Senators demand congressional probe on nuke safety

/ Source: The Associated Press

Three U.S. senators, alarmed by findings of an Associated Press investigation about aging-related problems at the nation's nuclear power plants, are asking for a congressional investigation of safety standards and federal oversight at the facilities.

The three said the ongoing AP series raises questions about whether the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has worked with the atomic power industry to allow aging reactors to keep operating by weakening safety standards or not enforcing them at all.

The request came Wednesday in a letter to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, from Democrat Barbara Boxer. Boxer chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

The letter also was signed by independent Bernard Sanders and Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse.

The three also asked the GAO to investigate the relicensing process, earthquake standards, upkeep of the plants and evacuation planning.

Two other Democratic senators, Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, made a similar request of the GAO earlier this week.

The AP four-part investigative series, which began this week, shows that government and industry have been working in tandem to relax safety standards to keep aging reactors within the rules. The series also found that there have been leaks of radioactive tritium, often from corroded underground piping, at three-quarters of U.S. commercial nuclear power sites.

In a GAO report released Tuesday by Democratic Reps. Edward J. Markey and Peter Welch, the watchdog agency concluded that nuclear power plant operators haven't figured out how to quickly detect the underground leaks, which often go undetected for years.

Originally licensed for 40 years, 66 of 104 reactors have been relicensed for another two decades. Safety regulators at the NRC have never denied a request.

The AP series, which continues next week with an examination of explosive population growth around the 65 sites that house the reactors, comes three months after a tsunami born from an earthquake caused a nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex in Japan. The March 11 natural disaster swamped backup generators, disabled cooling systems, caused fuel melts and explosions, and released vast amounts of radiation into the grounds and sea.

As a result of the continuing crisis in Japan and the many age-related safety issues cited in the AP series, public anxiety over nuclear power has "peaked incredibly," said engineer Paul Blanch, an industry whistleblower who later returned to work on solving them. He is now fighting relicensing applications at four sites.

"I was fighting the world, and now I'm only fighting half the world," Blanch said.