Thursday, April 14, 2011

Nuclear Issues: U.S. Nuclear Plants Confronted 14 Serious Failures in 2010

By J Chandler
Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsReport

TORONTO (IDN) – A new report reveals that in 2010 nuclear plants in the United States experienced at least 14 "near misses", serious failures in which safety was jeopardized, at least in part, due to lapses in oversight and enforcement by U.S. nuclear safety regulators.

"While none of the safety problems harmed plant employees or the public, they occurred with alarming frequency -- more than once a month -- which is high for a mature industry," says the report authored by the prestigious Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

"The severe accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 occurred when a handful of known problems -- aggravated by a few worker miscues -- transformed fairly routine events into catastrophes," says the report, adding: "That plant owners could have avoided nearly 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."

The report was prepared by UCS nuclear engineer David Lochbaum and scheduled for release before the crisis in Japan began to unfold, but the disaster makes the its conclusions all the more significant.

It is the first in an annual series on the safety-related performance of the owners of U.S. nuclear power plants and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which regulates the plants. The NRC's mission is to protect the public from the inherent hazards of nuclear power.

The UCS' overview shows that many of the significant near misses occurred "because reactor owners, and often the NRC, tolerated known safety problems," says the report.

It mentions as an example that the owner of the Calvert Cliffs plant in Maryland ended a programme to routinely replace safety components before launching a new programme 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," according to the report.

"In another example, after declaring an emergency at its Brunswick nuclear plant in North Carolina, the owner failed to staff its emergency response teams within the required amount of time. That lapse occurred because workers did not know how to activate the automated system that summons emergency workers to the site," the report points out

Overall, Union of Concerned Scientists' analysis of NRC oversight of safety-related events and practices at U.S. nuclear power plants in 2010 concludes that:

-- Nuclear power plants continue to experience problems with safety-related equipment and worker errors that increase the risk of damage to the reactor core -- and thus harm to employees and the public.

-- Recognized but misdiagnosed or unresolved safety problems often cause significant events at nuclear power plants, or increase their severity.

-- When onsite NRC inspectors discover a broken device, an erroneous test result, or a maintenance activity that does not reflect procedure, they too often focus just on that problem. Every such finding should trigger an evaluation of why an owner failed to fix a problem before NRC inspectors found it.

-- The NRC can better serve the U.S. public and plant owners by emulating the persistence shown by onsite inspectors who made good catches while eliminating the indefensible lapses that led to negative outcomes.

-- Four of the 14 special inspections occurred at three plants owned by Progress Energy.

-- While the company may simply have had an unlucky year, corporate-wide approaches to safety may have contributed to this poor performance. When conditions trigger special inspections at more than one plant with the same owner, the NRC should formally evaluate whether corporate policies and practices contributed to the shortcomings.

Commenting the report, Chris Williams, a professor of physics and chemistry at Pace University with campuses in New York City and Westchester County, says: "In the United States, 23 of the 104 operational nuclear reactors are built on the same 1960s design by the same company, General Electric, as the reactors at Fukushima."

"They have been recognized to have serious design faults since the 1970s and have been regularly retrofitted (patched up) to address design vulnerabilities that are routinely discovered and that could lead to a core breach and the release of radioactive isotopes," adds Williams, the author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis.

Williams points out that "California has a 99.7 percent chance of being hit with a magnitude 6.7 earthquake or greater within the next 30 years." This is because nuclear plants in California with the same design as Fukushima’s are only built to withstand magnitude 7 to 7.5 quakes, while the one that hit Japan on March 11, 2011 was 9.0.

"We know a larger earthquake is possible because the 1906 earthquake that tore San Francisco apart measured 8.3. California would not be immune to a powerful tsunami such as the one responsible for the multiple meltdowns in Fukushima, and as crazy as it sounds, one nuclear power plant, the San Onofre facility located south of Los Angeles, is built right on the beach," writes Williams in The Indypendent, a New York-based free newspaper published 16 times a year on Wednesdays to print and online readership of more than 200,000.

Williams advises therefore: "Instead of waiting for another devastating nuclear accident to occur in the United States rivalling the one at Three Mile Island in 1979, we need to push the government to abandon plans both to relicense old plants for another 20 years and build new ones."