Posts Tagged ‘Nuclear Power’

Nuclear Electric Insurance Ltd. (NEIL), the company that insures all 104 U.S. nuclear power plants has just around $3.6 billion on hand to pay for claims from broken nuclear plants in California (San Onofre nuclear power station), Texas (South Texas Nuclear Project), Michigan (Cook nuclear power station) and Florida (Crystal River).  Crystal River alone represents such a financial threat that the insurance company may have to demand that its member utilities shell out more money.

As a mutual insurance company, NEIL’s members agree to cover each other in the event of a catastrophe. NEIL was formed in 1980 in response to the Three Mile Island disaster and is allowed to raise as much as $2 billion from its members in a 20 day period drawing from the owners of all 104 nuclear plants in the United States.

NEIL’s policies allows for a payment up to $2.25 billion for damage to a plant, plus up to an extra $490 million for replacement power while the plant is idled.

Damage to Crystal River nuclear plant's containment wall

Damage to Crystal River nuclear plant’s containment wall

Repairing the Crystal River plant could cost as much as $3.5 billion for construction work and $300 million a year for related costs such as purchasing alternative electricity while the plant remains off line. That could push the total cost above $5 billion, but there are questions about whether the damage was an accident or whether the 2009 replacement of old steam generators inside the nuclear plant’s 42-inch thick concrete containment wall was mishandled when the managing company chose a do-it-yourself approach in order to save about $15 million by using one of the two companies that handled all similar projects in the nation. An attempt to repair the resulting crack in the containment wall and bring the plant back online resulted in more cracks.

Most of the 104 reactors in the United States were built in the 1970s and early 1980s. A few date back to the 1960s and they are starting to show their age, putting additional pressure on the insurer as is evident in the additional claims in the works.

Turbine loss at the Cook nuclear power station in Bridgman, MI. resulted in a claim for which NEIL had already paid out $400 million by the end of 2011.

The insurer also faces “the meaningful” claim for the South Texas Nuclear Project, which suffered damage to a turbine generator in its number two unit and is not expected to be back online until as late as July this year. It is unclear how much that will cost the insurance company.

And now NEIL must ready itself for the troubles at California’s San Onofre nuclear power station, where two generators have been offline since January 2012.  The replacement power alone for San Onofre’s out-of-service units reached $221 million through September of this year and it is unclear what the repair costs would add to that bill.

In the past, NEIL has paid out annual distributions to all its members after the insurer reaches a comfortable reserve — generally about $3.5 billion. The money is distributed to the members based on the premiums they pay each year. Between the loss of the annual distributions and charges to these power companies to cover shortfalls from these claims, nuclear plants around the country could be looking some unexpected financial hits in the coming year or two.

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An Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) panel will conduct an evidentiary hearing Oct. 31 in Rockville, Md., in the South Texas Project Combined License (COL) proceeding. The ASLB is the independent body within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that presides over proceedings involving the licensing of civilian nuclear facilities, such as nuclear power plants.

This evidentiary hearing will consider a contention (or challenge) originally scheduled to be heard in August but deferred due to the unavoidable absence of an expert witness. The Board has also asked all the parties’ attorneys to be prepared for oral argument on a new proposed contention related to the Fukushima Dai-ichi accident in Japan, although the Board is not certain if such oral argument will be necessary. The hearing will begin at 9:30 a.m. EDT in the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel Hearing Facility, Room T-3B45 in the NRC’s Two White Flint North Building, 11545 Rockville Pike in Rockville.

The session is open for public observation, but participation will be limited to the parties admitted to the proceeding (several public interest groups, the applicant – Nuclear Innovation North America (NINA) – and NRC staff). Early arrival at the NRC’s main visitor entrance in the One White Flint North Building is suggested to allow for security screening for all members of the public interested in attending. NRC policy prohibits signs, banners, posters or displays in the hearing room at any time during the proceeding.

