Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Turning to nuclear power: big mistake

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According to an article in the Washington Monthly by Mariah Blake:

Seven years ago, Finland was faced with a daunting energy dilemma. To keep its domestic industries up and running, it needed to double its electricity supply by 2025. At the same time, it had to cut carbon emissions by fourteen million tons a year to comply with its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. The question was how to fill the gap without stifling its flourishing economy or increasing dependence on costly imports.

As it hunted for solutions, the Finnish government decided to consider a controversial option: building another nuclear power plant. It was not a new idea; in fact, the Finns had weighed and rejected it nine years earlier. But since then, officials reasoned, the situation had changed. Besides a new imperative to reduce carbon emissions, a new generation of nuclear reactors had recently come onto the market. None had been built, but the industry claimed that their simple, standardized designs and modular components would make them far easier and less expensive to assemble than their predecessors. In fact, a study by the Lappeenranta University of Technology, which used figures on par with industry estimates for capital costs, found that a new atomic plant could deliver electricity more affordably than any other large-scale energy option. A group of lawmakers appointed by Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen to study the issue also concluded that a single reactor could create a much greater drop in greenhouse gas emissions than the next cheapest option, building more gas-fired plants. This meant there would be less pressure on the government to enact other mechanisms, such as a gasoline tax, that might put a dent in consumer spending and hamper economic growth.

Based on these findings, in May 2002 the Finnish parliament voted to approve the construction of a new nuclear power plant, something no Western nation had done in more than a decade. In industry circles, the decision was heralded as a breakthrough. Areva, the French company selected to build the reactor, touted the project as "historic" and promised that it would open the door to a global nuclear renaissance. In the United States, the Heritage Foundation issued a white paper commending Finland’s "rational approach to nuclear power," and the New York Times ran a story calling the nation’s choice "prescient." Tens of thousands of lawmakers and energy buffs from around the globe descended on Olkiluoto, where the reactor is being built, to witness the bold experiment taking shape.

A craggy peninsula, which sits at the end of a two-lane road lined with sagging barns, rusty tractors, and thick birch and pine groves, Olkiluoto is being transformed into a thriving showcase for the promise of clean, abundant nuclear power. Not far from the construction site is an airy 10,000-square-foot visitor’s center with a glass wall overlooking the cool blue waters of the Bothnian Sea. In addition to a restaurant and an auditorium, the center features an elaborate interactive exhibit on the merits of smashing atoms. There are imitation caves full of real yellowcake uranium and a life-size mock-up of the new reactor’s core, complete with hundreds of aluminum rods and the cobalt glow of Cerenkov radiation. All around, images of mossy forests paper the walls, and birds chirp over the speakers.

But the building site is far less serene. When I visited in November, it was teeming with lumbering backhoes, churning cranes, and workers doubled under sacks of concrete. Hundreds of metal shipping containers and canvas tents were scattered around a fifteen-acre hole blasted into the granite bedrock. Rising from one end of the pit was the containment building, a ninety-foot-tall tower with its top wrapped in scaffolding, which houses the reactor. From afar it looked like a solid pillar of concrete, but as I picked my way through stacks of rusty I beams and giant spools of cable, I noticed Bondo-colored patches scattered across its face. Eventually, I looped around back and crossed a rickety plywood bridge that led inside. The interior of the containment building was lined with a solid layer of steel that was crisscrossed with ropy welds. On this surface someone had scrawled the word "Titanic."

These marks are the last remaining hints of the problems that have plagued this thick outer shell, the last line of defense in case of a meltdown. The steel liner was hand forged using outdated plans by a Polish subcontractor, which had no prior nuclear experience. As a result, the holes for piping were cut in the wrong spots, and the gaps along the weld joints were too wide. Entire sections had to be ripped apart and rebuilt. And the containment liner is not unique. Virtually every stage of the construction process has been dogged by similar woes, from the nine-foot-thick foundation slab (the concrete was mixed with too much water, making it weaker than had been called for in the plans) to the stainless steel pipes that feed water through the reactor core (they had to be recast because the metal was the wrong consistency). To date, more than 2,200 "quality deficiencies" have been detected, according to the Finnish nuclear authority, STUK. Largely as a result, the project, which was supposed to be completed in 2009, is three years behind schedule and is expected to cost $6.2 billion, 50 percent more than the original estimate. And the numbers could keep climbing. "There are still some very challenging phases ahead," says Petteri Tiippana, STUK’s assistant director for projects and operational safety. "Things will have to go extremely well if those responsible for building the project are to hit the new targets."

These complications have already erased the cost savings nuclear power was supposed to deliver compared to …

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

26 January 2009 at 8:22 am

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