Ray Rothrock

Aging Nuclear Plants – Overreaction

In Energy on June 26, 2011 at 6:49 pm

Ever since the Fukushima Dia-ichi nuclear power plant crisis resulting from the earthquake and tsunami in March there has been a drumbeat in the press with concern over the age of current nuclear plants. The Dia-ichi plants were within one year of the their design lifetime to being shut down and decommissioned. These 40-year-old plants, designed as state-of-the-art in the 1960s, did a remarkable job surviving events well beyond their design limits after producing pollution free energy for almost 40 years. Though there is still risk and the Japanese are working hard to bring this to a totally safe situation, I must say, something designed 40 years ago, surviving a natural disaster well beyond design limits, is an amazing and remarkable feat of engineering.

The AP recently released a report on their “exhaustive research” into a claim made that time after time, the regulatory body in the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has repeatedly relaxed safety standards in operating plants claiming that previous standards were too conservative. The article makes clear that this has created a certain level of anxiety in the public’s mind and indeed even reduced the safety levels at operating plants. They further state that, “Examples abound” to support this conclusion. The article also spends a few hundred words citing examples and then states, “The AP found proof that aging reactors have been allowed to run less safely to prolong operations.” While the NRC may not be perfect, is the AP really qualified to make such a judgment and statement about safety? Where is their analysis to back up such a claim?

It is a fact that in certain countries the regulatory bodies are indeed enmeshed in the industry they regulate – nuclear, oil, electric utilities, transportation, you name it. These problems exist even here in the U.S (offshore oil rig regulation, for example). But, the US NRC is considered the gold standard worldwide in this regard. Is it perfect? No. Is it a failure? Heck no.

In absolute terms, I’m sure some of the items mentioned by AP are true – probably most. However, nuclear power plants are complicated machines built with redundant safety measures, and overdesign – standard engineering practices. The AP did not evaluate all the systems and every item in the plant and their interactions.

Netting it all out, I think the AP could have better served the reading public by not wholesale claiming that all nuclear plants are unsafe because of this handful of troublesome things they found in the “exhaustive research.” I only wish they would have cited the number of problems found and fixed, or the increased retrofit engineering after Three Mile Island required of all plants to make them more safe, or the capital expended on maintenance and upgrades of components and systems, and the better training, or even the incredible safety record of the industry, just to put in perspective.

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