The South Texas Project COL application was submitted Sept. 20, 2007, seeking permission to construct and operate two new nuclear reactors at an existing site near Bay City, Texas. The ASLB granted intervenor standing to the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition, the South Texas Association for Responsible Energy, and Public Citizen, and found they had submitted admissible contentions that challenge the COL application. The contention that will be addressed on Oct. 31 involves the question of whether the application and NRC review properly accounts for energy efficient building code rules in assessing the need for power.

Individuals or groups not admitted to the proceeding can submit “written limited appearance statements” to the ASLB. Anyone wishing to submit a written statement may do so by email to [email protected], by fax to 301-415-1101, or by mail to: Office of the Secretary, Attn. Rulemaking and Adjudications Staff, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, DC 20555-0001. In addition, copies of written statements should be sent to the Chairman of the Licensing Board by e-mail to [email protected] and [email protected]; by fax to 301-415-5599, or by mail to: Administrative Judge Michael M. Gibson, Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel, Mail Stop: T-3F23, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, D.C. 20555-0001.

Documents related to the South Texas Project COL application are available on the NRC website. Documents pertaining to the ASLB proceeding are available in the agency’s electronic hearing docket. More information about the ASLB can be found at the NRC website.

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The expansion of the South Texas Nuclear Project (STP) from 2 units to 4 units has had an interesting financing history.  Initially Austin Energy chose to not pursue a financial partnership with NRG, Toshiba and San Antonio’s municipally owned utility – CPS.  That left CPS with a 50% ownership, which they later dropped to 40% and then, during an upset at the utility when the city of San Antonio discovered that CPS had withheld information about a 4 billion dollar increase in the estimated cost of building the new plant just before the City Council was to vote on a bond issue for the plant, the city and CPS backpedaled and in a final settlement became 7.6% owners with the understanding that they would put no further funding into the project.

CPS’s substantial exit from the NRG/NINA partnership left the project  searching for additional partners and power purchase agreements (PPAs) to keep its expansion alive.  Opponents of the plant were focusing efforts on preventing central Texas public power providers from signing PPAs and had made some progress when the Japanese earthquake and subsequent tsunami triggered the nuclear disaster at Fukushima.

Within two days after the Japanese earthquake, Public Citizen was linking the financial death of the STP expansion project with NRG’s remaining financial partners – Japanese companies Toshiba, TEPCO (the operators of the doomed Fukushima plant) and the Bank of Japan. On May 1, NRG announced it was writing off its financial investment in the STP expansion, effectively killing the project for the foreseeable future.

Most people thought this was the end of this expansion move, but Toshiba, the sole remaining financial partner did not pull the application and at the end of August, Public Citizen, the SEED Coalition and the local opposition group went before an Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) panel–an independent body within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)–to present oral arguments.

These opponents of two proposed South Texas Project nuclear reactors received a favorable order from ASLB judges allowing a full hearing to proceed regarding the project’s foreign ownership. Licensing efforts may be impacted as a result. In April, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told Unistar Nuclear Energy it could not get an operating license for its planned reactor at Calvert Cliffs in Maryland because it was fully owned by France’s electricite de France (EDF)—a foreign entity.

“Federal law is clear that foreign controlled corporations are not eligible to apply for a license to build and operate nuclear power plants. The evidence is that Toshiba is in control of the project and this precludes obtaining an NRC license for South Texas Project 3 & 4,” said Brett Jarmer, a lawyer for the Intervenors; SEED Coalition, Public Citizen and South Texas Association for Responsible Energy. “Foreign investment in U.S. nuclear projects is not per se prohibited; but Toshiba is paying all the bills for the STP 3 & 4 project. This makes it difficult to accept that Toshiba doesn’t control the project,” said attorney Robert Eye. “National security and safety concerns justify NRC’s limits on foreign ownership and control of nuclear reactors,” said Karen Hadden, Director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition. “What if a foreign company runs a U.S. reactor carelessly? What if a nation that’s friendly today becomes hostile toward the U.S. in the future and tries threaten us with our own reactors?” “Even if the reactors are operated by the South Texas Nuclear Operating Company, they will get their orders from foreign owners. What if their concerns are more about costcutting and less about safety?” asked Susan Dancer, President of South Texas Association for Responsible Energy. “Japanese investors would have us believe that they can come to America and safely build, own and operate nuclear plants, and that we should not concern ourselves with passe laws and regulations, but the Fukushima disaster has demonstrated the flawed Japanese model of nuclear safety. Our nuclear reactors should be controlled by the people most concerned about our country: fellow Americans.” The judges’ order is online at www.NukeFreeTexas.org.

