(CN) – A group of scientists says the regulatory agency in charge of overseeing the U.S. nuclear industry concentrates more on industry profits than public safety – ignoring the risks of a Fukushima-like disaster here at home.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission relied on faulty analysis in refusing to adopt a critical safety measure intended to prevent a catastrophic nuclear disaster, according to researchers from Princeton University and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Specifically, the scientists say the spent fuel currently housed in pools should be housed in dry casks to prevent a nuclear-waste fire that would cause a disaster larger than what happened in Fukushima, Japan, following an earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
"In far too many instances, the NRC has used flawed analysis to justify inaction, leaving millions of Americans at risk of a radiological release that could contaminate their homes and destroy their livelihoods," said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It is time for the NRC to employ sound science and common-sense policy judgments in its decision-making process."
The commission’s cost-benefit analysis contained several flaws including an unrealistic contamination radius in the event of a nuclear-waste fire and exaggerated the ability to perform cleanup operations, the scientists say.
They add that due to pressure from industry lobbyists, the commission is more interested in helping individual nuclear plants save money by allowing them to skip the construction of dry casks and other safety measures that could prevent a large-scale nuclear-waste fire.
"The NRC has been pressured by the nuclear industry, directly and through Congress, to low-ball the potential consequences of a fire because of concerns that increased costs could result in shutting down more nuclear power plants," said paper co-author Frank von Hippel, a senior research physicist at Princeton's Program on Science and Global Security. "Unfortunately, if there is no public outcry about this dangerous situation, the NRC will continue to bend to the industry's wishes."
Nuclear plants currently use the pools to cool and store used radioactive fuel rods. They are so packed with radioactive material that if they caught fire, they could release enough radioactive material to contaminate an area twice the size of New Jersey, according to the study.
Such a disaster could force the evacuation and relocation of 8 million Americans and cause nearly $2 trillion in damage.
One of the principal worries of the scientists is the potential for terrorists to exploit the lack of safety measures, a potential the study says the commission is all too quick to downplay.
By failing to account for an act of terrorism or a fire in the spent-fuel pools, the commission completely underestimated the potential dangers related to proceeding without dry casks, the study says.
Spent fuel came into public view after the March 2011 disaster in Fukushima, Japan, where a magnitude 9.0 earthquake unleased a tsunami that crashed into a nuclear power plant and caused widespread damage.
Specifically, the wiring systems that operated the reactor cores were disabled by the rushing saltwater, leading to core meltdowns at three of the six reactors, hydrogen explosions and a release of radioactive material that led to a massive evacuation and eventual relocation of residents.
There were no fatalities, but exposure to radiation means as many as 640 will eventually die due to the disaster.
"The Fukushima accident could have been a hundred times worse had there been a loss of the water covering the spent fuel in pools associated with each reactor," von Hippel said. "That almost happened at Fukushima in Unit 4."
Fukushima prompted the commission to reexamine its safety measures, and one consideration was implementing a rule to prevent plants from densely packing the pools with radioactive material and requiring an expedited transfer of such material to dry casks, which the scientists say are safer.
However, implementing the safety measures would cost roughly $50 million per pool, a significant cost for many plants that have multiple pools.
In an effort to mitigate this cost, the commission is endangering the lives of millions of Americans, the scientist say.
They call on Congress to address the situation by passing a law to require the construction of dry casks and the expedited transfer of spent fuel to the storage units. The scientists also argue that state subsidies used to bolster unprofitable nuclear plants should instead be used to install the safety measures.
The study will be published in the May 26 edition of Science.
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