A U.S. Nuclear Accident Could Be a Lot Worse than Japan

I noted last week:

Reuters reported yesterday:

U.S. regulators privately have expressed doubts that some of the nation’s nuclear power plants are prepared for a Fukushima-scale disaster, undercutting their public confidence since Japan’s nuclear crisis began, documents released by an independent safety watchdog group show.

Internal Nuclear Regulatory Commission e-mails and memos obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists questioned the adequacy of the back-up plans to keep reactor cooling systems running if off-site power were lost for an extended period.

Those concerns seem to contrast with the confidence U.S. regulators and industry officials have publicly expressed after the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl began to unfold on March 11, UCS officials said on Wednesday.

“While the NRC and the nuclear industry have been reassuring Americans that there is nothing to worry about — that we can do a better job dealing with a nuclear disaster like the one that just happened in Japan — it turns out that privately NRC senior analysts are not so sure,” said Edwin Lyman, a UCS nuclear expert.

I pointed out last month:

As MSNBC notes, there are 23 virtually-identical reactors in the U.S. to the leaking Fukushima reactors.

As McClatchy notes, American reactors hold much more spent fuel than the Japanese reactors (the amount of radioactive fuel at Fukushima – in turn – dwarfs Chernobyl):

U.S. nuclear plants use the same sort of pools to cool spent nuclear-fuel rods as the ones now in danger of spewing radiation at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, only the U.S. pools hold much more nuclear material.

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The Japanese plant’s pools are far from capacity, but still contain an enormous amount of radioactivity, Lyman said. A typical U.S. nuclear plant would have about 10 times as much fuel in its pools, he said.

And yet the nuclear industry and American government are poo-poohing the danger. As McClatchy notes:

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reaffirmed its position that the U.S. pools are operated safely.

The Nation notes:

Aileen Mioko Smith, director of Green Action Kyoto, met Fukushima plant and government officials in August 2010. “At the plant they seemed to dismiss our concerns about spent fuel pools,” said Mioko Smith. “At the prefecture, they were very worried but had no plan for how to deal with it.”

Remarkably, that is the norm—both in Japan and in the United States. Spent fuel pools at Fukushima are not equipped with backup water-circulation systems or backup generators for the water-circulation system they do have.

The exact same design flaw is in place at Vermont Yankee, a nuclear plant of the same GE design as the Fukushima reactors. At Fukushima each reactor has between 60 and 83 tons of spent fuel rods stored next to them. Vermont Yankee has a staggering 690 tons of spent fuel rods on site.

Nuclear safety activists in the United States have long known of these problems and have sought repeatedly to have them addressed. At least get backup generators for the pools, they implored. But at every turn the industry has pushed back, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has consistently ruled in favor of plant owners over local communities.

After 9/11 the issue of spent fuel rods again had momentary traction. Numerous citizen groups petitioned and pressured the NRC for enhanced protections of the pools. But the NRC deemed “the possibility of a terrorist attack…speculative and simply too far removed from the natural or expected consequences of agency action.” So nothing was done—not even the provision of backup water-circulation systems or emergency power-generation systems.

Similarly, Pro Publica points out:

Opponents of nuclear power have warned for years that if these pools drain, either by accident or terrorist attack, it could lead to a fire and a catastrophic release of radiation.

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The nuclear industry says fears about the storage pools at U.S. plants are overblown because the pools are protected and, even if fuel is exposed to the air, the chance of a fire is incredibly small.

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“People should be very concerned because the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] has acknowledged that spent fuel pools that are not located inside the containment have the potential to cause catastrophic accidents,” said Diane Curran, a lawyer who has represented environmental groups and governments in challenges to fuel storage plans.

“These are not high-probability accidents,” Curran said, “but we have seen how low-probability accidents can happen.”

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress asked the National Academies to study the vulnerability of spent fuel to a terrorist attack.

The resulting 2005 report, “Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage ,” concluded that “an attack which partially or completely drains a plant’s spent fuel pool might be capable of starting a high-temperature fire that could release large quantities of radioactive material into the environment.”

The report found that the vulnerability of the spent fuel to fire depends on how old it is and how it is stored. As the fuel ages, it cools, so it becomes less susceptible to a fire.

“The industry standard is that fuel that is older than five years can be dry-stored,” said Kevin Crowley, director of the nuclear and radiation board for the National Research Council, part of National Academies.

