Nuclear Safety Reports Called Into Question

Gaps in Global Database Blamed on Regulators; A Scare in Bulgaria
August 3, 2007; Page A1

To inform the public about nuclear-plant mishaps, a United Nations
agency in 1989 helped create a Richter-like scale rating them from
zero to seven. Chernobyl was pegged as a seven. Three Mile Island
rated five.

How many mishaps have occurred over the years -- and is the rate
getting better or worse? It's hard to know. That's because every day,
the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency deletes from its Web
site any rated incident that's more than six months old. The agency
says it doesn't want to penalize more-forthcoming countries by making
it look like they have poor safety records.

As countries across the globe push nuclear power to feed a growing
appetite for electricity, transparency -- or lack of it -- is a big
issue. Separately from the accident scale, the IAEA and another
agency oversee a global database of nuclear incidents, but regulators
often neglect to pass accident reports to it. That database and a
second one run by the nuclear industry are off-limits to the public.

"There are countless events that are insufficiently documented or not
documented at all," says a May report by nuclear-safety specialists
that was commissioned by a Green Party member of the European

In Japan last month, Tokyo Electric Power Co. initially said an
earthquake near one of its nuclear plants caused no release of
radiation, only to admit later that it had. Reactor operators in
Japan have admitted falsifying safety records for years, including
the coverup of a 1999 incident in which operators lost control of a
reactor for about a quarter-hour.

Proponents of nuclear power say the disclosure lapses shouldn't
detract from the bottom-line results: no major nuclear accidents
since the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986, which killed dozens
of workers and spread radiation for hundreds of miles. "Nuclear power
is safe," President Bush declared during a visit in June to a nuclear
plant in Alabama.

"The operations of the world's nuclear fleet has demonstrably
improved," says Jeffrey S. Merrifield, who served as a commissioner
of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1998 until June. The
result, he says, is "improvement in the comfort level of the public
in nuclear reactors being built both here in the United States and

The world has 438 operating commercial reactors in 30 countries, of
which 104 are in the U.S. Regulatory records show at least four
serious incidents have occurred since 2001 at overseas plants -- in
Bulgaria, Hungary, Sweden and Taiwan -- including a radiation release
and a fire. A fifth incident, involving severe corrosion in a reactor
part that could have led to a major radioactive leak, took place in
Ohio. Regulators emphasize that none of the incidents endangered the
general public, and that either backup safety systems ultimately
kicked in, or the problems were discovered in time.

Amid concerns about climate change and the high price of oil, the
Bush administration is trying to restart new plant construction in
the U.S. for the first time in three decades. The last new American
plant, Watts Bar 1 in eastern Tennessee, opened in 1996, 23 years
after construction began.

Noting that reactors produce no greenhouse gases because they don't
burn fossil fuel, Mr. Bush signed an energy bill two years ago that
offers subsidies and loan guarantees to new plants. Eighteen
companies have told the NRC they hope to build up to 30 new nuclear
plants in coming years, primarily in the South, with the first to
open around 2015.

Outside the U.S., nuclear plant construction never stopped. Thirty-
one plants are being built, and China, India and Russia have
announced plans for dozens more. Egypt, Indonesia and Vietnam are
exploring building their first commercial reactors. Nuclear power
currently accounts for about 16% of the world's electricity
production. In the U.S., the figure is 20%.

The American nuclear industry and U.S. officials have touted the
performance of nuclear plants, including those overseas, as
justification for building more plants. Among its "Top 10 Reasons"
why the technology is vital, the Washington-based Nuclear Energy
Institute includes, "Nuclear power is a trusted technology abroad."
The industry's policy association states, "More than 30 countries
rely upon nuclear power as a safe and affordable source of electricity."

