Dangerous old nuclear reactors in the United States and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission


March 17, 2011

ABC World News aired an important story about long known concerns with safety problems of the General Electric Mark 1 nuclear reactors that are now experiencing meltdowns in Japan and emitting dangerous levels of radiation. Twenty-three of the 104 nuclear reactors in the United States are the same design as the reactors in Fukushima, and as reporter Dan Harris points out, “GE specifically marketed the Mark 1 as cheaper and easier to build.”

Unfortunately, this follows a pattern in which our government’s nuclear regulators have allowed the nuclear industry to put their profits ahead of the safety of the many communities threatened with the potentially catastrophic risks of a nuclear meltdown. From a report earlier this week from the Center for Public Integrity: Reactors at heart of Japanese nuclear crisis raised concerns as early as 1972, memos show.

But industry watchdogs see the fateful decision regulators made almost 40 years ago — to choose political and economic pragmatism over tougher safety standards — as endemic in the culture of the NRC as it deals with the prevention of low-probability, high-consequence accidents.

The decision was based largely on cost, said Jim Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst with Greenpeace. The pressure suppression containment systems, which use water or extreme cold to keep radiation from leaking into the environment, were cheaper than dry systems, which require construction of the massive domes or towers. But they were inherently less safe, Riccio said.

“They were designed to withstand a pipe break, not a meltdown,” he said. It wouldn’t take a major earthquake or a tsunami to knock out primary and backup power and push the systems to the breaking point; a hurricane or tornado could suffice.

Greenpeace highlighted these and other problems with nuclear reactors, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s lax safety regulations, in a 2006 report, An American Chernobyl

As early as 1971, government regulators knew that the public’s last line of defense against the radiation, the reactor containment, was virtually worthless yet licensed the General Electric (GE) and Westinghouse Ice Condenser reactors anyway. When an Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC) staff member suggested that this type of containment design be banned in the U.S. the AEC’s deputy director for technical review responded that it “could well be the end of nuclear power. It would throw into question the continued operation of licensed plants, could make unlicensable the GE and Westinghouse ice condenser plants now in review and would generally create more turmoil than I can think about.”

In 1986 Harold Denton, former director of NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, again acknowledged this vulnerability while speaking to utilities executives at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Denton noted that, according to NRC studies the GE Mark I reactors had “something like a 90% probability of that containment failing.” (from pages 38-39, “The Myth of Containment”)

Now, as these old nuclear reactors face renewed scrutiny from public officials, the question is: Will the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allow these dangerous reactors to continue threatening communities in the United States?


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