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Nuclear engineer: A Fukushima-type accident could happen here

BRATTLEBORO—Paul Blanch flicks the ash from his cigarette. Behind him, in the West Village Meeting House, the celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution (NEC) continues.

The whistleblower and nuclear engineer is not a member of the NEC but has served as an expert witness for the organization. He also works with the New York State Attorney General’s office.

He says that, as an expert witness, he’s never taken money from the NEC. Blanch feels that the NEC has made more progress in opposing commercial nuclear plants than other organizations.

“Keep up the good work,” he told NEC members earlier that evening. “You’ve made a wonderful difference in the world.”

He says that he doesn’t think any nuclear plant in the U.S. is safe, and that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is the worse regulatory agency in the federal government.

Blanch nods to party-goers heading home and remembers when his attitude toward commercial nuclear plants shifted from respect to distrust.

“1989,” he says.

That was the year, Blanch says, that as an engineer at Northeast Utilities, he found a “major safety deficiency” in the instruments that monitored levels of the water used to cool reactors.

He reported his findings to the company and to the NRC. He says that his findings were ignored, because the nuclear industry is more concerned with making money than with safety.

According to Blanch, the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is one example of that concern. According to published reports, the plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co., cut corners on safety and preparedness before last month’s massive earthquake and tsunami heavily damaged the facility.

“Don’t even think it can’t happen here. All it takes is a loss of AC [alternating current] power,” he says. “Backups can be wiped out. It’s always the unknown that gets you.”

Blanch’s first experience with nuclear power was on the Navy’s submarines. While the reactors at commercial plants are built to the same standards as the Navy’s reactors, the difference is profit.

The Defense Department’s only benchmark is safety, says Blanch, while commercial reactors are built to make money.

He chuckles and takes a drag on the cigarette. He admits that he likes the impact he’s had as an industry whistle-blower.

Back inside the meeting house, Blanch looks toward the future.

“There’s a big legal battle coming,” he says, referring to Entergy’s hints that it may take the state to court.

Entergy, the owner of Vermont Yankee, has contested Vermont’s right to deny the plant the right to operate. Last year, the Legislature voted to block the plant’s Certificate of Public Good, but Entergy believes that only the NRC can rule on a nuclear plant’s license.

Blanch says that Vermont may also find itself in a bind, because it’s unclear how the the state will replace the electricity the plant pumps into the grid.

Still, he believes that the risk of nuclear energy is not worth the cost to people when a disaster like Fukushima occurs.

“I don’t think we can afford safe nuclear power,” he says.

Blanch says that, until the recent events at Fukushima, he didn’t realize the power of hydrogen to “blow those reactors apart.”

In Blanch’s view, the 39-year-old Vermont Yankee plant has many weaknesses and issues, from its age to underground cables. But what he perceives as the lack of NRC oversight and enforcement concerns him the most.

Blanch believes that the NRC gives Vermont Yankee more latitude on safety issues than other plants because it may shut down.

It’s similar to police not ticketing a driver for running a red light at 50 mph because it was night and no one was around, he says.

If we swapped the Internal Revenue Service for the NRC, “we’d have safe nuclear power, and we’d never pay taxes again,” Blanch laughs, shaking his head.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #96 (Wednesday, April 13, 2011).

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