America's Eggshell Nukes

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has made it clear that America's 104 licensed atomic power reactors are not accidents waiting to happen.

They are accidents in progress.

And proposals to build a "new generation" of reactors are not mere scams. They comprise a predictable plan for permanent national bankruptcy.

On November 10, the USNRC delivered a stunning reprimand
to Japanese-owned Westinghouse, which proposes building new atomic
reactors here and around the world. The Commission warned that the
containment design for the new AP1000 did not include a "realistic"
analysis of its ability to withstand a jet crash.

An NRC rule introduced in 2009 requires that the integrity or cooling of
used fuel, the containment and the cooling of the reactor core on new
reactors must be able to withstand the impact of a large passenger jet.
The failure of Westinghouse to explain its case amounts to a violation
of that requirement.

New AP1000 reactors are proposed for numerous sites in the US, including
Georgia's Vogtle, which has received $8.33 billion in loan guarantees
from the Obama Administration. Site work has begun at Vogtle, which
already houses two licensed reactors. But the new designs still lack
final approval. At least one AP1000 plant is already under
construction in China. Similar concerns about the AP1000 design (as
well as France's EPR) have been raised by regulators in the UK.

The hotly debated ability of proposed new commercial reactors to
withstand a jet crash underscores a stunning reality: not one of the
104 old ones now operating in the US has the proven ability to do so.
The reactor industry successfully fought off such requirements,
complaining they would make the plants too expensive to build. More
than two dozen US General Electric Mark I containments are rated as
weaker than the structure that blew off Chernobyl Unit Four during its
1986 catastrophe.

Owner-operators now want license extensions that would keep those same
reactors going for 20 or more additional years. Under intense
multi-decade stress from heat and radiation, all suffer dangerously from
embrittlement of critical metals and degradation of structural

Because spent fuel pool are overflowing, thousands of tons of highly
radioactive fuel rods now sit in "dry casks"---concrete boxes with vent
holes. Neither the pools nor the casks can withstand a jet crash, or
even a low level terror attack.

"In 2003, my colleagues and I reported that the drainage of a spent fuel
pool by a jet crash could lead to a catastrophic spent fuel radiation
fire that could render a 27,000 sq mile area uninhabitable. This is
larger than the combined states of Maryland, Massachusetts and New
Jersey," says reactor expert Robert Alvarez, Senior Scholar at the
Institute for Policy Studies and former Senior Policy Advisor to the US
Secretary of Energy, 1993-7.

"A year later the National Academy panel, convened to address our study,
warned that reactor ponds were vulnerable to terrorist attack and
catastrophic radiological fire," Alvarez continues. "In particular,
there are 35 Boiling Water Reactors in the U.S. that have elevated spent
fuel pools several stories above ground. The pools are not protected by
thick concrete containment as are the reactors. They currently hold
about four times the amount of highly radioactive spent fuel than their
original designs."

At Vermont Yankee, New York's Indian Point and other aging reactors,
underground pipes are known to be leaking significant quantities of
tritium, cesium and other deadly isotopes. Health researcher Joe Mangano has linked such emissions to serious human health problems at nuke sites throughout the US.

Meanwhile, new reactor pushers want Obama to cave on minimal financial
requirements for federal loan guarantees. According to Alvarez, the
General Accounting Office and Congressional Budget Office have both
estimated that at least half the loans given for new nuke construction
will fail.

But even marginal fee requirements for a proposed project at Calvert
Cliffs, Maryland, has prompted Constellation Energy to back out.
Michael Mariotte of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service,
among others, has speculated that Constellation wanted out of a plant it
knew to be a loser, and used the loan fee as an excuse.

If Obama slashes builder-owner loan liability, the virtually certain
failure of new reactor projects will dump billions of dollars of
liabilities onto taxpayer and ratepayers.

The plants are also primarily insured against accidents and terror
attacks by the public. The industry's liability---which could be in the
trillions---is limited to $11 billion.

So continued operations at old reactors, or construction of new ones,
could plunge the United States into permanent bankruptcy.

Reactor owners are now constantly pushing for license extensions. And
Obama is soon expected to try to ease the loan guarantees for new ones.

Our economic future and physical health depend on stopping them both.

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