI website – the Nuclear Energy
Institute – which is www.NEI.org. They said on their website – and I can’t
remember the exact numbers off the top of my head, but they thought that the
tsunami that hit was about a 14 meter height, so for folks in America, 14 meters…it’s
about 39 inches, but if you use 3 feet, that’s a pretty, pretty significant wave. That’s
40-some feet. And-
Q: Is this plant right on the ocean? Or how far- I don’t think I’ve ever asked you
A: Is it right on the ocean, yeah. If you look at the satellite pictures, you can see that
it’s right on the ocean. And if I remember correctly, that was about double the size
that the plant was designed for. So a lot of the buildings were well-below this wave.
So that does help explain why the diesel generators and the electrical switch gear
and that kinda stuff have been so problematic to restore. So again, I don’t remember
the numbers off the top of my head, but the NEI website had a summary of what
they thought the wave height was and what the plant was actually designed for.
Q: This is very encouraging, because it sounds like some of the nuclear
organizations are starting to try and do what we’ve been trying to do since day one,
is actually provide people with some kind of coherent story about what has been
going on and I think that’s really encouraging because at the beginning, I don’t even
think that the nuclear organizations were doing a particularly good job of – y’know,
they were releasing bits and pieces of information, but they weren’t necessarily
providing a coherent story that the average person could look at and really digest
and have a good picture of what was going on. So…
A: It’s definitely better and I think it’s a little bit easier to digest. And I think that
they definitely are trying to do a little bit better job, but it’s still pretty difficult.
There’s still no one place that anyone can go and kind of pull the whole thing
Q: And that’s problematic, because back when Chernobyl happened and Three Mile
Island happened, that was- correct me if I’m wrong, but Three Mile Island was in
1979, right? And Chernobyl was ’86 and there was no internet then, and so these
days, there’s almost too many places to go for information and there’s a lot of places
where you can get misinformation and so I think it’s-
A: Y’know, I
Q: Important for people to have one place that you can go.
A: Yeah, and I don’t think it’s so much of a nuclear issue. I think when we have
time to reflect, I think it’s a good lesson learned, if there’s any type of significant
emergency situation, that the government or the organization responsible needs
to figure out the best way in which to communicate to the public. In plain English.
I think these agencies are doing a good job, but the people that work there are
engineers and scientists and they still speak in that language.
Q: And we’re an engineer and scientist, but we’re trying to speak plain English. So
you can do it.
A: Well, we are. No, we are, but also, if it was some of their field that you or I were
not familiar with, we might have a hard time interpreting it, because although I have
a lot of experience in this field from my previous jobs, there’s other fields where I
don’t have any more insight or information than anybody, so I think that’s- like I
said, I think when we have time to reflect, we’ll have to look back and say, y’know,
because of the internet, because of the information age, is there a better way to
communicate and oh, by the way, it needs to be- y’know, I said English, which isn’t
really fair, because there’s so many people around the world and a lot of different
languages. But what I meant by that was not English per se, but in laymen’s terms,
so that the average person could understand it. That’s what I meant.
Q: And I think one thing that’s been really- I mean I know that we’ve both been
surprised at how many people who have listened to these interviews and it’s been
a little bit overwhelming for us, but I think that people are there, they wanna listen
and because this disaster has the potential to affect so many people, people wanna
know and they wanna hear some of the science and the technical details. They may
not be able to understand it in technical terms, but they-
A: Absolutely, as we said-
Q: They’re interested and we’ve had thousands upon thousands of page views and
your interviews have been circulated all over the internet and so people do wanna
listen to this sort of information and this sort of story and this sort of laymen’s
explanation. And hopefully we’ve been able to provide some people with that.
A: Yeah, when I say laymen’s, I’m not asking you to dumb it down. As we’ve said a
couple times, treat us as if we’re intelligent. Give us the information, but you’ve also
gotta explain it so that we can understand it, if we’re not an expert.
Q: OK. Well, do you have anything else about the plant? Any other updates?
A: Again, I’ll echo what I’ve said for the past 2 or 3 days. There may not be great
news there, but we’re no longer in a situation where everyday, the news is getting
worse and worse and worse. So I hesitate to use the word, but right now, we’re in
a relatively stable situation. Very precarious, but each day is bringing a little bit
of progress. And the other thing that I wanna say is at times, we’ve been critical
in terms of the information that’s available, and also maybe critical of the fact that
the situation of the spent fuel pools got out of control, which may or may not been
avoidable. We’re not there, we’re not under the pressure that those folks are under,
so it’s really not fair for us to judge. And the only thing that I would add is I think
we all need to have an appreciation for the folks that are at the site, that are working
round the clock, now for 8 or 9 or 10 days straight, to try to minimize the impact of
this event and put these plants in a stable condition. And not only does Japan owe
these folks some gratitude, I think the whole world community does. It’s, I think,
similar to the situation where we’ve had in the US where you don’t necessarily have
to agree with the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, but at least have appreciation for the
troops that went there and did what was asked of them, whether you agree with it
or not, I think whether you’re for or against nuclear power, you have to have some
appreciation for the dedication and the effort that these folks are putting in on the
ground in Japan.
