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Web Letter

Parenti notes that James Inhofe, notorious climate skeptic, complimented Obama on his appointments to the NRC. What is the point of this comment? It's nothing but shameless guilt by association. If Inhofe, a climate skeptic (and genuine fraud we all admit), says something good about nuclear and Inhofe is a climate-change denier, then surely nuclear power can't be any good.

Well, Mr. Parenti, let's try another form of guilt by association. In his letter to Obama, James Hansen notes that "it is essential that dogmatic 'environmentalists' opposed to nuclear power not be allowed to delay the R & D on 4th generation nuclear power." Should we lump Hansen with Inhofe? They're both pronuclear. Maybe we should lump Mr. Parenti with the dogmatic "environmentalists."

Hansen initially thought that renewables other than nuclear could provide required power, but is much less certain of this now and has joined an organization committed to the development of the Integral Fast Reactor: the Science Council for Global Initiatives. None of these citizens and scientists is in the pocket of the nuclear power industry.

Finally, Parenti should have included thoughtful discussion of generation 111 and 1v nuclear plants, plants currently being built or already built.

Parenti should do better research instead of engaging in argument by scary metaphor (zombies! run for your lives).

There are some good books out there for ordinary people (like myself). G. Cravens, Power to Save the World; Tom Blees, Prescription for the Planet. I would most recommend, Mr. Parenti, familiarizing yourself with the debates around alternative energy had at climate scientist Barry Brooke's blog, brave new climate They are really informative. You won't write articles like your last couple again after considering the information here.

Gregory Meyerson

Greensboro, NC

Dec 2 2009 - 8:29am

Web Letter

I was angered by reading Mr. Parenti's one-sided and poorly researched article about the fleet of 104 nuclear plants currently operating in the United States. Here are a few examples of misinformation that found their way--apparently unquestioned--past your fact-checking editors:

1. US nuclear plants were not "designed to operate for only forty years." Instead, the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 set the license period at forty years because no one really knew how long the plants might last. To be sure of some kind of review process, the Act's drafters set the initial license period at forty years--which happened to be exactly the same length as federally licensed hydroelectric dams. Engineering advisors to the drafters were confident that they could make the reactors operate safely at least as long as the dams--since they had control of far more of the important parameters. That law provided for license extensions after regulatory review even when first drafted, indicating that there was every intention to develop and use a process to allow the admittedly expensive capital assets serve customers for longer than just forty years.

2. Our currently operating nuclear plants are some of the most carefully maintained and operated industrial facilities in the US. Anyone who uses a term like decrepit to describe them has obviously not visited any of the facilities. It would be difficult for any honest person to believe that after even a cursory tour. Operating statistics also demonstrate that the plants are in good condition--they have achieved an average capacity factor exceeding 90 percent for the past six years in a row. That means that the average plant is operating at its fully rated power for about 8,000 hours per year.

3. Nuclear plant operating records and the review process used during the license extension procedure are both publicly accessible. There are many opportunities for intervention, for briefings and for reading the documents in the public reading rooms or on the web. It is not an industry that is "shrouded in secrecy," though there are certain bits of information about security procedures that must be kept out of the public view.

4. Mr. Parenti really exposed some confusion with the following sentence: "Even more amazing, Oyster Creek's relicensing process did not require testing metals in the plant's core for embrittlement." Apparently Mr. Parenti does not understand that a "plant's core" is composed entirely of fuel assemblies that get rotated out of the plant after about 4.5 years of residence. If he meant the core barrel, the core pressure vessel, or some other component, he should have said so.

Nuclear industry documents can be quite technical and use words that are not normally found outside of engineering, physics and chemistry courses. If I had stopped my formal education after earning my BS in English, I would have some trouble understanding them. Fortunately, I completed the Navy nuclear power training pipeline, earned an MS in systems technology, served on submarines up through an assignment as an engineer officer and undertook a great deal of independent study on the topic during the period since I completed that assignment. I am not implying that journalists with sociology degrees cannot learn, but I am saying that they would have to study more reliable sources than Mr. Parenti has in order to bring themselves up to speed.

It is insulting for Mr. Parenti to call the relationship between industrial practitioners of nuclear energy technology and staff members at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission "corrupt." Regulators and industry employed engineers admittedly communicate regularly, are often members of the same professional societies, and frequently have a great deal of mutual respect. They might even be personal friends--an artifact of being classmates at some of the toughest engineering schools in the country. They even have similar goals--safe, reliable operation of advanced, emission-free energy technology that produces a commodity that few Americans can live without--electricity.

However, as an observer of the nuclear industry who has participated in a number of public meetings at the NRC and in a number of technical society gatherings over the years, I can testify that the NRC is a tough taskmaster that demands compliance. They are not soft on anyone and will not hesitate to levy a fine or impose a shut down if they have any doubts about the safety of the decision making or the honesty of the people who are answering their questions.

Rod Adams

Annapolis, MD

Nov 28 2009 - 5:58pm

Web Letter

As someone who covers the nuclear energy industry for a living as a reporter, and also blogs about it, I found Mr. Parenti's article to be a poor piece of writing. It is mostly rhetoric with occasional cherry-picking of conveniently negative factoids. There are no citations of government or industry documents or even news media reports. This is not analysis or even good journalism, since Mr. Parenti never cites any source regarding the nuclear industry point of view.