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Earlier today I got on a scheduled phone call with some of the staff in our D.C. office just after they had come back into their building after evacuating during the 5.8 magnitude Virginia earthquake that rattled buildings and nerves all the way to New York City.  They, of course, had more immediate concerns but thoughts for many folks here in the Texas office immediately went to “What nuclear plants are in the area.”  And, sure enough, not minutes after I got back to to my desk I found an Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) alert announcing that this earthquake also triggered the shutdown of a nearby nuclear power plant and spurred declarations of “unusual events” at plants as far away as Michigan.

Dominion Virginia Power reported that both reactors at its North Anna plant, less than 20 miles from the epicenter of the magnitude-5.8 quake, shut down after the first tremors and vented steam, but there was no release of radioactive material.  Off-site electric power has been interrupted, but right now, the operator is reporting that the plant is operating on emergency power and the units were safely deactivated.

North Anna’s operators were preparing to manually shut down the units after the quake when the power station’s operating system automatically powered down both units when off-site power was lost.

The plant has four diesel generators supplying backup power and those generators have three days of fuel. However, off-site electric power was expected to be restored later today.


The plant ran on emergency diesel generating power overnight and off-site power was restored today, August 24th.

The North Anna plant is about 50 miles northwest of Richmond and about 90 miles southwest of Washington. Operators declared an alert — the second-lowest level of emergency reporting under U.S. nuclear regulations — after the quake struck shortly before 2 p.m., the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said.

Twelve other plants in six states issued an “unusual event” declaration, the lowest level of emergency notice, according to the NRC. They included the Shearon Harris plant in North Carolina; the Calvert Cliffs plant in Maryland; Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna, Three Mile Island, Limerick and Peach Bottom plants; the Oyster Creek, Hope Creek and Salem plants in New Jersey; and the D.C. Cook and Palisades plants in Michigan.  All of these plants are continuing to operate, but plant personnel are examining the sites for any damage or problems.

Let’s hope they get everything squared away before Irene hits somewhere along the eastern seaboard in the next 4 to 5 days.  One track show it coming into the Washington, DC area still as a Category 1 hurricane.

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The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is seeking public comment on proposed revisions to its policy statement on volume reduction of low-level radioactive waste (LLRW).

The proposed revisions would urge licensees to minimize the volume of waste they produce since such a focus will extend the operational lifetime of the existing commercial low-level disposal sites and reduce the number of waste shipments.

The revised policy statement, however, would also recognize that volume reduction is only one aspect of an effective program for managing radioactive waste.
According to the draft policy statement, licensees should consider all means available to manage waste in a manner that is secure, and protects public health and safety. Such means include waste minimization; short-term storage and decay; long-term storage; use of the alternative disposal provision in NRC regulations at 10 CFR 20.2002; use of waste processing technologies; and use of licensed disposal facilities.

About 96 percent of all LLRW is generated by nuclear power plants. The remainder is generated by fuel cycle facilities such as uranium enrichment plants, and materials licensees such as hospitals, research institutes and universities.

Public comments will be accepted through Sept. 14. They may be submitted through the federal government’s rulemaking website at www.regulations.gov, using Docket ID NRC-2011-0183; or by mail to Cindy Bladey, Chief, Rules Announcements, and Directives Branch (RADB), Office of Administration, Mail Stop TWB-05-B01M, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, DC 20555-0001.

