A new study from Princeton University and the Union of Concerned Scientists has revealed that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) relies on faulty analysis to “justify its refusal to adopt a critical measure for protecting Americans from the occurrence of a catastrophic nuclear-waste fire at any one of dozens of reactor sites around the country.”
While the nuclear fallout from such an incident could contaminate an area twice the size of New Jersey, force the relocation of around 8 million people, and cause trillions of dollars in damages, the NRC apparently sees no issue with the current lack of safeguards — and is content with using faulty justifications for cover. I wonder why?
Frank von Hippel, a co-author of the new paper and a senior research physicist at Princeton’s Program on Science and Global Security (SGS), commented: “The NRC has been pressured by the nuclear industry, directly and through Congress, to low-ball the potential consequences of a fire because of concerns that increased costs could result in shutting down more nuclear power plants. Unfortunately, if there is no public outcry about this dangerous situation, the NRC will continue to bend to the industry’s wishes.”
Catastrophic nuclear fires like those mentioned above could be triggered at many of the nuclear power plants in the US through a variety of mechanisms, whether by large earthquakes or terrorism. The thing about this, though, is that simple regulatory measures could greatly reduce the likelihood and extent of such events — the problem is simply that they drive up costs and are thus unwanted by those in the industry and associated with it.
Since there are a number of nuclear energy proponents that comment on this site from time to time, I’ll use this opportunity to note that my main objection with nuclear is simply that there’s no way to separate it from human nature/stupidity. In an idealized world where society wasn’t overflowing with self-interested, delusional, fraudulent, lying monkeys … then nuclear energy would probably be fine, and could be implemented in a reasonable way (though, it would possibly still not be economical). That isn’t the world we live in. People by and large seem to have no problem creating and leaving messes for others — whether they be other people in their community today or people who will come after them and have to deal with the mess. Furthermore, these self-centered people will often deny that they have created such a mess or are creating one. This being the case, who can justify nuclear?
While discussing the potential for a nuclear accident in the US, von Hippel noted: “The Fukushima accident could have been a hundred times worse had there been a loss of the water covering the spent fuel in pools associated with each reactor. That almost happened at Fukushima in Unit 4.”
Amongst the strange qualities of the NRC’s regulatory analysis was the outright denial that an act of terrorism leading to such a fire was even possible. At all.
The press release provides more: “In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the NRC considered proposals for new safety requirements at US plants. One was a measure prohibiting plant owners from densely packing spent-fuel pools, requiring them to expedite transfer of all spent fuel that has cooled in pools for at least five years to dry storage casks, which are inherently safer. Densely packed pools are highly vulnerable to catching fire and releasing huge amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere.
“The NRC analysis found that a fire in a spent-fuel pool at an average nuclear reactor site would cause $125 billion in damages, while expedited transfer of spent fuel to dry casks could reduce radioactive releases from pool fires by 99%. However, the agency decided the possibility of such a fire is so unlikely that it could not justify requiring plant owners to pay the estimated cost of $50 million per pool.
“The NRC cost-benefit analysis assumed there would be no consequences from radioactive contamination beyond 50 miles from a fire. It also assumed that all contaminated areas could be effectively cleaned up within a year. Both of these assumptions are inconsistent with experience after the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents.”
Something that should be realized here is that while such an event would lead to total damages of around $2 trillion, according to the researchers, the nuclear industry itself would only be liable to cover around $13.6 billion, owing to the Price Anderson Act of 1957. In other words, as with the banking crisis, US tax payers would again be on the hook.
The authors of the new work note that states that provide nuclear subsidies can probably force the hands of some operators, requiring them to enact the suggested changes by threatening to withhold funding.
Co-author Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, concludes that: “In far too many instances, the NRC has used flawed analysis to justify inaction, leaving millions of Americans at risk of a radiological release that could contaminate their homes and destroy their livelihoods. It is time for the NRC to employ sound science and common-sense policy judgments in its decision-making process.”
The new research is detailed in a paper published in the journal Science.
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