In March 1992 George Galatis, a nuclear engineer at the Millstone nuclear power station in Waterford, Connecticut, became alarmed during a refueling. The reactor had to be shut down and the full radioactive core of the Unit 1 reactor, which held thousands of rods, was removed and then dumped into the spent fuel pool—a blatant violation of Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) safety requirements.
The pool was already quite full. It wasn’t designed to suddenly hold those very radioactive and thermally hot fuel rods, which give off so much radiation that an unshielded person nearby would receive a lethal dose in seconds. In a previous incident around that time, a worker’s boots melted during this procedure. Because the pool could overheat, and possibly cause the pumps and cooling equipment to fail, the NRC had required reactor operators to wait for sixty-five hours before performing this task—with good reason. NRC studies over the past thirty years have consistently shown that even partial drainage of a spent fuel pool that exposed highly radioactive rods could release an enormous amount of radioactivity into the environment. Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer with many years of experience at US nuclear reactors, describes this kind of accident as “Chernobyl on steroids.”
Northeast Utility (which sold the Millstone reactors to Dominion Power in 2000) was standing to lose about $500,000 a day for replacement power if it followed the rules calling for a shutdown that would last more than two months. It had taken this shortcut for many years, while the NRC deliberately looked the other way.
By this time, the corporations that owned the nation’s nuclear reactors were stuffing about four times more spent fuel into storage pools than the pools were designed to accommodate, with the NRC’s blessing. It took several years for Galatis to force the NRC to take action at Millstone, at the expense of his career. His whistleblowing landed him on the cover of Time and embarrassed the NRC into performing a more thorough inspection of the reactor. The agency found a host of problems and ordered Unit 1 closed in 1996. The reactor was permanently shut down in 1998, but the spent fuel remains in a pool while the reactor is still being decommissioned, thirteen years later.
In the tradition of no good deed going unpunished, the Republican-controlled Congress, led by then–Senator Pete Domenici, was outraged over Millstone 1’s closure and made sure that the NRC would never do this again. In his autobiography, Domenici proudly notes that he sought to cut 700 jobs at the NRC in 1999, effectively gutting its regulatory efforts. “While many NRC requirements had questionable impact on safety,” Domenici said, “their impact on the price of nuclear energy was far more obvious. This ‘tough love’ approach was necessary.”
Domenici had his way. By 2000, the NRC sharply curtailed its oversight activities and became more of an enabler of nuclear power than a regulator. To this day, it remains overly dependent on nuclear industry self-reporting of problems.
Nearly twenty years after George Galatis began his lonely struggle to improve safety of spent fuel pools, the Fukushima catastrophe in Japan has once again turned a spotlight on this serious hazard in the United States. The explosions at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi station left the spent fuel pools at three reactors exposed to the open sky, as Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), the company that owns the crippled power station, desperately try to keep them cool with thousands of tons of water. Spent fuel in one pool is believed to have caught fire and exploded. American reactors have generated about 65,000 metric tons of spent fuel, of which 75 percent is stored in pools, according to Nuclear Energy Institute data. No other nation has generated this much radioactivity from either nuclear power or nuclear weapons production.