US Nuke Plants are a Ticking Time Bomb

A timely report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, based on data from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), contains troubling news about the state of America’s vast network of nuclear power plants.

The report, which examined serious incidents at 14 U.S. nuclear power plants nationwide from New York to California in 2010, finds fault with both plant operators and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission which is supposed to oversee them.

“Many of these significant events occurred because reactor owners and even the NRC tolerated known safety problems,” states the report, entitled: “The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety in 2010: A Brighter Spotlight Needed.

While none of the 14 safety incidents tagged in the Union’s report as “near misses” produced harm to nuclear plant employees or the public, the report terms the frequency of these incidents, which averaged more than one per month, “high for a mature industry.”

Authored by David Lochbaum, director of the Union’s Nuclear Safety Program, this report comes as Japan is confronting a nuclear catastrophe caused by severe damage to a nuke plant complex 170 miles north of Tokyo, which followed an earthquake and tsunami which hit that area.

That Japanese plant has six reactors of a type–the GE Mark 1–which is identical to 24 of the 104 reactors operating in the US.

Although Japan boasts of having one of the world’s most sophisticated nuclear power industries the ongoing disaster reveals that its reputation rests in part on an image cultivated by plant operators and government regulators.

Belying that image is the string of technical failures in containing grave problems at the crippled facilities and government regulators withholding critical information from the Japanese public.

Over a decade ago there were three alarming incidents related to nuke plants in Japan including incidents in 1997 and 1999 where 100 workers were exposed to radiation while constructing nuclear fuel rods for reactors.

In the midst of the ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan, WikiLeaks has released diplomatic cables showing that international nuclear regulators had warned the Japanese two years ago that their plants were incapable of withstanding powerful earthquakes. The leaked documents show governmental officials and industry authorities took little action in response to the warnings.

Ralph Nader recently authored a commentary calling for reexamination of America’s nuclear power plants noting that many are aging, near earthquake faults and “some on the West Coast exposed to potential tsunami.”

The Union’s report criticized the NRC’s failure to address a longstanding problem at the Indian Point facility located just 25 miles north of New York City, America’s largest municipality.

That facility is built close to the northern terminus of a major East Coast earthquake fault line however there is a leak in a refueling cavity construction to prevent leaks in the event of an earthquake. That leak has existed for over a dozen years and the report faults the NRC for failing to crack down on this serious problem.

According to the Union’s report the device at Indian Point “installed to prevent leakage after an earthquake is leaking before an earthquake even occurs.”

Particularly disturbing in the Union’s report are examinations of incidents at two separate facilities located 55 miles south and 83 miles northeast of Washington, DC –America’s capital.

One of the 14 examined ‘near misses’ occurred at the Calvert Cliffs facility in Lusby, Maryland, located south of DC. That February 2010 incident arose from a combination of the facility operators’ failure to fix a leaking roof plus a failure to replace and test safety equipment.

That incident, initiated by rain falling through a roof, caused both reactors at Calvert Cliffs to shutdown.

The plant operator, Constellation Energy, was aware of the roof leaks since 2002, the report stated. But instead of fixing it, workers were simply expected to mop up any rain water during storms, and to cover critical electrical components with plastic…plastic that failed to prevent water penetration into key equipment.

The leaking roof in one reactor building produced an electrical short that shut one of the four pumps circulating water needed to cool the reactor. This caused an automatic shutdown of that reactor.

That auto shutdown produced a current surge in a second reactor which shut down all of that reactor’s cooling water pumps, too, prompting a shutdown of the second reactor. That shutdown in turn triggered a backup generator for the pumps, but that emergency generator worked only for a few minutes, because plant operators, in a cost-cutting move, had failed to replace a time-delay relay in the generator.

Constellation Energy, the report states, “ended a program to routinely replace safety components before launching a new program to monitor degradation of those components. As a result, an electrical device that had been in use for longer than its service lifetime failed, disabling critical safety components.”

