In this report, we learned that the Columbia Generating Station has faced some serious problems with aging and defective components and has frequently violated nuclear safety regulations. The plant emits measurable amounts of radioactive pollution on a continuing basis. But how is the Columbia plant doing in comparison with the rest of the industry?
To answer this question, Cascadia Times mined environmental and safety performance data on all 100 plants that currently operate in the United States, and found that while all plants face challenges to some degree, few have performed as poorly as the Columbia plant. Cascadia Times examined data in six specific areas, providing an objective yardsticks by which all plants can be evaluated.
By Paul Koberstein
This data was not easy to obtain. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission collects all the data, but does not publish them together in a single report. It does not rank or rate plants and does not look kindly on efforts of others to compare and evaluate plants. It prefers not to see its data used for any purpose that might detract from its fundamental message that “all nuclear plants are safe.”
For example, in 2011, following the accidents at Fukushima, the cable news network MSNBC ranked nuclear plants according to how vulnerable they are to an earthquake should they be hit by one. The plant took into account both the specific geology at each nuclear site as well as the relative capability of each plant to withstand the strongest likely quake each could be forced to withstand. The MSNBC report concluded that the Indian Point nuclear plant, which operates two reactors at Buchanan, New York 24 miles north of New York City, was “the most vulnerable” in the nation.
But the NRC objected to this approach. In a tersely worded response to MSNBC, the NRC said: “Let’s be clear: The NRC does not rank nuclear power plants according to their vulnerability to earthquakes. This ‘ranking’ was developed by the MSNBC.com reporter using partial information and we believe an even more partial understanding of how we evaluate plants for seismic risk. Each plant is evaluated individually according to the geology of its site, not by a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model – therefore such rankings or comparisons are highly misleading. Bottom line, the NRC does not rank plants on seismic risk. Plants in this country continue to operate safely and securely.”
The NRC is not the only potential source of information that can be used to compare plants. A industry group, the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), does make these types of comparisons, but keeps a tight lid on its reports. Members agree not to share the reports, photocopy them or distribute copies to non-INPO members. (For a more detailed discussion on INPO’s evaluations of the Columbia Generating Station, see Part 5.)
The minutes of a meeting of the Energy Northwest board of directors in December 2005 say that INPO rates plants on a scale of 1 (the best) to 4 (the worst). “Of the 65 sites that are assessed every 24 months, the INPO score breakdown is: 21 INPO 1s (11 of those 21 have not been assessed in the past year); 32 INPO 2s; 11 INPO 3s and 1 INPO 4. Energy Northwest has an INPO 3 rating.” The reader should note that there are 100 nuclear reactors at 65 different sites in the US.
According to this INPO scorecard, only one nuclear plant is rated lower than Columbia, although 10 others are rated equally bad.
No other INPO ratings have been released at Energy Northwest board meetings since 2000, although the discussions clearly indicate that the group has repeatedly given Columbia low marks. “Continuous significant improvement during 2010 will be needed in order for the plant to only slip one grade,” W. Scott Oxenford, Energy Northwest’s chief nuclear officer who was on loan from INPO, told the board in March 2010.
With the aim of providing a more complete comparison of the nation’s nuclear plants, Cascadia Times reviewed thousands of pages of inspection reports and other NRC data, and has ranked each plant in six different categories.
Cascadia Times is making no attempt to rank plants in terms of vulnerability to an earthquake – but not because the NRC might object to such a comparison. In the case of Columbia and other plants, the NRC’s data is potentially old and outdated. The NRC says it will revise its earthquake vulnerability data by 2015.
Geologists believe a the ground underneath the Columbia Generating Station is capable of shaking much more vigorous than had been predicted when the plant was built in the 1970s and 1980s.
Geologists say such a quake could be up to 8 times stronger possible than previously thought.
The six categories included in the Cascadia Times evaluation are:
1. AIR EMISSIONS. The amount of airborne radioactive effluent reported by each plant in 2010, the most recent year a full set of such reports was available at the NRC web site www.nrc.gov;
2. LIQUID EMISSIONS. Liquid radioactive releases, based on data provided by the NRC in its report, “Radioactive Effluents from Nuclear Power Plants Annual Report 2009;”
3. SAFETY VIOLATIONS. The number of violations of NRC safety regulations from 2010–2012, as reported by the US General Accounting Office in its report, “Analysis of Regional Differences and Improved Access to Information Could Strengthen NRC Oversight;”
4. EMERGENCY SHUTDOWNS. The number of “scrams” or emergency shutdowns, based on an examination of NRC inspection reports on the Columbia Generation Station from 2000 to 2013, and data provided by the NRC to US Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., in a May 13, 2011 letter;
5. DOSAGE RECEIVED BY THE PUBLIC. The dosage of radioactivity received by a hypothetical member of the public at the site boundary, based on each plant’s annual effluent report for 2010; and
6. DOSAGE RECEIVED BY THE WORKFORCE. The dosage of radioactivity received by its workforce, based on data reported by the NRC in its report, “Occupational Radiation Exposure at Commercial Nuclear Power Reactors and Other Facilities 2011 Forty-Fourth Annual Report.
The plants are rated on a scale from 1 to 100, with 1 being the worst possible score. At the end gave each plant is given a composite score based on its average ranking in each of the six categories.
1. Most radioactive gaseous effluent.
Radioactive gaseous emissions include the airborne noble gases and particles that exit the plant. These are produced by nuclear fission in the reactor core. The NRC views the amount of radioactivity in the noble gases in gaseous effluents as an indication of a plant’s ability to control gaseous effluents.
The 14 plants with the greatest amount of air emissions are GE-designed boiling water reactors.
