Nuclear power plants’ reactor pressure vessels (RPVs)—the massive steel jars that hold a nuclear plant’s fissioning fuel—face incessant abuse from their radioactive contents. And they must be built with extra toughness to withstand pressure and temperature swings in the event of a loss-of-cooling accident like the one that occurred at Fukushima in 2011. As the triple meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi showed, the next layer of defense against a nuclear release—the so-called containment vessels—can not be counted on to actually contain molten nuclear fuel that breaches the RPV.
Nuclear safety authorities have recently discovered weaknesses in several RPVs, and their contrasting responses suggest that the ultimate lessons from Fukushima are still sinking into international nuclear power culture—especially in the United States, where the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is resisting calls to mandate tougher inspection of RPVs. Continue reading →
The Arctic is melting faster than predicted. Is now the time to shut down the low-carbon nuclear power plants in France — the 20th Century’s staunchest proponent of nuclear energy? Is natural gas produced via hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ a gift that is buying time for a transition to renewable energy or a curse that reinforces fossil fuel dependence? Will carbon belching heavyweights such as the U.S. and China ever get serious about cleaning up their energy systems?
Such questions are top order in France, whose President kicked off a Grand Débat on energy this month Continue reading →
The Society of Environmental Journalists’ Miami conference energy tour forged forward today, pursuing better understanding of South Florida’s energy options in spite of a disinvitation by local nuclear reactor operator Florida Power & Light. Continue reading →
Italy is hurtling towards a referendum on nuclear power this month that could deliver yet another blow to the beleaguered low-carbon energy option, following recent reversals in Switzerland, Germany and Japan. Political graffiti and propaganda that I recorded last week on the walls of Genoa mirror opinion polls that show Italian voters souring rapidly on nuclear energy. Continue reading →
An explosion earlier today at Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant could indicate that the primary containment vessels protecting two of its reactors have now been breached. And yet, stunningly, that was not the day’s worst news. Instead concern increasingly focused on the plant’s highly radioactive spent fuel rods, stored in cooling pools above the reactors.
Damage sustained from last week’s massive earthquake and tsunami as well as subsequent fires and hydrogen explosions have critically limited plant operator Tokyo Electric Power’s ability to maintain cooling in several of the plants’ pools or even to replace water that is evaporating or boiling away. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko told a Senate panel this afternoon that one of the pools was empty and that heating of the fuel bundles could thus melt them down—an outcome that could spread radioactive elements far beyond the site. Continue reading →
Germany’s election this weekend could save nuclear energy’s neck, at least in Europe, thanks to the decisive re-election of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her center-right Christian Democratic Union. It may not be enough to secure the nuclear industry’s troubled renaissance, as poster-child projects bog down in delays and cost overruns. But Merkel could keep Germany’s reactors operating for another 15 years or so beyond the 2022 deadline set under her predecessor and erstwhile coalition partners, the Social Democrats.