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Despite the fact that NRG/Toshiba (formally know together as NINA) has been unsuccessful in their multi-year efforts to expand by two units, the South Texas “Nuclear” Project (STP) – the process for their Combined License (COL) is proceeding. 

An Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) panel will hear oral argument and conduct an evidentiary hearing, beginning Aug. 17 in Austin, Texas which will begin at 9:30 a.m. CDT, in Room 2210, Building F of the Campus of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, 12100 Park 35 Circle in Austin. The session is open for public observation, but participation will be limited to the parties admitted to the proceeding (Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, the South Texas Association for Responsible Energy, Public Citizen, the applicant – Nuclear Innovation North America (NINA) – and NRC staff).

The ASLB is the independent body within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that presides over proceedings involving the licensing of civilian nuclear facilities, such as nuclear power plants.

The South Texas Project COL application was submitted Sept. 20, 2007, the first such application in the United States in nearly 30 years.  STP was seeking permission to construct and operate two new nuclear reactors at the site near Bay City, Texas.  The ASLB granted intervenor status and an opportunity for a hearing to the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, the South Texas Association for Responsible Energy, and Public Citizen. The groups have submitted objections, or contentions, challenging the COL application, most recently regarding the question of whether NINA meets NRC requirements prohibiting foreign ownership, control or domination of a nuclear facility in the U.S.

Over the past four years, this project has experienced:

  • An increase in their estimate to build the new units from 5.6 billion dollars to over 18 billion dollars
  • A major pull back by their local partner, San Antonio’s CPS from a 50% ownership to 7%
  • A struggle to find new partners with the only interest from TEPCO – the operators of the doomed Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and the Bank of Japan,
  • The melt through of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant following the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s eastern coast and subsequently caused the meltdown of the nuclear industry throughout the world.

We would encourage any interested to attend.  Early arrival each day is suggested to allow for security screening for members of the public attending. NRC policy prohibits signs, banners, posters or displays in the hearing room at any time during the proceeding.

Individuals or groups not admitted to the proceeding can submit “written limited appearance statements” to the ASLB. Anyone wishing to submit a written statement may do so by email to [email protected], by fax to (301) 415-1101, or by mail to: Office of the Secretary, Attn. Rulemaking and Adjudications Staff, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, DC 20555-0001. In addition, copies of written statements should be sent to the Chairman of the Licensing Board by e-mail to [email protected] and [email protected]; by fax to (301-415-5599), or by mail to: Administrative Judge Michael M. Gibson, Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel, Mail Stop: T-3F23, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, DC 20555-0001.

Documents related to the South Texas Project COL application are available on the NRC website. Documents pertaining to the ASLB proceeding are available in the agency’s electronic hearing docket. More information about the ASLB can be found at the NRC website.

NOTE: Anyone wishing to take photos or use a camera to record any portion of a NRC meeting should contact the Office of Public Affairs beforehand.

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NRC Japan Task Force Report CoverThe Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Japan Task Force has proposed improvements in areas ranging from loss of power to earthquakes, flooding, spent fuel pools, venting and preparedness, and said a “patchwork of regulatory requirements” developed “piece-by-piece over the decades” should be replaced with a “logical, systematic and coherent regulatory framework” to further bolster reactor safety in the United States.

The report has been given to the five members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who are responsible for making decisions regarding the Task Force’s recommendations.

While declaring that “a sequence of events like the Fukushima accident is unlikely to occur in the United States” and that plants can be operated safely, the Task Force also recognized that “an accident involving core damage and uncontrolled release of radioactivity to the environment, even one without significant health consequences, is inherently unacceptable and proposed a comprehensive set of 12 recommendations to increase safety and redefine what level of protection of public health is regarded as adequate. It also recommended additional study of some issues.

