Nuclear Roulette

Study reveals a one-in-three chance of nuclear plant accident by 2007

| September 29, 2003

Top scientists recently told governmental nuclear power regulators that floating paint chips have a one-in-three chance of clogging a key pump and causing disaster at an American nuclear power plant by 2007. The response: fix the problem by 2008.

As Matt Bivens reports in The Nation, the study conducted last year by the Los Alamos National Laboratory looked at 69 of the nation's 103 nuclear power reactors and concluded that a serious accident relating to a clogged 'containment sump' was 'very likely.'

'I don't see any issue out there that's more safety significant than this one,' says David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

A steady flow of water cools nuclear power reactors so that they don't overheat and melt down. If pipes carrying water into the reactor leak onto the floor -- with resulting overheating from lack of coolant - containment sumps suck the water back into the system to cool the reactor. However, loss-of-coolant accidents can be rough, flaying paint and insulation off nearby equipment, and clogging pumps that are vital to the back-up system for cooling the reactor.

That's what apparently occurred at the Davis-Besse plant in Toledo, Ohio, which reported a malfunctioning containment sump in July 2001, Bivens notes. The reactor was saved from a meltdown by a three-sixteenths-inch stainless steel lining. The plant has since repaired the damage, but others - mostly notably the Vogtle plant in Georgia and the Indian Point plant in New York -- are similarly malfunctioning, according to Los Alamos scientists.

Amazingly, the problem could be solved in less than a year. However, the American public will just have to wait and wonder while the current plan -- to have everything fixed by December of 2007 -- is running just a tiny bit behind schedule.
-- Joel Stonington