Nuclear Risks in Russian Invasion of Ukraine

The crisis in Eastern Europe could become a regional and global humanitarian catastrophe if war involving nuclear-armed nations erupts in Ukraine. IPPNW hosted an emergency briefing on 19 February with a distinguished panel of experts to examine the terrible human cost if diplomacy fails. The experts’ remarks are outlined below, topics include:

  • Conventional war – Possible direct and indirect impacts of a conventional war in Ukraine on health, human rights, and the environment. Presented by Barry Levy, M.D., M.P.H.
  • Damage to nuclear power reactors – The risk of large radioactive releases from one or more of the 15 nuclear power stations in Ukraine that are vulnerable to deliberate or accidental destruction or meltdowns due to loss of power through cyber attacks. Presented by Linda Pentz Gunter
  • Escalation to nuclear weapons – The catastrophic regional and global consequences if nuclear weapons are launched intentionally or by accident or miscalculation. Presented by Ira Helfand, M.D.

Watch the event recording and learn more about the panelists at

Conventional War – Barry Levy, M.D., M.P.H.

During war, civilians are often injured or killed directly — sometimes accidentally — by the indiscriminate use of weapons. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But increasingly, civilians are targeted — attacked on purpose, as part of a strategy of war. Men are taken from their homes in the middle of the night, never to return. Women are raped and often killed. Even children are sometimes targeted and killed as a strategy of war.

However, most deaths during war are not caused by direct attacks, but indirectly. Many of these indirect deaths result from damage to infrastructure. After farms and the food supply system are damaged, people become malnourished and more susceptible to respiratory infections, like COVID-19. Water treatment plants are bombed, and people develop cholera, dysentery, or other diarrheal diseases. Hospitals and healthcare workers are attacked, public health agencies are not able to function, and people are unable to receive clinical care or public health services. And  power plants, communication networks, and transportation systems are damaged, leading to disease and death.

Population displacement is another major cause of indirect deaths during war. People can be displaced within their own country or as refugees to other countries. Internally displaced persons are generally worse off because they have inadequate food, water, health care, and security — and therefore are at increased risk of disease and death. And if war continues, people may be displaced for long periods of time.

Indirect deaths far outnumber direct deaths during war. Since 1990, the Uppsala Conflict Data Program in Sweden has recorded an average of about 50,000 direct deaths per year in state-based armed conflicts. In a separate analysis for the same period of time, Mohammad Jawad and colleagues estimated about one million indirect deaths occurred per year, on average – 20 times more indirect deaths than direct deaths. Even if the estimate of indirect deaths is too high or the number of direct deaths recorded too low, indirect deaths far outnumber direct deaths during war.

Noncombatant civilians most frequently suffer from the following diseases during war:

  • Malnutrition — with young children and pregnant women at greatest risk
  • Communicable diseases, including diarrheal diseases such as cholera, acute respiratory infections such as COVID-19, and other diseases such as measles and tuberculosis
  • Mental disorders, such as posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and suicide
  • Adverse effects on reproductive health, including higher rates of maternal mortality, infants born with low birthweight, and infant mortality.
  • Noncommunicable diseases, with greater occurrence and exacerbations of heart disease and stroke, chronic lung disease, and cancer — and less available treatment for these diseases.

While everyone is at risk, some populations are especially vulnerable: women, children, displaced people, older people, people with chronic diseases and disabilities, and ethnic and religious minorities.

How many people will suffer from the health impacts of a war in Ukraine?  No one knows.

But there could be large numbers of civilian deaths, widespread damage to health-supporting infrastructure, millions of people displaced, many people with post traumatic stress disorder and depression, widespread violations of human rights, and substantial damage to the environment — all of which occurred after the U.S. invasion of Iraq 20 years ago.

Ukraine today is similar in some ways to Iraq in 2003 and different in others. Ukraine has 42 million people, Iraq then had 26 million, but was more densely populated. Life expectancy in Ukraine today (72 years) is about the same as it was in Iraq in 2003 (69 years). But the population of Ukraine today is much older than the population of Iraq in 2003; 17% of Ukrainians are 65 years of age or older, compared to about 3% in Iraq — the percentage of older people is five times higher in Ukraine than in Iraq. Therefore, they have higher rates of chronic disease and disability, more dependency on ongoing medical care, less mobility, and increased vulnerability to COVID-19. Therefore, the death rate in a protracted war in Ukraine could be even higher than in the Iraq War.

War and its health impacts can be prevented. There are four levels of prevention that can be applied:

  • Primordial prevention addresses the root causes of war.
  • Primary prevention addresses the precipitating causes of war and aims to resolve disputes nonviolently.
  • Secondary prevention attempts to end war and reduce its impacts
  • Tertiary prevention rehabilitates and restores the health of individuals and communities after war has ended.

But soon, it was be too late for primordial or primary prevention, and efforts may need to focus on protecting civilians and civilian infrastructure, providing humanitarian assistance, and working to end the violence as soon as possible.

Damage to Nuclear Power Reactors – Linda Pentz Gunter

The 15 nuclear power reactors at four sites in Ukraine both face and create a series of risks should a war or escalated conflict break out there. Even if the reactors sites —which deliver 50% of Ukraine’s electricity needs — are not embroiled in the conflict zone, they are still vulnerable to catastrophic outcomes.

The Chernobyl nuclear site and the Exclusion Zone are also potentially at risk.