Q: I certainly appreciate it and I hope that the health effects that especially the
people who stayed behind during the worst of the radiation, I hope that they’re able
to treat that and (number beeps audible)- oh, are you there, Dad?
A: Sorry, I accidentally bumped the phone.
Q: OK, well, that technical problem is your fault. But no, seriously, I mean, I really
hope that, y’know, I’m sure there will be some health problems as a result, but I
really hope that they’re able to treat those people and that they don’t have long-
lasting effects, and if they do, I really appreciate what they did, because if they
hadn’t have gone in there and taken care of that situation, things could’ve been
much worse and many, many people would’ve been affected by this more than they
haven’t already, so…
A: And I think the other thing to note is some people might say, well the people that
worked there, that’s kind of their responsibility, but let us not forget the firemen,
the military helicopter pilots, I mean these people have nothing to do with this, but
Q: They’re risking their lives, too.
Q: OK, well with that, why don’t we go on to some questions. And I just want to
say something quickly… Many people have asked us to comment on new nuclear
technologies, including Thorium reactors. And what my dad and I have decided to
do is we’re actually- at the end, towards the end of these interviews – we’re gonna
give an interview where we talk about the latest technologies. We’ll talk a little
bit about it today, but one thing that we’ve really been trying to do is not comment
on things for which we – and by “we”, I mean my dad – don’t have information or
firsthand knowledge, because we don’t want to have any more misinformation
being spread, so my dad has promised to do a little bit of homework about some
of these future technologies that have been proposed and at the end, we’ll sort of
maybe reflect on this disaster and try and discuss some of these future possibilities
and some of the debate about future nuclear power at the end.
A: OK, so speaking of homework, you actually gave me a homework assignment a
couple days ago, you asked me a question about how much of the core of the Three
Mile Island Unit 2 plant was damaged.
Q: Yes. And I know you emailed-
A: And (inaudible) there. I did. So it was approximately 50% core damage and
about 90% of the fuel cladding was damaged in some way.
Q: And that’s the zirconium coating on the fuel?
Q: And can you just go over again, what is the purpose of that coating? Is that to
make it have some shielding so you can handle the fuel rods a little bit more easily
and control the reactions, is that what the zirconium is for?
A: Well, what actually- So the fuel is actually made into Uranium dioxide pellets.
And these pellets are approximately about a half inch in diameter and – don’t quote
me on this because it’s been a while – about ¾ of an inch high. And so you put a
whole bunch of these pellets in this tube of zirconium and then on the end, you
actually leave a gap and you put a spring in there to hold it in place. And that gap,
what happens with these fuel pellets is they actually do get a little bit of cracking
in them from the fissioning and the decay of the subsequent fission products. And
some of the fission products are gaseous, and so they’ll leak a little bit from the
pellets, but they’ll stay within the zirconium tube. And the gap that you leave with
the spring allows for that- for the expansion of that gas. Of those gaseous products.
So it’s not really like, a rod, all of one piece, it’s a bunch of pellets stacked on
top of each other. Of these cylindrical pellets. And then a spring and then an air gap,
which allows any gas that is released from the pellets themselves, will be contained
within the- what we call the fuel rod, which is really that zirconium tube, which gets
obviously welded off at each end, or sealed off at each end, and then a bunch of
pellets stacked up, and a big spring and an air gap.
Q: So why do they use Zirconium? Is there something in particular about
A: It’s got really good properties for use in a reactor. It sustains fairly high
temperatures, it’s got good corrosion resistance, there’s a bunch of other great
things about it that I would have to dust off 25 years-ago-studies that I did in the
Navy nuclear power program.
Q: But basically it’s just to provide some kind of structure to these pellets, which
otherwise would be loose? It’s to put them into this fuel rod.
A: Right, that’s the way that- so there is no fuel rod, per se, it’s really the zirconium
tube that these ceramic pellets are put into, which forms the fuel rod.
Q: OK, so this is actually a good thing to discuss, going into our first question. And
this came in from actually someone that I know, who said- she sent me an email and
she said that she was watching a movie – and I don’t know the movie – but at some
point in the movie, there was a nuclear power plant and they had an emergency
and to deal with the emergency, they took the fuel rods out of the reactor and they
put them onto a truck and they drove away, so that they wouldn’t be dangerous.
