Fission Stories #40: No Rocket Scientists Here

May 17, 2011
Dave Lochbaum
Former contributor

During April 1989, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) inspected the Trojan nuclear plant in Oregon. The NRC inspectors expressed concern about the location of the plant’s hydrogen storage tanks. They determined that a detonation of a hydrogen storage tank had the energy equivalent of 217 pounds of TNT. They were concerned about the consequences from such an explosion, particularly since four hydrogen storage tanks were located on the roof of the control room.

The NRC also expressed concern that the pressure relief valves for the hydrogen storage tanks discharged near the intakes for the control room’s ventilation system. Hydrogen released from the tanks could have produced a flammable or explosive mixture inside the control room.

The control room’s roof was crowded. There were also six nitrogen storage tanks up there. The nitrogen couldn’t explode like the hydrogen, but the NRC inspectors were concerned that nitrogen could incapacitate the operators if it leaked into the control room through the ventilation system.

Our Takeaway

The NRC issued an operating license for Trojan in November 1975. All the supposedly intensive, exhaustive reviews conducted by the NRC leading up to the issuance of the operating license failed to notice, or failed to care, that the control room’s roof was literally crowded with safety hazards. All the supposedly intensive, exhaustive inspections conducted by the NRC over the next 13-plus years failed to notice, or failed to care, about these safety hazards. The NRC deserves credit for noticing it in April 1989. The NRC deserves blame for having missed it for over a decade.

The NRC is currently reviewing several applications for new nuclear reactors. Both safety and economics demand that the NRC conduct thorough design reviews, not thoroughly poor reviews as of the control room design for Trojan.

“Fission Stories” is a weekly feature by Dave Lochbaum. For more information on nuclear power safety, see the nuclear safety section of UCS’s website and our interactive map, the Nuclear Power Information Tracker.