The presence of 15 reactors in Ukraine, or any nuclear reactors anywhere, automatically adds to the medical risks for the surrounding populations should something else major happen.  And that something else need not be a war.

We are already seeing the ravages of the climate crisis and how this can knock out

essential power supplies. Nuclear power plants are already vulnerable. They are more so if caught up in a war that could cause the grid to go down.

There are 15 reactors in Ukraine grouped at 4 sites and providing 50% of the country’s electricity needs. They are Russian VVER reactors of 1,000 megawatts each, similar in design to our traditional light water reactors.

And there is the closed Chernobyl nuclear plant in the north, which were RMBK graphite moderated reactors.

If a war takes out the electric grid, whether by accident or deliberate sabotage—including even through a cyber attack, the nuclear plant operators will try to shut the reactors down. But if they lose onsite power as well, should that backup power fail, as it did at Fukushima, things can get  far more dire with similar outcomes to an actual attack.

Are any of Ukraine’s reactors likely to be within the battle zone? Rivne and Khmelnitsky in the far west, are probably out of harm’s way. South Ukraine is also less likely to come under direct attack. Of most concern, given its size and location is Zaporizhzhia. It’s the largest nuclear power station in Europe, with a net capacity of 5700 MW. The Zaporizhzhia reactors were already vulnerable during the Crimea invasion in 2014 when a far-right Ukrainian group tried to gain entry. They are about 200 kilometers from the Donbas conflict zone.

If any of these reactors are embroiled in the war zone but not attacked or hit, the nuclear plant workers, may fear for their lives and the lives of their families. They would want to — and should — evacuate with their loved ones.

But what happens if they do? The answer is they can’t. Or not all of them. Nuclear power plants, even under normal circumstances are never walkaway safe. Some workers would have to stay behind.  If the nuclear workforce evacuates, you set in motion a cascade of meltdowns at that site, whether or not it is directly attacked.

If one or more of these reactors takes an accidental hit from a bomb or missile or even just artillery fire, we could be talking about another Chernobyl or, actually, multiple Chernobyls.

The worst of all possible outcomes is that a direct hit destroys the reactor immediately. But even if the reactor is severely damaged or disabled, then you start to lose coolant and the reactor heats up, the fuel rods are exposed, and explosive gases are created. One spark and you could see an explosion as we did at three of the Fukushima reactors.

Some of the workforce may be injured or killed, or struggling to shut down the remaining reactors. Added to that, if the spent fuel pools boil and evaporate, exposing the rods, these could catch fire. A fuel pool fire is even worse than the reactor exploding because spent fuel pools contain a far hotter radioactive inventory than the reactor itself.

Those radioactive releases would be dispersed across thousands of miles. We have already had a glimpse of what that would look like for human health after Chernobyl. The plume pathway for just radioactive cesium-137 resulting from the 1986 Chernobyl explosion hit Belarus, Russia and Ukraine the worst. But it went all across Europe. Not all the hot spots were concentrated closest to Chernobyl.

If any of Ukraine’s 15 reactors were hit, it would be much worse than Chernobyl. All of them are older than Chernobyl Unit 4 was in 1986. They have bigger radioactive inventories. And they are all multiple reactor sites. People all across Europe would be affected.

But what if there was a deliberate attack on the reactors, an act of sabotage to disable them, or even a cyber attack? We know nuclear sites are vulnerable to cyber attack. We’ve seen it before with the 2010 Stuxnet cyber attack on 15 of Iran’s nuclear facilities including the Natanz uranium enrichment plant.

Would Russia — or any country or even rogue group —really use reactors as weapons of war, allowing them to deliberately melt down and potentially contaminate wide portions of Europe?

This would seem like a scaled down exercise in mutually assured destruction, given prevailing winds would likely blow much of the radiation across Russia and Belarus. A deliberate attack  on a nuclear plant would have much the same outcome as an accidental one. It would release a massive plume of radioactivity and would be a medical and humanitarian disaster of monumental and likely completely unmanageable proportions.

What would that mean for human health?

We should have a guide from the example of Chernobyl. But there was a scandalous and even heartless international effort, by agencies like the IAEA, with vested interests in minimizing the disaster, to do just that. We must look to independent sources to get a truer sense of the numbers. And here we must remind ourselves that, with Chernobyl, we are talking about just one, relatively new reactor not the multiple ones now in Ukraine containing far more radioactivity.

Three of the best sources on the real health impacts are IPPNW Germany’s 20-years after Chernobyl report;  Ian Fairlie’s TORCH Report; and Kate Brown’s book — Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future. And then you just take their numbers and imagine an orders of magnitude worse situation  if, let’s say, one or more of the Zaporizhzhia reactors are hit, whether accidentally or deliberately, and melt down. 

And that’s not where it ends.

Looking at a specific sample of Chernobyl victims, Dr. Wladimir Wertelecki, a physician and geneticist, who conducted post-Chernobyl research in Polissia, Ukraine, found birth defects and other health disturbances among not only those who were adults at the time of the Chernobyl disaster, but their children who were in utero at the time and, most disturbingly, their later offspring.

So if reactors are breached during a war in Ukraine, that war, in a medical sense, will never be over.

But what about the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone? Could it, and the nuclear site itself, get caught up in a war?

Russian troops could choose to cross into Ukraine from Belarus, the shortest route to Kyiv, taking them through the Chernobyl Zone. But it is marshy and difficult terrain, in addition to being radioactive, so certainly not the ideal entry point.

