Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Dude, Where Are My Hot Rods?

Shortly after the US invasion of Iraq began, the world went aghast to hear that "[s]even nuclear facilities in Iraq . . . [had] been damaged or effectively destroyed by the looting that began in the first days of April" (Barton Gellman, "Seven Nuclear Sites Looted," Washington Post, May 10, 2003, A1). Daoud Awad, "who ran the electrical design department at Tuwaitha," asked: "How could they leave a place like this without protection? . . . It's not an ordinary place. It's too dangerous" (Gellman, May 10, 2003). To belatedly answer Awad's question, nuclear facilities in the United States itself are hardly secure, so it is no wonder that Washington failed to secure nuclear sites in its newly conquered territory. Here is an example of homeland nuclear insecurity:
Two months after discovering that three highly radioactive nuclear fuel rods are missing from a defunct PG&E nuclear reactor near Eureka, officials are still struggling to find them.

Numerous workers in yellow radiation-proof suits are scouring the reactor cooling pond with robotic probes and video cameras, seeking the missing rods; former employees have been interviewed. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has sent inspectors to Eureka to monitor the search.

It's the third case in which deadly hot fuel rods have disappeared from a U.S. nuclear power plant since 2000. . . .

Cases of missing fuel rods at three separate power plants since 2000 "show that historically, NRC's material control and accounting practices have been extremely lax," said Ed Lyman, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.

Such cases worry Lyman because they raise doubts about whether the nation can keep track of fuel rods slated for use at a potentially much more dangerous site scheduled for construction near Savannah, Ga. That one is a nuclear plant that will burn weapons-grade plutonium from discarded nuclear bombs. Terrorists might have a field day if they swiped plutonium from such a plant, Lyman said.

In searching for the rods, PG&E officials stress they're trying to avoid repeating mistakes made in the first missing-rods case, four years ago at a plant on the East Coast. That case had a Keystone Kops quality that PG&E officials have no desire to emulate.

In late 2000, officials at the Millstone 1 nuclear plant in Connecticut noticed an odd discrepancy in their records. Soon they realized that they couldn't locate two nuclear fuel rods containing 17 pounds of uranium and 1.4 ounces of plutonium, which were supposed to be sitting within the blue, eerily glowing waters of the plant's cooling pond. As it turned out, the rods had last been seen two decades earlier, but no one noticed they were missing until 2000.

Even so, the missing rods didn't become an exceptionally urgent issue until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Nine days later, the NRC staff reported the missing rods to the agency's board of commissioners. For many months afterward, officials at the Millstone plant used video cameras and other equipment to scour through the plant's equipment-crowded cooling pond, struggling to spot the missing rods -- to no avail.

NRC fined the Millstone plant $288,000 for its failure to keep track of the rods and for its failure to notify the NRC of their loss in a timely manner.

To this day, no one knows where the Millstone rods are. . . . (Kevin Davidson, "Nuclear Waste Mystery," San Francisco Chronicle, August 29, 2004)

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