Hurricane Sandy Brings Wind, Rain and Irony to US Nuclear Plants

Hurricane Sandy’s projected path as of 9 AM, Monday. (map courtesy of NOAA)

With Hurricane Sandy projected to make landfall hundreds of miles to the south and the predicted storm surge still over 24 hours away, New York City completely shuttered its mass transit system early Sunday evening. By 7 PM, all subway service was halted for only the second time in history. The fear, according to state authorities, is that heavy rainfall or the expected six-to-eleven-foot increase in tide levels would flood subway tunnels, stranding trains at various points across the 842 miles of track.

Fearing similar flooding, the Washington, DC, Metro is also expected to suspend service for all of Monday.

Twelve hours after NYC shut down its subways, at 7 AM Monday, with Hurricane Sandy lashing the Mid-Atlantic coast with heavy rain and 85 mph winds, at least a half-dozen commercial nuclear reactors lie in the storm’s projected path–and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to issue any specific orders to the facilities it supposedly oversees. In fact, check out the NRC’s twitter feed or look at its website, and the only reference you will find to what has been dubbed “Frankenstorm” is the recently posted cancellation notice for a public hearing that was supposed to convene on Tuesday, October 30.

The subject of that meeting? The Fort Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station.

The Fort Calhoun plant sits on the Missouri River, on the eastern edge of Nebraska, near the town of Blair. Fort Calhoun’s single pressurized water reactor was shutdown for refueling in April of last year, but floods during the summer of 2011 encircled the facility and caused a series of dangerous incidents. A breach in water berms surrounded transformers and auxiliary containment buildings with two feet of water. Around that same time, a fire shut down power to Fort Calhoun’s spent fuel pools, stopping the circulation of cooling water for 90 minutes and triggering a “red event,” the second most severe classification. Outside of its reactor, the Nebraska facility is home to approximately 800,000 pounds of high-level radioactive waste. To this day, Fort Calhoun is offline and awaiting further evaluation by the NRC.

That a hearing on a flooded plant has been postponed because of the threat of flooding near NRC offices seems like the height of irony, but it pales next to the comparison of safety preparedness measures taken by New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority for a subway and the federal government’s approach to a fleet of nuclear reactors.

That is not to say that the NRC is doing nothing. . . not exactly. Before the weekend, regulators let it be known that they were considering sending extra inspectors to some nuclear facilities in Sandy’s path. Additionally, regional officials stressed that plant operators were doing walk downs to secure any outside equipment that might become a sort of missile in the event of high winds. It is roughly the equivalent of telling homeowners to tie down their lawn furniture.

And it seems to be understood, at least at the nuclear plants in southern New Jersey, that reactors should be shutdown at least two hours before winds reach 74 mph.

To all that, the NRC made a point of assuring the public that reactor containment buildings could withstand hurricane-force winds, or any odd piece of “lawn furniture” that might be hurled at them.

That’s nice, but hardly the point.

Containment breech is always a concern, but it is not the main issue today. A bigger worry are SBOs–Station Black Outs–loss-of-power incidents that could impede a plant’s capacity to cool its reactors or spent fuel pools, or could interfere with operators’ ability to monitor everything that is going on inside those areas.

As reported last year, Hurricane Irene caused an emergency shutdown at Maryland’s Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant when aluminum siding torn off by high winds shorted out the main transformer and caused an explosion, damaging structures and equipment. Calvert Cliffs was one of the facilities that had chosen not to reduce output or shutdown in advance of Irene–especially alarming because just days before that storm, plant operators had reported trouble with its diesel backup generators.

Irene caused other problems, beyond loss of electricity to millions of consumers, public notification sirens in two emergency preparedness zones were disabled by the storm.

In sum, storm damage triggered a scram at a plant with faulty backup generators. If power had not been restored, backup would have failed, and the rising temperatures in the reactors and fuel pools would have necessitated an evacuation of the area–only evacuation would have been hampered because of widespread power outages and absent sirens.

The worst did not happen last year at Calvert Cliffs, but the damage sustained there was substantial, and the incident should serve as a cautionary tale. Shutting down a nuclear reactor doesn’t prevent every problem that could result from a severe storm, but it narrows the possibilities, reduces some dangers, and prevents the excessive wear and tear an emergency shutdown inflicts on an aging facility.

Calvert Cliffs is again in the line of fire–as are numerous other plants. Hurricane Sandy will likely bring high winds, heavy rain and the threat of flooding to nuclear facilities in Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Given last year’s experiences–and given the high likelihood that climate change will bring more such events in years to come–it might have been expected that the NRC would have a more developed policy.

