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Three articles on drone attacks on Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant

  Ukraine detonates drone against reactor dome at Russian-occupied nuclear power plant
Ukrainian forces detonated a drone against the dome covering a shut-down nuclear reactor at the massive Russian-occupied power plant in southeast Ukraine on Sunday, according to Kremlin and interna…

  Drones attack the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant
The head of the U.N.’s atomic watchdog agency has condemned a drone strike on one of six nuclear reactors at the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine


For Immediate Use:  Friday, April 5, 2024

Contact:  David Kraft,

GAO Report: NRC Inadequately Addresses Climate Disruption Threat to Reactors

CHICAGO—A Government Accountability Office Report draws conclusions about nuclear reactor operation that should make public officials, agencies and policy makers from the most nuclear-reliant state in the U.S. take notice – and action.

The GAO report - NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS: NRC Should Take Actions to Fully Consider the Potential Effects of Climate Change  -- asserts that,  “NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] doesn't fully consider potential increases in risk from climate change.”

“Illinois has the most operating nuclear reactors (11), has recently repealed a moratorium on constructing new ones, and is keen on opening the doors for new experimental reactors.  This report should be a warning shot that more preparation and attention to ongoing nuclear safety in an increasingly  climate disrupted world is in order,” observes David Kraft, director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, a 42-year old nuclear power watchdog organization, based in Chicago.

The Report indicates seven likely climate-related effects that could have safety implications for operating nuclear reactors, both present-day designs and future, experimental reactor types like “small modular nuclear reactors.” (SMNRs)

“…nuclear power plants can be affected by natural hazards—including heat, drought, wildfires, flooding, hurricanes, sea level rise, and extreme cold weather events—some of which are expected to be exacerbated by climate change, with effects varying by region….”

“Risks to nuclear power plants from these [climate disruption] hazards include loss of offsite power, damage to systems and equipment, and diminished cooling capacity, potentially resulting in reduced operations or plant shutdowns.”

“Some of these climate-related effects have already occurred in Illinois and elsewhere,” Kraft notes. “The severe Illinois drought in 1988 resulted in 100 reactor-days of operation being curtailed or completely shut down.  That drought was ‘climate disruption lite,’” he reports.

Illinois has already experienced heightened levels of heat (p.15) and area drought, and periodic regional flooding – which the GAO reports as being high probability (p.20).  Illinois has also shown a dramatic increase in tornado frequency, leading the nation in 2023 with 136.

In its defense the NRC claims that its current regimen of reactor safety review provides “adequate assurance” that reactors are operating safely and the public is protected.

“We wonder how many NRC officials book flights on airlines that provide only ‘adequate’ fuel levels and maintenance to their aircraft?” Kraft asks.

NEIS also notes that the Report highlights that there is a significant difference between claiming assurances and proving them:

“The GAO notes that, “NRC primarily uses historical data in its licensing and oversight processes rather than climate projections data. NRC officials GAO interviewed said they believe their current processes provide an adequate margin of safety to address climate risks. However, NRC has not conducted an assessment to demonstrate that this is the case.” (emphasis ours)

“Talk is cheap,” states NEIS’ Kraft.  “When one bad day at the office can turn Illinois into the Belarus of North America, Illinois officials at all levels should insist that NRC actually conduct reassessments of their reactor standards, anticipating climate changes,” he asserts.

The GAO makes three recommendations to begin to address this NRC failing:

·The Chair of the NRC should direct NRC staff to assess whether its licensing and oversight processes adequately address the potential for increased risks to nuclear power plants from climate change. (Recommendation 1)
·The Chair of the NRC should direct NRC staff to develop, finalize, and implement a plan to address any gaps identified in its assessment of existing processes. (Recommendation 2)

·The Chair of the NRC should direct NRC staff to develop and finalize guidance on incorporating climate projections data into relevant processes, including what sources of climate projections data to use and when and how to use climate projections data. (Recommendation 3).

“While we welcome any and all efforts to improve reactor safety, we also must point out how pathetic and profoundly worrisome it is that a $1+ billion Agency demonstrates such a lack of foresight, initiative and perhaps even competence to understand that the climate crisis is profoundly affecting their core mission,” Kraft laments.  “It is this seeming indifference to its task that has led many over the years to complain that “NRC” stands for ‘Not Really Concerned.’”

