Earth Day Q & A with Dr. Jim Conca

As an environmentalist and a keen watcher of the global energy picture, we asked Dr. Jim Conca to talk to us about energy and the environment as we mark Earth Day 2016.

Dr Jim Conca edit

Dr. Jim Conca

Over the last 30 years, Conca has been Director of the Center for Laboratory Sciences, Director of the New Mexico State University Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, Team Leader at Los Alamos National Laboratory, faculty at Washington State University, a scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Coordinator of Shuttle Activities over the Poles at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Conca obtained a Ph.D. in Geochemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 1985; a Masters in Planetary Science in 1981; and a Bachelors in Geology and Biochemistry from Brown University in 1979.

Earth Day 2016 is upon us, what is the most pressing environmental issue facing the U.S.?

I have to say the continued use of oil and coal in America, because they affect so much of the environment. The release of carbon is the most voluminous, but the adverse environmental effects of drilling and mining, oil spills and pipeline leaks, strip and mountain top mining, coal impoundment failures, the non-carbon emissions such as sulfur and nitrogen compounds and particulates that pollute not just the environment, but contribute to the unnecessary deaths of about 15,000 Americans every year, these are huge issues that dwarf almost all others.

When did you realize you were an environmentalist?

When I was growing up during the advent of the environmental movement in the 1960s and 70s in New England. The creation of the EPA when I was in high school was dramatic, and there were many ads on TV about air pollution, especially in Los Angeles.

As an environmentalist, what would you most like to change about that movement/community?

It seems to have adopted a rather strong ideological tone, as opposed to a grassroots tone based on science that it used to have. There does not seem to be any room for discussion of options. And, of course, the vehement anti-nuclear stand, even in the face of all scientific and historic data, plus (the criticism of) a few key people like James Hansen, who understand that our environmental goals will not be met without significant nuclear and hydroelectric power.

When did you first realize nuclear energy is a good thing?

When I started working at NASA in 1985, seeing its use in the space program, and especially after I started working on nuclear waste in the next few years. I had always been told that nuclear had problems and was dangerous, and kept looking for the reasons behind those claims. After a while I saw they were incorrect, and then kept working within the nuclear field and accumulated so much direct experience, and came to know so many lifelong nuclear colleagues that it became clear the myths that arose from the Cold War years were just that – myths.

Jim Conca

Jim Conca featured in a public service announcement about the need for carbon-free nuclear energy. The spots can be viewed here and here.

What is the biggest obstacle, as you see it, to wider acceptance of nuclear energy?

Political and ideological anti-nuclear stands that prevent media from pursuing objective reporting and that prevent public schools and normal outlets for information from providing the scientific truth about nuclear energy, especially in perspective with other energy sources. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and people need to know all the issues surrounding energy in order for us, as a nation, to pursue a reasonable and environmentally safe energy future.

Much is made about nuclear waste, or spent nuclear fuel. What should people know about nuclear waste?

First, there just isn’t much of it. All of the nuclear waste from all sources would fit in one good-sized landfill, although that landfill should be a deep geologic repository in the correct rock. We know what that rock is and how to do it. We just aren’t allowed to do it.

Second, most of the waste is old bomb waste from the Cold War, completely different from used fuel from power reactors. The former really is waste and should be disposed of as soon as possible. The latter is not really waste at all, but can be burned in future reactors that can get 10 times as much energy out of it as present ones. One of Bill Gates’ projects, TerraPower, is actually designing just such a reactor, called a fast reactor. So put used fuel aside in dry cask storage for decades until we burn it all. Then that waste would go into a deep geologic repository like the bomb waste. In fact, since there still won’t be much volume to it all, it could go into the same repository decades later.

Used Fuel Casks ART

Dry cask storage containers at Columbia Generating Station. Each cask weighs 180 tons and can safely store used nuclear fuel for 100 years.

From a global perspective, how important is it that nuclear energy technology continues to advance?

Absolutely critical! We cannot provide the 30-plus trillion kilowatt hours per year to eradicate global poverty and handle the environmental effects of past fossil fuel use without expanding nuclear. Almost all the present reactors in the world will be retired by mid-century or so and need to be replaced with new designs, which we already have and are building. Even with as much renewables as we can produce over the next 50 years, if nuclear fails to double or triple, then coal use will continue to grow in the world. Coal is still the fastest-growing energy source in the world, contrary to public opinion in America.