The destroyed Chernobyl Unit 4, along with 200 metric tonnes of uranium, plutonium, liquid fuel and irradiated dust, are encased in a sarcophagus completed in 2019. But that sarcophagus, which is only supposed to last 100 years, could collapse under the vibrations of explosions in a war zone. That would loft radioactive dust into the atmosphere causing yet another major health crisis.

And there is one more huge threat to this area, as well as to any war zone involving nuclear plants, and that is fire. We’ve already seen literally hundreds of fires in the Chernobyl Zone, sadly many started deliberately. Under ever more extreme climate conditions, wildfires will get larger and more frequent. In 2020, a forest fire that broke out within the Chernobyl Zone threatened to reach the plant site.

Forest fires reloft and redistribute radiation trapped in the soil. The 2020 fire increased radiation levels to 16 times higher than they had been previously. War clearly raises the risk of fires. And the Chernobyl Zone is a tinder box.

Dr. Tim Mousseau and his team discovered that dead wood and leaf litter on the forest floors is not decaying properly, likely because the microbes and other organisms that drive the process

of decay are reduced or gone due to their own prolonged exposure to radiation.

Equally, wildfires triggered by war close to any of Ukraine’s operating reactors could have dire consequences. Even under just normal reactor operating circumstances, fire is considered the bulk of the risk for a core melt.

Wars in regions where there are nuclear reactors raise the dangers to almost unimaginable heights.  All of this, in my view, strengthens the argument to permanently close and dismantle the world’s nuclear power plants as soon as possible.

Escalation to Nuclear Weapons – Ira Helfand, M.D.

A large scale conventional conflict in Ukraine will create a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.  But the parties to this dispute, NATO and Russia, are armed with enormous nuclear arsenals, and so it is important to consider also the consequences if the conflict escalates to the use of nuclear weapons since both NATO and Russian military doctrines allow for the use of tactical nuclear weapons to fend off defeat in a major conventional war.

Despite reductions in nuclear forces over the last several decades, Russia still has 1900 tactical nuclear weapons and 1600 deployed strategic nuclear weapons.  On the NATO side, France has 280 deployed nuclear weapons and the UK, 120.  In addition the United States has 100 B 61 tactical bombs deployed at NATO bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey and an additional 1650 deployed strategic warheads. (Ref)

If even a single 100 Kt (kiloton) nuclear weapon exploded over the Kremlin, it could kill a quarter of a million people and injure a million more, completely overwhelming the disaster response capability of the Russian capital. A single 100 kiloton bomb detonated over the US Capital would kill over 170.000 people and injure nearly 400,000. (Ref)

But it is unlikely that an escalating nuclear conflict between the US and Russia would involve single warheads over their respective capitals.  Rather it is more likely that there would be many weapons directed against many cities and many of these weapons would be substantially larger than 100 Kt.  For example, Russia’s 460 SS-18 M6 Satan warheads have a yield of 500 to 800 Kt.  The W88 warhead deployed on US Trident submarines has a yield of 455 Kt. 

Major cities like New York or Moscow are probably targeted with at least 10 to 20 nuclear weapons each 30 to 50 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. To describe the destruction they would cause we can use the model of a single 20 MT (megaton) bomb. The total megatonage in an actual attack would be less, but, because the explosive force would be spread out more efficiently across the metropolitan area, the actual destruction would be even greater.

Within 1/1000th of a second, a fireball would form reaching out for two miles in every direction, four miles across.  Temperatures would rise to 20 million degrees Fahrenheit, and everything–buildings, trees, cars, and people–would be vaporized.

To a distance of 4 miles in every direction, the blast would produce pressures of 25 pounds per square inch and winds in excess of 650 miles per hour. Forces of this magnitude can destroy essentially anything that we build including reinforced concrete and steel structures. Even deep underground bomb shelters would be crushed.

To a distance of six miles in every direction, the heat would still be intense enough to melt sheet metal.  And to a distance of 10 miles in every direction,  the blast wave would create pressures of 7 to 10 pounds per square inch and winds of 200 miles per hour.

To a distance of at least 16 miles in every direction, the heat would ignite all easily flammable materials–paper, cloth, wood, leaves, gasoline, heating oil–starting hundreds of thousands of fires. Fanned by blast winds still in excess of 100 miles per hour, these fires would merge into a giant firestorm 32 miles across and covering 800 square miles. Everything within this entire area would be consumed by flames. Temperatures would rise to 1400 degrees Fahrenheit. And everyone would die.

If just 300 warheads in the Russian arsenal got through to urban targets in the US, 75 to 100 million  people would die in the first half hour and tens of millions would be fatally injured.  Huge swaths of the country would be blanketed by radioactive fallout and the industrial, transportation and communication infrastructure which we all depend on would be destroyed.  The internet, the electric grid, the food distribution system, the public health and banking systems would all be gone.  In the following months the vast majority of those who survived the initial attack would also die, from radiation sickness, epidemic disease, exposure and starvation. A US attack on Russia would cause similar devastation.

