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

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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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James Ayre

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.

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