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”
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
Wikipedia: List of Boiling Water Reactors