And she said that I ruined the movie because after listening to these interviews,
she realized that that was impossible, that you couldn’t just pick the spent fuel
rods out of the reactor and put them on a truck. So she was wondering, actually,
because she asked me, well, how do they actually move the fuel rods? How do they
take them out of the reactor and put them in the spent fuel pools, because as we’ve
discussed, why can’t they just take the fuel rods away from the site and put them
into a different tank and we discussed how the equipment to move them has been
damaged and you really have to keep them in water. But I was just wondering if
you could talk a little more about that and I guess talk about how you move spent
fuel rods and also when you move them? Does it depend on how long ago they have
been in the critical in the core, how long do they have to sit around before you move
them, that sorta thing, just about the technical aspects of moving fuel rods.
A: OK, so I haven’t looked at your website for a few days. Do you still have that
picture up that I sent?
Q: I do. And I can actually put it up again with this interview.
A: Well, so that’s as good of a picture as I think we need. So it shows where the
spent fuel pool is in relationship to the reactor. And it shows how it’s, y’know, high
up. And what actually happens is you shut down for refueling and then on top of the
reactor will kinda be this big concrete plug. And then you can take the top off the
reactor vessel. So the reactor vessel is this big, steel forging, but it has a lid that’s
held down by a bunch of bolts and you can take that off. So what you do is if you
– I think it shows it in that picture, I don’t have it in front of me – but you basically
extend the spent fuel pool. And there’s a channel that goes from the pool over to
where the reactor vessel is. And you basically fill all that up with water, as part of
the refueling process. And then you remove the concrete plug and then the top of
the reactor vessel. And so the whole reactor vessel and then channel and the spent
fuel pool become one body of water. And you use the crane that’s shown in the
picture to actually go over to the reactor, pick up a fuel assembly. So normally in
a boiling water reactor, it’s not an individual fuel rod, it’s an assembly of fuel rods,
and they’re normally 7 by 7. So 49 fuel rods are build into an assembly. And you’ll
pick up that assembly with the crane, you’ll be able to keep it under water the whole
way, move it over to the spent fuel pool and put it in its proper place.
When we refuel a reactor, we normally replace about a third of the fuel
assemblies with new ones. But, as we’ve talked about, sometimes do a maintenance
or inspections, we actually have to take all of the fuel out of the reactor and
temporarily put it in the spent fuel pool.
Q: And that’s what happened at Reactor 4, sorry, saying it at the same time.
Q: That’s why that spent fuel pool was probably- I mean, we don’t know the details,
but that’s very likely why it was more of a problem sooner than the other spent fuel
A: So actually, on the International Atomic Energy Agency website today, they
actually said on there, the dates- the last date that new spent fuel was added to
those pools. And in the case of Reactor number 4, that core was moved over there in
approximately sometime in November. Or maybe early-
Q: So that’s fairly recent, actually.
A: Early December. So that was more recent and that fuel had more decay heat in it,
which is why that one was more problematic.
Q: How often do you have to refuel a nuclear reactor, generally?
A: It depends a little bit on what we call the fuel cycle. In the early days of nuclear
power, we would do it about once a year. And then as technology improved and
we had better quality control of the fuel and we were able to do a better job of
engineering the core designs, we’ve been able to improve that to 18 months, and
in some cases, some reactors are only refueled every 2 years, now. So somewhere
between 12 and 24 months, depending on the vintage of the reactor, the core design
and the- the other factor is planning of outages. So-
Q: ‘Cause you have to shut the reactor down for that time period?
A: Right. And so the whole- all of the power sources to a grid have to be planned.
You can’t literally shut down every power plant at the same time. So part of the
determining factor is not just design, but it’s also schedule. So if you have, y’know,
pick a number. In a particular section of the grid, you have 20 different power
plants. Maybe some gas, some coal, some nuclear. The outage times of when those
are shut down have to be planned, so that you don’t have too many shut down at
the same time, because then you wouldn’t have enough power for supplying the
grid. And so normally, most of the outages take place in the early Spring and in the
Fall, because the peak power demands are during the Summer, when everybody
needs air conditioning, and in the Winter, when everybody needs heat. But even
with that said, we have to plan for not too many power plants to be shut down for
maintenance at the same time.
Q: And how long does it take to actually change out the fuel? Is that a day process,
week process, how long does it generally take?