But these are just the direct effects.  In addition, the large scale use of nuclear weapons would also cause catastrophic climate disruption.  When a nuclear attack causes a city to burn, enormous amounts of soot are lofted into the upper atmosphere.  If all of the deployed weapons in the US and Russian arsenals were used against urban targets some 150 Tg (terragrams or million tons) of soot would be generated, blocking out the sun and dropping temperatures across the planet an average of 100 C.  In the interior regions of North America and Eurasia temperatures would drop 25 to 300 C.  The Earth has not seen temperatures this cold since the last Ice Age.  In the temperate zones of the Northern Hemisphere there would be 3 years without a day free of frost—the temperature would drop below freezing every single day.  Under those conditions the ecosystems which have evolved since the last Ice Age would collapse, food production would plummet and the vast majority of the human race would starve.  (Ref)

Even a much more limited nuclear war would cause catastrophic global climate disruption.  As few as 250 100 kiloton bombs could generate 37 Tg. of soot dropping temperatures 5.5 0 C and triggering massive crop failures and catastrophic worldwide famine that would put hundreds of millions, possibly billions of people at risk.  This would not mean the extinction of our species; if would mean the end of modern civilization.  No civilization in history has survived a shock of this magnitude and there is no reason to assume that the delicate, complex economic system on which we all depend would do any better.


Rise of Nuclear Power was a Bad Idea

In a broader perspective, the rise of nuclear power was a bad idea. It always required substantial government subsidies, and there is no solution for handling spent fuel rods and radioactive equipment. If there is a disaster like Fukushima Daiichi was in 2011, there is no recovery from it years later.

On Friday major news outlets reported Duane Arnold Energy Center near Palo will cease electricity production in late 2020. Duane Arnold, owned by NextEra Energy Resources, is Iowa’s only nuclear power generating station.

Alliant Energy, the utility’s only remaining customer, entered an agreement with NextEra to cease operations five years earlier than planned.

The declining cost of other forms of energy led to the decision, according to NextEra spokesperson Peter Robbins in a Radio Iowa article.

“You are just seeing continued pressure on all sources of energy — from renewables and from natural gas — and we are certainly seeing that in the market place in Iowa,” Robbins said.

NextEra plans to invest in existing and new renewables generation across Iowa before the end of 2020, according to the article. Alliant Energy said it will save customers nearly $300 million in the next 21 years by switching away from the use of the nuclear power.

Duane Arnold’s fate reflects the general decline in nuclear power in the United States. While some, like retired scientist James Hansen and former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, point to nuclear power as a potential way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in electricity generation, it is just too expensive. Georgia Power remains the only company in the United States attempting to build new nuclear reactors. The construction at the Alvin W. Vogtle generating station near Augusta, Georgia has been plagued by delays and cost overruns endemic to the industry. The two plants may never be completed.

On June 1, President Trump directed Energy Secretary Rick Perry to take immediate steps to keep both coal and nuclear power plants running as a matter of national security. If the U.S. exits the nuclear power generation business there could be repercussions in ceding technological advancements to China and Russia. It could weaken existing nonproliferation standards if the U.S. discontinued its work as a supplier in the global nuclear marketplace. The flagship U.S. company for nuclear power technology is Westinghouse which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy March 29, 2017. Trump’s initiative isn’t going to help Duane Arnold stay operating as the marketplace is doing its work — there are no customers.

Duane Arnold employs about 540 employees, and because of the nature of nuclear power generation, about 300 will find continued employment during the lengthy decommissioning process. The federal government owns the spent fuel rods and there is no current, viable plan for off-site disposal. Storage time required for spent nuclear fuel rods is measured in multiple millennia. The plant’s license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had been extended until 2024.

The only successful application of nuclear has been in nuclear powered submarines and aircraft carriers where the question “what do you do with a nuclear submarine/aircraft carrier once its nuclear plant reaches the end of life?” has no good answers.

Renewable energy is Iowa’s future, it is the world’s future. Friday’s announcement was expected, as cost dictates how consumers source electricity. Nuclear power has never been cost-competitive. There will be disruption in workers’ lives and that’s unfortunate. However, the end had to come, and now that the announcement is made people can begin making plans.

~ First posted at Blog for Iowa

Environment Kitchen Garden Sustainability Work Life Writing

On Our Own into 2017

Western Sky at Sunrise
Western Sky at Sunrise

In this final 2016 post it was easier than last year to outline my writing plans.

The work I do to pay bills and support my writing has been tough mentally and physically. To cope with an aging frame and occasionally distracted mind I have had to focus. That meant planning, and then with discipline, working the plan. 2016 was a mixed bag and I expect to do better in 2017.

I seldom post about my personal life and family — at least directly. That leaves issues I confront every day as grist for the keyboard.

There are four broad, intersecting topics about which I’ll write during the coming year.

Low Wage Work and Working Poor

Not only do I earn low wages in all of my jobs, I meet a lot of people who do too. During the last four years I developed a framework for viewing how people sustain their lives without a big job or high salary. A focus on raising the minimum wage, wage theft or immigration status may be timely but most of what I read misses the mark. Stories fail to recognize the complexity with which low wage workers piece together a life. This subject needs more exposition and readers can expect it here.

Food Cultivation, Processing and Cooking

Living on low wages includes knowledge of how to grow, process and prepare some of our own food. My frequent posts on this topic have been intended to tell a story about how the work gets done. I plan to grow another big garden in 2017 and perform the same seasonal farm work. I sent off a membership form to Practical Farmers of Iowa this morning and expect my experience with that group to contribute to food related writing.

