Gundersen warns GE’s reactors ‘not just a Fukushima issue’

“Nuclear power is an important part of our future.” President Obama on Day Six of the Fukushima Disaster

That future is filled with jeopardy on many fronts for all of us, but the anxiety is now especially acute in reactor communities with General Electric’s Mark 1 and Mark 11 reactors. These vintage reactors are identical, or near identical to, the three GE reactors that failed at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan two years ago, releasing massive amounts of radiation that, to date, has contaminated over 12 percent of Japan’s land mass and left hundreds of thousands of people exposed to long-term radioactive contamination.

Dismissing pleas from citizen groups in local communities where the GE Fukushima-style reactors operate in the U.S. and ignoring expert testimony from independent nuclear engineers, the NRC voted earlier this month against a plan to require utility owners to upgrade nuclear plant filtering systems with vents — so-called “radiation scrubbers” — intended to reduce (not eliminate) the levels of radiation released from the plant when the vents are opened during a severe accident.

The nuclear industry’s Congressional allies fought the proposal — “Safety gains should be significant enough to outweigh additional costs” to be paid by industry, said Representative John Shimkus (IL), chairman of an Energy and Commerce subcommittee — while Sen. Barbara Boxer (CA), in a letter sent to the NRC last month, wrote, “The tens of millions of Americans who live near the affected reactors located in 15 states should not face additional delays.”

“This is not just a Fukushima-Daiichi issue–the issues in the United States are in some ways much worse,” warned Arnie Gundersen, a week before the vote was taken, in the kick-off presentation at a symposium on the Fukushima disaster held in mid-March at the New York Academy of Sciences in New York City. It was sponsored by the Helen Caldicott Foundation and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Gundersen is a former nuclear industry engineer turned whistleblower, and his ongoing reports over the last two years on the Fukushima disaster in Japan (here) repeatedly raise warnings about the GE reactors and their vulnerability to accidents.

The main difference between US and Japanese GE plants is the extreme amount of highly radioactive spent fuel stored in reactor spent fuel pools, which are located five stories above the reactors. The U.S. spent fuel pools in GE’s Fukushima-style reactors each contain more irradiated fuel than the total in all four reactor pools at the Fukushima plant.

Following the initial news reports of explosions at the Fukushima plant inside the GE reactor containment buildings, stories quickly appeared reporting that federal nuclear safety regulators who licensed the reactors knew about their design flaws but did not to stop GE from selling them.

“Scientists in the United States recognized in 1965 that this Mark 1 had design flaws,” Gundersen said. But GE threatened to pull out of the commercial reactor business if forced to make costly design changes. Gundersen recalled a comment by Glenn Seaborg, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission from 1961 to 1971, who said in an interview years later: “I didn’t think we had the power to stop them.”

“Think about that,” said Gundersen. “This is the United States government and it didn’t have the power to stop General Electric’s faulty design in 1966.”

At the time both GE and Westinghouse were in fierce competition for top place in the new commercial reactor industry. GE was willing to take a loss on sales of its Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactor — and it did. “GE lost millions,” Gundersen said. (“Our people understood this was a game of massive stakes and that if we didn’t force the utility industry to put these stations on line, we’d end up with nothing,” a GE VP told Fortune Magazine in an interview in 1970.)

AEC documents reveal that federal safety experts recommended banning the Mark 1’s pressure suppression containment system and cited its vulnerability to an explosion that would follow a loss-of-coolant accident.

The concerns were dismissed by Joseph Hendrie, then the AEC’s top safety regulator who was later appointed NRC chairman. In a 1972 memo, Hendrie thought such an action “could well be the end of nuclear power,” and would “create more turmoil than I can stand thinking about.”

“So the turmoil that Hendrie chose to avoid in 1972 became the turmoil that Japan suffered 40 years later,” Gundersen said.

But for GE, the sun shines bright. Despite the fact that its reactors at the Fukushima plant brought “a steady stream of allegations suggesting that problems were fixed ad hoc, or in some cases not at all,”  GE is home free under Japanese laws, according to the recent Greenpeace report, “Fukushima Fallout: Nuclear Business Makes People Pay and Suffer.”

