Anticipating the Unthinkable

Anticipating the Unthinkable by Sue Prent

NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) reports that in March of this year, Planet Earth broke the all-time high record on carbon dioxide concentrations at 400 parts-per-million, leaving the most optimistic limit of 350 in the distant dust.  It is an ominous landmark, to say the least, and there are constant reminders that something big and unpleasant is transforming the world around us.

Although there are still some highly political holdouts, most people around the world are coming around to the stark realization that Climate Change is real, and that it has already begun to transform our world with new hazards and planning challenges.

The real challenging facing the world today is that disaster prevention models, which have been adequate even in the fairly recent past, can no longer be relied upon to predict what we are already facing.  Nowhere does this disquieting fact have more significance than in emergency and disaster planning around nuclear power plants.  These plants have such an essential relationship with water that they are almost invariably located along the very edge of major waterways where, coincidentally, most human activity also takes place.

It is estimated that more than half of all Americans live within a 50-mile radius of one or more nuclear plants.  All of them are at risk from potentially lethal radiation releases should the unthinkable come to pass at their nearest nuclear facility.  Yet, what disaster preparedness is in place is limited to the population that lives within just ten miles of any one facility, and both the nuclear power industry and Nuclear Regulatory Commission are moving forward in lessening emergency preparedness requirements and post-disaster evacuation plans.

The complete inadequacy of the minimal 10-mile emergency evacuation arrangement was highlighted in 2011 when the U.S. Government advised all of its citizens, who happened to be anywhere within 50-miles of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors while the disaster was unfolding, to evacuate immediately.  With no U.S. business interests to directly shield from liability at Fukushima Daiichi, the U.S. government was free to advocate on behalf of the best interest of its human assets.

This spectacular discrepancy in nuclear disaster emergency planning is not the only fault in U.S. nuclear catastrophe emergency preparedness that is begging for renewed scrutiny. In just a few short years, major 21st century storm events have taught us that we can no longer depend on outdated parameters that were established during the 20th century to weather these new extreme storms.  Unfortunately this is a lesson learned too late to influence the engineering of existing nuclear power plants, so we have little more than dumb luck to thank for the fact that we have not yet experienced a catastrophe like the one that disabled the Fukushima Daiichi reactors.

Governments have become complacent because they have become so used to emergency preparedness framed in the language of “hundred year storm events” that we seldom think to question whether that means we have almost a hundred years to go before we have to worry about a particular phenomena, or that, as soon as tomorrow, the granddaddy of them all may soon be headed our way.

Nuclear plants, like nearly everything engineered in our for-profit world are built and operated, based on actuarial models that weigh risk against profitability, and default to preparedness for much less than a worst-case scenario, simply because it is cheaper to do so.  More disturbingly there is the seismic risk that appears to have been routinely underestimated or even deliberately obscured in the screening process for nuclear power plant siting.

The push to extract more and more natural gas has increased the number and intensity of seismic events more than a hundredfold in areas of high exploitation like Kansas.  I have even read that these many isolated pockets of increased seismic disturbance may ultimately aggravate instability on a much broader scale.

A nuclear disaster can be the product of one or several contributing factors, weather and seismic events being just two among many possibilities. So, when the general public is given assurances of nuclear power plant safety back at the start of a nuclear plant licensing permit that was issued in the 1970s or 80s for a nuclear plant designed during the 1960s or 70s, far from assuming that those assurances are absolute, we can be absolutely certain that they are anything but.

The recent fire at Indian Point 3 is an example of equipment failure that, while this time was arrested at a relatively harmless stage, it had the potential to spiral out of control had it been joined by a confluence of other systemic failures and weaknesses occurring more frequently in these aging reactors. 

With two of three original reactors still in use after roughly 40-years of service, Indian Point is one of the oldest operating facilities in the U.S., and this was not the first time that a transformer caught fire there.  The transformer itself wasn’t old, and that should be all the more concerning because its early failure suggests the possibility that other plant infrastructure may be experiencing the strain of aging and the transformer fire could be where that strain was made manifest this time.  In fact, Indian Point has experienced plenty of failures in recent years but none, thank God, with catastrophic outcomes.

In the wake of the May 9 transformer fire that sent oil and fire retardant foam spilling into the Hudson River, the third transformer fire since 2007, questions are being raised about the fact that some years ago, Indian Point requested and was given an exemption allowing it to substantially reduce the amount of protection in place that would prevent a fire from triggering an emergency in the reactor.

“Since 1979, every nuclear plant in the country has been required to install wrapping around cables that provide power to safe-shutdown mechanisms that can last one hour under the high-heat conditions of a fire. But when the NRC tested Indian Point’s fire barrier wrapping in 2005, it found that it couldn’t last one hour in hot shutdown conditions. Entergy requested an exemption from the rule, and by 2007, the NRC had lowered the requirement for Indian Point to wrapping that lasts 24 minutes in fire in the case of one emergency shut-down system at the plant, and 30 minutes in another.”

 Rather than recognizing in Indian Point’s pattern of smaller episodes the potential for one cataclysmic failure, the NRC has chosen to regard each incident in isolation.  When a nuclear plant is operating so close to major population centers, that is a disaster waiting to happen.

New York City is just 38 miles from Indian Point.  If the NRC were to recommend an evacuation zone of 50 miles as they did for Americans living near Fukushima, it would mean moving roughly 22-million people out of harms way.

Is that even possible?

Indian Point is by no means the only U.S. facility that routinely tempts fate.  Roughly one third of all Americans live within 50-miles of a nuclear power plant.  This includes metropolitan New York, Chicago and Boston; even Washington, D.C.

Los Angeles is a little beyond the fifty-mile range; but San Diego and numerous heavily populated Southern California cities must keep a watchful eye on the Diablo Canyon Power Plant.  The facility is far more vulnerable to earthquakes than was originally thought.  Just two hundred miles north of San Onofre, the NRC is attempting to allow Diablo Canyon to proceed with normal operations and without public license amendment review even though new and increasingly risky seismic potential from a previously unrecognized earthquake fault zone has been revealed less than one-half mile from this aging and seismically unqualified nuclear power plant.

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station was essentially forced into closure in 2013 due to repeated failures of the steam generators, but the potential for calamity remains while spent fuel assemblies stored in temporary pools await removal to dry cask storage.  And, even though the risk will be considerably reduced once this spent fuel has been placed in the casks, massive stockpiling onsite of the casks themselves will represent considerable hazard potential from weather events or from terrorist activity.  Dry casks were never designed to be a permanent, above-ground repository for spent fuel, and little is known about the retention performance of cement under the circumstances of long-term nuclear waste containment.

8.4 million people live within 50-miles of San Onofre, but while the plant was operating the NRC only required evacuation plans be in place for a ten-mile radius, leaving San Diego and its population simply out of luck.  Now, nearly everyone would be out-of-luck because, as is the case with Entergy’s retired Vermont Yankee plant, the NRC no longer requires an emergency plan for San Onofre.

Meanwhile, worsening climate events and increased seismic activity allegedly due to fracking, and the new warfare of terrorism all conspire to make nuclear energy production an even more risky affair during the twenty-first century.

If the NRC enjoys primacy in all matters of nuclear safety, how can they treat population risk as a strictly actuarial consideration, preferring to err on the side of economic profit and viability for the nuclear industry?

Now, it is just a matter of time before that calculated risk brings us all to untold tragedy.

Related Links:

Check out how close your home is to a nuclear plant here.