Puna Geothermal Ventures Power Plant
Michael T. Hyson, Ph.D.
A submission of public testimony to the Environmental Protection Agency as part of the Contested Case Hearing concerning the Puna Geothermal Ventures geothermal power plant in Puna, Hawai'i.
PACIFIC GEOTHERMAL VENTURES POWER PLANT
The following is an assessment and critique of the Pacific Geothermal Power Plant that comes to the conclusion that this plant must be shut down from the point of view of cost, safety, health, simple reason, humanity, and compassion. I trust you will agree.
PGV's plant is the most expensive on earth ... from 2.8 to 3.8 times as expensive as a typical fission plant!
The Pacific Geothermal Ventures geothermal power plant in Puna is perhaps the single most expensive power plant ever built, costing, let us say, some $200 million to produce some 20 to 35 megawatts depending on the current permits, (however flawed or applicable).
Therefore, it has cost at least 200x10^6 dollars for, say, 35 x 10^6 watts (35 x 10^3 Kilowatts) = $5714.28 per installed kilowatt.
As a comparison, the most expensive nuclear power plants cost $1500 to $2000 /kilowatt of generating capacity. Thus PGV's geothermal plant exceeds the plant cost of even nuclear power by some 5714/ 2000 = 2.857 times to 5714/1500 = 3.80 times as much as a nuclear fission plant.
Therefore, the PGV plant is MORE expensive than a typical fission plant by a factor of about 3. Therefore, the plant fails on basic economic grounds, since the costs are much higher than conventional generators. Oil fired or other power plants are even less costly, and other generation options are much less expensive, and certainly more benign and sustainable.
B. ACUTE HEALTH HAZARDS
The PGV geothermal plant currently endangers the entire population of Puna with the chance of a catastrophic leaking of toxins of many descriptions into the air in a lethal cloud that could kill everyone within a radius of 4 1/2 to 81/2 miles.
Such ACUTE effects can occur from:
Catastrophic Blowouts, Lava Flow, Earthquake, Tsunami, or Hurricane ....... All have occurred in the East Rift Lava zone where the plant is located. Such events can disrupt the seals of the plant, break it... or cover it with a lava flow. Roads could be blocked, power lines knocked down and access to the people in danger blocked and thus slow rescue efforts. These are worse-case scenarios.
Here is presented a low-wind scenario:
Should a catastrophic leak occur, the lethal cloud will reach the houses neighboring the plant within seconds, with almost instant toxic effects, leaving residents dead or disabled and struggling to get into gas masks. The cloud will then continue to spread and reach Pahoa in about 24 minutes. We will have 24 MINUTES to respond to the gas cloud before people in Pahoa begin to die. [Assuming a wind speed of 10 miles per hour, and a distance to Pahoa of 4 miles, then, we have about 4/10 = 0.4 of an hour = 0.4 x 60 minutes = 24 MINUTES]
Assuming all available emergency gear is scrambled instantly, it would take about 20 minutes to get even a helicopter here from Hilo and about an hour for any units to come from Oahu. In this scenario, many people would simply die.
If the plant is allowed to operate, the only practical way to prevent this disaster is to supply gas masks to all residents immediately and enforce their use religiously.
Otherwise, folks, this is a Bhopal style accident waiting to happen. All Puna residents now depend for their very lives on the safety of the PGV plant.
An earlier lava flow has covered a PGV plant site already. Surely, what has happened once can happen again. A similar geothermal plant in Iceland was covered by lava. We are dealing with a live volcano in a rift zone with lava nearby and only a few yards under the plant. I suggest careful study of the possible failure modes and shut-down procedures that should be followed in the event of a lava flow.
If the flow of the lava disrupts the structure of the plant and allows it to leak, as in the blowout scenario above, then we have a toxic cloud , with the complications of an ongoing lava flow. This could easily stop efforts to close the wells. It is likely that roads and services and water supplies will be disrupted by the flow.
One can hardly depend on a lava flow to properly close the leaks. A few years ago, during a major leak, it took something like four attempts over four days with the use of thousands of gallons of cooling water to close a leaking well. It leaked so much gas at such a high velocity that its scream sounded like a 747 jet engine at a range of 9 miles.
What are the chances of scramming the PGV wells in minutes? This might be required to save the lives of the residents of Puna.
Therefore, there must be emergency scramming methods that close off the wells quickly.
If so, are they in place?
Are these systems reliable? Tested? Maintained?
What is the warning time likely before a lava flow?
How long might it take to bring the plant to a sealed condition from a net output of 35 Megawatts?
Will there be enough time to shut the plant down properly before the lava hits?
Perhaps there are answers to the above. It is beyond my current knowledge to answer them with any certainty. Our safety depends on the answers and calls into serious question the safety of the current PGV plant and the wisdom of allowing it to operate at all.
