Whistleblower: Nuclear Disaster in America is waiting to happen


Key federal official warns that the public has been kept in the dark about safety risks.

November 28, 2012  |

Photo Credit: Aleksey Klints/ Shutterstock.com

 This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.

The likelihood was very low that an earthquake followed by a tsunami would destroy all four nuclear reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, but in March 2011, that’s what happened, and the accident has yet to be contained.

Similarly, the likelihood may be low that an upstream dam will fail, unleashing a flood that will turn any of 34 vulnerable nuclear plants into an American Fukushima.  But knowing that unlikely events sometimes happen nevertheless, the nuclear industry continues to answer the question of how much safety is enough by seeking to suppress or minimize what the public knows about the danger.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has known at least since 1996 that flooding danger from upstream dam failure was a more serious threat than the agency would publicly admit. The NRC failed from 1996 until 2011 to assess the threat even internally.  In July 2011, the NRC staff completed a report finding “that external flooding due to upstream dam failure poses a larger than expected risk to plants and public safety” [emphasis added] but the NRC did not make the 41-page report public.

Instead, the agency made much of another report, issued July 12, 2011 – “Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century,” sub-titled “The Near-Term Task Force Review of Insights from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Accident.”  Hardly four months since the continuing accident began in Japan, the premature report had little to say about reactor flooding as a result of upstream dam failure, although an NRC news release in March 2012 would try to suggest otherwise.

Censored Report May Be Crime by NRC  

That 2012 news release accompanied a highly redacted version of the July 2011 report that had recommended a more formal investigation of the unexpectedly higher risks of upstream dam failure to nuclear plants and the public.  In its release, the NRC said it had “started a formal evaluation of potential generic safety implications for dam failures upstream” including “the effects of upstream dam failure on independent spent fuel storage installations.”

Six months later, in September 2012, The NRC’s effort at bland public relations went controversial, when the report’s lead author made a criminal complaint to the NRC’s Inspector General, alleging “Concealment of Significant Nuclear Safety Information by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”  In a letter dated September 14 and made public the same day, Richard Perkins, an engineer in the NRC’s Division of Risk Analysis, wrote Inspector General Hubert Bell, describing it as “a violation of law” that the Commission:

has intentionally mischaracterized relevant and noteworthy safety information as sensitive, security information in an effort to conceal the information from the public. This action occurred in anticipation of, in preparation for, and as part of the NRC’s response to a Freedom of Information Act request for information concerning the generic issue investigation on Flooding of U.S. Nuclear Power Plants Following Upstream Dam Failure….   

Portions of the publically released version of this report are redacted citing security sensitivities, however, the redacted information is of a general descriptive nature or is strictly relevant to the safety of U.S. nuclear power plants, plant personnel, and members of the public. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff has engaged in an effort to mischaracterize the information as security sensitive in order to justify withholding it from public release using certain exemptions specified in the Freedom of Information Act. …

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff may be motivated to prevent the disclosure of this safety information to the public because it will embarrass the agency. The redacted information includes discussion of, and excerpts from, NRC official agency records that show the NRC has been in possession of relevant, notable, and derogatory safety information for an extended period but failed to properly act on it.

 Concurrently, the NRC concealed the information from the public.

The Inspector General has not yet acted on the complaint.

Most Media Ignore Nuclear Safety Risks

Huffington Post picked up the story immediately as did the Union of Concerned Scientists and a number of online news sites.  The mainstream media showed little or no interest in a story about yet another example of the NRC lying to the public about the safety of nuclear power plants.

An NRC spokesman suggested to HuffPo that the report’s redactions were at least partly at the behest of Homeland Security. A second NRC risk engineer, who requested anonymity, said that Homeland Security had signed off on the report with no redactions.  As HuffPo noted:

If this were truly such a security concern, however, it would be incumbent on the agency to act swiftly to eliminate that threat, the engineer stated. As it is, the engineer suggested, no increased security actions have been undertaken.

This same engineer expressed serious misgivings, shared by others in and out of the NRC, that a nuclear power plant in Greenville, South Carolina, has been at risk from upstream dam failure for years, that the NRC has been aware of the risk, and that the NRC has done nothing to mitigate the risk.   In the redacted report, the NRC blacked out passages about this plant.

Event Unlikely, Would Be Sure Disaster 

South Carolina’s Oconee plant on Lake Keowee has three reactors, located 11 miles downstream from the Jocassee Reservoir, an 8,000 acre lake.  As HuffPo put it:

…the Oconee facility, which is operated by Duke Energy, would suffer almost certain core damage if the Jocassee dam were to fail. And the odds of it failing sometime over the next 20 years, the engineer said, are far greater than the odds of a freak tsunami taking out the defenses of a nuclear plant in Japan….

