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Union of Concerned Scientists

Many of the significant safety lapses at U.S. nuclear power plants in 2011 happened because plant owners—and often the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)—either tolerated known problems or failed to address them adequately, according to a report released Feb. 28 by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

The report, The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety in 2011: Living on Borrowed Time, is the second in an annual series on the performance of U.S. nuclear plants and the NRC. This year’s report documents the special inspections the NRC conducted in response to safety equipment problems and security shortcomings at 13 plants. None of the 15 “near-misses” that triggered special inspections in 2011 harmed plant employees or the public, but their frequency—more than one a month—is high for a mature industry.

In addition to reviewing the special inspections, the report provides examples of where the NRC did an outstanding job addressing safety problems before they could lead to a potentially dangerous situation. It also covers instances in which NRC negligence has allowed plant owners to flout agency regulations, sometimes for decades.

“Last year’s record shows that the NRC is quite capable of being an effective watchdog that protects the public and saves the nuclear industry from its worst tendencies,” said Dave Lochbaum, the author of the report and the director of UCS’s Nuclear Safety Project. “But the agency too often does not live up to its potential, and we are still finding significant problems at nuclear plants that could too easily trigger a serious accident.”

The 13 plants that experienced special inspections last year were Braidwood and Byron in Illinois, Callaway in Missouri, Cooper in Nebraska, Millstone in Connecticut, Monticello in Minnesota, North Anna in Virginia, Oconee in South Carolina, Palisades (two incidents) in Michigan, Perry in Ohio, Pilgrim (two incidents) in Massachusetts, Turkey Point in Florida, and Wolf Creek in Nebraska. The near-misses at Millstone Unit 2 and Pilgrim were the most threatening. Both involved an infrequently performed operation—a test of the valves controlling steam to the turbine at Millstone and a reactor startup at Pilgrim.

Three plants where the NRC nipped a problem before it became serious were Fort Calhoun in Nebraska, which was surrounded by Missouri floodwaters last summer; the Hatch plant in Georgia, where NRC inspectors found that safeguards instituted years before were inadequate; and LaSalle in Illinois, where agency inspectors identified a safety deficiency that had been overlooked for decades.

Conversely, lax NRC oversight has allowed some problems to fester for decades. For example, the report points out that nearly half of the U.S. fleet—47 reactors—still do not comply with a fire regulation the NRC established in 1980 and amended in 2004. Fire represents 50 percent of the risk of reactor core damage. In other words, fire hazards are the equivalent of the risk from all other causes of core damage combined. Likewise, the NRC is aware that 27 reactors are currently operating with inadequate protection against earthquakes. The two reactors at the North Anna plant in Virginia, which sit 12 miles from the epicenter of the 5.8 quake that happened last August, are on that list.

Although UCS reviewed all the special inspections from last year, it did not cover all NRC actions, so the examples in the report do not necessarily represent the best and the worst of 2011. Regardless, these case studies shine a light on patterns of NRC behavior that contributed to both good and potentially dangerous outcomes.

“The serious accidents at the Fermi plant outside Detroit in 1966, Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima Daiichi last year happened when a handful of known, uncorrected problems resulted in a catastrophe,” said Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who worked at nuclear plants for 17 years. “The fact that U.S. plant owners could have avoided nearly all the near-misses in 2011 if they had addressed known problems in a timely manner suggests that they and the NRC have not learned the lessons of these accidents. Someday their luck may run out.”

Note—For more information about the safety status of each of the 104 operating nuclear power plants across the country, check out the Nuclear Power Information Tracker on UCS’s website.

For more information, click here.

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The Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading U.S. science-based nonprofit organization working for a healthy environment and a safer world. Founded in 1969, UCS is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and also has offices in Berkeley, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Union of Concerned Scientists

The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, created by the Obama administration after it abandoned plans to establish a nuclear waste repository in Nevada, is expected to release its final report Jan. 26 on what to do with commercial “high level” nuclear waste—used, or “spent,” fuel—from nuclear reactors.

One of the many contentious issues the commission addressed is reprocessing, a series of chemical operations that separates plutonium and uranium from other nuclear waste in spent fuel to be used again in nuclear reactors. The separated plutonium also could be used to make nuclear weapons.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has long opposed reprocessing spent fuel. Not only would reprocessing fail to reduce the volume of nuclear waste requiring permanent disposal, it would increase the risk of nuclear terrorism and proliferation, divert resources from a permanent disposal program, and cost significantly more than disposing of spent fuel directly.

UCS has called on the blue ribbon commission to retain language from its July interim report concluding that “no currently available or reasonably foreseeable” technologies for reprocessing spent fuel have the potential to “fundamentally alter the waste management challenge this nation confronts over at least the next several decades, if not longer.” But the science group also has asked the commission to drop the draft report’s recommendation to continue taxpayer-funded research and development on reprocessing and plutonium-based reactor fuels.

