Jack McCurdyJune 2011
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 Independent Probes Expose Nuclear Plants Menace

by Jack McCurdy

Synopsis: Nuclear plants in the U.S. are getting very old, hard to repair and keep running safely, allowed to put off fixes and upgrades by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and, by all accounts, are acutely dangerous for the millions of Americans who live close to them, two investigations by independent news agencies have documented in landmark studies that send a dire warning throughout the country. 

In a series of shocking investigative articles of Pulitzer Prize-winning quality, the Associated Press has exposed America's nuclear power plants—including Diablo Canyon and San Onofre near San Clemente—as being so aged, broken down, dilapidated, unregulated and unsafe that critics—many of them experts in nuclear energy—fear they are one failure away from a disaster.  (See below for links to all four articles in the series.)

Entitled "Aging Nukes," the AP articles also discovered that there have been more than 400 known but unreported radioactive leaks of all kinds of substances from the plants over the industry's history.

Just a few days before the AP series came out, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff held public meetings in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara where residents and county supervisors expressed intense fear about the dangers of the Diablo Canyon plant. Many questioned whether it is even possible to make the Diablo Canyon plant reasonably safe. "There is no right way to do something that is inherently flawed," Melanie Statom of Morro Bay told the San Luis Obispo meeting.

Earlier in the day of the San Luis Obispo meeting on June 15, an NRC task force—created to review safety at U.S. plants following the Fukushima nuclear plant holocaust on March 11—presented a progress report to the NRC in Washington D.C. The report said U.S. plants are not maintained or inspected adequately and do not weigh the risk that a single event would knock out electricity from both the grid and from emergency generators, as an earthquake and tsunami did in Japan, leaving an estimated 24,000 people dead or missing.  (See New York Times)

But that report, which echoes many of the criticisms about nuclear plant safety from the public and independent experts, was not mentioned at the San Luis Obispo meeting by NRC staff members who conducted the session. Another task force report is due this month (July).

Right after release of the AP articles began on June 20, three U.S. senators, including Senator Barbara Boxer of California, alarmed by the AP's findings, requested an investigation of safety standards and federal oversight of nuclear plants by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress. They also asked the GAO to investigate the relicensing process, earthquake standards, upkeep of nuclear plants plants and evacuation planning. (See Nuclear Safety Investigation / Senators)

The conference room at the Embassy Suites, where the NRC meeting was held on June 15, was packed and virtually all of the 30 who made comments stressed their apprehension about living so close to the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant. Many of the worries they expressed about the safety of the plant turned out to be the topics investigated in the AP series, which was released a few days afterward. The series was written by Jeff Donn, a member of AP's national investigative team.

Most recently, on June 29, ProPublica, the independent news investigation site, reported its own special investigation since Fukushima of NRC inspection reports that revealed problems with emergency equipment and disaster procedures at nuclear plants that are far more pervasive than have been made known by the NRC. (See ProPublica.org)

AP's year-long investigation found the following common threads among the nation's 65 existing plants, which have four million people living within 10 miles of a plant, and, an AP analysis showed, about 120 million people, almost 40% of all Americans, within 50 miles (the U.S. recommended on March 11 that Americans living within 50 miles of Fukushima evacuate):

—The AP said it found proof that aging reactors have been allowed to run less safely to prolong operations. As equipment has approached or violated safety limits, regulators and reactor operators have loosened or bent the rules. 

—More than 90 of the nation's 104 operating reactors have been allowed to run at higher power levels for many years, raising the radiation risk in a major accident.

—The result has been rising fears that weakening these safety standards by the NRC are significantly undermining safety—and inching the reactors closer to an accident that could threaten safety of the public.

—When valves leaked, more leakage was allowed — up to 20 times the original limit. When rampant cracking caused radioactive leaks from steam generator tubing, an easier test of the tubes was devised, so plants could meet standards. Failed cables. Busted seals. Broken nozzles, clogged screens, cracked concrete, dented containers, corroded metals and rusty underground pipes — all of these and thousands of other problems linked to aging were uncovered in the investigation.

—Yet despite the many problems linked to aging, not a single official body in government or industry has studied the overall frequency and potential impact on safety of such breakdowns in recent years, even as the NRC has extended the licenses of dozens of reactors.  

—Records show a recurring pattern: reactor parts or systems fall out of compliance with the rules. Studies are conducted by the industry and government, and all agree that existing standards are "unnecessarily conservative." Regulations are loosened, and the reactors are back in compliance. 

—Commercial nuclear reactors in the United States were designed and licensed for 40 years. When the first ones were being built in the 1960s and 1970s (Diablo Canyon opened in 1985), it was expected that they would be replaced with improved models long before those licenses expired. But that never happened.

—Instead, 66 of the 104 operating units have been relicensed for 20 more years, mostly with scant public attention. Renewal applications are under review for 16 other reactors. As of today, 82 reactors are more than 25 years old.

—Last year, the NRC weakened the safety margin for acceptable radiation damage to reactor vessels—for a second time. As a result, the minimum standard was relaxed first by raising the reference temperature 50%, and then 78% above the original—even though a broken vessel could spill its radioactive contents into the environment. 

—The AP reviewed 226 preliminary notifications—alerts on emerging safety problems—issued by the NRC since 2005. Wear and tear in the form of clogged lines, cracked parts, leaky seals, rust and other deterioration contributed to at least 26 alerts over the past six years. Other notifications lack detail, but aging also was a probable factor in 113 additional alerts. That would constitute up to 62% in all.

—Confronted with worn parts that need maintenance, the industry has repeatedly requested—and regulators have often allowed—inspections and repairs to be delayed for months until scheduled refueling outages. Again and again, problems worsened before they were fixed.

—Postponed inspections inside a steam generator at Indian Point allowed tubing to burst, leading to a radioactive release in 2000. Two years later, cracking was allowed to grow so bad in nozzles on the reactor vessel at the Davis-Besse plant near Toledo, Ohio, that it came within two months of a possible breach, the NRC acknowledged in a report. 

—Nuclear plants are fundamentally no more immune to the incremental abuses of time than our cars or homes: metals grow weak and rusty, concrete crumbles, paint peels, crud accumulates. Big components are all but impossible to replace. Smaller parts and systems can be swapped, but still pose risks as a result of weak maintenance and lax regulation or hard-to-predict failures. Even when things are fixed or replaced, the same parts or others nearby often fail later. 

—Peeling paint and debris from lax maintenance can be swept toward pumps that circulate water needed for cooling in a reactor accident to prevent it from turning into a disaster.

—Mario V. Bonaca, then chairman of NRC's Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, warned in a 2009 letter that such deterioration of conditions at plants represents "a decrease in the safety margin" and makes a fuel-melting accident more likely.

—Even as they sought to reassure the public, NRC staff have been worrying about aging reactors since at least the 1980s when the first ones were entering only their second decade of operation. A 1984 report for the NRC blamed wear, corrosion, "crud" and fatigue for more than a third of 3,098 failures of parts or systems within the first 12 years of industry operations

—The number and severity of the leaks has been escalating, even as federal regulators extend the licenses of more and more reactors across the nation. Tritium, which is a radioactive form of hydrogen, has leaked from at least 48 of 65 nuclear sites, NRC records show, and at three sites—two in Illinois and one in Minnesota—leaks have contaminated drinking wells of nearby homes, although apparently not at levels violating drinking water standards.

—The Government Accountability Office noted that while the industry has a voluntary initiative to monitor leaks into underground water sources, the NRC hasn't evaluated how promptly that system detects such leaks.

—An NRC memo show 83 failed cables between 21 and 30 years of service at plants but underground cabling set in concrete can be extraordinarily difficult to replace. And, safety engineers say, the rash of leaks suggest nuclear operators are hard put to maintain the decades-old systems. 

