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70 years of nuclear waste

Seventy years after the first sustained nuclear chain reaction took place at the University of Chicago, the nuclear industry has produced up to 200,000 tons of highly toxic radioactive waste — but made no progress toward finding a way of disposing of it.

It’s a huge problem, and it’s the subject of an international conference taking place at the U. of C.’s International House, 1414 E. 59th Street, on Saturday and Sunday, December 1 and 2 (here’s a schedule).

Speakers from Japan, including survivors of Hiroshima and Fukushima, and from native lands here will provide a ground-level view of living with radioactive contamination, and experts will explore a range of concerns, including possibilities for a nuclear- and carbon-free energy future.

Dr. Norma Field, professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Chicago, will give a keynote address at 7 p.m. on Saturday, followed by the Chicago premier of “The Atomic States of America,” a new film that features a segment on the tritium leak at the Braidwood nuclear plant in Will County that was revealed in 2005.

On Sunday at 3:30 p.m., a commemoration of the first reaction will be held at Henry Moore’s “Atomic Energy” sculpture at 56th and Ellis.  That’s the site of the lab under the university’s football stadium where the Manhattan Project build the world’s first nuclear reactor, which went critical on December 2, 1942.

Red Gate Woods

On Monday, a caravan will visit the site of the first Argonne National Lab in Red Gate Woods in the Cook County Forest Preserve near Willow Springs.  After initial tests, the first Chicago reactor was reassembled there, and ultimately dismantled and buried in a huge hole, along with highly radioactive waste generated between 1944 and 1946.  In the late 1940s Argonne was moved to DuPage County.

In the 1990s, radioactive contamination was found in ground water around Red Gate, and after residents organized and protested, the Department of Energy cleaned up one radioactive dump on the site, though a second was too dangerous to disturb.

Along with this long history, the issue of nuclear waste is playing out in a number of ways in the Chicago area today, said David Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, the main sponsor of the conference.

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NRC: Exelon reactors designed to leak?

Responding to a petition by watchdog groups, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has agreed to review a range of safety issues for GE Mark 1 reactors — the type that melted down at Fukushima last year, four of which are operated by Exelon in Illinois.

It’s a rare event, said Dave Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Information Service.  He said such petitions, the only avenue for the public to raise nuclear safety concerns, are “routinely disregarded” by NRC.

The NRC rejected the groups’ request that all Fukushima-style reactors in the U.S. be shut down immediately, as well as a request for public safety hearings in the emergency planning zones for each reactor.

But the agency will review design flaws of the Mark 1, agreeing that it “dramatically failed” to prevent radiation releases at Fukushima.

The agency will consider revoking preapproval for ventilation systems installed at many Mark 1’s after it became apparent that the containment structure could fail under high pressure. The ventilation systems “deliberately defeat the purpose of a leak-tight container in order to save it from failure,” the petitioners maintained.

“Their first line of defense is to protect the reactor by irradiating the countryside,” Kraft said, citing an expert who compares it to “a screendoor on a submarine.”

The NRC will consider ordering installation of backup emergency power systems to cool nuclear waste pools, which in the Mark 1 are suspended above the reactor and outside the containment structure.  The agency agreed to consider ordering expedited removal of waste from pools to dry casks.

Illinois flood plains

Exelon reactors in Illinois including at Dresden and Quad Cities are among those with the largest accumulations of highly-irradiated spent fuel pools in the nation, according to a recent report (covered here), which notes that as cooling systems are “overtaxed,” heavy accumulation of waste increases risks from mechanical or human failure as well as natural disaster.

The NRC also specifically agreed to review concerns over Illinois reactors that are sited in flood plains.

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Petition: Close Dresden, Quad Cities nukes

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering an emergency petition from watchdog groups to shut down reactors at Dresden and Quad Cities along with other U.S. reactors with the same design as plants that have melted down in Fukushima, Japan.

It’s rare that the agency decides to investigate such petitions, said Dave Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Information Service of Chicago, which joined the petition filed by Beyond Nuclear, a national organization. “They couldn’t ignore Fukushima,” he said.

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Hearing on Electric Rate Hikes Sept. 21

The promise of higher electric rates is fueling consumer efforts to extend the state’s rate freeze for three years – and could make a community-based alternative pricing plan more attractive.

With a closed “auction” to set wholesale electric rates now underway, prices are expected to go up by 20 percent or more in January. New rates will be made public in coming weeks.

“It’s a triple whammy,” said David Kolata of the Citizens Utility Board. “With gas pump prices and heating costs already up, an electric rate increase is going to be tough on Illinois families.”

Deregulation of electric utilities was set in motion ten years ago, but failed to attract companies interested in competing with Commonwealth Edison and Ameren to serve the state’s residences and businesses, and the auction “gives the illusion of competition,” Kolata said.

The auction process will artificially inflate prices and “open the door to unlimited future rate hikes,” according to CUB. And it provide Exelon with “windfall profits” as it sells cheap electricity from area nuclear plants at a markup to successful bidders, the group argues.

CUB and other consumer groups are backing state legislation (HB 5766) to extend the freeze on electric rates in place since 1997 for another three years. Kolata points out that Exelon/Commonwealth Edison’s profits have more than tripled under the rate freeze, with over $2 billion in profits last year, while its stock value has soared. “It’s the most profitable electric utility in the country,” he said.

The legislation would restore state oversight over electric rates mandated when the General Assembly created the ICC, said Brian Imus of Illinois PIRG.

One of the bill’s sponsors, State Rep. Lisa Dugan (D-Kankakee), is holding [b]a public hearing on energy price issues on Thursday, September 21 at 6:30 p.m. at Bradley Community High School, 700 W. North Street in Bradley, Illinois.[eb] Representatives of Commonwealth Edison, CUB, Illinois PIRG, and the Illinois Attorney General will testify. The findings will be taken to the General Assembly’s fall veto session.

Meanwhile the Community Energy Cooperative is gearing up to take its market-based pricing plan statewide. A pilot program with 1400 ComEd-area households paying hourly rates based on national whosesale markets – and allowing consumers to reduce electricity use at peak times when prices are highest – has saved participants as much as 20 percent annually on electric bills, said Anthony Star of CEC. “People really like it,” he said.

Details are still being worked out, but legislation passed this year requires that a market-based pricing program be available to consumers statewide. If more people reduce peak demand, “that should lower prices, improve reliability and reduce price volatility,” Star said.

Rate hikes following this week’s auction “won’t effect our prices,” he said.



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