Posted: June 01, 2011
Planet-Profit Report: Nukes on the defensive
Industry veteran Jim Graham says Japan's troubles will prompt improvements but should not be an excuse to deter growthRob Reuteman
Though he retired from life as a corporate executive in 2009, he continues to work as a consultant. His firm, Nuclear Fuel Cycle Consulting LLC, provides services to the nuclear fuel industry, based on 40 years experience in the mining and energy industries, with the last 26 in the nuclear industry.
Consulting work has taken him around the United States, Sakatchewan, Australia, Korea and Japan.
Graham retired in 2009 after 16 years as president and CEO of ConverDyn, the Englewood-based joint venture between Honeywell International Inc. and General Atomics. ConverDyn provided oversight for the only U.S. facility, in Metropolis, Ill., that converts raw uranium into nuclear fuel. There are only four such facilities in the world.
While he ran ConverDyn, Graham also was a senior vice president for General Atomics, responsible for the company's nuclear fuel cycle activities from 1992 until 2004. During that time, he oversaw the permitting, design, construction and operation of the first leach uranium mine in Australia, which has one of the largest resources of uranium in the world. Australia now has three mines to extract uranium but no nuclear power program.
For two years, Graham worked as CEO of Cotter Corp. when it was owned by Commonwealth Edison. He supervised the reclamation and surface cleanup of the Schwarzwalder mine in Jefferson County, where high-grade uranium was mined on and off from the 1950s through early 2002.
Graham's stature in the industry is such that he's a former member of the Nuclear Energy Institute board of directors and past chairman of its Nuclear Fuel Supply Forum. He also chaired the board of governors for the World Nuclear Fuel Market and co-chaired the World Nuclear Association's 2007 Global Nuclear Fuel Market study in London.
He's written more than 100 papers and presentations to the nuclear industry, high schools, universities and governments on the nuclear fuel cycle and nuclear power. Before his involvement with uranium, Graham spent nine years with the French oil company Total, as president and CEO of its North American mining entities.
ColoradoBiz: On March 11, the earthquake in Japan and subsequent tsunami triggered the worst nuclear emergency since Chernobyl. What has been the effect of Japan's nuclear reactor problems on the nuclear power industry?
Graham: The events at the Fukushima reactor site have definitely caused everyone in the nuclear power industry to take a step back and look at exactly what happened. We need to make sure any nuclear facility can withstand a similar natural event. If improvements need to be made, they will be.
I just returned from a meeting of the World Nuclear Fuel Market group in Chicago; there were people from all over the world there, including Japan. The Japanese representatives said they were very embarrassed this happened in Japan. They said they were very demoralized about it.
I would point out strongly that this was one massive natural event that overwhelmed them as a country. At the reactor site I would have expected a much more drastic situation, given the circumstances. The Fukushima reactors have performed beyond my belief, making me feel even better about the technology.
When you put the event in perspective, we as a civilization are impacting the environment. We can't do what we are doing as a civilization and not have some negative impact on the environment. At some point, you have to decide if you want clean air or not when considering the nuclear event in Japan.
ColoradoBiz: What do you think of the media coverage?
Graham: We in the nuclear industry understand what happened. We read everything everyone else reads, and I will tell you: 90 percent of it is hype, misinformation, distortion and sensationalism. You always see that with this type of event.
If you step back and look at the facts that are known - the 9.0 earthquake and a tsunami with 50-foot waves - you still have four nuclear reactors that performed beyond my expectations given what transpired and the length of time without power to provide reactor cooling.
We'll correct the problems as an industry and move on. The problems at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island were man-made, while this Fukushima event was caused by Mother Nature.
Yes, improvements will be made, lessons are being learned. But as an industry, although this is a very serious event, many in the industry think this is less of an event than is being projected to the public. To me this confirms nuclear technology. Japan just went through an unprecedented earthquake and tsunami, and the problems at the four reactors will not have much of a lasting impact to the environment.
ColoradoBiz: What about the radiation tests being done on water in Denver, food in California?
Graham: For people to say they detect the aftereffects of Japan in the air in Colorado, those people need to be better educated on the facts.
In the foothills of the Rockies, there are more emissions of radioactivity into the environment from the sun, rock and water on a day-to-day basis on a magnitude more than what we see in Japan outside the perimeter of the reactor site. We in Colorado live in it day to day and do not give it much serious thought.
