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Published on November 5th, 2012 | by James Ayre


Cracks In America’s Nuclear Safety Exposed By Super Storm Sandy

While the frankenstorm Sandy left devastation throughout many of the large urban areas of the Northeast, including New York City, it could have been much worse. It didn’t trigger an emergency at any of the many nuclear power plants located in the area.

nuclear power plants us

While damage done to the transit system and other infrastructure is temporarily debilitating, it can be recovered from. If there is a disaster similar to Fukushima in the area, which is something that is very possible, it could have devastating and far-reaching effects.

Watchdog groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) have been continually warning that many of America’s nuclear facilities are very vulnerable to a wide variety of possible catastrophic events; including natural disasters, terrorism, and cyber-attack. Many of these groups have been arguing that current federal regulations are completely inadequate to deal with all of these possible disaster scenarios.

As an example, The Guardian notes: “A 2011 study by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory warns that a massive solar storm could knock out electricity in some areas for weeks, overwhelming the capacity of many nuclear plants to keep their critical cooling systems operational.”

Even with this knowledge, though, nuclear power plants are not currently required to guard against the effects of these solar storms.

As noted by the director of UCS’s nuclear safety project, David Lochbaum, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses plants based simply on what has occurred in the recent past, with no real assessment of future risks.

And recent past events are in no way a measure of the worst that can happen, which is something that should be considered when dealing with something as dangerous as nuclear power. Case in point: Fukushima.

“The Daichi plant was located behind a seawall that was high enough to protect against the kind of flooding that Japan had seen previously. But nobody had considered the possibility that a monster tsunami could breach the wall.”

The power plant’s 13 backup generators all broke down within an hour of the earthquake after being flooded by the unpredicted tsunami. Because of this, the absolutely critical cooling system failed completely.

“Is it prudent public policy to operate facilities of such immense hazard on such tenuous assumptions?” Lochbaum asks. Saying that, Hurricane Sandy is further proof that it is necessary to develop solutions to America’s ineffective regulatory system now, not after a disaster occurs.

As Lochbaum notes, “the risks of nuclear power generation are magnified by the fact that the plants are always located near a river, lake or ocean. That is because producing nuclear power creates a lot of heat, which needs to be dissipated by huge volumes of water. These cooling systems are all that prevents the plutonium in reactor cores from going critical and melting down, much like what happened at Fukushima.”

By being located in these areas, though, they are very vulnerable to storm surge, flooding, and sea level rise.

“One facility was put in a state of ‘high alert’ during Sandy due to high-water levels in its water intake structure. The Oyster Creek Generating Station on Barnegat Bay – 40 miles north of Atlantic City, and the oldest nuclear facility in the nation – was shut down last week for refueling.”

Even when a plant is not actively making electricity it still requires it in order to keep the old fuel cool. Truly decommissioning a plant takes a long time because of this, especially in plants that use fuel containing plutonium. “So, 300 employees stayed at Oyster Creek, Monday night, to ensure that the imperiled cooling system continued to function.”

To give an even more compelling example: “Thirty-four reactors, fully a third of those in the US, are sited along rivers with dams upstream. A report released last March by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggests that many of these plants were not designed to withstand the massive floods that catastrophic dam collapse would unleash.”

“According to the NRC’s own calculations … the odds of the dam near the Oconee plant [operated by Duke Energy in South Carolina] failing at some point over the next 22 years are far higher than were the odds of an earthquake-induced tsunami causing a meltdown at the Fukushima plant.”

This should sound truly alarming to anyone that would rather not see a repeat of Fukushima, or worse.

But incredibly, this information was blacked out in the NRC’s public report. The only reason that it is even known is because it was leaked by the study’s lead author, Richard H Perkins. He is quoted as saying that his work was censored because it revealed that:

“The NRC has been in possession of relevant, notable, and derogatory safety information for an extended period but failed to properly act on it.”

Another section of the report was also redacted because it revealed that the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant in Nebraska could be completely overwhelmed by the failure of the Oahe or Fort Randall dams, experiencing water levels much higher than the plant’s flood protection walls.

The NRC has been widely accused by its critics of withholding critical information, but also, and perhaps worse, of not even enforcing the regulations that are already in place.

Lochbaum continues: “I’m most concerned about the NRC’s practice of allowing unsafe reactors to operate. UCS’s Nuclear Power Information Tracker shows 47 reactors that NRC knows to violate fire protection regulations and 27 reactors with seismic protection known to be less than the seismic hazards they face. These pre-existing vulnerabilities mean that the American public is protected more by luck than by skill.”

With monster storms like Sandy expected to become much more common in the coming years, something really needs to be done to ensure the ability of these power plants to safely endure storms. Or they should simply be shut down.

Source: The Guardian
Image Credits: PR

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About the Author

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.

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  • Zhuubaajie

    How can storm damage compare to the threat of 1,000 nuclear bombs in the hands of a rogue nation??

