Nuclear Whistleblower: “Spent Fuel Pools In US Are A Potential Timebomb, Situation Can Get Worse Than Chernobyl”

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Nuclear Whistleblower: “Spent Fuel Pools in US are a potential timebomb, situation can get worse than Chernobyl”

Interview by Tuur Demeester

George Galatis became world famous in 1996, when Time Magazine
featured him in its cover article “Nuclear Warriors”. Today, he warns
that that the situation in the USA may soon become much graver than that
in Japan.

Working as a Senior Engineer at Northeast Utilities company (NU) in
Connecticut, Galatis noticed that across the country, high-level
radioactive waste was being stored in overfull spent-fuel pools,
creating the kinds of risk that could lead to a nuclear disaster with
radiological consequences greater than those in Japan today, graver than
even the Chernobyl disaster. Indeed, along with a host of other safety
related issues, his 1992 memo specifically mentioned that some of the
pool’s cooling pipes weren’t designed to withstand an earthquake as they
were required to.

After a lengthy legal battle, and dealing
with an uncooperative Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Northeast
Utilities Company was eventually convicted of 25 federal felonies, was
forced to sell all of its nuclear plants, and lost over $3 billion in
what company CEO Bruce Kenyon called “the largest management turnaround
in the history of the nuclear industry”. Eventually, NU grudgingly made
the fuel pool cooling system changes that Galatis had suggested. Though
treated as a hero by the public, collegues continued intimidation and
threats, according to Galatis, which eventually killed his career in the
nuclear industry.

In light of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, where spent fuel rods are
in effect melting down in the aftermath of an earth quake and
subsequent tsunami, these sentences of the 1996 Time article have a
prophetic ring to them:

“Because the Federal Government has never created a storage site for high-level radioactive waste, fuel pools in nuclear plants across the country have become de facto nuclear dumps—with
many filled nearly to capacity. The pools weren’t designed for this
purpose, and risk is involved: the rods must be submerged at all times. A
cooling system must dissipate the intense heat they give off. If the
system failed, the pool could boil, turning the plant into a lethal
sauna with clouds of reactive steam. And
if earthquake, human error or mechanical failure drained the pool, the
result could be catastrophic: a meltdown of multiple cores taking place
outside of the reactor containment, releasing massive amounts of
radiation and rendering hundreds of square miles uninhabitable.
” (Emphasis added.)

So what does whistleblower George Galatis make of the global nuclear
crisis that developed since the earthquake and tsunami of March 11?

George Galatis: “Since
the start of the Japanese nuclear crisis, I have been very concerned
about its consequences to the Japanese people, to the general public,
and
about the lack of attention to what I perceive as being the real issue.”

Tuur Demeester: What is the real issue at stake, in your opinion?

GG: “The real issue is that
of nuclear safety. Right now the true risk to public health and safety
associated with the generation of nuclear power is intentionally kept
from the public. Because of misplaced trust, these enormous risks are in
effect being enforced on the public without their knowledge or consent.
People need to know about and agree to accept the real risks involved
so that when a scenario like Fukushima—or worse—arises here, there is
already a degree of acceptance. Without this formal public acceptance,
nuclear power will never be cost effective nor will it survive.”

“And despite many years of hard work of
the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and others such as Robert
Alvarez of the Institute for Policy Studies, the risks associated with
nuclear power and in particular, the storage of spent fuel in the spent
fuel pools, have not been properly addressed by the nuclear industry and
its Federal regulator. Without appropriate action, the nuclear tragedy
in Japan may very well be reproduced on American soil at some point in
the near future.”

TD: Why were these risks kept hidden from the public?

GG: “The reason for
this, in my opinion, is that the radiation dose limits of a spent fuel
pool accident would now exceed the limits set by Congress and originally
agreed to by the public when the license to operate or build a nuclear
plant was approved. Had the radiological consequences or risks
associated with a spent fuel pool accident been communicated to the
public prior to the NRC and the nuclear industry opting to
perform full core off loads and store vast amounts of spent fuel in the
pool, the public would not have accepted them. So, the NRC opted instead
to ignore this change “from original operation” and its radiological
impact by offering this as their official position: “the agency [NRC]
analyzes dose rates at the time a plant opens—when its pool is empty.
The law does not contain a provision for rereview.” Unfortunately, the
industry also went along with this line of reasoning, even though it
blatently contradicts reality.”