The recommendations looked at ensuring protection, enhancing accident mitigation, strengthening emergency preparedness and improving the efficiency of NRC programs.

The report noted that the current NRC approach to regulation includes requirements for protection and responses for events that the facilities were originally designed to stand up to, such as earthquakes of the largest magnitude, or the highest flood level, or the strongest hurricane that had been experienced in the area at the time the permit was approved.  These are referred to as “design-basis” events.  There are also modest requirements for some “beyond-design-basis” events as well as voluntary initiatives by individual plant operators to address severe accident issues that are part of the NRC’s current framework for protection against what happened at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island or Fukushima.  But as noted by the task force, the current approach is piecemeal.

The report recommends a more coherent regulatory framework that balances defense-in-depth (layered security mechanisms that increase security of the system as a whole) and risk considerations that includes, but is not limited to:

  • Requiring plants to reevaluate and upgrade as necessary their seismic and flooding protections and reconfirm every 10 years;
  • Strengthening Station Black Out (SBO) systems so that plants could cope with offsite or onsite power outages for a minimum of 8 hours; establishing equipment, procedures and training to keep the core and spent fuel pool cool at least 72 hours; and developing plans for offsite resources to be delivered to the site to support uninterrupted core and pool cooling;
  • Requiring that emergency plans address prolonged station blackouts and events involving multiple reactors;
  • Requiring additional instrumentation and seismically protected systems to provide additional cooling water to spent fuel pools if necessary;
  • Reviewing vent designs and identifying, as part of the longer term review, insights about hydrogen control and mitigation inside containment or in other buildings.

We now wait to see if and how the NRC will incorporate these recommendations into their licensing and regulatory authority over the U.S.’s nuclear fleet.  It is doubtful that this will slow the rush to relicense that is occurring around the country as plants near the end of their planned life.

Click here to read the full 79-page report.

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Exelon’s  Dresden Nuclear Power Plant located in Morris, Ill., roughly 60 miles southwest of Chicago declared an alert at 10:16 a.m. CT today after a chemical leak restricted access to a vital area that houses plant cooling water pumps.  The leaking chemical is sodium hypochlorite, which is similar to bleach, and is routinely used in plant operations to treat water.

NRC says there is currently no impact to the public health and safety and the environment.

The leak has been stopped and clean up by plant workers is underway.  The utility reported about 330 gallons of the chemical leaked and two plant workers who were working in the area were taken offsite for treatment due to possible inhalation of the chemical fumes

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In their ongoing effort to accomplish a cold shutdown by January, Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), the beleaguered operator of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power plant said it had resumed the use of recycled water to cool the reactor cores this weekend, a week after its first attempt was suspended due to leaks that developed within minutes of starting up the recycled water system.

Tepco has installed a tank to store 1,000 metric tons of decontaminated water to complete the recycling system, stabilizing the water source for cooling the Nos. 1-3 reactors, eliminating the need to use fresh water from an outside source to cool the reactors, and creating even more irradiated water, which then requires storage or disposal.

Establishment of a closed cooling system is essential to stabilizing the Daiichi reactors and getting the reactors to cold shutdown, which is defined as lowering the temperature of the fuel rods to below 100 degrees Celsius—water’s boiling point—and keeping it there.

If Tepco’s current efforts are successful, they hope to increase the flow of water and bring down the reactor-core temperatures, which currently hovers between 100 and 160 degrees Celsius.

Even if the recycling system works smoothly, Japan is still left with the problem of how to dispose of the radioactive sludge being created during the filtering process.  Japan, like Texas, has a disposal site for low-level radioactive waste, but there are no guidelines for disposing of the type of sludge now being created, which is expected to total 706 metric tons.

In the meantime, work at the complex is being hampered by the unseasonably hot weather.  There have been 17 reported cases of heatstroke at the plant in recent weeks.

And if that wasn’t enough

Tepco also faces other issues as senior members of Japan’s government developed secret plans to break up the nuclear plant operator, according to reports uncovered by Reuters.

