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Nuclear Safety: The Story So Far

Following a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan, hydrogen explosions rocked three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Radioactive spent fuel stored in pools was also affected, especially at one reactor -- the plant has a total of six -- where multiple fires erupted. Evacuation orders were issued, potassium iodine tablets distributed, and plant employees used seawater and external electrical power to cool the stricken reactors, three of which had a partial core meltdown.

Having followed Japan's nuclear crisis, ProPublica began to look at questions about nuclear safety in the United States. Our investigation found that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is routinely waiving fire rule violations at nearly half of the nation's 104 commercial reactors, even though fire presents one of the chief hazards at nuclear plants. Since 1995, there have been at least 153 fires at U.S. plants, according to NRC records. Those fires have damaged essential equipment and forced emergency shutdowns, reports reviewed by ProPublica show.

The NRC also began inspecting U.S. plants in March in response to Japan's nuclear crisis. While the NRC said of the inspection results that "out of 65 operating reactor sites, 12 had issues with one or more of the requirements during the inspections," a ProPublica review of the reports found that 60 plant sites had deficiencies that ranged from broken machinery, missing equipment and poor training to things like blocked drains or a lack of preventive maintenance. In July, a special task force of NRC experts -- the Japan Task Force -- called for potentially sweeping and costly changes to address those deficiencies and to protect plants against catastrophic events like earthquakes and long-term blackouts.

Although the NRC polices the nuclear industry, its Office of the Inspector General has traditionally filled a key oversight role for the commission, conducting investigations that have changed how the agency regulates nuclear waste, fire protection and security. But two former OIG employees told ProPublica the inspector general's office buried a critical report and dropped an investigation into whether the NRC is relying on outdated methods to predict damage from an aircraft crashing into a plant.

The NRC has apparently neglected the threat of months long grid collapse that NASA and the NOAA warn is possible, with a peak probability in 2013.

A nuclear plant without grid power for a month is a candidate for a meltdown.

See my non-profit Aesop Institute website: http://www.aesopinstitute.org for a few maps worth a thousand words as well as some suggestions as to what can be done.

Steve Kerekes, Nuclear Energy Institute

Aug. 5, 2011, 9:41 a.m.

Perhaps by the time ProPublica finishes looking at “questions about nuclear safety in the United States,” it will have broadened its investigative lens sufficiently to acknowledge that there are Nuclear Regulatory Commission documents that assess the U.S. nuclear energy industry’s overall safety record.

More specifically, annual NRC reports to Congress show that over the past decade – encompassing 1,000 combined reactor-years of operations – there has been just one “abnormal occurrence.” (See http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/nuregs/staff/sr0090/.) The NRC defines an abnormal occurrence as “an unscheduled incident or event” that it “determines to be significant from the standpoint of public health or safety.” No radiation was released from that lone occurrence in 2002.

The NRC also produces annual updates on its Accident Sequence Precursor program. Page 2 of the latest report from Sept. 29, 2010, notes, “No significant precursors were identified in either FY 2009 or FY 2010 … (T)he last significant precursor identified was the Davis-Besse event in FY 2002 … No statistically significant trend was detected for all precursors during this 9-year period” from FY 2001 through FY 2009. Program metrics are given at: http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/operating/oversight/industry-trends-lt-results.pdf.

Without question, the transparency that permeates the NRC’s reactor oversight process helps make possible ProPublica’s focus on particular facets of plant operations. However, given the redundancies that exist within the industry’s multilayered, defense-in-depth approach to safety, a deep dive into inspection findings doesn’t necessarily provide a full portrayal of U.S. nuclear power plant safety. On fire protection, for example, despite the focus on so-called “violations” in areas where fire protection exists, the larger point is that in the third of a century since the Browns Ferry fire, there has not been a single fire that has damaged safe shutdown equipment at a U.S. nuclear energy facility.

The industry strives continually to improve its safety performance and is committed to capturing and applying, as appropriate to America’s facilities, the lessons that emerge from the events in Japan.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Nuclear Safety

Nuclear Safety

With the disaster in Japan, we're investigating questions about nuclear safety.

The Story So Far

Following a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan, hydrogen explosions rocked three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Radioactive spent fuel stored in pools was also affected, especially at one reactor—the plant has a total of six—where multiple fires erupted. Evacuation orders were issued, potassium iodine tablets distributed, and plant employees used seawater and external electrical power to cool the stricken reactors, three of which had a partial core meltdown.

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