Nuclear Abolition

I renewed my membership in Physicians for Social Responsibility. We have a global footprint and as a member I have access to almost everything going on world-wide to abolish one of the gravest threats to human life. The president elect made some startling statements about nuclear weapons this month. The subject should hold interest and perhaps offer an opportunity to get something done toward abolition. The United Nations voted to work toward a new treaty to abolish nuclear weapons. They did so without the support of the United States or any of the other nuclear armed states. In that tension alone there should be a number of posts.

Global Warming and Climate Change

My framework has been membership in the Climate Reality Leadership Corps. Like with Physicians for Social Responsibility we have a global footprint with thousands of Climate Leaders. We have access to the latest information about climate change and its solutions. The key dynamic, however, is how work toward accepting the reality of climate change occurs on a local level. What researchers are finding is skepticism about the science of climate change originates in the personal experience of people where they live. If the weather is very hot and dry they tend to believe in climate change. If it is cold, they tend not to believe. Thing is, climate change and human contributions to it are not a belief system as much as they are facts. Global warming and climate change already affect us whether we believe or doubt.

So that’s the plan. While you are here, click on the tag cloud to find something else to read. I hope you will return to read more in 2017.


Iowa’s Campaign to Stop New Nuclear Power

Nuclear NeighborhoodsPrepared remarks delivered by Paul Deaton at the Iowa City Public Library on the 68th Anniversary of Hiroshima, Aug. 6, 2013.

Thank you Maureen McCue for the kind introduction. I want to recognize some of our colleagues in this work who are in the audience tonight.

Well we held back new nuclear power in Iowa. Isn’t that great?

In February 2010, I wrote the first of a long series of posts on Blog for Iowa about what I believed to be the legislature’s infatuation with nuclear power during the last four sessions of the Iowa General Assembly. I wrote, “I heard the words ‘zero sum gain’ applied to MidAmerican Energy’s process toward change for the first time. It seems to fit. A zero sum gain is a situation in which a participant’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participant(s). If the state wants to move forward with nuclear power, it’s okay with MidAmerican Energy, but they are a business, so the customers will have to pay.”

The customers will have to pay. That pretty much sums it up. What’s missing is no one knew how much a new nuclear power plant would cost, then, or now. For this and other reasons, the people of Iowa decided there were better ways to generate electricity.

During this presentation I want to talk about what the nuclear power discussion was, and what it meant.

At the beginning, the legislation seemed on a stealth track toward passage without opposition. Physicians for Social Responsibility joined with an extensive and diverse coalition who found common ground in opposing nuclear power in Iowa. By the end of our work, according to public polling, a vast majority of Iowans opposed new nuclear power and some legislators who had supported House File 2399, the nuclear power study bill, and House File 561, the nuclear power financial bill, had changed their minds.

What I want to cover in my remaining time is three things: the campaign to stop the nuclear power study, the campaign to stop the nuclear power finance bill, and then some general remarks.

Before beginning, I want to set the framework in which the nuclear power discussions occurred.

The electric utilities in Iowa are looking at a 50-year horizon that compares where we are now with regard to electricity generation, to where we will be. Electricity generation is currently a mix of nuclear, coal, natural gas, wind and hydroelectric. The nuclear and coal plants are making their exit at the end of their life cycle, so the question is what is next?

After defeating two of three proposed coal fired power plants in the state, combined with our recent success in holding back nuclear, we seem bound to keep hydro the same, generate more wind and solar electricity, use no new nuclear or coal plants if we can manage it, with natural gas as the flexibility in the system to meet so-called baseload electricity needs.

Demand growth for electricity is slowing to less than one percent per year, so the primary issue is capital investment to replace depreciated generating capacity. Pretty tedious stuff for the environmentalists among us, but where Warren Buffett and others like him invest their billions is a real issue for us, with real world impacts on the environment.

When we talk about these big picture solutions, however, the missing piece of the puzzle is distributed generation. That is, how individual homes and businesses might produce their own electricity on-site, and sell excess capacity back into the electrical grid.

As prices come down for wind and solar, distributed generation becomes more viable, and could tilt what the regulated utilities do. The thing is, how long can we wait to take CO2 emissions out of the mix? The inconvenient truth is that we can’t wait.

Another thing to note is that while burning natural gas produces about half the CO2 emissions compared to burning coal, the gain for the environment is mitigated by methane leakage along the pathway from extracting the gas to delivery at the power plant where it is burned. Like with any energy source, burning natural gas should be considered in the context of its entire lifecycle. In that context, its greenhouse gas emissions are not much better than coal, if not worse, depending upon the amount of methane leakage.

From the preamble of House File 2399:

“It is the intent of the general assembly to require certain rate regulated public utilities to undertake analyses of and preparations for the possible construction of nuclear generating facilities in this state that would be beneficial in a carbon constrained environment.” There is a lot to unpack there, and the bill had additional aspects I have eliminated to save time. Suffice it to say House File 2399 passed both chambers of the legislature, and on April 28, 2010, Governor Chet Culver held a signing ceremony for what he called the “Nuclear Energy Jobs Creation Bill.” In a letter that is available on Blog for Iowa, Culver wrote, “this bill gives Iowa utilities and consumers more tools to make decisions on our energy future. The study will give us a clear idea of what the future for nuclear and alternative energies may hold in Iowa.” On June 4, 2013, MidAmerican Energy announced the study was complete, and they would be refunding a portion of the $14.2 million dollars collected for the study from rate payers, beginning this month. There was no mention of the words wind, solar or alternative energy in the 50 page final report from MidAmerican Energy to the Iowa Utilities Board. Governor Culver was wrong about the study’s purpose, as he was about many things.