ColoradoBiz: When we last talked on the phone, you said you wanted to tell me what really happened in Japan.
Graham: From what we know to date, three of the four Fukushima reactors were operating at the time of the event and the three reactors shut down from the effects of the earthquake, as they were designed to do. They performed perfectly as planned.
Then the tsunami hit. Those four reactors took the full brunt of a 50-foot tsunami, which disabled the diesel generator backup power systems that were to provide power during a power outage. One important lesson learned from this event that will impact future design: The diesel fuel tanks that provided fuel to the backup power for the reactors should not be situated right along the waterfront. The waves took out the diesel tanks completely, so there was no fuel for the backup power to keep the reactors cooled.
It lost all power. The tsunami took out all the power lines. All sources of power in the area - coal plants, gas plants, LNG sites - were taken out by the tsunami. So, in addition to there being no fuel to provide backup power, there was no way to provide backup electrical power since the power grid was basically shut down from the impacts from the earthquake and tsunami.
The reactors were left on their own to do the best they could, with no controls, no pumps to supply water to cool the reactors or the used fuel rods. All safety systems went into effect as the event unfolded.
There was some passive cooling designed into the reactor, but not as much as in new reactors. There clearly was not enough passive cooling.
In the U.S., the lessons learned from the Three Mile Island event resulted in numerous changes to existing and new reactor design which improves their ability to withstand these type events. Any reactor built in the last five to 10 years is designed to withstand such drastic events.
Let's face it; any new reactor is better than the older reactors. All technologies improve with time. Hey, my '66 Mustang didn't have seat belts.
If the damage had been isolated to the reactors, help would have been there within hours. But because of the complete devastation to the area, people couldn't get power to the reactors to start safety systems for several days. We all watched on the TV or Internet the various attempts to provide cooling water to the reactor site while power from the main grid was being installed.
The reactor cooling systems worked as long as they could under the extreme condition. But without cooling water to the three plants, some meltdown of the fuel in the reactors and cooling pools did occur. As the reactors are brought under control we will know the full extent of the damage to each of the four reactors.
The Fukushima reactors are 40 years old, part of the first-generation built by General Electric. Of that model type - a boiling water reactor, BWR Mark 1 - there are less than a dozen still operating in the world. I believe we have two of this type in the U.S. We must remember that the reactors were not the problem. It was the backup power that caused a series of events that brought us to where we are today. We need to look at backup power sources again for all reactors under all types of events.
ColoradoBiz: What's going on with the reactors now?
Graham: Well, we know what the conditions are for each of the four in Fukushima. We know the Japanese have developed a plan to bring the conditions under control and clean the site up. We know in the short term they are improving the cooling water supply to the reactor cores and to the used fuel rods. The Japanese have identified where any radioactivity is coming from and have developed plans to handle the conditions.
They need to remove all the excess water that was used to help cool the reactors and spent fuel rods. The plans are to store the contaminated water in sealed containers and treat it later. Unfortunately some leaked into the ocean but the source of the leak was found and sealed. The operators at the site have to pump out a lot of contaminated water to allow access to working areas to allow corrective work to begin.
ColoradoBiz: What are the likely health effects of what happened?
Graham: If the information available to us now holds true, there are still high levels of radioactivity within the reactor building and in close proximity to the reactors. Beyond that, the levels are reasonable for the conditions that exist. When this is all over, once all the reactors are secured, the short- and long-term health effects should be minimal.
Yes, we have to step back and learn, make some additional improvements like moving the diesel fuel tanks to a nearby hillside. There probably need to be more and bigger batteries and multiple diesel generators to have a more secure backup power to support the diesel generators.
Then we move on.
This was a critical global event that we will again learn from and move forward. As some would have it, we should stop nuclear energy. That would be like, let's focus on the sun where we get a tremendous amount of radiation exposure. Let's stop the sun and move the Rockies! People need to step back, go online to valid Internet sites and get the facts on radioactivity and all its sources to put the Fukushima event in perspective.
(Graham listed the Nuclear Energy Institute's www.nei.org, the World Nuclear Association's www.world-nuclear.org and especially the International Atomic Energy Association's www.iaea.org websites as having running, up-to-date chronologies on the situation in Japan.)
ColoradoBiz: What about the used fuel rods?