“Our Governor and the Illinois Delegation to Congress need to light a much needed fire under this Agency to protect Illinois,” Kraft concludes.


Nuclear Energy Information Service (NEIS) was formed in 1981 to watchdog the nuclear power industry, and to promote a renewable, non-nuclear energy future.



David A. Kraft, Director
NRC should assess if its reactor licensing process adequately considers climate risks: GAO
The federal watchdog found that the NRC’s natural hazard assessments “do not fully consider potential climate change effects,” such as extreme heat, drought, wildfires and hurricanes.

Published April 4, 2024

By Brian Martucci


Pacific Gas & Electric’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in San Luis Obispo, California. The Nuclear Regulatory Commision does not fully account for climate risks in its reactor licensing and oversight processes, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said April 2, 2024. simonkr via Getty Images

Dive Brief:

  • The Nuclear Regulatory Commision does not fully account for future climate risks in its reactor licensing and oversight processes, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a report released Tuesday.
  • NRC officials interviewed by the GAO said they believe current NRC risk assessment processes adequately consider climate risk, but the commission has not made a formal assessment on the question, the report said.
  • “Our position is that as we go forward, [the NRC] should take the best available information on what to expect from climate change and use that to supplement their risk assessments,” GAO Natural Resources and Environment Director Frank Rusco told Utility Dive in an interview.

Dive Insight:

The NRC considers a broad range of safety threats in its licensing and operational oversight processes, including wildfires, high winds, extreme heat and cold, flooding, hurricanes and drought.

The commission closely examined flooding risk after the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, which partially melted down and released radioactive water after it lost backup power in an earthquake-induced tsunami. It published a final rule in 2019 that would require operating commercial reactors and new reactor license applicants to ensure uninterrupted reactor cooling following the loss of normal backup power.

Despite criticism from the Union of Concerned Scientists and others that the rule was not stringent enough, it did address a notable weakness in nuclear safety protocols, Rusco said.

“The NRC is a bit ahead of the game on flooding because of Fukushima,” he said.

However, the NRC currently uses historical climate data to assess other safety risks that could worsen due to climate change, the GAO found. Ahead of an anticipated flurry of new license applications for reactors “that could be around for another 80 years,” the NRC should be “looking ahead” as climate models improve and incorporate new data, Rusco said.

The GAO report made three recommendations to the NRC:

  • The commission ought to assess whether its current licensing and oversight processes adequately account for increased risks due to climate change;
  • Should that assessment find any gaps in existing processes that could threaten nuclear safety, the commission ought to devise and implement a plan to address them; and
  • Moving forward, the commission should determine which climate projections to use in licensing and operational oversight processes and establish guidelines for how and when to incorporate those data.

In written comments included in the GAO report, the NRC noted that “the three recommendations are consistent with actions that are either underway or under development.” But Rusco reiterated that the NRC does not currently incorporate climate projections into its licensing and oversight processes.

”It could well be that if they looked at all the [climate change] projections now, even worst-case scenario projections, they’d compare those against their [safety protocols] and say, ‘We’re still good,’” Rusco said. “But they don’t know that unless they look.” 

The GAO report did not suggest that the U.S. commercial nuclear fleet faces acute climate-related safety threats today, and any future threats would be site-specific, Rusco said. It’s likely that extreme weather events would first impact reactor performance rather than safety, such as an extended heatwave that affected a reactor’s supply of cooling water, he added. 

“We don’t want to give the impression that all these plants are unsafe because of climate change,” Rusco said. But it’s better for nuclear plant operators, utilities, ratepayers and the NRC itself that the commission builds forward-looking climate data into its processes, he added.

“In the end, that’s going to save money for operators and ratepayers,” he said. “You don’t want to have to make costly upgrades as the climate changes.”

