Fatal Flaws of Nuclear Reactors, Lies and Cover Ups

November 11, 2011

Fatal Flaws: Lies and Cover Ups of the Unsolved Problems of Nuclear Reactors

by Willi Nolan

(as published November 2011 by the International Institute of Concern For Public Health, founder Dr. Rosalie Bertell, GNSH, 1929-2012.)

Since the catastrophic accident at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, independent investigations of safety issues are revealing more and more little-known facts about the unsolved dangers inherent to virtually all nuclear power plants in the world.

In Canada, Dr. Michel Duguay of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering studies at Laval University, joined with public interest groups to share troubling scientific facts about problems that are intrinsic to all CANDU reactors. Duguay cites reports from staff at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) about a design flaw in CANDU nuclear reactor cooling systems, which can, with loss of pressure while in operation, cause a chain of events to commence, including explosions on the scale experienced in Japan, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

Historical investigations have also revealed that the vast majority of nuclear reactors everywhere are operating with another fatal design flaw – the radioactive fuel is encased in a zirconium metal alloy. The problem is, zirconium becomes explosive when in contact with air or steam. One of the potential causes of the generation of the highly explosive hydrogen gas during a nuclear power plant accident comes from the reaction of steam with the zirconium-alloy metal in reactor fuel delivery systems.

This concern was raised at least as early as 1975 by Dr. Earl A. Gulbransen ( 1909-1992), a professor in the Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering, at the University of Pittsburgh. Despite this evidence, all CANDU reactors still use fuel delivery systems that contain zirconium alloy. Fuel rods containing pellets of uranium fuel for CANDUs are assembled into “bundles” or cylinders or tubes which are inserted into the reactor’s calandria vessel. Both the fuel rods and bundles are made of “zircaloy” an alloy composed mainly of zirconium.

A “calandria tube” containing insulating CO2 gas (carbon dioxide) surrounds each fuel bundle for delivery into the reactor’s calandria vessel while a cooling system dissipates the heat to prevent hot particles from becoming overheated and causing the reactor to go critical, which could result in reactor meltdown. The CANDU is designed so that failed or leaking zirconium fuel bundles can be located and removed from the reactor core while in operation and reduce radiation fields in the primary operating systems.

However, because zirconium explodes when in contact with hydrogen (air), fuel bundles are always kept covered with water. As has already happened at Fukushima and Three Mile Island, loss of water from pools of “spent” radioactive fuel leads to spontaneous ignition of the zirconium alloy cladding, explosions of hydrogen gas from the surrounding air, damage to fuel assemblies, release of radioactive materials, reactor criticality and potential meltdown and melt through. All CANDU installations in Canada store used fuel bundles on site.

In 1979, a list of nuclear plants around the world published the fact that almost all Light Water Reactors (LWR) are also affected by this flaw. The same source indicates that 85% of the nuclear power plants in the world are affected by this design flaw.

Earl A. Gulbransen: One of the potential causes of the generation of highly explosive hydrogen gas during a nuclear power plant accident comes from the reaction of steam with the zirconium-alloy metal cladding (or tubing) of the fuel rods that hold the uranium fuel pellets.”

Managing waste fuel bundles presents yet another set of problems. According to a November 2008 study by Gordon R. Thompson of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies, there are no published studies on the potential for an accidental release of radioactive material from spent fuel stored at a nuclear power plant employing a CANDU reactor.

In October 2011, plant operators at Point Lepreau, New Brunswick, announced the installation of a passive hydrogen capture system to prevent possible hydrogen explosions in the reactor. No such measures were announced for its waste management facility. It is noteworthy that, because operators are relying on simulations to test potential for explosions, there is no way to obtain certainty about either the safety of this measure in real life situations, or the validity of software simulations under changing conditions, such as life extension projects for aging reactors.

Until Fukushima, science has not focused adequately on worst-case nuclear accident scenarios. There is no agreement on what exactly can or has or will happen in nuclear accidents or on the plans of action needed to protect populations from harm. Many hydrogen explosions have been reported at Fukushima; there is at least some growing consensus that loss of containment of used and unused reactor fuel assemblies are the cause of at least some of these explosions.

Governments regulators on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, although mandated to protect public health and the environment, are under fire for rubber stamping operator licenses risks and not paying enough attention to ensure that regulations to avoid severe accidents are enforced. Although the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has determined that there is no safe level of exposure to ionizing radiation, regulators have in fact increased allowable levels of radiation for workers and the public while minimizing actual risks to health and safety. IICPH continues to note that independent medical opinion is missing from regulatory oversight of nuclear plant licence applications.

The states of New York and Vermont have both won successful rulings in lawsuits against the Nuclear Safety Commission (NRC) and reactor operator Entergy. These historic legal precedents demonstrate that the NRC violated regulations by allowing the nuclear plants to continue to operate without requiring complete assessments for environmental protection and safety in the case of severe accidents.

It is time for nuclear operators, proponents and the industry itself to admit that, whether through “acceptable” or accidental releases and exposure to the public or measures to mitigate severe harm and widespread damage, nuclear power plants will never guarantee public safety or complete control of radioactive materials.

Perhaps it is some comfort that, at the inception of the age of nuclear power, they were only designed to last forty years. That time has passed. Humanity must now learn wise use of energy. Conservation and efficiency must replace the practice of wasting precious energy resources. Economies and industries based on dirty energy generation must be replaced. Fortunately, this trend has already begun, with strategies that combine wise energy use with renewable resources. We hope that it is not too late to alter our individual and collective ecological footprints to ensure the survival and well being of humanity.


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