N.Y. Nuclear Plant Leak Was “Accident Waiting to Happen”

Feb. 16, 2000

N.Y. Nuclear Plant Leak Was “Accident Waiting to Happen”

More Accidents Likely to Occur as NRC Weakens

Safety Standards, Nuclear Expert Says

WASHINGTON, D.C. The release of radioactive steam from a New York state nuclear reactor Tuesday night was an accident waiting to happen because of increasingly lax federal safety standards, a Public Citizen nuclear expert said Wednesday.

Tuesdays leak, which officials said did not involve enough radiation to harm anyone, occurred in a steam generator tube at the Indian Point 2 nuclear reactor in Buchanan, N.Y. Consolidated Edison, owner and operator of the reactor, had planned to replace the steam generators in 1993, according to research published by Public Citizen in the 1995 report, “Roll the Dice.” But reductions over the past few years in U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) safety standards have allowed Indian Point 2 and other nuclear utilities to operate reactors with more severely degraded tubes.

“As the Nuclear Regulatory Commission bows to industry pressure to reduce safety standards, more accidents like the one at Indian Point are going to occur,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy Project.

Because of the reduction in standards, Tuesdays leak could have been much worse, said James Riccio, senior analyst for Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy Project.

“New Yorkers got lucky last night,” Riccio said. “The rupture of as few as ten steam generator tubes could result in the meltdown of the reactor fuel rods, releasing catastrophic amounts of radiation into the environment.”

The NRC now allows reactors to operate with steam generators that have cracks through as much as 40 percent of a tubes wall. Previous standards have been more stringent. Now, the nuclear industry is pressuring the regulators to further loosen these standards.

The NRC itself predicted that steam generator tube ruptures would occur more frequently as nuclear plants age, Hauter said. At a 1988 conference, former NRC Commissioner Kenneth Rogers, speaking about the effects of aging nuclear plants in this country, said:

“Degradation (of the steam generator tubes) would decrease the safety margins so that, in essence, we have a loaded gun, an accident waiting to happen.”

In a November 1992 memo, the NRCs director of nuclear reactor regulation reported that “steam generator tube rupture events appear to be unavoidable” because of poor detection methods. This is alarming because each tube rupture means that radioactive gas could leak into the environment, Riccio said. According to the NRC, spontaneous tube ruptures have occurred at a rate of approximately one every two years for the past 20 years, while tube failures identified through excessive steam generator tube leakage just prior to rupture have occurred at a rate of approximately one per year.

STEAM GENERATOR TUBE RUPTURE EVENTS IN THE U.S.

REACTOR UTILITY YEAR RUPTURE Yr. of Operation
POINT BEACH – 1 WEPCO 1975 S < 5
SURRY 2 Virginia Power 1976 S < 4
PRAIRIE ISLAND – 1 Northern States Power 1979 S < 5
GINNA 1 Rochester G & E 1982 S < 10
FORT CALHOUN Omaha Public Power 1984 S < 10
NORTH ANNA – 1 Virginia Power 1987 S < 9
INDIAN POINT – 3 NYPA 1988 I < 13
McGUIRE 1 Duke Power Co. 1989 S < 8
BEAVER VALLEY – 2 Duquesne Light Co. 1989 I < 2
THREE MILE ISLAND GPU Nuclear Corp. 1990 I < 16
MAINE YANKEE ME Yankee Atomic 1990 I < 18
McGUIRE 1 Duke Power Co. 1992 I < 11
ARKANSAS – 2 ENTERGY 1992 I < 12
BRAIDWOOD – 1 Commonwealth Edison 1993 I < 6
PALO VERDE – 2 Arizona Public Service 1993 S < 7

NOTE: “S” indicates a spontaneous rupture, i.e., one that is sudden; “I” indicates an Incipient rupture, i.e., one that is slow to develop.

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