The leader in this category is the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant, located in Monticello, Minn., 35 miles northwest of Minneapolis. This plant, a Mark I boiling water reactor designed by General Electric, is owned and operated by Northern States Power Company. The plant has been operating since 1970, and received a 20-year license extension in 2006. In 2010, it released 1,484 curies of noble gases.
Some nuclear power plants have more than one reactor located at their site. In some cases, the plant measures emissions from each reactor separately. In other cases, the NRC allows these plants to report total effluents from the site instead of reporting the totals from each reactor unit. For multi-unit sites where the effluents are not individually measured, the total amount of effluents are divided equally between the units in operation during that year.
The multi-reactor plant with the greatest air effluent releases in 2010 was the LaSalle County Nuclear Generating Station in Northern Illinois. LaSalle’s two Mark II boiling water reactors released a combined 1,915 curies of noble gases in 2010, or an average of 957 curies from each unit.
The Columbia Generating Station released 186 curies in 2010, good for 14th most out of 100 plants. Seven reactors reported zero air emissions.
2. Most radioactive liquid effluent.
Radioactive liquid emissions seep into the soil and groundwater beneath or adjacent to the plant. The NRC says none of these liquid discharges have reached public drinking water supplies — yet.
The NRC reports that all but 14 plants released radioactive liquids in 2009. The list of plants that reported no such releases included Columbia Generating Station, which has released no liquid radiation since 1998, and the LaSalle County plant.
Leading the nation in liquid releases was Alabama’s Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant three reactors which released 34,821 curies. Each reactor at Brown’s Ferry, which is owned and operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, is released 11,607 curies on average. The reactor with the next most liquid release was the Palisades Nuclear Plant in Michigan, with a release of just 217 curies.
3. Most safety violations.
Every three months, the NRC reports on recent inspections at each nuclear power plant. Each report lists the number of violations of federal safety regulations that the inspectors found, and provides some details about each violation. This chart lists 20 plants with the most violations from 2010 to 2012, according to a review of NRC inspection reports by the US General Accounting Office in October 2013.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is continually inspecting nuclear power plants. If something happens, an NRC inspector will be there to witness it. If a plant violates one of the NRC’s thousands of safety rules, the inspector writes about it in a report and, if the violation is serious enough, the NRC may issue a citation.
In some rare cases, it could also impose a fine.
The NRC itself doesn’t keep a tally on the number of citations. But an analysis of NRC records was done in 20113 by the US General Accounting Office in 2013. The GAO found that the Cooper Nuclear Station, a boiling water reactor located at Brownville, Neb.‚ 23 miles south of Nebraska City, led the nation with 105 violation from 2010 to 2012. The plant is owned and operated by the Nebraska Public Power District.
The Wolf Creek Generating Station in Burlington, Kans., finished a close second with 100 violations. The Columbia Generating Station had 52 violations in that period, good for ninth.
4. Most “scrams” or emergency shutdowns
If the plant faces an emergency due to
human error or a malfunction, the plant’s operators or computer will “scram” the reactor or shut it down. This list shows the plants with the most scrams or emergency shutdowns from 2000–2011, based on inspection reports and a letter from the NRC to Congress.
In May 2011, a few months after the nuclear accident at Fukushima, Japan, Ed Markey, then a congressman from Massachusetts, asked the NRC for a list of all scrams or emergency shutdowns at US plants since 2000. The NRC provided the list, but did not include all the emergency shutdowns at the Columbia Generating Station and possibly at other plants as well.
Cascadia Times’ review of inspection reports at the Columbia plant shows that it would have led the nation with 23 emergency shutdowns. The Millstone Power Station Unit 2 in Waterford, Conn., had 20 and the Indian Point Nuclear Generating Unit 2 had 19.
5. Highest radiation dose received by the public
Each nuclear power plant is required to calculate the dosage of radiation that would be received by a hypothetical person living at its site boundary. This calculation offers an insight into the potential damage its radioactive emissions can cause to people. This measurement of airborne gamma radiation, in millirads, shows that humans near each plant receives only a very small dosage of radiation. All plants emit amounts that are far below the federal standard of 10 millirads.
Only five plants exceeded the dosage given off by the Columbia plant, while six plants emitted a dose that was too small to be measured.
Neighbors of the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station in Port
Gibson, Miss., received the highest dosage of airborne gamma radiation in 2010 than the neighbors of any of nuclear power plant across the US. Grand Gulf, a boiling water reactor, is owned and operated by Entergy Inc.
6. Highest dosages received by the workforce.
The NRC keeps a close eye on the radiation doses received by each worker as well as the entire workforce. When a worker receives greater than a certain threshold dosage, the worker is transferred to non-contaminated areas. This chart shows the total dosage received by each plant’s total workforce over the three year period, 209 2011. Source: Occupational Radiation Exposure at Commercial Nuclear Power Reactors, NRC, April 2013
As part of the NRC’s efforts to keep radiation dosages to workers as low as possible, it calculates what it calls the “total estimated dose equivalency” by adding up the dosages received by everyone at each plant. This calculation says nothing about the radiation dosage received by any single worker, but indicate the levels of contamination in the workplace. Work rules require the plant to require workers who receive more than a certain threshold of contamination to work instead in non-contaminated areas.
Worst overall safety and environmental performance.
These lists show the reactors that posted the worst average rankings in the six safety and environmental protection categories shown on this page. The worst possible score is 1; the best score would be 100.
The worst overall average ranking belongs to Columbia Generating Station, an indication that it could the most dangerous nuclear plant in America, if not the most dangerous. The best overall ranking belongs to the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, Unit 3, in Wintersburg, Ariz., 50 miles west of Phoenix.