Nuclear Regulatory Commission - News Release
No: IV-24-008 April 5, 2024
CONTACT: Victor Dricks, 817-200-1128
NRC Proposes $45,000 Civil Penalty Against International Isotopes
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has proposed an $45,000 civil penalty against International Isotopes of Idaho Falls, Idaho, for violations of NRC requirements associated with the import and transfer of radioactive materials. The violations were documented in a December 2023 inspection report.
International Isotopes uses radioactive materials in the manufacture of devices for medical and industrial applications.
The violations had no adverse impact on the health and safety of the public.
The NRC held a regulatory conference with company representatives at its Region IV office in Arlington, Texas, on January 30. It issued its enforcement decision after reviewing the circumstances surrounding the proposed violations and considering any actions the company may have taken to comply with NRC regulations.
The company has 30 days to pay the fine, dispute it, or request involvement from a neutral third-party mediator to resolve the issue.
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April 4, 2024
Hand holding small Godzilla toy in front of a large sign that reads "Make Nukes History" BLM Arizona visits a solar construction site on private land in August 2023. (Michelle Ailport/BLM Arizona)

Expanding the bull’s eye of solar development on public lands

The Bureau of Land Management wants to open a vast frontier of public land the size of Indiana to solar development. Read more.


Another state tries to weaken school vaccine rules

Anti-vaccine arguments have gained traction in legislatures across the United States. The governor of West Virginia recently had to veto a measure that would have allowed private and parochial schools to set their own requirements. Read more.

A widespread collapse of the US power grid system—triggered by solar storms, physical attacks, or cyberattacks—could threaten nuclear facilities, including overloaded spent fuel pools. Read more.


Nautilus Magazine

New oil and gas projects threaten the world's ability to meet the Paris climate goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Read more.


"Just as the 20th century required extensive interventions to protect the shared environment, the 21st century is going to require extensive interventions to protect a different, but equally critical, common resource, one we haven’t noticed up until now since it was never under threat: our shared human culture."
— Erik Hoel, "A.I.-Generated Garbage Is Polluting Our Culture," The New York Times

It’s well past time for the United States to get serious about nuclear risk reduction and disarmament. But Washington won’t act unless we the people demand it. Learn how you can get involved and make a difference.

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Spent nuclear fuel mismanagement poses a major threat to the United States. Here's how. - Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
By Mark Leyse | April 2, 2024

Power transmission lines near Dixon, California on August 12, 2012. A widespread collapse of the US power grid system could threaten nuclear facilities, including overloaded spent fuel pools. (Credit: Photo by Wendell/intherough, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr)

Irradiated fuel assemblies—essentially bundles of fuel rods with zirconium alloy cladding sheathing uranium dioxide fuel pellets—that have been removed from a nuclear reactor (spent fuel) generate a great deal of heat from the radioactive decay of the nuclear fuel’s unstable fission products. This heat source is termed decay heat. Spent fuel is so thermally hot and radioactive that it must be submerged in circulating water and cooled in a storage pool (spent fuel pool) for several years before it can be moved to dry storage.

The dangers of reactor meltdowns are well known. But spent fuel can also overheat and burn in a storage pool if its coolant water is lost, thereby potentially releasing large amounts of radioactive material into the air. This type of accident is known as a spent fuel pool fire or zirconium fire, named after the fuel cladding. All commercial nuclear power plants in the United States—and nearly all in the world—have at least one spent fuel pool on site. A fire at an overloaded pool (which exist at many US nuclear power plants) could release radiation that dwarfs what the Chernobyl nuclear accident emitted.

Many analysts see very rare, severe earthquakes as the greatest threat to spent fuel pools; however, another far more likely event could threaten US nuclear sites: a widespread collapse of the power grid system. Such a collapse could be triggered by a variety of events, including solar storms, physical attacks, and cyberattacks—all of which are known, documented possibilities. Safety experts have warned for decades about the dangers of overloading spent fuel pools, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Congress have refused to act.

The threat of overloaded spent fuel pools. Spent fuel pools at US nuclear plants are almost as densely packed with nuclear fuel as operating reactors—a hazard that has existed for decades and vastly increases the odds of having a major accident.

