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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Fukushima: three years later

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency Withheld The Truth About Fukushima
Charlestown and the five closest nukes. Yellow circles mark danger
zones in the event of a serious nuclear accident
NBC News investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Bill Dedman has released a scathing and frightening report revealing that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was less than honest with the American public following the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant in March of 2011.

As we mark the third anniversary of the disaster, Dedman’s report, gleaned from a careful review of NRC emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, shows that the agency, which is charged with regulating the nuclear industry, withheld specific information when questioned by representatives of the media.
In the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima triple meltdown, NRC Public Affairs Director Eliot Brenner thanked his staff for reassuring the American public that what had happened at Fukushima could not happen here. However, those reassurances were merely talking points, with much of the truth covered up and left unsaid.
In his email to his staff, Brenner wrote,
“While we know more than these say, we’re sticking to this story for now.”

In his eye-opening and hard-hitting report, Dedman provides excerpts from emails (listed in full here) that illustrate the depth of the effort to withhold information. The talking points were divided into two categories: the “public answer” and “additional technical, non-public information.”

The report notes that more than 30 of the 100 nuclear power reactors in the United States have the same brand of General Electric nuclear reactor or containment system used in Fukushima. The median age of U.S. reactors is 34 years. The oldest reactor, the Ginna plant near Rochester, New York, was licensed in 1969 and the newest, at Watts Bar in Tennessee, was licensed in 1996.  Despite concerns, any questions related to a meltdown were deliberately ignored.
“What happens when/if a plant ‘melts down’?”
Public answer:
“In short, nuclear power plants in the United States are designed to be safe. To prevent the release of radioactive material, there are multiple barriers between the radioactive material and the environment, including the fuel cladding, the heavy steel reactor vessel itself and the containment building, usually a heavily reinforced structure of concrete and steel several feet thick.”

Additional, technical, non-public information:
The melted core may melt through the bottom of the vessel and flow onto the concrete containment floor. The core may melt through the containment liner and release radioactive material to the environment.”

The non-public information is exactly what happened, and is still happening, at Fukushima.
On March 20,  just nine days after the explosion and meltdown at Fukushima, Energy Secretary David Chu hesitated when asked on CNN if U.S. nuclear plants would withstand a 9.0 earthquake. The reaction from NRC spokesman David McIntyre, relayed to his bosses in an email, is shocking.
"He should just say ‘Yes it can.’ Worry about being wrong when it doesn’t. Sorry if I sound cynical.”

At one point, McIntyre, who didn’t have all the facts, chose to denigrate popular Bill Nye in an email:
"Just saw an incoherent discussion on cnn by Bill Nye the science guy who apparently knows zilcho about reactors and an idiot weatherman who said Hydrogen explosion? Pfft. I’m not buying it.”

He got a return email from his boss, Eliot Brenner, who was planning to ask the Obama administration for help in tamping down news coverage that was critical of the agency:
"1: There is a good chance it was a hydrogen explosion that took the roof off that building, though we are not saying that publicly.
2. I have just reached out to CNN and asked them to call (former NRC Chairman Nils) Diaz, and reached out to push the white house yet again to start talking on background or getting out in front of some of this crap.”

Concerns raised by nuclear watchdog groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Nuclear Control Institute were dismissed as “bleating” by McIntyre. When asked by NCI research director Steven Dolley to have a nuclear containment expert to speak to a reporter, the NRC suggested he contact the Nuclear Energy Institute. 
Dolley responded by asking if the NRC was deferring to the NEI, the industry which the NRC is supposed to regulate. McIntyre related the exchanged to his bosses and labeled Dolley as a “F***ing a-hole.”
When news reports raised questions about nuclear plants located in the United States based on data from the NRC, that same agency went to great lengths to discredit the reports.
Edwin Lyman, senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientist and co-author of Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster said, “The NRC knew a lot more about what was going on than it wanted to tell the American people. They immediately put out information that implied that U.S. reactors were in a better position to withstand Fukushima type events than Fukushima reactors were, but it was clear that what the NRC knew internally was not nearly as positive.”

Lest one think the biggest danger lies in earthquake-prone California, where the plants are designed and built with large earthquakes in mind, the highest risk is in the Central and Eastern states

The associated risks from earthquakes have gone up since the plants were built. The NRC states the plants are still safe, but that the margin of error has shrunk from their initial estimates. 

As I read that statement, I remembered learning about the massive quake that took place in the New Madrid seismic zone in 1811. It was felt in several surrounding states and remains a significant risk for damaging earthquakes. If you compare the New Madrid map and the map of nuclear reactors in that part of the country, it becomes obvious that another quake on par with the 1811 quake would wreak havoc in heavily populated areas.

Click here for a map and details of the 62 active nuclear power plants in the United States.

The fear of the NRC that the disaster at Fukushima could spell trouble for the U.S. nuclear industry is well founded. It’s true that we need electrical power to conduct the business of our daily lives, but the question must be asked: At what price? 

The truth is there is no such thing as safe nuclear energy. All you need is one Fukushima style incident and all bets are off. Even without an accident, there is the question of the storage of the waste generated by the power plants. 

With the recent radioactive leak in New Mexico, at a storage facility that heretofore had a perfect safety record, it is obvious that although human beings think of themselves as masters of the universe, it is abundantly clear that there are certain things we cannot now, and can never, fully control. 

Nuclear is one of those things. 

Perhaps it would be best for us to remember this paraphrase of that famous line from Dirty Harry: “A man’s We’ve got to know his our limitations.”

Ann Werner is a blogger and the author ofCRAZY and Dreams and Nightmares. You can view her work at ARK Stories. Visit her on Twitter @MsWerner andFacebook