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Analysis

Trump administration is ignoring a massive problem at U.S. nuclear plants

“54 of the [60] nuclear plants operating in the U.S. weren’t designed to handle the flood risk they face.”

WORKERS AT THE FUKUSHIMA DAI-ICHI NUCLEAR POWER PLANT JANUARY 31, 2018. CREDIT: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES.
WORKERS AT THE FUKUSHIMA DAI-ICHI NUCLEAR POWER PLANT JANUARY 31, 2018. CREDIT: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES.

From day one, the Trump administration has looked for ways to prop up money-losing nuclear power plants, which face increasing competition from cheap natural gas and renewable energy sources.

At first, the main effort was a direct bailout — Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s failed plan to subsidize nuclear (and coal) power plants by raising consumer energy bills.

Now the administration has started cutting corners in nuclear safety and oversight. Trump appointees, who are a majority at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), are allowing the nuclear industry to avoid costly upgrades to plants that are not designed to withstand current flood risk.

What’s especially shocking about this decision, made by the NRC in January, is that a remarkable “54 of the [60] nuclear plants operating in the U.S. weren’t designed to handle the flood risk they face,” as Bloomberg reported last week after reviewing information exchanged between the plant owners and the NRC.

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Yet, even after examining all of the same information, the three NRC commissioners appointed by President Donald Trump decided to ignore NRC staff recommendations to address the problem. As a result, U.S. nuclear plants weren’t required to upgrade their designs or equipment.

The NRC had ordered the original review of the flood risk to U.S. nuclear plants in the wake of the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan. In that tragic incident, an earthquake and tsunami led to three nuclear reactors melting down and widespread radiation releases. The cleanup effort will take decades and is currently estimated to cost $470 billion to $660 billion.

Nuclear power plants are uniquely vulnerable to flooding because they need to be located next to a river, lake, or ocean since they require a dependable source of vast quantities of water for cooling. But if a major flood event disables the plant’s power and shuts off its cooling systems — as happened at Fukushima — then the reactor will overheat and start melting down, which, in turn can breach the containment vessel, leading to dangerous radioactive releases.

Given the terrible cost of such a flood-driven failure, the NRC told all U.S. nuclear plant operators to examine their current flood risk and compare it to what the plants were designed to withstand. After all, since most of the decades-old plants were built, risks have increased thanks to urbanization and climate change. At the same time, flood modeling tools have vastly improved.

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The results were stunning. Of the 60 U.S. nuclear plants, Bloomberg reports that 53 “weren’t built to withstand their current risk from intense precipitation,” while 25 couldn’t handle current flood projections. Worse, 19 plants — nearly one third of the total — were now at risk of three or more flooding threats that they were not designed to weather, including the maximum storm surge they might face.

54 of the 90 U.S. nuclear plants were not designed to handle the flood risk they currently face. CREDIT: Bloomberg.
54 of the 90 U.S. nuclear plants were not designed to handle the flood risk they currently face. CREDIT: Bloomberg.

And this review may actually understate the flood risk because the plant owners were allowed “not only to perform their own estimates of current flood risk but also to decide what assumptions to make.”

Even so, some nuclear plants face flood risks of more than 10 feet above their design level.

In response to the new flood risks, the NRC staff had proposed that U.S. nuclear plants upgrade their safety equipment. The industry, however, favors simply relying on an existing system called Flex, for Flexible Mitigation Capability, whereby emergency generators and pumps are put in concrete bunkers.

On January 24, the three Trump-appointed commissioners overrode objections by the two other commissioners and ruled that U.S. nuclear operators could skip the upgrades required to handle the actual flood risk they face. What’s more, they were not required to routinely update their flood risk analysis as climate science advanced.

The Trump appointees also did away with a requirement that U.S. nuclear plants perform Flex drills. That move is especially dangerous considering that as recently as December 2016, one of the emergency generators at the Palo Verde plant near Phoenix “exploded during a routine test,” as AZCentral.com reported in 2017.

Nuclear plants clearly need more drills and tests, not fewer.

But the Trump appointees appear to support the president’s view that essentially all regulations on industry are bad. The result, as former NRC chair Gregory Jaczko explained to Bloomberg, is that “any work that was done following Fukushima is for naught because the commission rejected any binding requirement to use that work.”

Jaczko added, “It’s like studying the safety of seat belts and then not making automakers put them in a car.”

So nine out of 10 U.S. nuclear plants are simply unprepared for the flood risk they face today — and they don’t have to plan for the ever-worsening risks posed by climate change. The president is once again failing to protect Americans from a very real threat to their health and safety.