Environment, man-made disasters,
pollution, waste, recycling
After Fukushima, Power Utilities Prepare for
Video The New York Times
11 March 2014
Three years after a meltdown
Fukushima Daiichi power plant,
the crisis is still unfolding.
In the United States,
the disaster served
a warning to the nuclear industry.
Three Mile Island Documentary: Nuclear Power's Promise and Peril
Report | The New York Times
29 April 2014
More than three decades
after the accident
at Three Mile Island
cast a shadow on the atomic dream,
is America again ready to give nuclear
energy a chance?
21 March 2011
23 March 2011
leak UK / USA
a spike of radioactivity
radioactivity into the atmosphere
radioactive gases and particles
high doses of radiation
Boston Globe > Big Picture
Japan's nuclear exclusion zone USA
December 28, 2011
International Atomic Energy Agency
the U.N. nuclear watchdog
nuclear accident ratings
the material damage from the
a very serious accident by all
Charles Douglas Varnadore USA 1941-2013
After Charles D. Varnadore
complained about safety at the Oak Ridge
National Laboratory in Tennessee,
where he worked as a technician,
his bosses moved him
to an office containing radioactive waste.
When an industrial hygienist
that either he or the waste be moved,
he was put in a room contaminated
Mr. Varnadore fought back,
safety practices at Oak Ridge,
a federal nuclear research center
that had helped develop the atomic bomb,
and his own treatment,
which he characterized
as retaliation for his
USA > near Middletown, Pa > Three Mile Island accident March 28, 1979
UK > Sellafield > Britain's worst
nuclear accident UK October 1957
Corpus of news articles
Earth > Environment > Nuclear disasters
Agency Is Criticized
as Too Close to Its Industry
May 7, 2011
The New York Times
By TOM ZELLER Jr.
In the fall
of 2007, workers at the Byron nuclear power plant in Illinois were using a wire
brush to clean a badly corroded steel pipe — one in a series that circulate
cooling water to essential emergency equipment — when something unexpected
happened: the brush poked through.
The resulting leak caused a 12-day shutdown of the two reactors for repairs.
The plant’s owner, the Exelon Corporation, had long known that corrosion was
thinning most of these pipes. But rather than fix them, it repeatedly lowered
the minimum thickness it deemed safe. By the time the pipe broke, Exelon had
declared that pipe walls just three-hundredths of an inch thick — less than
one-tenth the original minimum thickness — would be good enough.
Though no radioactive material was released, safety experts say that if enough
pipes had ruptured during a reactor accident, the result could easily have been
a nuclear catastrophe at a plant just 100 miles west of Chicago.
Exelon’s risky decisions occurred under the noses of on-site inspectors from the
federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. No documented inspection of the pipes was
made by anyone from the N.R.C. for at least the eight years preceding the leak,
and the agency also failed to notice that Exelon kept lowering the acceptable
standard, according to a subsequent investigation by the commission’s inspector
Exelon’s penalty? A reprimand for two low-level violations — a tepid response
all too common at the N.R.C., said George A. Mulley Jr., a former investigator
with the inspector general’s office who led the Byron inquiry. “They always say,
‘Oh, but nothing happened,’ ” Mr. Mulley said. “Well, sooner or later, our luck
— you know, we’re going to end up rolling craps.”
Critics have long painted the commission as well-intentioned but weak and
compliant, and incapable of keeping close tabs on an industry to which it
remains closely tied. The concerns have greater urgency because of the crisis at
the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, which many experts say they believe was
caused as much by lax government oversight as by a natural disaster.
The Byron pipe leak is just one recent example of the agency’s shortcomings,
critics say. It has also taken nearly 30 years for the commission to get
effective fireproofing installed in plants after an accident in Alabama. The
N.R.C.’s decision to back down in a standoff with the operator of an Ohio plant
a decade ago meant that a potentially dangerous hole went undetected for months.
And the number of civil penalties paid by licensees has plummeted nearly 80
percent since the late 1990s — a reflection, critics say, of the commission’s
inclination to avoid ruffling the feathers of the nuclear industry and its
Although the agency says plants are operating more safely today than they were
at the dawn of the nuclear industry, when shutdowns were common, safety experts,
Congressional critics and even the agency’s own internal monitors say the N.R.C.
is prone to dither when companies complain that its proposed actions would cost
time or money. The promise of lucrative industry work after officials leave the
commission probably doesn’t help, critics say, pointing to dozens over the years
who have taken jobs with nuclear power companies and lobbying firms.
Now, as most of the country’s 104 aging reactors are applying for, and
receiving, 20-year extensions from the N.R.C on their original 40-year licenses,
reform advocates say a thorough review of the system is urgently needed.
The agency’s shortcomings are especially vexing because Congress created it in
the mid-1970s to separate the government’s roles as safety regulator and
promoter of nuclear energy — an inherent conflict that dogged its predecessor,
the Atomic Energy Commission.
