The Union of Concerned Scientists released a damning report on the nuclear power plant operated in Darlington, SC by Progress Energy, known as HB Robinson. The same company operates the Southport plant near Wilmington, NC.
The entire report is worth reading as it reveals the plethora of problems which exists in operational plants. None of the problems were disastrous. However, they manner in which the plant operators and regulators handled these issues does indicate how well they might respond to a serious event.
Progress Energy’s H.B. Robinson Plant sits in Darlington, SC, north of the fault zone responsible for the 1886 Charleston Earthquake. While the likelihood of such an earthquake is unknown, there is ample geologic evidence of strong quakes occurring along the Charleston fault. The South Carolina Emergency Management Division maintains an earthquake awareness site here, which links to a 609 page report on the Comprehensive Seismic Risk and Vulnerability Study for the State of South Carolina. Given the demonstrated ineffectiveness of NRC oversight of the Robinson plant under ordinary conditions, we have to seriously question whether Progress Energy, the NRC or the SC government is equipped to cope with an earthquake.
The state of SC produced a 609 page report on earthquake disaster preparedness in 2001. What the report has to say on power stations in general is worrisome.
The electric power generating facilities that were visited during this study were braced steel frame structures with tall exhaust stacks. They were determined to be of low seismic design and poor construction. Nuclear facilities were assumed to be of high seismic design with superior construction.
-Comprehensive Seismic Risk and Vulnerability Study for the State of South Carolina. South Carolina Emergency Preparedness Division. Page 183.
As The State paper notes the conditions and response at the Darlington plant raise serious questions about the ability of the state’s nuclear operators to cope with emergencies.
Inspectors studying safety questions at more than a dozen U.S. nuclear plants last year found the most serious concerns in South Carolina — at a 40-year-old Darlington County atomic power station that experienced two fires and equipment failures, a new report says.
To say that the fires and the management failures “raise concerns” is an understatement. The report calls Progress Energy’s handling of the incidents “unbelievably poor“.
The report is also directed at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC exists to regulate the operations of these nuclear plants. The Union of Concerned Scientists found that in many cases the NRC was effective in stopping plant operators from taking unsafe actions. In other cases, as at the Darlington Plant, the NRC was ineffective.
For example, at the Oconee nuclear plant, also in SC:
NRC inspectors averted a possible safety problem by refusing to accept plant operators’ rationale for allowing a component in Units 2 and 3 to go untested after a similar component in Unit 1 had failed.
-The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety in 2010, UCS, p.30.
The report also criticizes the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for clouding the problems at plants with a lack of transparency. Unspecified security concerns at Duke Power prompted NRC action, but almost nothing is known about the problem, the regulation, or the response of Duke.
Security problems prompted the NRC to conduct a special inspection. Details of the problems, their causes, and their fixes are not publicly available…However, the cover letter sent to the plant owner with the SIT report is publicly available, and indicates that the NRC identified one Green violation (NRC 2010r).
Green violations indicate problems of “very low safety significance.” So, it does seem possible for the NRC to regulate plants that are currently operational under good conditions, although, as the report notes, they are not forthcoming about security concerns, perhaps for good reason.
The UCS report on the Robinson reactor in Darlington, however, shows how “years of programmatic failures” create cumulative problems at nuclear plants. There were two serious incidents at HB Robinson in six months. The report is too long to reproduce here, but is very much worth reading.