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Near Misses and Unbelievable Mishaps: From Nuclear Roulette

Near Misses and Unbelievable Mishaps: From Nuclear Roulette

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Do you live in one of the towns near a malfunctioning nuclear reactor? Read this list to find out.

Nuclear Roulette dismantles the core arguments behind the nuclear-industrial complex's “Nuclear Renaissance.” While some critiques are familiar—nuclear power is too costly, too dangerous, and too unstable—others are surprising: Nuclear Roulette exposes historic links to nuclear weapons, impacts on Indigenous lands and lives, and the ways in which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission too often takes its lead from industry, rewriting rules to keep failing plants in compliance. Nuclear Roulette cites NRC records showing how corporations routinely defer maintenance and lists resulting “near-misses” in the US, which average more than one per month.
Do you live in one of the towns near a malfunctioning nuclear reactor? Read this list to find out.

Nuclear Roulette dismantles the core arguments behind the nuclear-industrial complex's “Nuclear Renaissance.” While some critiques are familiar—nuclear power is too costly, too dangerous, and too unstable—others are surprising: Nuclear Roulette exposes historic links to nuclear weapons, impacts on Indigenous lands and lives, and the ways in which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission too often takes its lead from industry, rewriting rules to keep failing plants in compliance. Nuclear Roulette cites NRC records showing how corporations routinely defer maintenance and lists resulting “near-misses” in the US, which average more than one per month.

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Published by: Chelsea Green Publishing on Mar 22, 2013
Copyright:Traditional Copyright: All rights reserved

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01/28/2015

 
19
Near Misses and Unbelievable Mishaps
Te phrase “It can’t happen here” is an invitation to disaster.
—FORMER NRC COMMISSIONER PETER BRADFORD
 THERE IS A TENDENCY 
 to view nuclear reactors as shinning engineering marvels technologically on par with the Starship
 Enterprise 
. But nuclear reactors are relics of a pre-NASA era. (Ground was broken for the first US reactor on September 6, 1954—four years before the creation of NASA, on July 29, 1958.) When the first commercial reactors were being built in the 1950s, the hottest V fare was
Te Frank Sinatra Show
,
Beulah
, and
Te George Burns and Gracie Allen Show
—and V screens were still black-and-white. Nuclear reactors were designed using sharpened pencils and slide rules. Even today, most reactor control rooms are not digital. Instead, many of America’s heirloom nuclear plants still rely on arrays of analog dials with  jittery needle gauges—hand-me-downs from a pre-Internet era.Even with dated technology, you would expect (given the extraordinary expense and risks of nuclear technology) that the industry would entrust its equipment only to the best-trained and most experienced employees. A near miss at Progress Energy’s Brunswick reactor suggests otherwise. In November 2011, alarms sounded when steam and radioactive water began bursting from top of the pressure vessel of the Unit 2 reactor. Te reactor was promptly shut down and NRC inspectors rushed to investigate this “first of its kind” incident. In January 2012, the NRC released a report attributing the “fluke mishap” to human error. Te reactor had recently returned to service after a shutdown for refueling and the work crew respon-sible for replacing the huge metal lid atop the pressure vessel had made some serious mistakes. Te NRC revealed that 9 of the 12 workers assigned to tackle this critical task not only were unqualified to do reactor vessel assem-bly but had received only “just-in-time” (that is, “last minute”) training to do the work. Te workers “didn’t know how to read the instrumentation and torqued the reactor vessel lid’s studs at 1,300 pounds per square inch instead
 
NEAR MISSES AND UNBELIEVABLE MISHAPS169
of 13,000 psi. In other words, they were off by one zero and screwed the studs at 1/10th the required pressure.” Some of the crucial bolts were left so loose they could still be turned by hand. Fortunately, this “first of its kind” mistake did not lead to a “first of its kind” nuclear catastrophe.
1
 Te irregularities that mark the NRC’s regulatory history have a trou-bling parallel in the quotidian world of nuclear power plant management.  A review of NRC inspections and incident reports reveals the seamy side of the inner workings of these high-tech atomic furnaces. In addition to polic-ing the familiar panorama of a control room’s gleaming desks and glowing screens, the NRC’s inspectors have to clamber deep inside the cranky bowels of these aging structures, stepping over tangles of electrical cables, peering into dark, dripping recesses, and poking at metallic scales encrusting rusted pipes and valves. Te combination of failing equipment and worker error can be downright frightening. For example: During a safety test on October 22, 2009, workers at California’s Diablo Canyon plant found they couldn’t open the valves that released emergency cooling water to prevent a core meltdown. Tis poten-tially catastrophic problem had gone undetected for
18 months 
. Sometimes, it is management failure that compounds the problem. On  June 8, 2010, an electrical short triggered a shutdown at Virginia’s Surry nuclear plant, and 90 minutes later, a fire broke out in the main control room of the Unit 1 reactor. An NRC investigation noted that a similar fire had erupted at the Unit 2 reactor six months earlier. When workers tested the control rooms, they found that the electrical systems were so degraded that “some produced visible sparks during testing.” After the first fire, workers had begged technicians to investigate the threat, but according to a report prepared by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “the company closed the report without any investigation or evaluation.”
2
 
A Chilling Inventory of Reactor Incidents
 Acknowledging that no reactor is foolproof, Nils J. Diaz, a former NRC Chairman, spelled out a theory of preventative oversight in a 2004 speech entitled “Te Very Best-Laid Plans (the NRC’s Defense-in-Depth Philos-ophy.”
3
 Te gist of the NRC’s “defense-in-depth” philosophy is described as follows: An approach to designing and operating nuclear facilities that prevents and mitigates accidents that release radiation or hazard-ous materials. Te key is creating multiple independent and redundant layers of defense to compensate for potential human

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