“It wasn’t much of a change,” said Peter A. Bradford, a former N.R.C.
commissioner who now teaches at Vermont Law School. “The N.R.C. inherited the
regulatory staff and adopted the rules and regulations of the A.E.C. intact.”
Mr. Bradford said the nuclear industry had implicitly or explicitly supported
every nomination to the commission until Gregory B. Jaczko’s in 2005. Mr.
Jaczko, who was elevated to chairman by President Obama in 2009, had previously
worked for both Representative Edward J. Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat and
longtime critic of the nuclear industry, and Senator Harry Reid, the Nevada
Democrat and current Senate majority leader who sought to block a nuclear waste
repository in his state.
Mr. Jaczko acknowledges that the agency needs to move faster on some safety
issues. But he defends its record. “I certainly feel very strongly that this is
an independent regulator that will make what it thinks are the right decisions
when it comes to safety,” he said. “There will be people who will agree, and
some people who will disagree. That’s part of the process.”
For all the agency’s shortcomings as a regulator, even the most vocal critics
acknowledge that it should not be compared to the Minerals Management Service,
the scandal-plagued agency that oversaw the oil and gas industry and was
reorganized by Mr. Obama after the BP oil spill last year.
Still, David Lochbaum, a frequent critic of the N.R.C. who recently worked as a
reactor technology instructor there, said the agency too often rolled the dice
on safety. “The only difference between Byron and Fukushima is luck,” he said.
In recent years, the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon, Vt., has had
several serious operational problems.
Situated on the banks of the Connecticut River, the 39-year-old Vermont Yankee,
whose reactor is similar in design to the stricken plant in Japan, suffered the
partial collapse of a cooling tower in 2007. In January 2010, the plant’s
operator, Entergy, discovered that nearby soil and groundwater had been
contaminated by radioactive tritium, which had apparently leaked from
underground piping. Just months before, the company assured state lawmakers that
no such piping existed at the plant.
The Vermont Senate, concerned about the problems, voted overwhelmingly last year
to prevent the plant from operating beyond the scheduled expiration of its
license on March 21, 2012 — invoking a 2006 state law, unique to Vermont, that
requires legislative approval for continued operations.
But one day before the quake and tsunami that set Japan’s crisis in motion, the
N.R.C. approved Vermont Yankee’s bid for license renewal — just as it has for 62
other plants so far. Its fate is now the subject of a federal lawsuit.
“How does a place like that get a license renewal?” Mr. Lochbaum said. “Because
they asked for one. Absent dead bodies, nothing seems to deter the N.R.C. from
sustaining reactor operation.”
Indeed, no renewal application has been turned down by the agency since the
first one was granted in 2000, although some have been sent back for more work
before winning approval.
It was not always so.
When the industry first set out in the 1980s to prove that the original 40-year
licenses on its aging plants could be safely renewed for 20 years, two plants —
Yankee Rowe in Massachusetts and Monticello in Minnesota — were offered as test
cases. The N.R.C.’s criteria for relicensing essentially required that operators
prove that they were in compliance with their current license and that they had
an adequate plan to manage the aging equipment for the extra 20 years. That
tripped up Yankee Rowe’s bid, because inspectors looking at its current
operations found serious flaws in its reactor vessel. Rather than earn a
renewal, the plant shut down with eight years left on its original license.
The failure threw the industry into turmoil. In 1992, Northern States Public
Power, owner of the Monticello plant, complained that the agency was examining
details beyond those necessary for license renewal.
With billions of dollars of revenue and investment at stake for each plant, the
N.R.C. changed the rules in 1995, scrapping the requirement that operators prove
they were complying with their current license. Instead, the renewal process
would focus only on the aging management plan. The agency described the change
as providing a “more stable and predictable regulatory process for license
But James Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst with Greenpeace, said, “The N.R.C.
rule change gutted a substantive process and replaced it with a rubber stamp.
They placed industry profits ahead of public safety.”
To be sure, license renewal is still arduous. According to a 2007 audit by the
inspector general’s office, an operator typically spends two years and up to $20
million preparing an application, and the commission on average spends two years
and $4 million reviewing it.
But the audit also concluded that it was often impossible to know whether the
agency had truly conducted an independent review of an application or why
approval was granted. In some cases, for example, long passages in the
commission’s assessment of a renewal appeared to have been simply copied and
pasted directly from the application.
And in a 2008 follow-up memo described to a reporter, the N.R.C.’s inspector
general, Hubert T. Bell, went further, suggesting that the N.R.C. staff was
unable to adequately document its reviews and may have destroyed essential
Asked about those issues, Mr. Jaczko said that the copying and repetition was
“We want licensees to take those programs that we find are the best practices
and use those,” he said. “So in many cases, those were showing up in
applications and the staff was then looking at those and saying yes, those were
As for the lack of documentation backing up each decision, “not all of that
information gets incorporated into a formal docket for license renewal,” Mr.
