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Shearon Harris nuclear plant.

One of the most lethal patches of ground in North America is located in the backwoods of North Carolina, where Shearon Harris nuclear plant is housed and owned by Progress Energy. The plant contains the largest radioactive waste storage pools in the country. It is not just a nuclear-power-generating station, but also a repository for highly radioactive spent fuel rods from two other nuclear plants. The spent fuel rods are transported by rail and stored in four densely packed pools filled with circulating cold water to keep the waste from heating. The Department of Homeland Security has marked Shearon Harris as one of the most vulnerable terrorist targets in the nation.

The threat exists, however, without the speculation of terrorist attack. Should the cooling system malfunction, the resulting fire would be virtually unquenchable and could trigger a nuclear meltdown, putting more than two hundred million residents of this rapidly growing section of North Carolina in extreme peril. A recent study by Brookhaven Labs estimates that a pool fire could cause 140,000 cancers, contaminate thousands of square miles of land, and cause over $500 billion in off-site property damage.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has estimated that there is a 1:100 chance of pool fire happening under the best of scenarios. And the dossier on the Shearon Harris plant is far from the best. In 1999 the plant experienced four emergency shutdowns. A few months later, in April 2000, the plant’s safety monitoring system, designed to provide early warning of a serious emergency, failed. And it wasn’t the first time. Indeed, the emergency warning system at Shearon Harris has failed fifteen times since the plant opened in 1987.

In 2002 the NRC put the plant on notice for nine unresolved safety issues detected during a fire prevention inspection by NRC investigators. When the NRC returned to the plant a few months later for reinspection, it determined that the corrective actions were “not acceptable.” Between January and July of 2002, Harris plant managers were forced to manually shut down the reactors four times. The problems continue with chilling regularity. In the spring of 2003 there were four emergency shutdowns of the plant, including three over a four-day period. One of the incidents occurred when the reactor core failed to cool down during a refueling operation while the reactor dome was off of the plant—a potentially catastrophic series of circumstances.

Between 1999 and 2003, there were twelve major problems requiring the shutdown of the plant. According to the NRC, the national average for commercial reactors is one shutdown per eighteen months. Congressman David Price of North Carolina sent the NRC a report by scientists at MIT and Princeton that pinpointed the waste pools as the biggest risk at the plant. “Spent fuel recently discharged from a reactor could heat up relatively rapidly and catch fire,” wrote Bob Alvarez, a former advisor to the Department of Energy and co-author of the report. “The fire could well spread to older fuel. The long-term land contamination consequences of such an event could be significantly worse than Chernobyl.”

The study recommended relatively inexpensive fixes, which would have cost Progress approximately $5 million a year—less than the $6.6 million annual bonus for Progress CEO Warren Cavanaugh. Progress scoffed at the idea and recruited the help of NRC Commissioner Edward McGaffigan to smear the MIT/Princeton report. McGaffigan is a nuclear enthusiast who has worked for both Republicans and Democrats. A veteran of the National Security Council in the Reagan administration, McGaffigan took a special interest in promoting nuclear plants to US client states. He served two terms as NRC Commissioner under Clinton as a tireless proponent of nuclear plant construction and deregulation, and consistently dismissed the risks associated with the transport and storage of nuclear waste. McGaffigan’s meddling has outraged many anti-nuclear activists. Lewis Pitts, an environmental attorney in North Carolina says, “The NRC has directed the production of a bogus study to deny decades of science on the perils of pool fires.” Author Jeffrey St. Clair concludes, “If the worst happens, the blame will reside in Washington, which has permitted the Shearon Harris facility to become a nuclear time bomb.” [1]

Student Researchers: Krisden Kidd and Karene Schelert
Faculty Evaluator: Heidi LaMoreaux, PhD
Sonoma State University

[1] CounterPunch, 9 August 2008, “Pools of Fire”, by Jeffrey St. Clair.