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Friday, April 26, 2013

Our local nuke is typical of problems in the nuclear energy industry

Nuclear safety is an oxymoron
By Will Collette

Just 20 miles to the west of Charlestown sits the Millstone Nuclear Power plant. I have reported regularly on safety breaches that have occurred at that plant that were supposed to be corrected by the plant’s operator, Virginia-based Dominion Resources.

It turns out that Dominion was not so prompt in addressing problems after all. Plus, it's about to get approval for near permanent storage of 3.6 million pounds of high-level nuclear waste.

Waterford Patch Editor Paul Petrone reported that even though, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Millstone has taken longer than “the norm” to correct problems, it is dropping back its level of scrutiny over Millstone to regular levels.

From Remapping Debate 
Only 16 of America’s 104 nuclear power plants had been receiving enhanced NRC supervision, but in this instance, since Millstone fixed, however belatedly, the problems behind several 2011 mistakes, the NRC has returned Millstone to regular status. 

Those 2011 violations occurred when power levels were allowed to go up when they were supposed to go down. At the time, the NRC said it was even more alarmed that it took a while before anyone realized there was a problem.

Millstone also hopes to eliminate another source of problems that led to shut-downs last summer. Instead of improving their technology, they want to change the rules to allow what is currently not allowed - cooling water temperatures that the NRC has previously deemed to be unsafe.

Millstone has petitioned the NRC to boost the allowable temperature of sea water it pipes in as coolant by 5 degrees. Last summer, waters in Long Island Sound got too warm and Millstone had to shut down for almost three weeks. Since climate change is expected to make those waters continue to heat up in the summertime, Millstone would face more summer shut-downs. 

The NRC is likely to give it to them, given its long history of lax regulation of the nuclear power industry. In March, the NRC was criticized for deciding to postpone new regulations to improve venting safety filter systems, a change highlighted by the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan following the massive 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Instead, the NRC directed the staff to do more research and collect more information and public comments.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee said “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission should never cut corners when it comes to safety, especially after Fukushima. We should accept the recommendations of safety experts and not just accept a partial fix.”

Just days later, Fukushima suffered another accident when the cooling system for the nuclear waste storage pools failed. It was the breaching of those pools by the post-earthquake tsunami that caused the radioactive explosion at the plant. 

The pools were re-filled and new pumps were installed to keep the spent waste fuel from over-heating and exploding again while workers continue to try to completely decommission the plant.

The pump failure may be tied to a charred rat corpse found on a shorted-out switchboard.

In an earlier article, I reported on a study on the problems a major coastal store could cause at nuclear power plants like Millstone which is located right on the coast just to the west of New London.

Another study, this time by the Government Accountability Office, came out in April. This report contradicted one of the main premises in government nuclear disaster planning that there would be no need to evacuate beyond a ten-mile zone even though the US told its own citizens based in Japan to evacuate within fifty miles of Fukushima.

The GAO concluded that many people living outside the current official 10-mile line would want to evacuate and would take matters into their own hands.

RI Senator Sheldon Whitehouse was one of four Senators who requested the report. Read the entire report by clicking here.

The GAO notes that most communities within the ten-mile zones are reasonably well-briefed with the information they need to respond to an accident but that outside the ten-mile zone, local authorities and populations have little access to information and public education on what to do in the event of an emergency.

Not surprisingly, the NRC disagreed with the GAO’s findings.

Though major nuclear accidents do not happen often – although minor ones do with regularity – when there is a nuclear emergency, it is a serious problem. Worse than an exploding oil refinery. Worse than a coal mine collapse. Unimaginably worse than a broken wind turbine.

Millstone stores tons of nuclear waste in pools now. It plans to store 3.6 million pounds of high-level nuclear waste on its site more or less permanently. Most of Millstone’s waste is currently held in water-filled ponds like those at Fukushima that exploded after they were breached.

On May 2nd, the Connecticut Siting Council is expected to approve Millstone's request for expanded waste storage, barring some extraordinary change in circumstances. The facility is also switching from "low burn-up" fuel to "high burn-up fuel." The new fuel produces more electricity, but also more fissile waste products that take longer to cool off before they can be sealed up in "dry canister" waste storage units. 

Millstone is about to get approval for 135 of these dry casks, each filled
with high-level radioactive waste
Low burn-up spent fuel rods typically sit in deep water pools for five years before they can be sealed up in the canisters. The new fuel will have to sit in pools for ten to fifteen years

The New London Day reports that community resistance to expanded, virtually permanent nuclear waste storage at Millstone has pretty much collapsed, giving way to "resignation" that there are no other alternatives.

The big difference between them and Charlestown is that at least they are more or less kept in the information loop.

When the wind in Charlestown is blowing in from the west, it is coming at us directly from Millstone, 20 miles away. I would like to think we were completely prepared to deal with whatever might be blowing on the wind.

I have confidence in our Charlestown emergency preparedness folks. I know that our new Town Administrator has had lots of experience with the Pilgrim power plant which was located right in Plymouth where Mark Stankiewicz served as Town Manager. 

However, it still troubles me whenever I see reports that indicate that the NRC doesn’t seem to be as focused on safety as I think they should be. Or that the NRC seems to be more interested in protecting the profits of nuclear power plant owners and shareholders.

But maybe that’s just me.