The Risk at Buckman

Santa Fe recently brought online a new system that takes water out of the Rio Grande to supplement it's municipal drinking water. Unfortunately the new system, called the Buckman Direct Diversion, draws water from directly beneath several canyons that regularly dump storm water laced with radionuclides and other bomb-making contaminants.

What on earth would prompt Santa Fe officials to draw municipal drinking water from below the Los Alamos National Labs – host to more than 2,000 known toxic dumpsites? You might ask them. Seriously, if you are concerned you should attend their Board Meeting this Thursday (City Hall, 4:00p), where you can ask them directly. If you can't make the meeting, you can always call or email them.

Consuelo Bokum    bokatz@cybermason.com    505-982-4342
Chris Calvert    ccalvert@santafenm.gov    505-955-6812
Danny Mayfield        dmayfield@santafecounty.org    505-986-6200
Rosemary Romero    r2romero@santafenm.gov    505-690-3016
Liz Stefanics        lstefanics@co.santa-fe.nm.us    505-986-6210
Virginia Vigil        vvigil@co.santa-fe.nm.us    505-955-2755
Rebecca Wurzburger    rebeccawurzburger@gmail.com    505-955-6815

They will tell you that they commissioned a study to look at the risk to Santa Fe residents, and the study concluded that there was “no health risk” posed by drinking water from Buckman.

No health risk? None?

Here’s are a few things you should know about the risk analysis.

First, there is no such thing as a system with “no risk.” Everything has risk, and when it comes to engineered systems, history is rife with examples of engineers under-predicting risk. I pointed this out in a letter to the Santa Fe New Mexican last November, and surprisingly I got a call the next day from an investigator from the New Mexico Board of Registration for Professional Engineers. He reminded me that when I became licensed as an engineer in New Mexico, I agreed to abide by a Code of Professional Conduct that includes reporting substandard engineering practice that might effect public safety.

So last November, I filed a formal complaint against ChemRisk – the company that did the risk analysis. The investigator, Roman Garcia, told me that no ChemRisk employees could be found on the roles of licensed engineers in New Mexico.

It’s one thing to practice engineering without a license, and it’s another to tell 100,000 users of a water system that there is no health risk from drinking water taken from beneath a nuclear waste dump.

The results of ChemRisk’s report were released in draft form in October, 2010 after Santa Fe had already spent more than $200 million on the Buckman project. ChemRisk charged $200,000 for the analysis -- about one-tenth of one percent of the project cost. Seems like that might have been a good investment to make before the start of the project, rather than after it’s completion.

On it’s website, ChemRisk bills itself as the “premier contractor in the U.S for characterizing former nuclear weapons complex sites.” In other words, they have carried out millions of dollars worth of work on behalf of LANL and other weapons complexes. Are they willing to jeopardize those contracts in favor of a little $200,000 contract for Santa Fe? This is commonly known as an “inherent conflict of interest”.

ChemRisk’s integrity has been questioned before. In 1997, the Wall Street Journal reported that ChemRisk “reanalyzed” data from another scientist and published their work in a scientific journal, under the original scientist’s byline, reversing the conclusion that chromium contamination in drinking water leads to an increased risk of stomach cancer. ChemRisk didn’t mention that the work was paid for by PG&E, who was working at the time on the infamous Erin Brockovich case. PG&E paid $333 million to settle the Brokovich case, and the scientific journal retracted the article.

Did ChemRisk’s do anything unethical when they analyzed the Buckman data? In my opinion they did, but they may have gotten some help from the Buckman Board. Buried in ChemRisk's report is an assumption that four of the most dangerous contaminants known to wash into the Rio Grande above Buckman are removed before anyone drinks the water. In other words, they analyzed the risk of contamination after the contaminants were removed, allowing them to state that there is “no health risk”.

Just about anyone can tell you that after you remove contaminants, there is no risk of contamination. You don’t need to spend $200,000 to find that out.

An article published in the Santa Fe New Mexican last December claims that the decision to study the risk of contamination under the assumption that contaminants had been removed was made by the Buckman board of directors. That would be shocking if it turns out to be true. Perhaps we should ask them.