Jaczko said. “We did reconfirm that there had not been any information that had
been missed or any information that would change any of the conclusions in the
license renewal decisions.”
The N.R.C.’s slowness in addressing serious problems is another concern.
In 1975, a blaze at the Browns Ferry plant in Alabama crippled electrical wiring
used to control critical cooling equipment in one of the reactor units. The
incident set off alarm bells at the N.R.C., which issued new fire protection
regulations in 1980.
But over the next three decades, according to two internal agency
investigations, the commission approved a succession of faulty or ineffective
fire barrier materials. It then dragged its feet in the face of mounting
evidence that the materials, even after being installed in dozens of plants,
were failing to perform as advertised.
One of the earliest materials, Mr. Mulley said, was a product called Thermo-lag,
which the commission approved based on what turned out to be fraudulent lab
tests submitted by an obscure company. “No inspector ever bothered to check out
the lab or to question the results,” said Mr. Mulley, who investigated the case
for the agency.
Last year, the N.R.C. issued a 355-page report in which it suggested that the
fire barrier issue had been finally sorted out, even though most plants were
technically still not complying with the regulations.
The agency has little choice but to tolerate violations, said Mr. Lochbaum, who
heads the Nuclear Safety Project with the Union of Concerned Scientists, an
environmental and nuclear watchdog group based in Cambridge, Mass. “Otherwise,
nearly all the U.S. reactors would have to shut down,” he said.
Asked about the fire barrier fiasco, Mr. Jaczko said he would like the agency to
put safety rules into effect more quickly. “I’ve certainly been pushing for some
time that we do these things in a more timely manner,” he said.
But the issues are complicated. “They involve very complex, technical findings,
and then ultimately they involve complex plant modifications in some cases,” he
Mr. Mulley suggested that the companies themselves played a role in delaying the
“There were good fire barrier materials on the market from 3M and other
companies that people knew and trusted,” he said. “But these plant operators
kept complaining that they were too expensive. So some company that no one has
ever heard of comes along, with tests from a lab that no one has ever heard of,
for a material that’s cheaper than anything else on the market, and the N.R.C.
says, ‘Perfect! Use this!’ ”
The agency’s deferential attitude also brought the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio to
the brink of the worst American nuclear accident since the Three Mile Island
meltdown of 1979.
On Aug. 3, 2001, armed with mounting evidence of potentially dangerous cracks
and leaks in control nozzles that penetrate the vessel heads at most reactors,
the commission asked 12 nuclear plants to conduct inspections. The inspections
required a temporary but expensive shutdown, so regulators gave the plants until
the end of the year to comply, and most did so.
But FirstEnergy, owner of Davis-Besse, said it would look for the cracks during
its next planned refueling shutdown — on March 22 the following year. In the
test of wills that followed, the agency’s inspector general later concluded, it
was the N.R.C. that blinked, agreeing to allow FirstEnergy to operate until
On March 6, 2002, workers finally conducted the inspections and found that acid
used in the cooling water had eaten almost completely through the lid of the
reactor. The plant was closed for two years for emergency repairs, two
FirstEnergy engineers were convicted of lying to investigators and the company
paid more than $33.5 million in civil and criminal penalties.
“They should have just shut them down,” said Mr. Mulley, who investigated the
case. “But the attitude at N.R.C. was always, ‘You can’t shut them down. They’ll
fight us in court.’ ”
The Byron case in Illinois, while not as dangerous as Davis-Besse, was similar
in that it revealed the industry’s predilection for deferring maintenance until
more serious safety problems developed. Indeed, since the Three Mile Island
accident, at least 38 nuclear power reactors have been forced to shut down for a
year or more because of an accumulation of safety problems.
Marshall Murphy, an Exelon spokesman, said the company took “good learnings”
from the Byron incident and improved its procedures.
Eliot Brenner, an N.R.C. spokesman, said in an e-mail that the agency had also
made several changes to its guidelines after the Byron case, including
provisions that require inspectors to “tour areas that become accessible on an
infrequent basis to assess the material condition and status of safety systems,
structures, and components.”
But Mr. Lochbaum said the slap on the wrist delivered to Exelon ensured that
similar incidents would occur in the future. “There’s no real regulatory
discomfort imposed, so this sort of thing just continues,” he said.
What frustrates some critics is that the N.R.C. has the expertise and resources
— a staff of 4,000 and one of the highest densities of Ph.D.’s in government —
to do a better job. Indeed, there are some examples of the commission making
In 2008, for example, workers at the Oconee plant in South Carolina discovered
that a crucial line in the cooling system at Reactor Unit 1 was blocked by a
broken gasket. The workers fixed it and the reactor was restarted.
