By Paul Gunter
The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) typically begins its narrative on the “lessons learned” from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear catastrophe with Japan’s March 11, 2011accident. Not surprisingly, the agency has avoided addressing the most critical lesson recognized in the accident’s official investigative report by Japan’s National Diet. In their finding, the unfolding radiological catastrophe is “manmade” and the result of “willful negligence” of government, regulator and industry colluding to protect Tokyo Electric Power Company’s financial interests. Likewise, here in the US, addressing identical reactor vulnerabilities remain subject to a convoluted corporate-government strategy of “keep away” with public safety as the “monkey in the middle” going back more than four decades and, for now, three nuclear meltdowns later.
In the latest development, by a 3-1 vote issued on August 19, 2015, the majority of the four sitting Commissioners with NRC ruled not to proceed with their own proposed rulemaking and bar public comment and independent expert analyses on the installation of “enhanced” hardened containment vents on 30 U.S. reactors. In the event of a severe nuclear accident, roughly one-third of U.S. atomic power plants currently rely upon a flawed radiation protection barrier system at General Electric (GE) Mark I and Mark II boiling water reactors that are essentially identical to the destroyed and permanently closed units at Fukushima Daiichi. The nuclear catastrophe has resulted in widespread radioactive contamination, massive population relocation, severe economic dislocation and mounting costs projected into the hundreds of billions of dollars.
The GE design was first identified as too small to contain potential accident conditions in 1972 by Atomic Energy Commission memos. The internal communications would eventually be released years later under the Freedom of Information Act after more GE reactors were granted operating licenses. The memos revealed that the undersized containment system is highly vulnerable to catastrophic failure from over-pressurization in the event of a severe accident. This long recognized chink in GE’s “defense-in-depth” armor was graphically confirmed with the global broadcast of the Fukushima explosions.
The staff recommendation was to require severe accident capable hardened containment vents be equipped with high-efficiency external filters as added defense-in-depth to trap much of the radiation while releasing to the atmosphere the extreme heat, high pressure and non-compressible explosive gases generated by the nuclear accident. The nuclear industry’s lobby group, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) vehemently opposed the installation of external engineered filters arguing it was unnecessary to add any more assurances other than the original design calculations for a radiation scrubbing effect underwater in the “wetwell” component.
The Commission’s August 19th majority vote is effectively a gag order on the American public’s opportunity for formal input to fortify the continued operation of GE Mark I and Mark II reactors against the next nuclear catastrophe. Ironically, the international nuclear industry is simultaneously cashing in on the effort to restart Japan’s nuclear power plants where their Nuclear Regulation Authority has ordered state-of-the-art engineered external filters on severe accident capable hardened containment vents as a prerequisite to resume operation. On August 17, 2015, AREVA issued a press release announcing that it had just delivered it fourteenth filtered containment vent system to the Hamaoka Unit 4 reactor operated by Chubu Electric Power Company where 70% of the Japanese public no longer trust the industry and its regulator and remain opposed to any further nuclear power operations.