Americans narrowly avoided nuclear disasters during hurricane
Irene and the 5.8 earthquake that hit the East Coast. Six months
after Fukushima, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must implement
new regulations, rather than debate reforms for the next decade, as
it did post-9/11.
Americans were disconcertingly lucky to have avoided a nuclear
disaster during hurricane Irene and the 5.8-magnitude earthquake
that preceded it. Both events pointed out deficiencies at nuclear
power plants up and down the East Coast and critical regulatory
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) identified potential for
increased earthquake risk in central and eastern states several
years ago. Yet a letter requiring operators to assess their reactors
for seismic vulnerability - in the works since 2005 - still has not
been sent and is not expected to go out until the end of this year,
after which they would have one or two years to comply.
The risks of such a laid back approach have been brought into
clearer focus after the Aug. 23 earthquake shut down the two
reactors at the North Anna plant in central Virginia, which lost all
external power for hours. The tremor also shifted by inches 25 huge
concrete containers - each weighing 115 tons - holding spent nuclear
Plant operator Dominion Virginia Power has now acknowledged that
ground motion exceeded what the reactors were designed to withstand,
in some cases by 10 to 20 percent. Operators at 10 East Coast
locations reported an "unusual event" that day, with a total of 18
reactors affected by the quake.
During hurricane Irene, emergency sirens malfunctioned at three
nuclear plants: Oyster Creek (in New Jersey), Peach Bottom (in
Pennsylvania), and Calvert Cliffs (in Maryland). Indian Point in New
York was slapped with a permit violation when heavy rains led to an
overflowing discharge canal. At Maryland's Calvert Cliffs a large
piece of aluminum siding slammed into a transformer, forcing a plant
shutdown. We got off lightly, all things considered.
After the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe on March 11, the NRC told
America's nuclear operators to do a series of checks on their
reactors - most of which are nearing the end of their original 40-
year licensed operating lives. It followed that up by sending
inspectors to evaluate the operators' work. What the NRC inspectors
found is that many aging nuclear plants are ill-prepared to cope
with a serious accident - that is, one involving a total loss of
power over an extended period.
As Fukushima so dramatically illustrated, a nuclear power plant
without power is no longer able to keep its cooling systems running.
When the reactor core overheats, as it did in three of Japan's
units, the plant is quickly transformed into a fire-breathing,
potentially explosive, radioactive monster.
An NRC staff task force asked to review the agency's regulations
recommended a number of common-sense fixes, mainly to reduce the
chances of an accident involving a major release of radioactivity.
This drew the ire of a nuclear industry more accustomed to dictating
the rules then to the NRC acting independently. …