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This week, we wanted to get a reality check from an expert on the threat the war in Ukraine poses when it comes to nuclear power plants. Russia has already taken control of the Chernobyl site as well as several active nuclear power plants---including the largest one in Europe---and the headlines have been alarming:
So, what do we need to know? Is there likelihood of a Chernobyl-like meltdown at, well, Chernobyl? Is there a significant threat to Ukraine's other plants? Can additional radiation makes its way to the United States? Should we be preparing for a nuclear catastrophe?
Steve Nesbit, President of the American Nuclear Society, tells us he has some concerns but the overall answer to those questions is NO. For one, he says Chernobyl itself is no longer an active nuclear power plant and no longer poses the threat it did during the 1986 catastrophe. He is not worried about a worst-case scenario when it comes to power being cut to Chernobyl. As for the other nuclear plants in Ukraine, they have much more modern technology, safety layers and are built to withstand a number of natural and potential man-made disasters. The reactors themselves are surrounded by concrete walls--several feet thick.
Before we get to our conversation, a few headlines as of 7amET:
Kyiv's mayor has imposed a 35-hour curfew in the city as Russian troops inch closer to the capital and try to break defenses. Large explosions have rocked the city; Ukraine says Russian artillery strikes hit four multi-story buildings, killing dozens. A subway station used as a bomb shelter was also damaged.
Ukrainian President Zelensky is set to address the US Congress remotely today at 9aET. He's expected to ask for more support and weapons from the US, and once again, push for NATO to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine. (Zelensky has said the Ukrainian military is using up weapons and ammunition meant to last a week in 20 hours.)
Following Zelensky's address, President Biden is expected to announce another billion dollars in aid to Ukraine-including portable air defenses such as Javelins and Stingers. The money would come from the nearly $14 billion allotted for Ukraine in the new budget bill signed on Tuesday. Still, he faces pressure from Capitol Hill to do more.
Peace talks between Ukraine and Russia are set to resume this afternoon. Zelensky says Russia’s demands were becoming “more realistic."
A Russian journalist who protested the war in Ukraine during a prime-time broadcast on state TV was released from custody with a $280 fine Tuesday after an international outcry over her detention. Marina Ovsyannikova, an editor at Channel One television, barged onto set holding a poster reading "No War." One of her lawyers said that the mother of two could still face 15 years in jail for the act. The French President has offered her asylum or protection if she can get to the embassy in Moscow.
Inflation: The Fed is wrapping up its two-day policy meeting today, where it's expected to raise interest rates (for the first time since 2018) by a quarter percentage point to help ease inflation. However, former Obama Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers writes this morning that it is not enough, and predicts stagflation if the Fed doesn't do more.
ICBM Failure: A North Korean missile is believed to have exploded a minute after launch this morning, the South Korean military said, a failure in what would have been the Kim Jong Un regime's 10th such launch this year.
And now, a little bit about Steve, our featured conversation:
Steve Nesbit spent four decades in the nuclear power plant industry--where he started by performing safety analyses in support of nuclear power plants. Between 1996 and 2005, he led Duke Energy's project with the US Department of Energy to dispose of surplus plutonium from nuclear weapons. He also worked closely on policy issues with industry and government groups, supporting the US State Department on outreach to countries with developing nuclear power programs. He was the director of Nuclear Policy at Duke Energy for nearly a decade and is now the president of the American Nuclear Society.
We hope you'll feel a bit better after listening to our conversation.
[We interviewed Steve on Monday, March 14. The below transcript has been edited for length and clarity.]
Mosheh Oinounou: We've all been watching the headlines out of Ukraine, as they relate to active nuclear power plants as well as the Chernobyl site. How concerned are you about what you're seeing over there?
Steve Nesbit: I think we're all horrified by what we're seeing. It's an act of unprovoked aggression, thousands of people have died as a result, and a lot of destruction of infrastructure and facilities and things of that nature. And there doesn't seem to be a stop to it on the horizon. With respect to the nuclear component, we're concerned about the potential impact of warfare on nuclear operations there. But I think that some of the coverage is perhaps a little bit overblown in terms of the potential for widespread damage and things of that nature. But we're monitoring as closely as we can, through IAEA, through sources we have, such as the Ukrainian Nuclear Society and other groups.
