US Nuclear Industry History Of Safety Failures & NRC Apathy

This 2001 Time.com article fell into our inbox over the weekend. What it shows was going on in the late 1990’s is not only disturbing, it seems to still be going on today, even after Fukushima.

The Millstone nuclear plant had been for 20 years violating their reactor license and operating outside the design basis of the plant. So were 14 other reactors in the US. These are the ones that just happened to be caught due to a very persistent whistleblower.

Reactor outages cost money, large sums of money. Some in the millions of dollars. This causes many reactor owners to cut corners on safety and procedure. We saw this brought to fruition at Fukushima where corner cutting,ignoring safety issues and a culture that did not allow employees to raise issues contributed to what is likely the worst nuclear disaster in history. At Millstone corner cutting included unloading the entire reactor core of fuel too soon after shutdown and all directly into the spent fuel pool.

This was not only in violation of their license but highly dangerous. The rules require a 250 hour cool down of the reactor and only offloading 1/3 of the reactor core. Millstone was doing it after 65 hours and unloading the entire reactor core of fuel. They were putting 23 million BTUs into a pool analyzed for 8 million, something the engineer that finally blew the whistle said is akin to running your car at 5000 rpm. The fuel pool at Millstone did not have the cooling capacity to safely deal with this. Adding to the risks, the reactor staff would have races to see who could offload fuel from the reactor faster. What does this mean? The overheating, boiling spent fuel pool in unit 4 at Fukushima is what could happen if an overloaded pool full of fresh fuel should lose cooling function. These pools are outside containment. Rising radiation in such an accident would also complicate repairs. Millstone sits on the heavily populated east coast in Connecticut.

When engineers at Millstone discovered the dangerous situation they attempted to use proper internal channels to resolve the problem. This evolved into a multiple years battle with the NRC, the reactor owner and a number of members of Congress. The engineers that tried to alert the NRC to the considerable safety risk that had been going on were harassed and retaliated against by their employer. The Time article shows a deep and broad culture within the commercial nuclear power industry to suppress anyone from raising safety issues. If one thinks this was isolated to Millstone or was a thing of the past they need only look to Ft. Calhoun.

Ft. Calhoun became famous after the nuclear plant was surrounded by flood water for months protected with only sandbags and a big rubber tube barrier (that eventually popped). The NRC has admitted the plant had a serious culture problem. Only after the massive public attention the flood and subsequent failures and fires at the plant caused did the NRC take any serious action. Even then an NRC inspector had to go to Congressman Markey to get his concerns addressed after upper NRC officials tried to squash his safety concerns at Ft. Calhoun.

Even more worrying, in the 2001 article is the absolute indictment of the NRC and that they either failed to notice for 20 years that plants were doing these full fuel offloads or knew and looked the other way making one wonder what good they are if they do not regulate on behalf of public safety?

It all comes back to money. “When a safety issue is too expensive for the industry, the NRC pencils it away,” says Stephen Comley, executive director of a whistle-blower support group called We the People, which has brought many agency failures to light. “If the NRC enforced all its rules, some of the plants we’ve studied couldn’t compete economically.”In a rare point of agreement with activists, the nuclear industry also says regulations threaten to drive some plants out of business, but it argues that many NRC rules boost costs without enhancing safety. “The regulatory system hasn’t kept pace with advances in technology,” says Steve Unglesbee, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s p.r. unit. “Industrywide, our safety record is improving. But NRC creates so many layers of regulation that every plant is virtually assured of being in noncompliance with something.””

Money was the motivator for the nuclear industry in the 1990’s to use this unsafe process of unloading full cores of fuel. Money is the motivator today as the nuclear industry balks and tries to delay or un-do the safety mandates post Fukushima. The full offloads of fuel may have saved money for the utilities in the short run but wasted considerable amounts of fuel that was likely still usable under the standard processes of only removing part of the fuel load each time. These full offloads may have also drastically contributed to the abundance of spent fuel now plaguing overloaded reactor pools and leaving the US with a brewing crisis of what to do with all this dangerous spent fuel stored in highly populated areas in an uncontained pool.

But it wasn’t just Millstone doing this 14 other US reactors were caught doing the exact same thing and the NRC either incompetently didn’t notice or looked the other way as to not cramp the profit margins of the utilities and putting public safety at risk. Some of the other reactors doing this dangerous maneuver were: Cooper, McGuire 1 and 2, Oconee 1, 2 and 3, North Anna 1 and 2, South Texas 1 and 2, Summer, Turkey Point & Vogtle. The NRC had operators promise to do reviews on fuel pool ability to deal with these full offloads. If anything meaningful every happened on this issue in the past 11 years remains to be seen.

The Millstone incident took years for the NRC to finally take action. In the end they approved Millstone’s request for a license amendment, denied the whistleblower’s case then later quietly took the needed action and required Millstone to go under a full inspection in order to restart. The plant was shut down in 1998, the operator claims due to a bad valve. This same operator, lost fuel assemblies in 2001. The assemblies had been unaccounted for, for 20 years but were only caught when Millstone 1 was being shut down. The operators of Millstone, plead guilty to 23 felonies and paid $10 million in fines for the previous group of problems and violations found after the fuel offloading scandal was forced into the sunlight. The missing fuel was found after the fact. Still Millstone 2 & 3 are being allowed to operate. Dominion is now operating the remaining units at Millstone. They were highly criticized last year for the failings at the North Anna nuclear plant after an earthquake caused a series of failures at the plant. We also found that back in 1977 Millstone had a serious hydrogen explosion in the reactor building.

These horrible failures of the one and only agency the US public has to keep us safe in the 1990 seem to still be the case today. The various reviews of the Fukushima disaster threw accusations of regulatory capture of their nuclear safety agency and that seems to still be the case here in the US. Nuclear operators are largely left to police themselves with the NRC walking on eggshells not wanting to do anything that would hurt an operators bottom line, like safety. We saw a political slap fight among the NRC committee in 2011 and today Senator Reid took shots at commissioner Magwood who many accused of fomenting the uproar at the agency in 2011.

Just this week a nuclear reactor in Arkansas lost offsite power and the emergency diesel generators failed. Luckily this full AC power outage was only about 10 minutes before offsite power was recovered. The NRC did not see this as even an incident only mentioning it as a side note in an event notice about loss of power in the control room. The NRC classified this as a non-emergency…

 

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