It is not difficult for any regulatory or investigative agency to find something lacking in nuclear safety and security. The field is fraught with human error, bad policy, problematic decision making, technical issues, new science, budget constraints and even wrongdoing.
But the nuclear surety and production workers of the world work hard to ensure that the systems are operating at their best possible performance levels. Also, many private organizations and government agencies work to identify any conceivable potential for error or disaster.
According to the Washington Post, one such watchdog is the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which is a science based non profit group. David Lochbaum represented the group as he appeared before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology on May 13. This group examines issues with scientific integrity, environmental, nuclear, food and agriculture and other areas.
The House testimony focused on security at nuclear power production plants, and more specifically on what could happen if the power that runs the cooling systems is lost. If power can be restored within a few hours, then meltdown can be prevented. Any later and the odds of recovery are minimized.
Power systems have battery backup, and this is the gap that concerns the UCS. Some plants only keep about 4 hours of battery power and the union recommends that they have 16 hours of battery power. 16 hours would give workers more time to restore the cooling system power.
Brian Sheron of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was also at the hearing. He reported that regulations already require two generators for each reactor. According to him, such generators prevented disaster in April when severe storms knocked out power at the Brown’s Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama.
Another major gap involves the management of spent fuels rods, which are building up in on-site water pools. They are being crowded closer together and this magnifies the risk of greater disaster at all of the 104 plants that are storing spent fuel in this fashion.
The recommended disposal method is to put the spent rods in air cooled dry casks and to put them into deep mountain storage. As an example, the Fukushima plant owners claim that the spent rods that were in dry casks survived the earthquake and tsunami. But also at Fukushima, the water had drained from pools holding spent rods, and that increased the disaster.
In the US, the Yucca Mountain disposal facility was closed in 2009. Long before that, the US has had a long term problem with spent fuel rod disposal. Even now, there is no plan for storing the mountain of spent but still highly radioactive fuel.
According to its website, the Union of Concerned Scientists “… began as a collaboration between students and faculty members at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1969 is now an alliance of more than 250,000 average citizens and scientists.”