The geothermal plant is essentially tubular holes in the ground that are reinforced with steel and concrete. Under lateral movements, or vertical movements of the land, the wells and casings are likely to shear off, and perhaps leak. (See scenario B1)
It is possible that the island of Hawai'i could have a Richter 8.2 quake. To give an illustration of what that means: If you were over the fault line in an 8.2 quake, the ground could move 18 feet at an acceleration of 1 gravity (32 feet/second/second). So, roughly, the wall of your house, 18 feet away, could smack you going 32 feet per second, in about 1/2 a second. This could certainly rupture both production and injection wells.
It has been proven that earthquakes can be caused by water injection. This was tried at the San Andreas fault to reduce the chances of the "big one" hitting Los Angeles. As I recall, there were a few events of about magnitude 3. This showed that the process was a success. Yet this made the authorities worry that they might trigger bigger events and that too little was known about the process and its consequences, so the project was stopped.
Now we have the re-injection wells of the PGV geothermal plant routinely injecting thousands of gallons of water into the acquifer, in a rift zone, near liquid lava. Suppose that the injected water breaks though into a high temperature lava chamber and flashes to steam? There could be a steam explosion. Surely this will move rock, perhaps precipitate a blowout (See B1.) or cause an earthquake
It is a fact that the number of "swarm" earthquakes (Richter <= 1.0) has increased in the area of the geothermal plant. It is a reasonable conclusion that part, at least, of the increase is caused directly by the underground injection of water.
As the geothermal resource cools, as it is doing at roughly the rate of 0.4 megawatts of electrical capacity per day (Barber - personal communication), the amount of re injected brine increases. For example, a gram of steam contains about 235 calories, whereas a gram of water has only about 80 calories/ gram at boiling temperature (STP). Obviously, one must pump a lot of brine, some 3 times as much, to get the same heat output. This correspondingly triples, at least, the amount of water re-injected.
Therefore, in addition to the risks of earthquake in a rift zone, we now have the distinct possibility that the plant can cause its own earthquakes..... which can lead to a leak and a blowout, which leads to scenario B1, above.
In passing, I mention here the obvious risks of contamination of ground water by such profligate injections of water into our underground acquifers.
B4. Tsunami -
There is some risk that a tsunami could hit the geothermal plant. A large tsunami in Japan was some 75 feet high. This is a rare event, yet has happened. In other events known to have occurred here, such as the formation of the Napali coast of Kauai, the tidal waves were from 1,000 to 10, 000 feet high. I suggest that there be a assessment of such risks by competent and knowledgeable and neutral parties.
Hurricanes sometimes have 250 plus mile per hour winds, and this could disrupt the structure of the plant. Heavy rains and winds could damage key components. Are the towers and other structures stressed for hurricane winds? What effect would such winds, lightening and heavy rains have on the plant? Is it subject to flood? And again, given severe flooding, could the plant be scrammed rapidly and safely? Or might there be a blowout? I feel that the PGV engineers and Mr. Harry Kim of Civil Defense might be able to better address these questions.
B6. Hydrogen Embrittlement
The PGV geothermal resource, when it was hotter, had a temperature of some 900 degrees Fahrenheit and a pressure of 2000 lbs. per square inch. This is a respectable pressure and chamber temperature for a rocket. Yet, the PGV plant must operate in the presence of H2S, which can embrittle the crystal structure of metals, leading to structural failure.
The mechanism is that the H2S molecule is a zwitter ion, which exists as large portions of the gas in the form of H2S as well as the smaller fragments SH and H, ie, free hydrogen. The free hydrogen, present in small quantities, diffuses into the crystal structure of metals and stays there. This causes a weakening of the metal, called embrittlement. In a rocket engine, the presence of a small concentration of H2S in the fuel can reduce chrome-nickel alloys to dust in less than a minute. Therefore, it seems to me that the PGV plant is in constant danger of brittle fracture of the components that come in contact with H2S, which is most of the structure.
How is this embrittlement being controlled? What tests are being run to insure the structural integrity of the plant? What is the failure rate of the various pieces? How likely is this to lead to a major blowout?
I suggest that a competent, professional safety engineer be hired to find out.
C. CHRONIC HEATH EFFECTS
The chronic, synergetic effects of numerous toxins from the PGV plant are now causing poor health, respiratory disease, miscarriages, disrupted menstrual cycles, memory loss, tintinitis, and numerous other health problems in at least 68% of those surveyed. This is similar to results seen in other communities subjected to chronic H2S exposure. The other toxins also present likely add to the problems in a synergetic or multiplicative way.
Below is a brief summary of some of the known toxins in the geothermal resource that the residents of Puna are being poisoned by.
Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) is a known neurotoxin roughly as toxic at cyanide that causes birth defects at 0.5 parts per BILLION, in vitro, and causes increasing effects as a result of accumulation of damage to the body and attacking all organ systems starting with the nervous system and the brain, and proceeding to other organ systems where it blocks enzymes throughout our metabolism, and is considered by Dr. Marvin Legator, Chief of Epidemiological Toxicology, University of Texas, Galveston, Texas, as at least as toxic, and perhaps more toxic, than cyanide. Some 68% of those surveyed by Dr. Legator had major problems with 6-7 organ systems.
