Report: S.C. nuclear reactors at risk from dam failure

Several U.S. nuclear power plants, including one in Oconee County, could face major problems, including public exposure, if a nearby dam were to fail, according to a newly released report.

The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility released documents Monday that it had received from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, including a July 2011 report on flooding at power plant sites after upstream dam failures.

The report looked at 32 reactors at 20 sites across the country and found the flooding danger largely ignored by federal regulators.

Another document that the NRC gave PEER was a Sept. 18, 2012 letter from NRC Reliability and Risk Engineer Lawrence Criscione to the Commission Chair outlining detailed concerns about the vulnerability of the three-reactor Oconee nuclear complex.

The letter said in the event of dam failure, Oconee’s 5-foot floodwall could be swamped by more than 16 feet of water.

There are two dams near the Oconee Nuclear Station, including an adjacent dam for Lake Keowee, whose full pond level is about the same as the station’s. Eleven miles upstream is a dam for Lake Jocassee, which is 300 feet higher than Lake Keowee.

PEER Counsel Kathryn Douglass said federal regulators are not doing enough to address such risks.

“By postponing corrective action, the NRC is playing Russian roulette with public safety and the American economy, merely hoping the right disastrous combination of credible events does not line up,” she said, adding noting that the NRC is still withholding portions of other documents on the issue.

The July 2011 reported noted, “Several uncertainties exist with regards to the risk posed to the Oconee Nuclear Station due to upstream dam failure. In particular, uncertainty exists about the flood levels at the site that would result from failure of Jocassee dam.”

Duke Energy communications manager B.J. Gatten said Monday that Oconee does have interim actions in place, such as barriers and equipment ready to respond to protect the site in the unlikely event of a Jocassee dam failure. “Those actions have been deemed to be adequate,” she added.

Still, Gatten said Duke Energy is working with the NRC to see if further steps are warranted. “We’re still working with the NRC to confirm the flooding design values,” she added. “We’re not just waiting around.”

Douglass said the federal government has yet to come to grips with the dangers of flood-induced core meltdowns —a type of disaster seen in Fukushima, Japan following a March 2011 tsunami.

“This past week, Colorado experienced the combination of flooding, dam washouts and record rainfall which, if upstream of a reactor, could produce cataclysmic consequences,” she said.

The report also mentioned the H.B. Robinson Nuclear Site in Hartsville, but not South Carolina’s other nuclear site, the Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station in Jenkinsville.

Other southern nuclear sites included in the report were those in Athens, Ala.; London, Ark.; Killona, La.; Huntersville, N.C.; Soddy-Daisy, Tenn.; Spring City, Tenn.; and Surry, Va.,

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.

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