How Safe are our Nuclear Reactors?

A June 14th picture of the Fort Calhoun plant surrounded by flood waters.

You may recall reading about my concerns about my two daughters who are in Omaha, Nebraska at the moment situated between two nuclear power plants.  One of the plants-the Fort Calhoun plant in Blair Nebraska run by OPPD–is already completely surrounded by water and has been shut down. The second plant at Brownville Nebraska–the Cooper plant run by NPPD–is about 1 1/2 feet of water away from being shut down.  Both face flooding and are part of a more serious problem. The biggest problem is they are both very old and none of the nuclear plants in this country would get renewed licenses to operate if it wasn’t for loosening of regulatory standards by our NRC.

I initially began my search for more on the possible danger to my daughters when I read about the two Nebraska reactors having ‘incidents’.  The mainstream media isn’t really reporting the story.  After reading so much about the flooding that devastated the Fukushima plant in Japan that started a spiral to meltdowns, I became concerned about the possibility of  a similar situation in the Nebraska plants.

Tensions are also rising over two U.S. nuclear reactors in Nebraska located on the banks of the Missouri River, which is now at flood stage. On June 20, the Omaha, Nebraska World Herald reported that flood waters from the Missouri River came within 18 inches of forcing the Cooper Nuclear Station near Brownville, Nebraska, to shut down. Officials are poised to shut down the Cooper plant when river reaches a level of 902 feet above sea level. The plant is 903 feet above sea level. The Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant, 20 miles north of Omaha, issued a “Notification of Unusual Event” to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on June 6 due to local flooding. That plant is currently shut down for refueling, but will not restart because of the flooding. Compounding worries over these two plants is a shortage of sand needed to fill massive numbers of sandbags to hold off Missouri River floodwaters. One ton of sand makes just 60 sandbags, and hundreds of thousands of sandbags are needed to help save towns along the river from flooding. Sand is obtained from dredging the riverbed — and the companies that sell sand can’t dredge the river while it is flooding. These plants are already in a risky situation, and the flooding in Nebraska could easily be worsened just by a summer afternoon cloudburst.

A few days later and a big up to my mom anxiety, Minx found a wild internet story at some Pakistani website about there being some kind of massive meltdown in one of the plants that was being ‘covered up.’  Operators of both plants and the NRC have both denied the rumors and have insisted the plants are in no danger.  The story is way over the top, but I found other things that are very worrisome that are not.

A particularly inflammatory report originated on an English-language online newspaper based in Pakistan. The article claims that a Russian nuclear energy agency has obtained information about a June 7 accident at the Fort Calhoun plant near Blair, Neb., which it described as “one of the worst” in U.S. history. The report goes on to say President Barack Obama has ordered news organizations not to report the accident and imposed a “no-fly” zone over the plant because of radiation leaks from “a near catastrophic meltdown.”

Several callers to The Des Moines Register this week suggested the newspaper and other “mainstream media” organizations were participating in a conspiracy to cover up news of a looming nuclear disaster. Most cited the Pakistani website as the source of their information. A Google search on the term “Nebraska nuclear plants” returned 1,171 hits for sites discussing the incidents.

The feeding frenzy has prompted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the owners of the Nebraska facilities to take the unusual step of confronting the rumors at their source — the Internet.

The nuclear agency, known more for straight-laced news releases loaded down with engineering jargon, created a blog of its own to discuss the Nebraska facilities.

The Omaha Public Power District, which operates Fort Calhoun, also created a special webpage on its site to dispel the rumors. It and the Nebraska Public Power District, which runs Cooper, say they have repeatedly addressed flood-related concerns on their websites and in news reports.

The incident that apparently ignited the blogosphere controversy appears to be rooted in a June 7 electrical fire in a switchgear room at Fort Calhoun. That fire disrupted cooling systems for 90 minutes, which critics said threatened to result in a radiation leak.

Evidently, there must be some concern about the plants because the NCR head is going to Nebraska and bringing extra inspectors with him.  NCR, NPPD, and OPPD have started websites to offsite the viral urban legend started by the Pakistani website.

NRC Chair Gregory Jaczko will visit the Cooper Nuclear Station south of Omaha Sunday and the Fort Calhoun plant north of Omaha Monday, said agency spokesman Victor Dricks.