Spent fuel assemblies could ignite—starting a zirconium fire—if an overloaded pool were to lose a sizable portion or all of its coolant water. In a scenario in which coolant water boils off, uncovered zirconium cladding of fuel assemblies may overheat and chemically react with steam, generating explosive hydrogen gas. A substantial amount of hydrogen would almost certainly detonate, destroying the building that houses the spent fuel pool. (Only a small quantity of energy is required to ignite hydrogen gas, including electric sparks from equipment. It is speculated a ringing telephone initiated a hydrogen explosion that occurred during the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.)

A zirconium fire in an exposed spent fuel pool would have the potential to emit far more radioactive cesium 137 than the Chernobyl accident released. (The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has conducted analyses that found a zirconium fire at a densely packed pool could release as much as 24 megacuries of cesium 137; the Chernobyl accident is estimated to have released 2.3 megacuries of cesium 137.) Such a disaster could contaminate thousands of square miles of land in urban and rural areas, potentially exposing millions of people to large doses of ionizing radiation, many of whom could die from early or latent cancer.

In contrast, if a thinly packed pool were deprived of coolant water, its spent fuel assemblies would likely release about 1 percent of the radioactive material predicted to be released by a zirconium fire at a densely packed pool. A thinly packed pool has a much smaller inventory of radioactive material than a densely packed pool; it also contains much less zirconium. If such a limited amount of zirconium were to react with steam, most likely too little hydrogen would be generated to threaten the integrity of the spent fuel pool building.

A spent fuel pool at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station on December 1, 2014. (Credit: US NRC, licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr).

After being cooled under water for a minimum of three years, spent fuel assemblies can be transferred from pools to giant, hermetically sealed canisters of reinforced steel and concrete that shield plant workers and the public from ionizing radiation. This liquid-free method of storage, which cools the spent fuel assemblies by passive air convection, is called “dry cask storage.”

A typical US storage pool for a 1,000-megawatt-electric reactor contains from 400 to 500 metric tons of spent fuel assemblies. (Dry casks can store 10 to 15 tons of spent fuel assemblies, so each cask contains a far lower amount of radioactive material than a storage pool.) Reducing the total inventories of spent fuel assemblies stored in US spent fuel pools by roughly 70 to 80 percent reduces their amount of radioactive cesium by about 50 percent. And the heat load in each pool drops by about 25 to 30 percent. With low-density storage, a pool’s spent fuel assemblies are separated from each other to an extent that greatly improves their ability to be cooled by air convection in the event that the pool loses its coolant water. Moreover, a dry cask storage area, which has passive cooling, is less vulnerable to either accidents or sabotage than a spent fuel pool.

In the aftermath of the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan, in which there was a risk of spent fuel assemblies igniting, the NRC considered forcing US utilities to expedite the transfer of all sufficiently-cooled spent fuel assemblies stored in overloaded pools to dry cask storage. The NRC decided against implementing such a safety measure.

To help justify its decision, the NRC chose to analyze only one scenario that might lead to a zirconium fire: a severe earthquake. In 2014, the NRC claimed that a severe earthquake with a magnitude “expected to occur once in 60,000 years” is the prototypical initiating event that would lead to a zirconium fire in a boiling water reactor’s spent fuel pool.

The NRC’s 2014 study concluded that the type of earthquake it selected for its analyses would cause a zirconium fire and a large radiological release to occur at a densely packed spent fuel pool once every nine million years (or even less frequently). Restricting its analyses to a severe earthquake scenario allowed the NRC to help allay public fears over the dangers of spent fuel pool accidents. (At the time of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, the New York Times and other news outlets warned that a zirconium fire could break out in the plant’s Unit 4 spent fuel pool, causing global public concern.)

There is good reason to question whether severe earthquakes pose the greatest threat to spent fuel pools. A widespread collapse of the US power grid system that would last for a period of months to years—estimated to occur once in a century—may be far more likely to lead to a zirconium fire than a severe earthquake. The prospect that a widespread, long-term blackout will occur within the next 100 years should prompt US utilities to expedite the transfer of spent fuel from pools to dry cask storage. Utilities in other nations, including in Japan, that have overloaded pools should follow suit.