China is firmly committed to nuclear energy. Bill Gates is supporting a company that is looking to operate a new type of reactor in China. Can the U.S. hold on to its nuclear technology leadership? What will it mean if we lose it?

Yes, China is the country with the fastest growing nuclear energy program. They break ground on a new reactor almost every three weeks. And yes, while Bill Gates and Chinese President Xi Jinping looked on in Seattle, TerraPower signed an agreement with the China National Nuclear Corporation allowing the two companies to collaborate on advanced nuclear technologies that address safety, environmental and cost issues, just this fast reactor technology we need. Of course, it’s sad this didn’t happen in America, but the ideological anti-nuke sentiment is preventing our government from maintaining our lead in nuclear power. We still do lead, but if we don’t get moving again quickly, China will overtake us in as little as 15 years, both in number and technology.

NuScale and its small modular reactor design have a real opportunity to become an American success story. If that happens, what does it mean for the U.S. economy and the environment?

It will be wonderful, because NuScale is firmly on track to build the first SMR in America, and it is truly a revolutionary design. All of the environmental issues we worry about have been solved and it is truly walk-away safe – can’t melt down. Since the cost is about the same as coal plants, and the design is modular, able to be sized for any application and location, together with larger new designs, it could replace coal by mid-century.

Many states have renewable portfolio standards. Should states reconsider and switch to clean energy standards?

Indeed! The most foolish decision in the recent history of energy legislation was to exclude nuclear from low-carbon energy sources able to meet the new portfolio standards. Making the standards clean energy, or low carbon, instead of just renewable, would actually make headway in our attempts to decrease fossil fuel use in America. Switching from coal to natural gas will only get you so far. Also, since we’ll be getting uranium out of seawater soon, nuclear will even become renewable, since uranium will be replaced in seawater as long as the winds will blow on Earth.

Thank you and happy Earth Day to you.

And to all of us.

You can read more of Jim Conca’s analysis and thoughts on energy and the environment at Forbes, where he blogs.

(Posted by John Dobken)

Curiosity and Carbon – Discussing Nuclear Energy with CASEnergy’s Ron Kirk

Ron Kirk was curious.

As Co-Chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, Kirk had visited a half-dozen states to talk about the benefits of nuclear energy and everywhere he went people enthusiastically asked him about these things called small modular reactors.


Ambassador Ron Kirk

Which is why when the opportunity to visit Oregon presented itself Kirk was eager to make the trip. “I have been wanting to come out here to learn about SMRs. I had to come see it for myself,” Kirk told me.

Oregon is home to NuScale Power, the leading player in the U.S. small modular reactor arena. NuScale, with offices in Corvallis and Portland, employs about 600 people and anticipates submitting its SMR design certification to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission later this year.

NuScale’s Dr. Jose Reyes and Mike McGough led Kirk on a tour of NuScale research facilities on Oregon State University’s campus, including the Integral System Test facility, a working prototype of the NuScale reactor design.

But with Kirk, President Obama’s former trade ambassador and past mayor of Dallas, the discussion inevitably makes its way from technology to policy, specifically policies that govern how this country will generate low-carbon energy into the future.


Ron Kirk, left, speaks with NuScale’s Dr. Jose Reyes at the NuScale facilities on the OSU campus.

Kirk was surprised to learn about Oregon’s moratorium (as it were) on new nuclear energy projects. Passed by voters in 1980 (the year after Three Mile Island), Measure 7 basically says there can be no new nuclear energy plants in the state until there is a permanent federal repository for used nuclear fuel storage. Any new nuclear plant proposed would also have to be approved by a majority of Oregon voters.

Kirk says that was then and this is now.

“Literally, you have the world coming here because of this incredible, potentially game-changing technology that came out of Oregon State,” Kirk said. “It’s going to be built elsewhere and deployed elsewhere and I’m just stunned that Oregon provided all the intellectual fuel and capital in what could be a game-changer in the war on carbon emissions and it’s not going to be deployed in the state.

“This is the equivalent of saying we produced the scientists who discovered penicillin and the state saying, ‘sorry, we passed a law that says you can’t use it here.’”

Addressing the mythology

Ambassador Kirk quickly discovered after joining CASEnergy that when it comes to nuclear, one spends a lot of time dispelling the myths and misconceptions before the conversation can progress to the benefits of nuclear as a generation resource.

One of the myths most in need of dispelling, in Kirk’s view, is that nuclear energy can’t help with climate change.

Indeed, a recent poll by the Nuclear Energy Institute found that 70 percent of respondents did not know that nuclear energy is the largest source of clean air energy in the U.S.