Instead, as with last year’s Atlantic hurricane, federal regulators have left the final decisions to private sector nuclear operators–operators that have a rather poor track record in evaluating threats to public safety when actions might affect their bottom line.

At the time of this writing, the rain in New York City is little more than a drizzle, winds are gusting far below hurricane strength, and high tide is still over ten hours away. Hurricane Sandy is over 300 miles to the south.

But Gotham is a relative ghost town. The subway turnstiles are locked; city busses are nowhere to be seen.

At the region’s nuclear facilities, however–at North Anna, Hope Creek, Salem and Oyster Creek, at Calvert Cliffs, Indian Point and Millstone–there is no such singular sense of better-safe-than-sorry mission.

In New York, it can be argued that the likes of Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have gone overboard, that they have made decisions based not just on safety, but on fears of political fallout and employee overtime. But in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s northeast region, there is no chance of that kind of criticism–one might even say there is no one to criticize, because it would appear that there is no one in charge.

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Union of Concerned Scientists Report: Nuclear “Near Misses” Symptom of Failing Regulatory Regime

(image: UCS report on The NRC and Nuclear Plant Safety in 2011, detail)

In its second annual report on the safety of nuclear power facilities (PDF) in the United States, the Union of Concerned Scientists have documented 15 troubling lapses–what they call “near misses”–at 13 of the nation’s atomic plants. The study details specific problems that still want for repairs, but much more disturbing, it also outlines systemic flaws in America’s nuclear regulation and oversight regime.

The problems range from aging and improperly maintained safety systems to unforgivably long delays in the implementation of Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules on fire suppression and seismic security:

We found that the NRC is allowing 47 reactors to operate despite known violations of fire-protection regulations dating back to 1980. The NRC is also allowing 27 reactors to operate even though their safety systems are not designed to protect them from earthquake-related hazards identified in 1996. Eight reactors suffer from both afflictions. The NRC established safety regulations to protect Americans from the inherent hazards of nuclear power plants. However, it is simply not fulfilling its mandate when it allows numerous plant owners to violate safety regulations for long periods of time.

The report also notes instances where nuclear workers were needlessly exposed to unsafe levels of radiation, and plants where failure to follow basic protocols had rendered backup systems functionally useless.

But perhaps most alarming (if not actually surprising) were the UCS findings on how the NRC handled Component Design Bases Inspections, or CDBIs:

Inspectors are supposed to use CDBIs to determine whether owners are operating and maintaining their reactors within specifications approved during design and licensing. Some of the problems concerned containment vent valves, battery power sources, and emergency diesel generators—components that affected the severity of the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant in Japan.

While it was good that the NRC identified these problems, each CDBI audits only a very small sample of possible trouble spots. For example, the CDBI at the Harris nuclear plant in North Carolina examined just 31 safety-related items among literally thousands of candidates. That audit found 10 problems. Beyond ensuring that the plant’s owner corrected those 10 problems, the NRC should have insisted that it identify and correct inadequacies in the plant’s testing and inspection regimes that allowed these problems to exist undetected in the first place. The true value of the CDBIs stems from the weaknesses they reveal in the owners’ testing and inspection regimes. But that value is realized only when the NRC forces owners to remedy those weaknesses.

In other words, it’s nice that you made the good folks at Harris fix those problems, but when a preliminary audit reveals a one-third failure rate, perhaps that plant has earned itself a full top-to-bottom inspection. (The UCS goes even further, recommending that when a nuclear facility operator–like an Exelon or Entergy–has more than one plant that fails an inspection, that company’s entire fleet of reactors should be subject to NRC review.)

As a matter of fact, the Union goes so far as to criticize the NRC’s entire approach to inspections, explaining that the job of regulators is not just to catch deficiencies and fix them. The entire process, UCS stresses, should compel plant managers to operate in such a way that ensures there will be no problems to catch–and so ensures that nuclear plants operate with the safety of its employees and the community at large as a top priority.

* * *

The Union of Concerned Scientists is a great resource. They keep a close watch on the nuclear industry, and do so with an unassailable level of scientific and technical expertise. They are critical of nuclear power as it exists today, but it would be a mistake to call them anti-nuclear. They advocate for safe energy and a clean environment, but if you read their work regularly, it is hard to say they are calling for an end to a certain technology. It makes the nuclear safety paper all the more damning, but it also poses a bit of a paradox.