Solar storms, physical attacks, and cyberattacks have the potential to cause a nightmare scenario in which the US power grid collapses, along with other vital infrastructures—leading to reactor meltdowns and spent fuel pool fires, whose radioactive emissions would aggravate the disaster.

Vulnerability to solar storms. In 2012, the NRC issued a Federal Register notice stating that an extreme solar storm (with its accompanying geomagnetic storm at the Earth) could cause the failure of hundreds of extra-high voltage transformers—with a maximum voltage rating of at least 345 kilovolts—precipitating widespread, long-term blackouts. The NRC posited that such a solar storm might occur once in 153 years to once in 500 years and initiate “a series of events potentially leading to [reactor] core damage at multiple nuclear sites.”

The NRC’s Federal Register notice announced the agency had determined that the threat of prolonged power outages leading to at least one spent fuel pool fire must be addressed in its rulemaking process. The NRC decided to consider enacting regulations that Thomas Popik of the Foundation for Resilient Societies, a non-profit organization focusing on infrastructure reliability, requested in a petition for rulemaking. Popik asked the NRC to require plant owners to ensure spent fuel pools would have long-term cooling and a replenished supply of coolant water in the event that an extreme solar storm collapsed large portions of the US power grid for a period of months to years. Among other things, Popik was concerned that emergency diesel generators would not be able to supply the onsite electricity needed to cool the spent fuel pool for more than a few days.

Electrically-charged particles from solar storms can be strong enough to breach Earth’s magnetosphere and induce electric currents in the power grid. Artist illustration (not to scale). (Credit: NASA, licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr)

Over the past 160 years, the Earth has been hit by two solar superstorms—the 1859 Carrington Event and the 1921 New York Railroad Superstorm—that would be powerful enough to disable large portions of today’s global power grids. Scientists estimate that such extreme solar storms may hit the Earth once in a century, so the odds are that the Earth will be hit by a solar superstorm at some point during this century. In July 2012, a solar superstorm, estimated to have been more intense than the Carrington Event, crossed the Earth’s orbit, missing the Earth by about 1.8 million miles, or by one week’s time.

Solar superstorms are caused by coronal mass ejections: Eruptions of billions of tons of electrically-charged particles spat from the Sun’s corona, which travel at velocities as fast as several million miles per hour and can reach the Earth within 24 hours. Most coronal mass ejections, however, miss the Earth because it is a relatively small point within the solar system.

When a solar superstorm’s electrically-charged particles envelop the Earth, they cause extreme geomagnetic storms—mostly affecting high northern and southern latitudes. In a geomagnetic storm, the Earth’s geomagnetic field varies in magnitude, creating electric fields in the ground that induce electric currents in the power grid. Extreme geomagnetic storms may induce electric currents strong enough to melt the copper windings of extra-high voltage transformers, which may become damaged beyond repair and need to be replaced.

Extra-high voltage transformers are mostly manufactured overseas and difficult to transport. (Such transformers weigh between 100 and 400 tons.) In the United States, only a small number of facilities build extra-high voltage transformers. They cost several million dollars to manufacture and install; each is custom made to fit the specifications of its substation. Different designs are not typically interchangeable with one another, and few spares are manufactured. Manufacturing and installing even one such massive transformer can take over one year.

Solar storms that were far less intense than the New York Railroad Superstorm have collapsed modern power grids. In the early hours of March 13, 1989, on a freezing night, a geomagnetic storm caused Canada’s Hydro-Québec grid to collapse within 90 seconds, leaving six million people without electric power for about 9 hours. (The magnitude of geomagnetic storms can be measured in nanoteslas per minute, where the tesla is a unit of magnetic flux density.) The New York Railroad Superstorm is estimated to have reached a magnitude of approximately 5,000 nanoteslas per minute, and the March 1989 Storm was one-tenth as intense, reaching approximately 480 nanoteslas per minute. In late October 2003, geomagnetic storms less intense than the March 1989 Storm caused a blackout in southern Sweden and permanently damaged 15 extra-high voltage transformers in South Africa by overheating them.