“Although it is not a given that Jocassee Dam will fail in the next 20 years,” the engineer added, “it is a given that if it does fail, the three reactor plants will melt down and release their radionuclides into the environment.”

When the NRC granted an operating license to the Oconee plant in 1973, danger from upstream dam failure was not even considered, never mind considered a threat against which some protection was needed.   The NRC and the plant’s owner both say the Jocassee Dam is not an immediate safety issue.   Oconee’s initial license was for 40 years.  It is now the second plant in the U.S. that the NRC has granted an extended license for another 20 years.

Union of Concerned Scientists Are Concerned 

The Union of Concerned Scientists, which says it is neither pro-nuke nor anti-nuke, but committed to making nuclear power as safe as possible, has considered the risk factors for Oconee. The NRC wrote in 2009 that “a Jocassee Dam failure is a credible event and in 2011 wrote that “dam failures are common” – and that since 1975 there have been more than 700 dam failures, 148 of them large dams 40 feet or more high.  The Jocassee Dam is 385 feet high.

For a dam like Jocassee, the NRC calculates the chance of failure at 1 in 3,600 per year – or 1 in 180 each year for the extended license.  NRC policy, when enforced, requires nuclear plant owners to mitigate any risk that has a 1 in 250 per years chance of occurring.

Oconee has three nuclear reactors, each of which is larger than the reactors at Fukushima, and so has more lethal radioactive potential.   Duke Energy reported its own upstream dam failure calculations to the NRC no later than 1996 and the NRC has responded by requiring no safety enhancements to address the threat.

Noting that the upstream dam failure risk does not take into account possible earthquakes or terrorist attacks, the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote:

The 34 reactors of concern are downstream from a total of more than 50 dams, more than half of which are roughly the size of the Jocassee dam. Assuming the NRC’s failure rate applies to all of those dams, the probability that one will fail in the next 40 years is roughly 25 percent—a 1 in 4 chance.

List of Reactors Potentially at High Risk of Flooding due to Dam Failure

 

Alabama: Browns Ferry, Units 1, 2, 3

Arkansas: Arkansas Nuclear, Units 1, 2

Louisiana: Waterford, Unit 3

Minnesota: Prairie Island, Units 1, 2

Nebraska: Cooper;  Fort Calhoun

New Jersey: Hope Creek, Unit 1;  Salem, Units 1, 2

New York: Indian Point, Units 2, 3

North Carolina: McGuire, Units 1, 2

Pennsylvania: Beaver Valley, Units 1, 2; Peach Bottom, Units 2, 3; Three Mile Island, Unit 1

Tennessee: Sequoyah, Unit 1;  Watts Bar, Unit 1

Texas: South Texas, Units 1, 2

South Carolina: H.B. Robinson, Unit 2;  Oconee, Units 1, 2, 3

Vermont: Vermont Yankee

Virginia: Surrey, Units 1, 2

Washington: Columbia

(Source: Perkins, et al., “Screening Analysis,” July 2011) 

Nuclear Roulette:David Swanson


By David Swanson

Source: Warisacrime.org
Tuesday, September 18, 2012

As the Coalition Against Nukes prepares for a series of events in Washington, D.C., September 20-22, including a Capitol Hill rally, a Congressional briefing, a fundraiser at Busboys and Poets, a ceremony at the Museum of the American Indian, a rally at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), a film screening, and a strategy session, the time seems ideal to take in the wisdom of Gar Smith’s new book, Nuclear Roulette: The Truth About the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth.

Most dangerous indeed, and most useless, most inefficient, most destructive, and dumbest. How does nuclear energy make the human species look like the stupidest concoction since the platypus? Let me count the ways:

1. After the mining, processing, and shipping of uranium, and the plant construction, maintenance, and deconstruction, a nuclear plant only produces about as much energy as went into it — not counting the need to store the only thing it actually produces (radioactive waste) for hundreds of thousands of years — and not counting the sacrifice of areas of the earth, including those poisoned with uranium, which has a half life of 4.5 billion years and causes lung cancer, bone cancer, and kidney failure.

2. Wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal have far better net energy ratios.

3. If nuclear power actually worked against climate change, that fact would not be useful, because there is no way enough nuclear power plants to significantly contribute to the required difference could be built quickly enough.

