NRC Agrees to Public Request to Review Fukushima-style Reactors

TAKOMA PARK, Maryland, January 4, 2011 (ENS) – A Nuclear Regulatory Commission safety panel has accepted several publicly requested actions regarding safety at Fukushima-style reactors in the United States. The agency’s decision, reached on December 13, 2011, was published Tuesday in the Federal Register.

On April 13, 2011, a month after the Fukushima nuclear disaster began, the nonprofit group Beyond Nuclear, later joined by 8,000 co-petitioners, formally submitted emergency action requests to an NRC safety review panel regarding safety concerns at all 23 General Electric Mark I Boiling Water reactors in the United States.

These reactors are the same model as the ones that exploded at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan following the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that shut down power to their cooling water systems. The resulting meltdown of nuclear fuel in the Japanese reactors caused one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, second only to the 1986 Chernobyl explosion and fire.

Detroit Edison’s Enrico Fermi Nuclear plant generates power with General Electric Mark 1 boiling water reactors. (Photo courtesy NRC)

The NRC’s chief safety officer, Eric Leeds, agreed that the NRC will now review several key publicly requested actions, including revoking federal approval of the current failed GE Mark I containment venting system; and ordering all Mark I operators to install backup emergency power systems to ensure cooling in the reactors’ densely packed rooftop irradiated fuel pools.

“We are encouraged that NRC has agreed to look into revoking its prior approval of dangerous venting systems installed on these Fukushima-style reactors,” said Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Oversight Project at Beyond Nuclear.

“The nuclear industry is advocating for the status quo, which is unacceptable post-Fukushima,” said Gunter. “If these reactors can’t meet their original licensed condition for containment as ‘essentially leak tight’ then they shouldn’t be allowed to operate.”

Leeds dismissed a request from the petitioners for “immediate” enforcement action without which, the petitioners argue, U.S. reactors can remain dangerously vulnerable to failure for decades.

The NRC safety panel also agreed with the public petitioners to review emergency back-up power systems at the GE Mark 1 boiling water reactors.

The petitioners argue that alternating current from generators and direct current from battery banks should be installed to cool densely-packed high-level radioactive waste cooling ponds that sit six to 10 stories up in the Mark I reactor buildings. There, hundreds of metric tons of highly radioactive and thermally hot spent fuel per unit is being stored.

“Every community living in the shadows of these reactors with a rooftop high-level radioactive waste dump wants the emergency power systems installed now,” said Kevin Kamps, radioactive waste specialist with Beyond Nuclear.

“The industry must be able to ensure cooling can be supplied to hundreds of tons of irradiated nuclear fuel when the lights go out,” said Kamps.

“Our recommendation is a significant upgrade over the current NRC task force’s aim to only supply emergency power to ‘makeup water,’ as we call for prevention of boil off in the first place,” he said. “We’re asking questions about the unintended consequences from that condensation raining down on control room electrical circuits and elsewhere.”

Beyond Nuclear points to a scientific study released in November by a team of researchers from Norway, Austria, Spain and the United States that provides evidence that a high-level radioactive waste fire at Fukushima Daiichi Unit 4 did occur.

The study, published in the journal “Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics,” finds that this fire caused large-scale releases of radioactive cesium-137 directly into the environment, as the spent fuel storage pools are not located within radiological containment structures.

Individual GE Mark 1 storage pools in the United States, as at Vermont Yankee, Pilgrim near Boston, and Fermi 2 near Detroit, hold more high-level radioactive waste than all four failed units at Fukushima Daiichi put together, says Kamps.

“Fermi 2 in Monroe, Michigan is the largest Fukushima Daiichi identical twin reactor in the world, and without electricity the storage pool will begin boiling away within four hours and twelve minutes, according to Detroit Edison documents,” said Kamps. “The potentially catastrophic reactor and radioactive waste risks at Fermi 2 could harm the entire Great Lakes and beyond.”

Click here for a list of GE Mark Boiling Water Reactors in the United States.

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