“Nuclear energy is the workhorse of clean energy,” Kirk explains. “You just can’t get around the fact that two-thirds of our carbon-free energy in this country comes from nuclear energy. That doesn’t make you anti-wind or anti-solar, we love those. But you simply cannot build enough wind and solar to replace the benefit that nuclear contributes to our carbon reduction strategy, both existing and going forward.”

Which is one reason he questions why a state like Oregon would essentially turn its back on a resource that has so much potential for providing carbon-free, full-time electricity.

“For Oregon to justifiably pride itself on its commitment to the environment, I just find it a little incongruous that they can’t find a way to square with that, the humility to say ‘maybe we had very legitimate reasons for the moratorium that went into place years ago. But today, knowing what we know now, let’s have an intelligent debate about that and revisit that,’” Kirk said.

Ron Kirk and Student

Ron Kirk speaks to a student at Portland State University.

As in Oregon and elsewhere, Kirk also tackles head-on the myth that nuclear waste, or used nuclear fuel, is an issue that would prevent more nuclear energy facilities from coming online. Kirk says the real issue with nuclear waste is the poor political discussion about it that has taken place for decades.

“We don’t have a (technical) challenge with nuclear waste because we know how to store nuclear fuel. We could recycle it. But the truth is nuclear fuel can be stored safely on site for 100 years. That’s not a reason to not deploy nuclear going forward,” Kirk said.

“If you had the fullness of the debate, people would see the nuclear waste issue is more of a red herring than it is a reason to not go forward with embracing nuclear energy.

“Our message is our nation is richly blessed to have a diversity of energy resources, and a non-carbon diversity of energy resources. Where we’ve gotten into trouble is when we try to arbitrarily pick winners and losers.”

Looking to the future

As the former U.S. trade representative, Kirk has seen the world. He has seen parts of the world that aren’t so abundantly equipped with rich energy resources. And it’s made an impression on him.

“When you travel around the world and you see what it’s like to grow an economy, operate a medical system, without the benefits of a reliable energy system, you come to realize we’re so blessed in America,” Kirk said. “In Dallas, we had the only person die of Ebola in the U.S. The real tragedy of that story, if you’ve been to the Ivory Coast and Africa, that’s not a story of infectious disease, that’s the story of the tragedy of living in the 21st century in a society that doesn’t have access to clean water and power. If they had those two things you don’t have an Ebola crisis. You can’t run research in hospitals if you don’t have those two elements.”

Kirk mentioned that on his visits to developing countries the Secret Service wouldn’t let him take the elevator for fear the power could go out at any minute, potentially stranding the group.

“When we were in office, India had a brownout that affected a third of the country. I had to remind my daughters that a third of India is almost all of North America. The mayhem and anger across the U.S. if we didn’t have power for 10 days? Our kids think it’s a birthright to wake up and plug in their smart phones and iPads and laptops. Our kids’ rooms suck more energy than our entire homes did growing up!”

It’s for all those reasons that Kirk says choices and decisions about where we get our electricity in the future need to be made now and made rationally.

“The time to start thinking about energy isn’t going to be 10 years from now when Vermont says maybe we shouldn’t have shut that plant down. You can’t call Wal-Mart and say we need a 1,000 megawatt electricity facility. These are decisions that require years of planning and design and billions of dollars in investment. America has been fueled, our growth has been fueled, by decisions that were made about clean water and energy 30, 40, 50 years ago. It’s up to our generation now to make sure we’re going to have the power, the infrastructure, to continue to drive our economy in the future.”

Optimistic about nuclear energy

Kirk sees reason for optimism concerning nuclear energy. The current energy debate is closely linked to reducing carbon-emissions, and that plays right into the need for more nuclear. He also sees younger generations making that linkage. Couple that with an embracing of technology and a growth of employment opportunities in nuclear energy, that bodes well for changing opinions among Millennials.

He also sees a change at the highest levels of government around the world.

“That diversity of hydro, wind, solar and nuclear is what our global leaders embraced in Paris (at the climate talks). They wanted to give nations the flexibility and very much over weighted it to not just renewables, but non-carbon sources. If it makes sense for India and it makes sense for China, which are two of the largest carbon-emitting nations, then it makes sense for the United States.

“Our president and our Energy secretary have embraced nuclear and amended the federal rules to say we are getting our energy from non-carbon emitting sources and I would hope Oregon would see the wisdom of that and soon follow suit.”