The plan would bring nuclear operations of Tepco under government control, and force Tepco to sell its power distribution business.  Only the power-generation operations that use thermal and hydraulic power plants would remain as the company’s business cutting Tepco’s size to one third of its current operations.

I guess a really, really big mistake costs industry really, really big.

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It appears that the fate for nuclear power in Japan following the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, could be decided by a local governor of an obscure prefecture of about 850,000 residents on the southernmost main island of Kyushu.

Governor Yasushi Furukawa of Saga Prefecture, must decide in coming days whether to support a request by Prime Minister Naoto Kan to restart two reactors at a local nuclear plant that have been shut down since last winter for regular maintenance.  If Governor Furukawa decides no, and other governors follow his lead, every nuclear reactor in Japan could end up idled in less than a year, turning Japan into a non-nuclear country faster than Germany.

Japan’s reactors are legally required to shut down every 13 months for routine maintenance. Thirty-five of the nation’s 54 reactors are now offline, some because of damage from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, but most because of the maintenance requirement. Unless some of them are turned back on, the last reactor in Japan will be shut down by next April.  Currently nuclear reactors provide the nation with almost a third of its electricity.

Turning the reactors back on requires the central government’s approval, which has not been granted since the Fukushima accident. In the public backlash against nuclear power that has followed the disaster, the government is asking local political leaders to sign off on the restarts as well.

Mr. Furukawa is the first governor who is being called upon to make a decision. This has turned him into a reluctant leader of sorts on this nation’s nuclear future, as his decision will be closely watched by other local leaders, most of whom are on the fence about restarting reactors as they weigh issues of public anxieties about safety versus the threat of electricity shortages.

Recent Japanese opinion polls show an overwhelming majority — 82 percent in a survey conducted last month for Tokyo Shimbun — support getting rid of the nation’s reactors, but do not favor an immediate halt, prefering a gradual phasing out of nuclear power as alternatives are found.

Japan has a long history with nuclear power, and is the world’s principle manufacturer of some nuclear reactor components.  A pull back of their commitment to nuclear power could have a resounding affect on the future of nuclear power throughout the world, including those countries – the U.S., India, and Poland – who are still promoting the expansion of nuclear power.  The Saga Prefecture governor should make a decision in the next couple of weeks and we’ll update this blog at that time.

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Bashing Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), has become a regular habit in Japan over the past three months. While Tepco managers certainly bungled the response to the crisis at the company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Tepco wasn’t operating in a vacuum.  Indications are that failures of corporate governance policies and the regulatory entity’s cozy relationship with industry contributed to the environment that left the Japanese public angered at both the Fukushima Daiichi operators and their government in the wake of the nuclear disaster that befell their country.   Japanese policy makers still are pretending Tepco is simply one bad apple, while ignoring systemic problems and the Japanese public is intent on going after Tepco.

Protests outside TEPCO shareholder meeting

Protests outside TEPCO shareholder meeting

Angry shareholders of Japan’s Tepco slammed the company for its handling of the nation’s worst ever atomic accident after the March quake-tsunami, amid calls for the firm to abandon nuclear power.  Protests were held outside the shareholder meeting on June 28th.

In the meantime, here in the US policy makers are still debating the future of nuclear power while Mother Nature keeps sending gentle reminders of the risks. Flood waters from the Missouri River breeched a damaged berm around Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun reactor  over the weekend inundating the site under several feet of water. Meanwhile, at Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atomic bomb and home to 20,000 barrels of nuclear waste, wildfires are still raging.

But back at Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Gregory B. Jaczko, chairman of the NRC keeps telling Congress and the media that the probability of a nuclear disaster on U.S. soil similar to Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi meltdown is “very, very small.”  And the rest of the agency falls into line with federal regulators insisting that U.S. nuclear power plants are operating safely while they move forward with 12 applications for new nuclear power plans and five different reactor designs, as well as more and more applications for re-licensing of the 104 aging nuclear plants now operating. 

