The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) did not adequately account for safety hazards when approving certain upgrades to nuclear sites around the U.S., meaning the risk of a Fukushima-like disaster caused by a reactor fire is still high, according to an article published in the journal Science on Friday.
Researchers from Princeton University and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) argued that the NRC "relied on faulty analysis to justify its refusal to adopt a critical measure for protecting Americans from the occurrence of a catastrophic nuclear-waste fire at any one of dozens of reactor sites around the country."
The risk is especially high in the sites' cooling pools—basins that are used to store and reduce the temperatures of used radioactive fuel rods. Spent-fuel pools came into the international spotlight after the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi site in Japan, in which an earthquake-triggered tsunami disabled the electrical systems needed for the cooling process, leading to meltdowns at three of six reactors.
NRC commissioners "did not adequately account for impacts of large-scale land contamination events," the scientists wrote. "Among rejected options was a measure to end dense packing of 90 spent fuel pools, which we consider critical for avoiding a potential catastrophe much greater than Fukushima."
Fukushima "could have been a hundred times worse had there been a loss of the water covering the spent fuel in pools associated with each reactor," said co-author Frank von Hippel, a senior research physicist at Princeton's Program on Science and Global Security (SGS), in a statement.
During its "top-to-bottom" review, prompted by the Fukushima disaster, the NRC found that the potential damage from a reactor fire would be about $125 billion, and that the consequences would be limited to within a 50-mile radius. The commission concluded that imposing an upgrade could of $50 million per pool at every U.S. nuclear site would be too high.
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But the authors of the Science article said the nuclear industry had pushed the NRC to minimize the risks—and that the commission's assumptions about cleanup time and consequences outside of the 50-mile radius were incorrect.
In fact, based on the examples of Fukushima and the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, the scientists found that millions of residents would likely have to relocate in the instance of an event in the U.S., and that cleanup time would take much longer than one year, as the NRC concluded. That would result in $2 trillion in damages, they found—nearly 20 times the NRC's estimate.
"Unless the NRC improves its approach to assessing risks and benefits of safety improvements—by using more realistic parameters in its quantitative assessments and also taking into account societal impacts—the United States will remain needlessly vulnerable to such disasters," the article states.
Moreover, under the Price Anderson Act of 1957, the nuclear industry is only legally liable for $13.6 billion, the researchers said, meaning U.S. taxpayers would have to cover remaining recovery costs.
"The NRC has been pressured by the nuclear industry, directly and through Congress, to low-ball the potential consequences of a fire because of concerns that increased costs could result in shutting down more nuclear power plants," von Hippel said. "Unfortunately, if there is no public outcry about this dangerous situation, the NRC will continue to bend to the industry's wishes."
The article comes just weeks after a tunnel used to store highly radioactive contaminated waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington state collapsed, triggering a state of emergency.