In The Public Interest : An Unacceptable Risk, Two Decades of "Close Calls," Leaks and Other Problems at U.S. Nuclear Reactors

Today U.S. PIRG released the report Unacceptable Risk: Two Decades of "Close Calls," Leaks and Other Problems at U.S. Nuclear Reactors -- a new report that documents a history of safety problems at nuclear reactors in the United States. The incidents outlined in the report -- like the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan -- illustrate that nuclear power is simply too risky to have in our communities.

More than 108 million people live within 50 miles of a nuclear reactor in the United States. Major U.S. cities including Reading, PA, Omaha, NE and Charlotte, NC are within 12 miles of a nuclear reactor.

American nuclear power plants are not immune to the types of natural disasters, mechanical failures, human errors, and losses of critical electric power supplies that have characterized Fukushima and other major nuclear accidents. At several points over the last 20 years, American nuclear power plants have experienced "close calls" in which the potential for damage to a reactor core was acute.

Since 1979, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has rated 17 instances at nuclear power plants in the U.S. as a "significant precursor" of core damage, meaning the risk of a serious accident increased dramatically. There have been four of these instances since 1990. For example:

• In Ohio, an acid leak ate a 6 inch-deep hole into the containment vessel of a nuclear reactor. Only 3/8 of an inch of steel lay between the radioactive core and the atmosphere.

• In South Carolina, a power outage in 1996 struck a reactor at the same time that an emergency generator was out of service. An essential set of components lacked electrical power for a period of several hours in that instance.

• In 1994, workers accidentally allowed 9,200 gallons of coolant to drain from the core of a reactor at Wolf Creek Nuclear Power Plant in Kansas. The plant's operators estimated that the condition - had it persisted for five more minutes - could have led to the plant's fuel rods being exposed and put at risk of overheating.

• In 1991, valves and drain lines in an emergency shutdown system failed at the Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant in North Carolina. Had an emergency or natural disaster occurred during that failure, the plant may not have been able to conduct a necessary shutdown.

In addition to near misses, there have also been documented releases of radioactive material from U.S. nuclear power plants in the past decade. For example:

• In 2002, it was discovered that radioactive material had been leaking into groundwater at New Jersey's Salem nuclear power plant for five years.

• Radioactive tritium leaked into groundwater at the Braidwood Nuclear Generating Station in Illinois.

• Radioactive tritium and strontium leaked from the spent fuel pools at the Indian Point Energy Center in New York, which are located just 400 feet from the Hudson River.

• Radioactive tritium was discovered in groundwater near the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, even though the plant's owner, Entergy, had stated several times in sworn testimony that the plant had no subterranean pipes capable of leaking nuclear material. Despite the leaks and lies, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission extended Vermont Yankee's operating license for twenty years on March 22, 2011.

The nuclear crisis in Japan is a terrifying reminder of all that can go wrong at a nuclear power plant. The United States must move away from this inherently dangerous technology and towards safer energy sources.

We are calling on President Obama to protect our communities and freeze the construction of new nuclear reactors in this country. We also urge the President to suspend the license extension of the operation of the oldest plants in the country until the risks associated with nuclear plants have been addressed.