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Greenpeace's Jim Riccio Gets it Wrong

Yesterday on WNYC-FM's Brian Lehrer Show, Gwyneth Cravens, author of Power to Save the World: The Truth about Nuclear Energy, made a joint appearance with Jim Riccio, Nuclear Policy Analyst for Greenpeace.

Normally, I'd suggest that you take a listen, but given the fact that Riccio spent most of the interview talking over Cravens and not letting her get a word in edgewise, I'm afraid there's not much to recommend it. However, there was one point of contention between the two guests that I think bears closer examination.

At one point during the interview, Cravens made the point that there hasn't been any other core meltdowns of a commercial nuclear reactor in the U.S., at which point Riccio started berating Cravens about Fermi 2, and how she should have read a book by John G. Fuller called We Almost Lost Detroit concerning the accident.

Fermi 2 is a 1,098 MWe General Electric boiling water reactor owned by DTE Energy and currently still in operation. There has never been a core accident there.

Instead, Riccio was probably referring to Fermi 1, an experimental breeder reactor that is currently in the process of decommissioning. I'll let NRC tell the rest of the story (I've inserted a couple of line breaks to help with readability):
The Enrico Fermi Atomic Power Plant, Unit 1 (Fermi 1) was a fast breeder reactor power plant cooled by sodium and operated at essentially atmospheric pressure. The reactor plant was designed for a maximum capacity of 430 Mwt; however, the maximum reactor power with the first core loading (Core A) was 200 Mwt. The primary system was filled with sodium in December of 1960 and criticality was achieved in August 1963. The reactor was tested at low power in its first couple years of operation. Power ascension testing above 1 Mwt commenced in December 1965, immediately following receipt of the high power operating license.

In October 1966, during a power ascension, a zirconium plate at the bottom of the reactor vessel became loose and blocked sodium coolant flow to some fuel subassemblies. Two subassemblies started to melt. Radiation monitors alarmed and the operators manually shut down the reactor. No abnormal releases to the environment occurred. Three years and nine months later, the cause had been determined, cleanup completed, fuel replaced, and Fermi 1 was restarted.

In 1972, the core was approaching the burnup limit. In November 1972, the Power Reactor Development Company made the decision to decommission Fermi 1. The fuel and blanket subassemblies were shipped offsite in 1973. The non-radioactive secondary sodium system was drained and the sodium sent to Fike Chemical Company. The radioactive primary sodium was stored in storage tanks and in 55 gallon drums until the sodium was shipped offsite in 1984. Decommissioning of the Fermi 1 plant was originally completed in December 1975. The site has been in a SAFSTOR status, awaiting final decommissioning.
So yes, there was a partial core meltdown at Fermi 1, but it was contained, no radiation was released, no one was injured and after a time, the reactor was restarted.

Fermi 1 was an experimental breeder reactor, not a commercial light water reactor like the 104 currently in operation in the U.S. So, Cravens' claim was correct.

I will admit, however, that I've never read We Almost Lost Detroit (Fermi is actually slightly closer to Toledo, but I guess that wouldn't have been as dramatic). However, I did take a look at the Wikipedia entry regarding its late author, Mr. Fuller. It makes for interesting reading (again, I've added a line break):
John Grant Fuller, Jr. (1913 - 1990) was a New England-based American author of several non-fiction books and newspaper articles, mainly focusing on the theme of extra-terrestrials and the supernatural. For many years he was a regular columnist for the Saturday Review magazine. His three most famous books were The Ghost of Flight 401, Incident at Exeter, and The Interrupted Journey. The Ghost of Flight 401 was based on the tragic Eastern Air Lines airplane crash in December 1972, and the alleged supernatural events which followed; it was eventually turned into a popular 1978 made-for-television movie.

Incident at Exeter concerned a series of well-publicized UFO sightings in and around the town of Exeter, New Hampshire in the fall of 1965. Fuller personally investigated the sightings and interviewed many of the eyewitnesses, he also claimed to have seen a UFO himself during his investigation. The Interrupted Journey tells the story of the Betty and Barney Hill abduction. The Hills were a married couple who claimed to have been abducted in 1960 by a UFO in the White Mountains of New Hampshire while on vacation ...
You can always count on Greenpeace to reference the latest in peer reviewed science. [Sigh.]


Matthew66 said…
The treatment of Ms. Cravens by Greenpeace shouldn't surprise anyone, they live in a world of absolutes, completely devoid of any science. I first got annoyed with Greenpeace and the environmental movement in Australia when they did a number on the fur trade. The consequence of that little debacle is that Australia is overrun by feral rabbits and foxes, which decimate the native flora and fauna and have no natural predators in Australia. Similarly, in New Zealand the loss of the fur trade led to NZ being practically deforested by the possums that had been introduced from Australia and the rabbits introduced from Europe. Skilled professional hunters have no incentive to hunt rabbits, foxes or possums if there is no market for the skins. In most cases, professional hunters (who are extremely parsimonious) despatch their prey with a single bullet. I would not advocate the hunting of endangered animals or animal cruelty, however the hunting of introduced species that are endangering indigenous species are fair game in my view. The environmental movement however, usually considers hunting absolutely wrong all the time, which has led to severe environmental problems in a number of counries.

