The basics on nuclear power and Trojan
August 30, 2008
By George Rede
Q. What's the case for or against nuclear energy?
Pros: Unlike electrical-power plants that burn coal or other fossil fuels, a nuclear power plant produces virtually no carbon dioxide, a pollutant that can contribute to the Earth's heat-trapping greenhouse gases. Nuclear potentially is a steadier supplier of power than seasonal wind or solar. The nuclear industry claims newer and potentially safer technologies which, for instance, would rely less on pumps and more on gravity to move cooling water over the nuclear core. As for dealing with wastes, a lot of other countries are using a range of means, at least as temporary solutions. In France, nuclear generates about 80 percent of the electrical power.
Cons: Spent fuel is gathering at nuclear plants with no permanent home yet open. Communities en route historically have fought any plans to ship huge volumes of spent fuel. If the chance of a serious radiological leak from a nuclear power plant historically has been small, the consequences could be huge. Even the perception that crops may have been contaminated could devastate regional economies. More nuclear plants mean potentially more terrorist targets. More plants also mean more spent fuel, which contains plutonium that reprocessing and enrichment (though prohibited from commercial nuclear power plants) could turn into nuclear-weapons fuel. Construction costs for the start of a new generation of plants would be extremely high, easily several billion dollars per plant.
Q. What are the costs of building and decommissioning Trojan?
A. The Trojan Nuclear Power plant, which came on line in May 1976 as the largest nuclear plant in the country at the time with a net generating capacity of 1,130 megawatts, cost $460 million to build. Portland General Electric Co. estimates costs of decommissioning, which will not be complete until the fuel rods leave the site, to reach $404 million. These days, PGE customers pay about $4.6 million annually toward Trojan's decommissioning, an amount that the utility says equals about one third of one percent of what customers are paying overall for electrical power. Consumer advocates have filed lawsuits that seek refunds to ratepayers of up to several hundred million dollars for what advocates see as unwarranted PGE charges to recover its return on Trojan. An ongoing federal Nuclear Waste Fund, fed by user fees over the last quarter of a century, aims to cover costs of building and operating a federal permanent repository. Even so, U.S. Energy Department officials say funding cuts by Congress have imperiled efforts to open the repository by the projected target date of March 2017.
Q. What are current national estimates for building nuclear plants?
A. Rising material costs affect construction of all kinds of energy plants, nuclear included. A recent EnergyBiz magazine article suggests that building a nuclear plant today costs several billion dollars.
Q. How many commercial nuclear power plants are operating in the United States?
A. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission lists 104.
Q. How many tons of radioactive spent-fuel rods are stored so far at the nation's nuclear power plants?
A. The U.S. Department of Energy lists 55,000 metric tons so far.
Q. Which agencies are linked with Trojan during decommissioning? A. Trojan owners are Portland General Electric Co. with a 67.5 per cent stake; the Eugene Water and Electric Board, 30 percent; and PacifiCorp, 2.5 percent. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversees Trojan's license for continuing to temporarily store spent fuel on site. The U.S. Department of Energy is responsible for eventually taking control of the spent fuel at a permanent repository -- Yucca Mountain in Nevada, still under construction and behind schedule. The Oregon Department of Energy tracks decommissioning at the state level. The Public Utility Commission of Oregon regulates customer rates and services.
Q. What's the scope of demolition and recycling during the last few years of decommissioning?
A. Trojan's decommissioning has included removal of concrete, piping and radioactively contaminated parts of the plant. Workers have dismantled, for processing, some 21 miles of electrical conduit and 20 miles of piping. About 40,000 cubic yards of clean crushed concrete from the cooling tower -- which was 499 feet tall with a 285-foot-wide base -- remain on site for possible reuse.
Q. How many workers remain at Trojan site for security and continuing decommissioning?
A. About three dozen, counting demolition contractors.
Q. How many tons of spent fuel are on site at Trojan?
A. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has licensed the Trojan site to hold 379.7 tons of uranium while the utility waits for the federal government to follow through on its plans to eventually open a permanent repository for the nation's spent fuel.
Q. How many spent-fuel assemblies are stored at Trojan?
A. The Trojan site stores 791 spent-fuel assemblies. Each assembly stands 12 feet tall and holds 17 rods across by 17 rods deep. Trojan's reactor vessel held 193 assemblies at any one time while the plant generated electricity.
Q. What's involved in Trojan's spent-fuel security?
A. Specialists monitor the fuel and storage area 24 hours a day and expect to do so until Trojan's spent fuel ends up in a federal repository. Trojan officials say that will not happen until 2031 at the earliest.
Q. What's the status of Trojan's assemblies of radioactive spent-fuel rods? A. In 2003, workers moved Trojan's used fuel from a deep pool of water to stainless steel canisters encased within 34 air-cooled concrete storage casks on site.
Q. How old and how radioactive are Trojan's spent-fuel assemblies?
A. They range from 15 to 30 years old. Workers robotically removed Trojan's first batch of used fuel in 1978. They removed the final batch right after PGE decided Trojan was done in early 1993. Spent-fuel radioactivity, while remaining at lethal levels, drops by about 88 percent after the first decade. Spent fuel's most-penetrating types of radiation decay away after about 300 years. Spent fuel's longer-lasting elements stay dangerous for tens of thousands of years.
Q. What's the latest on when the federal government will take control of the spent fuel rods from Trojan?
A. According to PGE's decommissioning update, continuing federal delays for opening a permanent national repository mean the utility expects to see Trojan's final shipment of spent fuel leave the Trojan site "no earlier than 2031." Latest federal estimates put the opening of the Yucca Mountain permanent-storage site in Nevada at no sooner than a decade away.
Q. Any plans for the 634-acre Trojan site?
A. PGE has no plans right now to use the site for anything else. Some buildings are open to lease. Trojan Park, which holds a lake for public fishing, remains open from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Meanwhile, PGE continues exploring alternative forms of energy. At this point in Oregon, another nuclear plant is not an option. Due to a voter-initiative passed in the 1980s, Oregon law forbids the state from issuing a site certificate for a nuclear plant unless a federally licensed repository is ready, which is far from happening. Furthermore, Oregon voters would have to approve the development.
"Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You," by David Ropeik and George Gray; Houghton Mifflin Co., www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com.
"All Things Nuclear," by James C. Warf; Figueroa Press, www.figueroapress.com.
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission , which licenses nuclear plants, at nrc.gov.
U.S. Department of Energy, responsible for permanent spent-fuel repository, at ocrwm.doe.gov.
-- Spencer Heinz
Sources: U.S. Department of Energy; U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission; PGE Issues In Perspective 2008 on Trojan Nuclear Plant Decommissioning; Trojan Radiological Emergency Response Plan; The Oregonian files; and Twenty-Six Years: PGE's Trojan Nuclear Plant -- A Short History