Solar storms can cause large geomagnetic field variations to suddenly materialize over vast geographic areas, precipitating multiple, near-simultaneous failures at different locations of the electric power grid system. Over the past half century, the United States and other nations have dramatically expanded their power grids—adding more long-distance transmission lines and high-voltage infrastructure—thereby increasing their vulnerability to geomagnetic storms. Moreover, the aging of vital power-grid infrastructures also increases the grid’s vulnerability.

Vulnerability to physical attacks. On April 16, 2013, gunmen attacked the Metcalf Transmission Substation in San Jose, California, rendering it out of service. The gunmen shot 120 rounds from semiautomatic rifles, hitting 17 extra-high voltage transformers. The transformers leaked more than 50,000 gallons of cooling oil. They overheated, without exploding, and shut down. According to Jon Wellinghoff, a former Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Metcalf attack nearly caused a blackout in Silicon Valley; one that may have persisted for a period of several weeks.

Snipers attacked a power substation in in San Jose, California on April 16, 2013, an attack that nearly caused a blackout in Silicon Valley. (Credit: CNN)

In response to the assault on Metcalf, its owner—Pacific Gas and Electric—decided to spend $100 million over the course of three years to help fortify its substations. That did not prevent thieves, in August 2014, from cutting through a fence at Metcalf and pilfering construction equipment that was intended to bolster security. It took utility workers more than four hours to realize the substation had been burgled.

In January 2022, the Department of Homeland Security warned that domestic terrorists have been devising credible strategies for sabotaging the US power grid over the past few years. Protecting all 55,000 substations that make up the US grid, however, is a difficult task. In December 2022, at least one malefactor shot at and severely damaged two substations—owned by Duke Energy—in North Carolina’s Moore County, located about 90 miles east of Charlotte. Around 45,000 homes and businesses lost electricity as a result, and tens of thousands of customers got their power restored only after several days. Commenting on the Moore County attacks, Wellinghoff observed that “most [substations] don’t seem to be very well protected. Many of them still have chain link fences, like the one in North Carolina.”

In 2014, The Wall Street Journal reported that a US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission analysis had concluded that if saboteurs synchronized physical attacks and disabled as few as nine critical power substations, especially on a hot summer day, the entire US mainland could lose electric power for several months. Unfortunately, determining or simply procuring information about the locations of the most critical substations in the continental US is a relatively easy task.

Malefactors can also physically attack substations remotely. For instance, drones armed with improvised explosive devices could target US substations in synchronized swarms, potentially collapsing the power grid. In September 2022, Russia attacked civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, including the Ukrainian power grid, with waves of Iranian Shahed-136, “kamikaze” drones. These drones can carry up to 110 pounds (50 kilograms) of explosives over hundreds of miles. Kamikaze drones explode on impact. In October 2022, Russian kamikaze drones partly disrupted the delivery of electricity in the three major Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv, Kyiv, and Lviv.

Vulnerability to cyberattacks. In December 2015, Russian hackers caused power outages in Ukraine by remotely opening circuit breakers, thereby cutting off the flow of electricity, at dozens of substations. It is the first confirmed instance, worldwide, that a cyberattack caused a blackout. Within minutes, the hackers targeted three energy utilities, causing outages that lasted six hours and affected nearly a quarter-million people. Fortunately, the Ukrainian power grid has the odd benefit of being partly antiquated. It is not completely dependent on computer control systems; that is, industrial control systems and supervisory control and data acquisition (also known as “SCADA”) systems, which monitor and command an electric grid’s physical equipment. Ukrainian grid operators were able to turn the power back on by bypassing their compromised control systems and manually closing circuit breakers at affected substations. One year later, in December 2016, another Russian cyberattack would cause a second blackout in Ukraine.

The 2016 cyberattack was more sophisticated than that of 2015. Power was restored after one hour; however, the hackers shut down a large Kyiv substation that handled a greater electric load (200 megawatts) than the total load handled by the dozens of substations that had been successfully targeted the previous year. The hackers deployed malware—later named “CrashOverride”—that analysts have characterized as “an automated, grid-killing weapon.”

CrashOverride was designed to communicate with the Ukrainian power grid’s particular computer control systems, enabling it to manipulate the behavior of physical equipment at substations. At a preset time, CrashOverride opened circuit breakers at targeted substations to precipitate the blackout, without requiring oversight from hackers.