Graham: All U.S. reactors store their used fuel rods in pools at the reactor site or in on-site dry storage casks. We see what a problem that can be under different circumstances. As we know, Nebraska or central Georgia are not going to get hit with a 50-foot tsunami wave, so such a risk is not the same.
I think the situation in Japan should create an impetus for the U.S. government to open the Yucca Mountain storage facility in Nevada for interim storage or to put a greater percentage or the used fuel rods in dry storage casks at the reactor sites. Why haven't we done this? Pure politics! Yucca Mountain is in Nevada, and Harry Reid doesn't want it open for business.
I do not think it's too far-fetched to say that if we had approved our nuclear storage facility, other governments would have followed the move. Had we put the used fuel in Yucca 20 years ago like we should have, maybe the Japanese utility wouldn't have had them on Fukushima site.
ColoradoBiz: How about the new mill proposal in southwestern Colorado?
Graham: Energy Fuels Corp. applied for and received approval to mill mined uranium near Uravan, an area - you can guess by its name - that has a long history of uranium mining. As such, the area also has a lot of legacy problems, areas that are being cleaned up and reclaimed. Today, you have many new requirements. If you build a milling operation, the regulatory bodies really hold your feet to the fire, unlike 30 to 40 years ago. I see no problem with the mine or the mill that will be built. It will create jobs and revenue that the area really needs.
ColoradoBiz: Colorado's only nuclear power reactor - the Fort St. Vrain plant near Platteville - was shut down and officially decommissioned in 1996. Why?
Graham: Fort St. Vrain was one of a few high-temperature gas reactors built by General Atomics. Construction began in 1968, and the first electricity was generated in 1976. It ran intermittently, about 15 percent of the time, until 1989. It was operated by Public Service Co. of Colorado, now Xcel Energy. Public Service notified the NRC in 1988 that it had decided to halt Fort St. Vrain operations early because of high operating costs and the plant's frequent shutdowns. They just could not keep the power plant operating at designed power output. The operating costs were very high, making the facility non-economic. Built for $200 million, it was a commercial disappointment and has been switched over to a natural-gas fired power plant.
ColoradoBiz: What about the flap over the Scwarzwalder mine in Jefferson County?
Graham: High-grade uranium was discovered there in the 1950s, and the area was mined on and off from then until 2002, when the mine was shut down and closed. There's a ton of uranium left in the mine. When I oversaw Cotter Corp., which owns the mine, my charge was to clean up the mine and reclaim the surface, return it to nature, and be done with it. Which we did.
There continues to be a fight between Cotter and state regulators about the groundwater coming out of the mine that flows into Ralston Reservoir, which is part of the metro water supply. Cotter Corp. needs to treat the water; it's their mine and they know they need to clean it up more. One little known fact is that the uranium levels in Ralston Creek above the Scwarzwalder mine are much higher than what is projected to come from the mine drainage.
ColoradoBiz: What about the controversy surrounding a proposal to mine uranium in northern Colorado near the Wyoming border?
Graham: Near the town of Nunn, uranium has been found in a concentrated geologic condition in the aquifer, well below ground. A company, PowerTech, has decided there would be a commercial benefit to recover it. They plan to use a well-known technology to recover it that is well-proven and works great. Essentially they add chemicals to the water - a bicarbonate mixture - that changes the PH level slightly and separates the uranium from the rock. It reverses Mother Nature.
Then they pump the water to the surface and recover the uranium. It's like a big Culligan water softening plant. Mining an aquifer is a highly regulated procedure. There are monitors inside the well fields and outside the mining area to keep track of the fluids used to separate the uranium. People are saying it will contaminate the aquifer and contaminate their drinking water and contaminate the area after they are done. That's the most outlandish thing I ever heard. It's physically impossible since you have to comply with industry and government regulations.
When you are done mining, you clean it up. You keep pumping the water out and washing out all the chemicals until the water has been restored to its former state. It's the best way to mine uranium. There is no surface disturbance, no waste ponds, no tailings areas. People today are drinking the water from an aquifer that has a lot of uranium in it. What the company proposes to do is take the uranium out of the aquifer. If it's okay to drink today, it'll be okay to drink when they are done.
Rob Reuteman is a freelance journalist, former business editor of the Rocky Mountain News and immediate past president of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.