There are rarely absolutes in life. Nuclear power is not the only solution to global warming, but if we want to have electricity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then nuclear power has to be part of the mix. As Ms. Cravens points out in her book, there is a direct correlation between access to a reliable electricity supply and life expectancy. By denying the developing world access to electricity, we are condemning them to an early grave.
Kelly L Taylor said…
I was on the radio with Jim Riccio on the Paul Gallo show in Mississippi. The details are here:

Synopsis Grand Gulf 2005

I'm disappointed to learn that since that time, Mr. Riccio has chosen neither better manners nor more accurate facts to present. Same routine, different year.
Gwyneth Cravens said…
Thanks very much for posting the correct information.

Riccio also made the preposterous claim that containment buildings were not designed to contain meltdowns. I was not permitted to finish my sentence debunking that profoundly erroneous remark and citing the long history of R & D of containment at Idaho National Laboratory.

His approach as a Greenpeace spokesman has led me to doubt the veracity of everything Greenpeace has ever said about anything.
Gunter said…
Gywenth, Kelly, et al,

I missed the radio show and I may still try to find it on the station archive.

I have to say that it is not preposterous to state that reactor containment buildings were not designed, constructed or evaluated for aircraft crashes.

As the result of recent public and industry comments submitted on December 17, 2007 to NRC proposed rulemaking to a require an aircraft hazards analysis for all new currently uncertified reactor designs, two national lab studies relevant to aircraft impacts and nuclear power plants have been readmitted in their unredacted entirety to the Public Document Room and ADAMS (the agency's electronic library.)

Argonne National Laboratory technical report to the NRC "Evaluation of Aircraft Hazards Analysis for Nuclear Power Plants" (NUREG/CR-2859) confirms that for existing reactor sites;
--the major threat from aircraft impacts on currently operational nuclear power plants come
from the combined effects of aircraft impact and fire/explosion from aircraft fuel;
--"it was considered not necessary that U.S. reactor containment domes be constructed to take
the impact of aircraft crashes."

NUREG/CR-1345 "Nuclear Power Plant Design Concepts for Sabotage Protection," Volumes 1 and 2,published in 1981 established a knowledge base to apply protective strategies to make nuclear power plants more sabotage resistant. The passive design strategies were gathered by the Design Study Technical Support Group. This study group was comprised of representatives of
Combustion Engineering, General Electric and Westinghouse. Despite their involvment, more sabotage resistant enhancements were not incorporated into the currently certified ABWR, System 80+, AP600and AP1000 designs.

So the conclusion is not at all "devoid of science" at all.

Moreover,as you are all fully know, its not just containment structures that are of concern of aircraft impact, the control room, the switchyard, colocated EDGs, the turbine building, the spent fuel pools etc. are outside primary containment. In fact, NRC "Technical Study of Spent Fuel Pool Accident Risks for Decommissioning Nuclear Power
Plants" (NUREG-1738) at Section 3.5.2 "Aircraft Crashes" identifies significant concern with the vulnerability of the structural integrity irradiated fuel storage pools in General Electric Boiling
Water Reactors (BWRs) which by design elevate the irradiated fuel (high-level radioactive
waste) storage pools six to ten stores above grade (60 to 100 feet).

I believe that it is preposterous that the nuclear industry is still more interested in cost containment than radiation containment particularly on the issue of aircraft penetration hazards.

So go to ADAMS and read up. Its bound to come in the next public debate, folks.
Anonymous said…
I think Greenpeace got it quite right, unlike your vested interest group. Perhaps you should read a bit yourself:FRENCH NUCLEAR REPROCESSING –
FAILURE AT HOME, COUP d’ETAT IN THE UNITED STATES. Then again the truth might be difficult for someone so set on selling the American public another " boomdoggle" that would overshadow Iraq.
Tom Blees said…
I could definitely sympathize with Ms. Cravens' situation, as I experienced a similar radio interview situation with Harvey Wasserman. I was in studio and Harvey was on the phone, and unless I was willing to pursue a Jerry Springer-style battle of assertions there was just no way to keep up. Harvey would toss out half a dozen easily refutable assertions and then I'd start to address one, then he'd jump in with a whole new batch. I have the feeling that this is standard practice for militant anties: what they lack in facts they make up for with bluster and blizzards of misrepresentation or outright lies. Watching Wasserman "debate" Patrick Moore on Amy Goodman's show a couple weeks back it was the same story. Moore was logical and methodical while Wasserman was unhinged. Hard to say how best to deal with such people on radio.
Hank Roberts said…
The same 2 people were just interviewed on National Public Radio, just completed. It made me look up 'Jim Riccio' because -- he was getting it wrong. He claimed there's "20 years" of used fuel 3 stories up on top of the Japanese reactor buildings. He could have looked that up before going on the radio and found out exactly how much and how old the fuel rods are in each of the holding pools on those reactors.

Sheesh. The gravelly voice, the suggestions of doom, those are the ater. But the factual errors aren't acceptable.

Get it right, dammit. People need facts. I'm no booster of the existing nuclear industry at all.

I agree with Barry Brook, who has been trying for years to get the industry to pay attention to these issues and move promptly to the Generation 4 designs that were rejected 20 years back because of fear of nuclear weapons material production -- the Gen4 designs require processing waste right on site and don't accumulate used fuel like the older designs we're still building.

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