By M.V. Ramana and Cassandra Jeffery
The anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear reactor accident in Japan was March 11, a disaster that led to widespread radioactive contamination and health impacts to hundreds of thousands. Emerging evidence suggests radiation from contamination is associated with increased incidence of thyroid cancers. The health impacts would’ve been worse if not for the evacuation of nearly 150,000 people from Fukushima. The accident must remind us what could happen with nuclear power plants in America, something worth attention in a time when states subsidize aging nuclear power plants through expensive bailouts to private utility companies.
Most U.S. nuclear plants are aged. The average plant is nearly 40 years old, the same age Fukushima Daiichi was during its meltdown. Old nuclear plants are more susceptible to accidents, because equipment failures become more frequent as aging-related wear increases.
The U.S. suffered severe accidents and close encounters with disaster, most notably the Three Mile Island reactor meltdown in March 1979. In March 2002, the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant in Ohio, owned by the electricity company FirstEnergy, almost experienced a meltdown. A routine but delayed reactor inspection found a “football sized” hole in the carbon-steel pressure vessel, which contains all the highly- radioactive fuel in the reactor. Boric acid leaked and corroded part of the structure, leaving all but a 3/8-inch-thick lining of stainless steel, which was never designed to contain the high-pressure water that cooled the reactor.
If the damage wasn’t discovered, the reactor could have experienced a serious accident, according to the Government Accountability Office. FirstEnergy also ignored numerous warnings from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The parallels with Japan are unnerving. In February 2011, Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency extended Fukushima Daiichi’s operating license by 10 years. The regulatory agency kept the reactor operating despite knowledge of problems and warning signs, resulting in the March 2011 accident and subsequent health, environment, and economic consequences. Clean-up costs were estimated at $200 billion to over $600 billion (USD).
Fast forward to 2019, the Ohio governor signed House Bill 6, allowing FirstEnergy to extract $150 million annually from ratepayers. The massive subsidy aims to finance operations of the aging Davis-Besse nuclear plant, the Perry nuclear plant and two coal-based power plants. (There is no pretense of justifying the subsidy by claiming climate benefits.) Ohio electricity customers will pay a monthly surcharge to fund FirstEnergy’s profits.
New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Connecticut have also introduced legislation to bail out aging nuclear power plants. Subsidies from consumers go toward profits of the electric utilities owning nuclear plants that were built decades ago. All of these are at risk of a severe accident.
Despite assurances about safety, nuclear reactors can undergo major accidents, albeit infrequently. No reactor design is immune to such accidents. There is always a residual risk that could lead to vast tracts of land being contaminated with radioactive substances that affect human health for long periods of time.
No matter which way you spin it, continuing to operate old reactors is inviting disaster.
About the authors: M. V. Ramana is the Simons chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security and director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia School of Public Policy and Global Affairs. Cassandra Jeffery is a graduate student of public policy and global affairs at the University of British Columbia. She is the recipient of a Simons Award in Nuclear Disarmament and Global Security and conducts research on energy policies in Asia and North America.