The NRC cited Calvert Cliffs for failing to fix the leaking roof and for not replacing vital safety equipment.

A 2010 incident at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant in Pennsylvania incredibly produced no enforcement action by the NRC, the report states.

That incident involved workers at the plant finding that 21 of the 185 control rods needed to shutdown the reactor in the event of an emergency were slow to engage.

The federal operating license for Peach Bottom requires a shutdown of the reactor within 12 hours if 13 of the control rods are slow to engage. Yet, plant operators kept the reactor running as the problem rods were repaired.

The Union’s report notes that instead of the required shutdown for such a safety flaw, Peach Bottom “workers conspired to keep the reactor operating, despite known safety flaws,” creating a circumstance where if problems arose, the result “could have resembled Chernobyl,” — a reference to the Russian nuclear plant disaster recognized as the worst such incident to date.

The Peach Bottom incident prompted this harsh criticism of the NRC in the Union’s report, which charged that the NRC was aware of the serious control-rod problems and the “slow response” by operators’ in the facility owned by Exelon, yet the agency “did nothing except watch.”

While commending the NRC for quick reaction in responding to potential problems at reactors in South Carolina last year, the Union’s report chides the federal regulatory agency for tolerating safety problems at many of the nation’s other nuclear power plants.

The Union’s report states that over the course of 40 years of monitoring of the nuclear power industry, it has found NRC enforcement of safety regulations to be untimely, inconsistent or ineffective.

That Peach Bottom incident is particularly troubling in that it occurred at a facility with a record of past problems. Peach Bottom is located in close proximity to the Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg, PA. Three Miles Island in March 1979 was the site of a partial reactor meltdown–America’s worst and the world’s second-worst nuclear power accident, until the current Japanese disaster at Fukushima.

In 1987 the NRC fined the Peach Bottom plant upon discovering that control room personnel were sleeping on duty. In 2007 security guards were discovered sleeping on the job too, but the NRC did nothing to discipline the guards or the plant, which had fired the whistle-blower who reported the sleeping guards.

President Obama and too many Capitol Hill politicians are still pushing nuclear power as an important part of the nation’s electrical energy plan – pledging billions of dollars in new funding and loan guarantees. The President and Congressional nuke advocates contend that nuclear power is needed as an alternative to fossil fuels for generating electricity.

Obama’s backing last year of massive funding to jump start a nuclear power industry that has been moribund since Three Mile Island, has prompted caustic criticism, including a February 2010 commentary by Glen Ford, a veteran journalist and co-founder of the online Black Agenda Report.

Ford’s commentary noted an often overlooked context of Obama’s support for expanding nuke power plants in the U.S.: the nation’s largest nuke plant operating company, the Chicago-based Exelon, was a major corporate contributor to Obama’s 2008 election campaign.

“This isn’t about the environment. It’s about Wall Street stealing the people blind,” Ford stated in his February 2010 commentary bemoaning how the public has been put “on the hook” for billions of dollars targeted for building, insuring and cleaning up nuclear plants.

Ford characterized Obama’s backing of nuclear power as a “crime story.”

The report from Union of Concerned Scientists ends with an ominous observation that echoes a line in a song by fabled 70’s era singer/poet Gil Scott-Heron about a 1966 partial meltdown at a nuclear plant near Detroit. (That partial meltdown miraculously did not produce releases of radioactive materials.)

Scott-Heron, in his popular song “We Almost Lost Detroit,” sang that when it comes to public safety “money wins out every time…” Referencing the inherent dangers for massive devastation in nuke plants Scott-Heron remarked that “Odds are, we gonna loose somewhere sometime.”

The Union’s report ends with this observation: “That plant operators could have avoided all 14 near-misses in 2010 had they corrected known deficiencies in a timely manner suggests that our luck at nuclear roulette may someday run out.”

LINN WASHINGTON, Jr. is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent, collectively-owned, journalist-run, reader-supported online alternative newspaper.


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Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.

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