The nuclear accident at Fukushima, Japan in March 2011, which resulted in the meltdown of three reactors and the release of huge amounts of radiation, led to intense study of the causes of the accident and the catchphrase “No more Fukushimas!”
Last week, Dave Lochbaum released a report that looks in detail at an event that occurred around the same time but garnered much less attention and scrutiny—the shutdown of the Ft. Calhoun reactor in Nebraska for what turned out to be a two and a half year outage to make extensive repairs. Problems at the plant had been missed by inspections for years and accumulated to the point that such a long outage was needed to fix them.
And this is not an isolated case. The outage at Fort Calhoun marked the 52nd time a U.S. reactor had to shut down for longer than a year to fix extensive safety problems that had accumulated.
The report argues that rather than just fixing the problems at Ft. Calhoun and other reactors, the NRC must carefully investigate why these problems were not detected by either the plant’s inspectors or NRC inspectors over a period of many years. In other words, the shutdown of Ft. Calhoun revealed two different problems: (1) problems with the reactor itself, and (2) a failure of the inspection systems designed to identify and fix those problems before they become so severe to require such a long shutdown.
The problems that were allowed to accumulate at Ft. Calhoun weakened the plant’s safety systems that are intended to prevent accidents. So a critical step to “No More Fukushimas” is making sure there are “No More Ft. Calhouns.”
As Dave says at the end of his report:
If the NRC’s effort to prevent an American Fukushima is to be successful, it must augment that with an effort to prevent another Fort Calhoun. The NRC responded to Fukushima by forming a task force that examined the accident and made more than 30 recommendations to better manage nuclear power plant risks. It is now in the process of implementing those recommendations.
The NRC similarly needs to respond to Fort Calhoun by forming a task force to determine how the agency and the plant owner missed—or dismissed—numerous longstanding safety problems for years despite thousands of hours of inspections. The task force should recommend changes that will improve the effectiveness and reliability of the NRC’s inspection and oversight efforts. The NRC then needs to implement these changes as quickly as possible.