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Serious industry issue is entirely glamor-free

The issue of buried pipe at nuclear plants is a serious Achilles heel for the commercial nuclear power industry.  Pipes get old, spring leaks, and some of the leaks contain radioactive materials.  The radioactive materials are then in the environment where we don’t want them.

The Indian Point reactor in New York is the poster child for radioactive materials getting loose.  In their case, tritium-laced water has been drawn from test wells at the plant site.  Tritium is a form of hydrogen which is somewhat radioactive.  Since the tritium is chemically identical to ordinary hydrogen, it combines with oxygen and forms radioactive water.  And again, since the water is chemically identical to ordinary water, there is no practical way to filter the tritium from the water.  Once it’s there, very little can be done about it except to try and suck a well completely dry — itself an environmentally questionable action.

This, of course, is exactly the scenario anti-nuke environmentalists have warned about.  Speaking as a flag-waving, true blue proponent of nuclear power, the industry needs to spend whatever it takes now to get out in front of this issue before things get out of hand.  Our responsibility to the public is a sacred trust that cannot be breached.

Furthermore, consider how growing public anger over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is making it politically impossible to explore for more oil, regardless of how badly the nation needs oil.  In the same way, America is a few short years away from being downright desperate for nuclear-powered electricity.  It will be a setback of national and historic proportions if short-sighted cost savings today result in the industry getting itself in the federal crosshairs for a massive, nationwide excavation project and a further extension of the decades-long U.S. moratorium on new nuclear power plants.

Two things need to be done.  First, operating nuclear plants need to get more aggressive today about replacing old, corroded buried pipe.  There are ways to move fluids without direct-burial pipelines, and the industry needs to get on the ball about using them now.  Pipes can be run above ground in shelters, in below-ground raceways or tunnels, and systems can be modified to be self contained where pipes need not be buried.

Second, the NRC should critically review new plant designs and eliminate direct-burial piping runs wherever possible.  If the industry can show that some piping must be buried, then better wrapping and coating technology needs to be applied so that the public can be assured that pipes dug up a hundred years from now will be absolutely, positively corrosion free and leak-tight.


  1. DeanCollins

    Bro Steve
    We’ve been installing underground metal piping for years with cathodic protection. Supposedly, the pipe will be like brand new 50 years from the date of installation. Sacrificial anodes corrode instead of the pipe. Also, we install underground fuel pipes and tanks with double wall piping. the interstitial space between the carrier pipe and containment pipe has leak sensors which send an alarm if a leak occurs. Technology exists already, but is pretty expensive. I would think the NRC would have already required something of the sort.

    Posted on 10-Jun-10 at 8:38 am | Permalink
  2. There are certainly better ways to protect buried pipe than what people used back in the 1970s when so many of these plants were built. Just speaking as a stockholder in more than one nuclear utility, I’d gladly sacrifice a few dividends to dig up every stick of buried pipe and run it above ground or else in pipe raceways lined with epoxy and equipped with rad monitors in the sumps.

    Posted on 10-Jun-10 at 20:54 pm | Permalink

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