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Does nuclear reactor safety give you 'the willies'? Aging monstrosities

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Here's some nuclear news that will definitely not make you feel all warm and fuzzy. A report by the influential nonprofit group, National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) suggests the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is not adequately protecting American nuclear reactors from the risk of hydrogen explosions, like the ones that crippled Fukushima in 2011, after an earthquake and tsunami.

In general, these aging nuclear monstrosities are increasingly operating beyond their 40-year initial license terms. They are not only costly to maintain, but extremely dangerous given the current state of "new normal" disasters like earthquake swarms, flooding, massive landslides and mudslides, sinkholes, and so on. They can take decades to decommission, and even then, what is to be done with the nuclear leftovers?

In a severe loss-of-coolant scenario like the one at Fukushima, uranium-filled fuel rods react with steam, producing tons of combustible hydrogen. At Fukushima, hydrogen accumulated and detonated, breaching the reactor's containment structures and spewing radioactive material into air and water, affecting the world.

The NRDC report says NRC is relying on outdated computer models that do not account for the sort of rapid gas build-up that triggered the Fukushima meltdown. Christopher Paine, senior policy adviser in NRDC's nuclear program, says the NRC has only designated the risk of hydrogen explosions as a third tier threat in their post-Fukushima response plan.

It its defense, NRC says 80 of the 100 US nuclear reactors met annual safety and security performance objectives, leaving "only 20" in question. Now that's reassuring considering the damage done by "only 2" - Fukushima and Chernobyl.

  • Nine nuclear reactors need to resolve one or two problems of low safety significance
  • Nine other nuclear reactors are operating at a "degraded" level of performance (whatever that means)
  • Two other nuclear reactors "most met" their objectives (whatever they were)

In view of all the unprecedented torrential rain, flooding, and mud and landslides in the world of late, this nuclear news should really be comforting. Feeling the willies yet?

But wait, there's more distressing nuclear news.

Browns Ferry-1 in Alabama, due to a safety finding of "high significance" (whatever that means), needs "increased oversight." NRDC contends that the only safety measures in place are merely "token steps to address the problem" and that safety systems in place are just as likely to trigger an explosion as they are to prevent one.

Comforting, especially for the people in Alabama.

And then there's Fort Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station on the Missouri River in Nebraska. It is more than 40 years old -- construction began in 1966 and it was commissioned in 1973. It is currently under “special” NRC oversight because of an extended shutdown with "significant performance issues."

In 2009, NRC found flood protection measures were only designed to handle floods up to 1,009 ft above sea level, even though the mandated elevation for the plant was 1,014 ft. At 1,010 ft, flooding would have "led to a 100 percent chance of fuel damage, if emergency gasoline pumps didn't work."

In 2010, an NRC flood assessment indicated Fort Calhoun was not adequately prepared for a "worst-case" flooding scenario. And then came the flooding of the Missouri River in June 2011:

  • On Jun 6, the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) declared a "Notification of Unusual Event" as the Missouri River was above flood stage, expected to rise further, and remain above flood stage for several weeks to a month.
  • The Army Corps of Engineers said flood protection efforts (sandbags) would protect the plant to 1,010 –1,012 ft above sea level. Fort Calhoun’s spent fuel pool was at 1,038.5 ft. above sea level.
  • The Army Corp of Engineers estimated with average precipitation (and not torrential downpours like those now experienced), the Missouri River should not go over 1,008 feet (307 m) above sea level. Now that's cutting it kind of close.
  • On Jun 7, an electrical component in a switch gear room caused a small fire that resulted in a partial evacuation. The fire impacted the pumping of coolant water to the spent fuel pool; cooling was interrupted "only" for 90 minutes.
  • On Jun 23, a helicopter contracted by OPPD to survey transmission lines had a so-called "unplanned landing" a mile and a half south of the plant. Photographs showed the helicopter lying on its side in a field.
  • On Jun 26, an earth mover ("Bobcat") punctured and collapsed an 8-ft high, 2,000-ft long water-filled, rubber flood berm surrounding parts of the plant, allowing flood waters to surround the auxiliary and containment buildings. As a result, fuel containers were washed out and about 100 gallons of gasoline were released into the Missouri River.
  • On Jun 30, a pump used to remove seepage caught fire as a worker was refilling it with gasoline.

If 20 out of 100 aging nuclear reactors with a myriad of "low safety, degraded, and high significance" performance problems doesn't give you the willies, nothing will.

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