America's Dirty Secret: Nuclear Plants Can 'All Melt'

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Ben Cohen
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In a must read piece on the Atlantic, Brian Till outlines the shocking state of America's nuclear reactors in light of the disaster in Japan:

The ongoing failures at Japan’s Fukushima plant have put new emphasis on concerns about nuclear safety here in the United States. And on the heels of recent massive regulatory failures that left our financial markets in chaos and the Gulf of Mexico blackened, one wonders whether American nuclear regulation, handled by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), in Rockville, MD, is comparably insufficient.

An NRC Investigator General report from 2002, I found, showed that only 53 percent of the employees at NRC felt it was “safe to speak up in the NRC,’ and less than half -- 48 percent -- felt “that management actually trusts the judgment of employees at their level in the organization.”

A 2006 report observed: “Significant reservations still exist about the Differing Professional Opinions (DPO) program. Some employees feel comfortable raising an issue and going through the DPO process. However, a number of employees do not feel comfortable doing so, out of fear of retaliation.”

One former NRC commissioner, speaking on background last June, told me: “our nuclear plants are like snowflakes, they’re all different and they can all melt.”

The same deregulatory frenzy that saw the financial system fall apart essentially happened to the nuclear industry, and as a result, most nuclear plants in America are either not up to the minimum safety standards, or don't bother trying:

According to John Grobe, the Associate Director for Engineering and Safety Systems at NRC, “Approximately one-half of the core damage risk at operating reactors results from accident sequences that initiate with fire events.”

Nonetheless, only two U.S. nuclear sites are in compliance with federal fire regulations; all others continue to operate with exemptions, a stopgap system that was implemented more than thirty years ago and was never intended as a permanent solution.

And it's not like the corporations that run the plants don't have the resources to ensure safety standards. Writes Till:

It’s worth noting that three major nuclear providers, Exelon, Duke Energy, and Entergy, had profits of, respectively, $2.56 billion, $1.32 billion, and $1.27 billion, in 2010.

Rather than comply with regulations, plants have largely earned their exemptions by having workers walk plant floors on “fire watches.” Hotels without smoke detectors and sprinklers would be unimaginable in the America; reactors without them are a given.

Till's piece is very well researched, and if the picture he paints is even half way accurate, America's nuclear reactors are literally a ticking time bomb. And as we have seen in Japan, if it can go wrong, at some point, it probably will.