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Some of the US nuclear plants close to fault lines

18 march 2011, 11:34
Some of America's nuclear power plants loom near big city populations, or perch perilously close to earthquake fault lines. Others have aged past their expiration dates but keep churning anyway.

President Barack Obama has demanded that the 104 nuclear reactors at 65 sites get a second look as scientists warn that current regulatory standards don't protect the public from the kind of atomic fallout facing quake-hit Japan.

One of the most controversial reactors is Indian Point nuclear power plant in New York state. The complex is under a mile from the Ramapo fault line and is fewer than 65 kilometers (40 miles) north of the heart of New York City.

If a quake were to strike the area, and the United States were following the same recommendations it has issued for Japan -- to evacuate people in a 50-mile (80-kilometer) radius -- the turmoil could entangle as many as 17 million people, experts say.

"It should be closed. This plant in this proximity to the city was never a good risk," said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Thursday, after an MSNBC analysis of Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) data showed it had the highest risk of failure in an earthquake.

Indian Point's failure risk was rated at 1 in 10,000 yearly, much higher than the average US reactor's odds of 1 in 74,176, said the survey.

The plant, which was first licensed in 1962, also featured prominently in a report issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists that criticized regulatory failures and analyzed 14 "near-misses" at nuclear plants in 2010.

"Inspectors documented that the liner of the refueling cavity had been leaking since 1993; NRC management chose to ignore the problem," said the UCS report.

Another nuclear plant drawing scrutiny is the Vermont Yankee plant, a 39-year-old facility whose license was renewed for another 20 years by the NRC just a day before the 9.0 quake struck Japan.

The plant faces steep opposition from local lawmakers and residents of the northeastern state known for its liberal, eco-friendly attitudes.

The Yankee plant uses the same reactor design as five of six reactors at the Fukushima complex -- a 1960s design known as the Mark 1 boiling water reactor developed by General Electric -- and is about the same age.

In fact, the United States has 23 of these Mark-1 reactors.

Reinforcements to the design were ordered in the 1980s over concerns that their concrete containment shields, which surround the reactor vessel, were vulnerable to explosion caused by a buildup of hydrogen gas.

But the Vermont plant and others still fall short in the modern age, as concerns mount over potential terror strikes and buildup of fuel waste.

"Vermont Yankee and many other nuclear power plants in the US do not meet the new safety regulations," said David Lochbaum, a nuclear expert with the UCS.

"Whether plants will survive airline impacts, whether there is sufficient storage for spent fuel, the NRC has in the past carved out of their purview so with their narrow focus it is easy for them to come to a decision that things are OK."

Two California plants -- Diablo Canyon and San Onofre -- are located near the infamous San Andreas fault, which is widely expected to produce a major 6.0 or higher earthquake in the next 30 years, though they are built to automatically shut down in case of ground-shaking, an NRC spokeswoman told AFP.

Still, two of Diablo Canyon's reactors ranked 15th and 16th on the US risk list, and the UCS said faulty valves and "misguided repair" left the reactor operating "for nearly 18 months with vital emergency systems disabled" last year.

"There's no way, with what we know today, that we would build that plant as we built it," California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom said on MSNBC television.

NRC chair Gregory Jaczko faced a grilling by lawmakers in hearings earlier this week, but insisted that American nuclear plants are safe and that the NRC would study the Japan event for lessons.

"All the plants in the United States are designed to deal with a wide range of natural disasters, whether it's earthquakes, tornados, tsunamis, other seismic events. We require all of them to deal with those," he said.

But Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer and Tom Carper wrote a letter urging a fresh review of US nuclear plants "to assess their capacity to withstand catastrophic natural or man-made disasters including scenarios that may be considered remote."

Their call that was later echoed by Obama, who said he has asked the NRC "to do a comprehensive review of the safety of our domestic nuclear plants in light of the natural disaster that unfolded in Japan."

By Kerry Sheridan

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