4. If nuclear power plants could be built quickly enough, that wouldn’t matter, because the financial cost is prohibitive. Only with multi-billion-dollar bailouts from the government can a tiny number of nuclear plants be considered for construction at all. The sainted Private Marketplace of Freedom will never touch nuclear construction on its own — or insure it. And the small number of jobs created by the “Job Creator” lobbyists who push for the generous public loan guarantees mostly show up in Japanese and French nuclear companies, thus depriving the whole enterprise of its anti-foreign-oil xenophobic appeal. (Not to mention, most of the uranium used in U.S. nuclear plants comes from abroad just like oil.) Deconstructing the plants when they grow too old to operate costs so much that the job is routinely and recklessly put off — and that doesn’t count the fairly common expense of compensating the victims of accidents.

5. The nuclear industry is in debt up to its ears already, without our feeding its habit any longer. For example, Washington State’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation has dumped 1.7 trillion gallons of contaminated waste into unlined trenches. The latest plan to try to deal with the mess comes with a $12.3 billion price tag.

6. Even if nuclear power worked when it worked, it’s remarkably unreliable. Between 2003 and 2007, U.S. nuclear plants were shut down 10.6 percent of the time, compared to 1 or 2 percent for solar stations and wind farms.

7. Nuclear power produces greenhouse gases in the mining, production, deconstruction, shipping, and waste storage processes. It also discharges 1000 degree Fahrenheit steam directly into the atmosphere. Considering the entire fuel cycle, a nuclear reactor burning high-grade uranium produces about a third as much carbon dioxide as a gas-fired power plant. As high-grade uranium runs out, low-grade ore will result in a nuclear plant producing just as much carbon dioxide as a gas plant.

8. Climate change may have reached a tipping point. Radioactivity could as well. Birds and insects near Chernobyl are adapting. Humans, too, may be beginning to evolve within the Radiocene era to which the earth has been condemned.

9. Climate change limits nuclear energy, as the heat forces plants to shut down for lack of cool water.

10. The Three Mile Island disaster killed birds, bees, and livestock. Pets were born dead or deformed. In humans, cancer, leukemia, and birth defects spread. Chernobyl gave cancer to about a million people. Fukushima looks to be far worse. Meltdowns and other major malfunctions are common, in the United States and abroad. Gar Smith documents dozens. The worst nuclear disaster in the United States was in Simi Valley, California, and no one was told about it. The rates of disease and death led residents to investigate. I shouldn’t use the past tense; the disaster is still there and not going anywhere in the span of human attention.

11. The rate of break downs and failures thus far is very likely to grow as nuclear plants age. Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), subservient to the nuclear profiteers, is drastically reducing safety standards.

12. In the normal course of proper nuclear power production, the water, air, and earth are poisoned.

13. The NRC publicly dismisses concerns about earthquakes, but privately panics. Earthquakes are on the rise. Fracking may cause even more of them. Fukushima should scare us all; but closer to home, a plant at Lake Anna, in Virginia, was shut down by an earthquake last year, possibly caused by fracking, and the first response was the publication of lies about the damage.

14. If anticipated solar flares (or anything else) collapse power grids, nuclear plants could overheat, melt down, or explode.

15. An average nuclear plant produces 20-30 tons of high-level waste and 70 tons of low-level waste per year. No proven long-term storage site exists. If one ever does, we won’t know what language to post the warning signs in, as no human language has lasted a fraction of the time the nuclear waste will remain deadly.

16. When a country develops nuclear energy, as the United States encouraged Iran to do in my lifetime, it brings that country very close to developing nuclear weapons, which has become a leading excuse for launching and threatening wars. It doesn’t help for the CIA to give Iran plans for building a bomb, but ridding the world of that sort of stupidity is just not within our reach. Ridding the world of nukes needs to take priority.

17. There is no purpose in a nation developing nuclear weapons if it wants to target an enemy that possesses nuclear power plants. Sitting duck nuclear catastrophes waiting to happen — by accident or malice — exist in the form of nuclear power plants within 50 miles of 108 million people in the United States. Nuclear reactors could have been somewhat protected by being built underground, but that would have cost more. Haruki Murakami, a Japanese novelist, commented on Fukushima: “This time no one dropped a bomb on us. . . . We set the stage, we committed the crime with our own hands, we are destroying our own lands, and we are destroying our own lives.”

18. The latest designs in nuclear reactors don’t change points 1-17.

19. The Associated Press in 2011 found that, “Federal regulators [at the NRC] have been working closely with the nuclear power industry to keep the nation’s aging reactors operating within safety standards by repeatedly weakening those standards, or simply failing to enforce them.”

20. Helping to shake the nuke habit would take 30 seconds and be ridiculously easy, and yet many won’t do it.

David Swanson’s books include “War Is A Lie.” He blogs at http://davidswanson.org and http://warisacrime.org and works as Campaign Coordinator for the online activist organization http://rootsaction.org. He hosts Talk Nation Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @davidcnswansonand FaceBook.