Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2016
On March 1, seven inside experts currently at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) went public with a warning that nearly every US nuclear power reactor has a flawed emergency cooling electrical system that could potentially spark radiation disasters.
In an extraordinary action, the seven current NRC engineers filed a formal petition with the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulations (ONRR) February 19. The engineers warned that 98 out of 99 operating reactors in the United States have a cooling system defect that make them vulnerable to loss-of-coolant accidents the likes of which have in the past, led to reactor meltdowns and major radiation releases.
Loss-of-coolant accidents caused over-heating, fuel melting, and large releases of radiation at Windscale in England (1957), Santa Suzanna in Calif. (1959), Three Mile Island in Penn. (1979), Chernobyl in Ukraine (1986), and at Fukushima-Daiichi in Japan (2011).
The whistleblowers wrote that the design flaw makes nearly all US reactors “vulnerable to so-called open-phase events in which an unbalanced voltage, such as an electrical short, could cause motors to burn out and reduce the ability of a reactor’s emergency cooling system to function. If the motors are burned out, backup electricity systems would be of little help.”
The extremely rare petition by the NRC staff engineers (five from Maryland, one from Louisiana, one from W. Virginia) has raised alarms across the regulatory and watchdog communities. Dave Lochbaum, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote, “Thus, the open phase condition was about 100 times riskier than risks routinely experienced at nuclear power plants. … The bottom line is that an open-phase condition could prevent electrical equipment from performing the safety roles needed to prevent or mitigate nuclear plant accidents.”
The engineers’ petition says 13 such events have struck at nuclear reactors worldwide in the past 14 years.
NRC authorities formally responded March 21 with a letter saying the commission would accept the petition and take the experts’ warning under advisement. However, the NRC said, no immediate action would be taken.
The engineers had demanded that short of immediately resolving the electrical distribution problem, the NRC should shut down all US reactors pending repairs. The NRC’s reply notes that reactor operators are currently working to implement a fix to the “open-phase” electrical glitch and must be in compliance by February 2019, three years from now.
However, the commissioners denied the petitioners’ “request for immediate action,” and the ONRR said it would decide “within a reasonable amount of time” whether reactors were out of compliance with emergency cooling requirements. No timeline was presented by the ONRR.
A total loss of emergency back-up cooling at Fukushima-Daiichi in Japan caused the first-ever and only triple reactor meltdown in history March 11, 2011. It has become the world’s worst radiation catastrophe in terms of population density and total cesium-137 released. (In July 2014, the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute reported that Fukushima’s meltdowns had dispersed between two to four times as much cesium-137 as the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe.) Japanese officials have said it will take at least 40 years to recover from the triple meltdown at Fukushima.
The Reuters article, titled “US NRC engineers urge fix for nuclear power stations,” notes that the NRC engineers’ petition is a method of formal warning “usually used by public interest groups to raise safety and other concerns with the commission.”
As author and nuclear power analyst Harvey Wasserman reported this month, the veteran NRC resident inspector Michael Peck was transferred from California’s Diablo Canyon reactor complex after he officially warned the NRC that the two huge Diablo reactors could not withstand shocks that could be delivered by any of the 12 nearby earthquake faults. “Peck’s report was ignored,” Wasserman reported. “It only became public after an intense independent investigation by Friends of the Earth and other green groups.”
In the case of the seven NRC engineers’ public alarm, the NRC has again chosen risk-taking, rolling the dice with its fingers crossed.
—Sources: US News & World Report, March 15; Syracuse Post Standard, March 5; and Reuters, March 1, 2016.