All 102 nuclear reactors currently operational in the US have irreparable safety issues and should be taken out of commission and replaced, former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory B. Jaczko said.
Aerial view of Limerick Generating Station nuclear power plant in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. (AFP Photo / Stan Honda)
“The industry and the regulators and the whole nuclear safety community continues to try to figure out how to address these very, very difficult problems,” which were made more evident by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, he said. “Continuing to put Band-Aid on Band-Aid is not going to fix the problem.”
According to the former chairman, US reactors that received permission from the nuclear commission to operate for an additional 20 years past their initial 40-year licenses would not likely last long. He further rejected the commission’s proposal for a second 20-year extension, which would leave some American nuclear reactors operating for some 80 years.
In response to those comments, Marvin S. Fertel, president and chief executive of the Nuclear Energy Institute, told the Times that the country’s nuclear power grid has, is, and will operate safely.
“US nuclear energy facilities are operating safely,” said Fertel. “That was the case prior to Greg Jaczko’s tenure as Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman. It was the case during his tenure as NRC chairman, as acknowledged by the NRC’s special Fukushima response task force and evidenced by a multitude of safety and performance indicators. It is still the case today.”
Jaczko had served as chairman of the nuclear regulatory agency since 2009, and according to the Times resigned in 2012 following conflicts with colleagues. He was seen as an outlying vote on a number of safety issues, and had advocated for more stringent safety improvements during his tenure.
Rather than address the immediate dangers of our existing reactors, U.S. regulators have given the go-ahead for the country’s first nuclear reactor in 20 years to begin commercial operations after years of public fears over a major nuclear meltdown.
The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is now officially permitted to begin commercial reactor operations of the new reactor in 2016. Construction on this reactor began 43 years ago, but work ended in 1985 (after more than $1 billion had already been spent) due to a construction scandal. The TVA revived the project in 2007, at a time when nuclear power seemed poised to make a comeback.
The new reactor will produce nearly 2,300 megawatts of electricity– enough to power 1.3 million homes. Nuclear power accounted for 19 percent of all electricity generated in the United States in 2014.
The high costs of new nuclear construction, competition from cheaper natural-gas, and political difficulties from the Japanese Fukushima nuclear disaster have hampered the nuclear industry.
Two reactors, the Vermont Yankee reactor and Wisconsin’s reactor, have been eliminated by competition from cheap natural gas. The San Onofre reactor in California was shut down due to safety concerns, as was the Crystal River reactor in Florida. The world’s largest nuclear plant operator, Électricité de France, withdrew from a joint venture that would have created three new American nuclear plants– after it had already invested billions of dollars.
Political opposition from Nevada Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid prevented the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site from opening, leaving nuclear plants without a good place to store spent fuel. Such opposition also created legal liabilities for the federal government that could exceed $50 billion.
Despite these problems, four new nuclear reactors are expected to enter service by the end of the decade. New nuclear reactor designs are much safer, and actually emit less radiation than coal plants. Recent breakthroughs in fusion could also potentially restart the atomic age, when nuclear progress was lauded as a pinnacle of human achievement.