MO: Some of the concerns come from Ukrainian government officials who are tweeting some of these things, but also from the fact that we're seeing the Russians engage in military activity, including shelling, on or near active nuclear power plants. Can you give us a bit of perspective of how protected plants like these are, given what's taking place around them?
SN: The nuclear power plants are robust structures. They're built of concrete and steel. And they're built to withstand extreme external hazards like earthquakes, like tornadoes, like high winds, like floods, things of this nature. So when you start talking about civilian infrastructure, you're not going to come across anything that's any tougher than a nuclear power plant. With that being said, of course, they weren't designed to withstand full-scale warfare. We think that both Russia and Ukraine recognize that there is no point in damaging a nuclear plant. It's not in either one of their interests. We support the efforts of International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Grossi to meet with both sides of the conflict and try to put in place some guidelines and understanding so that the events that we observed when the Russian forces occupied the Zaporizhzhia plant a few days ago aren't repeated.
MO: Zaporizhzhia being the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. And obviously, we saw some concerning headlines around that. You talked about the protections that nuclear power plants have in regards to natural disasters. This is man-made warfare here. What what sorts of things are you looking for, or should we, as observers be looking for in terms of what to be concerned about? And what sorts of things should we NOT be concerned about?
SN: Our primary concern is twofold. First is the equipment at the plant, and second are the people who operate the plant. So with respect to the equipment, the reactor itself is inside a very thick and strong concrete and steel containment building, with walls that are several feet thick, so it's likely going to stand up to most things that get thrown at it. There are support equipment around the containment building itself that are needed also for the plant. For example, there has been some coverage of electrical power coming in and going out and things of that nature. And those are more vulnerable to direct attack. So ultimately we want the both parties to understand that, and to basically lay off of the nuclear plant as they're doing their thing in the Ukraine.
The first thing that needs to happen is for the Russian invaders to back off and leave. I mentioned the people in the plant itself. There is a plant operating staff that maintain the plant and operate it. It's very trying circumstances, obviously, when there's bullets flying around. And it's very important that the plant operators are given the opportunity to rest. That they're not concerned about the welfare of their families and things of that nature. So we are, again, supporting IAEA in its efforts to try to put in place the proper measures to ensure that there's not any unfortunate damage that occurs.
MO: As far as operating a nuclear power plant for the layman out there, like myself and like most folks, as we talked about active warfare... are we one button away from disaster? Give us a sense of security safety protocols that exist.
SN: So you're getting coverage of the operating nuclear power plants. And you're also hearing about Chernobyl, because there were incidents that occurred at Chernobyl. Apparently when the Russian military invaded, they pick the shortest distance between two lines, and that went through Chernobyl. And so they stirred up contamination that was still there from the accident that occurred in 1986. So first of all, the Chernobyl plant is a very different situation. It's really not a nuclear power plant. It's a decommissioning facility. And there's been no power generated from nuclear power there since 2000. And the fuel that exists on the site from the four Chernobyl units, including the one that had the accident, is what we call "old and cold." There's not a lot of decay, heat coming off of it. It's all in storage mode. And even if there was a complete interruption of electric power you would not see elevated temperatures in the fuel that would lead to massive releases of radioactivity.
MO: Let me stop you there... For how long? We've seen these reports that power is being cut, then power's back on, etc. As far as Chernobyl is concerned, how long would power be cut where you would start to become concerned?
SN: It's safe forever. Some of the fuels and dry storage containers on the site, and these are passively cooled devices, just the air naturally heated by the canisters, removes enough energy to keep the fuel temperatures within bounds. We have these dry storage containers all over the United States at nuclear power plant sites. And then some of the fuel is in a pool storage. It's being transferred to dry storage for the longer term duration of the storage. But the fuel that's in the pool is so cool that even if all the water was to evaporate out of the pool, which would take a very, very long time, just the air and the fuel pool would be enough to keep the temperatures from getting up too high. So basically, you're good.