During both visits, Jaczko will also be talking with NRC resident inspectors– the agency staff who work on-site every day — and plant officials, Dricks said.

Flood water up to 2-feet deep is standing on the site of the 478-megawatt Fort Calhoun plant, operated by the Omaha Public Power District, the NRC said Wednesday.

The utility has erected a water-filled berm around vital areas of the plant — which shut in early April to refuel — to protect the containment building and auxiliary buildings from up to six feet of water.

Heavy rains and snow melt have flooded the Missouri River valley, threatening towns from Montana to Missouri.

An NRC inspection at Fort Calhoun two years ago indicated deficiencies in the flood preparation area, which have now been remedied, the agency said.

The rising river is not expected to reach vital equipment at the 800-megawatt Cooper plant, located near Brownville, Nebraska and operated by the Nebraska Public Power District, the NRC said. Cooper is running at full power.

While this story appears to be just a set of wild rumors, I stumbled across two headlines that concerned me mightily.  The first is the release of a four part study by an AP investigative team on the progressively decaying state of all Nuclear Reactors around the country.  The second is recent Senate reaction to the AP report.

Three U.S. senators, alarmed by findings of an Associated Press investigation about aging problems at the nation’s nuclear power plants, asked Thursday for a congressional investigation of safety standards and federal oversight at the facilities.

The request by Democrats Barbara Boxer of California and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont builds on increased public concern about nuclear safety in recent months – an outcry unlike anything since the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986.

Public interest first spiked after the March accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan. Concern has been heightened this week as the AP began releasing the results of a yearlong investigation into aging related safety problems at the 104 reactors operating in the United States.

That’s led activists, politicians, critics and safety watchdogs to say they hope to turn the public focus more sharply onto the industry in America and broader regulatory problems at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. One after another, they said they hope the result will be tougher relicensing and safety standards, safer storage of spent fuel and better disaster planning.

Janet Tauro, of Brick, N.J., co-founder of Grandmothers, Mothers, and More for Energy Safety who lives near the Oyster Creek nuclear plant, said the latest developments have led her to conclude “the light is really starting to shine on a very closed regulatory agency.”

Senators Boxer, Whitehouse and Sanders asked for the oversight investigation by the Government Accountability Office. Boxer chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

New Jersey’s two Democratic senators, Frank R. Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, made a similar request of the GAO earlier this week.

It appears the NRC is captured by the industry and has been adjusting its regulatory regime to ensure that aging and decaying nuclear plants pass inspection.  There have been numerous reports of problems with the majority of the nation’s nuclear plants. The most immediately concerning report is that rusting and aging pipes are releasing tritium into ground water.  Please note the amount of flood water from the Missouri River surrounding the Ft. Calhoun Plant in the picture at the top.  Then, please realize that the water goes directly down the river to the Omaha/Council Bluffs metropolitan area, then on to Kansas City, then to St. Louis and the Mississippi River then southward through to Jackson MS, Memphis TN, and New Orleans LA and all small city water plants in between.

In a special series called “Aging Nukes,” the Associated Press revealed that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the nuclear power industry have been working in tandem to weaken safety standards to keep aging reactors within the rules. Just last year, the NRC weakened the safety margin for acceptable radiation damage to reactor vessels. The AP report also revealed radioactive tritium has leaked from 48 of the 65 U.S. commercial nuclear power sites, often into groundwater from corroded, buried piping. Leaks from at least 37 of those facilities contained concentrations exceeding the federal drinking water standard—sometimes at hundreds of times the limit.

I don’t have the room to completely cover all the concerns brought up by the AP reports.  I will point you to a pretty good summation article at the NPR website where the systemic loosening of regulations appears to be a long term strategy to prop up the source of 19% of our nation’s electrical supply.

When valves leaked, more leakage was allowed — up to 20 times the original limit. When rampant cracking caused radioactive leaks from steam generator tubing, an easier test of the tubes was devised, so plants could meet standards.

Failed cables. Busted seals. Broken nozzles, clogged screens, cracked concrete, dented containers, corroded metals and rusty underground pipes — all of these and thousands of other problems linked to aging were uncovered in the AP’s yearlong investigation. And all of them could escalate dangers in the event of an accident.

Yet despite the many problems linked to aging, not a single official body in government or industry has studied the overall frequency and potential impact on safety of such breakdowns in recent years, even as the NRC has extended the licenses of dozens of reactors.

