Representatives of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) came to the region last Wednesday to go over the agency’s annual safety review of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.
The safety assessment was done before an earthquake and tsunami heavily damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in Japan, and was done days before the agency granted Vermont Yankee a 20-year extension of its operating license.
Vermont Yankee shares the same containment design as the Fukushima reactors, and while a major earthquake or tsunami is not likely to happen in Vernon, there are concerns that flooding, tornadoes, or hurricanes might lead to a power disruption that would cripple the plant’s cooling system.
If you look at the weather in the United States over the past couple of months, that concern is not unreasonable.
The spate of tornadoes that struck the South in April caused power outages to the Browns Ferry plant in Virginia and the Surry Power Station in Alabama. Right now in Nebraska, record flooding of the Missouri River is affecting two reactors in the Omaha area: the Cooper and Fort Calhoun power stations.
It wasn’t the earthquake or the tsunami that caused a partial meltdown of several of Fukushima’s nuclear reactors. It was the loss of electricity and the failure of backup power systems that were supposed to keep cooling systems running.
We have since learned that Tokyo Electric, the owners of Fukushima, failed to plan for a disaster like the March 11 earthquake, and that Japanese regulators failed to press the company to upgrade its safety planning.
Those who think that a Fukushima-type disaster couldn’t happen here in the United States should turn to the Associated Press’s two-part investigative series last week.
The AP reported that the NRC has weakened safety standards for nuclear plants, and that the agency believes these standards can be eased without endangering the public.
How much did the agency weaken these standards?
The year-long investigation found that when valves at nuclear plants exceeded NRC leakage standards, the NRC changed the standard to allow more leakage to occur. When cracks in steam-generating tubing led to radioactive leaks, the NRC came up with less stressful tests that plants could easily meet.
When reactor vessels at older nuclear plants became brittle with age, the NRC lowered the safety margin for acceptable radiation damage.
In short, the AP found that “as equipment has approached or violated safety limits, regulators and reactor operators have loosened or bent the rules.”
When you are dealing with nuclear power and some of the most hazardous materials known to humankind, that’s not what you want to hear. You want to hear assurances that your local nuclear plant is being held to the absolute highest standards of safety.
Yet, as the AP’s investigation found, radioactive tritium has leaked from three out of four commercial nuclear reactors in the United States. The AP found that the number and severity of these leaks are growing, even as the NRC continues to extend the operating licenses of many of these plants, including Vermont Yankee’s.
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