Demystifying Nuclear Power: Anticipating the Worst, Part II - Disaster Planning

by Sue Prent

Emergency Planning Today Means "Duck and Cover" and Hope for the Best

Baby boomers might remember “duck and cover”, the U.S. government’s official emergency plan to protect elementary school students from atomic warfare during the Cuban Missile Crisis. With nervous laughter, some may recall anticipating the worst and the absurdity of teachers’ instructions during school drills to “duck” under their tiny wooden desks and “cover” themselves from nuclear holocaust. Looking back on this practice, we can all agree that it was insufficient, to say the least. So why is it that today, with all the knowledge we have on radiation exposure risk, Chernobyl, Fukushima Daiichi, and the dangers of atomic anything, we are complacent to accept a more or less “duck and cover” approach when it comes to emergency planning at nuclear power plants?

A majority of Americans live within a 50-mile radius of at least one atomic reactor. One example of this is just upstream of New York City at the Entergy owned Indian Point reactor whose 50-mile radius is home to 40 million Americans. Disaster planning for nuclear catastrophes or terrorist attacks should therefore be of great concern to all of us. Most Americans believe that emergency planning mandated by the U.S. government is sufficient, and don’t realize that it is severely limited to people living or working within only a 10-mile radius to any nuclear industry facility.

This major discrepancy was effectively demonstrated during the disastrous meltdown of three atomic reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi atomic power site, when the U.S. government advised all American nationals within 50-miles of the manmade disaster to evacuate to a location beyond the discussed 50-mile radius. This advisory was issued well before any government officially recognized that a triple meltdown had in fact occurred. 

The Fukushima Daiichi mass casualty debacle makes it clear that the communities surrounding an atomic industry site should demand that comprehensive and site-specific emergency plans are developed and kept up-to-date. These emergency disaster plans should envision all likely and unlikely disaster scenarios, should be produced with community participation, and it should remain in place until the possibility of any radiological event or mischief has been totally eliminated from the site following its ultimate shutdown, decommissioning, and ultimate complete dismantlement including radiological clean-up.

Instead of putting public health and safety first as required by federal law, questions concerning risk are entirely dismissed by Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) assurances and nuclear power plants are advertised as job creators and opportunities for tax gains to hosting communities. The NRC has precluded state and local authorities from having any voice in questioning nuclear power risk. Even ratepayers footing the bill cannot challenge this powerful industry and its alleged regulators.

The NRC has a long history of intimate ties to the nuclear power industry and a blurred mission that includes the unlikely coupling of atomic power promotion with supposed regulation.  The atomic industry has therefore found itself in the enviable position of being more-or-less self-regulating. 

Good for them, but not good for the American people who deserve a voice in determining nuclear risk. 

Since the United States is the creator of the global atomic power industry that emanated from the 1950s Atoms for Peace Program, the NRC model has been widely imitated around the world. Unfortunately, this has spread U.S. nuclear industry flaws to atomic industries throughout the world. 

Until 1940, Plutonium existed on earth in such tiny amounts that it wasn’t even known as an element by scientists until discovered as a by-product of nuclear chain reactions. Fast-forward seventy-five years and despite scientists having no knowledge of how to permanently neutralize the long-lived deadly potential of plutonium, humankind has deliberately created hundreds of tons of this lethal and severely toxic metal. In the event of an out-of-control atomic power disaster, it is most likely that plutonium and very lethal radioactive isotopes called fission products will be dispersed widely in our fragile ecological environment. And yet, the atomic energy industry continues to push its myth that plutonium is easily managed indefinitely without catastrophic incidents that cause mass casualties and require mass evacuations. 

The impractical and unworkable disaster management planning in place at atomic reactors in the U.S. is largely based on assumptions and calculations made prior to their construction more than 40-years ago when these aging reactors were first designed. Nuclear power emergency evacuation plans in the event of mass casualty events predate the fairly new risks of global terrorism, hacking, cyber threats, and solar storms, the record-breaking nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima Daiichi, the growing influence of Climate Change, as well as new seismic information and fracking.

A recent report detailed vulnerabilities of the VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminals) that are used by utility companies and financial institutions to transmit sensitive information electronically. It has come to light that many VSATs are operated without any provision for security whatsoever, exposing atomic energy operators to severe invisible risk.

Despite promises, few, if any, of the lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi triple meltdown have been applied to existing U.S. reactors.  In fact, once the immediate dust of the ongoing radiological debacle had cleared, both the industry and the NRC became more concerned with downplaying the significance of that catastrophe than in genuine risk reduction.

Understand that the NRC rejected the recommendation made by its own task force that Severe Accident Management Guidelines be established in the event of a core-melt calamity.  Furthermore, it also rejected a draft rule that would require the installation of additional design features intended to specifically protect atomic reactors against unavoidable operational dangers that existed at Fukushima Daiichi and exist at all similar atomic reactors. Lastly, the NRC also eliminated requirements that new atomic power reactor projects adopt any of the atomic risk design features and protocols recommended by the Fukushima task force.