Because Japan’s nuclear accident law limits liability to TEPCO and blocks victims from going after TEPCO’s suppliers, “all suppliers that were involved in the Fukushima nuclear power plants, including GE, Hitachi and Toshiba, are currently exempted from responsibility for the March 11 disaster,” the report states.

Fukushima’s victims also face a three-year time limit on applications for compensation. “Sixty-seven years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki there are still people who claim their health has been harmed. Three years is clearly not long enough,” said Yasushi Tadano, a Tokyo-based lawyer who filed a compensation lawsuit against TEPCO last year.

‘Entergy watches as boron decays’

Will New York State have any more success in shutting down Entergy’s Indian Point nuclear waste dump on the Hudson River than Vermont has had, so far, in its battle to close Entergy’s Yankee plant that befouls the landmark Connecticut River?

Don’t bet on it. But stay tuned.

Recall that Yankee was relicensed last year without a hitch despite: a long and continuing history of radioactive leaks, shutdowns, and slipshod maintenance that caused, most stunningly, the collapse of a cooling tower in 2007; a perjury investigation by the state Attorney General triggered after Entergy officers lied to state authorities that Yankee had no underground pipes that carried radioactive water (it does), and, last but hardly least, the Vermont Senate’s celebrated vote in 2010 to shut the plant down. The five commissioners on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would hear none of it. Their unanimous vote to extend the 40-year-old plant’s license for another 20 years came less than two weeks after the nuclear catastrophe in Japan raised new fears in the U.S. where 23 reactors, including Yankee, operate with same flawed GE design (identified and covered up by federal nuclear regulators beginning in the early 1970s) that failed in the triple meltdown at the Fukushima plant and released over four times the amount of cesium-137 than was released in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Vermont’s court battle to shut down and decommission Yankee won’t be resolved for years. Throughout, the decrepit, corroding, leaking plant will continue to poison the air and contaminate groundwater and the Connecticut river where fish now test positive for strontium-90.

In New York hearings begin later this month on the legal motions – contentions —  filed against relicensing Indian Point by New York State, and two environmental groups, Riverkeeper (Ossining, NY) and Hudson Sloop Clearwater (Beacon, NY).

But already it’s down the rabbit hole once more with the NRC.

Under the rules of the agency’s game, the issues of most urgent concern to the public have been deemed “out of scope” for the hearings, or are shielded from proceedings because they ‘re under study by the NRC.

“Evacuation planning, security issues, the earthquake issues which we learned a lot about since Fukushima and the earthquake in Virginia last year – those are not allowed to be part of this process,” says Phillip Musegaas, a lawyer with Riverkeeper. “Of course, we strongly disagree and we think that renders much of this process not irrelevant, but it does limit it.”

Indeed. In 2008 seismologists reported that Indian Point sits on a previously unidentified intersection of two active seismic zones. An NRC study ranks Indian Point as the plant most at risk from an earthquake disaster.  Located 25 miles north of New York City limits, it also has the greatest population density of people living in the 50-mile designated pathway ingestion zone (20 million) and the 10-mile emergency planning zone (over 300,000).

Independent studies document irrefutably the impossibility of a workable evacuation from either zone following a serious accident at Indian Point. But the NRC refuses to hear licensing challenges that raise the issue of evacuation by citing its regulatory “finding” of “reasonable assurance that adequate protective measures can and will be taken in the event of a radiological emergency.”

Safety issues raised by the reckless storage of irradiated fuel in Indian Point’s leaking and dangerously overpacked fuel pools won’t be heard either. Not in this round of hearings — but stay tuned. The NRC has suspended all final licensing decisions in the wake of a U.S. Court of Appeals (D.C. Circuit) ruling in June that struck down the waste storage rules under which the NRC licensed nuclear plants without conducting environmental impact studies that meet the requirements of the National Environmental Impact Act. In September the NRC announced it had set a 2-year deadline to develop an environmental impact statement and publish new waste storage rules.

