FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Steven Dolley
Thursday, October 19, 2000 202-822-8444; firstname.lastname@example.org
NRC DOCUMENT REVEALS VULNERABLE CONTAINMENT BUILDINGS AT DUKE POWER REACTORS SET TO USE PLUTONIUM FUEL (MOX)
NCI Calls On DOE to Prepare Supplemental EIS on MOX Use
In Duke Reactors with Weak Containments
Charlotte, October 19 --- A new document released by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reveals that four Duke Energy nuclear reactors, utilizing an uncommon type of reactor containment called an ice condenser, are unusually vulnerable to Chernobyl-type accidents. Given this disturbing information, the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) today called on the NRC to take immediate action to mitigate the risk of catastrophic, loss of containment accidents at the four Duke reactors as well as the five other reactors of this type in the United States.
NCI, a Washington-based non-proliferation research and advocacy institution, also urged the NRC to reject plans by the Charlotte-based Duke Energy Corporation to use plutonium fuel (known as mixed oxide or MOX fuel) in its Catawba and McGuire ice condenser nuclear plants. According to NCI, additional safety problems associated with use of plutonium fuel in the Duke reactors would make an already risky situation even worse and, in event of severe accident, result in a dramatic increase in cancer deaths.
The NRCs new analysis demonstrates that the risk of a major radiological release from a reactor meltdown accident is hundreds of times higher at Catawba and McGuire than at pressurized-water reactors with conventional concrete containment buildings, said Dr. Edwin Lyman, NCIs scientific director. The Commission should act immediately to reduce the threat to the hundreds of thousands of individuals living near these plants.
In March 1999, a consortium including Duke Energy was awarded a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) contract to convert plutonium from dismantled U.S. nuclear warheads into MOX fuel and irradiate it in Catawba and McGuire, both within twenty miles of downtown Charlotte, NC. (Dominions North Anna plant in Virginia was also initially part of the consortium, but the company withdrew in April of this year for business reasons.) The winning consortium was also the only qualified bidder for the project. However, the contract was awarded before the new concerns about the safety of these plants came to light. Consequently, DOEs environmental impact statement for the project was based on risk information that is now outdated and must be revised to analyze the significant new information included in the NRC report.
Instead of delaying the MOX contract until a consortium with the most robust nuclear plants came forward, DOE rushed ahead and chose Duke and its weak plants, said NCI Executive Director Tom Clements. Given this significant new safety information, DOE should suspend the plutonium disposition contract until it thoroughly evaluates NRCs new analysis in a supplemental environmental impact statement. Such a supplement is mandated under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Catawba and McGuire are among a handful of pressurized-water reactors (PWRs) worldwide with ice condenser containments --- typically thin steel shells that have only half the volume and failure pressure of the massive concrete containments which surround the reactor vessel at most other U.S. PWRs. Containments buildings are critical in preventing catastrophic releases of radioactive materials during an accident. Ice condenser plants are equipped with channels filled with blocks of ice that are supposed to cool any steam blasted into them during a core-melt accident and condense it to water, thus reducing the threat of containment rupture. They are also required to have hydrogen igniter systems that are intended to burn the large quantity of hydrogen gas that would be generated in such an accident before it reached an explosive concentration.
NRCs new study (NUREG/CR-6427, April 2000), which was performed by Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, used computer models to evaluate the risk of containment failure at ice condenser reactors during a core-melt accident. The study found that for accidents in which the hydrogen igniters were not available, such as during station blackouts in which both off- and on-site power is lost, the probability that hydrogen combustion would rupture the containment is 34% for Catawba and 58% for McGuire. In both cases, these values exceed the limit of 10% which NRC considers an acceptable risk of containment failure. Using the same methodology, Sandia previously found that the risk of containment failure during meltdowns at large, dry containments is less than 0.1%.
The vulnerability of Catawba and McGuire to containment failure is of particular concern in view of the impending use of MOX at these plants. A study by NCI scientific director Lyman released last year estimates that if Duke Energys MOX plan is carried out, the number of cancer deaths that would occur following an accident at Catawba or McGuire with core melt and containment failure would be 25% greater than if the accident occurred today. This is because the quantities of plutonium and other highly radiotoxic elements in the cores of MOX-fueled plants are significantly greater than in plants fueled only with conventional low-enriched uranium.
Notes to Editors: 1) More information on the plutonium disposition program can be found on NCIs web site at http://www.nci.org/nci-wpu.htm. A summary of Dr. Lymans report on health consequences of MOX use can be found at http://www.nci.org/k-m/moxsum.htm. 2) Tom Clements and Ed Lyman can be reached from the evening of Oct.18-Oct. 20 at the Comfort Inn Executive Park in Charlotte, tel. 704-525-2626.