Due to the enormous magnitude of the meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi, radiation exposure from this catastrophe spread far and wide with unknown, continuous ramifications. In opposition to the findings of BEIR VII, the National Academy of Science’s study that determined no level of radiation exposure from nuclear power or nuclear weapons production is safe, the NRC is actively considering raising the level of radiation exposure at which they arbitrarily deem people “safe”. What this means is that U.S. federal atomic regulators would approve the public’s unknowing or unwilling increased exposure to radioactivity from atomic reactors, military installations, and nuke waste. If the NRC and its corporate cronies succeed in making this change, it will mean that you and your family would be exposed to higher levels of radiation so that corporations could rake in more profit. From these machinations, it appears that the NRC is more concerned with limiting corporate exposure to financial risk than meeting its obligation to protect and advocate for public protection from exposure to the physical and environmental risks of atomic reactors that leak and spew radioactive contamination across continents. 

Currently, eleven reactors at six operating U.S. nuclear power sites are known to be located in active earthquake zones: the South Texas Project just off the Gulf of Mexico, Waterford Steam Electric Station in Louisiana, the Brunswick Steam Electric Plant in North Carolina, North Anna in Virginia, and Diablo Canyon and San Onofre in California. It has also been discovered that Indian Point reactors 2 and 3, 26 miles north of New York City, are 1 mile away from a major fault and were built without any seismic safeguards.

These eleven reactors are just the ones that have been identified as either being located in earthquake zones or sitting right on top of multiple active earthquake faults. Increasingly sophisticated earthquake prediction methods are currently being developed, thus uncovering more and more active faults. This critical information was conspicuously lacking when disaster evacuation plans were originally designed for existing U.S. reactors back in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies.

The existence of fault lines was discovered in 1977 during the construction of North Anna Nuclear Generating Station in Virginia where the power company was eventually fined a mere $32,000 for attempting to conceal this information. North Anna is still in operation and in 2003 secured a renewed operating license for another twenty years. Eight years later, in 2011, North Anna experienced damage in an “unprecedented” 5.8 earthquake. Spent fuel canisters were jostled, and yet the NRC determined that it was still safe for North Anna to continue operating as is. More disturbingly, the NRC did not require any known post-Fukushima modifications at North Anna that would safeguard the site for another potential quake.

Designed to only possibly withstand seismic upheaval as it was predicted way back in the 1960s and 1970s, many observe that Virginia might not be so lucky next time. Given that the recent widespread practice of fracking is increasing both the incidence and severity of earthquakes across the U.S., even in areas that were not previously considered prone to seismic activity, the old North Anna atomic reactor is operating in known jeopardy.  

Southern California Edison’s San Onofre atomic reactor is in the early stages of retirement, but even after a reactor ceases to produce power, nuclear hazards vulnerable to earthquake and tsunami persist until all radiological contamination is cleaned from the site.  Currently, because there is no permanent waste repository for the highly toxic radioactive spent fuel rods to be permanently stored, they must remain on the San Onofre site.

Despite the continued presence of thousands of highly radioactive spent fuel rods on the site of nearly all retired nuclear reactors, the NRC and its corporate buddies are removing emergency planning requirements almost immediately after a reactor is shut down. This means there are no emergency services available to the public during removal of atomic fuel from brimming and vulnerable fuel pools into dry casks for hardened on-site storage (HOSS), which also means that this atomic fuel remains on-site, indefinitely, sans emergency planning. 

In making this assessment, the nuclear industry uses a self-serving metric, endorsed by the NRC, for determining how much risk they must offset with preparedness.  It is the “maximum credible accident” or MCA.

The key word is credible, which is an entirely subjective determination. In order to reduce the cost of atomic energy and to make it somewhat competitive to other forms of generating electricity, preparedness is based on the assumption that it is only necessary to anticipate the most likely emergency scenarios; not the worst case. 

“MCA” could probably better be defined as Maximum Cost Affordable, because the intention is to minimize cost to energy companies and corporations by assuming that the worst-case disaster scenario could never happen. 

Following the debacle at Fukushima Daiichi, no one should ever again accept that miscalculated assumption.

While the U.S. and Japan seek to rehabilitate the tarnished reputation of atomic energy by downplaying known hazards of even low level radiation, industrial giant China is attempting to embrace a proactive initiative. China has released a white paper on nuclear emergency planning, and has announced the creation of a national nuclear emergency response team consisting of 320 professionals who will work with the twenty-five existing local emergency teams in the event of a crisis. For those of us that watch the nuclear power sleight of hand on a daily basis and because the Chinese have plans for floating nuclear power reactors, this initiative may merely be calculated to allay fears about the significant hazards that lie ahead for all the world if China chooses to proceed with such an aquatic atomic environment.

In our anticipation of the worst possible catastrophe, we must look beyond the nuclear industry’s immediate 10-mile radius and demand that lax regulators do their job and hold powerful corporations accountable for the messes they create. Let us not forget what it felt like to be little children huddled beneath wooden desks for imagined protection against possible nuclear holocaust.

Radiation knows no borders, so let us not allow our children and grandchildren to be so exposed.