NRC to Nuclear Plant Owners — Skipping Fukushima Lessons is Okay

by Linda DeStefano, Chair, Atlantic Chapter Nuclear Committee

People living near nuclear energy facilities have been failed, once again, by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

On January 24, 2019, the two Democratic commissioners on the NRC dissented from a vote by the three Republican commissioners to make voluntary, rather than mandatory, recommendations to lessen the catastrophe that could occur at US reactors during extreme weather conditions. This follows seven and a half years in which NRC staff and stakeholders studied updated methods of lessening the danger of a repeat of the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi disaster of March 11, 2011, in which multiple reactors melted down after an earthquake and tsunami. To this day, radiation continues to contaminate the land and the ocean, and people are reluctant to return to their homes.

The Japanese reactors were Mark I boiling water reactors. It’s long been known that their design cannot reliably contain radiation in the event of a serious accident — but the NRC allowed them in the US anyway. In 1986, Dr. Harold Denton, an official at the NRC, acknowledged that the Mark I reactors had as high as a 90% chance of failure in a severe accident. Two of the six reactors in NYS are Mark I — Fitzpatrick and Nine Mile I near Oswego. Nine Mile 2 is a Mark II boiling water re-actor and has similar flaws.

It doesn’t require an earthquake and tsunami to cause failure. It could be any extreme weather condition, such as an ice storm, that could curtail power to the reactor, and the backup systems can’t be relied on to always work. Without cooling water, the fuel rods would melt down, causing a massive release of radiation.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has also betrayed the residents of NY, forcing us to subsidize reactor owners by imposing a fee on all ratepayers as of April 1, 2017 (fittingly, April Fools’ Day). The owner of Fitzpatrick announced its intention to close due to unprofitability. We anti-nuclear activists celebrated, but our hopes were dashed when Cuomo intervened. It is estimated that the subsidies will cost us $7.6 billion over 12 years. This could have been used to support energy efficiency, renewables and education about energy conservation. There is a pending lawsuit that challenges these subsidies.

It isn’t only the Mark I and II reactors which endanger us, animals, plants and the entire environment. Some of the reactors are very old, leading to metal fatigue and general weakening of components. Two of the oldest reactors in the US are Nine Mile I near Oswego and Ginna near Rochester. There is also the on-site storage of radioactive waste, increasing daily, which is vulnerable to accident or terrorist attack. And evacuation of a large population presents a nightmare. This is especially true for Indian Point 2 and 3 near NYC but also a problem for upstate populations. For example, three of the reactors in Oswego County are near the city of Oswego and about 36 miles from Syracuse. There’s an extensive history of safety problems at upstate reactors (www.allianceforagreeneconomy.org/upstate-nukes).

Some environmentalists worry that closing some NYS nuclear reactors now will result in increased use of fossil fuel. However, there is data to indicate this would not happen.

The NYISO (NY Independent Systems Operator) released a report in 2016 saying that Ginna and Fitzpatrick could shut down without having to build any new generation in the state to maintain reliability.

Additionally, from 2016 to 2017, New York reduced its demand for electricity from the wholesale market by 4,428 gigawatt hours (through energy efficiency and distributed solar). This is equivalent to 92% of the output of Ginna. This is without a robust energy efficiency program or concerted development of community solar. It shows that it's quite possible for NY to replace nuclear power generation with energy efficiency and distributed generation at the rate of at least one nuclear plant per year.

Sources
Information compiled from Beyond Nuclear, Alliance for a Green Economy and Citizens Environmental Coalition.