—Meantime, the reactors keep getting older—66 have been approved for 20-year extensions to their original 40-year licenses, with 16 more extensions pending (or being proposed, as in the case of Diablo Canyon by owner PG&E).

—Even as the populations living near the plants has grown significantly, emergency plans still would direct many residents to flee on antiquated, two-lane roads that clog hopelessly at rush hour. And evacuation zones have remained frozen at a 10-mile radius from each plant since they were set in 1978 despite disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima in Japan.

—Population growth within 10 miles of the two-unit San Onofre plant near San Clemente has increased 283% since it was built. (Population growth data for the Diablo Canyon plant were not included but an estimated 143,000 people live around Diablo (See Slo Coast Journal.com - April), and the county has evacuation zones (called Protective Action Zones) that range from two to 20 miles north, east and south of the plant. (See SLO County CA)

—NRC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1980 stated that "evacuation time estimates should be updated as local conditions change." In 2007, then-Commissioner Gregory Jaczko acknowledged that some evacuation time estimates had not been updated "in decades." No subsequent updates were reported by AP.

—A proposed rule would require fresh estimated evacuation times with new Census data every 10 years—and after that with any jumps in population that would increase the time estimate by either 25% or 30 minutes.

—How long plants safely last? Opinion is deeply divided. But industry executives and regulators agree that more research is needed.

Here are highlights of comments made by the public at the June 15 NRC meeting:

Linda Seeley said "I did not understand one word of PG&E's presentation (made at the start of the meeting). I am very concerned with PG&E's lack of communication with the community. My understanding is that it is impossible to take into account all the variables (affecting a nuclear accident). Why do we pretend it couldn't happen here?"

Milt Carrigan said " I am concerned about the training and qualifications of plant operators. You have not established guidelines. There is no evidence of the evaluation of performance by operators." He cited the statements of the whistleblower in Slo Coast Journal (See Slo Coast Journal - Whistleblower). 

Elizabeth Brousse said she was most concerned about nuclear waste piling up at Diablo Canyon. "When will the site be full? Where will NRC advise PG&E to store it? Will the NRC advise PG&E to build more storage sites on site? Will it be safe?" (Tony Vegel, the acting division director of reactor safety in NRC's Region IV, which includes this area, indicated at the meeting that the NRS doesn't know what will be done with it.)

Henriette Groot of Cayucos presented a letter signed by 142 Quakers, calling for Diablo Canyon to be phased out as quickly as possible.

Melanie Statom said she saw pictures of people and children injured and killed at Chernobyl and "it woke me up. We are not immune from that happening here. There is no right way to do something that is inherently flawed."

Jim Conroy of Morro Bay said he saw a letter in the Tribune from an employee at Diablo, who said the plant could withstand a 7.5 quake. "I have written letters to the Tribune that didn't get published. Maybe it could withstand a 7.5 but what if a 8.5 occurs? That is my question." (Wllliam O. Miller, chief of license fee management in the branch office of administration, responded that the plant is designed to stand a 7.5 earthquake, which is the maximum that the nearby Hosgri fault could produce. Seismologists question that assumption.)

Marty Brown of Atascadero said the risks of accident or attack cannot be mitigated.

Jane Swanson, spokesperson for Mothers for Peace, said she was glad to be a part of such a well-informed community. She said Mothers for Peace wants Diablo Canyon to be phased out.

Molly Johnson said generations will be saddled by Diablo Canyon, which is immoral. She said in 1927 a 7.1 quake was registered on the Hosgri fault. "If the  plant has been run for almost 30 years and bombarded with elements, can it really withstand a 7.5 quake now?"

Kathy Staples, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Energy Coalition, said people in Santa Barbara are concerned about the drift of radioactive material down the coast if Diablo explodes.

