The nation’s other major leaks — at U.S. nukes

Vermont Yankee, photo from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

America’s nuclear power plants are more incontinent than a nonagenarian with an enlarged prostate.

Given the nuclear industry’s long record of leaks, fires, rust-outs, and lax oversight, a catastrophic failure at one of America’s nuclear power plants is a real possibility. If one happened, the oil-devastated gulf would look like an organic garden compared to the millennia-long radiological devastation from a major nuclear accident.

Pipes at 27 of America’s 65 nuclear power sites have sprung leaks that released corrosive and radioactive materials including tritium, cesium and strontium-90 into the air, water, or earth. At New York’s Indian Point, which sits within 50 miles of 8 percent of the U.S. population, some 2 million gallons of corrosive water have leaked into the plant’s containment building over 17 years.

In compliance with Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations, there were no visual inspections of the leaky system from 1973 when the plant was built until 2009 when the situation became critical.

Cracks found in 2009 in the Davis-Besse reactor, near Toledo, could have let radioactive coolant into the reactor’s containment building. In 2002, similar fissures allowed water and acid to erode parts of the containment lid from a thickness of 8 inches to barely a quarter inch. “The plant was about a month from meltdown,” says Arnie Gundersen, who worked for 22 years in the nuclear industry as a senior vice president.

As with any mechanical system, from your car to the space shuttle, small failures can indicate sloppy engineering, poor maintenance, weakened components, and the likelihood of fatal breakdowns.

Widespread leaks and cracks in America’s nukes, many near their 40-year life expectancy, are urgent warning signs of dangerous deterioration. Nonetheless, the NRC, has grandfathered in lower standards and rubberstamped all 59 applications it received for extending the operating life of reactors for another 20 years, and is considering, or expected to consider, 37 more renewals in the next seven years.

This spring, the only state with the legal authority to sidestep the NRC and refuse relicensing, voted to do just that. Vermont legislators had grumbled about safety at the 38-year-old Vermont Yankee facility after a fire damaged the plant in 2004 and a

cooling tower partially collapsed in 2007. It was not just the injury to the environment or the threat to safety that spurred the vote to shut the plant when its license expires in 2012, but the added insult that the plant owner, Entergy, had repeatedly lied to the legislature. Underground pipes had been spilling radioactive material into the environment since 2007, but the New-Orleans based company insisted not only that the underground pipes didn’t leak, but that they didn’t even exist.

“After decades underground, neither the NRC nor the plant operators can be absolutely certain that the pipes are intact,” said Edward J. Markey (D-MA), chairman of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee. “I am appalled by the safety procedures not only at Vermont Yankee, but at other nuclear facilities across the country who have failed to inspect thousands of miles of buried pipes at their facilities.’’

This regulatory failure has lessons for the oil and gas sector. Until 1976 one federal agency both promoted the atomic industry and regulated its safety. Recognizing the inherent conflict of interest, the functions were separated, and the NRC was tasked with protecting the public.

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Obama administration ordered a similar severing of Minerals and Mining Service’s promotion and protection functions. But the example of the NRC shows that the problem lies deeper. Revolving doors and political appointments, the corrosive influence of industry lobbying and campaign contributions and the lack of a comprehensive energy policy have ensured that the NRC remain in thrall to industry. All but three NRC commissioners took industry jobs on leaving the agency, says Gundersen, of Fairewinds Associates, an independent research organization.

On the bright side, nuclear plants do have better back ups than oil rigs. But that very redundancy has fed the smug industry/NRC argument that the ability of plants to operate after accidents proves they are safe.

In his State of the Union address, Obama endorsed a new generation of nuclear power. A few months later he embraced deepwater drilling, and we know how that turned out.

America’s aging plants “are rusting out,” says Gundersen, “and the NRC is not enforcing laws on book and is looking the other way.”

Asked if he thought a major nuclear accident was inevitable, Gunderson paused. “Sooner or later,” he said,” in any foolproof system the fools are going to exceed the proofs.”

This column was first published by “In These Times,” July 2010.

Terry J. Allen

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  • walter carpenter

    It’s only a matter of time now and something will happen. I get chills each time a new leak springs down at Vermont Yankee or something goes wrong with a cooling tower. You never know what can happen. Having lived through a natural volcano, I can only imagine what a nuclear one will be like. Vermont Yankee is not that far away.

  • Bruce Post

    Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan wrote this about the Davis-Besse near disaster in their book “Managing the Unexpected”:

    “In 2002, at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant outside Toledo, Ohio, a 6 1/2-inch-thick metal liner designed to contain radioactive material under pressure of 2,200 pounds per square inch was found to be corroded down to the width of a pencil eraser over an oval area about 10 inches long. The containment structure would have been completely breached within two more months. Prior to this discovery, maintenance personnel regularly found rust particles “mysteriously clogging” air conditioning and water filters. The clogging was severe enough that maintenance personnel were changing the air filters every two days for two years, whereas the industry norm was to change the filters once a month. The rust accumulation was a weak signal of plantwide problems that might have been detected sooner ….”

    The authors also quote Constance Perrin, “Shouldering Risks: The Culture of Control in the Nuclear Power Industry”: “The longer problematic conditions persist, the less predictable and controllable system interactions become.”

    Weick and Sutcliffe emphasize the ability of highly-reliable organizations to identify “subtle clues” indicating larger problems. It seems to me that Vermont Yankee’s problems are a litany of not-so-subtle clues, but as long as public policy about VY is driven by bumper sticker sloganeering, we should all be very afraid.

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