Posts Tagged ‘U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’

With Japanese Nuclear Crisis Still Unfolding, New Nuclear Reactor Approval Is Move in Wrong Direction

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) approval today of a proposal for the construction and operation of two new reactors in Georgia is a move in the wrong direction. The license granted to Southern Company is the first in 30 years and comes nearly one year after an earthquake initiated a still-uncontained nuclear crisis in Japan.

Nuclear development in the U.S. has been dormant for decades for a variety of good reasons, so it is inexplicable that we’ve chosen this moment in history to expand the use of a failed and dangerous technology.

While countries like Germany, Italy and Switzerland responded to the catastrophe in Japan by announcing plans to eliminate nuclear power from their energy sector, U.S. nuclear regulators are doing the exact opposite. The U.S. is approving new reactors before the full suite of lessons from Japan has been learned and before new safety regulations that were recommended by a task force established after the meltdown crisis at Fukushima have been implemented.

Even before nuclear reactor vulnerability was exposed in Japan, Southern Company’s proposal to expand its Vogtle nuclear power plant had been delayed by problems with financing and design.

To alleviate the tremendous risk associated with nuclear construction, Southern Company sought a federal loan guarantee, which it received in February 2010 for $8 billion to back the $14 billion project. This incentive, combined with a law passed by Georgia lawmakers in 2009 to allow the company to charge ratepayers up front for costs associated with the project, shields Southern Company from financial risk. In short, if the project fails, both taxpayers and ratepayers will bear the financial losses.

In December, after 18 design revisions, the NRC approved the Westinghouse Electric AP 1000, the reactor design slated for the Vogtle expansion. The new design is untested, and despite its multiple revisions to address safety vulnerabilities, the approval comes before all the lessons learned from Japan have been realized. Incorporating new safety features during the construction would delay the project and increase the cost – the exact circumstances that led to more than 30 mid-construction reactor cancellations in the 1970s.

The Vogtle nuclear expansion project – initiated by an early site permit application filed six years ago – was supposed to be the poster child for the industry’s much-heralded nuclear renaissance that never materialized. Instead, it has served as a reminder of the reasons reactor construction stopped for 30 years: Nuclear plants are so expensive that corporations cannot afford to build them without a massive infusion of government money, and they raise serious safety questions that remain unaddressed.

 

 

Next month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will release the results of its 90-day reactor safety review.

The NRC will claim that nuclear reactors in the United States are safe. But the report will leave out critical information that exposes that claim as a myth.

We’ve already seen in Japan the catastrophic combination of inadequate regulations, aging reactors and unpredictable weather.

Read on to learn more about what will be missing from the NRC report.

As severe weather becomes more frequent, nuclear reactors have become more vulnerable and less reliable.

Flood waters have knocked out power at the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station in Nebraska. Just yesterday, the barrier intended to keep water from immersing the reactor grounds was breached. The plant is now reportedly running on emergency generators to maintain the cooling systems.

But floods are not the only weather phenomena to threaten reactors; extreme heat and droughts also force reactors offline. Nuclear power plants consume more water than any other energy technology. In recent summers, water rationing due to heat waves in the southeast has required shutting down nuclear plants in Tennessee and Florida.

Current regulations — amazingly — fail to account for possibility of a single weather event or natural disaster knocking out electricity from both the grid and emergency generators.

U.S. nuclear reactors are being pushed well beyond their operational design and the resulting deterioration undermines their safety.

In the U.S., reactors were designed and licensed for 40 years, but 66 of the 104 operating units have been relicensed to operate for 20 more years. In fact, the NRC has never denied a renewal — not even for the Vermont Yankee plant, where problems like groundwater contamination from leaking tritium led the state senate to vote against renewing its license. Corroded underground piping in aging plants is responsible for radioactive tritium leaks at 75% of U.S. commercial nuclear power sites.

Federal regulators are far too cozy with the nuclear industry.

Together they are maintaining the illusion that the nation’s aging reactors operate within safety standards by repeatedly weakening those standards or simply failing to enforce them.

According to a recent investigation by The Associated Press, NRC officials have — time after time, and at the urging of the industry — decided that original regulations were too strict and argued that safety margins should be eased.

Immediate steps can and must be taken to strengthen the regulation of nuclear reactors. But ultimately, we need to shift away from nuclear to renewable, safer and more efficient power choices.


With a topic as hot as nuclear power, it wasn’t hard to pack the house this week for Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who came Monday to speak as part of Public Citizen’s 40th annivers"safety at nuclear power plants"ary speaker series. Every chair in the room was filled, and more than a dozen representatives from the media were on hand with notebooks, cameras and laptops.

Jaczko’s opening remarks were vague and overarching – he discussed how he thinks transparency is important, for instance. But he fielded some tough questions and did eventually get into some specifics.

For instance, he noted that in the wake of the nuclear disaster in Japan, the agency is conducting two reviews of the existing fleet of U.S. reactors. According to the Chairman’s memorandum to the task force undertaking the review, the 90-day review, will examine issues “affecting domestic operating reactors of all designs” in areas that include “protection against earthquake tsunami, flooding, hurricanes, station blackout and a degraded ability to restore power, severe accident mitigation, emergency preparedness and combustible gas control.”

The other is a more comprehensive, six-month, “lessons learned” review  that will begin as soon as the NRC has sufficient technical information from the events in Japan. In that one, Jaczko directs the agency to “evaluate all technical and policy issues related to the event to identify additional research, generic issues, changes to the reactor oversight process, rulemakings, and adjustments to the regulatory framework that should be conducted by the NRC.”

It is important to note that unlike the moratorium on offshore drilling set in place during the BP oil crisis, reactor licensing and re-licensing activity has not been suspended even with the agency’s acknowledgment that the regulations that govern these activities are likely to change significantly once the lessons from Fukushima are fully realized.

But before we learn, let’s review what we already know.

It appears that the Fukushima nuclear accident has thrust the question of nuclear reactor safety back into public debate.  Radioactive nuclear waste and the astronomical cost of nuclear power have long served as the context in which nuclear power is challenged in the public arena – unless you live near a plant or work on nuclear issues.  If you do fall into one of these camps, you know that the question of nuclear safety has in fact been here all along.

Even before the public got a crash course on spent fuel pools, their overcrowding and ill-placement was a safety issue raised by nuclear watchdogs.  In 2005, a coalition of groups including Public Citizen petitioned the NRC regarding the vulnerabilities of spent fuel.

Before The New York Times featured the acronym MOX (mixed oxide) on its front page, activists in South Carolina were warning their elected officials about turning the Savannah River Site into a MOX fuel  factory . Three groups have an ongoing intervention before the NRC opposing a licensing for the MOX fuel plant.

The NRC’s  predecessor the Atomic Energy Commission raised flags on the containment design of the General Electric Mark I reactor – the same design as the crippled reactors in Japan – as far back as 1972. Stephen Hanauer, an Atomic Energy Commission official,  said that the Mark I  smaller containment design was more susceptible to explosion and rupture from a buildup of hydrogen.

There are other neglected issues that are getting renewed attention such as emergency evacuations and the wisdom of locating several reactors at the same site, and there will be several other issues that arise as lessons from the Japan crisis continue to surface.

Jaczko acknowledged that we probably won’t know for years what has been going on inside the reactors. He insisted that spent fuel can be managed safely.

That’s where Public Citizen and Jaczko vehemently disagree. Nuclear power is inherently dangerous and not worth the risk.

© Copyright Public Citizen. All Rights Reserved.