MO: Wait, when you say "very, very long," are we talking weeks, months, years?
SN: Forever. Forever.
SN: It can be air cooled forever in the pool, based on the analyses that were done in 2011. And the fuel is even cooler now than it was back then. So I really want to make people understand that the radioactive material at Chernobyl really doesn't pose a threat just because the electricity supply might be interrupted. I'll also note that they have on-site diesel generators, which are running when the when the power is off. There has been some success in restoring power to the site, and then I understand it went back off again, and they're trying to repair it again. We don't really have boots on the ground there. So we I can't give you any better intelligence on that than what we're hearing from the media. But all I'm saying is that the worst case scenario from a loss of power at Chernobyl is still not bad.
As far as the other plants are concerned, they're a very different design from the Chernobyl plant. I just want to reassure people that the kind of accident that occurred at Chernobyl in 1986 cannot occur at one of these nuclear power plants that Ukraine is operating today. They are large, light water reactors with, as I said, very robust containment vessels. And the power excursion that happened at Chernobyl is just physically not possible at the other reactors. I'll also note that, since the Fukushima event in Japan in 2011, the Ukrainian reactors have been upgraded so they have more diverse means of cooling in the event of an extended loss of power to the facility. So there's really a lot of defense in depth levels of protection in place at the plants. Let me put it this way, very succinctly. If I was in Ukraine right now, I would not be worried about the nuclear power plants. I would be worried about Russian bullets, bombs and missiles.
MO: Makes sense. Because one of the headlines that keeps popping is "power cut, power on, power cut." I want to focus on Chernobyl for a second. The Ukrainian regulator from the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said that the staff at the Chernobyl plant are no longer performing repair and maintenance due to fatigue, including their safety- related equipment maintenance. That seems concerning. How do you read that headline?
SN: iI's very concerning from the standpoint of the the plant workers and they've been under incredible duress over these weeks. We understand they haven't been allowed to leave. So you're not getting the normal shift turnover and things of that nature. But the point that I want to make-- and make sure people understand-- is that Chernobyl is a decommissioning facility. So really, they're tearing down structures, they're decontaminating things of that nature. It's not like the operators are needed to do particular things in order to protect the radioactive material. With that being said, ideally you would want the fuel pool that some of the used fuel was stored in, to be in its normal cooling mood with circulating water and heat exchangers and that kind of stuff. And these are the kinds of things that they're referring to when they talk about the safety-related activities. But like I said before, it's not a desirable situation, but in the worst case situation in which electricity would be lost for an extended period of time, and the water in the pool would evaporate off and things like this, we're talking weeks or months for that to happen. Even then, you're not going to get some kind of temperature excursion that leads to fuel damage.
MO: And what we saw in '86, this idea of major radiation being released into the air and threatening the larger environment-- you don't fear that in this scenario?
SN: I do not.
MO: I'd love for your explanation. How do you explain this to your family, friends, etc. Nuclear fuel rods that are cooling? What exactly are they and what is this process that you're describing-- this cooling process?
SN: So nuclear fuel rods are pellets of uranium oxide. And of course, the uranium that splits or fissions, that leads to the release of electricity of heat energy, that ultimately the plant will convert into electricity. So these fuel pellets are contained inside welded metal rods, welded shut, zirconium alloy rods. So the rods contain the radioactive fission products that are generated by the fission process. And you take these rods and you bundle a bunch of them together. And that becomes what we call a fuel assembly. And then you take a number of fuel assemblies and put them in a configuration in the reactor vessel and that's what we call the core. So the plant is designed so that you have cooling water that flows around these fuel rods and the fuel assemblies and removes the the heat that's generated. They take that hot water, they run it through a steam generator, in this case, multiple steam generators. And so on the other side of the tubes and the steam generator, you've got steam being produced. The steam goes through a turbine and then spins the turbine and produces electricity. And then when the plants shut down, rather than running the water through the steam generators, because you're not making steam anymore, you have what we call decay heat removal cooling loops that circulate water through the reactor vessel. And at that point, when the plants shut down, it's producing much, much less energy and much less heat than it is when it's operating. Because the chain reaction is shut down. However, there's still decay heat in the core that needs to be removed. And that's what the heat removal systems are designed to do.
