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Physicist Ed Lyman on new safety threats to US nuclear reactors

BO’s Chernobyl Sparks Questions About US Nuclear Power Safety, UCS, AUGUST 27, 2019

Physicist Ed Lyman discusses new safety threats to US nuclear reactors and why risks here are different than in Russia.

…….Ed: Nuclear power plants in the country today are under great financial pressure, mostly due to the low cost of fossil fuels and their inability to compete. So, the owners of the reactors are looking for any way possible to cut their operating costs. And one expense that the operators see is due to the oversight of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC conducts inspections that not only requires staff time at the reactors to prepare for those inspections, but it also could result in discovery of violations, which have to be fixed and that means spending money.
So if there are fewer inspections, if the inspections don’t look as hard, they may miss problems. And the plant owners may have longer to address them because the regulators didn’t catch them. ……..
that’s really the problem with the changes that are being proposed now. It’s not clear that they’re actually solving any problems. There’s no real rationale for doing them except to reduce oversight of the industry. And in that particular case, there were substantial objections from some NRC staff about reducing the frequency of these inspections without first assessing what the impacts could be. In other words, doing a comprehensive analysis of what those inspections do, and how frequently do you really need to do them to make sure they’re effective. That study has not been completed yet, yet the staff is going ahead and recommending that they reduce the inspection frequency anyway. …….
I’d say that every plant, you know, is unique and has its own concerns. Certainly, some make me worry more than others. For instance, the Indian Point nuclear plant in New York State, it’s only 25 miles from the boundaries of New York City where I grew up. That plant should not have been located where it is because the number of people within 50 miles, last time I checked is over 16 million, is really too great.

If you’re gonna have nuclear power, you should make sure that there’s a sufficient region around every plant that’s low population density. So that if evacuation or other emergency measures are needed, they can be carried out effectively. And by simply suburbanization and development, a lot of plants around the country that were originally sited in rural areas now find themselves in suburbs and the population’s increasing.

And Indian point’s the poster child for that. It is shutting down in the next few years. But certainly, the potential impact of Indian Point, both from a safety and a security perspective has always been a concern. Then there are plants that are vulnerable to seismic events, that are vulnerable to flooding. And again, it’s really highly dependent on the location of the plant and how it was designed in the first place. But I would say every plant has its own risks and they have to be considered in their own context……..
Some plants, I think there are six reactors now, have applied for what they call a subsequent license renewal that would be from 60 years to 80 years. …..

The idea is that it doesn’t really matter too much how old the plant is, as long as you can inspect and maintain those systems, structures, and components that are aging so that they stay within an acceptable range. Now there are certain things that can’t be changed. For instance, the concrete and steel containment buildings around most plants, it’s not something that’s going to be replaced.

There’s buried piping in a lot of plants, this piping was never intended to be replaced, but some of it is corroding.  So, there may be an issue with how do you manage those structures that can’t be replaced. And finally, the reactor vessels, these are the steel vessels that hold the nuclear fuel in reactors, they become brittled over time as they’re bombarded with neutrons. And there is a risk that they could shatter like glass if they are sufficiently brittle and they undergo rapid cooling.

So that’s one of the…what is called a time limiting aspects of a nuclear plant because those reactor vessels would be way too expensive to ever replace……..

Colleen: Ed, is it true that the next generation of nuclear power plants will be so safe that they can’t meltdown?

Ed: It is not true. Any nuclear plant has vulnerabilities that could result in a serious accident or could be exploited. It is true that you can design greater safety into nuclear power, there are ways to reduce that risk. But by and large, you’re always going to have these vulnerabilities and you can’t depend on the design to save the day. It’s always going to be a good design plus a well-run plant, plus well-trained operators, plus robust inspections and maintenance, and also robust security to prevent against sabotage attacks.

Colleen: How far-fetched is the idea that terrorists could attack a nuclear power plant? What would they be trying to do or to get?

Ed: For a commercial nuclear power plant in this country, the greatest concern is radiological sabotage. And that is a deliberate act that could destroy or disable enough of the safety systems and the backup safety systems that the reactor would meltdown and there would be very little that the plant operators could do about that. And it’s a very real threat.

Because if there were a well-trained, paramilitary type terrorist attack at a nuclear reactor, without a robust security response, the attackers could essentially destroy enough equipment to cause a meltdown within minutes. So there is a very short time window for trying to respond if you have this type of event. The best thing to do is to prevent the attack from taking place…..

it’s a fallacy to think that Chernobyl was an event that was only due to Soviet incompetence and corruption and that that kind of thing couldn’t happen here. Chernobyl couldn’t happen here, but Fukushima could or something worse than Fukushima.

August 29, 2019 - Posted by | safety, USA

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