But the two N.R.C. inspectors assigned full time to Oconee quickly began asking
why Duke Energy, the operator, wasn’t also inspecting corresponding valves and
lines at the plant’s other two reactors. Duke said the clogging was isolated and
a blocked line could be bypassed in a pinch.
In February 2010, when the company finally agreed to look at the other two
reactors, it discovered that the lines there had the same problem and that the
bypass option would never have worked.
The commission issued a “yellow finding” to Duke, its second-highest category of
safety problem. The finding, which is rarely imposed, generally brings far more
N.R.C. and media scrutiny, and can have financial implications for the company
on Wall Street.
N.R.C. officials said that the current oversight system, begun in 2000 and
refined since then, has improved safety by focusing on the reactor systems most
prone to failure — and most likely to pose a safety risk. Fewer violations are
issued, but when they are, the agency uses different colors — green, white,
yellow and red — to signal the severity of the problem in a public way.
“Bottom line is, we drive for long-term improvements in safety,” Mr. Brenner
And by several measures, the N.R.C. notes, the nation’s nuclear plants appear to
be getting safer.
Incidents of worker radiation exposure and safety system failures are at their
lowest levels in more than a decade. The number of “scrams” — which the N.R.C.
defines as “the sudden shutting down of a nuclear reactor by rapid insertion of
control rods, either automatically or manually by the reactor operator” — has
been dropping as well.
Still, the nuclear industry is not shy about complaining, and if necessary,
throwing around its weight with Congress, which approves the N.R.C.’s budget of
roughly $1 billion a year.
That was borne out in June 1998, when then-Senator Pete V. Domenici, a New
Mexico Republican with strong ties to the nuclear industry and chairman of the
subcommittee that funded the N.R.C., threatened to slash the agency’s budget.
Although the budget was not ultimately cut, Shirley Ann Jackson, then chairwoman
of the commission, said in a speech to her staff that the industry had sent a
clear message: “That we are inefficient, that we over-regulate, that we inspect
too much, assess too much, enforce too much, take too long on licensing actions
and employ an overly restrictive body of regulation.”
As with many regulatory agencies, the movement from N.R.C. jobs to industry jobs
— and sometimes vice versa — is a recurring issue.
Many engineers and technicians, of course, join the agency directly out of
school, work in the field and remain with the commission their entire careers.
But for others, particularly officials at the highest levels, the commission can
be a steppingstone to more lucrative work in the private sector.
That was certainly the case for one commissioner, Jeffrey S. Merrifield.
Shortly after Mr. Merrifield retired from the commission in 2007, Shaw, a
nuclear services company, announced that he was taking a top executive position
with the company. That stirred the suspicions of the Project on Government
Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog group, which complained to the N.R.C.
Federal law prohibits government employees from taking part in matters that they
know could financially benefit them or anyone with whom the employee is
negotiating or seeking employment. But according to an inspector general’s
report on the case, Mr. Merrifield sought employment with not just Shaw but also
General Electric and Westinghouse, both nuclear reactor makers, while still
voting on two issues that affected them.
The conflict-of-interest case — which also included an allegation that Mr.
Merrifield failed to disclose, upon departing the government, that he accepted
travel reimbursements of $3,552.47 during his job hunt — was referred by the
N.R.C. to the Justice Department for possible civil action and to the United
States attorney’s office in Maryland for potential criminal action. Both offices
declined to pursue it.
Mr. Mulley, who took part in the investigation, was outraged. “Even if the
lawyers don’t want to go after him, the N.R.C. could make an example of him if
they wanted to,” he said. “They could speak out in some way. But they don’t.”
In a statement last month, Mr. Merrifield said he told investigators and
prosecutors that he did not believe, based on legal advice, that he had acted
inappropriately, but that if he had been told a conflict existed, he would have
recused himself. He added that when he was alerted to the disclosure oversight,
he immediately filed the correct forms.
“Though the antinuclear community continues to try to raise these concerns,” Mr.
Merrifield said, “I firmly believe that throughout my time as an N.R.C.
commissioner, I acted in a fair and impartial manner and in the best interest of
public health and safety.”
Other commissioners have also had close ties to the industry.
Environmental groups and industry monitors were angered, for example, when Mr.
Obama nominated William D. Magwood, a former employee of Westinghouse Electric
and more recently director of the Energy Department’s nuclear expansion program,
to fill a vacant seat on the commission last year.
“Given his more than a dozen years promoting nuclear power, we do not believe
Mr. Magwood has the independence from the nuclear power industry, nor the
security oversight background, to regulate it,” said Danielle Brian, executive
director of the Project on Government Oversight.
In a letter in March to the oversight project about the Merrifield case, Mr.