(Posted by John Dobken)

A pretty remarkable moment in Salem

Last week, the Oregon House Energy and Environment Committee held a public hearing on HB 3445, a bill that would establish a nuclear energy task force to:

• Study and report on the methods used to procure nuclear energy, including methods that have been developed since the closure of the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant;
• Analyze and report on a variety of available technologies used to procure nuclear energy;
• Analyze and report on the costs and benefits of using nuclear energy to provide for this state’s energy needs; and,
• Recommend a strategy for the contribution of nuclear power to the provision of continued abundant, inexpensive and environmentally sound energy for this state.

The bill had no chance of moving forward as it was brought to a hearing past a key legislative deadline. So why the hearing?

From the hearing itself, one gets the sense it was an admirable show of bi-partisanship by the committee chair, Rep. Jessica Vega Pederson of Portland (the bill’s chief sponsor is a republican), and that, well, small modular reactor technology is cool and there is a budding major success story in the form of homegrown NuScale Power worth hearing more about.

There is also a glaring disconnect in the state of Oregon.

“We have one of the leading nuclear engineering programs at Oregon State University. But these world-renown nuclear engineers must leave Oregon to pursue their careers. These students take their skills and expertise elsewhere,” Rep. Jim Weidner, the bill’s chief sponsor, testified.

While there are no operating nuclear plants in Oregon (Trojan shut down in 1993), the state’s voters passed a ballot initiative in 1980 that essentially prohibits any new nuclear energy reactors from being built. Much has changed since 1980, except in some minds. More on that later.

NuScale representatives Dr. Jose Reyes, chief technical officer, and Dale Atkinson, chief operating officer, walked the committee members through the NuScale story. It was the kind of inspiring testimony that fueled a previous blog post here.

Dr. Jose Reyes testifies at the committee hearing in Salem, Ore.

Dr. Jose Reyes testifies at the committee hearing in Salem, Ore.

Dr. Reyes talked about starting the company at Oregon State University with a $4,000 grant and a dream to create a new style of light-water reactor with passive safety features, meaning no operator action or additional cooling water or even additional power needed in the event of an emergency. On top of those safety features, the NuScale reactor delivers the same baseload, carbon-free energy we’ve all come to expect from nuclear. A two-fer and then some.

“Fluor invested in NuScale after Fukushima. So that’s very telling,” Dr. Reyes told the committee.

OSU PhD. student Sam Goodrich testified on nuclear energy’s carbon-free benefits. Goodrich pointed out that Oregon’s current energy mix, though dominated by hydro-electricity, still produces about 10 million metric tons of CO2 every year (from 1.8 gigawatts of generation). Goodrich said Oregon’s two million passenger cars emit about nine million tons of CO2 a year. “You could take every single passenger car off the road and it would have less impact than installing one large nuclear power plant in Oregon,” Goodrich testified.

The Oregon legislature recently looked at a bill that would ban so-called “coal-by-wire” to the state (as well as most new carbon-emitting forms of generation, such as large natural gas plants). Oregon is also a leader where wind power is concerned. But wind power is intermittent.

The Oregonian’s Ted Sickinger summed up the situation thusly:

Yet replacing even 1,000 megawatts of coal with the cheapest renewable available – wind energy – could prove impractical. It would require utilities to build some 3,000 megawatts of capacity, as wind turbines typically produce only about a third of their capacity.

That’s an enormous addition to the current wind fleet, and most of the best wind sites in Oregon are already taken. The intermittent nature of the resource could also create reliability issues, transmission logjams, and exacerbate oversupply issues in the spring and summer, when wind and hydroelectric dams already produce more electricity than the region can absorb. The Bonneville Power Administration says it has already tapped out its ability to integrate more wind energy in the region, which is typically accomplished by cycling the output of the federal dams up and down.

So how to supply baseload energy that doesn’t emit carbon and could also be used to balance the ups-and-downs of wind? And bring family-wage jobs to the state? Nuclear energy, particularly an SMR such as NuScale’s, can do all that.

Dale Atkinson, NuScale chief operating officer.

Dale Atkinson, NuScale chief operating officer.

“There’s a very large number of young (NuScale) employees who are so enthusiastic about what they’re bringing to the world to really change both nuclear, but more importantly, the quality of life and a solution to some really tough problems for the world and for Oregon,” NuScale’s Dale Atkinson told the hearing.

