Deconstructing Pilgrim: NRC design flaw dismissal only protects nuclear energy industry
Earlier this month, a bold action on the part of Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff once again raised the alarm at Entergy’s troubled Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station. Seven NRC engineers documented a dangerous design flaw in nuclear reactors across the United States. Pilgrim is on that list. The electrical problems identified by the staff in 2012 could result in damage to the cooling safety systems and cause a core meltdown. Their professional recommendation was to immediately fix the design flaw or shut down affected reactors. But the NRC failed to implement the recommendation. Instead, they gave reactor owners until 2018 to address this safety problem. Operating under these conditions is a violation of the terms of Entergy’s license. According to NRC regulations, this is a major issue. Identifying their concerns as a “highly probable event with high consequences” and a “significant safety concern,” the staff has been forced to bring attention to this serious situation through the public petition process, filing as private citizens.
The NRC’s dismissal of expert staff recommendations is not new. Another identified serious design flaw is the GE Mark 1 boiling water reactor containment structure. In 1972, Atomic Energy Commission safety official Stephen Hanauer recommended that this reactor design, like Pilgrim’s, be cancelled due to safety concerns. The containment was found to be too small and vulnerable to hydrogen buildup. This could lead to an explosion and loss of containment (Fukushima proved that prediction). Joseph Hendrie, future chair of the NRC, understood the danger but refused to act, in order to protect the nuclear industry that was already constructing these flawed reactors. If GE Mark 1 reactor construction was terminated, he explained, the “reversal of this hallowed policy, particularly at this time, could well be the end of nuclear power.”
In 2013, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey called out the NRC commissioners for voting against filters on GE Mark 1 reactor vents, a staff-recommended upgrade in response to the catastrophe at Fukushima. He went on to declare, “The NRC has abdicated its responsibility to ensure public health and safety in New England and across the country. Instead of following its top experts’ safety recommendations, it chose to grant the nuclear power industry’s requests for more studies and more delays, and even after the study is completed there is still no guarantee that the NRC will ever make this commonsense requirement mandatory.”