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Blackout Demonstrates Vulnerability of Nuclear Plants and Failure of Electricity Deregulation

Sept. 8, 2003

Blackout Demonstrates Vulnerability of Nuclear Plants and Failure of Electricity Deregulation


Public Citizen Urges Congress to Make Amends in Energy Bill


WASHINGTON, D.C. – The August electricity blackout, which shut down 21 nuclear reactors in the United States and Canada, was a spectacular demonstration of the heightened vulnerability of nuclear power plants in a deregulated electricity market, according to a report released by Public Citizen today.

Nonetheless, powerful members of Congress are disingenuously exploiting the blackout to promote more reliance on nuclear power and further electricity deregulation, says the report, The Big Blackout and Amnesia in Congress: Lawmakers Turn a Blind Eye to the Danger of Nuclear Power and the Failure of Deregulation.

“The intrinsic dangers and vulnerabilities of nuclear power are only exacerbated by power outages caused by the chaos of deregulated electricity markets,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “Meanwhile, Congress is shamefully considering legislation that would actually promote nuclear power and further deregulation, making nuclear power even more dangerous to the public.”

The report details the dilapidated state of the country’s 103 nuclear reactors and their heightened vulnerability during power outages, debunking nuclear proponents’ claims of reliability. Despite a detailed history of leaks, maintenance problems, weak security and overall deteriorating conditions of U.S. nuclear plants, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has granted operating license renewals to all 16 reactors that have submitted applications.



  • When a plant loses offsite electrical supply, it automatically shuts down. It must then connect to a generator to keep coolant circulating and prevent the reactor core from overheating and causing a meltdown. All nuclear power plants maintain several diesel-powered backup generators on-site to be used in the event of power loss, but they don’t always automatically start when needed. In the past 12 months, there were 15 reported cases in which emergency diesel generators were declared inoperable.
  • In case of an emergency, many sirens in place to alert officials and the public may not operate because of a lack of power. In reports submitted to the NRC after the blackout, both the Indian Point and Ginna nuclear stations (both in New York) noted that many of their emergency sirens malfunctioned. In the case of Indian Point, if the sirens in four surrounding counties — including the densely populated Westchester County, with nearly 1 million people — were to fail in the event of a meltdown, the region would be left in a tragic state of ignorance.
  • Local emergency personnel, who would be risking their lives in the event of an accident or attack, are not confident that they would be able to handle the overwhelming problems that would come with a disaster. In May, 175 Indian Point-area first responders signed a petition to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the NRC expressing their concerns that “even [their] best efforts may not be enough to adequately protect the public health and safety of the citizens of this region.”

By next summer, the United States will have a 34 percent reserve margin for electricity generation capacity, according to Goldman Sachs & Co.’s managing director, Larry Kellerman.

“This glut of power plants weakens the Bush administration’s claims that the recent electricity blackouts give us a reason to build more nuclear power plants or at least keep the current, dilapidated nuclear fleet running,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “The same is true for transmission capacity; at the time of the blackout, the grid was only at 75 percent capacity. We don’t need to relicense or build more nuclear plants.”

The blackout demonstrated the current bottlenecks and strains on the nation’s electric grid. The transmission system was designed to accommodate local electricity markets, not the large, free-wheeling trading of electricity and movement of power over long distances under deregulation, in which energy companies seek to supply power to the highest bidder. Sending power over a much wider area decreases efficiency and burdens a transmission system designed to serve local utilities.

The House-Senate energy conference committee will meet shortly to consider energy legislation that piles on subsidies for nuclear power, including incentives for research and development and tax breaks for nuclear operators. Both bills authorize the U.S. Department of Energy’s Nuclear Power 2010 program to promote the construction of new nuclear reactors and the Generation IV program to develop new reactor designs. Further, both bills reauthorize the Price-Anderson Act to extend federal insurance protection to potential new reactors.

To read the report, click here.