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Dangers at Aging U.S. Nuclear Power Plants

Investigation Reveals Dangers at Aging U.S. Nuclear Power Plants

Interview with Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, conducted by Scott Harris

RealAudio MP3
Posted June 29, 2011

As corporate media coverage of the ongoing disaster at the four failed nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan has faded, a new concern has emerged in the U.S. as flood waters threaten two nuclear plants on the Missouri River. Both Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun nuclear plant and the Cooper Nuclear Station sit on the shores of the Missouri River, which is now facing record flood levels. The Fort Calhoun plant has been shut down for refueling since April, and operators there have installed berms, floodgates and piled up sandbags to help protect the facility. When floods caused the local electricity grid to fail, emergency generators had to be used to supply power to keep the reactor cool and prevent a meltdown, such as occurred in Fukushima. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has assured the public that the plant is equipped to safely survive the flood.

Adding to heightened concern about the safety of nuclear power in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster, is the publication of a new Associated Press investigation into the failure of nuclear regulators in the U.S. to enforce already weakened safety regulations. In an investigative series titled, "Aging Nukes," the AP's Jeff Don found evidence that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, has colluded with the nuclear power industry to weaken safety standards in order to continue operating older, potentially dangerous nuclear plants. The AP report also discovered that radioactive tritium has leaked from 48 of the 65 U.S. commercial nuclear power sites, often into groundwater from corroded, buried piping. Leaks from at least 37 of those facilities contained concentrations exceeding the federal drinking water standard -- sometimes at hundreds of times the limit.

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Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, who examines the concerns raised by the Associated Press investigation -- and the call by three U.S. senators for a federal investigation into safety standards and oversight at the nation's 104 nuclear power reactors.

MICHAEL MARIOTTE: The first thing of interest, I think, is they documented something we found ourselves not long ago, as well, which is that radioactive tritium has leaked at three-quarters of the U.S. nuclear sites. It's leaked into local groundwater, it's leaked off site in many places and it's leaked at levels far higher than are allowable in drinking water. Now, there isn't at this point, evidence that this has actually leaked into drinking water, but tritium is very mobile, and if it gets into groundwater then it can move very quickly. So it's concerning, and what should be especially concerning, of course is that the industry's constant refrain of nuclear safety and that they don't have leaks and that kind of thing. But in fact, three-quarters of the nation's nuclear sites have experienced these leaks over the last decade or so. That's one thing.

The other thing is -- and this is something that those of us who work closely on this business are also pretty aware of -- is that as the U.S. reactor fleet ages, the average reactor in the U.S. is more than 20 years old. A lot of them are more than 30 years old, a few are right around 40 years old, and as they get older, just like any other piece of machinery -- any other large complicated mechanical thing you can think of -- as they age, they experience more problems. And this is particularly true in a reactor, where you not only have a sort of a normal kind of aging that you might find in a car or a factory or anything else -- these are operating in environments of extremely high heat and extremely high radiation, and that causes different effects on materials than would be the case under a non-nuclear environment.

What the AP found is a pattern of the NRC giving exemptions from regulations to utilities to allow them not to have to spend a lot of money to keep these reactors running; relaxing regulations to make them easier to meet for utilities and generally bending over backwards to keep these reactors (operating) at a cost that the utilities are willing to pay. Now if the utilities were willing to pay any cost, that would be one thing, but for the utilities, these older reactors are basically cash cows. These old reactors, the initial construction costs have been paid for and now, they just want to run them flat out and make as much money as they can until they can't run any more.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What do you feel Congress should be doing right now in terms of investigating the charges in this Associated Press investigative piece? What do they need to do?

MICHAEL MARIOTTE: Well, three senators -- Sen. (Barbara) Boxer of California, (Sheldon) Whitehouse of Rhode Island and (Bernie) Sanders of Vermont -- actually have already called for a congressional investigation of all of these charges. And Sen. Boxer herself is actually in the best position to do that, she is the chair of the Senate Environment Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She's called for an investigation. Well, she ought to go ahead and get it going, and I suspect probably she will. And I think what they need to do -- from our perspective -- is to not only bring in the commissioners and talk to them -- the commissioners are the ones appointed by the president and who set the policy.

But, I think they need to bring in some of the high-level staff people as well, who are career people. There's a major revolving door between the NRC and the nuclear industry, as you might expect; it's not unusual in government. And they need to bring these kinds of people in and find out exactly why in some of these specific instances, for example, fire protection, why nearly 30 years -- actually more than that -- 35 years after a major fire at the Browns Ferry reactor in Alabama caused the NRC to write rules to protect reactors from fires, why most of the reactors in the United States still don't meet those rules. And it's a national scandal that they don't. We've been pushing and pushing and pushing for 20 years ourselves to get them to take this seriously, and the NRC constantly gives exemptions and amendments and allows these reactors to operate even though they don't meet the fire protection rules.

And I'll just give you a very concrete example so you know what we're talking about. The rules say that the wiring from the control room to the safety system -- everything's electric, so you need these wires -- that these wires should be protected by fire barriers; by materials that can't catch fire, so that in the event that you do have a fire, the wires aren't going to burn, and you're going to be able to control the reactor. Well, all these years later, a lot of plants still don't have these barriers in place, and as a substitute the NRC allows fire "watches," which is a guy who walks the plant and looks for fire, and if he doesn't see a fire, he keeps on walking around the plant. And they do this every couple of hours, 24 hours a day, and that's the fire protection program. And that's just not acceptable.

Related Links:

Full-length Counterpoint interview with Michael Mariotte, conducted by Scott Harris, June 27, 2011 (28:40)
"AP IMPACT: US nuke regulators weaken safety rules," Associated Press, June 20, 2011
"AP IMPACT: Tritium leaks found at many nuke sites," Associated Press, June 21, 2011
"AP IMPACT: Populations around US nuke plants soar," Associated Press, June 27, 2011
"AP IMPACT: NRC and industry rewrite nuke history," Associated Press, June 28, 2011


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