Let's start with Oyster Creek. Pipes break. That's why nuclear reactors have preventative maintenance.

Also, measurements must be put in perspective. Take a look at the NRC's Fact Sheet on drinking water standards and tritium. The drinking-water standard for tritium is 1,000 times less than the dose from background radiation (300 mrem). So a 500X increase in tritium above the drinking water standard, which sounds scary, is still less than half the average dose everyone gets from cosmic rays and eating bananas, an excellent source of potassium, some of which is radioactive.

In short, Mr. Parenti has confused Halloween with science and opted for goblins instead of Googling the facts.

The relicensing of Oyster Creek got a lot of scrutiny from the NRC. There isn't evidence of the agency being captured by the industry. Indeed, then-member Gregory Jaczko spoke both for and against the relicensing splitting hairs along regulatory lines. I covered this story. Did Mr. Parenti or any reporter from The Nation cover the relicensing issue?

If you want to complain about the effectiveness of the NRC, then ask why Sen. Harry Reid pushed to have Jaczko named as chairman of the commission. He has no work experience running a nuclear reactor and is, in the opinion of some, inexperienced to handle these kinds of responsibilities.

This isn't the first time Mr. Parenti has warmed up his pen to post against the nuclear industry. In April 2008 he went so far as to condemn the physics of star formation because they involve nuclear chain reactions. He never answered his critics either here nor in any other venue that I'm aware of.

The Nation has not served the interests of its readers with Mr. Parenti's article.

Dan Yurman

Idaho Falls, ID

Nov 27 2009 - 1:46pm

Web Letter

I find Mr. Parenti article about the Oyster Creek Nuclear Station amusing. Oyster Creek is what is referred to as a "BWR3" plant. The last boiling-water reactor (BWR) built in the US was the Grand Gulf Nuclear Plant in Port Gibson, Mississippi. It is a "BWR6." The design has improved over the years. In that Oyster Creek is an obsolete design, its history shows that can operated safely. Mr. Parenti refers to "radiation" making the pipes brittle. Ionizing radiation comes and goes. Neutrons, on the other hand, do make things brittle. It is called neutron embrittlement. What probably caused the leaks that Mr. Parenti refers to is most likely good old-fashioned rust. Systems at a nuclear power plant undergo what is called "in-service inspection"(ISI). Pipes and components on the ISI Schedule are visually and non-destructively examined on a regular basis. It is possible that GPU was skimping on maintenance, which is quite expensive. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission makes the operators do the maintenance, whether they like it or not. The leaks Mr. Parenti refers to probably had no impact on the safe operation or shutdown of the plant. I Googled Mr. Parenti and discovered that his education was in sociology. He is not a mechanical, civil, or corrosion engineer. I am not either, but I have performed ISI at Oyster Creek. I have been inside the protected area. I don't believe that Mr. Parenti has ever had unescorted access to a nuclear power plant.

Richard K. Moore

Meridianville, AL

Nov 24 2009 - 4:04pm

Web Letter

Whoa. I may have found this article compelling if it was anything more than a long string of conclusory statements. First, totally one-sided. Nowhere do you cite the opposing views. You merely characterize them as "corrupt," as if the reader would be uninterested in such views if you bothered to explore them. I mean, you cant just defer to the views of the group whose stated purpose is combating the relicensing of the plant.

Second, referring to the plants as "nukes" is a shameless attempt to invoke imagery of that super-scary nuclear war, which is really around the corner. Or, er, something.

Third, data: some vague references were made to the failure of components and the 500x safe level water that leaked, OK, good. But, take the time to reference the source maybe? This is more for all the following conclusions, I mean, facts presented in reference to the other facilities.

Fourth: yes, there is likely a serious regulatory capture problem at the NRC. But this problem is far from NRC-specific. And regarding the gentleman who moved between the regulatory authority and the private market, does it ever occur to you that this is common practice? It's part of drawing on the experience of those most acquainted with the complex technology. There may be some corruption behind this, I don't know, but I sure as hell can't tell from the way you wrote it up. You merely imply that such movements between the private and public sectors are inherently suspect. I don't know about you, but I would much prefer someone with some insight on the realities of the technology to someone whose experience is limited to bureaucratic oversight, insulated from the practical implications of the technology. Especially when you deride the other guy as an "academic" with no real-world experience. Some consistency troubles here.

I guess a quick summary of my reactions is that I read this as no more than the typical dribble produced since Three Mile Island, nuclear = nukes = the Hiroshima down the street = scarinessssss! And don't mistake my intentions, I'm not any sort of nuclear advocate. I'm just a guy who hopes to practice some environmental and energy law in the next year. And, oh yeah, a strident environmentalist.

One parting question: wind and solar are awesome (especially wind), this is a given (to me), but in the near term these sources, alone, are insufficient to accommodate our needs. Specifically, we need some mainstay power sources until technology can overcome the issues of intermittent generation, and there are some on the horizon, but a ways off. Which source would you prefer serve this function until the technology catches up: coal (which requires that one pound of coal be burned to power a 100-watt light bulb for one hour), petroleum, natural gas or nuclear? I know, tough choice. But one needs to be made. How about you address this fundamental tension in energy policy in a forthcoming article? Thanks.

seth cox

Los Angeles, CA

Nov 24 2009 - 6:13am