May 16, 2011

This Weekend’s News: The Nuclear Industry’s State of Play

Since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that crippled
several nuclear reactors at Japan’s Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power station,
policymakers and nuclear watchdog groups – among others – have been
scrutinizing the U.S. nuclear industry, including regulatory procedures and the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) charged with overseeing nuclear power
operations in the United States in an effort to assess vulnerabilities and
stave off a similar disaster.

Over the weekend The
Washington Post
ran two reports assessing potential vulnerabilities at U.S.
nuclear facilities. According to a report from the Post on Saturday, U.S. nuclear facilities could be vulnerable
to power failures that take the facilities’ cooling systems offline
.  Testifying before the House Committee on Science,
Space and Technology on Friday, David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned
Scientists told lawmakers that the backup batteries that are designed to keep a
facility’s cooling system online in the event of a power failure may be
inadequate as many plants keep only four hours worth of battery, forcing
engineers to literally race against the clock to restore power. “Lochbaum
recommended that plants extend battery capacity to 16 hours
, giving workers
more time to restore cooling power,” the Post
reported. But according to a representative from the NRC, “regulations require
U.S. nuclear plants to maintain two backup diesel generators for each reactor. Last
month, such
generators worked as designed when severe storms knocked out primary power at
the Brown’s Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama.
” But, as the Post pointed out, diesel generators are
also susceptible to damage or failure. “At Fukushima, a powerful earthquake
knocked out primary power, and a subsequent tsunami wiped out backup diesel
generators. On-site
batteries depleted within eight hours, leaving workers with no power to cool
the cores of three nuclear reactors.

In addition to the backup power systems, nuclear facilities
may be vulnerable to fires that could damage power cables and other control functions
required to shutdown a nuclear reactor in an emergency. “The Nuclear Regulatory
Commission is routinely
waiving fire rule violations at nearly half of the nation’s 104 commercial
reactors, even though fire presents one of the chief hazards at nuclear plants
according to The Washington Post on
Sunday.   “The explosions and fires at Japan’s Fukushima
Daiichi plant have shown what can happen when operators cannot activate pumps,
valves and other equipment needed to prevent damage to a radioactive core.”

Fires are common at nuclear facilities, the Post reported, with NRC records showing
an average of about 10 fires a year at U.S. plants since 1995. “Small fires,
brief fires and fires in areas not considered critical to reactor safety have
damaged essential equipment and forced emergency shutdowns
,” according to
the Post report.

Attempts by the NRC to enforce fire code compliance have
fallen short, with the NRC instead choosing to allow the companies managing the
plants to assess their own facilities and design their own customized fire
plans. Then, according to the Post, “As
plants worked toward repairs, inspectors
would issue violations for only the most dangerous hazards
.” But as the
report acknowledged, more than three dozen instances of fire code deficiencies
have been found but not been reported by NRC inspectors; inspectors instead cited
rather than write up plant operators for violations. “These
plants are not a house of cards. It
takes a lot of wrong things lined up to lead to a very bad outcome
,” the
Union of Concerned Scientists’ Lochbaum told the Post. “But when you start with a bunch of bad things already lined
up, like fire protection violations, that shortens the list that is needed to
complete the path from challenge to disaster.”

The Washington Post
reports are just the latest in a series of pieces challenging and defending
nuclear power in the wake of the crippling disaster in Japan. Scrutiny over the
U.S. nuclear power industry will likely continue as the United States looks to
the future to develop a non-petroleum dominated energy portfolio, of which
nuclear power will in all likelihood be a part of.

This Week’s Events

Today at 10:00 a.m., the Wilson Center is holding a panel
discussion on “Greening
China's Urbanization Boom.”

On Wednesday and Thursday, starting at 8:00 a.m., George
Washington University’s Elliot School will be holding all-day events on “The
Economics of Adaptation to Climate Change in Low Income Countries.”
At 8:30
a.m. on Wednesday, the Wilson Center will be holding an all day event on “Yemen
Beyond the Headlines: Population, Health, Natural Resources, and Institutions.’’

Then at 2:00 p.m., Georgetown University’s Law Center will be discussing, “The
United States and the Oil States: New Challenges for American Policy.”

At 10:00 a.m. on Thursday, head to the Wilson Center for a
discussion on “Sustainability
for Global Biofuels: Tools, Models, Policies, and Frameworks.”
Then at noon,
go to the Center for Strategic and International Studies for a talk on “The
Demographics of Korean Security.”
Finally, at 3:00 p.m., the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace will host a panel discussion on “Natural
Gas in a Low-Carbon Future: Challenges and Opportunities.”