(MintPress) – Safety lapses occurring at United States nuclear power plants in 2011 were often due to plant owners and regulatory authority knowing of but failing to address issues, according to a report released Tuesday by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The report comes on the heels of an announcement to build, for the first time since 1978, two new nuclear reactors in the U.S.
Nuclear power facilities have faced scrutiny over their safety and impact on those living in close proximity. The most recent nuclear catastrophe occurred after a powerful magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit Japan’s east coast. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was impacted by the quake, causing equipment failure, nuclear meltdowns and the spills of radioactive materials. It was the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in Ukraine – the world’s worst ever nuclear accident.
According to the UCS study, there were a “high” number of safety equipment problems at nuclear power facilities, citing 15 identified issues at 13 different facilities. The report also details failings by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to crack down on nuclear plant owners who were neglecting to fix issues.
On top of the documented issues, the UCS found that nearly half of the 104 nuclear reactors operating in the U.S. did not comply with fire regulations set forth in 1980 and amended in 2004. It also found that 27 reactors were inadequately protected against the instance of an earthquake.
“The fact that U.S. plant owners could have avoided nearly all the near-misses in 2011 if they had addressed known problems in a timely manner suggests that they and the NRC have not learned the lessons of these accidents,” nuclear engineer and lead author of the study Dave Lochbaum told The Raw Story.
That’s not to say serious events have not taken place at nuclear facilities because of negligence. Lochbaum links the lacking proactive approaches to the worst nuclear incidents in America.
“The serious accidents at the Fermi plant outside Detroit in 1966, Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima Daiichi last year happened when a handful of known, uncorrected problems resulted in a catastrophe,” said Lochbaum.
The nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Middletown, Pennsylvania is regarded as the worst in U.S. history, according to the NRC. The event occurred when a mechanical malfunction of a feedwater pump set off a chain reaction that resulted in the partial meltdown of a reactor core. While no deaths or injuries were attributed directly to the accident, the accident prompted changes to engineering and protection in the instance of a nuclear catastrophe.
The UCS report noted that four of the special inspections done as a result of poor safety occurred at facilities owned by power production company Entergy. In 2007, Entergy paid the government a $130,000 fine for failing to have a power backup to its emergency warning siren.
Entergy has been shrouded in controversy over the years, both in practices and acqusitions. While organizing a purchase and operation of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant between 2002 and 2010, Entergy found itself paying fines, apologizing and backtracking on its claims and actions, according to the Vermont Natural Resources Council.
Some of the major infractions include:
- In 2003 the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) fined Entergy $51,000 for failing to provide information in a PSB case.
- In 2004, Entergy lost two radioactive spent fuel rods.
- In 2005, the PSB fined Entergy $85,000 for failing to obtain permits before beginning construction work at the plant.
- In 2007, noise from a tower fan alerted Entergy to problems in the tower. Days later, part of the tower collapsed. A month later, Entergy admitted the collapse was due to maintenance and inspection deficiencies.
- In 2008, after the collapse of the tower, Entergy deemed it safe. Inspectors thought otherwise, finding degraded support beams in the same tower.
In early February, two new nuclear reactors were approved for construction in Georgia at a cost of around $14 billion. The move seemingly marks a reinvestment into an energy form that has sparked debate over safety and industry regulation.
Proponents of the new facilities say design modifications make the new reactors safer than older models that have been the subject of criticisms. Reports detail how newer models use gravity and condensation to cool fuel rods rather than electricity. The loss of electricity was what started the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
Opponents of nuclear energy expansion in the U.S., on one hand, say it remains far too risky, and at the cost of billions of dollars for a facility, is too expensive. On the other hand, those in favor say that while the initial investment is pricey, nuclear power provides huge amounts of energy and does very little in terms of pollution when running efficiently.
“Moving away from fossil fuels in order to address climate change is the biggest challenge facing our power sector, and safe nuclear power will be an important part of that solution,” said Richard Caperton, director of clean energy investment at the Center for American Progress.