Jaczko rejected the group’s recommendation that job-seeking employees be
required to recuse themselves in writing from matters affecting possible
“The failure of employees to disqualify themselves has not previously been an
issue at the N.R.C., and absent evidence of a wider problem, the N.R.C. does not
believe that additional reporting requirements are warranted,” he wrote.
Marvin S. Fertel, the president and chief executive of the Nuclear Energy
Institute, the main industry lobby, took issue with the notion that the N.R.C.
was captive to business interests.
“Is there too much coziness? No,” Mr. Fertel said. “Do I think there’s respect?
Yes.” That includes a willingness on the part of N.R.C. to consider the
financial impact of its rules on operators, he said.
Mr. Fertel said that as the N.R.C. has expanded to deal with the flood of
relicensing applications, it has increasingly hired talent from within the
industry. “It’s only a problem if you think getting good expertise is a
problem,” he said.
But Mr. Mulley argued that the prospect of one day landing a lucrative position
with a private company almost certainly played a role in softening the positions
of some commission employees.
“The N.R.C. is like a prep school for many of these guys, because they know
they’ve got a good shot at landing much higher-paying work with the people
they’re supposed to be keeping in line,” Mr. Mulley said. “They’re not going to
do anything to jeopardize that.”
Nuclear Agency Is Criticized as Too Close to Its Industry,
Analysis: After Japan,
nuclear accident ratings reform
NEW YORK | Wed Apr 13, 2011
By Scott DiSavino and Eileen O'Grady
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The declaration that the Fukushima crisis
ranks at the same level as the Chernobyl disaster on the international nuclear
accident scale has some experts calling for radical reform of the system.
Before Fukushima, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster was the only event classified as a
level 7 event on the scale. The blast at Chernobyl in Ukraine spread radioactive
material over much of Europe, killing dozens in and around the plant and many
more from cancer over time.
Japan's nuclear regulator, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), on
Tuesday raised the severity of the Fukushima accident from a level 5 to a 7,
based on the amount of radiation pouring out of the plant.
"Fukushima was not as bad as Chernobyl. If Fukushima is a level 7 accident,
maybe we need to go back and recalibrate the scale and add a level 8 or 9," said
Najmedin Meshkati, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the
University of Southern California.
NISA itself has said the amount of radiation released was only about 10 percent
of that from Chernobyl and no radiation-linked deaths have yet been reported.
About 21 plant workers have had minor radiation sickness.
The International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) was designed in 1989 by the
International Atomic Energy Agency and others after the Chernobyl disaster to
help inform the public about the severity of a nuclear accident.
Its rankings are similar to the Richter or the moment magnitude scale for
earthquakes. Each level on the INES scale represents a nuclear accident about
ten times more severe than the previous level. The INES scale starts at Level 1
or 'Anomaly' and rises to a Level 7 or 'Major Accident'.
The inconsistency in comparing Fukushima and Chernobyl comes from the fact that
"a 7 covers a wide magnitude of sins," said James Acton, an associate at the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
He said both events are categorized as a level 7 on the INES scale because the
amount of radiation emitted had reached a defined threshold, not because the
accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) stricken Fukushima plant was as
serious as Chernobyl.
There can be confusion as to the actual severity of an accident because there is
no one authority to rank the event. Depending on the nation concerned, the job
is left up to the company that owns the plant, the government agency that
regulates the plant or a scientific body.
"Clearly (Fukushima) is not as bad as it can get and not as bad as Chernobyl,"
said Kenneth Barish, professor of physics at University of California at
"Even if the amount of radiation released at Fukushima is of the same order of
magnitude as Chernobyl...the effect on health appears to be far lower due to the
differences in the event and response to the event," Barish said.
But Fukushima did involve three reactors and seven spent fuel pools, containing
thousands of highly radioactive rods. Hydrogen explosions rocked the plant in
the first week after an earthquake and tsunami crippled the reactors.
Chernobyl meanwhile involved only one reactor. In fact, the last unit at
Chernobyl did not shut until 2000, 14 years after the accident.
"It has been obvious all along this was a 7 ... There are three reactors that
are not being cooled and four fuel pools too. Chernobyl was only one core," said
Arnie Gundersen, chief engineer at Fairewinds Associates and a 29-year veteran
of the nuclear industry who worked on reactors similar to those at Fukushima.
The experts said Japan could have done a better job of preparing its citizens
and neighboring countries for the shock rise in the ranking.
"I think the Japanese government and TEPCO could have emphasized how little they
knew about conditions at the reactors and spent fuel ponds when the crisis
began," said IHS Energy Asia Pacific analyst Thomas Grieder.
"They could have stated that the crisis rating was based on what information
they had available at the time -- with the caveat that this information was
severely limited and it would take time to gather on radiation releases and
there was a possibility the situation could be worse than they initially
believed," Grieder said.
