Washington, DC — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is wrongfully withholding reports about dam failure leading to inundation of reactors, as well as protests from its own engineers about its failure to address this risk facing nearly three dozen U.S. nuclear facilities, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As with the 2011 nuclear disaster at Japan's Fukushima Dai-chi facility, flooding could cause core meltdowns with catastrophic consequences.
Many of the documents at issue concern South Carolina’s Oconee Nuclear Station, where the NRC has known for more than two decades that failure of a dam ten miles upriver from the plant would swamp the plant’s three reactors and their cooling equipment. In that event, the reactor would go to core damage in less than 10 hours. Within three days, the flooded reactor would release its fission products into the atmosphere. This is comparable to what took place at Fukushima when it was hit by an earthquake followed by a tsunami. The tsunami’s monster ocean waves duplicated the effect of a dam-break flood.
The risks at Oconee are not unique, however. Comparable flood threats from upstream dams exist at dozens of plants such as Watts Bar in Tennessee, Prairie Island in Minnesota and the Fort Calhoun Station in Nebraska. These flood-vulnerable facilities represent approximately one-third of the country’s entire reactor-based electric generation capacity.
In the middle of the last decade, the NRC began removing material on dam failure inundation from public circulation. Recently, some of the agency’s own engineers objected to this after-the-fact secrecy, as well as NRC’s lack of action in making utility operators undertake plant modifications or mitigation measures.
As its stated reason for cloaking its scientific reports on inundation risk and related documents, the NRC is invoking a law enforcement exemption in the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) usually reserved for shielding the identity of confidential informants.
“We strongly disagree that the NRC has a plausible basis for withholding this material and will vigorously pursue full release,” stated PEER Counsel Kathryn Douglass who filed the complaint today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. “This is not an academic point as these inundation accidents could make large swaths of the country uninhabitable for at least a century.”
According to NRC calculations, the odds of the dam near the Oconee plant failing at some point over the next 22 years are much higher than were the odds of an earthquake-induced tsunami causing a meltdown at the Fukushima plant. In fact, NRC assessments conclude “a Jocassee Dam failure is a credible event.”
The NRC has no direct control over the operations of these upstream dams. Ironically, the agencies which do have operational control over dams – the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security – have all consented to the release of the material that NRC has chosen to keep hidden.
“It is no secret that water flows downhill,” Douglass added. “This case is about the NRC shielding its negligence from public view.”