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Shutting Down Aging Nuke Plants Will Be Challenging

March 25, 2011

According to a report by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), aging nuclear reactor closures are expected to peak between 2020 and 2030, posing major concerns for safety and potentially endangering the environment.

The report, submitted to member states of the IAEA shortly before the nuclear crisis in Japan this month, stated that high safety performance levels in the global nuclear sector in 2010 were well maintained.

But it warned, “in some cases, plans for nuclear power program development moved faster than the establishment of the necessary regulatory and safety infrastructure and capacity.”

After the recent events at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, which was devastated by a massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11, the report’s document — titled Nuclear Safety Review for the Year 2010 — may get more attention and more careful scrutiny.

The IAEA was “actively involved in the development of a robust and technically consistent framework for safety goals that broadly defined acceptable levels of radiological risks for installation of nuclear power plants,” the report said.

The nuclear crisis in Japan has generated much debate about the IAEA’s role in ensuring the safe use of nuclear power and to prevent accidents which can cause widespread chaos.

While the report didn’t name any countries specifically, it did invite comment from the IAEA’s 151 member states by mid-April, before a final revised version would be issued. Reuters obtained a copy of the report on Thursday.

Yukiya Amano, Director General of IAEA, said this week that international safety standards needed to be toughened but the agency was not at liberty to set those standards, stressing that safety was the responsibility of individual countries.

Olli Heinonen, a former senior official with IAEA, said in a comment, however, that the Fukushima power plant “should be a wake-up call to re-evaluate and strengthen the role of the IAEA” in boosting nuclear safety.

Amano’s 2010 safety report stated that of the 441 nuclear reactors now in operation globally, many were built in the 70s and 80s. Most of those have an average lifespan of 35 years, making them vulnerable now.

“Their decommissioning peak will occur from 2020 to 2030 which will present a major managerial, technological, safety and environmental challenge to those states engaged in nuclear decommissioning,” said his report.

“The need for national and international mechanisms for early planning, adequate funding and long-term strategies applies not only to decommissioning, but also to radioactive waste management and spent fuel management,” it said.

While no details were given about which reactors faced closure, the report said some countries have considered running power plants beyond their planned timeframe.

The Oyster Creek nuclear plant in Lacey, New Jersey is the United States’ oldest running nuclear plant, and some experts warn, the most dangerous.

It uses a GE Mark I Boiling Water reactor identical to the ones used at the Fukushima plant in Japan, which failed after the March 11 disaster.

Anti-nuclear activists and many residents of Lacey and surrounding towns worry that a similar nuclear disaster could happen at Oyster Creek. The plant has been plagued by problems including a corroding liner in the containment unit, leaks that allow radioactive tritium to seep into drinking water, and massive volumes of stocked spent fuel rods.

“We have 40 years of radiation on site — two-and-a-half to three times more than in Japan,” anti-nuclear activist Jeff Brown told AFP. “You also have that tremendously stupid design to start with where the spent fuel rods are sitting on top of the reactor,” he added.

There are growing fears among residents that the Oyster Creek reactor could be an easy target for an attack by terrorists.

“At the very least, we need a no-fly zone over Oyster Creek. We have a no-fly zone over Disney World but not here,” said Peggi Sturmfels, a program organizer at the New Jersey Environmental Federation.

Exelon Corporation, the company that owns Oyster Creek, maintains that its reactor is safe. “Nuclear power stations in general are the most hardened and well-protected industrial facilities in existence. Oyster Creek is no exception,” Exelon spokesman Craig Nesbitt told AFP.

More than 500 thousand people live within an immediate fallout area if Oyster Creek was ever to have a radiation accident. It is 85 miles south of New York City and 55 miles east of Philadelphia. While New Jersey is not in an earthquake-prone zone, meteorologists say the area is overdue for a Category 5 hurricane.

“One good storm surge, and Oyster Creek’s backup generators are swamped. It’s Japan all over again,” said Sturmfels.

Nesbitt rejected such assessments, saying the plant is five miles inland and protected by barrier islands. He also said the plant is continually “evaluated and improved,” and that more than $1 billion has been spent on upgrades since operations began in 1969.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission extended Oyster Creek’s license for another 20 years in 2009. But after criticism from multiple sources, the license was pulled back to only 10 years, and the plant is due to close in 2019. But for many, even that is too late.

“I don’t like it. They should close it sooner,” local resident Barbara Murrofsky told AFP.

“What’s happening in Japan has made us more aware of the problems we have in our own backyard,” she said. “There are so many people who live near here that an accident would be a major disaster. They should shut it down now.”

But other local residents weren’t as concerned.

One local, Rick Gifford, said: “It’s been running for 40 years with no problem, there’s no reason it should start having problems now.”

Greg Auriemma, a lawyer for the Sierra Club environmental group, said Gifford’s stance was not unusual in Lacey. “There’s a sense of complacency because while the plant has had a lot of negative publicity, no major disaster has occurred. So people look at it and say, ‘It’s been running for 40 years, what’s the big deal?’”

Although, Auriemma said, all it takes is one tragic event that could dramatically change the situation. “There’s a potential disaster that could happen right here in our backyard,” he told the French news agency.

The NRC launched a review of 24 US reactors on Wednesday, and said a full report with recommendations will be ready in six months.

The United States has 104 operating nuclear reactors, by far the most. France follows with 58 and Japan with 54, according to the IAEA’s website.

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