Bad as Fukushima is on the ranking system, experts warn that the plant is still
not fully under control and a deterioration is still possible.
Another hydrogen explosion could severely damage the containment facilities,
releasing large amounts of radiation, while the aftershocks that keep rocking
the plant could lead to a complete core meltdown if the workers cannot keep the
cooling water flowing.
"There is still hope of repairing or replacing damaged cooling systems at
Fukushima rather than simply burying the entire site," Grieder said.
The damaged reactor at Chernobyl was in such a serious condition that it had to
be buried in a concrete and steel sarcophagus.
(Reporting by Scott DiSavino in
and Eileen O'Grady in Houston,
editing by Martin Howell)
Japan, nuclear accident ratings reform sought, R, 13.4.2011,
Our atom plants safe,
U.S. and Europe regulators say
VIENNA | Mon Apr 4, 2011
VIENNA (Reuters) - Nuclear power plants in the United States
and Europe are safe, regulators said on Monday, promising to look at ways to
strengthen safety further in the wake of Japan's atomic disaster.
Japan is battling to stabilize a nuclear power plant after a huge earthquake and
tsunami devastated it three weeks ago. Radioactivity from the stricken site has
contaminated land, air and sea and forced a review of atomic power plants
"Back in the United States, because of similarities in the design and because of
the possibility for natural disasters of this type in the United States, we ask
questions about our own facilities and our own approach to regulation," U.S.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said.
"Let me say firmly that we believe right now plants in the United States are
safe. We believe we have a very strong program in place to ensure that safety,"
he told reporters.
He was making his remarks after the opening of a two-week conference of nuclear
regulators from 72 countries in Vienna hosted by the International Atomic Energy
Although scheduled before the earthquake, the conference to review the 1996
Convention on Nuclear Safety is focusing on the need to strengthen measures in
light of Japan's emergency.
European leaders want to subject reactors to "stress tests" to guard against
crises like the one at the Fukushima plant. Some countries have raised the
possibility of closing any of Europe's 143 reactors that fail them.
Andrej Stritar, head of the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG)
which is helping to prepare the tests, said the tests would not ask whether
Europe's nuclear power plants were safe.
"That is maybe how these stress tests are misunderstood ... The proper question
is, how do we make them even safer? So they are safe today, because otherwise
they wouldn't be licensed, they wouldn't be allowed to operate."
(Reporting by Sylvia Westall and Fredrik Dahl;
Editing by Louise
Our atom plants safe,
U.S. and Europe regulators say, R, 4.4.2011,
No Urgent Changes Seen
U.S. Nuclear Plants
March 21, 2011
The New York Times
By MATTHEW L. WALD
ROCKVILLE, Md. — A top official
with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Monday that the nuclear crisis in
Japan did not warrant any immediate changes at American nuclear plants.
The commission’s inspectors at each site have been told to double-check that
emergency equipment and precautions mandated years ago were still in place,
including temporary hoses and fittings and other last-ditch backup equipment,
said the official, R. William Borchardt, the executive director for operations.
The inspectors were also asked to verify that plant operators knew where the
equipment and materials were, Mr. Borchardt said, “to make sure they haven’t
fallen into disuse because they haven’t been used.”
“Every single day, we assess whether or not there is some additional regulatory
action that needs to be taken immediately in order to address the information we
have to date,” he said in a briefing to the commission.
The N.R.C. is to vote soon on a plan to conduct a 90-day study of the
significance of the Japanese events for American reactors, the commission’s
chairman, Gregory B. Jaczko, said, with updates after 30 and 60 days. But Mr.
Borchardt and other staff members have said repeatedly that they did not yet
have a full picture of events in Fukushima.
The information emerging is sometimes contradictory. While the primary
containment for two of the reactors was previously reported to have been damaged
by explosions, Mr. Borchardt said that at this point they “appear to be
functional.” He was referring to the steel shells, shaped like inverted light
bulbs, that surround the reactor vessels and a doughnut-shaped pool of water
around them used for pressure suppression.
The secondary containment, the weaker, boxy buildings that also enclose the
spent-fuel pools, have been heavily damaged by hydrogen explosions. That
hydrogen was presumably created by fuel damage in the reactor vessels, and then
vented to the secondary containment.
One question for American regulators is whether steps that they have ordered in
the last 20 years, to “harden” the vent pipes, had also been taken in Japan, or
whether at Fukushima those vents were simple ductwork that was overpressurized
when workers opened valves to release excess pressure from the primary
That is one of many questions that must be answered to determine the extent to
which American plants are subject to the same hazards.
N.R.C. officials said they were confident about preparations already in place,
but open to improvements. During the 90-minute briefing, two commissioners used
the phrase “systematic and methodical” to describe the approach they wanted to
use in applying lessons from Japan to America’s nuclear plants.