The vacated rules blocked citizens from raising safety issues related to stored waste in licensing proceedings. Clearwater filed a such a challenge in 2009 that was rejected by the NRC in 2010. Citing the recent court ruling, Clearwater filed a new contention (updated) in July, but the NRC has held it in abeyance (and the flood of others that were filed by interveners in licensing proceedings) “pending further order.”

“It is essential to focus on the dangers our contention points out,” says Clearwater’s environmental director, Manna Jo Greene.

“Originally we were concerned about the impacts of Indian Point on the river and the leaks from the plant were a huge concern,” Greene said. “They still are. But we are more concerned about the danger that these overcrowded fuel pools present – the experts are saying that criticality could even occur spontaneously without leaks.”

Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear industry executive turned whistleblower who has provided expert testimony in numerous NRC proceedings on behalf of environmental groups, found that a review of the NRC’s Indian Point docket “confirms the record shows that boroflex neutron absorbers have indeed experienced degradation problems” and that the NRC’s safety report for Entergy’s license renewal was “inadequate in its assessment of criticality issues.” Boroflex absorbers are wrappers around fuel racks in spent fuel pools to prevent a nuclear reaction from occurring in the pool. A nuclear reaction raises the threat of a possible fire and massive releases of radioactivity.

In testimony to the NRC, Gundersen states that a “conservative criticality analysis does not appear to have been completed for the Indian Point Units 2 and 3 Fuel Racks – a problem compounded by continuing degradation of boron absorbers” in the racks.

He warns that “the evidence shows that the spent fuel pool aging management programs for the period of extended operation are inadequate to assure inadvertent criticality.”

In testimony to support a joint contention filed by Riverkeeper and Clearwater, Gundersen found “numerous deficiencies” in the assessments by the NRC and Entergy of the impact of ongoing leaks from the fuel pools, and other system structures and components.”

“At the time of my review, I have been unable to find any other operating U.S. nuclear power plant that is leaking such extensive amounts of tritium and strontium contamination into any major body of water like the Hudson River,” he states.

New York State has rejected Entergy’s application for a Clean Water Act Water Quality Certification required for its license renewal. Entergy is appealing that decision.

“The presence of the Indian Point nuclear plant in our midst is untenable,” New York State stated in filing its motion against relicensing Indian Point. The motion recounts the plant’s long history of safety incidents “attributable to human error or equipment failure” and points to “gaping holes” in the NRC’s certification of Entergy’s application. It targets Entergy’s required aging management plan that fails to show that it will provide the needed inspections, maintenance and a leak prevention program through the period of a 20-year license extension.

“The issues that are most critical to the public are not going to be heard in this hearing,” Musegaas said. “It is limited to very technical and maintenance issues and the condition of the plant – but all of these issues are very important.”

The initial round of hearings begins Oct. 15 and are open to the public. They will be held at the Doubletree Hotel in Tarrytown, NY. Additional hearings will be held in December and are expected into next year.

Indian Point: Still America’s Most Dangerous Nuclear Plant?

“Shut it down! Shut it down! Shut it down!” rang through the cavernous grand ballroom of the Doubletree Hotel in Tarrytown, NY, last week when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staged an Orwellian charade promoted as an “open house” held to reassure the public that the Indian Point nuclear power plant was, as the New York Post headlined the following day, “Still Safe!”

The NRC’s annual “safety assessment” of the plant, which sits on the Hudson River 30 miles north of New York City, was based on 11,000 hours of ”inspection activities.”  It found that Indian Point performed “within expected regulatory bounds” and the 25 matters that do require attention but “no additional NRC oversight,” are ‘low risk’, or have “very low safety significance.”

“So,” the Post mused, “will this finally silence the ‘shut it down’ crowd? …Don’t hold your breath.”

But do keep your fingers crossed…if you’re one of the 17.5 million people living within 50 miles of the plant…

“The NRC’s annual assessment completely fails to address the public’s primary concerns about Indian Point — evacuation planning, earthquake risk and nuclear waste storage post-Fukushima,” said Phillip Musegaas, a lawyer with Riverkeeper, an environmental group based in Ossining, NY.

