AUGUST 27, 2019
Physicist Ed Lyman discusses new safety threats to US nuclear reactors and why risks here are different than in Russia.
Colleen: Given the publicity of this mini-series I was really surprised to see here just in the news in the past couple of weeks the nuclear industry pushing for less oversight of nuclear power plants. And I’m just curious what’s up with that?
Ed: Nuclear power plants in the country today are under great financial pressure, mostly due to the low cost of fossil fuels and their inability to compete. So, the owners of the reactors are looking for any way possible to cut their operating costs. And one expense that the operators see is due to the oversight of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC conducts inspections that not only requires staff time at the reactors to prepare for those inspections, but it also could result in discovery of violations, which have to be fixed and that means spending money.
So if there are fewer inspections, if the inspections don’t look as hard, they may miss problems. And the plant owners may have longer to address them because the regulators didn’t catch them.
And that’s really the problem with the changes that are being proposed now. It’s not clear that they’re actually solving any problems. There’s no real rationale for doing them except to reduce oversight of the industry. And in that particular case, there were substantial objections from some NRC staff about reducing the frequency of these inspections without first assessing what the impacts could be. In other words, doing a comprehensive analysis of what those inspections do, and how frequently do you really need to do them to make sure they’re effective. That study has not been completed yet, yet the staff is going ahead and recommending that they reduce the inspection frequency anyway.
Colleen: Are there currently nuclear power plants that you are concerned about?
Ed: I’d say that every plant, you know, is unique and has its own concerns. Certainly, some make me worry more than others. For instance, the Indian Point nuclear plant in New York State, it’s only 25 miles from the boundaries of New York City where I grew up. That plant should not have been located where it is because the number of people within 50 miles, last time I checked is over 16 million, is really too great.
If you’re gonna have nuclear power, you should make sure that there’s a sufficient region around every plant that’s low population density. So that if evacuation or other emergency measures are needed, they can be carried out effectively. And by simply suburbanization and development, a lot of plants around the country that were originally sited in rural areas now find themselves in suburbs and the population’s increasing.
And Indian point’s the poster child for that. It is shutting down in the next few years. But certainly, the potential impact of Indian Point, both from a safety and a security perspective has always been a concern. Then there are plants that are vulnerable to seismic events, that are vulnerable to flooding. And again, it’s really highly dependent on the location of the plant and how it was designed in the first place. But I would say every plant has its own risks and they have to be considered in their own context.C[…]