As if to underscore the point, a different department of the commission
announced Monday that the N.R.C. had issued a 20-year license extension to the
Vermont Yankee reactor, which is a near twin of Fukushima Daiichi No. 1.
Commission officials said that if the accident in Japan showed a need for
changes in Vermont or elsewhere, they would order them promptly, even before the
20-year extension began.
One commissioner, Kristine L. Svinicki, said, “Some may characterize that our
faith in this technology is shaken.” But she added: “Nuclear safety is not and
cannot be a matter of faith. It must be a matter of fact.”
The commission has sent 11 staff members to Tokyo, where they are helping
American Embassy officials to understand what is happening and, as commissioners
put it, “interacting” with their counterparts at the Japanese nuclear safety
agency and executives at Tokyo Electric Power Company.
Mr. Jaczko said Sunday that there were no plans to send the N.R.C. staff members
to Fukushima itself. Commission officials said that two more N.R.C. groups would
travel to Japan this week.
No Urgent Changes Seen for U.S.
Nuclear Plants, NYT, 21.3.2011,
Three Mile Island
haunts U.S. nuclear industry
March 27, 2009
The New York Times
By PETER BEHR
Inside a nuclear power plant 10
miles southeast of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's capital, the first of a series of
pumps supplying vital cooling water to the reactor unaccountably "tripped," or
shut down, at 36 seconds after 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979.
The tense, sometimes terrifying week that followed, marked by official confusion
and "surreal" misstatements about the crisis's severity, became known forever as
the Three Mile Island accident, named after the reactor site on the Susquehanna
When the accident occurred, movie theaters nationwide were showing the movie
"China Syndrome" about a nuclear plant meltdown. After engineers finally got
inside the stricken Three Mile Island Unit 2 after the accident, they learned
how closely reality had closed in on fiction.
With the initial loss of cooling water, portions of the 100 tons of radioactive
uranium fuel quickly began to heat up. A chain reaction of multiple equipment
failures and control room operators' mistakes followed. Before the damage was
brought under control, nearly half of the reactor core with its fuel had melted
down. A bubble of hydrogen gas exploded inside the reactor, and fears of another
explosion gripped the Harrisburg area for several days.
The accident stopped the U.S. nuclear power industry in its tracks.
No more nuclear plants were ordered in the United States following the accident
and none started after 1974 were completed, former nuclear regulator Peter
"The credibility of an industry was lost," Bruce Williams, a vice president of
Exelon Nuclear, which now owns the Three Mile Island station, told a
Pennsylvania newspaper in 2004.
Thirty years later, the U.S. nuclear power industry is attempting a revival,
citing reactors' ability to generate electricity without the climate-threatening
carbon emissions that spew from coal-fired generators.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, overseer of the nation's 104 civilian nuclear
power plants, is reviewing industry proposals to build a new generation of
reactors. The industry is asking the Obama administration and Congress to
guarantee loans to pay a majority of construction costs of the first round of
new plants, whose price tags today are estimated at $5 billion or more for each
With nuclear power on the threshold of a possible revival, the industry, its
regulators and its critics draw markedly different conclusions from the Three
Mile Island accident.
In Senate testimony this week, NRC Chairman Dale Klein stressed his agency's
actions since the accident to tighten safety regulation across the board.
Industry leaders note that nuclear plants have logged more than 20 million hours
of operations since the 1979 accident without an emergency of that magnitude.
With today's higher electricity prices, the existing nuclear plants are big
moneymakers, and the last thing their operators want is a prolonged plant
shutdown because of safety issues, the Nuclear Energy Institute says.
Nuclear plant design requirements have been expanded and strengthened, Klein
said. Control room monitors and controls have been improved. Simulators give
control room operators "what if" training in emergencies. The commission has two
of its inspectors working full-time at each nuclear plant. The barrage of
misinformation about the Three Mile Island plant's condition, which fed public
panic and compromised evacuation planning, led to the creation of the Federal
Emergency Management Agency.
Other actions to protect plants followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"Changes resulting from the accident have significantly reduced the overall
risks of a future serious accident. Today, reactors are operating far more
safely and reliably than ever," said Harold Denton, the retired NRC official who
commanded commission operations at Three Mile Island at the peak of the crisis.
But some leading nuclear-power critics say the industry still does not go far
enough to insure safe reactor operations, or troubleshoot for possible
breakdowns in materials in today's aging nuclear plants.
"We think there is overconfidence on the part of the industry and NRC that has
led to complacency," said Ed Lyman, senior staff scientist at the Union of
Concerned Scientists. "The absence of a severe accident doesn't tell you how
likely it is that one could occur tomorrow."
"There are still surprises that are being encountered in operating reactors," he
said, citing new evidence about the vulnerability of critical control wiring in
the case of reactor fires. "The approach to solving this problem is creeping
along at a very slow pace."