The radius of lethality from a major blowout of the plant from H2S alone could extend some 4 1/2 to 8 1/2 miles! Traveling downslope with the wind and being heavier than air, this toxic cocktail might hit Puna (and/or Pahoa) with a LETHAL DOSE OF H2S and other toxins such as:
Arsenic a heavy metal poison - causes the blocking of inhibitory motor paths, leading to severe twitching followed by death,
Mercury a metal toxin which lead to the so-called Miamata disease in Japan, and is the cause of "Mad Hatter's" dementia as described in Alice in Wonderland] and
Lead is well known to cause severe problems such as mental retardation, blocking of enzyme pathways that intra-convert amino acids, etc.,
Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH) is used to partially neutralize the acids in the fluids in the plant. In the process, there is excess scattered across the land that coats cars, houses and plants. Much of it is injected into the ground, adding to the ground water contamination. It should be determined what are the consequences of this to our water, air and ecology.
Iso-pentane is used in heat exchangers and in the secondary turbines. At times it is leaked at high concentrations. I wonder about its toxicity, and it should be checked.
Radon is a widely known radioactive carcinogen. It is mixed with radon with radiation levels at the source of some 200,000 picocuries per liter. I have yet to learn what concentrations of Radon we are exposed to, however, if the exposure exceed 3 picocuries, then one must, by current rules, fix the problem, or leave the area.
And what are the additional risks of a MIXTURE of H2S and Radon, both of which are heavier than air and tend to entrain each other, limiting dispersal?
A NOTE ON RADIATION EXPOSURES
Living things are damaged by radiation at any dose. The larger the dose, the more damage. The basic rule is: Zero Threshold, Linear Response. The idea that there is a minimum "safe" dose of radiation is false.
Chronic exposure, even at low doses, to radon or other ionizing radiation can lead to cancer or other problems because at any dose, there can be some damage. And it is possible that one hit can transform one DNA pair and lead to a cancerous cell that divides and becomes a tumor.
Note: If the energy of a single particle is, say, 200 million electron volts, then this particle hits things with the energy it would have if it were accelerated through a 200 million volt potential. This is sufficient to break covalent chemical bonds.
At extreme low doses, the mean free path of the ionizing radiation particles becomes longer, greatly increasing the chances that they will hit cellular structures, such as DNA. At somewhat higher doses, the mean free path of the products of radioactive disintegration decrease because they bump into each other. We eventually reach a dosage that activates the immune system and the DNA repair mechanisms. The radiation is still dangerous, yet somewhat less harmful. Above this dosage, of course, there are large dosages, such as 200,000 picocuries per liter that are extremely dangerous.
The truth is that as the concentration of radon or other source goes down, and the mean free path of the individual particles goes up, the particles become 1000's of times more likely to cause biological harm like causing cancer.
Therefore, the slow, chronic exposure to toxins can be more harmful than even higher dosages, as in the current instance of Puna.
Along with the
other toxins, we should include noise. Noise is a stress
that raises adrenaline levels, blood pressure and prevents
sleep, which is when the body repairs itself. Residents have
testified that the noise of the plant is enough to prevent
sleep and cause great stress.
A Note on Synergy
It is well known in biology and studies of toxins in the environment that one must include the possibility of synergistic effects to properly understand toxicity. Basically the case is that while organisms like humans may be able to tolerate or compensate in some degree to one toxin, the response to additional toxins is multiplied over what one might expect from data on only one toxin. A well known illustration is the synergy between alcohol and valium where combining two safe doses can be lethal.
In just the same way, the cocktail of toxins served up by the PGV plant in our air is causing chronic and synergetic problems in Puna. We have many health complaints at a higher rate than the rest of the Islands, and I know that this is in large part from this leaking plant. Comparable leaks from the mountain itself typically, are oxidized, removing the H2S by converting it to SO2, SO3, SO4, before anyone breathes it.
Thus the PGV plant leaks dangerous toxins as it operates leading to Chronic, Synergetic Toxin Exposures of the people of Puna
One can easily conclude that the effect of the PGV plant is the genocidal poisoning of the people of Puna and that such criminal negligence is actionable in the courts and violates international accords on the rights of human beings and violates the Geneva Convention on the use of nerve gas. This must be stopped.
-- And finally, what about Y2K? -- Year 2000 compatibility ???
Recently, during a Y2K test, a power plant in Honolulu (a fairly standard plant) FAILED according to reports on the Internet. THIS IS A CRUCIAL TEST for the geothermal plant. What plans have been made to test the plant? Has it been tested already? Has it passed? Has it failed? What is the chance of a Y2K failure causing a catastrophic leak?
In conclusion, I trust that the risks already detailed will be sufficient that any rational, compassionate, concerned human will see the necessity of stopping this operation, safely.
The Safest and Wisest course is to begin to shut the plant SAFELY, NOW before the Y2K and/or other failure modes of the plant go critical and endanger peoples' lives.
Please just pull the plug on this project.
I thank you for your time and consideration and I am available at any time to assist you in your deliberations or to aid you in removing the geothermal powerplant from this island as soon as possible.
Michael Hyson, Ph.D.
* All Rights
Last updated May 29, 2000