A cyber warfare operator monitors live cyber attacks at Warfield Air National Guard Base in Middle River, Maryland on June 3, 2017. (Credit: US Air Force / J.M. Eddins Jr.)

Malware programs like CrashOverride can also be tailored to attack European and North American power grids. Some analysts have posited that Ukraine is “Russia’s test lab for cyberwar,” noting that “in the cyber world, what happens in Kiev almost never stays in Kiev.” The US power grid is more computerized and automated than Ukraine’s grid, providing many openings for cyber infiltration. The Idaho National Laboratory (INL) has warned that the interconnectivity of SCADA systems exposes the US power grid to cyberattacks.

Given enough time, hackers could penetrate US transmission networks and plant CrashOverride or another tailored malware at any number of desired locations. CrashOverride can automatically execute the task of scanning transmission networks and selecting multiple targets, including those that control automated on-off switches for circuit breakers. Once entrenched, CrashOverride is set “like a ticking bomb,” ready to sow chaos in power grid systems at any specified time.

Analysts at Dragos and Eset, two cyber-security companies for critical infrastructure, have pointed out that CrashOverride contains some code indicating it has the capacity to disable protective relays, which protect transmission lines and transformers against electric surges by opening circuit breakers. If hackers rendered protective relays inoperable while increasing local electric loads, they could cause transmission lines to melt and transformers to burn. Wide portions of the US grid could become disabled for months to years if hackers managed to destroy many extra-high voltage transformers.

In 2016, Idaho National Laboratory analysts came to similar conclusions as those at Dragos and Eset, warning that a major cyberattack on the US grid could seriously damage critical equipment, including extra-high voltage transformers, and lead to cascading blackouts. Some substations have networks that are incapable of detecting hackers’ intrusions and planted malware. INL analysts have cautioned that hackers could exploit such vulnerabilities to launch a coordinated cyberattack against multiple substations. Five years later, in June 2021, US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm acknowledged that hackers have the capability to shut down the US power grid.

Insufficient public safety. After the Fukushima Daiichi accident, the US nuclear industry established the Diverse and Flexible Mitigation Capability (FLEX) strategy, which is intended to help workers at nuclear plants manage a severe accident. The FLEX strategy stipulates that plant sites store portable equipment, such as backup generators and battery packs that can provide emergency power and pumps that can inject coolant water into the reactor or spent fuel pool. Such equipment is also stored at two national response centers, located in Memphis, Tennessee and Phoenix, Arizona. The response centers must be capable of dispatching required equipment to any nuclear plant located in the United States within 24 hours. However, each center only houses five complete sets of FLEX equipment, not nearly enough equipment to simultaneously service the entire US nuclear reactor fleet.

In a long-term, nationwide blackout, US nuclear power plants would lose their supply of offsite electricity. Emergency diesel generators, which provide onsite electricity, are back-up systems designed to power cooling pumps and other safety equipment only for a relatively short period of time. Such generators would likely fail to operate continuously for a period of months to years. The longest loss-of-offsite power events in the United States all lasted less than a week.

Most US nuclear plants are required to have at least a seven-day onsite supply of fuel for emergency diesel generators, and many have arrangements to receive prompt deliveries of fuel. Yet amid the logistical challenges and social disruptions of a nationwide, long-term blackout, it appears unlikely that a steady fuel supply could be transported to and maintained at every nuclear plant in the US fleet.

Overloading spent fuel pools should be outlawed. Safety analysts have warned about the dangers of overloading spent fuel pools since the 1970s. For decades, experts and organizations have argued that in order to improve safety, sufficiently cooled spent fuel assemblies should be removed from high-density spent fuel pools and transferred to passively cooled dry cask storage. Sadly, the NRC has not heeded their advice.

In the face of the NRC’s inaction, Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts introduced The Dry Cask Storage Act in 2014, calling for the thinning out of spent fuel pools. The act, which Senator Markey has reintroduced in subsequent congressional sessions, has not passed into law.

