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NRC: Exelon reactors designed to leak?

Responding to a petition by watchdog groups, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has agreed to review a range of safety issues for GE Mark 1 reactors — the type that melted down at Fukushima last year, four of which are operated by Exelon in Illinois.

It’s a rare event, said Dave Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Information Service.  He said such petitions, the only avenue for the public to raise nuclear safety concerns, are “routinely disregarded” by NRC.

The NRC rejected the groups’ request that all Fukushima-style reactors in the U.S. be shut down immediately, as well as a request for public safety hearings in the emergency planning zones for each reactor.

But the agency will review design flaws of the Mark 1, agreeing that it “dramatically failed” to prevent radiation releases at Fukushima.

The agency will consider revoking preapproval for ventilation systems installed at many Mark 1’s after it became apparent that the containment structure could fail under high pressure. The ventilation systems “deliberately defeat the purpose of a leak-tight container in order to save it from failure,” the petitioners maintained.

“Their first line of defense is to protect the reactor by irradiating the countryside,” Kraft said, citing an expert who compares it to “a screendoor on a submarine.”

The NRC will consider ordering installation of backup emergency power systems to cool nuclear waste pools, which in the Mark 1 are suspended above the reactor and outside the containment structure.  The agency agreed to consider ordering expedited removal of waste from pools to dry casks.

Illinois flood plains

Exelon reactors in Illinois including at Dresden and Quad Cities are among those with the largest accumulations of highly-irradiated spent fuel pools in the nation, according to a recent report (covered here), which notes that as cooling systems are “overtaxed,” heavy accumulation of waste increases risks from mechanical or human failure as well as natural disaster.

The NRC also specifically agreed to review concerns over Illinois reactors that are sited in flood plains.

Two of Exelon’s Mark 1 reactors are sited at the Dresden plant on the Illinois River near Morris, Illinois, and the other two are at the Quad Cities plant on the Mississippi River.  Indeed, with large quantities of water needed to cool reactors, all of Exelon’s Illinois reactors are sited on rivers, Kraft said.

The dangers of such siting became apparent last year when a reactor at Fort Calhoun in Nebraska was engulfed in flood waters for six months, he said.

The first lesson of the Fukushima disaster was the inadvisability of siting nuclear reactors in earthquake zones, Kraft said.  While Exelon has tried to deflect safety concerns following the disaster by saying that a tsunami is impossible here, Illinois has major fault lines and is subject to earthquake activity, he said.

“Even smaller tremblers seem to have shaken pipes loose and caused Tritium leaks at Dresden,” he said.

Four reactors were damaged and three melted down at Fukushima after an earthquake and tsunami last March, with several hydrogen explosions  in the aftermath; it’s believed that nuclear fuel melted through the bottom of the reactors’ containment structures and penetrated the concrete floor beneath.  Vast amounts of radiation have been released.

While the NRC review is heartening, Kraft notes the agency “has taken no urgent action” in response to Fukukshima.  “It’s all about keeping the industry going at all cost,” he said, adding that costs are “mostly borne by the public, whether in immediate dollars or long-term health.”



Petition: Close Dresden, Quad Cities nukes

Watchdogs: Suspend nuclear licenses

Spotlight on Illinois nukes

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Category: energy

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