In the aftermath of the nuclear crisis in Japan, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and nuclear industry officials were quick to reassure the public that different plant designs and safety standards shielded Americans from similar risks. But documents obtained from the NRC reveal a different story—the safety plans have gaps and staff analysts don’t always agree with top brass.
The Union of Concerned Scientists filed a Freedom of Information Act request in February with the NRC to analyze documents in a program referred to as the State of the Art Reactor Consequence Analyses, or SOARCA, which analyzed potential disasters that might release radioactive material at nuclear power plants.
“While the NRC and the nuclear industry have been reassuring Americans that there is nothing to worry about—that we can do a better job dealing with a nuclear disaster like the one that just happened in Japan— it turns out that privately NRC senior analysts are not so sure,” said Edwin Lyman, a UCS physicist and expert on nuclear plant design.
One of the plans in SOARCA focused on a plant in Peach Bottom, Penn., that has a boiling water reactor, like the Fukushima reactor in Japan now leaking radioactive material. With boiling water reactor plants, a battery-powered cooling system will run for about eight hours in the event of a blackout. But if workers cannot restore power after the eight-hour period, there is no other way to cool the reactor, causing it to overheat and melt. This is the scenario believed to have happened at the Fukushima plant.
SOARCA plans for the Pennsylvania plant appear to rely on the backup cooling system, even after battery power is lost. According to an email from NRC employee Laura Kozak, these strategies “have really not been reviewed to ensure that they will work to mitigate severe accidents.” Further, the email said senior analysts in the region “in particular have been vocal with their concerns on SOARCA for several years.”
The SOARCA plans include a nuclear plant’s emergency operating procedure, severe accident guidelines, and last-resort measures. According to an NRC document obtained by UCS , the last-resort measures appear to lack defined actions, and only consist of “equipment onsite that can be useful in an emergency when used by knowledgeable operators if post event conditions allow. If little is known about these post event conditions, then assuming success is speculative.”
FAST FACT: Of the 104 nuclear power plants operating in the U.S., 35 feature boiling water reactors.
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