Five days ago, I sounded off on the failure of the lights in the Superdome during the Super Bowl. My point was that we are falling apart as a country when it comes to technology. It has been some 40 years since we got to the point we were landing men routinely on the Moon, and building world-changing processes such as the Internet. And on February Third of 2013, the country that invented the Atom Bomb, the country that is the only nation to ever land men on the Moon, the country that built the largest public infrastructure the world has ever seen (the Interstate Highway system), the one ‘indispensable nation‘ couldn’t keep the lights on at its biggest annual event.
About 24 hours ago, Bloomberg News reported that the cause of the Super Bowl outage has been determined. Entergy, the energy company that supplies much of the US with electricity and operates some 12 nuclear reactors in the US (about 10% of all such plants), had added a series of relays to the power system in the Superdome. Apparently, one of the relays was set to trip at the wrong voltage. That’s what darkened the Super Bowl.
I tell you that story to tell you this story: This morning thanks to Superstorm Nemo, the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Massachusetts had a loss of power and was shut down. They’ve apparently gone to emergency diesel generators to keep vital coolant flowing over the fuel rods (a nuclear plant needs energy even when it’s ‘shut down’ to keep the rods from overheating and melting). I should point out that if the original designers had gotten their way, Pilgrim would have been closed last year. The engineers and nuclear scientists of the 1960’s who designed and built Pilgrim felt that it would need to be decommissioned after 40 years of service. Such decommissioning plans were part of every US plant put up–scientists were worried about the way that constant neutron bombardment would weaken the steel and other structural pieces of the plant, and the longer pressurized coolant flows through brittle steel, the more likely it is that the steel will fail. In a sane world, Pilgrim would have begun deconstruction by now.
But NO! That didn’t happen. Because starting a decade or so ago, a company started buying up soon-to-be-decommissioned nuclear plants like Pilgrim for pennies on the dollar. Then (after cursory inspections) they leaned on the NRC to grant big extensions onto their operating licenses. Pilgrim got an extension of some 20 years. Is Pilgrim safe? The only entity that knows for sure is the company that bought it and runs it– ENTERGY. The company that let the lights fail at the Super Bowl.
It also doesn’t make me all warm and fuzzy when I recall that Pilgrim is built on the same design specs as the plants at Fukushima. While there are some mitigation efforts one can take upon exposure, the perniciousness (and longevity) of rogue radioactivity is such that one’s best strategy is to avoid getting close to radioactive substances. Unfortunately, that isn’t under our control if we share the lower 48 with 102 nuclear power plants. And thank God the problems have stopped at Fukushima.
Still pretty nasty outside. Hope the power stays on…