Now let me talk about House File 561, the nuclear power finance bill.

On Monday, March 28, 2011, Wally Taylor, counsel to the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club presented an analysis of the Contruction Work in Progress or CWIP bill that eventually became House File 561. Iowa’s version of CWIP was much worse than those passed in other states in that its main purpose was to codify specific costs that rate payers would pay, up front, should the electric utility decide to apply for and construct a nuclear power plant. It included every cost the industry could envision. Among them, it defined “prudent costs” for the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB), when what would have actually been prudent was leaving costs to the board members discretion, rather than being directed by the legislature. It instructed the IUB on calculation of allowed debt and return on equity, something that should also have been left to the discretion of the IUB after performing due diligence on a proposed project. The bill also exempted nuclear power from the requirement, applicable to all other electric generation plants, that the utility has considered other sources for long-term electric supply and that the proposed plant is reasonable when compared to other feasible alternative sources of supply. There were other considerations, and in the end the legislation, if passed, would be biased to favor nuclear power over other methods of electricity generation.

By the close of session, House File 561 failed to gain traction in the Iowa Senate, as most familiar with our campaign are aware.

In closing, let me say something about new nuclear power. In its current state, no privately held company in the United States would take on the risks of nuclear power without significant government and rate payer subsidies. Period. If they would, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is open for business, and accepting applications.

When we talk about subsidies, first, there is the risk of disasters as happened in Chernobyl and Fukushima. To encourage nuclear power, the U.S. Government created the Price Anderson Act which puts a ceiling on the losses that would be paid by a nuclear power plant owner in the case of a similar disaster. You and I would pick up the excess costs through our taxes.

Second, the Department of Energy owns and is responsible for nuclear fuel throughout its life cycle. While nuclear power utilities charge a small fee per kilowatt hour to help pay for disposal of their nuclear waste, every power plant’s disposal costs are underfunded. This underfunding is complicated by storage that could last for multiple millennia.

Any executive of a public utility, as a matter of personal competence, would want to know how much building a new power plant would cost. In the case of nuclear power, no engineer has a sharp enough pencil today to accurately predict the costs. When MidAmerican Energy CEO Bill Fehrman was asked how much a new nuclear power plant would cost during the last three and a half years, he constantly dodged the question, perhaps because he simply did not know. House File 561 got people like Mr. Fehrman off the hook, by transferring those financial unknowns to rate payers.

When nuclear power came into being in the wake of the Atomic age, whose birth we commemorate today on Hiroshima Day, it was scaled big. In retrospect, if used, nuclear power should have been modeled on the technology of nuclear submarines.

It seems likely the engineering challenges of small modular reactors (SMR) could be met and resolved, as could the issue of nuclear waste disposal. We are not even close to resolving either of those issues.

As MidAmerican Energy wrote in their report, “SMR licensing and SMR pricing could influence the decision to deploy nuclear generation in Iowa,” confirming my point― the technology is not ready for a proposal to the NRC.

We haven’t heard the last about nuclear power. But unlike the time prior to the fight to stop these bills, to stop nuclear power in Iowa, advocates are now ready to take up the fight anew if called upon.

Thank you for your time and attention. We’ll have a question and answer period at the end.

I’ll turn the discussion over to Dr. John Rachow who will speak to the issue of radioactive nuclear fuel. Thanks again.


Iowa Pulls the Plug on Nuclear Power

Nuclear Power? - No Thanks
Nuclear Power? – No Thanks

Pursuit of new nuclear power in Iowa was a bad idea when then governor Tom Vilsack began promoting it, and remains so. MidAmerican Energy’s announcement in the Des Moines Register today, that the utility “has scrapped plans for Iowa’s second nuclear plant and will refund $8.8 million ratepayers paid for a now-finished feasibility study,” was welcomed by people throughout the state. In the end, talk about nuclear power was a weird combination of the vaporous breath of politicians combined with a financially stable and well capitalized public utility owned by  one of the richest men on the planet. The discussion Vilsack started is over for now.

In an email to members, Dianne Glenney, co-founder and communications contact for the grassroots organization S.A.F.E. (Saving America’s Farmland and Environment) wrote, “we have learned more about the dangers of nuclear energy than we ever wanted to know.  But, we are much better informed now and an informed citizenry is primed to be a watchdog for future happenings, to report issues when they happen, and to take action.” While S.A.F.E. came into being only after the utility’s planned sites for a new nuclear power plant were recently announced in Muscatine and Fremont counties, Glenney’s words summed up the four-year process that stopped MidAmerican’s nuclear ambitions. Knowledge is power, and by 2013, the Iowa electorate had been educated about nuclear power.

As always, there is more to the story.

The idea that there was a nuclear renaissance in the United States was a product of the imagination of politicians, the nuclear industry, corporate media and the richest Americans. The nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan on March 11, 2011 brought the risks of nuclear power to the public’s attention. Shortly after the earthquake and tsunami that caused the failures, MidAmerican Energy’s Bill Fehrman asserted in an Iowa Senate Commerce Committee meeting that small modular reactors would solve some of the problems of Fukushima.  The public wasn’t buying it, at least to the extent that they would support the legislation Fehrman said was necessary for the utility to get the financial backing of Wall Street to build a new nuclear power generating station. In today’s announcement, MidAmerican conceded that lack of an approved plan for a small modular reactor was problematic, citing as one of the reasons for pulling the plug, “there is no approved design for the modular nuclear plant it envisioned.”

