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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Nuclear regulator says everything is fine at our local nuke

Except for a few “minor” problems, the Millstone nuclear power plant poses no cause for alarm, and the check is in the mail
By Will Collette

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says all is well at our local nuke, the Millstone power station in Waterford, CT, just 20 miles to the west of Charlestown. But is it?

Marking the third anniversary of the devastating meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima power plant following Japan’s catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, NBC News released a remarkable report showing how the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) deliberately lied to the American public about the severity of the Fukushima disaster and its effects on health and safety.

One of the most damaging parts of NBC reporter Bill Dedman’s hair-raising report contrasts NRC’s confident public statements that Fukushima was not nearly as bad as it could have been with NRC interoffice messages where officials told each other that the opposite was true.

REPEAT AFTER ME: "There's no cause for alarm. There's no cause
for alarm. There's no cause for alarm...."
I understand the NRC considers lying to the public to be justified by two of its responsibilities – one is to prevent public panic and the second is to protect the nuclear power industry. But if you look at these e-mails (click here to read them all; click here to read Dedman’s article), it’s clear they stepped out the bounds. As NRC PR director Eliot Brenner put it in an e-mail to his staff, “While we know more than these [NRC public talking points] say, we’re sticking to this story for now.”

The NRC did the same thing when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened in the old Soviet Union. They did the same thing when the Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg, PA had its big nuclear release. They do the same thing today when our local nuke, the Millstone Power Plant in Waterford, CT just 20 miles upwind from us, has a hiccup in its operations.

A nuclear power accident is unlike an accident at any other type of energy generation station. Accidents not only have a long reach – as much as 50 miles in the case of severe effects from Fukushima – but last a long time. Chernobyl is still uninhabitable and may be like that for centuries. 

You can clean up after a fossil fuel power station explodes. You can clean up the busted turbine blades if a wind turbine breaks. And when solar panels have a “solar spill,” you can just ignore it.

But nothing approaches the magnitude of a nuclear accident. Like nuclear war, it is an event that cannot be allowed to happen. Yet we’ve gone to war with nuclear weapons and we have had catastrophic nuclear power accidents.

On March 31, the NRC will conduct a public briefing in the Waterford Town Hall (7 PM) on its recently completed annual assessment of Millstone. Even though Millstone has had a series of unplanned shut-downs (SCRAMs), most recently on February 28, and several safety violations, the NRC report generally says everything is fine and that Millstone “met all its health and safety objectives in 2013” and the inspections and violations were really of “very low safety significance.” 

Re-read the NRC documents on Fukushima to put their Millstone report in context.

Nonetheless, the NRC is going to conduct a mass distribution of potassium iodide to local families in the 10-mile high risk zone. The NRC is sending the state of Connecticut 1.3 million tablets of potassium iodide for this distribution. Potassium iodide is a good precautionary drug to take in the event of a nuclear release to help prevent thyroid cancer.

As for the other effects of a nuclear accident, I am reminded of an old Cold War joke: “what do you do if you see a nuclear flash? Put your head between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye.”

A recent survey shows that more than half the households in the immediate danger zone either didn’t know where their potassium iodide tablets are, or didn’t have enough for the whole family. The survey also showed the area is woefully unprepared for a major accident, lacking shelter, means of communication, personal escape plans and emergency supplies.

Despite the NRC’s positive findings in its annual review of Millstone, they nonetheless prescribed five areas where Millstone must improve its ability to survive severe weather. This assessment was based on using lessons learned at Fukushima.

The NRC wants Millstone to check more closely for places where high water could breach the site, more effectively seal and weatherproof critical areas, reexamine its flood response protocol, its assumptions about flood height, and better identify and fix areas with degraded flood protection.

The NRC said that each of these items are, technically, a violation, but are only being recorded as “observations.” If you are a regulator, you certainly don’t want to blemish the record of the industry you are regulating.
Next September, Millstone is under NRC orders to conduct a “hostile action emergency drill” to prepare for what might happen if the plant was attacked by terrorists either through a ground attack or through a suicide aircraft strike. Amazingly, this will occur close to the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11 and it will be the first time they’ve ever done this drill!

Thirteen f**king years, and this is the first time they will address this very plausible “what if?”
There are 62 operating nuclear power plants around the United States. If you look at the map accompanying this article, you will see that all of New England is pretty much within either the 10-mile severe threat or 50-mile radiation zones. 

In addition to the operating plants, there are also dozens of decommissioned plants, each with its accompanying pile of high-level nuclear waste sitting there in more or less permanent storage. The closest to us is the big waste pile in Haddam, CT at the decommissioned Connecticut Yankee plant.

Nuclear waste pretty much sits on site because there is really no place to put it. The long-planned national repository in Yucca Mountain, Nevada has never received Congressional approval. A demonstration project to build support for Yucca Mountain by showing that permanent storage was practical has since backfired.

The site is called “WIPP” (“Waste Isolation Pilot Plant”) and is operated by the US Energy Department, of which the NRC is part. The site has operated for 15 years, taking in some very nasty radioactive waste from the US military.

The site is supposed to be highly secure – in terms of containment technology and protection from terror attack. But on February 5, an underground truck fire not only caused injury to workers but apparently caused a radioactive leak that exposed 17 other workers.

According to a DOE report, safety systems didn’t work the way they were supposed to and the private contractors running the site for the DOE failed to "adequately recognize and mitigate the hazard regarding a fire in the underground". The report says the accidental and the chaotic response “was preventable.”

Of course, they applied a nice dose of sugar-coating – no one was killed, apparently no permanent, serious injuries, it was a good learning experience, blah, blah, blah.

Fukushima was also a “good learning experience” and caused a serious adjustment about the distances radiation from a nuclear accident can travel. We also learned a lot from the Chernobyl melt-down that took place 27 years ago.

A surprising Chernobyl finding came out of one recent report. Though no humans live in the exclusion zone, there are other living things to study – animals, trees, insects and birds, etc. A potential problem at the Chernobyl site is a dangerous accumulation of dead trees and brush and mountains of dried out but undecayed leaves and branches that could catch fire and cause another spread of radiation over a large area.

Researchers discovered that insects, bacteria and fungi that would normally reduce dead foliage through decay were also affected by radiation. Their numbers are reduced, their growth rates are inhibited and the flammable dead wood and detritus remains largely as it was when the Chernobyl accident destroyed so many living organisms.