Those concerns were addressed in Riverkeeper’s briefing held in the rear of the ballroom prior to the NRC’s hearing that night. Some highlights:

Manna Jo Green, a member of the town council of Rosendale and Environmental Director of Clearwater, who recently toured the plant with the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board: “We are calling for expansion of the evacuation plan from 10 miles to 50 miles and hardening of the fuel pools. There is no protection for those fuel pools…You couldn’t see the fuel rods in fuel pool 2 because the water was so murky… it is so densely crowded with fuel rods, you can’t even get equipment in to fully inspect it …”

Like Riverkeeper, Clearwater in Beacon, NY has filed multiple contentions with the NRC in the legal fight to deny Entergy Corporation a 20-year license extension for Indian Point. Current licenses for the two operating reactors expire in 2013 and 2015. Relicensing hearings are expected to begin in October.

John Armbruster, a seismologist with Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, cited the study, published in 2008, that revealed there was a second fault line passing near Indian Point in addition to the Ramapo fault line.

“We believe this is a significant new development in what might happen to Indian point. We have been asking since 2008 for our new results to be incorporated into the hearings for the relicensing of Indian Point – and that has been rejected as ‘outside of scope’. What was done when Indian Point was designed 40 years ago is obsolete and Fukushima tells us we have to prepare for the things that are very unlikely.”

Peter Rugh of Occupy Wall Street’s Environmental Solidarity Work Group: “The NRC has issued untold numbers of exemptions to Indian point – untold because they don’t keep track of the safety exemptions they grant to this corporation and to other nuclear operators. Entergy took in 11 billion in 2011 so they can afford to take every possible safety measure here, including shutting down…We want the workers at these plants to be retrained in the green energy sector. We must offer them better employment opportunities than being the gravediggers for New York City, for Westchester County, and for New Jersey.”

Paul Gallay, Executive Director of Riverkeeper, countered claims that shutting down Indian Point would cause an energy shortage and lead to blackouts. Results of a study commissioned by Riverkeeper and the National Resources Defense Council published earlier this year concluded otherwise.

“There’s enough surplus power in this region to turn off Indian Point tomorrow and we won’t have any kind of shortage if we don’t do another thing until 2020,” Gallay said. “In the meantime, you can build two Indian Point’s worth of replacement power. You can save 30 percent of our power needs just by energy efficiency… We do not need the power — they want to fool you into believing we do.”

During the open session, an NRC panel sat at the front of the room but no presentation was made to the public and no explanation of the safety “assessment” was given. NRC posters were on display in the hallway outside the ballroom, and Indian Point inspectors were available for questions. But not for answers.

Stepping up to the mike, Mark Jacobson, a co-founder of the Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition (IPSEC), asked, “Where is Entergy? Why isn’t Entergy in the room? We want to ask them questions.”

Getting no reply, Jacobson told the panel that he had questioned inspectors about the status of the radioactive leak under Unit 2’s transformer yard. “They said they didn’t know. It’s a leak that’s been likened to the size of the Central Park reservoir… and we can’t find out about it at this annual meeting. Who are we supposed to ask?”

Indian Point’s leaks are contaminating groundwater and the nearby Hudson River with radioactive carcinogens including strontium-90, cesium 137, and iodine 131.

The impossibility of evacuation in the event of an accident at Indian Point stirred the loudest protest of the night.

Citing the recent news report from the Associated Press that revised – and watered down – emergency planning and evacuation procedures had been adopted late last year without broad public input, Marilyn Elie, also of IPSEC, said, “Nobody has known about this and you dare, in post-Fukushima, you dare to weaken and have fewer evacuation drills.

“Region 1 could not even tell the commissioners this is not a good idea to secretly pass a new evacuation plan, to not let the stakeholders know…We need to call right now for a whole new NRC – all the commissioners need to be withdrawn – and it needs to go right down the line until it gets to Region 1.”