A final decision by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to deny a license to the Calvert Cliffs III nuclear reactor, slated for southern Maryland, is evidence that if there was a nuclear renaissance, it may be over from an NRC perspective.

Another part of the story is the abundance of natural gas resulting from increased exploration and discover using the hydraulic fracturing process. With the cost of natural gas going down, interest in more expensive nuclear power is waning. It is important that MidAmerican Energy noted the potential regulation of carbon as an impediment to building a natural gas power generating station, something that did not stop Alliant Energy from seeking approval for such a plant in Marshalltown.

The current solution to the radioactive nuclear waste produced by nuclear power generating stations is no solution at all. The plan is to store it on sites where it is generated until the federal government figures out what to do with it. Reasonable people can’t seriously consider adding new nuclear power capacity until this long standing deficiency is addressed.

Dianne Glenney of S.A.F.E. wrote last night, “no one should have to live under the strain of a potential nuclear power plant in their neighborhood, community, state and/or country.  Someone is always downwind of every nuclear plant.” Now enough Iowans know this. Let’s hope we don’t forget.


Vilsack’s Energy Policy Legacy

Nuclear Power? - No Thanks
Nuclear Power? – No Thanks

LAKE MACBRIDE— Does Tom Vilsack’s 2007 consulting agreement with MidAmerican Energy matter any more? It does, but not in the way conservative pundits characterized it, as a form of political corruption, after President Obama appointed Vilsack to his current job as secretary of agriculture.

The case can be made that beginning in 2003, then governor Tom Vilsack was a driver in governmental policy that created a regulatory environment for Iowa’s growth in renewable energy. Particularly in wind powered electricity generation. MidAmerican Energy was a key partner with Iowa government in developing wind farms in Carroll and Crawford Counties, and in other parts of the state. Most people agree, wind energy, along with ethanol production and biofuels development, have been good for Iowa. Vilsack should be given credit for his policy contributions to the development of Iowa’s renewable energy capacity.

At the same time, Vilsack was promoting all forms of electricity generation in Iowa, so the state could become a net exporter of the commodity. His advocacy for coal, natural gas and nuclear power generation is often forgotten, and resulted in a favorable regulatory environment for utilities to consider, and in some cases, build new coal and natural gas fired power plants. The release of CO2 pollution into the atmosphere by these new plants contributes to warming the planet and the liability of its climatic consequences. Tom Vilsack gets some of the blame.

Vilsack’s consulting relationship with MidAmerican Energy was said to help the company develop renewable energy sources, but it would be naive to believe the conversations he had with his client did not include coal, natural gas, nuclear and other sources of energy, especially since Vilsack made an issue of them as governor.

Why would Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy pursue the legislative changes required in Iowa to make an investment in nuclear power more palatable to Wall Street investors? It is because Tom Vilsack started the conversation. His Oct. 12, 2006 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is evidence of this. Vilsack said,

“In the last seven and a half years we’ve had six new power plants built, some of them state-of-the-art coal and natural gas facilities. We have embraced renewable energy and have now become the number one state in the country for wind energy per capita. And we, of course, have expanded dramatically our interest in ethanol and soy diesel, to the point where the state of Iowa is now the number one producer of each.

And we’ve been able to do this by working with the private marketplace and private sector in partnership. We changed regulations to provide greater stability for our utility companies so that they make the billions of dollars of investment to build new plants.”

If we consider HF 561, an act relating to the permitting, licensing, construction, and operation of nuclear generation facilities, from Iowa’s 84th General Assembly, the legislature attempted to do exactly what Vilsack said in 2006 was the intent, to provide a regulatory environment to attract investment money in new nuclear power plants. From the CFR speech,

We should take a look at the long-term impact of nuclear. […] we ought to be looking at ways in which either the risk (of nuclear waste) can be matched with opportunities that folks are looking for, or that we can create a compensation system that makes it easier for people to assume and accept that risk.

Vilsack sought to open a door that was closed for decades with regard to new nuclear power and its radioactive waste. He started the conversation. When the people of Iowa saw how the conversation would develop, that the high risks of nuclear power would be borne by rate payers so that Wall Street would invest, they saw through MidAmerican’s ploy and rejected the changes proposed by the legislature.

By then, Tom Vilsack was in Washington, but his energy legacy lived on back in Iowa.

Home Life Work Life

Saturday Miscellany

Lettuce Patch
Lettuce Patch

BIG GROVE TOWNSHIP— The editors are in Jamaica on vacation, so work at the newspaper was rearranged to finish the proof reading today and create tomorrow as my first day off paid work since Good Friday. The fill-in copy layout person wanted Mother’s Day off work, so I finished my part of producing the weekly newspaper before lunch.

I called Mother today and had a long chat. For the first time in a long while, she had listened to some of my advice and reported she took it. The two of us are not much for the Hallmark Holidays, but we have a special call each year on or before Mother’s Day. I am thankful to be able to hear her familiar, octogenarian voice letting me know what is going on in her life.

Otherwise, today has been a miscellany— some of which is worth recounting, the rest, not so much.

