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Between the Lines: Sooner or Later

Vermont Yankee is but one of dozens of U.S. nuclear plants that have watchdogs worried about a possible catastrophic failure.

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Thursday, August 05, 2010

America's nuclear power plants are more incontinent than a nonagenarian with an enlarged prostate.

Given the industry's long record of leaks, fires, rust-outs and lax oversight, catastrophic failure at one of the aging nuclear power plants is a real possibility. If a major accident occurred, the resulting millennia-long devastation would make the oil-soaked Gulf look like an organic garden.

Pipes at 27 of America's 65 nuclear power sites have sprung leaks that released corrosive and radioactive materials including tritium, cesium and strontium-90 into the air, water or earth. At New York's Indian Point, which sits within 50 miles of 8 percent of the U.S. population, some 2 million gallons of corrosive water have leaked into the containment building over 17 years. There were no visual inspections of the leaky system from when the plant was built in 1973 to 2009, when the situation became critical.

Cracks found in 2009 in the Davis-Besse reactor near Toledo, Ohio could have let radioactive coolant into the reactor's containment building. In 2002, similar fissures allowed water and acid to erode parts of the containment lid from a thickness of 6 inches down to barely a quarter inch. "The plant was about a month from meltdown," says Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates, an independent research organization. He worked for 22 years in the nuclear industry as a senior vice president.

Widespread leaks and cracks in America's nukes, many near the end of their 40-year life expectancy, are urgent warning signs of dangerous deterioration. Nonetheless the NRC has grandfathered in lower standards and rubberstamped all 59 applications it received for extending the operating life of reactors for another 20 years, and is considering, or expected to consider, 37 more renewals in the next seven years.

This spring, the only state with the legal authority to sidestep the NRC and refuse relicensing voted to do just that. Vermont legislators had grumbled about safety at the 38-year-old Vermont Yankee facility after a fire damaged the plant in 2004 and a cooling tower partially collapsed in 2007.

It was not just the injury to the environment or the threat to safety that spurred the vote to shut the plant when its license expires in 2012, but the added insult that the plant owner, Entergy, had repeatedly lied to the state's legislature. Since 2007, underground pipes had been spilling radioactive material into the environment, but the New Orleans-based company insisted not only that the underground pipes didn't leak, but that they didn't even exist.

"After decades underground, neither the NRC nor the plant operators can be absolutely certain that the pipes are intact," said U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the House energy and environment subcommittee. "I am appalled by the safety procedures not only at Vermont Yankee, but at other nuclear facilities across the country who [sic] have failed to inspect thousands of miles of buried pipes at their facilities."

This regulatory failure has lessons for the oil and gas sector. Until 1974, one federal agency both promoted the atomic industry and regulated its safety. When the inherent conflict of interest was recognized, the functions were separated, and the NRC was tasked with protecting the public.

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Obama administration ordered a similar severing of the Minerals Management Service's promotion and protection functions. But the example of the NRC shows that the problem lies deeper. Revolving doors and political appointments, the corrosive influence of industry lobbying and campaign contributions, and the lack of a comprehensive energy policy have all ensured that the NRC remains in thrall to industry. All but three NRC commissioners took industry jobs on leaving the agency, says Fairewinds' Gundersen.

America's aging plants "are rusting out," says Gundersen, "and the NRC is not enforcing laws on book and is looking the other way." Asked if he thought a major nuclear accident was inevitable, Gunderson pauses. "Sooner or later," he says, "in any foolproof system the fools are going to exceed the proofs."

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