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The Worst Yet to Come? Why Nuclear Experts Are Calling Fukushima a Ticking Time-Bomb

Experts say acknowledging the threat would call into question the safety of dozens of identically designed nuclear power plants in the U.S.

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He also pointed out that the contents of the nine dry casks at the Fukushima Daiichi site were undamaged by the disaster.

"Nobody paid much attention to that fact," Alvarez said. "I've never seen anybody at Tepco or anyone [at the NRC or in the nuclear industry] saying, 'Well, thank god for the dry casks. They were untouched.' They don't say a word about it."

The NRC declined to comment directly to accusations it's reluctant to draw attention to the spent fuel vulnerability at Fukushima Daiichi because it would bring more awareness to the dangers of irradiated storage here in the U.S. But the agency did respond to a question about what it has done to address the vulnerability of spent nuclear fuel storage at U.S. nuclear sites with the Mark I and II designs.

"All U.S. spent nuclear fuel is stored safely and securely, regardless of reactor type," NRC spokesman Burnell replied in an email. "Every spent fuel pool is an inherently robust combination of reinforced concrete and steel, capable of safely withstanding the same type and variety of severe events that reactors are designed for."

He continued, "After 9/11, the NRC required U.S. nuclear power plants to obtain additional equipment for maintaining reactor and spent fuel pool safety in the event of any situation that could disable large areas of the plant. This 'B5b' equipment and related procedures include ensuring spent fuel pools have adequate water levels. The B5b measures are in place at every U.S. plant and have been inspected multiple times, including shortly after the accident at Fukushima.

"The NRC continues to conclude the combination of installed safety equipment and B5b measures can protect the public if extreme events impact a U.S. nuclear power plant."

But nuclear experts told AlterNet that the majority of Burnell's response could've been made prior to the disaster at Fukushima. In fact, Ed Lyman, senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, investigated these so-called "B5b" safety measures the NRC ordered post-9/11 and published his findings in a May 2011 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article

Directly reflecting Burnell's response to AlterNet, Lyman wrote that after the Fukushima disaster, "the NRC and the industry invoked the mysterious requirements known as 'B5b' as a cure-all for the kinds of problems that led to the Fukushima crisis.

"Even though the B5b strategies were specifically developed to cope with fires and explosions, the NRC now argues that they could be used for any event that causes severe damage to equipment and infrastructure, including Fukushima-scale earthquakes and floods."

But contrary to these NRC assurances, then and now, Lyman's report found B5b requirements inadequate, containing flaws in safety assumptions that suggest the NRC has not applied the major lessons learned from the Fukushima disaster. Additionally, he revealed emails showing that the NRC's own staff members questioned the plausibility of these procedures to effectively respond to extreme weather events like floods, earthquakes and concomitant blackouts.

Burnell sent a follow-up email, noting, "I also should have mentioned the NRC issued an order in March to all U.S. plants to install enhanced spent fuel pool instrumentation, so that plant operators will have a clearer understanding of SFP status during a severe event."

This is a curiously roundabout way of saying that spent fuel pools at U.S. reactors currently have no built-in instrumentation to gauge radiation, temperature or pressure levels.

Kamps also pointed out that the NRC commissioners voted 4 to 1, with Chairman Gregory Jaczko in dissent, to not require such requested safety upgrades to U.S. reactors until the end of 2016.

 
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