In a recent interview I conducted with former Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko he said that the US should phase out the existing fleet of 103 operating reactors because the reactors are based on “flawed technology.” He did not explain why as chairman he voted for license extensions (which would extend reactor lifetimes by 20 years to 60 years, instead of 40), including one for the controversial Vermont Yankee plant, though I can only surmise that his thinking on the issue was affected by events in Japan. (His vote on Vermont Yankee was taken only one day before the March 11, 2011 disaster.)
When Jaczko says that operating reactors are based on “flawed technology,” he is in agreement with other former NRC officials I have talked to. They point out that these reactors were designed and licensed at a time when intervenors were prohibited from even raising the possibility of a core meltdown, hydrogen explosion or containment failure. In other words, they are not designed to withstand any of these events. Indeed, the industry did not want to admit these type of events could occur. After Chernobyl, getting a US official then at the International Atomic Energy Agency to admit that an explosion had occurred (even though it was fairly obvious from TV footage) was like pulling teeth – I recalled the episode in my book. Even now the NRC’s emergency planning procedures are based on evacuating only 10 miles out from a nuclear facility, which is tantamount to denying that an event of the magnitude of a Fukushima or Chernobyl could occur in the US. But beyond that consider your own proximity to a nuclear power plant and imagine the aftermath of an event like Fukushima. The chances are small, but what Jaczko says is that even if the risk is miniscule we shouldn’t have to make that kind of tradeoff just to get electricity. In other words, the NRC should not allow reactors to operate beyond their current lifetimes when that might be putting our homes, our land, and our lives as we know them at risk. (Given that line of reasoning, some might argue why allow them to operate even that long?)
More than two years after Fukushima the vice chairman of Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission, Tatsujiro Suzuki, told a conference in Washington this week: “The Fukushima accident is not over yet. Even a small rat can cut the electrical power.” (He was referring to a recent loss of offsite power attributed to a “rodent” chewing electrical equipment). Beyond that he said that “160,000 people are still away from their homes wondering if they can go back. … It is heartbreaking talking to these people.” He also spoke about another major problem at the Fukushima plant — leaking underground storage tanks seeping radioactive water into the ground.
If you’d like to read my story on Jaczko you can access it (I’m afraid rather circuitously) via the Energy Intelligence website. It ran in Nuclear Intelligence Weekly, the newsletter I edit, on March 29.