A: To change out the fuel, normally takes a few days. It’s a- as you can imagine, it’s a
very important process and a very critical process to get exactly right, because each-
so in addition to just replacing the fuel, you often times have to move a fuel bundle
from one place in the reactor to another. Because the core design is critical. You
want to get even power distribution within the reactor. You don’t want one part of
the core to be generating more power than another part of the core. So in addition
to just replacing fuel elements, you also have to move them to different places in
the core, so that when it’s all said and done, you’re going to get a balanced power
distribution in that entire core.
Q: So is that sort of the lifespan of a fuel rod, is about a year to two years and then
you can no longer use it for fuel?
A: No, in fact, we only do- only replace about a third of the fuel assemblies, or
bundles, in an outage, so if we refuel every 18 months, then that means a fuel
assembly’s in there for 3 cycles, or 4 and a half years.
Q: OK, and at that point, and I know another- we haven’t really talked about this, but
unless you do some recycling of the fuel rod, at that point, the fuel rod is considered
spent and it can no longer be put back into the reactor?
A: That would be correct.
Q: OK. So then you move the fuel rods to the spent fuel pool. And then they have
to sit there for a time period and then- I mean, this is one of the big problems of
nuclear power, and then they have to do something else with those fuel rods. And
A: So normally what happens is they’ll be in the spent fuel pool for a number of
years, to completely cool down. And then in the US, the original plan was that the
United States Government was going to take possession of the fuel assemblies and
they were going to store them all in Yucca Mountain.
Q: Which has now been shut down.
A: And after many, many dollars were spent and studies and research and
construction, ultimately, we decided not to do that. So we’ve run out of space in the
spent fuel pools at a lot of the reactors. So what’s happened is – I mentioned this in
one of the interviews – we do what’s called “dry cast storage”. And at Fukushima,
they actually have some dry cast storage, as well. Even though Japan is a country
where they do some fuel reprocessing, or recycling. And what it is is it’s a big
concrete container and you can take the very old fuel rods that don’t really need
any significant cooling anymore. And you can take them out of the pool and you
can put them in these big concrete paths and they’re kept physically separated so
there’s a little bit of air flow around them, and they’ve cooled off enough that just
the natural air that would be out there would be enough to provide the remaining
cooling that they would need. And they basically sit in these casts until there’s a
solution for either disposing of them or hopefully recycling. Because one of the
things we haven’t talked about is, in a reactor – and it’s not a good word, because
fuel doesn’t actually burn, but because of the, I think, the history of power plants,
we talk about burn. You can only burn the amount of fuel above what’s required to
have a critical mass(?). And so when the- without going into a lot of detail, when
a fuel rod is spent and can be no longer used in a reactor, there’s still a lot of good
stuff in there. There’s still Uranium, there’s Plutonium, that we talked about that can
also be used as a fuel, and the amount of nuclear waste there would be significantly
reduced if we could recycle that- the good stuff, and reuse it in another fuel rod and
that- We talked about Reactor 3, which does use mix oxide fuel. And that mix oxide
fuel is fuel that’s partially recycled and made into a new fuel rod.
Q: And just to repeat, we currently do not do this in the United States, we currently
do not recycle fuel rods?
A: We do not recycle fuel rods in the US for commercial nuclear power plants, but
many countries around the world – France, Japan – do recycle their fuel.
Q: And the problem with that is if you do do recycling, you can significantly reduce
the amount of nuclear waste that you ultimately have to store in spent fuel pools
and in dry cast storage. Plus, the other thing we haven’t really talked about is, and
I don’t think we wanna get into this tonight, is you also don’t have to then go in and
mine more Uranium and more fuel for these power plants, you can actually recycle
some of what you’ve already used.
A: Correct, no it’s – it would definitely be a step forward, I think, if we were to
reprocess fuel. We’d reduce the amount of waste that we have and be able to
reuse the good stuff as new fuel. It’s kinda the same thing, if people recycle their
aluminum cans, their plastic bottles, y’know, you can make it into usable things and
reduce the amount of waste, so…
Q: So do you have any insight – I know this is probably a politically-charged
question – but why don’t we recycle in the United States?
A: The concern in the US was because these spent fuel rods have Plutonium in
them, that somehow they were going to fall into the wrong hands and somebody
was going to make a nuclear bomb out of it. But the reality of it is that it takes
such sophisticated technology, and it’d have to be handled with such care, because
they are very radioactive, that it’s pretty implausible for anybody besides the
government or a utility consorting sponsored by the government that would have
the wherewithal and the technology and the equipment to do this kind of work.
This is rocket science, y’know…
Q: Nuclear version.