MO: So basically, a nuclear power plant never gets completely shut down? There's a process that lasts for what-- years, decades, centuries, perhaps?
SN: Yeah, the fuel is always producing some heat but once you've been shut down for a while, it's a relatively small amount of heat. But you still need to take provisions to make sure that the fuel gets cool.
MO: And Chernobyl, we're coming up on the 32nd anniversary of the disaster in April that took place in 1986. How long will Chernobyl continue to need upkeep and maintenance to prevent a future disaster there?
SN: Well, the international community completed, relatively recently, a project to put a containment dome over the damaged reactor building, which is intended to keep the radioactive material from spreading. And again, that's something that doesn't require maintenance and upkeep or cooling or anything like that. As far as the surrounding area, I'm not really in a position to tell you when the radioactivity will decay off enough so that you can start using that area around the plant again. But it's pretty much at this point, like I said, not so dangerous that you can't march Russian military units through and on their way to Kyiv, right?
MO: And just to reiterate... there is currently a dome over that reactor? It's not currently leaking radiation to the environment right now?
SN: No, it's not. And there's a lot of radiation detectors around Chernobyl. In fact, it was when they started to increase their readings a little bit as the Russian army marched through-- which is why people were concerned about it. But as I understand, the readings went up briefly, and then they came back down. It's well instrumented. And, again, Chernobyl is not anything that in my mind poses an immediate threat to the people in Ukraine or, for that matter, other countries around there.
MO: And what you just said in terms of the radiation readings going up, we saw those headlines. And people get that on their phone, and they say "radiation's going up, what exactly does that mean?" Then I saw headlines that dust is being kicked up. Should we be concerned about that dust and radiation levels going up?
SN: So the levels we were talking about, were on the order of the kind of radiation, for example, that you would get from taking a cross country airplane flight. So you know, people may or may not be aware, but when you fly in an airplane, because you're high altitude and you don't have as much air between you and the sun and the the universe, you get more cosmic radiation from outer space. And so people who fly across country, they pick up a small amount more radiation than they would otherwise. That's about the amount of radiation that you'd be getting at the Chernobyl facility when they had those elevated readings, which I understand have gone away now. But if you're not within the immediate vicinity of the Chernobyl facility, when you read "radiation levels up" and you are in Eastern Europe or Western Europe or say the US... it's a localized effect. It's not anything that's that's spreading to nearby countries or anything. It's just in the immediate vicinity.
MO: I appreciate all this insight into Chernobyl. Obviously some of us watched the HBO film a couple years ago. And so we see that, it leads to a lot of concern. At the same time we hear the President of Russia is discussing his nuclear arms. And so there's just a lot of nuclear talk that I think is raising people's anxiety levels right now.
SN: That's true. That's true. Certainly those of us in the nuclear technology field, we like to talk about the benefits of nuclear energy. It's a really great clean energy source and no greenhouse gas emissions. It's available 24 hours a day around the clock. So it's not something that you can't depend on when the sun's not shining, the wind's not blowing. So that's the stuff that we like to talk about. And obviously, all of the connections with the war and nuclear weapons and things like that. It's naturally going to come to people's mind. [I] completely understand, but not what we like to focus on.
MO: I was reading up on what benefits Russia may get from having control of the Ukrainian nuclear power plants, including the disposal of spent fuel. From your perspective, what benefits do the Russians have by taking control of these nuclear power plants?