The report recommended that the nuclear industry take steps to decrease the vulnerability of the storage pools to fire. Some of those steps are classified, Crowley said. But he said others, like making sure there were fire hoses or spray systems above the pools, were pretty simple.

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The nuclear industry disagreed with the national academy about the vulnerability of the spent fuel to a fire.

So a Fukushima-type disaster was inevitable … and will be inevitable in the U.S. as well, unless steps are taken to make the plants safer.

I reported last month:

In 1982, the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs received a secret report received from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission called “Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences 2″.

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In that report and other reports by the NRC in the 1980s, it was estimated that there was a 50% chance of a nuclear meltdown within the next 20 years which would be so large that it would contaminate an area the size of the State of Pennsylvania, which would result in huge numbers of a fatalities, and which would cause damage in the hundreds of billions of dollars (in 1980s dollars).

Similarly, renowned physicist Michio Kaku told Democracy Now today:

The American people have not been given the full truth, because, for example, right north of New York City, roughly 30 miles north of where we are right now, we have the Indian Point nuclear power plant, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has now admitted that of all the reactors prone to earthquakes, the one right next to New York City is number one on that list. And the government itself, back in 1980, estimated that property damage would be on the order of about $200 billion in case of an accident, in 1980 dollars [more than $500 billion in today's dollars], at the Indian Point nuclear power station.

In 1996, Time Magazine quoted George Galatis – former Senior Engineer at Northeast Utilities company in Connecticut – as warning:

Because the Federal Government has never created a storage site for high-level radioactive waste, fuel pools in nuclear plants across the country have become de facto nuclear dumps—with many filled nearly to capacity. The pools weren’t designed for this purpose, and risk is involved: the rods must be submerged at all times. A cooling system must dissipate the intense heat they give off. If the system failed, the pool could boil, turning the plant into a lethal sauna with clouds of reactive steam. And if earthquake, human error or mechanical failure drained the pool, the result could be catastrophic: a meltdown of multiple cores taking place outside of the reactor containment, releasing massive amounts of radiation and rendering hundreds of square miles uninhabitable.

Indeed, Galatis now argues that the U.S. could suffer a much worse nuclear accident than Japan:

Right now the true risk to public health and safety associated with the generation of nuclear power is intentionally kept from the public. Because of misplaced trust, these enormous risks are in effect being enforced on the public without their knowledge or consent. People need to know about and agree to accept the real risks involved so that when a scenario like Fukushima—or worse—arises here, there is already a degree of acceptance. Without this formal public acceptance, nuclear power will never be cost effective nor will it survive.

[T]he risks associated with nuclear power and in particular, the storage of spent fuel in the spent fuel pools, have not been properly addressed by the nuclear industry and its Federal regulator. Without appropriate action, the nuclear tragedy in Japan may very well be reproduced on American soil at some point in the near future.

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One of the big surprises the public has become aware of is that the spent fuel pools in the Japanese nuclear power plants do not have a containment structure over them to prevent the escape of radioactive contaminants. People today can not believe how the design of a plant could so grossly compromise the health and safety of the general public. Yet this is one of the key safety issues we have right here in the USA as well: 23 American reactors are based on the same ‘Mark I’ blueprint as the Fukushima plant, and all 33 US Boiling Water Reactors share the same spent fuel pool design.

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These pools were originally designed to hold less than half of a reactor’s core of fuel as a normal mode of operation, and that on a temporary basis. They were never intended to serve as a long-term nuclear fuel storage facility. However, today most nuclear plants in the USA contain more than five cores, which is at least ten times their original design for normal operation, and at least 2-3 times more than the amount held at the Fukushima unit 4 spent fuel pool. This means the US power plants, especially those with elevated spent fuel pools, are potential ticking timebombs, waiting for earth quakes, human error, acts of malice, or terrorism to cause a radiological crisis.

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After the 9/11 attacks here in the USA, a Congressional Commission was formed and one of the issues was how vulnerable the nuclear plants were to terrorist attacks, especially airplane attacks. In response, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a public proclamation that the plants are safe because of the concrete dome protecting the ‘reactor’. Their initial answer was entirely beside the question, and the issue of the spent-fuel pools remained unanswered, in my opinion intentionally.

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In my experience, official sources of information are often confusing and of little transparency. Given the enormous risks involved, it is vitally important for everyone to do their own research and become more informed. Fortunately today, thanks to the Internet, there are sufficient resources available.

And earthquakes, terrorist attacks and error aren’t the only risks to U.S. nuclear reactors (and see this).

Update: See this and this..

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