    It would be totally amiss for the international community to allow the 9 tons (1,000 nukes’ worth) of weapons grade plutonium to remain in the control of this deceitful and malicious rogue nation. There is NO REASON for Japan to hold on to the nukes-enabling core material, now that it has already shut down 52 of its 54 inherently dangerous reactors. The plutonium must immediately be turned over to UN control and possession. IF indeed Japan builds new, proven safe reactors that will not blow up (to the satisfaction of the world community, AND if such new reactors actually use weapons grade plutonium (very highly unlikely, since ALL reactors built after 2000 chose NOT to use the highly toxic and dangerous plutonium), then the material can be proportionally rationed back for reactor use, but nothing else.

    As LOSER SURRENDERER in WW II, Japan must not be allowed to have nukes. Since the weapons grade plutonium is clearly NOT used for power generation, the ONLY use is for making nukes. If Tokyo refuses to turn over the 1,000 nukes’ worth of plutonium, it demonstrates that it is the biggest nuke rogue nation in human history, and the full wrath and force of the international community must be brought upon it.

  • Ronald Brak

    It seems to me that nuclear reactors should have solar panels installed as an additional back up.

  • Karl Johanson

    The UN estimates that the smoke from fossil fuels and biomass energy kills around 2.5 million people per year (that’s an older estimate, it’s likely higher now). That’s more deaths than from every nuclear accident in the world combined, every day, possibly every hour. That number would be much higher without nuclear energy.

    • Ronald Brak

      And I’d be recommending we build reactors if we didn’t have cheaper alternatives. But here in Australia solar outcompetes coal and gas, so I can’t see us building any nuclear capacity here.

    • Bob_Wallace

      There are options other than fossil fuels and nuclear. It’s a common bogus argument made by pro-nuke people to ignore the other options.

      • Karl Johanson

        Strawman. I mentioned both fossil fuels and one of the top 2 ‘renewable’ energy sources, biomass. I could mention the other of the top 2 ‘renewables’, hydro. In 1975, a collapse of a hydro dam killed around 230,000. Hydro has also displaced around 40 million people (some have been tortured raped & murdered when they
        refused to evacuate to make room for hydro projects (376 tortured and killed to make way for the Chixoy Dam in Guatemala, for example). The worst solar energy accident was a mother and 2 children drowning due to a solar pool cover. 3 deaths for around 10 kilowatts of low level heat. A nuclear power plant can give you 100,000 times that many watts, and it’s delivering base load electricity, not diffuse
        heat to warm a pool a bit. The batteries needed for one house holds worth of solar voltaic cells, contain enough lead to contaminate billions of litres of water above EPA standards, and lead is toxic forever.

        • Bob_Wallace

          That is some strange logic….

        • StopUsingHelium

          Virtualman. Who needs lead for batteries? Energy storage by producing Hydrogen for fuel cells is an option. Flywheels?

          Nuclear fission hot piles are being left for future generations. Maybe self-regulating Thorium fission might work, but who is doing that? Permanently clean up the fission plant waste and maybe I could support it again. Private insurance companies will not insure it, so why should the public? Too many points of failure without chance of recovery. What can happen, will happen. Direct meteorite hit on a hot pile will release more radioactivity than all the carbon sources burned to date and shorten all our lives with horrible ends.

          The move to the Sun’s nuclear fusion via solar, wind, tides direct to electricity is clearly the winner, unless fusion itself is accomplished on earth.

          • Karl Johanson

            Lots of people using solar use lead acid batteries, and I didn’t say it’s the only option. Spent nuclear fuel is less radioactive than some grades of Uranium ore in less than a thousand years, while the Cadmium and Arsenic in some solar cells is toxic forever.
            Around 1.8 billion years ago natural nuclear reactors went critical at Oklo in Gabon, Africa for quite some time. Thousands of pounds of plutonium was produced. The produced plutonium barely migrated through the rock it happened to be formed in. This in spite of the plutonium being unclad, uncontained, unvitrified, not packed in bentonite clay. In spite of the area being tectonically unstable, and in spite of the rock being fractured, and *in spite of boiling water flowing over the plutonium as it formed for
            around half a million years*. The spent nuclear fuel should be handled with care, but Oklo shows us that it isn’t that big of a technological challenge.
            I support wind and solar, but they produce intermittant suplimental power, compare to baseload for nuclear, and they aren’t as safe as nuclear, per kilowatt hour delivered.

          • Bob_Wallace

            “I support wind and solar, but they produce intermittant suplimental power, compare to baseload for nuclear, and they aren’t as safe as nuclear, per kilowatt hour delivered.”

            Danged right, Skippy!

            Remember when that big wind farm blew up in Eastern Europe?

            An estimated 350 000 clean-up workers or “liquidators” from the army, power plant staff, local police and fire services were initially involved in containing and cleaning up the “wind” debris during 1986-1987. About 240 000 liquidators received the highest “wind” doses while conducting major mitigation activities within the 30 km zone around the reactor. Later, the number of registered liquidators rose to 600 000, although only a small fraction of these were exposed to high levels of “wind”.

            In the spring and summer of 1986, 116 000 people were evacuated from the area surrounding the Chernobyl reactor to non-contaminated areas. Another 230 000 people were relocated in subsequent years.