Bruce Campbell from Los Angeles said "I live too close to Diablo even where I am."

Duane Waddell, local rancher, said we should be discussing phase out or shutdown of Diablo.

Jeannette Davis, who identified herself as chair of the Los Osos Grassroots Democrats, said the Japanese earthquake "brought me into reality. I had always trusted regulators until now. I want you to decommission the plant."

Barbara Caton of Avila said we are at ground zero.

Debbie Highfill said "When I look at the victims of Fukushima, I don't see Japanese, I see ourselves. When mapping of the faults near Diablo Canyon is done, will there be independent review?" (One NRC staff member who was not immediately identified said the NRC will review all the seismic studies conducted and mentioned that the U.S. Geological Survey will be involved, which he claimed would be an independent review.)

Richard Kranzdorf, a retired Cal Poly political science professor, pointed out that 20,000 people on the Cal Poly campus could be exposed to radiation from a Diablo Canyon accident.

Linda Owen said "If you put your family in a car with a nuclear weapon, would you drive for another 20 to 30 years? This plant is old fatigued metal. There is no alternative to replace it. The safety factor drops so quickly as it ages. You scare the living daylights out of us. As a ratepayer, I ask you to decommission Diablo." 

Fred Frank, an Atascadero farmer, said seismic science is a very young science. He said there is more waste at Diablo than at all four Japanese plants.

Glenn Griffith said "nature selected out things that don't work. After Fukushima, it is absolutely inappropriate to have Diablo here. Please decommission it."

Lynne Harkins of Cambria said "the Environmental Protection Act requires an alternative analysis when relicensing nuclear plants. Let's start here. How do you step back from the cliff?" (Hanh Phan, a staff member, said the NRC is preparing an analysis as part of the license renewal process as an Environmental Impact Statement.)

In conclusion, Vegel said we have learned a lot tonight. "This has been very helpful. This is a most knowledgeable and informed community. We have learned a lot of lessons from Fukushima." 

At the Santa Barbara meeting, (See Independent.com) residents said they are concerned that airborne radiation will blow downwind with profound consequences for the health and safety of Santa Barbara people, crops, property values, and, of course, the tourism industry.

Three of the supervisors—Salud Carbajal, Janet Wolf, and Doreen Farr—voiced grave, and at times pointed, skepticism about the safety precautions in place and whether the NRC is sufficiently independent of the industry it regulates to really protect the public.

"I'm not one of those individuals who is paranoid and thinks our government is plotting to get us," said Carbajal. "But if there's one agency that gives great cause for concern, it's the NRC." Given the potentially devastating stakes involved should something go wrong at a nuclear facility, Carbajal continued, "It gives us all the heebie-jeebies."

The Board of Supervisors has voted to send a letter to the NRC and to PG&E arguing that the re-licensing application for Diablo Canyon needed to be held up pending completion of the new seismic studies. In addition, they called on PG&E to provide the county with at least one air-monitoring station to keep track of any errant airborne radiation blown south from the plant.

 On June 7, the NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board was reported to have put NRC staff and PG&E on notice that it will not make a decision until at least 2015 on PG&E's proposed plant license renewal for 20 years until 2044 until detailed seismic studies of faults around the plant are complete. The board also ordered the utility to submit monthly reports starting this month (July) on the status of those studies. (See San Luis Obispo.com)

The proposed license renewal by PG&E without the seismic studies having been completed was facing mounting opposition, and then the Fukushima nuclear meltdown occurred, devastating the area around it, which triggered a storm of objections that led to the NRC board's decision.

Associated Press Four Part Article:

Part 1 - Radioactive Tritium Leaks Found at 48 US Nukes Sites

Part 2 - Safety Rules Loosened for Aging Nuclear Reactors

Part 3 - US Nuclear Evacuation Plans Haven't Kept Population

Part 4 - How Long Can Nuclear Reactors Last? US, Industry Extend Spans

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