The other side

The Energy and Environment Committee also heard from those opposed to nuclear energy, including long-time Portland activist Lloyd Marbet, unsuccessful in three ballot initiatives to close the Trojan nuclear plant (Portland General Electric ended up doing that on its own).

Marbet focused on the used fuel that is still stored at the Trojan site, “just above the Columbia River.”

Trojan used fuel

The used nuclear fuel storage area at the closed Trojan nuclear plant.

But if the audience anticipated finally learning about the “dangers” of used nuclear fuel storage, they would be left wanting. (Facts here). Apart from mentioning the juxtaposition to the river, there was no testimony of any actual environmental harm from used nuclear fuel storage. By any of the anti-nuclear activists. There was plenty of talk about Yucca Mountain not being open, which is one of the main points of Measure 7 (no new nukes until a national repository is licensed and operating). However, we know quite a bit more about used nuclear fuel storage management than we did in 1980 – including that long-term temporary storage, though not ideal, is not such a bad thing.

In 1980, so soon after Three Mile Island and Hollywood’s China Syndrome, Measure 7 passed with just a little over 53 percent of the vote. A win, but a close one.

In written comments, a member of the Hanford Advisory Board, which focuses on defense waste clean-up in Washington state, said this: “The dangers and costs associated with spent nuclear fuel have not changed at all since 1980.” Hyperbole to be sure, but there follows no evidence to support that claim. He then added: “The fuel from the closed Trojan nuclear power plant remains in dry cask storage at the Trojan site…” Surely if there was an environmental impact from spent nuclear fuel, the evidence would have been brought forward.

The “live” testimony from the Physicians for Social Responsibility rep centered on the un-viability of the NuScale design (so unviable that Fluor has invested a quarter-of-a-billion dollars in it thus far). This is the same rep who said Columbia Generating Station’s spent fuel pool wasn’t designed for earthquakes because the engineers were too focused on the reactor – and forgot. He also cited a 2003 MIT study to talk about the challenges to developing new nuclear energy facilities. An update to that 2003 study, published in 2009, makes it clear that, again, times have changed:

In sum, compared to 2003, the motivation to make more use of nuclear power is greater, and more rapid progress is needed in enabling the option of nuclear power expansion to play a role in meeting the global warming challenge.

Knowledge is still power

What is clear from the anti-nuclear activist testimony is that conversations such as the one that took place last week in Salem, shouldn’t. That more knowledge where nuclear energy is concerned is a bad thing. That science and technology have not made any progress since 1980.

A Sony Walkman 2, with its battery case, circa 1982.

A Sony Walkman 2, with its battery case, circa 1982.

It was like watching the Sony Walkman crowd talking down this new-fangled iPod thingy. The Washington state legislature has a nuclear energy task force that held meetings across the state last year and even visited the NuScale facility in Corvallis, Ore. The sky didn’t fall. (The same people didn’t want those discussions to happen either.)

Remember, knowledge is power. In this case, it could (eventually) be nuclear power.

(Posted by John Dobken. In 2013, Energy Northwest joined a teaming arrangement with NuScale Power and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems as part of the Western Initiative for Nuclear Project collaboration to promote a commercial, small modular reactor project in the western U.S. Energy Northwest holds first right of offer to operate the project. By doing so, Energy Northwest will become one of the first industry experts for small modular reactor operation.)

Used nuclear fuel storage in perspective

The existence of used nuclear fuel is not an excuse to decide against enjoying the benefits of further development of clean, baseload nuclear energy resources. Yet, one of the arguments often heard against building new nuclear energy facilities is that “there is no plan for the waste” or “there is no permanent repository.”

The plan for the past 30-odd years has been to store it. That storage location, since 1987, has been Yucca Mountain, a proposed deep geologic repository in Nevada. Yucca Mountain itself may never hold a single spent fuel rod, but another location will. Someday. As to the latter argument, that presupposes that once a permanent repository is named and opened, those making that argument will embrace nuclear energy. Likely?

In the meantime, used nuclear fuel is being safely and securely stored at nuclear energy facilities around the country with no environmental impact. No, it’s not ideal, but it’s not the crisis some would make it out to be, either. Even the New York Times got itself swept up in this mindset. The article by Henry Fountain, published Dec. 22 and found here, twice mentions that there are “hazards” associated with used nuclear fuel, while never mentioning what the hazards are.

Those who don’t care for nuclear energy like to make a point by talking about “the tens of thousands of metric tons” of used nuclear fuel out there. Indeed, the fuel is heavy. A small amount weighs a lot. But nuclear energy, as the most dense form of energy production, doesn’t require much fuel to generate a lot of power. And it doesn’t require much space to store its used nuclear fuel, either.