Censored on the Internet
Tweet Expunged

For the first time, one of my tweets on twitter was expunged. A person is not saying much, if from time to time, someone doesn’t react negatively to it. Don’t know why it is gone, but I suspect someone ratted me out to the twitter-gods on the Internet. It was likely over the use of a question mark rather than a period. The reason I have a copy is Iowa City Patch re-tweeted me, generating an email with the content.

Rand Paul gave a speech at an area fundraiser today, giving credence to the idea that his presence is to help Republicans organize for the first in the nation 2016 Iowa caucuses. Paul’s visit was intended, at least partly, to generate some interest among no preference and Democratic voters. From reading other accounts of the event, the Republican party faithful represented most of the attendees. Rand Paul ≠ Ron Paul, and there could be trouble for the Republican organizers trading on the Paul name. Trouble would be fine with me.

In our state representative’s weekly newsletter, he outlined the reason for his opposition to new nuclear power, especially in rural Wilton, where he lives. It is more than the NIMBY (not in my back yard) approach he mentioned at the Morse town hall meeting. He suggested, perhaps unintended, that the issue will be a live round during the second session of the 85th Iowa General Assembly.

Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” plays on the kitchen radio Saturday nights beginning at 5 p.m. I have been listening off and on since graduate school. For a while, one of Keillor’s prominent sponsors has been Allianz, the German financial services company. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) pointed out that Allianz owns 4.45 percent of the shares of the top 20 producers of nuclear weapons. Allianz has investments in Alliant Techsystems, BAE Systems, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman,  General Dynamics, Honeywell International and others.

ICAN has called for divestment in these securities, and I have been pondering what to do since hearing. Long standing behavior is hard to change, especially when part of our lives is built around it. I have invested a lot in “A Prairie Home Companion.”

It is habit and memory that turns on the radio. Memory can’t be changed, but habits can. Familiar and comforting as ” A Prairie Home Companion” is, I’ll find something else to do while preparing our Saturday night meal. It is a disappointing development in a world full of wonder.


No New Nuclear Power in Iowa

Nuclear Power? - No Thanks
Nuclear Power? – No Thanks

WILTON—Dean Crist, vice president of regulatory affairs for MidAmerican Energy Company told a group estimated by the media at between 300-450 people last night, “we’re going to have to burn less coal because of environmental regulations, we need to replace that with something.” The company spokesperson said the electric utility has no plans to build any type of power plant in Iowa, including a much discussed nuclear power plant. No surprise here.

Over the coming decades, public utilities must replace a number of aging power plants, including the fleet of 104 nuclear reactors in the United States. Utility executives view coal, nuclear and natural gas power plants as central to their overall plans, because of their scale and ability to turn them off and on to match demand. MidAmerican Energy and others have a growing generating capacity in renewable energy, especially wind and solar power, but what has been going on in Iowa for the last three years has been an effort by the company to persuade regulators and the Iowa Legislature that nuclear power is an option.

Companies like MidAmerican Energy are playing a long game, and meetings like the one last night seem to be a minor blip on their radar screen. While growth in demand for electricity slows, there are legitimate issues they must resolve regarding generating capacity during the next 50 years. Having been blocked in their legislative agenda, other approaches will be taken. It is up to members of the public to maintain vigilance as their plans unfold.

Environment Sustainability

Nuclear Power in 2013

Nuclear Power? - No Thanks
Nuclear Power? – No Thanks

LAKE MACBRIDE— A group called Saving America’s Farm Ground and Environment (S.A.F.E.) is hosting a meeting tomorrow about MidAmerican Energy’s study of two sites in Iowa where they may propose to build nuclear power plants. A representative from the electric utility is scheduled to brief the group about their plans, something they did previously only in a private meeting with land owners near the proposed site at 150th Street and Sweetland Road in rural Muscatine. My friends at Blog for Iowa posted details about the meeting here. Under different circumstances, I would attend, but alas, I have to work a job to pay my utility bills.

Nuclear Power Plant Site
Nuclear Power Plant Site

If the global mind exists, as Al Gore posits in his book “The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change,” it is powered by electricity. How society will produce the electricity to communicate is an open question. In a consumer society, electricity also powers cooking, laundry, staying up after sunset, and a host of personal and industrial tasks. Participants in a consumer society don’t often consider the question because the electric utility bill is inexpensive compared to other budget items.

What people do know is they don’t want a nuclear power plant in their back yard, and that is why people in Muscatine County are getting together. The memories of Chernobyl and Fukushima are too fresh, there is no safe level of radiation, and while the geography of the proposed site appears to be in the middle of nowhere, it is on prime farmland, and of interest to people from miles around.

MidAmerican Energy has a track record of obfuscation about their nuclear plans, and tends to operate in a perpetual salesmanship mode full of talking points and puffery. Locals are skeptical of their assertions, but until now, have been denied access to the discussion. This makes tomorrow’s meeting important, especially if the utility company is willing to listen.

A simple truth about nuclear power is that it is too expensive for anyone to capitalize, including Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy, without financial considerations that a public utility can get only through legislative action. MidAmerican’s legislative agenda regarding new nuclear power was blocked during the 84th Iowa General Assembly. In a sense, the community resistance to a new nuclear power plant is putting the cart before the horse. Nonetheless, we should be listening to hear the reaction and press coverage of the concerned citizens meeting tomorrow. If we care about sustainability in a turbulent world, this activity is one to watch.