TD: Could you name some specific risks the public is facing today?

GG: “For example, one of
the big surprises the public has become aware of is that the spent fuel
pools in the Japanese nuclear power plants do not have a containment
structure over them to prevent the escape of radioactive contaminants.
People today can not believe how the design of a plant could so grossly
compromise the health and safety of the general public. Yet this is one
of the key safety issues we have right here in the USA as well: 23
American reactors are based on the same ‘Mark I’ blueprint as the
Fukushima plant, and all 33 US Boiling Water Reactors share the same
spent fuel pool design.”

TD: What are the safety issues with the spent fuel pools?

GG: “These pools
were originally designed to hold less than half of a reactor’s core of
fuel as a normal mode of operation, and that on a temporary basis. They
were never intended to serve as a long-term nuclear fuel storage
facility. However, today most nuclear plants in the USA contain more
than five cores, which is at least ten times their original design for
normal operation, and at least 2-3 times more than the amount held at
the Fukushima unit 4 spent fuel pool.
This means the US power
plants, especially those with elevated spent fuel pools, are potential
ticking timebombs, waiting for earth quakes, human error, acts of
malice, or terrorism to cause a radiological crisis.”

TD: Your success as a nuclear whistleblower did not turn the tide?

GG: “Only
temporarily, but I knew that beforehand. Many warnings to the industry,
the nuclear industry regulators, and Congress, have not been heeded at
all. For example, after the 9/11 attacks here in the USA, a
Congressional Commission was formed and one of the issues was how
vulnerable the nuclear plants were to terrorist attacks, especially
airplane attacks. In response, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a
public proclamation that the plants are safe because of the concrete
dome protecting the ‘reactor’. Their initial answer was entirely beside
the question, and the issue of the spent-fuel pools remained unanswered,
in my opinion intentionally.”

TD: Worldwide, there are sixty
reactors under construction in 15 countries, with most in Asia, the USA,
and eastern Europe. According to the Council of Foreign Relations,
the USA currently has 25 reactors in the planning stages, with $8.33
billion in loan guarantees for the construction of two nuclear reactors
in Georgia. What are your thoughts about this expansion of nuclear power
production?

GG:
“In the USA, I would not consider any future expansion until the
current nuclear safety, national security, and long-term storage issues
have been addressed, approved by all stakeholders (public, industry,
regulators, legislators), implemented fully, and are fully functional. 
It would be premature and unwise to start building new plants when the
issues of the present plants haven’t been addressed yet, especially the
spent fuel and national security issues.  In addition, much can be
learned from from the current Japanese crisis which may need to be
incorporated into the new designs once that evaluation and analysis is
completed. “

TD: Do you have any final words of advice to share?

GG: “In my
experience, official sources of information are often confusing and of
little transparency. Given the enormous risks involved, it is vitally
important for everyone to do their own research and become more
informed. Fortunately today, thanks to the Internet, there are
sufficient resources available. As I mentioned before, I think the Union
of Concerned Scientists is doing an excellent job in addressing the
pressing issues at hand and educating the public. Hopefully, the
industry, the NRC, and Congress will heed their advice and remember
whose interests it is they are supposed to serve: those of the general
public.”


Recommended background articles:

Time Magazine 03/04/1996: “Nuclear Warriors

Time Magazine 03/17/1997: “Nuclear Safety Fallout

New York Times: “Experts Had Long Criticized Potential Weakness in Design of Stricken Reactor

The Boston Channel tv: Plants stockpiling nuclear waste?

All Things Nuclear: Internal NRC Document Reveals Doubts about Safety Measures

Union of Concerned Scientists: Nuclear Power Safety

Union of Concerned Scientists: Sabotage and Attacks on Reactors

CNN: “Nuclear Whistleblower Explains Design Flaws of Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan

Wikipedia: List of Boiling Water Reactors