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Wednesday
Nov132013

Charge Two: Reckless Endangerment of Public Health and Safety

The NRC is charged with Reckless Endangerment of Public Health and Safety through the continued operation of U.S. Mark I and Mark II nuclear power reactors.

The Problem: Despite knowing since 1972 that the containment design for both the General Electric Mark I and later the Mark II boiling water reactors was fundamentally flawed, the NRC — and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission —  licensed both designs and allowed nuclear companies to move forward with construction and operation. The flaws include a dangerously unreliable containment system that violates a licensing agreement which requires it to function as an “essentially leak-tight barrier against the uncontrolled releases of radioactivity” in the event of a nuclear accident. Thirty-one of these reactors operate in the U.S. today. As was demonstrated most horrifyingly by the four GE Mark I reactors that exploded and melted down at Fukushima, the reactor containment is too small and vulnerable to failure during an accident involving the structure’s over-pressurization with highly radioactive steam and explosive hydrogen gas.

The position of Beyond Nuclear is that the GE Mark I and Mark II designs are fundamentally too dangerous and all these reactors should be closed. However, the NRC, over the decades, has studiously avoided ordering even fundamental safety retrofits that could at least reduce the risk of catastrophic containment failure. One such backfit would be the installation of severe accident capable hardened containment vents with high-capacity radiation filters on containment, something even the Japanese nuclear safety authorities have now mandated post-Fukushima. While the NRC staff made this recommendation for all U.S. Mark I and Mark II reactors in follow up to its July 2011 Japan Lessons Learned Task Force report, the NRC Commission over-ruled them to effectively impose the lessons to be "unlearned" for unreliable Mark I and Mark II containment systems.

The Charge: The NRC is charged with a deliberate negligence that demonstrates a willingness to recklessly endanger public health and safety, a gamble the agency routinely takes to spare the nuclear industry the cost of necessary safety retrofits. It has successfully delayed and postponed corrective actions for the Mark I and II reactors that could better protect the public under accident conditions. The NRC has delivered contradictory and inconsistent policy changes over the years regarding oversight of licensing agreements for these reactors, failing fundamentally to ensure public safety, the corner-stone of its Congressionally ordered mandate.

Next Steps: Congress must initiate an investigation of the NRC on this and other charges to be itemized on these pages. However, given the agency’s history of cosy relationships with the nuclear industry and its unfettered operation with no recall from Congress, it will be up to citizens and communities to organize around the still operating  U.S. Mark I and Mark II reactors to ensure they are closed as soon as possible. The public is encouraged to coalesce these efforts under the nationwide Freeze our Fukushimas campaign that seeks to permanently suspend the operations of these, the most dangerous class of reactors operating in the United States today.

Background: For details that support this charge and for the history of the Mark I and Mark II reactor licensing, construction and operation and their complex safety flaws, see the September 2013 Beyond Nuclear backgrounder, Dangerous GE Mark I and Mark II Reactor Containments, prepared by Paul Gunter.