Journalism in the Public Interest

Nuke Plant Inspections Find Flaws in Disaster Readiness

A post-Fukushima inspection of U.S. nuclear plants found widespread problems with emergency equipment and procedures supposed to be in place in case of major disasters, like a flood or earthquake of unexpected severity or a terrorist attack that causes an extended blackout.


The Fort Calhoun nuclear power station, in Fort Calhoun, Neb., is surrounded by flood waters from the Missouri River on June 14, 2011. (Nati Harnik/AP Photo)

A special inspection of U.S. nuclear plants after the Fukushima disaster in Japan revealed problems with emergency equipment and disaster procedures that are far more pervasive than publicly described by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a review of inspection reports by ProPublica shows.

While the deficiencies don't pose an immediate risk and are relatively easy to fix, critics say they could complicate the response to a major disaster and point to a weakness in NRC oversight.

The NRC ordered the inspection in response to the March earthquake and tsunami that crippled Fukushima's reactors. The purpose was to conduct a fast check on the equipment and procedures that U.S. plants are required to have in place in the event of a catastrophic natural disaster or a terrorist attack.

Agency officials unveiled the results in May, stating in a news release that "out of 65 operating reactor sites, 12 had issues with one or more of the requirements during the inspections."

But ProPublica's examination 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. Some of the more serious findings include:

Plant officials said they have moved to fix those problems and that none would have prevented them from responding in an emergency. The NRC told ProPublica that all the issues raised by inspectors "fell well short of being imminent safety concerns" and were being addressed.

In a summary attached to the inspection findings, however, the NRC expressed some concern.

"While individually, none of these observations posed a significant safety issue, they indicate a potential industry trend of failure to maintain equipment and strategies required to mitigate some design and beyond design-basis events," the summary says.

The NRC reported fewer problems at the plants than ProPublica because it only counted those in which a plant had a problem demonstrating how its emergency preparedness plan would work. The agency said that, despite these questions, all the plants could protect their reactors.

The special inspection covered equipment and procedures for use in disasters that are beyond the scope of the plant's design -- major earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and terrorist attacks.

Many of the items covered in the special inspection are supposed to be checked by NRC inspectors on a regular basis. Items that were required after the 9/11 attacks to respond to large explosions and fires -- like extra pumps, hoses and generators -- are supposed to be reviewed as part of regular triennial fire protection inspections.

David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says the large number of problems uncovered in the special inspection shows that NRC must strengthen oversight.

"I think they need to look at the inspections," said Lochbaum, whose group monitors safety matters. "Why did they find so much in these inspections? Shouldn't these have been found sooner?"

Nuclear plants conduct emergency drills every two years, and Lochbaum said that one possible improvement would be for inspectors to check the condition of the emergency response equipment then.

Mary Lampert, executive director of the advocacy group Pilgrim Watch in Massachusetts, said many of the deficiencies uncovered by the NRC may seem minor but could quickly turn into bigger problems in an emergency situation.

"They all add up. They cannot wait for a disaster to start looking around for a screwdriver that is required to open a valve because time is typically of the essence," she said.

Lampert said it is important for the NRC to keep an eye on the problems they found and not simply assume the nuclear companies will fix everything.

The Fukushima accident has focused the NRC's attention on the risk that a natural disaster or attack could knock out a plant's safety systems for an extended period and lead to a radiation release.

Although all plants are designed to withstand natural disasters, U.S. nuclear facilities are aging. Recent studies have shown that earthquake risks are now higher than they were predicted when some plants were built, although the NRC says reactors can still withstand the highest expected quake. Now historic flooding on the Missouri River is testing design limits at two Nebraska plants.

Flood waters are expected to come within a few feet of levels the Fort Calhoun and Cooper nuclear plants were built to withstand. At Fort Calhoun, a special berm providing backup protection collapsed Sunday after being damaged. Operators briefly turned on emergency diesel power but said there was no risk to reactor cooling systems. The plant has been shut down for refueling since early April.