Two confidential, voluntary databases contain extensive reports of
safety-related incidents. One is jointly run by the IAEA in Vienna
and the Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency, part of the Organization
for Economic Cooperation and Development. The other is kept by a
London-based industry group called the World Association of Nuclear

The IAEA, which opens its database to regulators so they can learn
from others' mistakes, has seen fewer reports in recent years -- 89
last year, down from 231 in 1985. It says this doesn't reflect
improved safety, but regulators' failure to contribute reports to the
voluntary system. "We know about many more events that we think
should be reported," says Christer Viktorsson, an official in the
IAEA's department of nuclear installation safety.

The European report commissioned by the Green Party parliamentarian
found that the French nuclear operator, Electricité de France SA, has
reported since 2003 around 700 "significant" safety-related events
each year at its 59 reactors to the Institute of Radiological
Protection and Nuclear Safety, a government-funded body. But the
institute passes on only about 10 incident reports each year to the

Jacques Repussard, the institute's director general, says the purpose
of the system is "not to report every incident, it is to report
incidents in which others may learn." He says France's level of
reporting is no different from that of the U.S. or Japan.

Mr. Repussard says even the small number of incidents that do make it
to the IAEA tend to get ignored: "A lot of countries don't make
sufficient use of the reports...for future prevention purposes."

The managing director of the association of nuclear operators, Luc
Mampaey, expressed the same concern last year. He told Inside NRC, an
independent newsletter, that plants in different countries were
suffering the same kinds of incidents, suggesting that some operators
weren't checking the association's information. A report last year by
the OECD and IAEA cited a number of recurring events at nuclear
plants over the years, including corrosion and valve failures in
emergency core cooling systems.

Mr. Mampaey also said that while many utilities were doing a better
job of reporting events, "the battle remains" because some weren't
reporting any. Officials at the association didn't respond to
requests for comment.

In the U.S., even nuclear critics acknowledge that the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission is more forthcoming with safety-related
information than most other countries. "The NRC provides the public
with its inspection reports and incident reports," says James Riccio,
a nuclear-policy analyst at Greenpeace USA in Washington. "Even
though the amount of information has decreased since 9/11, it still
seems to be more than what's provided by other nuclear nations."

In the Japanese earthquake last month, information emerged in dribs
and drabs. Tokyo Electric Power apologized after admitting the quake
released radiation and radioactive water into the environment and
knocked over hundreds of barrels of low-level nuclear waste. Hiro
Hasegawa, a company spokesman, attributed the information delays to
the plant being short-staffed on a weekend. The Japanese government
said the radiation releases posed no danger to the public. The plant
has been shut down indefinitely.

Tokyo Electric and other Japanese utilities have previously admitted
to coverups of nuclear plant incidents, including accidents and
unplanned shutdowns, repeatedly over the past several decades. In
April, the Japanese government said Hokuriku Electric Power Co. had
admitted to hiding a 1999 incident at its Shika nuclear plant when
several control rods, which are used to slow down or speed up the
nuclear reaction in the fuel core, became dislodged during a test
while the reactor wasn't operating. The dislodged rods caused the
reactor to start inadvertently.
[Slow Report]

An emergency safety system had been turned off by workers, and the
reactor grew hotter for 15 minutes before plant operators could shut
it down. The company said it didn't initially report the incident
because the plant manager feared that construction on a second
reactor would be delayed.

One of the few recent public sources that aims to give an in-depth
review of global nuclear incidents is the European report released in
May. Rebecca Harms, a German member of the parliament who opposes
nuclear power, commissioned the study by seven experts led by French
energy and nuclear-policy consultant Mycle Schneider.

After interviewing regulators and studying incident reports, the
authors described in detail 16 "significant events" in the last 20
years, including a dozen outside the U.S. They included nuclear-fuel
degradation, a fire, a hydrogen explosion and plant blackouts.

One little-publicized incident it describes is a control-rod failure
near the town of Kozloduy in northwestern Bulgaria. On March 1, 2006,
an electrical failure caused one of the main coolant pumps at the
Russian-designed Unit 5 to stop. The pump circulates water to keep
reactor temperatures from reaching dangerous levels. The system
automatically began to reduce the plant's power output by dropping
control-rod assemblies into the reactor core to decrease the nuclear
chain reaction.

