Off-grid, inaccessible by road and dependent upon diesel for its power needs, the Yukon River town of Galena, Alaska, has seen energy rates skyrocket to four times the US average.
In 2004, Japanese conglomerate Toshiba presented the town of 700 with a nuclear solution.
Known in Canada largely as a maker of DVD players and laptop computers, Toshiba is Japan’s largest manufacturer of nuclear power plants.
Toshiba would build a micronuclear plant for free, test it in the community and the town would see its power rates drop by half.
The company dubbed the unit the 4S, for “Super-Safe, Small and Simple.”
Small, yes, but it is anything but safe and simple, say nuclear experts.
The 4S would be cooled by liquid sodium, a notoriously volatile coolant.
If exposed to air, liquid sodium catches fire.
If exposed to water, it explodes.
“Messing around with liquid sodium and huge amounts of radioactivity is not a very sensible thing,” said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Washington DC-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.
“As we’ve seen with the Chernobyl accident, any kind of fire is also bad because that vapourizes things and allows radioactivity to become airborne,” said Canadian nuclear expert Gordon Edwards.
Unpredictable and unreliable, a sodium-cooled plant is an “unnecessary adventure,” said Makhijani.
“Sodium-cooled reactors have been built since 1950 until now, and there’s been, in my opinion, practically no learning curve,” he said.
Which is probably why they’re so rare.
At the end of 2005, 444 nuclear reactors were in operation around the world. Only two were sodium cooled.
“The reality is that sodium-cooled reactors are a tried and rejected technology,” wrote David Lochbaum, former director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Nuclear Safety Project.
“History has repeatedly shown sodium-cooled reactors to be unsafe, unreliable and/or uneconomical,” he wrote.
Toshiba was one of three companies that built a sodium-cooled nuclear power plant in southern Japan in 1994.
After 18 months of operation, a sodium leak broke out and set fire to the plant.
No radioactivity was released, but community concerns have kept the plant mothballed.
Kalkar, Germany, had a sodium-cooled debacle in the 1970s and 1980s.
After sinking US$4 billion into a proposed plant, widespread criticism prevented it from being activated.
The site now houses an amusement park.
Even the United States has had its share of sodium-cooled troubles.
In 1966, at Michigan’s Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station, the flow of sodium coolant became blocked by a loose component, causing a partial meltdown of the plant’s nuclear fuel.
No radioactivity leaked out, but the damage took years to repair.
Science journalist John G. Fuller described the accident in his 1975 book We Almost Lost Detroit.
Galena’s fuel also poses problems.
Reactors in Ontario and Quebec use safer “low fissile” forms of radioactive fuel: Radioactive, but not strong enough to build a bomb.
To be small, Galena’s reactor would need to be chock-full of “weapons-usable” nuclear fuel.
To keep out terrorists, the reactor would be shielded with an enormous concrete cap that can only be lifted with a heavy-duty crane.
“Once construction is completed, no such crane will be located at the Galena site,” reads a security report on the plant.
Craneless, enemies of the United States would face a
“cumbersome, time consuming process” getting at the reactor, said the report.
“No group of terrorists could accomplish it without detection.”
Of course, an unliftable concrete cap complicates maintenance.
That’s why Toshiba designed the 4S like an iPod. Once it is sealed at the Toshiba factory, it is not designed to be reopened.
“There is no design capability to open the reactor vessel, for any purpose other than at the factory,” reads Toshiba’s technical assessment.
But accidents happen, and problems crop up—especially when faced with an untested sodium-cooled design.
Should anything go wrong, Galena’s isolation could severely limit the ability of technicians—and cleanup crews—to be brought onsite.
“If something goes wrong, how do you get crews in there?” said Whitehorse-based environmentalist Lewis Rifkind.
“It’s the kind of thing that you might not want to have in the rural North,” he said.
Burying the reactor 30-metres deep might help.
“With the nature of the vessel’s walls, placing it in a concrete structure at this depth will help reduce safety issues,” read a feasibility report.
Reactor proponents see Galena as having the opportunity to become a pioneer in rural nuclear power generation.
“We see the potential for Galena to serve as a training centre for rural Alaskans interested in utilizing similar technologies in their villages,” reads the feasibility study.
Others see Galena as a guinea pig.
“I think Toshiba was looking for a victim to test out this concept, and they found willing participants in Galena,” said Ed Lyman, a senior scientist in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“You’d have to be pretty desperate to want this as your energy source,” he said.
“Toshiba is really hoping to use the town of Galena as a kind of laboratory,” said Edwards.
“It’s like testing drugs on Third-World populations,” said Makhijani.
“If it sets an example, if more communities start clamouring for their own reactor that would be a serious issue for (the North),” said Lyman.
The Yukon, billed by politicians as a “nuclear-free zone,” would seem to make Yukoners immune to atomic temptations.
The provision bans the transport or storage of nuclear weapons within Yukon borders, but it’s not clear where it stands on the issue of nuclear power
“It’s sort of like saying, ‘We’re a Michael Jackson-free zone;’ he never performed here and he’s not going to get buried here,” said Rifkind.
Meanwhile, Galena’s diesels continue to burn—and the town’s overbilled citizens are desperate for a change.
Solar doesn’t make sense, thanks to the sun-strapped northern winter—but nuclear detractors think that wind warrants a second look.
Galena’s average wind speed is much too low for wind power to be feasible, said a study from Galena.
Detractors note that wind energy is inconsistent; on calm days, Galena would be forced back to diesel-generated power.
Nuclear wouldn’t be any different. Any reactor regularly needs to be shut down for maintenance.
In a large multi-reactor plant, shutdowns are unnoticeable. But in Galena’s case, diesel generators would need to take up the slack.
“Suddenly it starts to make the other renewable energies attractive again,” said Yukon climate change scientist John Streicker.
“It’s not apparent that the cost of providing (backup) capability was factored into the economic analysis of the ‘free’ reactor,” wrote Lochbaum.
Hook up a wind farm to some high-performance batteries, and you have a high-tech solution without needing to resort to nuclear, said Makhijani.
Still, the zero-emission promises of nuclear remain hard to ignore.
“I’m someone who continues to try and keep nuclear on the table, but I think it should be way down on the list of choices,” said Streicker.
The risks of nuclear energy are no mystery to Streicker, but “the problems of climate change are so big that I’m willing to consider it,” he said.
Without the plant—Galena would likely fall back on plan B: a power plant fueled by a nearby coal seam.
The Galena project may ultimately be an act of desperation from a dying industry.
Nuclear power, once championed as the future of clean power, has seen a dramatic thinning of its ranks.
“They haven’t sold a new nuclear reactor in North America in about 30 years—as a result—a lot of the best brains have left the nuclear field and gone into other areas,” said Edwards.
Many of the Atomic Age’s best geniuses have been lost to solar, leaving behind their less-proficient deputies to take the reins.
“Overall, the nuclear industry just doesn’t have the sex appeal that it once had,” said Edwards.
The Galena project continues to wait on approval from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Contact Tristin Hopper at