A: It really is, I mean – and I think that’s part of the reason why it’s been helpful to
have these conversations is, let’s face it, and this is rocket science that we’re talking
about, it’s not something that’s intuitive and I hope that we’ve been able with these
talks to better explain this stuff to you, but it’s pretty far-fetched scenario to think
that some terrorist group would be able to get their hands on a fuel rod and have all
the technology and the equipment to reprocess that and get the Plutonium out of it
and make a bomb out of it. I mean, that’s-
Q: And clearly other countries, such as Japan and France, are not concerned about
this and they’ve not had any problems, so…
A: Well, concern is not the right word. I mean, a lot of precautions have to be taken.
If the technology upon which the spent fuel is transported, y’know, police escorts, I
mean there is a lot of precaution taken. But again, even if somebody should get their
hands on one of these, to have built a multi-million dollar plant to reprocess these,
without anybody knowing about it, it’s a bit of a stretch.
Q: OK. And just to finish this story, so at some point, you either, y’know, you’re
not allowed to recycle or you can’t recycle anymore. At some point, you do have
to consider long-term storage of the fuel rods and you’ve talked about this before,
there’s actually 2 types of nuclear waste, there’s the fuel rods and then there’s
everything else that has been made radioactive, like gloves and suits and things.
And those are the two types of waste that you have to worry about, sorta what to do
with long-term. So I guess let’s just stick with the fuel rods to start with. So I know
that they were thinking about putting them in Yucca Mountain, and I won’t talk
about this today – I actually visited Yucca Mountain several years ago on a geology
field trip and something that was interesting – and I won’t talk about the details – is
that that’s actually a region that is…there are many faults, there’s been volcanism,
it’s not actually the most geologically-stable region, it’s wouldn’t be a place that I
would personally recommend, as a geologist, that you would want to store your fuel
long-term. But for whatever reason, maybe because of the geology, they’ve decided
not to go through with that. But you do need some place where you can store these
for a long time and I guess the question is how long do you have to store these
before you can insure that they’re not going to be causing any problems for people?
A: A very long time.
Q: Where do you store them?
A: A very long time.
Q: Can you define “very long”? Thousands of years? Millions of years?
A: Thousands of years.
Q: OK. And it’s really difficult, I mean, I know one thing, y’know, at Yucca Mountain,
they have to predict what the geology is going to be doing a thousand years
in advance and that’s something that’s very challenging to do, I mean we have
trouble predicting climate, we have trouble predicting what a volcano’s gonna do
a thousand years from now and you can do the best you can, but it’s not- y’know, if
you look at how difficult it is to predict the weather, sometimes, forecasting in the
future and it can be challenging and there’s many variables and so finding a safe
place to store these is, y’know, there are places to do it, but it’s challenging.
A: As somebody that worked in that field, there’s no doubt that this is a major issue
that there is no perfect solution for. And I think especially for people from the US.
We’re- we represent what percent of the world population?
Q: I don’t know, but it’s not very much.
A: 5 percent or less?
Q: I’m gonna Google it. Continue.
A: It’s a few percent. And we use something on the order of 25% of the world’s
energy. And so first and foremost, I think that it’s incumbent upon the United
States and other Western societies to find a way to use less energy on a per capita
basis than we currently do. Because no matter what choice you pick, whether
it be natural gas fire plant, coal plant, nuclear plants, there’s something that’s
fundamentally unacceptable about all those things, in terms of the impact that is has
on the Earth. And so first and foremost, I think we need to challenge ourselves to do
a better job of finding ways to reduce our energy usage. And then you-
Q: And also-
A: Then you can get into a debate of what’s the best choice and definitely
everybody- a lot of countries now have set goals for renewables. And renewables
are good, obviously. You have solar, you have wind, they have downsides, too, in
terms of sometimes they’re not available. If the wind’s not blowing, or if the sun’s
not shining, then you can’t always count on those, so somewhere along the line,
with today’s technology, you are going to have to use some coal, some gas and
probably also some nuclear, but – And then you have to balance the pros and cons
of all of those. And I think the challenge for us is can we do that objectively and
scientifically? Because a lot of times, the decisions are made emotionally. And
again, there- the best kilowatt is the one we don’t use. We’ve got- Western Society
has to find a way to be more energy efficient.
