Cor­rupt U.S. Nu­clear Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion Puts Us All at Risk

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Af­ter the dis­as­ter at the nu­clear power plant in Fukushima, Ja­pan, Amer­i­can nu­clear plants were re­quired to un­dergo a re­view to see if some­thing sim­i­lar could hap­pen in the U.S.

The re­sults of the re­views showed that many plants were un­safe and could ex­pe­ri­ence sim­i­lar fail­ures from a va­ri­ety of nat­u­ral and hu­man caused events. The nu­clear power plant own­ers did not want to spend money on the nec­es­sary up­grades or changes so they ex­erted their in­flu­ence on the al­ready cor­rupt Nu­clear Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion (NRC) and re­view re­sults were al­tered and many of the needed up­grades were not made.

A re­cent ar­ti­cle in Sci­ence de­tails one of the risks that was not ad­dressed.

The U.S. Nu­clear Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion (NRC) re­lied 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, ac­cord­ing to the ar­ti­cle in the May 26 is­sue of Sci­ence magazine. Fall­out from such a fire could be con­sid­er­ably larger than the ra­dioac­tive emis­sions from the 2011 Fukushima ac­ci­dent in Ja­pan.

Pub­lished by re­searchers from Prince­ton Univer­sity and the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists, the ar­ti­cle ar­gues that NRC in­ac­tion leaves the pub­lic at high risk from fires in spent-nu­clear-fuel cool­ing pools at re­ac­tor sites. The pools — wa­ter-filled basins that store and cool used ra­dioac­tive fuel rods — are so densely packed with nu­clear waste that a fire could re­lease enough ra­dioac­tive ma­te­rial to con­tam­i­nate an area twice the size of New Jer­sey. On av­er­age, ra­dioac­tiv­ity from such an ac­ci­dent could force ap­prox­i­mately 8 mil­lion peo­ple to re­lo­cate and re­sult in $2 tril­lion in dam­ages.

Th­ese cat­a­strophic con­se­quences, which could be trig­gered by a large earth­quake or a ter­ror­ist at­tack, could be largely avoided by reg­u­la­tory mea­sures that the NRC re­fuses to im­ple­ment. Us­ing a bi­ased reg­u­la­tory analysis, the agency ex­cluded the pos­si­bil­ity of an act of ter­ror­ism as well as the po­ten­tial for dam­age from a fire be­yond 50 miles of a plant. Fail­ing to ac­count for th­ese and other fac­tors led the NRC to sig­nif­i­cantly un­der­es­ti­mate the de­struc­tion such a di- saster could cause.

“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,” said pa­per co-au­thor Frank von Hip­pel, a se­nior re­search physi­cist at Prince­ton’s Pro­gram on Sci­ence and Global Se­cu­rity (SGS), based at the Woodrow Wil­son School of Pub­lic and In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs. “Un­for­tu­nately, if there is no pub­lic out­cry about this dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion, the NRC will con­tinue to bend to the in­dus­try’s wishes.”

Von Hip­pel’s co-au­thors are Michael Schoepp­ner, a for­mer post­doc­toral re­searcher at Prince­ton’s SGS, and Edwin Ly­man, a se­nior sci­en­tist at the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists.

Spent-fuel pools were brought into the spot­light fol­low­ing the March 2011 nu­clear dis­as­ter in Fukushima, Ja­pan. A 9.0-mag­ni­tude earth­quake caused a tsunami that struck the Fukushima Dai­ichi nu­clear power plant, dis­abling the elec­tri­cal sys­tems nec­es­sary for cool­ing the re­ac­tor cores. This led to core melt­downs at three of the six re­ac­tors at the fa­cil­ity, hy­dro­gen ex­plo­sions, and a re­lease of ra­dioac­tive ma­te­rial.

“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,” von Hip­pel said. “That al­most hap­pened at Fukushima in Unit 4.”

In the af­ter­math of the Fukushima dis­as­ter, the NRC con­sid­ered pro­pos­als for new safety re­quire­ments at U.S. 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 per­cent. How­ever, the agency de-

cided 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 bo­gus 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 claims are eas­ily de­bunked lies.

Ra­di­a­tion from Fukushima spread around the globe and harmed peo­ple as far away as the United States. Ja­pan will be strug­gling to clean up its mess for decades.

Sci­en­tists es­ti­mate that the Ch­er­nobyl dis­as­ter will ul­ti­mately kill as many as 140,000 peo­ple in Europe and Asia.

In two pre­vi­ous ar­ti­cles, von Hip­pel and Schoepp­ner re­leased fig­ures that cor­rect for th­ese and other er­rors and omis­sions. They found that mil­lions of res­i­dents in sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties would have to re­lo­cate for years, re­sult­ing in to­tal dam­ages of $2 tril­lion — nearly 20 times the NRC’S re­sult. Con­sid­er­ing the nu­clear in­dus­try is only legally li­able for $13.6 bil­lion, thanks to the Price An­der­son Act of 1957, U.S. tax­pay­ers would have to cover the re­main­ing costs.

The au­thors point out that if the NRC does not take ac­tion to re­duce this dan­ger, Congress has the au­thor­ity to fix the prob­lem. How­ever, as long as Amer­i­cans con­tinue to elect cor­rupt politi­cians to rule over them, that is un­likely to hap­pen.

More­over, the au­thors sug­gest that states that pro­vide sub­si­dies to un­eco­nom­i­cal nu­clear re­ac­tors within their bor­ders could also play a con­struc­tive role by mak­ing those sub­si­dies avail­able only for plants that agreed to carry out ex­pe­dited trans­fer of spent fuel. States could also sim­ply stop sub­si­diz­ing the nu­clear mafia and use the money for sus­tain­able, safe green en­ergy.

“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,” said Ly­man. “It is time for the NRC to em­ploy sound sci­ence and com­mon-sense pol­icy judg­ments in its de­ci­sion-mak­ing process.”

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