“At this time the agency considers that the existing emergency preparedness framework and regulations provide reasonable assurance of adequate protection of public health and safety in the event of a radiological  emergency at a US power reactor facility,” Jaczko submitted in written testimony to Congress on June 16.  But the results of 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. 

The NRC ordered the inspection 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 in response to the March earthquake and tsunami that crippled Fukushima’s reactors. 

Agency officials unveiled the results in May, stating  “out of 65 operating reactor sites, 12 had issues with one or more of the requirements during the inspections.”  But an closer examination of the reports from those inspections by ProPublica 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:

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.

In a summary attached to the inspection findings even 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 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.

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 actually higher than they were predicted when some plants were built, although the NRC says reactors can still withstand the highest expected quake (but that’s what Japan thought). Now historic flooding on the Missouri River is testing design limits at two Nebraska plants.

So keep this in mind, like the reports coming from Tepco and the Japanese government after the problems started at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, NRC’s jargon-laden communiques freqently reflect what the operator has reported, and do little to shed light on any issues or events occurring at nuclear power plants throughout our country.  When the agency says that America’s 104 operating nuclear power plants are being inspected to deal with power loss or damage that might follow an “extreme” event, keep in mind the NRC’s loosening of standards over the years at the industry’s urging and the other policies put in place because of the agency’s cozy relationship with the industry.  The nuclear industry here in the US is not so different from Japan’s.  Whose heads will we want if there is some catastrophic failure at one of our own plants?

The full report of lessons learned from the Fukushima incident will arrive on July 19. For now, the world’s other 336 other radioactive reactors are also being pushed by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to launch a series of national safety tests backed by international inspections.

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In a series of investigative stories, the Associated Press (AP) has been reporting on the state of the US nuclear industry in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan.  In this recent report, the AP found that as America’s nuclear power plants have aged, the once-rural areas around them have become far more crowded and much more difficult to evacuate.

Even as nuclear plants run at higher power, posing more danger in the event of an accident, populations around the facilities have swelled as much as 4½ times since 1980.  At the same time estimates of evacuation times have not been updated in decades.  Emergency plans would direct 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.

With about 120 million people, almost 40 percent of all Americans, living within 50 miles of a nuclear plant (using 2010 Census data) this scenario smacks of human tragedy, for any nuclear accident in this country.

Click here to read this segment of AP’s investigative study of Nuclear Power in America.

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Global Support for Nuclear Power Drops

A new Ipsos/Reuters poll released on June 22nd reveal that global support for nuclear power has plummetted in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. A survey of over 19,000 people in 24 countries showed that three quarters of people now think nuclear power will soon be obsolete.  Only three countries still show support for nuclear power: the U.S., India and Poland.

Recent investigative reporting shows that the relative safety of nuclear power in the U.S. is tenuous, despite what some politicians have claimed. A big problem is that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has been working with the nuclear power industry to keep our country’s reactors operating within safety standards, but they’ve been doing it by either weakening those standards, or not enforcing them at all. A year-long investigation by the Associated Press (AP) revealed that the NRC has extended licenses for dozens of aging U.S. nuclear plants despite their having multiple problems, like rusted pipes, broken seals, failed cables and leaking valves. When such problems are found, the NRC will weaken the standards to help the plants meet them instead of ordering them to be repaired to meet current standards. The nuclear industry argues that the standards they are violating are “unnecessarily conservative,” so the NRC simply loosens the standards.

Just last year, the NRC weakened the safety margin for acceptable radiation damage to nuclear reactor vessels — for the second time. Through public record requests to the NRC, the AP obtained photographs of badly rusted valves, holes eaten into the tops of reactor vessels, severe rust in pipes carrying essential water supplies, peeling walls, actively leaking water pipes and other problems found among the nation’s fleet of aging nuclear reactors.