Q: I’ll just add a couple things to that. First thing I wanna say, too, is I travel in
my geology research and for personal travel quite a bit in the 3rd world and the
standard of living there is obviously- my fiancé is actually from South Africa and
traveling in South Africa, you see the way that people live and it’s terrible and you
want to improve the living conditions of these people. And if you think about that, if
you think about world population increasing. And also I really hope that we are able
to improve living conditions in many of these 3rd world countries. There are many
developing countries, if you look at China and India. So if there are- our energy
needs are really going to increase and if everybody uses energy the same way that
we do here in the United States, there’s just no way that we’re going to be able to
supply it and these issues – debates about nuclear power and other power – they’re
just going to become more intense, because if everyone has the standard of living
and the same energy use that we do- the average person in the US does, there’s
just no way that we can sustain that, so we really do have to think about these
things. And I also want to say – the second thing – is I really agree with what you’re
saying, that, y’know, when you have this many people living on a planet, you’re
gonna have to choose something and it’s not gonna be perfect. But if we make that
choice, it shouldn’t be emotional, it should be scientific and we’ve really tried in
these interviews to stick to the facts and stick to the science. And I think that, again,
whatever your opinions are about nuclear power, please don’t make those opinions
based on emotion, make those opinions based on on the science and on the facts and
really try to educate yourself – not just about nuclear power, but about all energy
A: There- y’know, I mean… There’s no such- in my opinion, there’s no such thing
as a good power plant of any type. And the best thing that we can do as a society,
or as a global society is to continue to use our brains and our engineering and our
science to come up with ways that we can be more efficient with our energy use.
And we are making great strides there. But as you pointed out, as the population
expands, even if we reduce the per capita consumption, the overall consumption
may go up. And I think we have to re-double our efforts to be more energy efficient,
so that we don’t need as many power plants of any kind. And we definitely need
to continue to use our technology in the renewable areas. We need to get solar to
the point where it’s really, truly economically viable without subsidies. And there’s
great strides being made, from shingles that you can put on your house that are
solar panels as well. Without actually having to have a fragile solar panel up there,
that’s a technology that can be made right into the roof of your house and so I’m
confident that with all the smart people we have in the world and all of the science
and engineering talent that we have, that as a global society, we will engineer our
way out of this, but we got quite a bit of work to do.
Q: I agree and I also don’t think that you should pick your favorite power plant and
vet(?) that power plant against everything else, I mean I think that we need to work
our many fronts and I don’t think that any one energy source – and I would love to
be proved wrong on this – I don’t think there’s ever going to be one energy source
that’s perfect or that can meet all of our energy needs, and so I think you need to
continue forth scientific research in as many fields of energy as you can and some of
those might end up being dead-ends, but I think only if we do that, are we going to
really make sure that we are going to meet our energy needs in the future and to do
that in the future in the safest way possible and the way that impacts our planet the
least. So…All right…
A: The other consideration we have – and we can get off of our soapbox – is that
different countries around the world have different natural resources. So some
countries, if they choose that they want to have a lot of nuclear power plants, that
may also be the countries that don’t have other choices. And I think that’s important
for all of us to keep in mind, that not everybody has gas or oil or coal as options.
Not everybody has a climate that’s conducive to a lot of wind power or solar. So
different decisions are going to be made in different parts of the globe and again, I
just hope, as a global community, as time moves forward and we can improve our
science and engineering and our energy efficiency, that we can do a better job going
forward and we just won’t need as many power plants of any kind.
Q: OK, well, since we’ve been on our soapbox for a while, I think one of the
questions that I was going to ask you, I’m actually going to ask in a later interview.
Somebody wanted to know if you thought this was a setback for nuclear power and
if you could comment on some future technologies and I think we’ve sorta promised
to do that, kind of devote a whole interview to that – talking about how nuclear
power technology power has improved. Again, the Fukushima plants were built in
the 60’s and 70’s and there has been a lot of progress made, so I think we’ll save that
for another interview.
A: Yeah, let’s save that- let’s answer that question when we kinda do our wrap-up,
whenever that comes.
Q: Yeah, and again, that’s been a very common question and we’ve kinda
purposefully avoided that question because at first, when there was a crisis,
it wasn’t really relevant to the situation at hand, because as great as the new
technology is, it wasn’t at Fukushima, so we tried to really focus on the situation at
hand, but we will address that, we will try to research that.
A: Alright, well, let’s answer a couple questions and then we’re gonna need to wrap
Q: Yeah, so this is the last one. And I think it’s actually relevant. So somebody
wrote in and they were concerned because the Vermont Yankee Power plant, which
you actually used to work for Vermont Yankee, so maybe you can comment on
this. It has been around for 40 years and either just received or is requesting to
extend its license for 20 more years, so that it can run for 60 years and, from what I
understand, and what this listener understands, Vermont Yankee is actually pretty
similar to Fukushima- the Fukushima 1. And this person wanted to know if, in light
of the recent events in Fukushima, if you think it’s a good idea that they’re extending
that license or not?