NRC’s failure to regulate cited in Indian Point transformer fire

New York State’s $1.2 million penalty against the owners of the Indian Point nuclear plant points a finger once more at failed oversight by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The penalty against the Louisiana-based Entergy Corporation for violations of the Clean Water Act results from the 2010 transformer explosion and fire that caused an emergency shutdown of the plant’s Unit 2 reactor and an oil spill of more than 10,000 gallons into the Hudson River.

The fine was set in a consent decree from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation that is contesting relicensing of the Indian Point plant. DEC has denied Indian Point a state-required water quality permit to operate the plant — the decision was based on a history of radioactive leaks from the plant into the Hudson River that include strontium-90 and tritium.

The 2010 transformer fire is a replay of events that occurred in 2007 when a fire followed an explosion of Unit 3’s transformer.  Both fires are linked to failed bushings—ceramic insulators on top of the transformer.

Environmental groups, who have joined with New York State in fighting relicensing of the 40-year-old plant, spoke out in response to the $1.2 million fine against Entergy and said the 2010 transformer fire and oil spill could have been prevented if the NRC had taken proper regulatory action following the 2007 fire.

“When the first transformer fire occurred years back, it should have signaled the need to change out all the transformers in this aging system,” said Manna Jo Green, Environmental Director for Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. “Failure to insist on this mechanical upgrade demonstrates Entergy’s wait-and-see attitude, and faulty oversight by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

Philip Musegaas, Hudson River Program Director at Riverkeeper, agreed. “The facts show that the fire and oil spill could have been prevented, had the NRC done its job of safely regulating Entergy.”

Riverkeeper conducted its own investigation into the cause of the 2010 transformer explosion and found that Entergy had failed to properly notify the state about the spill within the required time limit and downplayed the significance of oil spill in a misleading status report that said contractors “were on-site within hours after the [transformer] failure-to ensure there would be no environmental impact.”

Musegaas said, “The facts show that Entergy was aware of problems with the transformer part that failed, but did nothing to address it.”

Indian Point’s transformer problems continue. In late February, Unit 3 was shut following a buildup of hydrogen and other gases in transformer oil and the transformer was taken offline.

Clearwater said: “Entergy’s reluctance to replace aging, malfunctioning equipment is intolerable in the post-Fukushima world.  While an oil leak is not comparable to the disastrous meltdown in Japan a year ago, transformer explosions are very dangerous events, and Entergy’s track record of longstanding, repeated violations and preventable mishaps at Indian Point indicates a cavalier attitude towards legal and regulatory compliance that ignores and denies the lesson of Fukushima, that ‘it could happen here.’”

Together Riverkeeper and Clearwater have filed 20 legal contentions raising issues over legal and regulatory violations in the relicensing battle. Indian Point’s current licenses for its two operating reactors expire in 2013 and 2015. Relicensing hearings will be scheduled later this year.

In February, the NRC dismissed contentions brought by both groups that called for the NRC to suspend the relicensing process until “lessons learned” from Fukushima are reviewed and integrated into new safety regulations for nuclear plants. The NRC has claimed that such lessons would be “generically addressed” and are not within the scope of the license renewal process.

In response, Musegaas said, “The limited steps the NRC is taking on a national basis are too generic to be effective – so this ruling leaves us without an adequate evaluation of severe accident mitigation at either the national level or on a case-specific basis.”

The NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, which reviews and rules on contentions, announced Thursday (April 5) that board members will tour the plant on May 8.

Musegaas said the visit would be “a key step in the process leading up to historic relicensing hearings for Indian Point” when New York State and groups fighting to shut down the plant “present what we are confident is a winning case that will lead to the judges’ denial of Entergy’s relicensing application.”

Greenpeace Int’l report: ‘Attitude of allowed deception’ led to Fukushima disaster

The ‘lesson’ from Fukushima? Nuclear safety does not exist in reality.

That’s the conclusion in a new report from Greenpeace International on the ongoing nuclear catastrophe in Japan that erupted at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant a year ago.

“There are only nuclear risks, inherent to every reactor, and these risks are unpredictable,” the report warns. “At any time, an unforeseen combination of technological failures, human errors or natural disasters at any one of the world’s reactors could lead to a reactor quickly getting out of control.“ Continue reading