I haven’t carried out my own analysis of the risk of LANL contamination getting into Santa Fe’s drinking water and making people sick, but my guess is that over the long run it's somewhere around 100 percent. My reasoning is this: If you put one bullet in a six-shooter, spin the cylinder, point the barrel at your head and pull the trigger, the odds of killing yourself are just one in six. But it is a well established fact that if you repeat the game over and over again, day after day, you will surely kill yourself. It is a mathematical certainty.

As long as the Buckman pumps continue to run and the LANL toxins continue to flow, Santa Feans are playing a perpetual game of Russian Roulette with their drinking water. Unless LANL cleans their waste out of the canyons above Buckman, eventually our water supply will become toxic.

It is, sadly, a mathematical certainty.


The Problem with Carbon Caps

A friend wrote to me this morning with a simple question about New Energy Economy's ongoing fight for carbon caps on electric utilities. Here is my response.

The problem with setting a cap and creating a market for carbon is that there are too many loopholes, leaving too much room for the same shenanigans we’ve always seen from utilities. Utilities are loophole specialists. They are only fighting this fight out of instinct, and because they love it when their very, very highly paid lawyers can be reimbursed by ratepayers. ;o)  A colleague of mine affectionately calls this "paying for the stick they beat us with". Nice!

Here are some of the specific problems with a law mandating that utilities reduce carbon emissions:

Electric utilities...
...want to go nuclear anyway, and everyone seems to think that nukes are carbon-free.
...pass their costs on to ratepayers on everything they do, no matter how stupid.
...are prepared to game the carbon market, just like they game every market they are given.

There are many avenues for addressing the horror that is the electric utility industry, including...

...separating genco’s from disco’s/transco’s (no company can own both wires and generators).
...granting citizens a right-of-access for uploading energy to the grid (currently we can only download).
...applying feed-in tariffs that reward strategic implementation of distributed generation.
...mandating a fuel-to-wire efficiency standard that increases over time.

The last one (the efficiency standard) is interesting to me, and I’ve never heard it proposed. It’s easy to implement and track, and it would expose the insane inefficiency of the central generation model (the main reason utilities pollute so heavily). It would also yield immediate carbon reductions, and there is precedent (automobile fuel standards).

But the real solutions are so boring...I can hear the yawns out there already.

Think I’ll head back into my stupor now!  Much love, - Mark


Fukushima Nuclear, Eleven Hundred Aftershocks Later

Emergency workers trying to slow the melting of nuclear fuel at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant were forced to abandon their posts yesterday after another powerful earthquake triggered an evacuation order. The quake also knocked out grid-power to two nuclear plants in northern Japan, although cooling was maintained using backup power sources.

The evacuation of the Fukushima power plant came at a particularly precarious time, as newly released details highlighted the degree to which the situation there continues to worsen. Speculation mounted this week that at least part of the melting nuclear fuel inside reactor 2 had burned through its steel containment structure, and cooling passages are believed to be blocked in reactor 1, where pressures continue to rise alongside fears of another hydrogen explosion.

Yesterday’s quake, measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale, was the fifth major earthquake in the region over the past 30 days, and one of more than 1100 aftershocks since the March 11 disaster.

Data from U.S. Geological SurveyAll of this should call into question the sanity of building nuclear power plants in earthquake zones, where the loss of electric power needed to run cooling pumps quickly leads to disaster.

And California’s nuclear plants would be no match for the punch that Japan’s recent earthquakes are packing. A magnitude 7.1 earthquake like the one that struck yesterday releases 40 percent more energy than one measuring 7.0 – the level that California’s San Onofre Nuclear plant was built to withstand. Reactors at Diablo Canyon are rated to for a more powerful 7.5 quake, but three of the 241 quakes that struck Eastern Honshu on March 11 were stronger than that. With magnitudes of 7.7, 7.9, and 9.0, these three quakes respectively released 2-times, 4-times, and 180-times the energy that Diablo Canyon was built to survive.

Proponents of nuclear power can continue their little waggle dance as long as they like, but nuclear power is already doomed -- even before the current crisis is over. And unfortunately it's far from over, because in Japan, there's still a whole lotta shakin' goin' on.


Is TEPCO the New BP?