A: OK. So I don’t work in the industry anymore, so I don’t keep up with everything
that’s going on. But with respect to Vermont Yankee, originally, when the titles
were licensed, they were licensed for 40 years. And that 40 years started from the
day that you start doing construction on the plant. Or the day that the NRC granted
that license. What plants were able to do was make a construction recapture, so
that the 40 years started from the first time that you started operating. So that
Q: How long does it take to build a power plant?
A: It wasn’t uncommon to take 4 or 5 years to build a power plant. Some of the
later ones stretch longer than that, because of all of the design changes that were
required after the Three Mile Incident, but typically again today, it takes about 4 to 5
years to build a nuclear power plant, in the time you turn that first shovel of dirt
until you’re able to operate. So in any event, that was done and the 40 years for the
original license was from the date that they first started operating. A lot of plants in
the US have been licensed for an additional 20 years and I think we talked about it
in one of the interviews. Even though the plant is 40 years old, most of it isn’t 40
years old. Many, many pieces and parts are replaced, turbine rotors… Vermont
Yankee went through a power upgrade a few years ago, so a lot of parts in the plant
were replaced, new electrical generator, so there are parts that are 40 years old, but
it’s not like your car. You can imagine that if you had- if your car is a nuclear power
plant, the frame might be 40 years old, but everything else – the engine, the interior,
all the body panels, they’ve all been replaced and they’re not 40 years old. But
nonetheless, the process is to basically demonstrate that you’ve come up with the
plant, you’ve made all the safety improvements and you apply for this 20 year
license extension. And it’s really complicated for the older plants, because they have
changed over the years. If you can imagine, these plants that were designed in the
60’s, we didn’t have computer-aided drawings and the computer technology that we
have today to do the calculations… I mean, these plants were designed with slide
rules, not computers. So the plants have spent a lot of money over the years to go
back and recalculate everything and revalidate all the assumptions that were made
in the engineering, from when the plant was originally built. In Vermont Yankee’s
case, the NRC did just grant their 20 year life extension, but in the state of Vermont,
they also need a certificate of public good from the Public Service Commission, and
last year, the Vermont State Senate voted to not authorize that. So Vermont Yankee,
as far as the NRC is concerned, can operate another 20 years, but unless the state of
Vermont Senate takes another vote, and authorizes the Public Service Order
Commission- I can’t remember what it’s called. To issue the certificate of public
good, they won’t have the green light to operate from the state of Vermont.
Now getting to the question that the person asked…. What do we think about
the fact? And I go back to what we said in one of the first couple of interviews that
we did. And I said, in light of what’s happened in Japan, where we had an
earthquake that’s beyond the design basis and we had a tsunami that was beyond
the design basis, we need to go back and look at all these plants and look at the
design basis and see if, given what we know today, we’re still OK on the design basis
of the plant. So Vermont is obviously more geologically stable than Japan, but we do
have earthquakes in New England. So are our assumptions still correct, about
what’s the worst-case earthquake? What’s the worst-case winds that we might have
from a hurricane? Or –
Q: A Nor’easter, for instance, could hit Vermont Yankee, theoretically.
A: A Nor’easter, or y’know, we don’t get tornadoes very much New England, but we
still get them occasionally.
Q: On speaking to the geology point, just for a minute, Vermont Yankee, geologically,
it’s very stable. There is a passive plate boundary, so if you want to know more
about why there was an earthquake in Japan, I’ll post a link, I’ve blogged about it
earlier, but basically, Japan, there are three tectonic plates that are interacting. And
that creates an area where there are going to be volcanoes and earthquakes and
on the East Coast of the United States, we don’t have plate boundaries, it’s actually
one plate that continues out all the way to the Mid-Atlantic ridge, it’s what’s called
a passive plate boundary, and so there’s really no friction or tension, so there isn’t
really a geological mechanism to get an earth quake of the magnitude that we
had in Japan and a tsunami that we had in Japan. However, on our other coast, in
California, we have the San Andreas Fault, which is a very large fault, and we also
have tectonic plates further north in Oregon and we have our volcanoes. And so
we, from a geologic perspective, I would actually be more concerned about nuclear
power plants that are out in California. And actually, thinking about the design basis
for those and really, I think that all power plants should consider this, I think that
what Japan is showing us is that maybe the design basis really isn’t the worst-case
A: And so that I think is the key question to be asked is, in light of what we’ve
learned over the past couple weeks, are our assumption about the design basis
of the plant still valid? And Vermont Yankee’s on the Connecticut River. Are our
assumptions about the worst-case floods still valid? Or do we need to take a look at
earthquakes, natural disasters, those type of things, and make sure our assumptions
are still valid. And if they’re not, then that has to be looked at from an engineering
perspective and say, OK, then what are the new assumptions? And do we still meet
the criteria of whatever the new assumptions are? And if after all of that review,
the answer is yes, then by law and by practicality, the plant should continue to run
for the duration of their license. But I think one of the important things to do is to
apply the lessons learned and I know the president and the chairman of the NRC
has said they are going to go back now and take a look at all the plants in the US
and hopefully look at the design basis and make sure that, from an engineering
perspective, that any information we have is applied and that we still can- that
our assumptions are valid and that the risk – because there’s always a risk – is
Q: I think that some more geologists should be talking to some nuclear engineers
and some people who are experts at risk analysis. I guess not every geologist has a
father who’s a nuclear engineer, but it sounds like some dialogue between people
who have some knowledge about what these natural hazards might be and people
who know about nuclear power plants and people who are used to assessing risks
should all get together and really think about this issue seriously. And I’m glad to
hear that the president is pushing for that.