NRC and the nuclear industry "continue to make decisions based on risk
assessments with incomplete knowledge," Lyman said.
Despite improved safety regulations, critics contend that there are troubling
parallels between today's environment and the complacency about safety that
preceded the Three Mile Island accident.
Investigations of the 1979 accident put the initial blame on the plant's four
control room operators, whose frantic struggles to understand the fast-moving
pre-dawn calamity still make chilling reading.
The initial "trip" of the water supply pump to the reactor was probably related
to a faulty valve -- a problem that had happened at least twice prior to the
accident. It was known but was not remedied, according to the Carter
administration's Three Mile Island investigation headed by then-Dartmouth
College President John Kemeny.
Two emergency water pumps automatically started to put more water into the
reactor core, and 14 seconds into the accident, an operator noticed the pumps
were running. But he did not see the control panel lights that indicated another
set of valves were closed, preventing that water from flowing to the reactor.
One light was covered by a maintenance tag. The other was simply missed.
As water surrounding the reactor fuel rods became superheated and steam built
up, a pressure relief valve on top of the reactor (and inside the reactor's
surrounding containment structure) opened as it was supposed to. But instead of
closing automatically as pressure fell, it was stuck open and remained so for 2
hours and 22 minutes, draining vital cooling water inside the reactor.
Although the reactor shut down, the heat buildup was enough to melt the top of
the fuel assembly. The operators did not detect that the pressure valve had
failed and made no corrections. If any of these failures had been averted, the
accident "would have remained little more than a minor inconvenience" for the
plant owners, the Kemeny investigation concluded.
But the Kemeny panel said stopping the critique with the operators' failures
would miss the larger, more systemic problem involving the industry and NRC, its
regulator. The investigation said that an overmatched NRC staff could not keep
up with the pace of nuclear plant construction in the 1970s prior to the
accident and was critically dependent upon the nuclear power companies to
monitor their own compliance with safety standards during construction.
The panel cited the case of an NRC regional inspector named James Creswell, who
learned of water pump problems at the Davis-Besse reactor in Ohio in 1977. He
believed it signaled a potentially serious design safety flaw in nine similar
plants -- including Three Mile Island.
Creswell could not get the company or his own superiors to respond to his
warnings. Finally, he took his concerns privately to Bradford and a second NRC
commissioner. They met on March 22, 1979. "The Three Mile Island accident was
six days away," Bradford said.
Creswell told the Kemeny investigators after the accident, "within the
decision-making structure of the NRC [there is] a reluctance to come to grips
with very serious safety issues." The commission was more interested in
promoting nuclear power than regulating it, the panel concluded.
2002 breach at Ohio reactor
Hopes that the lessons of Three Mile Island had been learned throughout the
nuclear power industry were floored in 2002 by a potentially devastating breach
of a reactor vessel at Ohio's Davis-Besse plant, the same one that had prompted
Creswell's unheeded warnings three decades earlier.
This emergency was caused by extended leakage of acid-laden cooling water
through cracks in a sleeve the top of the steel reactor vessel, which ate away a
football-sized cavity in the vessel. It threatened the same emergency loss of
cooling water that doomed Unit 2 at Three Mile Island.
The NRC staff had previously been alerted to possible boric acid corrosion
issues at Davis-Besse and plants of a similar design. It notified plant
operators that they would have to shut down for a safety inspection of the issue
by Dec. 31, 2001, unless they had already done so.
Dominion, the Richmond-based power company, voluntarily idled two nuclear units
to make the inspection, winning NRC's praise. But FirstEnergy Corp., owner of
the Davis-Besse plant, "fought and clawed every inch of the way," to extend the
December deadline, according to an NRC investigator's interview with a NRC
inspector. The early shutdown would cause unacceptable costs, FirstEnergy said.
A NRC review body voted to overrule the inspectors, and Davis-Besse was given
until mid-February 2002 to do the shutdown and inspection. "At a meeting like
that, with your boss and your boss's boss presiding, it takes something to raise
your hand and say, 'I think, you know, we should shut them down,'" the unnamed
NRC inspector later said.
The football-sized cavity was discovered in March 2002 when the plant was
finally closed for inspection, six months after the NRC staff's initial alert. A
possible reactor vessel rupture could have been weeks away.
Following investigations, FirstEnergy paid a record $33.5 million in fines to
settle civil and criminal complaints. A Davis-Besse engineer and supervisor were
convicted of felony charges of willfully giving NRC false information about
safety inspections, receiving fines and probation.
"The real lesson of Davis-Besse or even [Three Mile Island] is that we must
never get complacent," NRC Commissioner Gregory Jaczko said this month. "Neither
event was thought to be probable, or significant, until the very moment when
Copyright 2009 E&E Publishing. All
Three Mile Island still haunts
U.S. nuclear industry,
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