Nuclear Sneak Attack

A renewed attack on nuclear power immediately followed the March 11 catastrophe at the six-unit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex in Japan. At least one legislator and a multitude of anti-nuclear groups have demanded that the U.S. cease approval of all new nuclear plants for the foreseeable future and/or close our Mark I boiling water reactor (BWR) plants. This knee-jerk response adds nothing substantive to the nuclear safety debate. (Be sure to read our cover story for more on this issue.)

Congressman Edward Markey (D-Mass.) released a statement on April 6 that gave his version of a nuclear plant safety program: “I have introduced [March 29] legislation, the Nuclear Power Plant Safety Act of 2011, to impose a moratorium on all pending NRC licenses and re-licenses in light of the need to fully understand the safety risks and include remedies into our own regulations.” Markey, a long-time opponent of nuclear power, is using the Japanese accident to sway public opinion away from our most reliable source of electricity while deftly ignoring the industry’s significant safety record and history of continuous safety improvements.

As background, 31 states have nuclear power plants. These 104 plants (totaling about 100 GW) represent 10% of the nation’s total installed generating capacity yet are producing 20% of the electricity consumed each year. Of those 104 reactors, the 23 General Electric Mark I reactors (supplying about 4% of the nation’s megawatt-hours) are from the same reactor family as Fukushima Daiichi’s reactors. To date, 21 of these 23 reactors have already received license renewals for another 20 years of operation. They include the controversial Vermont Yankee, whose license renewal was issued on March 21, five years after its renewal application was filed.

Missed the Memo

Most annoying to me is Markey substituting his judgment of what constitutes nuclear safety for that of the 4,000 Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) employees and the tens of thousands of people in the U.S. nuclear industry who have spent their entire careers hyper-focused on the safe use of nuclear energy.

Markey, in his recent email blitz, also ignored the fact that the NRC had already initiated a 90-day safety review of all 104 plants, that the safety issues he points to were thoroughly examined during the lengthy license renewal processes, that safety upgrades are continuous over the life of all plants, and that an exhaustive safety review is fundamental to new reactor certification and to obtaining a license to construct a new plant.

Markey’s criticism is all the more bewildering because he uses the early Mark I BWR design as the standard by which he judges the safety of the modern Generation III+ passively safe reactors now under NRC review.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s March 30 Energy and Water Subcommittee Hearing on Nuclear that all U.S. nuclear plants are “safe and secure” and that it is “very unlikely” that the combination of a 9.0 earthquake followed by a 60-foot tsunami could impact plants in the U.S. The crux of his testimony was that simultaneous seismic and tsunami events of the magnitude experienced in Japan are not applicable to U.S. plant designs, so we’re moving forward on new projects.

Here’s how remote the threat that Markey points to really is. The U.S. nuclear plants most likely to experience just a 9.0 seismic event are along the west coast. A report released March 24 by the California Coastal Commission puts the seismic concern into perspective: “The vast majority of faults in California, including the San Andreas Fault, could not produce a magnitude 9 earthquake [the maximum estimated is magnitude 6.5]. The combination of strong ground motion and massive tsunami that occurred in Japan cannot be generated by faults near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and the Diablo Canyon Power Plant.” A 60-foot tsunami is also of little concern—Diablo Canyon sits on a bluff 85 feet above sea level.

Criticisms Already Answered

Other criticisms presented by Markey as justification for putting a hold on new nuclear projects were loss of backup power to activate the Daiichi safety systems and a hydrogen explosion that damaged a containment system. Neither should be a factor in the U.S.

The NRC uses a philosophy of “defense in depth” when reviewing and approving safety designs. It requires, for example, multiple barriers to radiation and redundant safety systems. That approach includes updating safety requirements for existing plant designs, when necessary. For example, the NRC has run a BWR Mark I Containment Improvement Program since the late 1980s that has required the installation of hardened vent systems for containment pressure relief as well as enhanced reliability of the automatic depressurization system.

The NRC “Station Blackout Rule,” also originating in the late 1980s, required every U.S. plant to carefully analyze its response plan for dealing with a possible loss of auxiliary AC power. Most, if not all, plants in the U.S. are equipped with compressed air start standby diesel generators on a redundant emergency electrical system that can run the reactor circulating pumps—a more efficient process than using fire hoses to pump seawater into the reactor, as Japanese workers were forced to do.

Finally, the “Hydrogen Rule” required modifications to reduce the impact of hydrogen generated, and core damage sustained, by beyond-design-basis events; they involve designing equipment that will remain operational during a design-basis accident.

It’s a shame that elected officials are using the Japanese calamity to assert their anti-nuclear views. Markey’s legislative proposal is empty rhetoric. I expect it will have a decay half-life measured in days.

Dr. Robert Peltier, PE is POWER’s editor-in-chief.