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Regulators Quietly Stop Monitoring Nuke Plants

More Nuclear Menace Threatens the Carolinas

by Michael Steinberg


Recent developments in the Carolinas may increase the threat of a major nuclear accident, and up the chances of radioactive contamination.

Closest to home, Carolina Power & Light has plans to turn its Shearon Harris nuclear power plant into potentially the largest commercial high-level nuclear waste depository in the nation.

In South Carolina, Duke Power has filed for a 20-year extension on the operating life of its three nuclear units at Oconee, 30 miles west of Greenville, SC.

Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has terminated contracts with 34 state agencies—including NC's—that have been independently monitoring radioactive emissions from commercial nuclear power plants.

Shearon Harris: Nation's #1 High-Level Radwaste Dump?

Spent nuclear fuel consists of commercially useless but highly radioactive fuel rods that are removed from nuclear reactors. They are so radioactive that, even after ten years of cooling and decay, they will kill anyone who comes close to them.

The US nuclear industry hoped the US government would take this incredibly dangerous and long-lived nuclear garbage away. The latest effort, to haul it all to Yucca Mountain in Nevada, is, like most of the spent fuel rods, going nowhere.

CP&L originally dreamed of four nuclear units at Shearon Harris. Today we are stuck with one nuclear nightmare there. But the company went ahead and built four spent fuel pools anyway. Two have been in use since the plant opened in 1986.

By the end of 1992 the Harris plant already had dumped enough spent fuel in these two pools to exceed their design capacity.

But CP&L has also been transporting by rail, through NC and SC, spent fuel rods from its two nuclear reactors at Brunswick in NC, as well as from its Robinson reactor in SC.

These shipments typically consist of two casks containing millions of curies of long-lived, potentially lethal radioactive substances such as plutonium, uranium, and strontium.

CP&L says it needs to get the third pool at Harris in operation by early 2000, or it will run out of room for its high-level radwaste.

The water in these pools has to be constantly cooled. If it isn't, the fuel rods, which continue to give off intense heat as well as radioactivity, will boil off the water. Once the fuel rods are exposed, they can catch fire, leading in the worst case to massive release of radioactivity into the environment. Can you say, Carolina Chernobyl?

The more fuel rods in a pool, the greater the chances of such a disaster. CP&L has been using various techniques to cram more spent fuel rods into its Harris pools, and wants to crowd them in even more.

Recent shipments of spent fuel from Brunswick to Harris seem to be more frequent, and with much more radioactivity. One in January '98 contained almost 48 million curies! Two more in March had "only" 5 million curies together.

The Nuclear Information and Resource Service ( NIRS) in Washington DC has stated that each high-level radwaste train cask holds the equivalent of 200 Hiroshima bombs. The January shipment from Brunswick to Harris may have contained many more than that.

CP&L's plan for getting the third and fourth fuel pools at Harris into operation appears sketchy at best. The company never did complete the crucial cooling systems for these pools. Now, instead of building independent systems to do so, it proposes cooling them with power supplied from its sole nuclear reactor—which is already doing that cooling job for the other two pools. The company admits that rigging this system to keep pools 3 and 4 sufficiently cool is an unresolved safety problem.

CP&L says it has lost documentation of weld integrity for the third pool, which it wants to rush into operation. It admits it can't meet accepted engineering certification standards without such documentation.

NC Waste Awareness & Reduction Network is leading the effort the to defeat this ill-advised and highly dangerous scenario. For more information, call 490-0747.

Relicensed To Ill?

Last July, Duke Power applied to the NRC for a 20-year extension to operate its Oconee Nuclear Power Station, which consists of three reactors. The current license for the three nuclear units there expires in 2013.

Duke Power is planning on the relicensing process taking three years. The NRC shares Duke Power's desire for a speedy process. In a September press release the NRC ordered "expedited action" by its licensing board, "so that a Commission decision can be issued in about two and a half years" on Duke Power's application. The NRC order also directed "an abbreviated discovery schedule, and for shorter response times for filings and for pleadings than had been the case heretofore."

Duke Power's aggressive pursuit of its goal is considered a test case for relicensing by the nuclear industry. The NRC thus far appears to be cooperating to the fullest.

But a look at Oconee's history might make one wonder why the NRC isn't instead proceeding with all due haste to shut all three units down permanently.

