SAFETY OF U.S. NUCLEAR REACTORS QUESTIONED: CA SENATORS CALL FOR INSPECTION OF STATE’S NUCLEAR PLANTS

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“The most inexpensive way to meet your SQ (seismic qualification) is to lie. The industry does it all the time.”

--Greg Palast, former lead investigator in  government nuclear plant fraud and racketeering investigations

 

By Miriam Raftery
 

 

March 17, 2011 (San Diego’s East County) –Catastrophic failures at a half dozen nuclear facilities in Fukushima, Japan has led to questions regarding the safety of nuclear reactors in America-- both existing facilities and new ones proposed—including some designed or operated by the same companies responsible for the nuclear meltdowns in Japan.

 

Yesterday, California Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein sent a letter to the head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission urging him to conduct full-scale inspection of the San Onofre nuclear power plant north of San Diego and the Diablo Canyon nuclear facility near San Luis Obispo. Both are on the coast—and both are near major earthquake faults.

 

Roughly 7.4 million people live within 50 miles of San Onofre and another 424,000 people are within 50 miles of Diablo Canyon, the Senators note. Their letter cites a 2008 California Energy Commission report which presented “very clear warnings of potential threats” at the facilities. “It is our understanding that the NRC has not taken action to address these warnings in the report,” the Senators wrote. “It is also our understanding that the2008 report found that there is an additional fault near the Diablo Canyon plant that should be taken into consideration as part of NRC’s re-licensing process.”
 

The Senators asked the NRC to answer questions about the reactors’ designs and preparedness to withstand and earthquake and tsunami, given that Japanese reactors failed to withstand quakes and tsunami waves stronger than forecast for the region. The Senators also inquired about any changes/improvements since the plants opened in the 1980s, what emergency notification systems are in place, whether systems have lapsed during past earthquakes or other emergencies, and what back-up power plans are in place.
 

Murray Jennex, a nuclear expert at San Diego State University who was involved in testing at the San Onofre facility when it was built, says the facility was “over-engineered” for the levels of earthquakes and tsunamis forecast as possible for our region. Unlike Japan, California’s reactors are not of the boiling-water design, nor are spent fuel rods stored in the same building as reactors—though there are spent fuel rods in separate buildings on the San Onofre site, he indicated.
 

Recent news reports have revealed that only enough potassium iodide for residents within 10 miles of San Onofre has been stockpiled. In Japan, the U.S. has urged its citizens to evacuate an 80 km zone and high radiation levels have been found 30 km from the plan. Potassium iodide, taken immediately by people exposed to high levels of radiation, can prevent thyroid cancer, studies after Russia’s Chernobyl nuclear disaster found.

The boiling-water design used in the failed nuclear reactors at Fukushima are found in 29 nuclear plants already in the U.S., raising serious concerns about their safety. But other plants’ safety has also been called into question.

 

The New York Times reports that the Union of Concerned Scientists on Thursday issued a report documenting 14 instances of significant problems at U.S. reactors that set off special federal inspections characterized by regulators as "near misses."  The UCS accused the federal Nuclear Regulatory commission of allowing companies that operate plants to ignore or delay repairs to problems that could escalate into something serious. Plant operators named included Pacific Gas & Electric in California, operator of Diablo Canyon, and others.   
 

Greg Palast, an investigative journalist whose reports can be seen on BBC TV and who has won numerous journalism awards, previously worked as an insurance investigator and served as lead investigator in several government nuclear plant fraud and racketeering investigations. In a recent article written for the website Truthout, he revealed, “The failure of emergency systems at Japan’s nuclear plants comes as no surprise to those of us who have worked in the field.”
 

Palast explained that nuclear plants worldwide must be certified for Seismic Qualification (SQ). “That is, the owners swear that all components are designed for the maximum conceivable shaking event, be it from an earthquake or an exploding Christmas card from Al Qaeda,” Palast stated. “The most inexpensive way to meet your SQ is to lie. The industry does it all the time.”
 

According to Palast, the government team he worked with caught plant operators at the Shoreham plant in New York cheating. “Correcting the SQ problem at Shoreham would have cost a cool billion, so engineers were told to change the tests from `failed’ to `passed’,” Palast wrote. The company that put in the false safety report was Stone & Webster, now the nuclear unit of Shaw Construction slated to work with Tokyo Electric to build new nu8clear reactors on the Gulf Coast of Texas—along with Tokyo Electric, operator of the failed Japanese reactors.
Moreover, Palast observes, the reactor will be made substantially in Japan by Toshiba—the same company that built one of the failing reactors at Fukushima and that designed the emergency diesel system that failed.
 

Worse, Palast reveals, “Back in the day, when we checked the emergency back-up diesels in America, a mind-blowing number flunked. “ Tests done by plant operators “were faked, the disels run for just a short time at low speed,” Palast found. “When the diesels were put through a real test under emergency-like conditions, the crankshaft on the first one snapped in about an hour, then the second and third. We nicknamed the disels “Snap, Crackle and Pop.” Note: Moments after I wrote that sentence, word came that two of three diesels failed at the Tokai Station as well.”
 

The Obama administration is planning a total of $65 billion in loans to build nuclear reactors across America—a prospect that Palast finds alarming. He notes that industry promises that levels of radiation are not dangerous should be viewed with skepticism, since the industry has not shown itself to be trustworthy and repeatedly said meltdowns such as those occurring at Fujushima could not happen.
 

While short-term health effects may be minimal for all but workers directly in contact with high radiation dosages or those within the evacuation zone, long-term health impacts could mean thousands will die of cancer in Japan, said Palast, who used to calculate post-meltdown morbidity rates as a government investigator. Now he’s speaking out in hopes of preventing a similar catastrophe in America.
 

“It would be irresponsible for me to estimate the number of cancer deaths that will occur from these releases without further information,” he concluded of the Japanese nuclear disasters, “but it is just plain criminal for the Tokyo Electric shoguns to say that these releases are not dangerous.”
 

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