Remember when the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, and BP immediately announced that one-thousand barrels of oil a day were spilling into the Gulf? The Coast Guard and news organizations dutifully repeated BP’s claim again and again for six straight days, but then something interesting happened:  the lights came on and the underwater cameras started sending video from the ocean floor. Suddenly it became clear that BP was lying about how much oil they were dumping in the water. The actual spill-rate turned out to be 62,000 barrels per day, so you could say that BP understated the severity of the situation by a factor of sixty-two. Pretty dumb, even for an oil company.

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I can’t help wondering whether Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) might be similarly understating what’s going on at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Japan’s major news outlet has been claiming that things aren’t as bad as Three Mile Island, and the “experts” trotted out here in the U.S. have been assuring us that things won’t get as bad as Chernobyl. But on day six of the tragedy, right on schedule, the lights and cameras came on, and the world let out a collective gasp.

Unlike Chernobyl, which involved a single, 3,200-megawatt reactor, the current crisis involves six reactors totaling 4,700 megawatts. TEPCO was quick to point out that only three of the six were running at the time of the earthquake, but wasn’t nearly as quick with the factoid that the fuel rods they had removed from the out-of-service reactors were still sitting inside their respective reactor buildings. Thanks to the geniuses at General Electric who designed the reactors at Fukushima, these active fuel rods were stored in pools of water located above the reactor, alongside many years-worth of spent fuel rods. In this location, nuclear material is far more vulnerable than when it sits inside the highly reinforced core of the reactor itself, or gets put out to pasture in a dry cask. (The NRC disagrees on this last point.)

To make matters worse, fuel rods in the storage pools create an explosion hazard as soon as active cooling of the pool ceases, which happened after the plant got hit by a twenty-four foot tsunami. Fuel rods, whether active or spent, are highly radioactive and produce enough heat to boil off the water in the pool. Once enough water boils off and the rods become exposed to air, they react to create highly explosive hydrogen gas. Four of the six reactor buildings at Fukushima have now exploded, and three of those explosions have been attributed to loss of water in the fuel storage pools.

For days we have been told that workers at the plant are working to keep the fuel-rod pools filled with water. This effort, we are told, is ongoing alongside efforts to continue pumping cooling water into the reactors themselves. But today, Reuters published this satellite photo of the four buildings that endured explosions:

Fukushima Dai-ichi Reactors 1-4, Reuters via DigitalGlobe
The reactor buildings are the four, cube-shaped structures in the center, with reactor four inside what’s left of the building on the far left, and reactor two is inside the building that looks intact except for the little plume of steam coming out the hole. Reactors five and six are located elsewhere on the site.

Perhaps my years of experience working as an engineer inside industrial facilities makes this seem obvious, but look at buildings three and four (the ones on the left) and ask yourself honestly whether there’s an intact swimming pool in there keeping all those old fuel rods submerged. Hard to imagine?

As far as pumping cooling water into highly pressurized reactors, can you imagine that there are intact plumbing lines still connected to the reactors inside any of these buildings? The reinforced concrete walls that have been blown to hell were eighteen inches thick, and the explosions were so powerful they were felt twenty-five miles away. Any chance the plumbing in there is anything but a mangled mess of crumpled steel? Highly doubtful, with the exception of building two, but they’ve already admitted that that building has a breached reactor that doesn’t hold water anymore.

There’s now so much radiation leaking that it’s no longer safe to approach any of these buildings, so efforts have been reduced to shooting water cannons at the scrap heaps, hoping to hit something hot. And there’s plenty of hot stuff in there:  Robert Alvarez from the Institute for Policy Studies reports that a single fuel-storage pool typically contains 20 to 50 million curies of Cesium-137 – perhaps the most dangerous isotope in this situation. We don’t know the total amount of Cesium-137 at risk at Fukushima, but with six storage pools and three reactors in play, it’s safe to assume it is many, many times the 6 million Curies that were inside the Chernobyl reactor when it exploded.

The workers who have stayed behind to try to avert total meltdowns are true heroes, just like the eleven who stayed on the drilling floor trying to bring a wild oil-well under control in the Gulf of Mexico. And like their brave counterparts from the oil industry, they will likely pay with their lives. A little honesty from TEPCO at this point would go a long way toward honoring their sacrifice.