Fission Stories #7: Indoor Pool

August 17, 2010
Dave Lochbaum
Former contributor

In early July 1981, workers at Nine Mile Point Unit 1 near Oswego, New York faced a problem. All the radwaste system’s tanks were filled to the brim, yet waste water was still being generated. So, they sent the additional water to the basement of the waste building. They deliberately flooded the basement with about four feet of water. Nearly one hundred and fifty 55-gallon metal drums containing highly radioactive solid waste were stored in the basement. The flood water caused many of these drums to float. Several drums tipped over and spilled their radioactive contents into the water. The drums had been stored without their lids to promote evaporation of water. It also promoted spillage.

On July 8, 1981, workers pumped 50,000 gallons of radioactive water from one of the waste storage tanks into Lake Ontario to make room for the water from the waste building basement. Workers tried decontaminating the basement in July, August, and September. In October, these attempts were abandoned with about a foot of water still covering the basement floor. On October 31, 1981, the plant’s owner told the NRC that about the 50,000 gallons of contaminated water were discharged into the lake in July. It did not inform the NRC about the flooded basement and the spilled waste drums.

In 1989, the plant’s owner was harshly criticized by the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), the nuclear industry’s own watchdog organization, for the waste building basement that was still flooded. INPO’s secret scathing report leaked to the media.

After NRC officials watched the story on the TV news, they dispatched a special team to investigate. The NRC inspectors estimated that the radiation fields in the basement near some of the spilled drums were as high as 500 rem per hour. A lethal radiation dose is 450 to 600 rems. Thus, an employee would have received a fatal dose by working in that area for only an hour.

The NRC censured the plant’s owner for failing to tell them about the flooded basement. When the INPO report leaked to the public in 1989, the plant was on the NRC’s “Watch List,” meaning that it received heightened regulatory attention. In addition, NRC inspectors were stationed full-time at the plant from 1981 – the year of the original incident – through 1989. In those eight years, NRC inspectors either never ventured into the waste building basement or noticed that it was flooded with water. What were they watching all that time? Good fortune that it included the TV news.

Unlike NRC inspectors, INPO auditors were not assigned full-time to Nine Mile Point. They showed up every 18 to 24 months. They get a strobe light view of plant conditions compared to NRC’s spotlight view. INPO finding the problem that NRC missed for so many years means one of two things: (1) INPO knows where to look and the NRC does not, or (2) NRC has no clue what it is looking at. And unfortunately, this case is far from isolated.

Our Takeaway:

If accused of being an effective regulator, the NRC would not be convicted. And that’s even if the insanity plea were disallowed.

The public needs for the NRC to oversee, not overlook, nuclear safety. Missing a safety problem at Nine Mile Point for 8 years, or more recently missing a safety problem at Fermi for 20 years (see “Futility at the Utility: Two Decades of Missed Opportunities at Fermi Unit 2”) or ignoring known safety problems for 30 years (see “Regulatory Malpractice: NRC’s Handling of the PWR Containment Sump Problem”) are clear signs of regulatory ineptitude. The US Congress must reform the NRC before that incompetence compromises worker and/or public safety.

“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.