This graphic shows (to scale) the spent fuel storage site at Columbia Generating Station – and a corner convenience store 10 miles down the road. The Columbia site holds about half the nuclear fuel from 30 years of operation – or enough fuel to power a city the size of Seattle for about 11 years. (Note: Google Earth is a little behind and A Small Footprintthose empty spaces on the front pad are now filled.)

On a national scale, there are 80 sites that hold some used nuclear fuel, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. There are 151,282 convenience stores in the U.S., according to their national association.

The documentary Pandora’s Promise does a wonderful job of putting the total of used nuclear fuel in perspective. Click here to view the YouTube clip.

The Wall Street Journal published a blog post on used nuclear fuel that is worth a look. You can find that here. One of the contributors is Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center in Seattle. “No serious effort to reduce carbon emissions can be successful without nuclear power,” Myers writes. “Even officials in ultra-green Seattle count nuclear energy as part of the city’s ‘carbon neutral’ energy portfolio. Such obstruction (regarding used nuclear fuel) callously risks wider environmental damage.”

Environmental impact?

So another way to look at used nuclear fuel storage is like you would the kitchen garbage receptacle. We all have one in our kitchen. Some are out in the open and some are hidden, concealed in cupboards. We all have them yet we still prepare all of our meals in the same kitchen – just feet or even inches away from all that icky garbage! And Kitchen and Trashwe don’t think twice about it. Don’t even give it a thought.

Why? Because we know once we put something in there it will stay there. The germs won’t crawl out and reach our pantry or sneak into the fridge. We keep our kitchens clean and the garbage pail is where the trash goes.

With used nuclear fuel storage – the spent fuel is put in robust steel and concrete containers, each weighing about 180 tons fully loaded. They sit on specially designed concrete pads in secure enclosures, monitored constantly. They are rated against all forms of natural and man-made disasters. The casks have no moving parts: it’s all convection cooling. And that’s how they will remain until we decide to do something with them. No environmental impact. The fuel itself is a highly-sintered ceramic (no liquids). It’s not moving out of those casks on its own.

Energy Northwest has plans to build three more concrete pads similar to the two we already have – and that will provide enough space for used fuel storage through the life of the plant – 2043. The trade-off is 60 years of carbon-free, baseload energy. Not a bad deal at all.

(Posted by John Dobken)

UPDATE: Alvarez Part II

If you read our Nov. 20 post “Why Do They Listen to Alvarez” (here) you know we had some disagreement with the report Robert Alvarez undertook regarding spent nuclear fuel management at Columbia Generating Station. One of the criticisms we voiced in the media was that Mr. Alvarez failed to contact us – ever – before publishing the report at the behest of the anti-nuclear energy group Physicians for Social Responsibility.

On Page 7 of the report, Alvarez writes:


The spent fuel pool at Columbia Generating Station.

“Because Energy Northwest currently has not revealed the burnup history and radiological contents of the spent fuel in the CGS pool, this report provides a range of estimated radioactivity based on generic calculations developed by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission…” (Italics added).

The report was released Nov. 19.

After publicly stating we were never asked for this information, but would be happy to provide it, on Dec. 1, we received a public records request from Physicians for Social Responsibility asking for the very information Energy Northwest “has not revealed” about the burnup history of our spent fuel. It has since been provided to PSR and, presumably, Mr. Alvarez.

What it revealed was that Mr. Alvarez was off a bit in his guesstimating – by as much as nearly 100,000,000 curies regarding the radioactivity of Columbia’s spent fuel. (His guess was on the high side, as you might imagine).

As for his discussion of Columbia’s burnup rate of spent fuel assemblies:

Alvarez guess: 40,000 to 50,000 MWD/t

Columbia verified average: ~35,000 MWD/t

(From the NRC: “Burnup” is a way to measure the uranium burned in the reactor. It is expressed in gigawatt-days per metric ton of uranium (GWd/MTU). Burnup depends on how long the fuel is in the core and the power level it reaches. The burnup level affects the fuel’s temperature, radioactivity and physical makeup. See here for more on high burnup spent fuel from the NRC. High burnup spent fuel is defined as 45 GWd/MTU. Note: Alvarez uses megawatt days instead of gigawatt days, which gives a higher visual number.)

Alvarez puts himself forward as a “senior scholar.” Well.

(Posted by John Dobken)