Industry and government officials defend their actions, and insist that no chances are being taken. But the AP investigation found that with billions of dollars and 19 percent of America’s electricity supply at stake, a cozy relationship prevails between the industry and its regulator, the NRC.

Records show a recurring pattern: Reactor parts or systems fall out of compliance with the rules. Studies are conducted by the industry and government, and all agree that existing standards are “unnecessarily conservative.”

Regulations are loosened, and the reactors are back in compliance.

There are sites that appear to be of particular concern. The Oyster Creek plant in NJ is deteriorating so badly that the AP report has prompted local politicians to look into things.  One troublesome plant is just north of NY city.  A third one is in Western Massachusetts.  These plants are amazingly close to huge population centers. Some of the most distressing finds include containment vessels so damaged by long term radiation that they are brittle and cracking. It seems impossible to believe that radiation is not leaking into the nearby environment.

Anyway, I encourage you to read the links I’ve provided.  It is also important to encourage the three Senators in their pursuit of information.  It seems obvious that the NRC is captured.  The media is disinterested,understaffed, or complicit with local utilities in covering up the dangers.  I am certain that much of the information around the Omaha plants is not being released because of the impact it would have on tourists attending the ongoing College World Series.   I find it completely appalling that news of the AP reports has not found its way to any of the major outlets.  It looks like we really need to be concerned about possible Fukushima-style disasters in the backyards of many American neighborhoods.

10 Comments on “How Safe are our Nuclear Reactors?”

  1. Branjor says:

    Dak, thanks for this. I live just within the evacuation zone of the Oyster Creek plant. There was a lot in our newspapers about a couple of years ago on tritium leaking into the groundwater of the Cohansey aquifer. I recently got an emergency planning brochure from Oyster Creek, complete with evacuation routes, radio stations to listen to in the event of an emergency and other information. There was a movement to shut Oyster Creek down several years ago, but it failed, and the plant’s license was renewed. It’s scary to constantly live within the shadow of this.

    • dakinikat says:

      I can imagine. From what I read, it’s one of the plants that is in the worst shape. I think you should call you congress critterz and insist they look into this.

      • Branjor says:

        Yes. From what I’ve read above it seems Sens. Lautenberg and Menendez are already on the case. That just leaves my representative, Jon Runyan. He’s a republican, so I’m not sure how much can be gotten out of him.

    • bostonboomer says:

      According to Wikipedia, Tritium rarely occurs naturally in the environment. Its half-life is around 12 years.

      Here’s an article on Tritium toxicty and biological hazards

      …releases of tritium from nuclear power plants to the atmosphere have reached as high as tens of thousands of curies in one year, and releases to bodies of water have measured as high as tens of millions of picocuries per liter.

      The current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard for permissible levels of tritium in drinking water is 20,000 picocuries per liter. Please note: permissible does not mean safe.

      Nuclear power plants routinely and accidentally release tritium into the air and water as a gas (HT) or as water (HTO or 3HOH). No economically feasible technology exists to filter tritium from a nuclear power plant’s gaseous and liquid emissions to the environment. Therefore, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not require that it be filtered.

      The NRC allows a licensee to release an amount of tritium that could result in a radiation dose to a member of the public of up to 100 millirem (one millisievert) per year — in planned air and water effluents (Title 10, Code of Fedl. Regs., Part20.1301). The NRC translates one million picocuries of tritium per liter as the equivalent of 50 millirem/year (10 CFR Part 20, Introductory Notes to Appendix B, Table 2, Column 2). Please note: Table 2 lists concentrations in “microcuries per millileter.” For example, 1E-3 µCi/ml equals one million picocuries per liter.

  2. bostonboomer says:

    Thanks for pulling all this together, Dak. This is truly frightening. We’re just lucky that we haven’t had a major incident–although if we did, it sounds like it would be covered up or minimized just like Fukushima.

    • dakinikat says:

      I was amazed at the AP report. I wish it would get more press. Maybe if they hold Senate hearings the MSM will print some of it.

    • Branjor says:

      How awful. Why did they build the plant so close to the river?

      • dakinikat says:

        There’s more of them along the Mississippi in both Tennessee and Louisiana. When they were built, they didn’t think flooding would get this bad.

        Hello Climate change.