14. Faulty Nuclear Fuel Rods Spell Potential Disasters

by
Published: Last Updated on

Source: MOTHER JONES Date: May/June 1994 Title: “Faulty Rods” Author: Ashley Craddock

SSU Censored Researcher: Dan Tomerlin

SYNOPSIS: The critical fuel rods in 108 of our nation’s licensed nuclear power plants are failing in increasing numbers and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) knows about it … but is doing nothing.

Fuel rods, zirconium alloy tubes that contain the radioactive ura­nium in reactor cores, are the first level of protection against the release of deadly radioactive mate­rial. The coolant system is the second level of protection; the third and final level is the actual contain­ment building.

The NRC has been warned about a faulty manufacturing process by the engineer who helped design it, but has done little to prevent poten­tially flawed fuel rod casings from being shipped to plants here and abroad. While the NRC sent a notice warning plant operators about fuel rod failures and specifi­cally cited seven reactors where such failures had occurred, it didn’t men­tion that two of those reactors were of the type susceptible to contain­ment building failure.

For more than three years, Chris Hall, the mechanical engineer who blew the whistle on the faulty fuel rods, tried to tell the NRC that a manufacturing process used by his former employer, Teledyne Wah Chang Albany (TWCA), could explain the fuel rod failures. For his efforts, Hall, who helped design the process, was fired by TWCA.

TWCA’s faulty fuel rods could be discovered in the manufacturing process if the company’s quality control efforts were more rigorous. However TWCA quality assurance engineers usually test just one end of three random tubes out of each batch of approximately 120, (or 1.25 percent, given that each tube has two ends).

According to Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of nuclear physics at City University of New York, a major problem with the NRC is the agency’s “hear no evil, see no evil” approach. In fact, a 1990 General Accounting Office (GAO) report concluded that this policy histori­cally resulted in the installation of substandard and even counterfeit parts in nuclear reactors. The report said that after finding “problems with 12 utilities’ quality assurance programs” (out of 13 inspected), the NRC simply concluded that substandard products were an industry-wide problem and, as such, weren’t the fault of individual utilities. The GAO report blasted the NRC for “deferring its regula­tory responsibility” at a time when “an increasing number of commer­cial-grade products” used in nuclear reactors were of question­able quality.

Equally disturbing, even if no meltdown occurs, failing fuel rods pose other potentially lethal haz­ards. A 1990 study by the Mass­achusetts Department of Public Health revealed that failed fuel rods at Boston Edison’s Pilgrim plant reg­ularly released radioactivity into the atmosphere between 1972 and 1979. The study also noted that the adult leukemia rate within a 10-mile radius of the plant was four times that of outlying areas.

Investigative journalist Ashley Craddock, a fellow at Mother Jones, described the public implications of the fuel rod issue: “The rods are a potential safety hazard to millions of people through the release of radioactive material into the envi­ronment. Some experts believe that corroded rods could exacerbate other system failures and contribute to a core meltdown, resulting in sub­stantial fatalities and the contami­nation of food, air, and water.”

COMMENTS: Author Ashley Craddock reports that the problem of potentially faulty nuclear fuel rods (the primary level of protec­tion against radiation leakage) received zero attention in the mass media last year. Craddock feels it is “probably as a result of the subject matter’s being fairly dense and sci­entific, combined with the fact that nuclear reactors are essentially out of fashion as story subjects-they aren’t sexy.”

However, Craddock points out, “If the mass media had picked up the story, the general public could demand that reactors be run at power levels that would put less stress on potentially flawed rods. Moreover, mass coverage would force the NRC to conduct more rig­orous tests of the rods. More gener­ally, it might galvanize the general public into putting more pressure on the NRC to responsibly admin­ister the nation’s nuclear plants.”

While acknowledging that the NRC escapes criticism that might be leveled against it, Craddock charges that Teledyne is the real beneficiary of the lack of coverage.

“They hold a locked grip on the supply of zirconium tube hollows used to manufacture fuel rods for most GE-manufactured reactors. As long as no one questions the quality of their tubes, they can send out whatever they like, wher­ever they like, no matter what the potential dangers to the public.”

Craddock notes that while “Faulty Rods” was sent to hundreds of print and broadcast media and nearly 200 reporters whose beats include monitoring nuclear power plants, the story was only picked up by Swiss television, local TV in Portland, the Boston Phoenix and the L.A. Weekly. Nonetheless, the story continues to develop and has helped precipitate renewed interest and investigation by additional gov­ernment agencies, according to Craddock.