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Nuke emergency plan isn't safe, group says


John Mangels and John Funk
Plain Dealer Reporters

The temporary actions federal regulators want the nation's nuclear plants to take to lessen the chances that an accident will lead to a meltdown are misguided, a watchdog group says. Instead, they could actually increase the risk of a catastrophe.

The Union of Concerned Scientists yesterday urged Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Nils Diaz to withdraw the agency's three-week-old recommendations and instead focus on a permanent solution.

"UCS is troubled that the NRC staff is urging plant owners to take steps that may undermine safety," wrote the organization's nuclear engineer, David Lochbaum.

The NRC is studying the request, a spokesman said.

At issue is how reactor owners are to respond to an accident in which reactor pipes rupture, spewing out coolant and blasting loose debris that could clog the emergency sump in the lower levels of the reactor's containment building.

In the initial minutes of a loss-of-coolant accident, emergency pumps draw water from a huge storage tank and shoot it back into the leaking reactor vessel to prevent the radioactive fuel from melting. When the tank is exhausted, operators switch the pumps to start recycling water from the sump, where the spilled coolant water has collected.

The NRC has not yet decided how to ultimately fix the sump clogging problem. But recent events at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant convinced the agency of the need to take urgent interim steps to improve the chances the sump will keep working in an accident.

Engineers at the Toledo-area plant determined that debris from a large loss-of-coolant accident could plug the sump and starve the plant's emergency coolant pumps and water sprays.

That equipment may not have worked properly or at all in certain conditions, the plant's analysis found.

Davis-Besse elected to greatly expand the surface area of its sump, from about 50 square feet to nearly 1,200 square feet. But until the NRC decides to adopt the best solution for each of the nation's 68 other similar reactors, it has suggested plants that think they might have a clogging problem should act to keep enough water flowing to the sump.

And they should do something to prevent debris from blocking the sump's screen.

The steps the agency recommends include:

Adding more and more water from outside the plant to keep the core cool, rather than trying to work with a possibly clogged sump.

The UCS concern: That this could flood the reactor's containment building, shorting out electrical equipment and eventually increasing the water pressure so much that the thick concrete walls might buckle. The containment building is the final barrier between the reactor and the environment.

Instructing reactor operators to periodically shut down some of the emergency coolant pumps and the sprays that are supposed to wash radioactive particles from the air and cool it to prevent the containment building from bursting.

The temporary shutdowns are meant to delay the emptying of the storage tank and the need to use a potentially clogged sump.

The UCS concern: That switching off the pumps and sprays without having studied the consequences at each uniquely designed plant would be foolhardy, and could be the opposite of the right thing to do.

The NRC is asking plant owners to take the interim steps without doing the analysis "homework" necessary to make sure they don't unintentionally increase risk, Lochbaum wrote to Diaz.

Additionally, the NRC staff has to spend time poring over lengthy reports from each of the 68 plants about the current condition of their sumps and the interim steps, if any, they plan to take to deal with potential clogging.

Lochbaum contends that staff work steals time from the effort needed to permanently solve the sump problem.

The nuclear industry itself is raising questions about the appropriateness of the NRC's temporary sump measures.

The agency has held two meetings in the last two days to hear from industry officials and to discuss the status of a permanent, fleet-wide sump fix. The NRC has been studying that matter since the mid-1990s.

Separately, the possibility that the long-idled Davis-Besse reactor will be restarted in August as its owner, FirstEnergy Corp., had hoped, seemed to slip yesterday.

The NRC announced its schedule of inspections that must be completed before the agency will consider returning Davis-Besse to service. The plant has been shut for more than 16 months because of a large rust hole in the reactor's lid.

The NRC will be doing pre-restart inspections at least through the final week of August.

After that, the agency's special oversight panel must hold a public meeting and consult with NRC officials in the Midwest and headquarters offices before making a restart decision.

"The NRC's inspection schedule is basically consistent with our schedule, which calls for a restart in the August time-frame," said FirstEnergy spokesman Todd Schneider. "It's going to be close. There may be a few weeks difference. It depends on whose calendar you're looking at."

To reach these reporters:, 216-999-4842, 216-999-4138

2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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