            Germany is still having problems because wild bores feed on wind-active mushrooms and then wander into German forests bringing wind-poisoning with them.

            And then when the tsunami took out the solar array Fukushima.

            “Sunburn” from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi solar panel disaster may eventually cause approximately 130 deaths and 180 cases of cancer, mostly in Japan, Stanford researchers have calculated.

            Of course we dodged our bullet when the Three Mile Island solar array melted down. Luckily for us the massive concrete containment dome that is necessary to contain the harmful effects of solar farms kept most of the harmful “sunlight” bottled up.

            I guess I should have said that so far we’ve dodged our bullets. TMI melted, but other solar farms got close.


            Nuclear – too safe to worry about. No need for containment domes. Or emergency cooling systems. Or emergency generators. Or squads of armed guards. None of those safety measures that wind and solar require.


            And nuclear is so reliable. Just ask the folks running Chernobyl, TMI, Fukushima, Bessie-Davis, Chrystal River, Humboldt Bay, Rancho Seco, North Anna, San Onofre, Brown’s Ferry, …..

          • Karl Johanson

            book “Chernobyl Consequences
            of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment” claims, “From
            112,000 to 125,000 liquidators died before 2005—that is, some 15% of the
            830,000 members of the Chernobyl cleanup teams.” To see if this is
            significant, we need to look at the expected death toll. The Russian death
            rate: 14.3/1000 per year. The clean up crews didn’t include elderly workers,
            which lowers the expected death toll number. The crews didn’t include
            pre-adults, which raises it back somewhat. The crews were pretty much all male,
            raising it more. But going with that number, the expected death toll in the 19
            years (1986 to 2005) would be somewhere around 225,500. Their numbers (112,000
            to 125,000) indicates don’t indicate an increased death toll among the clean up
            workers, in fact they suggest the precise opposite. (This isn’t nuclear industry numbers, it’s anti-nuke numbers. It’s the best of anti-nuke numbers.)

          • Bob_Wallace

            From Wiki -

            “Thirty one deaths are directly attributed to the accident, all among the reactor staff and emergency workers.[13] An UNSCEAR report places the total confirmed deaths from radiation at 64 as of 2008. The Chernobyl Forum estimates that the eventual death toll could reach 4,000 among those exposed to the highest levels of radiation (200,000 emergency workers, 116,000 evacuees and 270,000 residents of the most contaminated areas); this figure includes some 50 emergency workers who died of acute radiation syndrome, nine children who died of thyroid cancer and an estimated total of 3940 deaths from radiation-induced cancer and leukemia.[14]

            The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that, among the hundreds of millions of people living in broader geographical areas, there will be 50,000 excess cancer cases resulting in 25,000 excess cancer deaths.[15] For this broader group, the 2006 TORCH report predicts 30,000 to 60,000 excess cancer deaths,[16] and a Greenpeace report puts the figure at 200,000 or more.[17] The Russian publication Chernobyl, which has received criticism for its methodology and sourcing, concludes that among the billions of people worldwide who were exposed to radioactive contamination from the disaster, nearly a million premature cancer deaths occurred between 1986 and 2004.[18]”

            So we have a range of claims from 31 to “nearly a million”.

            Personally I have no interest in trying to figure out who is closest to correct. I’ve got other issues that are more important to me.

            Bottom line is, nuclear energy is not safe. We have to build multiple levels of defense/protection in order to keep it from killing a lot of us.

            Some argue that we’ve killed few per GWh, but that’s not the point. We have other energy sources which do not require the safety efforts required in order to use nuclear.

            Nothing else leaves hazardous waste for which we have no mitigation solutions. Nothing else provides the unique dangers of “dirty bombs”.

            Nuclear is not safe. Were nuclear safe we would need no containment domes, emergency cooling systems, backup generators, squads of armed guards, waste containment vessels, …..

            That so few have died from nuclear to date says only that we’ve been lucky. We’re playing Russian roulette and so far we’ve only shot ourselves a little.

            There’s no reason to continue this foolishness. We have safe, clean and less expensive ways to make electricity.

            It’s time for us white males to reexamine our love for the reactor. For some bizarre reason some of us have almost a love relationship with nuclear energy. It’s time to cut the old hag loose.

  • Bob_Wallace

    One of the major tornadoes of the last couple of years went somewhat close to one of our reactors. Afterwards it was revealed that the backup generator was in a non-hardened building on the reactor grounds. Had the storm hit the reactor the grid would probably have gone down and the backup generator trashed.

    It would have been an interesting scramble to get another generator into place before things started smoking….

  • nearly retired

    Defense can usually be overwhelmed by offense. Case in point is the double exploding anti-tank missile that negates reactive armor. There’s just no macho fun in building defenses against mother nature. And look at all the regeneration from a big storm or an earthquake. The northeast needed a facelift anyway. The time of hardship will pass. Tomorrow’s people will pay the bill. But it’s time to say bye-bye to the monoliths of a millennium’s poison. It’s just impossible to protect them from everything. The biosphere probably represents .000000000000000000000000000000002% of the solar system. These things make the gunpowder for the biggest firecrackers boys could ever dream up.

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