On April 1, the NRC launched a task force of senior agency managers to examine the ability of plants to respond to events that might overwhelm existing safety systems and procedures. The panel is concentrating on disaster preparedness and the ability to survive a lengthy blackout, as at Fukushima.

The six-member group is scheduled to report its findings to the commission on July 19, and the NRC has held two briefings on the subject so far. Until the task force reports back, the NRC said it would not comment on what, if any, changes the agency might propose.

The Union of Concerned Scientists and other watchdog groups have said that Fukushima points to the need for some obvious improvements, such as adding backup generators and moving used nuclear fuel out of cooling pools and into safer storage locations.

The nuclear industry's main trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, is teaming up with the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations and the research organization the Electric Power Research Institute to develop disaster preparedness guidelines for nuclear companies, said Thomas Kauffman, a spokesman for NEI.

Kauffman said U.S. nuclear plants have survived hurricanes, tornadoes and extended power outages without damage to their reactors, but the industry is looking hard at Fukushima nevertheless. "We want to take the lessons learned and make sure they are applied across the industry," he said.

Chairman Gregory Jaczko raised the issue of emergency preparedness this month at an International Atomic Energy Agency conference in Vienna. According to a copy of his speech, he brought up the post-Fukushima inspection results.

"While I see nothing that calls into question the safety of our plants, I see areas where performance was not as good as would be preferred," Jaczko said. Changes are likely, he added, "although it is too early to say right now precisely what those changes might be."

Jaczko visited the Nebraska plants this week and declared that, while flood conditions were likely to continue for some time, the plants are safe.

"Water levels are at a place where the plant [workers] can deal with them," Jaczko said at Fort Calhoun on Monday, according to the Iowa Independent. "The risk is really very low that something could go wrong."

ProPublica intern Ariel Wittenberg contributed to this story.

Water and electricity do not mix. ..No matter what they tell us

Fission power is not a reasonable way to boil water to make electric power so that somebody can burn his toast. But it is an effective way to transfer money and political power from the public to an elite class.

We are conditioned to see power stations as distributing power, but the reality is that they collect power and hand it to a servile class that serves the interests of a few.

Nuclear power is one of many ways of man playing god. Hes god for a reason and were not for another. He gave us paradise and we have destroyed it.

Deficiencies at only 60 out of 65 facilities?  Curious…

You know how the defenders of nuclear facilities are always telling us how complex those facilities are, and proffering that complexity as the reason why they give the American people the mushroom treatment?

I find it difficult to believe that even five facilities had zero deficiencies; complexity yields an increased likelihood of component wear and failure as well as training shortfalls - and so yields deficiencies…

It is all in how closely you are willing to look.

Outstanding reporting. Keep up the good work.

Yes, smaller issues can quickly morph into a disaster. Does not take a rocket scientist to known this assumption has merit. Frankly after listening to congressional hearings on the safety of our plants it is not encouraging. I also seem to recall that the NRC has internal problems, not a good sign.

When the elite in Washington leaves the fox in the hen house there will be feathers strewn around for a nuclear plant that equates to disaster.

Hard to understand why intelligent beings are so sat on destroying the very house in which they live.

Barbara Clarke

June 29, 2011, 5:30 p.m.

The emergency plan for the Yankee Rowe Nuke Plant in western MA was a joke. They were going to ask the mothers in VT who regularly drove the school buses to drive into the 12 mile radiation zone to pick up the school children. The two-lane highway leading into Rowe, MA was to be blocked so that parents couldn’t come back into the contaminated area - imagine parents not coming back to get their kids. The NRC & FEMA finally showed up to present their plan and the citizens, who often found 7-leaf clovers (more good luck?) at the plant, couldn’t believe their ears. The reactor was finally shut down, cut up into pieces and carted down a narrow country road and dumped somewhere in the south no doubt since those folks wouldn’t mind or maybe not know or be given the jobs, jobs, jobs routine.

@pgillenw:  “Hard to understand why intelligent beings are so sat on destroying the very house in which they live.”

