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Two-Bullet Roulette | The Nation

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Two-Bullet Roulette

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The Davis-Besse announcements, coming on the heels of the Los Alamos "one-in-three chance of doom" study, galvanized the NRC. So what does a galvanized NRC look like? In June--one month after Davis-Besse's most recent admission--the agency issued Bulletin 2003-01.

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Matt Bivens
Matt Bivens has covered energy, environmental and nuclear issues for www.thenation.com and a range of other...

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It recounted the Davis-Besse confessions, and also the research from Los Alamos labs. (Strangely for a comprehensive literature review, it cited the second Los Alamos study--the one with all of the "conservatism removed"--while omitting entirely its shocking parent, the August 2002 study, which is: NUREG/CR-6771, "GSI-191: The Impact of Debris Induced Loss of ECCS Recirculation on PWR Core Damage Frequency.")

The bulletin asked PWR operators to confirm, in writing, that they were all following existing rules. (Daring, no?) It also put forth some suggested Band-Aid measures--like arranging extra backup water supplies to draw on if the pumps don't work. At a June 30 meeting between NRC staff, industry representatives and experts, NRC staff also suggested that rather than risk filling the containment building with water to the point of collapse, plants simply leave open the doors, so the water can wash out.

Lochbaum, who was in attendance, afterward protested that to leave the doors open to high-radiation areas is "contrary to many lessons learned from radiation overexposure events in the past."

The Bathtub Curve

The original "one-in-three chance of doom" Los Alamos study actually went reactor by reactor nationwide and calculated the individual risk level for each. A chart in the study lines the reactors up from least at risk to most at risk.

The study did not name the reactors, instead giving them coded numbers. Lochbaum says he was able to crack the code, and determine the two power plants Los Alamos considered most at risk. They were the Vogtle plant in Georgia, near the South Carolina border, and the Indian Point plant, which a coalition led by the environmental group Riverkeeper has been working to close on the grounds that, among other things, it's unacceptably close to New York City in a post-9/11 world.

Davis-Besse, meanwhile, is way over at the least-at-risk end of the table. And that evaluation came before it made its recent improvements. This summer it installed a new pump that's twenty-five times larger than the original, installed new grates and made other improvements. And the NRC's stern position is that Davis-Besse cannot restart its reactor until the agency is convinced the new containment sump solves the problem. Lochbaum asks: If the containment sump problem is so serious it keeps shut Davis-Besse, a reactor at relatively low risk, how come reactors with a far higher risk are allowed to keep running? "The NRC's actions and its words don't match," he says.

Consider again the final sentence of the NRC's response to questions for this article: "Additionally, it should be noted that the safety record of nuclear power reactors has been quite good and, in fact, since the Three Mile Island event nearly a quarter of a century ago, there has not been a serious accident at any nuclear power plant."

The accident at Three Mile Island came on the one-year anniversary--"almost to the very minute," Lochbaum says--of the first time the reactor operated. Other nuclear accidents, from Browns Ferry to Fermi Unit 1 to Chernobyl (the last major accident, in 1986)--also occurred in the first year or two of operation. That conforms with the bathtub curve, a classic engineering concept that reflects the likelihood of failure over time. The curve is shaped like a bathtub, because things are more likely to break down when they're new, or when they're old. "All of the nuclear accidents occurred in the first year or two of operation, or on the 'break-in' phase. Plants are now out of that phase. They are in, or heading toward, the 'wear-out' phase where failure rates climb," Lochbaum says. "It's only a matter of time before we start populating the right side of the curve with plant names."

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