Cracks In South Carolina Nuke Power Plant, US Nuclear Power Safety Questioned
16 November, 2012
The US is headed toward a major nuclear disaster unless the government more closely monitors aging power plants, reported UPI from Washington in early November 2012. At the same time, cracks have been identified in a South Carolina nuke power plant.
"This is like the Titanic that is headed toward an iceberg," said Paul Gunter, the co-founder of the Clamshell Alliance anti-nuclear group.
Gunter's concern centers on the 23 "Mark I" nuclear reactors in the US, which are identical to the containment vessels used at Fukushima's Daiichi nuclear power plant. Three reactors failed in Fukushima's Daiichi nuclear power plant and went into meltdown in 2011.
More frequent extreme weather incidents like superstorm Sandy have been predicted. There is apprehension that whether the facilities could withstand disasters like the tsunami that hit Japan and the Fukushima incident happened.
The nuclear facilities in the US dot the landscape from New Jersey to Nebraska.
"Our facilities are responding extremely well," said Steve Kerekes, spokesman of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a policy organization of the nuclear energy said after Hurricane Sandy hit the US East Coast.
He expressed no concerns over the weather challenges faced by aging reactors, saying records showed the facilities in the US have operated safely in extreme weather.
But some experts said they fear that a nuclear disaster is unfolding in the US.
The small containment leaves Mark I reactor not as robust as later designs, said Margaret Harding, an independent nuclear consultant who worked for General Electric for 27 years.
Gunter said he worries that the parallels to Japan are too similar to ignore, noting the strain the reactors could be under when there are severe weather conditions.
Sandy brought the issue into sharp focus as Oyster Creek nuclear station -- one of the oldest nuclear plants adjacent to the Oyster Creek in New Jersey using Mark I boiling water reactor -- declared an alert because of high water levels. The plant experienced power disruption but backup diesel fuel was able to provide power for cooling.
But experts said if future events become more severe, under-designed protections might fail.
If operators aren't able to connect temporary equipment in flooding, "there's another nuclear disaster," said Dave Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety program of Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear oversight group.
Earlier this month, an un-redacted version of a recently released Nuclear Regulatory Commission report made its way to Greenpeace that couples the Mark 1 safety issues with a concern about geographic adjacencies. The report highlights the threat the NRC sees to power plants close to waterways, especially large dams.
All 23 Mark I reactors are adjacent to waters, some with major cities that have populations in the millions in the potential radioactive contamination zone.
Gunter said waves generated by severe weather or a succession of dam breaks could be higher than the water wall caused by the tsunami and lead to a similar station blackout in Japan.
An earthquake April 11, 2011, created a tsunami that struck the Fukushima nuclear power plant and caused a loss of all power at the facility, imperiling the plant's capability to cool down the overheated core.
"Fukushima demonstrated that you can't be without power for a long time," said Gunter, who is also director of Beyond Nuclear, a non-profit in Takoma Park, Md. "But when these [backup] diesel generators are damaged, or the fuels are contaminated, there is very short time before the core damage occurs. It relies on a robust containment, which Mark I doesn't have."
NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane said at a nuclear safety presentation that the US is working to better prepare for station blackout and other events triggered by extreme weather.
John Lee, nuclear engineering professor at University of Michigan, said that despite the vulnerable containment, the safety measures in place would make sure Mark I reactors in the US can survive natural disasters similar to the Fukushima tsunami.
A report by Union of Concerned Scientists said the NRC ignores weaknesses in protection regulations. It allows 27 reactors to operate facing earthquakes larger than they are designed to withstand, 47 reactors violating fire protection regulations, including one Mark I plant.
"As long as luck prevents those vulnerabilities from being challenged, it's fine," Lochbaum said. "But if luck runs out, those pre-existing conditions can mean disaster."
Meanwhile, the NRC has ordered engineers at a nuclear power plant in South Carolina to act urgently on cracks that have appeared in a reactor head there that could increase the likelihood of an atomic disaster. (RT, “Cracks found in South Carolina atomic station's nuclear reactor head”, Nov. 15, 2012, http://rt.com/usa/news/cracks-atomic-reactor-head-797/)
The NRC says they don’t believe the public needs to worry as of now about cracks at the SCE&G plant in Jenkinsville, SC, but that could change if action isn’t taken immediately.
According to The South Carolina State newspaper, the SCE&G plant told the commission that they would make repairs in order to satisfy their concerns in an October 30 statement delivered to the NRC. Confirming this week, a spokeswoman for the atomic energy plant said that they have indeed begun fixing the cracks.
Those repairs, say the NRC, will be a good fix for the moment, but might not necessarily relieve them of future concerns.
“The situation … indicates to me that the best and safest fix is for the old, cracked vessel head to be taken out of service and replaced,” anti-nuclear activist Tom Clements tells The State.
“At some point in the not-too-distant future, it seems like the company will want to replace the head with one that is a little more resistant to this kind of cracking,” David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists adds to the paper, a move that could set SCE&G back upwards of $60 million.
Only a few miles from the busy city of Columbia, though, the investment might be imperative to ensure that the area stays safe from any potential catastrophes.
“The cracks found in the VC Summer reactor pose a clear safety risk and must be immediately addressed,” Clements explains to the Aiken Leader. “While SCE&G will want to rush to get the reactor back on line and do a quick repair, the NRC must be deliberate in reviewing the causes of the cracking and how it is addressed. Operation of the reactor with a vessel head subject to cracking poses a safety hazard that both SCE&G and the NRC are responsible for.”
In an email to The State this week, company spokeswoman Rhonda O’Banion characterized the cracks as “minor defects” in the steel domes that sit atop the part of the facility where atomic reactions actually occur and that current efforts are “pre-emptive” to assure that are no issues down the road.
According to a year-long investigation finalized by the Associated Press in 2012, the AP says they believe that the NRC has regularly lessened restrictions in recent years. In their probe, they found that 82 of America’s operating reactors are more than a quarter-century old, with 66 units having been re-licensed for an additional two decades.
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