“Instead of throwing more good money after bad by continuing to fund failed reprocessing projects, the government should encourage research and development to improve the current fuel cycle’s efficiency, rebuff industry requests to weaken plutonium storage and transport security standards, and begin a technically sound, politically fair process to site a permanent geologic repository,” said Edwin Lyman, a UCS senior scientist. “The tens of billions of dollars that electric utility ratepayers pay into the Nuclear Waste Fund should be spent only on the fund’s intended purpose—developing a geologic repository for direct disposal of spent fuel.”

The commission also is expected to recommend that the government establish a number of centralized interim high-level radioactive waste sites until a permanent underground geologic repository is built, a major objective of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and two industry trade groups, the Nuclear Energy Institute and the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition. UCS maintains that until a permanent geologic repository is built, spent nuclear fuel rods should remain on site at operating nuclear plants in hardened dry casks.

“It is not apparent that siting a consolidated interim storage facility would be any easier politically to achieve than siting a [permanent] geologic repository,” Lyman said in written comments to blue ribbon commission, “and efforts to site an interim storage facility could distract from the far more important goal of finding a repository site.”

“Spent fuel can be managed safely at reactor sites for decades as long as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requires plant owners to minimize safety and security risks,” said Lyman. “They can do that by moving spent fuel from vulnerable, overcrowded wet pools to safer dry storage casks, and enhancing security measures to protect the dry casks from terrorist attacks.”

In its recommendations to the NRC in light of the Fukushima accident last March, UCS called on the agency to require plant owners to transfer used rods from spent fuel pools to dry casks as soon as the rods are cool enough to move. The NRC is currently conducting a study of this proposal. UCS also has called for the NRC to release more information to the public about classified studies that it has conducted since the 9/11 attacks on the dangers posed by densely packed spent fuel pools.

 For more information, click here.

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The Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading U.S. science-based nonprofit organization working for a healthy environment and a safer world. Founded in 1969, UCS is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and also has offices in Berkeley, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

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Union of Concerned Scientists

An extraordinary delay in the development of federal protections against exposure to crystalline silica is harming American workers, more than 300 public health scientists, doctors and occupational safety experts told President Obama Jan. 25.

In a letter, the group asked the president to intervene and direct the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to complete its review of a proposed rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to protect workers from exposure to the deadly dust “so that the public, workers, unions, public health experts and employers have the full opportunity to participate in the development of this important worker protection measure.”  

Despite being required by executive order to complete its review of proposed rules within 90 days, OMB has held the rule for nearly a year, with no signal of when its review will be complete.

“This delay in action by OMB leaves workers at significant risk of disease and death,” according to the letter. “It also prevents the rulemaking process from moving forward, obstructing public participation on this important worker safety and public health matter.”

The scientists have joined the American Industrial Hygiene Association in questioning whether the delay is due to politics. The letter notes that OMB staff has held at least nine private meetings on the proposed rules, most of which involved individuals that represent companies with a direct financial stake in their outcome.

The rule has been in development for 14 years. On Dec. 21, 2011, the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health wrote the secretaries of Labor and Health and Human Services to emphasize the importance of issuing the proposed silica rule “so that the public hearings and comment period can commence, and a final silica standard issued to protect workers from this serious workplace hazard.”

“The White House’s job is to coordinate the development of rules that protect the public, not to stand in their way,” said Francesca Grifo, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Scientific Integrity Program. “The OMB is hundreds of days behind schedule, and every day these rules are delayed, more workers are at risk.”

An estimated 1.7 million workers in the U.S. are exposed to respirable crystalline silica, a product of industrial processes like stonecutting, road building and sand blasting that can cause lung cancer, silicosis and other respiratory illnesses.

“Working in silica dust has left me with bad lungs," said Leonard Serafin, a former railroad worker with silicosis from San Bernardino, Calif. "Every day, I struggle to do activities because of my condition. I want to see that other people are protected from this dust—it’s not fair to expose people to something this dangerous when they can be protected.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that about 200 workers die each year from silicosis, and studies estimate there are as many as 7,300 new cases of silicosis annually among U.S. workers. Most of the time, the prognosis is grim.

“When a person with silicosis starts to have trouble breathing, it is too late for effective treatment because the silica dust has caused permanent scarring of the lungs," said Dr. Robert Harrison, clinical professor of Medicine at University of California San Francisco and an occupational disease expert who signed the letter. "When I see a patient with silicosis, it's a stark reminder that our worker safety regulations are inadequate. Silicosis is 100 percent preventable."

Signers of the letter include public health and occupational safety advocates from 39 states and the District of Columbia along with several advocacy groups, including the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, the Union of Concerned Scientists and Interfaith Worker Justice.

For more information, click here.

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The Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading U.S. science-based nonprofit organization working for a healthy environment and a safer world. Founded in 1969, UCS is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and also has offices in Berkeley, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

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