Gotta love Rod Adams and his Atomic Insights Blog. He has a knack for turning up the most worthwhile matters in the fission field of nuclear energy as it functions today.  Over the past weeks Rod has had a look at the Zion Nuclear Power Station.

Zion Nuclear Power Station in Illinois. Click image for the largest view.

There in lies a story. It seems the Zion Station ran along rather well as nuclear plants seem to do for the first 25 years of its 40-year license.  At that point the tubing for the steam generators had worn to the point of needing replaced.  With 15 years to go on the license, replacements not cheap, and natural gas quite cheap, a choice it seems was made to simply shut it down.

Keep in mind, the facility’s replacement cost could be over $20 Billion.  The plant’s location serves the northern part of Illinois.

To complicate things, the steam generators were made by Westinghouse who was in the midst of lawsuits from customers claiming the generation sets weren’t properly designed and built. Zion has two units with four generators.  The expected profit over the remaining term of the license was only a half billion dollars, while one expects the ratepayers were on the hook for the amortization and upkeep whether the plant ran or was shut down.

Nowhere else in the U.S. or even the world is there an example of a large, completed, relatively modern, two unit pressurized water reactor that was shut down with so much potential operating life remaining.

And it seems – Zion might be For Sale.

David Hollein, is a man who has been campaigning to reopen the Zion Nuclear Power Plant for more than a dozen years. His efforts were the initial inspiration for Nancy Thorner, a lady who is working hard to convince Exelon to operate the nuclear plant in her hometown.

Zion is now owned by an LLC called Zion Solutions that exists to dismantle the plant and set up to store the 25 years worth of used fuel.

Thorner is a busy lady, a great friend to her community.  A recommissioning of Zion would put dirt-cheap power on the grid for northern Illinois.  Her persistence and reasoned arguments have captured the attention of Illinois State Senator Christopher Lauzen, who has decided to formally ask Mr. John Rowe, the CEO of Exelon, to provide his side of the story.

Adams has used his connections to ascertain that the Zion plant has been well cared for. Nancy Thorner has talked to many more people than Adams, and she has told Adams that the people with direct, first-hand knowledge of the plant’s current condition agree – there is no technical reason why the plant could not be restored and operated for at least another couple of decades.

Since its pressure vessel, the main component that may eventually limit the life of nuclear generating plants, has only 25 years worth of neutron exposure, the plant is quite young compared to many facilities in operation today.  Many of these have been serviced and have license extensions to 60 years.  That makes a potential life left at Zion of 35 years – 87.5% of the original design life.

And it’s already paid for.  Something is way wrong with the bookkeeping at Exelon.  Selling it seems, well – quite crazy.

If it’s really for sale, there are quite a number of qualified buyers.  Warren Buffet’s Mid-American Energy comes to mind in the region.  Worldwide there has to be a long list of companies eager to catch a guaranteed cash cow on the cheap.

Wild guesses that Adams has turned up suggest that Zion could go back on line with the investment of perhaps $2-4 billion – those based solely on scaling and inflating the numbers that the Tennessee Valley Authority has released about its recent restoration of a similarly aged and formerly mothballed plant at Browns Ferry.

Meanwhile Senator Lauzen wants Exelon to explain its decision process and share the assumptions and numbers used in the analysis. That probably won’t happen. It could expose Exelon to serious liability and risks.  The Illinois customers paid prices set by a regulators based on covering the utility company’s cost for building the facilities required to supply reliable electricity plus a guaranteed profit – an agreement not fulfilled in good faith.

The customers had no choice about paying – the only alternative available for them was doing without electricity. The balancing part of those protected monopoly agreements on the part of the profit-making utility company for this rather sweet deal was that they promised to make prudent decisions and undertook an obligation to serve their customers.

Market driven behavior is not uncommon or illegal in commodity industries, where concerns and actions to prevent the price destructive situation of “over capacity” are an endlessly major topic. At the same time the interests of the consumers who were compelled to pay for the plant have a stake in the proceedings, over capacity or not, the state regulators and the company with a guaranteed profit have obligations that come before optimizing their profit.  It may be that a state and federal prosecutors need attending to those number requests.  It might be a very good idea indeed to get the plant sold to an operator before the Pandora’s box of legal interests is opened and gets going.

The choices in the past and the choices today might turn out quite differently if the asking is done during a deposition or in a grand jury room than before a friendly regulatory board.

There’s an ‘Uh oh’ thought for you.  The folks in Illinois need some good economic news and cheaper electricity can only help.  Economic development depends on getting the basics right – having the lowest cost electrical power in mothballs isn’t going to attract any jobs or increase tax revenues or save anyone any money.

On the other hand, all this is happening in Illinois, and you know how business and politics work there . . .


2 Comments so far

  1. Larry Davis on April 26, 2011 12:41 AM

    Where’s the outrage over wasting Ratepayers’ massive dollar source at Zion?

    Contrary to the claims of viability for a “nuclear renaissance” at Zion, Illinois by Nancy Thorner and associates, nuclear power is not cheap, clean, or safe. Let’s look at the facts…

    Nuclear power is not cheap unless you only consider its operating costs. The total costs include: construction, operation, decommissioning, nuclear wastes, and the externalized costs of: taxpayer subsidies, taxpayer guarantees of indemnification in case of serious accident and the potential health effects from both routine and incident emissions of radioisotopes into our environment.

    Ratepayers had to cough up the original construction costs of the 2080 Megawatt Zion Nuclear Power Station which was $280 per Kilowatt or $582,400,000 in 1974 ($2,722,266,182 in 2010 dollars) and the $11 million a year costs over the last 13 years to SAFSTOR the permanently shutdown reactor that was owned by Commonwealth Edison, now part of Exelon.

    Decommissioning costs are another $1 billion hit to the ratepayers pocketbooks and do not cover any long-term costs for the 2,280,000 pounds of spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear wastes which will remain at the facility for decades to come in dry cask storage.

    Taxpayers support the nuclear industry further with federal loan guarantees and indemnification under the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act of 1957 which is necessary because the industry is unable to find any private market to insure or capitalize a nuclear power plant – something that should speak volumes to you about the economics and risks of nuclear power.

    A Battelle report estimated the Federal subsidies (in 2007 dollars) between 1950 and 1977 between $1.2 and $2.2 billion each year for each of these energy sources: coal, hydroelectric, and nuclear power.

    Other studies have shown that from 1947 to 1999 the U.S. government spent approximately $150 billion on energy subsidies for wind, solar and nuclear power; of which 96.3% of went to nuclear power.

    Lifecycle costs for nuclear power generation in the United States have been estimated at approximately 12 cents per kilowatt hour (excluding long-term nuclear waste disposal costs).

    By comparison, Lifecycle costs for wind power generation in the United States have been estimated at approximately 4 cents per kilowatt hour.

    The December 2010 average commercial sector retail price was 9.81 cents per kWh, increasing 1.2 percent from December 2009.

    There is no panacea when it comes to producing clean energy. However, clean renewable energy sources do not have the unique ability to contaminate vast swaths of our environment with radioisotopes that accumulate in our food and ourselves or be diverted into nuclear weapons production or produce nuclear waste which we have no good solutions for.

    Please do us all a favor and research exactly what is involved in reprocessing spent nuclear fuel and the use of breeder reactors and what the historical record has been so far concerning routine emissions, inflated waste volumes, and radioisotope contamination of local environs from such facilities.

    Reprocessing has a horrendous record of accidents, fires, leaks, and spreading radioactive pollutants in addition to producing weapons grade fissile materials and large volumes of low-level nuclear wastes.

    The only commercial reprocessing facility in the United States was the West Valley Reprocessing Plant at west Valley, New York which was only open for 6 years from 1966 to 1972 and resulted in the generation of: 660,000 gallons of highly radioactive liquid waste; 170 tons of used nuclear fuel assemblies; 140,000 cubic feet of solid waste; 2.4 million cubic feet of buried low-level radioactive wastes; a 15 acre landfill for the disposal of radioactive waste from commercial waste generators; and another seven acre landfill to dispose of waste generated from the nuclear waste reprocessing itself.

    According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the West Valley Demonstration Project clean-up will cost taxpayers over $8 billion dollars. The West Valley cleanup involves: the main processing building, 4 storage tanks, several lagoons, 2 landfills with no liners, a multi-fingered groundwater plume of radioactive water, an airborne surface deposition of radioactive particulate from vent stack releases. The site ultimately drains to Lake Erie. Evidence of Strontium and Plutonium contamination has been found in the delta of the Niagara River at Lake Ontario.

    And reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel and wastes is also costly – ranging up to three times the once through fuel costs. For example the cost to process 800 Metric Ton of Heavy Metal per year at Japan’s Rokkasho facility is approximately $20 billion and there is a limited capacity to utilize the mixed oxide fuel that is produced because of the technical limitations of using Plutonium-238 in conventional nuclear reactors.

    Besides the obvious concerns of a nuclear accident, all operating commercial nuclear reactors in the United States produce liquid effluent and gaseous emissions contaminated with various radioisotopes which are legally permitted as discharges on a routine basis. For example up to 10 percent of the Nobel Gas Xenon-135 which is produced in the reactor will decay into Cesium-135 which has a half-life of 2.3 million years.

    It’s worth wile to learn the history concerning radiation research as it was Dr. Alice Mary Stewart and her associates that first proved the links between exposure to radiation and cancer in 1956. I recommend starting with the book: ‘The Woman Who Knew Too Much, Alice Stewart and the Secrets of Radiation’ by Gayle Greene

    See: [ ]
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    Dr. Stewart received the alternative Nobel Prize, the Right Livelihood Award in 1986 and the Ramazziai Prize in 1992. Her obituary in the New York Times notes how her findings were not welcome news for the nuclear establishment which led to her never again receiving a major grant in England. She lived long enough to see radiation science move in her direction, with each official estimate of radiation risk acknowledging greater danger than previous estimates admitted.

    She had the satisfaction of seeing one Secretary of Energy in 1993 open the record of the Government’s management of nuclear operations during the Cold War, including the records of human experimentation, and then seeing another in 2000 recommending compensation for nuclear workers suffering from cancers that may have been incurred at work.

    The point of all this is that there is ample evidence in her case and too many others where distinguished scientists and doctors doing research on the effects of radiation exposures have either had their findings suppressed or been ostracized by the governments, military, and industry who all have vested interests and liabilities to protect. This is not some conspiracy theory that has been cooked up – it is historical fact which can be researched with very little effort and considerable time given the voluminous nature of the record on low-level radiation.

    No one asked the American public for permission to build nuclear power plants. No public debate was held in the late 1950s and early 1960s on whether it was economical, safe, or a good idea…

    Nuclear power plants are one of the last vestiges of the cold war, they were built to provide political cover for nuclear weapon production reactors in the United States on the premise that nuclear war was winnable and low-level radiation from radioactive fallout was survivable and/or without significant long-term health effects…

    In the United States the nuclear power plants that were designed and constructed are largely derived from military designs for nuclear submarines, Pressurized Water Reactors (PWR) like those at Zion or nuclear weapon production reactors Boiling Water Reactors (BWR) and so-called breeder reactors like Fast Neutron Reactors (FNR).

    An additional planned benefit was to use the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel to help add to the weapons stockpile while providing recycled fuel for power generation. Because of this these reactor designs all have low fuel burn-up efficiencies to satiate the desire to produce nuclear weapons – which was far greater than utilizing safer reactor designs of greater efficiency that produce far less nuclear wastes and fissionable materials for bomb making (i.e. Liquid Fluorine Thorium Reactors, etc.)

    We need to leave this legacy behind us and get on with the solutions that we have in hand that are truly clean and sustainable and make the necessary efforts to replace both fossil fuels and nuclear power – it will be quicker, cheaper, cleaner, and will provide the local economic activity and job creation that we need worldwide. This is especially true with a combined and equal effort involving: energy efficiency, energy storage, and distributed energy on microgrids from clean renewable sources.

    When making such judgments, perhaps common sense and this rule of thumb should apply:

    “…one should always ask oneself who has the greater financial interest, the industry or the concerned scientist trying to warn the public?” – Dr. George Wald, Harvard University (quoted during the Three-Mile Island incident of March 1979).

    “In 2009, for the second year in a row, both the US and Europe added more power capacity from renewable sources such as wind and solar than conventional sources like coal, gas and nuclear, according to twin reports launched today by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21).” – Global Trends in Green Energy 2009: New Power Capacity from Renewable Sources Tops Fossil Fuels Again in US, Europe’ by UNEP, July 15, 2010.

  2. Al Love on January 28, 2012 4:24 PM

    Solar is the way to go for a better now and future. The way we have to get the rest of the world to come a long is to be best. To be the best you have to stand out from the rest. So stay in front and lead. Good read and looking forward to my next view.solarpanels

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