SN: Nuclear power plants are revenue generators. Operating plants make a very useful product-- electricity that sells on the market. So if you could take advantage of that and put the money in your pocket, I guess that's a good thing. But let me tell you, the amount of money you're going to make from one of these plants doesn't come close to paying for all of the death and destruction that the Russians have experienced themselves as a result of their invasion. I think they bit off a lot more than they can chew. And they're going to pay the price for that in terms of sanctions, in terms of immediate deaths and fatalities, and things of that nature. So I think if they were invading Ukraine because they wanted to take advantage of their nuclear power plants, they made a huge miscalculation.
MO: And when it comes to safety of those active plants, there's explosions happening around. We've seen the video, allegedly from inside the facility, where they're telling the Russian soldiers, "Please don't shoot in an active nuclear facility." Can it be as simple as turning off the facility for safety? What sort of safety mechanisms are in place, if God forbid, we start to see another situation like this around one of the power plants?
The reactors will shut down. Either the staff will shut them down, or they will automatically shut down, if there's equipment damage to the normal plant systems that are involved in the generation of electricity. So at that point, then the the decay heat load in the plant drops drastically, and the need for cooling water drops down. But there is still a need to keep power to the plants and keep water circulating, and things of that nature.
MO: By turning off the reactors, you are turning off power to the parts of the country, or the region that you're supplying power to? But that prevents the likelihood of a major incident?
SN: It certainly reduces dramatically that probability. The Ukrainians are kind of between a rock and a hard place. A lot of their electricity [nearly 50 percent] is generated by nuclear power, and they need that electricity. So in my view, the international community should recognize the special nature of nuclear facilities along the lines that Director General Grossi is advocating, and just stay away from them during a war. But by definition in a war you can't control what people are going to do.
MO: Got it. Prior to the war, what was the safety reputation of the Ukrainian Nuclear Power Plant industry?
SN: The Ukrainian plants were all in good standing with the World Association of Nuclear Operators and the International Atomic Energy Agency. They've been running these plants for a long time. They have trained professional staffs. And they've made the necessary upgrades after Fukushima and things of that nature. So we don't have any issues or concerns there.
MO: And you're mentioning that the plants today are much different than the Chernobyl plant 30 years ago, even Fukushima of 10 years ago. What's changed? Why should we feel better about these plants than the plants that existed decades ago?
SN: A couple of things. One is, again, you're not going to get, because of the nature of the plant, the Chernobyl plant, was a graphite-moderated water-cooled reactor. I know that doesn't necessarily mean a lot to people, but it's very different from the light water reactors that are operating in the rest of the country. And they couldn't undergo this rapid power excursion, which disrupted and blew the reactor core apart at Chernobyl. So that's difference number one. Difference number two is, perhaps even more important, the Chernobyl plant had no containment vessel around it. I talked about the thick robust containment structure around the light water reactors like the Zaporizhzhia plants that didn't exist at Chernobyl, because of the design of the reactor. And as a result, when the core blew apart at Chernobyl, it also spread the radionuclides out, and then there was a fire that also contributed to the spreading of the radionuclides. So none of that is is applicable to the light water reactor plants that the Ukrainians operate in the rest of the country. The strong containment vessels should minimize any off site radioactive releases even in the event of a worst case accident.
MO: And I'm gonna go dark before we go light again. So the worst case, the Russians are using all these missiles, they're shelling cities, etc. They have some pretty powerful weaponry. Is that weaponry powerful enough to strike one of these reactors and cause some sort of incident there, or, again, are there safety precautions in place, even if a missile was to hit the reactor?
SN: Because the containment structures are so robust, the biggest concern that I have is not the direct hit per se, as it is that some of the key safety equipment that resides outside the containment structure could be damaged. And that could interrupt the cooling to the reactors. There's a lot of water inside there. So it takes a while for things to progress. But in the worst case scenario, you can see the fuel heat up to the point where there could be some fuel damage and release of radionuclides inside the containment structure. But the beauty of having the containment structure there is that it should contain most of the radioactivity there, rather than having it blow all over the surrounding area.
MO: So it would take quite an irresponsible fiasco by the Russians. Something we haven't seen thus far, and even what we saw last week and at the previous plant?