Fukushima has been a wake up call about the dangers of nuclear power, and some countries are heeding the information. But it seems the U.S. is lagging behind when it comes to this issue. Light-to-absent coverage of TEPCO’s struggles to bring Fukushima under control, legislators who insist on acting favorably towards the nuclear power industry despite the deteriorated state of our current reactor fleet and an ineffective Nuclear Regulatory Commission have all contributed to a bad combination of a dangerous situation and a complacent American public on this issue.

This combination of lax regulations and questionable maintenance at US nuclear facilities is especially concerning with the flooding that two Nebraska nuclear plants are now facing from the swollen Missiouri River. 

Here in Texas, the first hearing to determine what issues would be addressed in the Sustaninable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition’s intervention in the re-licensing application of the South Texas Nuclear plant in Matagorda County happened Monday.  There are indications that the NRC is being more mindful that they appear more concerned with safety issues in the relicensing process, but we will see whether this is window dressing or if the agency is going to apply some lessons learned from Fukushima to our country’s relicensing process as this application moves forward.

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The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is monitoring events at the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant after a protective berm holding back floodwaters from the Missouri River collapsed early today.

The plant, located about 19 miles north of Omaha, Nebraska, is operated by Omaha Public Power District.  NRC has been monitoring this plant since  June 6th because of flooding along the river. 

The situation at this plant, in spite of the reassurances of the operators and the NRC, has been a bit nerve wracking following on the heels of the Japanese disaster, especially for those of us who see the NRC more as an industry cheerleader than a safety agency. 

On June 9th, a fire in an electrical switch room briefly knocked out cooling for a pool holding spent nuclear fuel, and just last October, the plant was cited because they failed to maintain procedures for combating a major flood, earning them a “yellow” safety violation.  Since that time, the plant has put measures in place, but there is still concern about how effective these measures will be in the face of this record breaking flood event, especially in  light of the most recent events.

Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant and the flood of 2011 photo by Lane Hickenbottom/Reuters

A 2,000 foot-long, 8-foot-tall by 16-foot-wide, water-filled temporary berm was put in place to provide supplemental flood protection to the plant, but it collapsed about 1:25 a.m. today allowing floodwaters to surround the auxiliary and containment buildings.  The operators and NRC are telling the public that the plant is protected by design to a floodwater level of 1014 mean sea level and that while the Missouri River is currently at 1006.3 feet, river levels are not expected to exceed 1008 feet. 

Worst-case scenario plans are also in place if floodwaters should reach 1,014 feet, breech the levee and prohibit further use of emergency generators. In that circumstance, plant officials plan to tap into power lines running above the facility and/or utilize secondary backup generators housed at 1,036 feet.

Before floodwaters could flow into the cooling pool the river would need to rise to an incredibly unprecedented 1,038.5 feet, which we assume would also knock out those secondary backup generators housed at 1,036 feet.  At that point, “what the Fukushima”, all bets are off.

Aquadam at Ft Calhoun (before failure) is 2000 ft long, 8 ft high and 16 ft wide.

The collapse of the berm also allowed floodwaters to surround the main electrical transformers, forcing the shutdown of electrical power. Operators transferred power from offsite sources routed through the main electrical transformers to the emergency diesel generators. Twelve hours later they were able to reconnect to offsite power.

Oh, and did we mention that there were tornados in the area over the weekend?  Just a little added excitement.

Media coverage should provide updates for this situation and we’ll blog more about it has we receive information.

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According to an Associated Press investigative report, three-quarters of the nation’s commercial nuclear power sites have had tritium leaks (a radioactive form of hydrogen), often into groundwater from corroded, buried piping and the number and severity of the leaks has been escalating as the reactors age, even as federal regulators extend the licenses of more and more reactors across the nation.  Leaks from at least 37 of those facilities contained concentrations exceeding the federal drinking water standard — sometimes at hundreds of times the limit.  Click here to read the entire AP story.

Population near aging Texas nuclear plants.

Comanche Peak

South Texas Project


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