I think if you plotted the distance between the world’s most dangerous industrial and nuclear facilities and the homes of those who own or profit from those facilities you’d have a better understanding.

It isn’t the majority of human life that wishes to commit suicide; it is a minority that believes not only that profit justifies the risk they expose others to but also that they themselves will somehow be protected from the consequences of their greed.

How was the special berm damaged - by a floating log being pushed by river current. The flexible, water filled design should have been an effective design.

So this design concepts expand to optimise the tasks.

Flood waters are expected to come within a few feet of levels the Fort Calhoun and Cooper nuclear plants were built to withstand. At Fort Calhoun, a special berm providing backup protection collapsed Sunday after being damaged. Operators briefly turned on emergency diesel power but said there was no risk to reactor cooling systems. The plant has been shut down for refueling since early April

Unless the story has morphed, I read a piece by Matt Wald NYT or blog…yesterday that said a large piece of equipment had hit the berm.
hope the wind doesn’t blow towards the waste in LANL

You people aren’t Anti-Nuke by any chance…, I didn’t think so….
This is just good ‘nonbiased’ reporting, right?.......Yeah, right!

Stephanie Palmer

June 30, 2011, 7:17 a.m.

Just a thought, but I think these problems trump the economy and the gun laws or their nonexistence. Why do the taxpayers have to worry about these privately owned nuclear plants having lethal problems? Don’t we pay enough for inspectors? I think that nuclear plants should not be permitted to be run by private entities. This privatization is a major issue in this country. Everything can’t be run for the benefit of profits. This industry is just much too dangerous.

Bruce emoted Today, 1:59 a.m.:  “You people aren’t Anti-Nuke by any chance…, I didn’t think so….This is just good ‘nonbiased’ reporting, right?.......Yeah, right!”

Maybe these are all a bunch of devout Christians, Bruce.  You know:  Fire at Los Alamos, flood at Ft. Calhoun, earthquake at Fukushima…maybe they’re wondering Who is throwing hints.  Loudly.

But I guess that would conflict with the right’s use of Christianity to fool the voters into accepting whatever makes the right money, no matter how bad it is for the fooled?

lolll…yep, I reckon Americans using Christianity for self-preservation would cause the Republicans to reveal themselves and denounce religion.

I can’t believe that after all the problems nuclear has caused (either as energy or as weaponry) the human race can’t find a better way . Are we all just a bunch of morons? I’m NOT scientist, but even I know that science has come plenty far enough that this shouldn’t even be an issue.  I see no reason at all to use nuclear, or coal, or crude. We have the technology to do better.

Todd Fitzgerald

June 30, 2011, 9:44 a.m.

Gwynn… what exactly might that technology be? I have heard of no other alternatives besides nuclear and coal for a reliable base load power. “Green” energy is not capable of supplying base load power.

Mr. R. L. Hails Sr. P. E.

June 30, 2011, 12:53 p.m.

Having completed forty years of engineering, work on a score of nukes, two score fossil fueled power plants and a decade assessing advanced technology, I judge several certainties:
Without coal, oil, natural gas, uranium (and maybe thorium), the US standard of living will collapse, by the next several decades.
The “green” energies all fail wide spread support of our society on a common characteristic; they all will cost too much, during this century.
The people who are vehemently opposed to nuclear power are more accurately opposed to big business.  They do not trust businessmen, or the profit motive.
All centralized energy systems are normally cheaper to provide, but are also lethally dangerous.  Uncontrolled energy can kill.
Energy systems are complex, and people untrained in math and science can not comprehend the various risks associated with different technologies.  Examples: The world has lost more people to bean sprouts than to radiation in the last few months.  The US kills about 20,000 people every year due to drinking and driving; we have never killed anyone, by radiation, in a civilian nuclear power plant.
IMHO, the US civilian nuclear program has destroyed millions of careers due to unending regulation and litigation.  The end result is that talent is at a low ebb; the best and brightest left decades ago.  Hence the real risk is an almost total lack of understanding of the risks “beyond the scope of the plant’s design—major earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and terrorist attacks. ”  This basically is the reason Fukushima exploded. 
If you rely on the NRC for safe nukes, you lean on a thin reed.  It is impossible to regulate safety into anything.  NRC inspection results mean very little to safety assessments. 
The NRC policy in the Yucca Mountain spent fuel repository is a disaster, which has crippled the industry, and the American economy.