In fact, reading this report brings to mind the joke about the economist on the desert island. Don’t know it? It goes something like this:

A physicist, a chemist and an economist are stranded and starving on a dessert island when they discover a can of soup that has washed ashore. But there’s a problem, how will they open the can?

The physicist says that with just right length of fallen tree as a lever, and just the right sized rock as a fulcrum, they could knock the top off the can.

“Ridiculous,” says the economist, “you will either smash the can or send it flying. Either way, the soup will splatter across the beach.”

The chemist says that he can analyze the list of ingredients and calculate just how hot they need to get the can in order to expand the soup enough to blow the can open.

“Insane,” says the economist, “if the can explodes, the soup will explode with it. We’ll be lucky to salvage a spoonful.”

“OK, then,” say the physicist and chemist in unison, “what do you propose?”

The economist strikes a thoughtful pose and says, “Assume we have a can opener. . . .”

Perhaps it is not fair to compare an association of scientists to the economist in this story, but UCS goes to admirable length describing the repeated failures of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission–about how the NRC falls short, from rule-making, to inspections, to enforcement–and then essentially says that if America’s nuclear plants are to operate safely, the NRC needs to “aggressively enforce its safety regulations.” Assume we had a regulatory body capable of regulating.

The Union says that the nuclear regulators are not doing their job–and they go further, noting that Congress has also failed by tolerating a flaccid Nuclear Regulatory Commission–but, mirroring the report’s critique of the NRC, the UCS focuses on individual incidents without addressing the systemic problem.

The NRC has had 37 years to evolve from the advocacy-oriented Atomic Energy Commission, the regulatory body’s predecessor, and yet it is still behaving as the nuclear industry’s watchful parent, rather than its top cop. Don’t just take this report as an example (well, 15 examples), look to an in-depth investigation done last summer by the Associated Press that documented the cozy relationship between plant owners and their supposed watchdogs.

The congressional committees that are supposed to provide the NRC with oversight are dominated by politicians beholden to the nuclear lobby for campaign contributions. This winter’s attempted coup against NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko is only the latest in a long list of Capitol Hill follies designed to distract from the problems at hand and delay any increased regulation. Indeed, the problems with lax regulation and laxer oversight have plagued the system so long, it could be argued this is not a bug (as they say), but a feature.

* * *

Calling the 15 gross failures by operators and regulators “near misses” might get headlines because it sounds so ominous, however it is possible that the rubric actually downplays the problem. “Near misses” implies a bullet dodged, a past event, but the incidents highlighted, as well as the overall critique of the process, illustrate an ongoing crisis. These are not so much “near misses” as they are disasters in waiting.

Indeed, even what the report calls “positives”–three (yes, only three) instances where NRC intervention corrected a safety problem in time to prevent an accident–seem more like lucky breaks. For example, the government forced the operators of Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun nuclear plant to improve their flood protection, and in fact, the new equipment was able to protect the facility form a massive flood last summer. But the inflatable levees that were used to keep the flood waters at bay were just barely high enough to avoid being crested, and one even sprang a leak. Had the flooding continued just a little longer, the catastrophe that the UCS report gives the NRC credit for preventing would have likely occurred.

But even if you extend credit for keeping back the flood, what if (and not to get too biblical here) it was not a flood, but a fire? Fort Calhoun is among the 47 plants listed in the report as still not meeting the decades-old fire safety standards. As someone once remarked about another nuclear plant accident, the NRC is getting “credit for the grace of God.”

Alas, God has proven to be an uneven regulator, too. Those who had the misfortune of living downwind of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or Fukushima have learned the Lord regulates in mysterious ways. Does the Union of Concerned Scientists really believe that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can change radically enough to force sufficient safety upgrades on US nuclear plants to assure that no Fukushima-like (or even Fukushima-light) accident will ever happen here?

It is hard to believe they do. The report’s full title, after all, is “The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety: Living on Borrowed Time.”

While a stronger regulatory body is a good idea–and one strongly urged by the UCS–the report provides no way to achieve that goal. Given the problems and the history, it is hard to believe even the best scientists in the field have an answer to nuclear safety’s political impediments.

So, given that, what should be the real conclusion of the Union’s report? It would be the same as the conclusion reached by any honest observer of nuclear power: atomic power–too dirty, too dangerous, and too expensive.

In the short-term, sure, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission needs to do a better job of policing plant safety–but in the long-term, this part of the NRC’s mandate needs to disappear along with its unstable, untenable, and un-regulatable target.