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article imageOp-Ed: U.S. nuclear power plants unprepared for climate change

By Karen Graham     Apr 20, 2019 in Politics
The nuclear power industry is pushing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to cut back on inspections at nuclear power plants and throttle back what it tells the public about plant problems. This does not bode well for public safety.
In the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, the five-member Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) tasked the roughly 60 or so commercial nuclear power plants in the U.S. with assessing their plants' flood risks - compared to what the facilities were actually built to withstand.
This was a sensible move, simply because so many of the nation's power plants are located in close proximity to waterways and the heightened risk of flooding due to global warming.
Fukushima explosions taken from the air
Fukushima explosions taken from the air
Flicker / DigitalGlobe (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Bloomberg was able to review the correspondence between the NRC and power plant owners, and what they found is not very surprising.
1. Fifty-four of the nuclear plants operating in the U.S. weren't designed to handle the flood risk they face.
2. Fifty-three weren't built to withstand their current risk from intense precipitation.
3. Twenty-five didn't account for current flood projections from streams and rivers.
4. Nineteen weren't designed for their expected maximum storm surge.
5. Nineteen face three or more threats that they weren't designed to handle.
What is interesting is that the NRC allowed plant operators, not an outside authority, to do the assessments and they didn't have to include "projected flood risks."
"It's difficult to come across as an independent regulator and rely on self-assessment" from plants, said Tony Vegel, a Texas-based reactor safety official for the NRC, according to NBC News a few weeks ago.
And it seems that plant operators are more interested in storing emergency generators, pumps, and other equipment in on-site concrete bunkers, a system they call Flex. Flex stands for Flexible Mitigation Capability. The NRC loved this idea.
Cooling water intake of Philippsburg Nuclear Power Plant
Cooling water intake of Philippsburg Nuclear Power Plant
Michael Kauffmann (CC BY 2.0 DE)
But the NRC also agreed on January 24 that nuclear power plants would not have to update equipment in light of higher levels of expected flooding. Oh, the NRC also eliminated a requirement that nuclear plants run Flex drills.
If anyone is wondering why the NRC is relaxing regulations so much - It could be because of the three Trump appointees on the NRC board. The three GOP members are doing Trump's bidding and reducing the "paperwork and excessive regulations." The two Democrat members disagreed with the reduction in regulations passed by the NRC, but of course, they were outnumbered.
Edwin Lyman, head of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said, "The NRC basically did everything the industry wanted." Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Oversight Project at Beyond Nuclear, concurred with that assessment.
The Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant in New Hill  North Carolina  is a nuclear power plant with a ...
The Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant in New Hill, North Carolina, is a nuclear power plant with a single Westinghouse designed pressurized-water nuclear reactor operated by Duke Energy.
NRC via Wikimedia
Gunter told Common Dreams that "the commission's January 2019 vote appears to have violated the federal Administrative Procedures Act by erasing what had been established as mandatory requirements through the agency's rulemaking process for post-Fukushima flooding preparations at U.S. reactors."
Gunter is referring to a draft version of the rule, released by the NRC in 2016, required all nuclear plant owners to do two things: reassess all flood and earthquake risks, then implement new safety measures taking the reassessment into account. But a final version of the rule, implemented in January 2019 states the safety measures are voluntary.
The Nuclear Energy Institute’s Matthew Wald told Bloomberg, according to Futurism, any meltdown of a nuclear reactor in the United States was "highly unlikely" due to emergency equipment installed in some of our reactors.
Color photograph of the Three Mile Island nuclear generating station  which suffered a partial meltd...
Color photograph of the Three Mile Island nuclear generating station, which suffered a partial meltdown in 1979. The reactors are in the smaller domes with rounded tops (the large smokestacks are just cooling towers).
United States Department of Energy
“There is a perennial problem in any high-tech industry deciding how safe is safe enough,” Wald said, “The civilian nuclear power industry exceeds the NRC-required safety margin by a substantial amount."
Remember Hurricane Florence in September 2018? The storms potential path on making landfall along the North Carolina coast included half a dozen nuclear power plants, pits holding coal-ash and other industrial waste, and numerous eastern hog farms that store animal waste in massive open-air lagoons.
Duke Energy already had plans in place to shut down their nuclear reactors two hours before the storm would hit. Kathryn Green, a Duke spokeswoman, in referring to the post-Fukushima improvements said: "We have backups for backups for backups."
Hurricane Michael comes less than a month after Hurricane Florence left dozens dead in the Carolinas
Hurricane Michael comes less than a month after Hurricane Florence left dozens dead in the Carolinas
Alex Edelman, AFP
And the public had grown complacent on hearing positive remarks about everything being under control in the event of an emergency. And that is all well and good. However, the current administration's denial of global warming and its severe rollback of rules and regulations meant to keep us safe is very worrisome.
In 2014, Shane Shifflett and Kate Sheppard at the Huffington Post reported on the risk storms like Florence pose to nuclear plants: "Most nuclear power facilities were built well before scientists understood just how high sea levels might rise in the future. And for power plants, the most serious threat is likely to come from surges during storms. Higher sea levels mean that flooding will travel farther inland, creating potential hazards in areas that may have previously been considered safe."
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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