Mr. R. L. Hails Sr. P. E. - “The US kills about 20,000 people every year due to drinking and driving; we have never killed anyone, by radiation, in a civilian nuclear power plant.”

Excellent choice of words. You are definitely skilled in the use of logic.

If the law of averages does catch up the nuclear industry and another disaster does occur, killing a few hundred people at the start the disaster, your phrase, “in a civilian nuclear power plant.”, would still be technically accurate.

Nuclear weapons = death

June 30, 2011, 2:29 p.m.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch is covering this story up and removing people who post stories in their forum or comments

Not only are they covering it up and trying to humiliate me about it, nearly all these cretins think RADIATION is safe and happy and as American as apple pie and torture.

I’d appreciate some help from anti-nuclear activists in forcing this paper to cover Cooper and Ft. Calhoun, 6 hours away.

Rudy Stefenel

June 30, 2011, 7:35 p.m.

Let’s use up all our spent nuclear fuel in LFTRs ( Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors ), also called MSRs (Molten Salt Reactors).  We need to get R&D going, build some and convert our nuclear reactors to LFTRs. One ran for 4-years at Oak Ridge National Laboratories, Tennessee in the 1960’s.  Hey, we had a clean LFTR running once, but we never have had a clean coal plant running yet.

If those nuclear reactors in Japan were LFTRs, which don’t need cooling water, then we would not be having dangerous problems with them now. LFTRs are much safer, more efficient, less expensive, and far more immune to human errors than other kinds of nuclear reactors. 

LFTRs are scalable so small ones can be located all over the USA, which reduces transmission lines losses. Thorium is much safer, cheaper and much more plentiful than uranium. Existing spent nuclear fuel can be mixed in and used up. Thorium can be safely transported.  LFTRs produce virtually nothing that terrorists would want.

Search the Internet for LFTR or MSR.  There is a lot of information about them there.

There were some rumors about loose disaster preperations on the Titanic, but they didn’t bother anybody during the first part of the trip.

@ThomasWells:  Of course not.  The builder’s and operator’s experts all said that the Titanic was perfectly safe.

Rudy Stefenel

July 2, 2011, 4:43 p.m.

Check out the video at:

for some good answers

I wonder how extensive those audits were?  As a former manager when either the outside or internal auditors reviewed the transactions that I was responsible for they only canvassed a mere 2 to 5 percent of transactions - if that. 

I would luv to review their methodology with an independent nuclear physicist, independent construction engineer for nuclear plants and a former, retired nuclear plant manger. 

The NRC should not be given the benefit to the doubt due to their oft times imperious nature when dealing with the general public

@Hails, P.E.:  Just caught your “The ‘green’ energies all fail wide spread support of our society on a common characteristic; they all will cost too much, during this century.” argument.

I guess I have to surrender…you just can’t beat the old “Nobody will have a personal computer this century.” argument.

Ernesto M. Salvatico

July 10, 2011, 7:49 a.m.

No body mentioned ,about of, the   quantity of fishes ,and marine life ,
where destroyed by the warms temperature of the water that
they   Nuclear Plants and another ones   are releasing without
control of the the   pertinents authorities , and no body included
in suchs Reports;  Why?  Qualities and Quantities must be
showed up or !not!. How much Water used and spoiled,?
How much eneregy is wasted and no recycling plants o pro-
jects   to make these energy sources ,profitable at once.
  If You are looking for a free Energy Source for ever ?
  The Country Have it ,and is their perrogative to recovered .
I knowed it , How!

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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