This was the message from Dave Lochbaum, of The Union of Concerned Scientists, during a recent talk at the University of Toledo.
Lochbaum’s group is an independent nonprofit, its sole agenda to protect the environment. Lochbaum is a widely recognized expert on the nuclear industry, and his group touts its commitment to scientific logic.
The chief problem in today’s nuclear industry: widespread vulnerability on many fronts.
“All of the reactors in Ohio today are as vulnerable as Fukushima was on March 10, 2011,” Lochbaum said.
Fires pose the greatest danger to nuclear power plants in the U.S, with earthquakes a close second.
Lochbaum has been critical of U.S. nuclear plant operators and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the agency that oversees these power plants. Facility owners often fail to comply with regulations, and the regulatory commission often fails to enforce the regulations, allowing some facilities to go decades without meeting new safety standards, Lochbaum said.
He cited an example: In 1980 and then again in 2004, the regulatory commission issued updated fire-protection regulations. To this day, about 40 nuclear plants still have not met these regulations.
“All of the reactors in Ohio are adequately protected against fire and earthquakes — unless a fire or earthquake happens,” Lochbaum said.
Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Carroll Township, just west of Sandusky, has a documented history of problems with fire protection systems.
Perry Nuclear Power Plant, about 30 minutes east of Cleveland, has the same problems, as well earthquakes hazard issues, Lochbaum said.
Both plants are under a higher level of attention from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Lochbaum said.For obvious reasons, fire can be a tremendous hazard at a nuclear power plant. It can disable power and controls for primary safety systems and their backups, much as the tsunami waters did in March 2011 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan. In November 2011, there was a fire in an electrical panel in an axillary building at Davis-Besse. The fire burned itself out, but the incident was caused by water leaking from a valve on a water pipe, then onto an electrical panel. It arched the system and started the fire, according to regulatory commission data.
Earthquakes pose similar risks because they can damage components, such as piping, and they can also trigger fires in pipes carrying flammable gases or liquids. The contents of a ruptured pipe can be ignited.
And too often, Lochbaum said, people think an earthquake can’t hit where they live. Earthquakes can happen anywhere, unexpectedly.
The industry’s workplace dynamics may potentially be exacerbating problems, too, if not outright stymieing any solutions.
In 2012, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Office of the Inspector General hired the risk-management consultant Towers Watson to conduct a survey. Of about 3,000 employees who responded to the study, 51 percent felt they’d been retaliated against for expressing safety concerns.
Lochbaum said the regulatory commission is capable of serving as the industry’s watchdog, but it too often does not live up to its potential. The bar is set high when it comes to industry standards, he said, but the regulatory commission allows companies to “limbo” under these safety measures.
Officials at one local energy company — a big player in the nuclear game — said they take safety very seriously.
“As operators of nuclear power plants, safety is FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company’s top priority,” said Jennifer Young, spokesperson for FirstEnergy. “FENOC plants are designed to criteria much more stringent than that of non-nuclear facilities, and (they) meet or exceed federal regulations for safety systems.”
FirstEnergy’s plants incorporate many features to protect plant equipment, while also providing substantial operational and safety margins to counter a wide variety of events, including earthquakes and fires. These systems and the equipment are regularly inspected and tested to ensure they continue to provide adequate protection, Young said.
Viktoria Mitlyng, a spokeswoman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said her agency works hard to make sure the nuclear industry is safe.
It can be complicated for some facilities to adapt to new regulations, and it sometimes takes longer than expected, Mitlyng said. In the interim in such cases, power plants must have a temporary plan in place to ensure the public is safe.“One of our cornerstones of safety is making sure employees are free to raise concerns,” Mitlyng said.
If an employee feels uncomfortable discussing safety concerns at a given facility, they can file an anonymous complaint with the regulatory commission.
“Their identities are protected,” Mitlyng said.There have been investigations into the safety culture, or lack thereof, at facilities, including decades ago at Davis-Besse, and more recently at Palisades Nuclear Plant in Michigan. Mitlyng challenged any notion that the regulatory commission cannot be a watchdog.
“We have strict regulations, and we make sure they are adhered to,” she said.
“Allowing millions of people to be subjected to undo risk is not in their job descriptions,” Lochbaum said.
Without public outcry or a significant nuclear disaster in the U.S., the regulatory commission isn’t likely to hasten its correction of these safety problems, he said.
Former U.S. Congressman Dennis Kucinich said Lochbaum is right.
“Dave Lochbaum knows very well what he is talking about,” Kucinch said.
Many nuclear plants are aging long past their intended lifespan and they should not be relicensed, Kucinich said.
There are serious safety concerns the Nuclear Regulatory Commissions is not addressing, he said.
“If they were not owned by the industry, we would see Davis-Besse shut down,” Kucinich said. “Davis-Besse is a ticking time bomb. The only question is when.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists has issued some key recommendations for the nuclear industry to prevent severe accidents or mitigate the effects: