photo: Bjoern Schwarz/Creative Commons
Two reports out today on the lapses in oversight of the nuclear power industry in both Japan and the United States, and the resultant risks: The Guardian's Damian Carrington sums up the first quasi-independent review of the Fukushima disaster (which is still ongoing, though it's largely fallen out of sight in the headlines); and the AP has done a tremendous bit of investigative reporting showing US nuclear power regulators have consistently worked to weaken safety rules and then failed to enforce these weaker rules. The AP piece is extensive, so please read the whole thing, but here's a sample:
Commercial nuclear reactors in the United States were designed and licensed for 40 years. When the first ones were being built in the 1960s and 1970s, it was expected that they would be replaced with improved models long before those licenses expired.
But that never happened. The 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, massive cost overruns, crushing debt and high interest rates ended new construction proposals for several decades.
Instead, 66 of the 104 operating units have been relicensed for 20 more years, mostly with scant public attention. Renewal applications are under review for 16 other reactors.
By the standards in place when they were built, these reactors are old and getting older. As of today, 82 reactors are more than 25 years old.
The AP found proof that aging reactors have been allowed to run less safely to prolong operations. As equipment has approached or violated safety limits, regulators and reactor operators have loosened or bent the rules.
All told, the article cites four main areas of serious concern: Brittle containment vessels, valves leaking radioactive steam, cracked steel tubing, and corroded piping causing underground leaks to increased five times over the past decade.
As for the report from the International Atomic Energy Association (which is why Carrington describes the report as "independent" insomuch as the IAEA is part and parcel of the nuclear power industry), the 15 conclusions and 16 lessons outlined detail a series of failures that even one of the most technologically advanced nations on the planet couldn't prevent.
Carrington concludes (correctly I think):
The real lesson is that it is impossible to cover all eventualities. That means nuclear power is not safe or, given the colossal clean-up costs, cheap. Regretfully, I believe it is an illusory answer to the problem of rising greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
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