A: It’s not just geologists. So for every plant around the world, we’ve made
assumptions on what’s the worst-case scenario for when.
Q: Meteorologists, maybe lots of scientists.
A: And we need to look at what happened in Japan and say, well, if that was a- and
I don’t know, but if that was a 1 in 10 thousand year-event, how did it happen?
Were our assumptions invalid? Because it may turn out that there could be a
plant somewhere in the world where the worst-case wind that it was designed
for turns out to be too low because our assumptions were invalid. And that’s my
point. We’ve gotta go back and look at the design basis of each plant. We owe it to
ourselves, we owe it to the general population and make sure that our assumptions
are valid. And my guess is, in probably 99 percent of the cases, we’re gonna go
back and look at it and find that we’re fine. Especially for some of the older plants,
because they were designed with slide rules, a lot of times, they were over-designed,
because we didn’t have the computer technology to exactly calculate something. We
didn’t have computer drawings, so in a lot of cases, these plants were over-designed
and there’s a lot more design margin in them, versus maybe something that was
built more recently, that we’re able to calculate more precisely.
A good example of that would be, you take an airplane leg of a DC-9, a few of
which are still flying with Delta. Because of the time frame that those planes were
designed and built, those planes are just over-built, I mean you could probably
almost fly them forever, because they ‘re just really solid. And today, obviously,
when we build a plane, we got all the computer technology and we calculate how
many times you can take off and land before we break a landing gear. And it’s the
same type of thing, when we didn’t have the sophisticated technology to calculate
things as accurately as we’re able to do now, we built a lot more design margin into
it. So my guess is in a lot of cases – even if the design basis for some of these plants
change, we’re probably going to be OK because they were over constructed. But
there may be some cases, where we find out it could be higher than we thought. Or
that tsunami or wave from the ocean or that wind could be a little stronger than we
thought. And we might have to go back and make some modifications on some of
Q: And also, not only has there been some advances in the nuclear power industry
and technology, but I would say that in geology and in other natural sciences, there
have been improvements in our estimates, we- compared to 40 years ago, we also
have computers and we have better models and so if the plants were designed-
and I don’t know if they’ve updated this, but if the plants were designed for what
we thought was the worst quake- earthquake or Nor’easter or winds or whatever
40 years ago, I imagine that because there are many scientists working on those
problems too, you’ve actually updated those estimates and there’s probably new
risk assessments available for those. I don’t know, they’ve probably gone back and
reassessed that to a point, but it’d be worth evaluating that on a large scale and I
think Fukushima will hopefully inspire the United States and other countries to take
a close look at that.
A: Yeah, I mean no doubt that over the years, these things have been looked at over
and over again. But now’s the time- definite time to take a step back and say, woah!
We just saw something here that nobody expected to happen. Does that apply
Q: Or is that truly a one in a- I actually don’t know- one in 10 thousand case or
something. I should actually talk to some geologist friends about how common this
is, but… we should probably figure out what the probability of that event was. Was
this just a very unlucky improbable event, or was this something that is geologically
plausible, could happen again or could happen in a different way somewhere else? I
think it’s good to think about all these things again.
A: All right.
Q: All right, I think it’s time for both of us to get to bed, so… All right, have a safe
trip home, Dad, and I’ll talk to you- are we going to talk to you tomorrow?
A: I don’t think I’ll be able to because of my travel schedule, so maybe Thursday.
Q: OK, our next interview will be on Thursday. And please do continue to send
questions. Fortunately our readership has leveled off, probably because the interest
in the news is less, and so we’re receiving fewer questions, which is good because I
was pretty overwhelmed with them for a while. So if you didn’t get your question
answered before and you really want to know the answer, send it in again or send in
new questions and we’ll continue to answer questions for a while. So…all right.
Q: Good night, Dad.
A: Good night.