But some of the assemblies were stuck, Bulgarian records show. More
than six hours later, a backup safety system was used to shut down
the reactor. Later tests showed that more than a third of the
assemblies were inoperable, and apparently had been that way since
their driving mechanisms had been replaced eight months earlier.

Bulgaria's nuclear regulator didn't acknowledge the control-rod
problem for 13 days and initially said it had no safety significance.
Five months later, the regulator said the plant's operator, state-
owned Kozloduy NPP PLC, had fixed the sticking problem. The study
done for Ms. Harms called the prior operation of the plant with
inoperable control rods "an unprecedented example in the history of
nuclear power." In the event of an emergency requiring an immediate
shutdown of the plant, it added, the Kozloduy system wouldn't have
been able to prevent "severe damage of the reactor core."

Kozloduy NPP disputes that assessment. In its annual report, it
stated, "In 2006, we did not have any events with a negative impact
on safety due to the high safety culture of our personnel." The
report devoted one sentence to the control-rod incident, noting it
received a 2 rating on the IAEA scale, one level below a "serious

Mr. Repussard of the French nuclear-safety institute says many
utilities fear that if they release information on incidents they
consider minor, "it might not be interpreted well by the public." If
all incident reports were made public, he says, plant operators would
be reluctant to share them with each other.

No radiation was released in the Bulgarian incident. But that wasn't
the case with a mishap in Hungary.

On April 10, 2003, workers at the Paks 2 nuclear plant, south of
Budapest, were cleaning 30 used, but still radioactive, fuel-rod
assemblies by placing them into a cleaning tank containing water and
chemicals that remove mineral deposits. At 9:53 p.m., Hungarian
records show, a "warning signal" appeared on a radiation detector in
the reactor building where the cleaning was taking place. The
radiation levels kept climbing; within an hour, the reactor hall was

Workers unlocked the lid of the cleaning tank to inspect the
assemblies. Radiation levels in the area immediately soared. Two
hours later, a cable used to open the lid snapped, leaving the lid
stuck and the tank partially open. Radiation levels spiked again. It
turned out that the fuel rods had overheated as the nuclear reactions
had speeded up, because the cooling system for the tanks wasn't

According to the report for the European Parliament, emissions of
radioactive gases like xenon and krypton during the accident were
nearly four times the total average annual releases of all of
France's 58 reactors. The plant operator wasn't able to remove the
radioactive fuel -- more than five tons of it -- until January 2007,
nearly four years later.

A report by the Hungarian Atomic Energy Authority concluded that the
radioactive exposure to the population was "negligible." It cited an
inadequate "safety culture" at the plant. However, the Hungarian
utility that operates the plant, MVM Group, publicly blamed a
contractor, Framatome ANP GmbH, which designed the decontamination
equipment. The contractor later paid damages.

The most serious nuclear plant incident in the U.S. in recent years
occurred at the Davis-Besse plant in Oak Harbor, Ohio, in 2002.
There, a pineapple-size cavity, caused by extensive corrosion, was
found in the lid of the reactor pressure vessel, which houses the
fuel core.

The corrosion -- the worst ever found at a U.S. plant -- could have
led to a loss of reactor coolant water. Workers discovered the
problem before a serious accident resulted. "It's probably the most
significant incident we've had" since Three Mile Island, says Mr.
Merrifield, the recently departed Nuclear Regulatory Commission
member. In that 1979 incident near Harrisburg, Pa., a reactor core
was damaged but didn't release widespread radiation.

Davis-Besse subsequently shut down for two years. Its owner,
FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co., a unit of FirstEnergy Corp. of
Akron, last year paid $28 million in fines and admitted to the
Justice Department that its employees had lied to the NRC that the
plant was safe to operate.

Write to Steve Stecklow at

   	URL for this article:

Leave a Reply