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  Sierra Magazine
  March/April 2004
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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means

The Harrison Ford Solution

Carl Pope

Safety takes a backseat in Bush’s push for nuclear power

by Carl Pope

No nuclear power plant has been ordered in the United States since the near-catastrophe at the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania in 1979. Many of the nation’s nuclear plants produce such expensive electricity that they have had to be bailed out by consumers. More and more maintenance-related safety problems are cropping up as plants age. No satisfactory solution has been found—after more than 20 years of looking—to the problem of permanent radioactive waste storage. And globally, it has become increasingly clear that the "peaceful atom" of nuclear power serves as the entering wedge for the decidedly unpeaceful atom of nuclear weapons. India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, and Israel have all either exploded nuclear weapons developed out of their civilian reactor programs, or are believed capable of doing so.

Nevertheless, the Bush administration and its allies in Congress are mounting an aggressive effort to revive the nuclear power industry, with billions in subsidies including tax credits for the first new plants in decades. Doing so involves ignoring the flashing lights and claxons warning of an industry in deep, deep trouble.

In 2001, for example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission received alarming information that at least one and as many as nine metal sleeves on the reactor cooling vessel at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant near Toledo, Ohio, might be corroded and leaking. Inspectors found not mere cracks but a "pineapple-size" pit six inches deep. Corrosion had eaten away 70 pounds of steel, leaving only a quarter-inch barrier to keep radiation inside the reactor head. Had the liner burst, vital cooling water would have drained away, threatening the reactor’s emergency shutdown system. The plant’s operator, FirstEnergy, admitted that in such a case the emergency core-cooling system "would not have worked as it’s designed to work." Former NRC commissioner Victor Gilinsky called the incident the nation’s "closest brush with disaster" since Three Mile Island.

"For more than two years, the radiation detectors at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant insistently signaled that something was wrong inside the hulking gray bunker that houses the reactor," reported the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "Although they suspected a coolant leak somewhere, Davis-Besse personnel couldn’t find one. Instead of pursuing its cause, they moved the monitors’ intakes to a different spot. They even bypassed one of the devices’ three sensors because it kept triggering alarms."

The NRC had to acknowledge that this attitude was a problem. As its then-chairman, Richard Meserve, noted, in classic bureaucratic understatement, "There clearly were some issues with safety culture at that plant that had not been recognized by us, and not recognized by the topmost management of FirstEnergy."

At the disposal end of the nuclear cycle, major problems continue to plague the Bush administration’s chosen fix to dealing with nuclear waste: to send it all to Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Winston & Strawn, the law firm the U.S. Department of Energy had chosen to prepare its license application for the site, turned out to have lobbied for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group. Then an independent technical review board warned that the canisters the DOE planned to use to hold the waste for 10,000 years could corrode in less than 1,000. And 60 Minutes concluded that the department still didn’t have a clue as to how it could safely transport the waste to Yucca Mountain.

Such problems would ring alarms for most unbiased observers. But like the staff at the Davis-Besse reactor, the Bush administration and the leadership in Congress simply ignore them. In fact, Bush’s NRC seems to have concluded that reactor standards were too tough. A major safety problem in older reactors is that the cables connecting the control room with the shutdown and safety systems run together, where a fire could disable them. Rather than install fire-suppression equipment, or redundant cables, many plant operators advocated a Harrison Ford solution: In the event of a fire or other disaster, heroic technicians would be designated to run through the flames and operate the equipment by hand if the control cables burned away. Bush’s NRC agreed to permit such "operator manual actions" as a substitute for safety equipment. Dana Powers, vice chair of the NRC’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safety, was aghast at the implications. "Is there any hope?" he asked. "It’s not like you can set up a simulator. How do you simulate smoke, light, fire, ringing bells, fire engines, crazy people running around?"

While NRC staff admitted that the change would cause "increases in risks from fires," it did not think it constituted "a safety issue." (Just in case the Harrison Ford stand-in doesn’t run fast enough, in December 2003 the National Research Council endorsed the NRC’s fallback plan in the event of a serious accident—passing out potassium iodide pills to nearby residents so they would not die of thyroid cancer.)

More than 100 reactors could take advantage of this loophole. Too many, like FirstEnergy, have shown their eagerness to cut corners. And George Bush, in his eagerness to revive the nuclear power industry, is altogether too willing to script the American energy future as a disaster movie.


Carl Pope is Sierra Club executive director. He is the author, with Sierra senior editor Paul Rauber, of the forthcoming book Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. E-mail carl.pope@sierraclub.org.


This article has been corrected subsequent to publication.

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