SN: That's correct.
MO: And so as we talk about today, the price of oil is at record highs. There's a lot of talk of gas. Where is the state of conversation these days when it comes to nuclear power, domestically and internationally, as an alternative?
SN: So I'll speak to domestically first. There's a whole lot of interest in nuclear energy as part of our clean energy future. The nuclear power plants that we operate in the country today-- there's 93 of them, they produce 20% of the country's electricity and more than half of the emissions-free electricity. Those plants, even though they're getting a little long in the tooth, the operators are applying for and receiving licenses to operate them for an additional 20 years because they're such a valuable asset. And there's a lot of interest in new reactor designs. Advanced reactors have actually very different designs from the current generation, some of those use different coolants like gas coolant, molten salt, liquid metal even and these reactors incorporate a couple of things that make people interested in them. They have a lot of inherent safety features what we call hands-off safety, so you're not relying so much on pumps and valves and things like that. The natural cooling features of the plant will ensure that the fuel doesn't get too hot, even in the event of one of the accidents like we're talking about today. And the other thing is they can generate electricity, or generate heat, at an even higher temperature. And that higher temperature allows them to take on some roles like for industrial process heating and desalination and hydrogen generation and things of that nature to go beyond just the basic electricity production.
The advanced nuclear plants should work well with renewable energy because they can generate energy while the renewable's not available, and maybe when the renewable energy's available. The nuclear plants can generate electricity, or generate energy, that's stored for later use. So what we've seen in the US is that there's a lot of organizations, environmental organizations, that are very interested in expanding the use of clean nuclear energy. And there's a couple of projects underway right now to get a couple of these advanced reactor designs built and operating in the US. I would say that worldwide, the outlook varies depending on where you are in the world. Germans are very vehemently anti-nuclear. And I don't know that they're going to do anything about that. But other parts of the of the world, China, India are very, very bullish on expanding their nuclear energy.
MO: A plant in Tennessee opened several years ago. Are there other major ones under construction? Is that the newest one that we have?
SN: There's two plants in Georgia that are under construction, that's the Vogtle 3 and 4 Units. Hopefully, Vogtle 3 will start up this year. And those are the two that are in the pipeline right now. But as I said, there's some private-public partnerships underway to get some more of these new reactor designs in place and operating before the end of the decade.
MO: When we are having the climate change discussion, where does nuclear energy fall on that? Because there's also been a debate for many years of what to do with the spent fuel rods, like the whole situation we've had in Nevada for many years?
SN: Yes. So the good news is that the used fuel from nuclear plants has been managed safely and securely for decades. And the technology for doing that, I kind of described it earlier. But dry storage technology is good for, you know, decades or hundreds of years even. And in the meantime, certainly, we would like to see the government fulfill its responsibility to establish a permanent repository for disposing of the radioactive material that can't be reused, which is their their obligation under law, but something they haven't been successful at. We look overseas and other countries are making good progress in that regard. Finland actually has a Geologic Repository under construction. Sweden's not too far behind. So it's not something that's going to get solved in the immediate future. But we're optimistic that we'll get there here in the US. And certainly there's plenty of time to get to that point.
MO: What do most Americans not know about nuclear power and nuclear energy that you think it's really important for folks to know?
SN: I think that most people would be surprised to find out that nuclear power is what produces most of our clean electricity in the country today. I know that for a fact, because my local utility actually runs 11 nuclear power plants. And all I see on TV is advertisements for the solar farms, which is all well and good. But the reality is that the solar energy is doing very little, and the nuclear energy is doing a lot when it comes to displacing harmful greenhouse gas emissions. And I think we have a bright future for nuclear generation here in the United States and worldwide, as well.
A big thank you to Steven Nesbit, President of the American Nuclear Society, for an enlightening conversation, and one that will hopefully let us sleep a bit better tonight as we read the headlines coming out of Ukraine.
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[Top Photo Banner Credit: Maxar Technologies Satellite Photo of Chernobyl]