In 1996 the NRC fined Duke Power $50,000 after it found that spent fuel at Oconee had been "left withdrawn from its storage location in the pool during a period from December 14, 1995, through January 8, 1996." Though the highly radioactive fuel stayed under water in the pool, the NRC said "it could have become uncovered during certain accident conditions requiring the use of water from the spent fuel pool."

The NRC also said it was "concerned that the control of the fuel assembly movements continues to be a problem at Oconee." The agency had issued two previous violations concerning fuel movement at Oconee in August 1994. One led to a $15,000 fine.

The NRC said at the time of the '96 fine that it was "concerned with repetitive violations in this area."

On August 24, 1996, an 18-inch steam line ruptured in Unit 2 at Oconee, while maintenance personnel nearby were working on valves. According to the NRC, "They were transported to area hospitals where four were held for treatment of extensive injuries."

In August 1997 the NRC levied a $300,000 fine against Duke Power because of its failure to maintain and fix key safety systems in Oconee Units 2 and 3. The NRC noted that, "Duke Power Company had a similar event in the past and had opportunities to identify and correct the problem" in Unit 3.

In September 1997 Duke Power downsized its workforce by 550, including at its nuclear units.

In his 1996 book, The Enemy Within: The High Cost of Living Near Nuclear Reactors, author Jay Gould studied breast cancer mortality rates near nukes. Gould, head of the NYC-based Radiation and Public Health Project had these findings for Oconee:

The five counties closest to the reactors have registered a 56 percent increase in their combined age-adjusted breast cancer mortality rate since 1950-54, which is extra-ordinarily significant when compared with the 1 percent increase for the United States. The same is true for all 66 rural counties within 100 miles.

These five counties are Oconee, Greenville and Pickens in SC; Henderson and Polk in NC.

NRC records indicate that the Oconee nuclear units released 379,000 curies of airborne radiation from their beginning of operation in 1973 through 1987.

For more information about the Oconee relicensing, contact NIRS at 202-462-2183, or email them at nirsnet@igc.apc.org

As Long As Resources Are Available

The 1997 "Report On Environmental Surveillance" by the NC Division of Radiation Protection (NCDRP) reported that levels of tritium in Harris Lake (where Shearon Harris discharges liquid radwastes) were a maximum of 6350 picocuries per liter (pc/l) in January, and a minimum of 3390 pc/l in August. A picocurie is a trillionth of a curie.

Prominent nuclear expert John Gofman has stated that the natural level of tritium (radioactive hydrogen or H3) in fresh water before the Nuclear Age began in the 1940s was 6-24 pc/l. Tritium from nuclear weapons and reactor fallout has increased this level considerably.

In its '97 report, the NCDRP also noted that it found levels of tritium in well water on plant grounds adjacent to the Shearon Harris plant as high as 778 pc/l. It also measured tritium in water about 15 miles downstream, in the Cape Fear River, being drawn as drinking water for the city of Lillington, at over 100 pc/l.

As high as these might appear compared to Gofman's pre-nuke figures, they have been declining since the NCDRP found 23,000 pc/l of tritium in Harris Lake in January 1994. This water was from a site that was used as drinking water for Harris plant employees, a practice that was quickly discontinued. This measurement exceeded the federal limit of 20,000 pc/l for tritium in water. That same year the NCDRP took a reading of 1260 pc/l of tritium in Lillington water.

This reporter exposed the above in the April 1996 Prism. That exposure, along with NCDRP's efforts, has led to CP&L actions to somewhat lessen tritium emissions from Shearon Harris.

But the 1997 NCDRP report also states that "In a letter dated January 9, 1998, the NRC notified NCDRP that environmental monitoring contracts with 34 states [including NC] was being terminated ... including collecting and deploying TLD dosimeters in the NRC Direct Monitoring Network and mounting media around NRC licensed facilities."

The NCDRP noted that it had been conducting such monitoring around Shearon Harris and Brunswick, as well as Duke Power's Maguire nuke near Charlotte, under contract with the NRC since May 1986."

The report also stated that "The current NCDRP monitoring effort is anticipated to continue at the same level after termination of the NRC contract for as long as resources are available to do so."

The nuclear industry and the NRC, which acts as a charitable organization for the industry more often than not, will continue to create scenarios like those reported here—unless the public organizes to shape our future reality differently. For we, the people, are the ultimately the only real and genuine regulators who can be entrusted with shaping a sane, healthy and lasting future for our world.

  Michael Steinberg's book Millstone and Me: Sex, Lies and Radiation in Southeastern Connecticut has just been released.  

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