The relatively high probability of a nationwide grid collapse, which would lead to multiple nuclear disasters, emphasizes the need to expedite the transfer of spent fuel to dry cask storage. According to Frank von Hippel, a professor of public and international affairs emeritus at Princeton University, the impact of a single accident at an overstocked spent fuel pool has the potential to be two orders of magnitude more devastating in terms of radiological releases than the three Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns combined. If the US grid collapses for a lengthy period of time, society would likely descend into chaos, as uncooled nuclear fuel burned at multiple sites and spewed radioactive plumes into the environment.

The value of preventing the destruction of US society and untold human suffering is incalculable. So, on the issue of protecting people and the environment from spent fuel pool fires, it is surprising when one learns that promptly transferring the nationwide inventories of spent fuel assemblies that have been cooled for at least five years from US pools to dry cask storage would be “relatively inexpensive”—less than (in 2012 dollars) a total of $4 billion ($5.4 billion in today’s dollars). That is far, far less than the monetary toll of losing vast tracts of urban and rural land for generations to come because of radioactive contamination.

One should also consider that plant owners are required, as part of the decommissioning process, to transfer spent fuel assemblies from storage pools to dry cask storage after nuclear plants are permanently shut down. So, in accordance with industry protocols, all spent fuel assemblies at plant sites are intended to eventually be placed in dry cask storage (before ultimately being transported to a long-term surface storage site or a permanent geologic repository).

If the NRC continues to allow the industry’s mismanagement of spent fuel to pose an existential threat to the United States, Congress must be compelled to pass legislation requiring utilities to swiftly thin out spent fuel pools.

Editor’s note: The author thanks David Lochbaum, Frank von Hippel, and M.V. Ramana for their review of and comments on an earlier version of this article.

The Palisades Nuclear Plant won a $1.5B conditional federal loan to reopen. Plant owner Holtec plans to move fast — but the path ahead is murky.

By Eric Wesoff | 

A large nuclear facility at twilightThe Palisades nuclear power plant on Lake Michigan (Holtec)

Holtec, a manufacturer of nuclear reactor equipment, has an unprecedented plan to restart the shuttered Palisades Nuclear Plant in Michigan. Thanks to a conditional loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office, that plan is now $1.52 billion closer to reality.

If the loan is granted (subject to Holtec meeting closing conditions) and the 800-megawatt reactor located on Lake Michigan is repowered, it would be the first nuclear plant in the U.S. to reopen after being closed for decommissioning. Surprisingly, it would be just the second or third reactor to restart in the history of global civil nuclear power, according to Mycle Schneider, lead author of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2023, in an interview with Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Nuclear energy supplies just under 20 percent of U.S. electricity, a share that has barely budged in recent decades as the country has struggled to build the few new reactors that have been proposed. The average age of the reactors in the country’s 93-unit fleet is 42 years old.

As the country pushes to decarbonize its power grid, nuclear advocates are urging the U.S. to reinvest in the energy source, despite its baggage around cost and timing overruns and environmental concerns. Repowering Palisades would represent serious progress for nuclear energy in the U.S., but it won’t be an easy path ahead.

Holtec purchased Palisades a month after it shut down with plans to mothball the site, but plans changed. Now the firm, which specializes in nuclear waste management and decommissioning (as opposed to rebuilding and operating nuclear plants), intends to revive the plant instead. Holtec plans to get the power plant restarted by the end of 2025, a breathtakingly aspirational target given nuclear’s history of missing construction and cost targets.

The Palisades plant was closed by utility Entergy in May 2022 due to financial issues after operating for more than a half-century. And while the plant had a strong operational performance record in recent years, it also has a sobering history of shutdowns due to failures of critical equipment, as well as broken fuel rods and fuel-spill incidents. The site was shut down for the final time a few days ahead of schedule due to concerns about the reliability of a key piece of equipment.

When it was operating at its peak, the plant provided more than 600 high-paying jobs, many unionized. If restarted, the plant could drive up to $363 million in regional economic impact, according to Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat. That’s why Whitmer and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers back resurrecting the retired reactor. Local business owners and residents are ​“largely supportive” of the plan as well, according to local news site MLive. The state’s 2024 budget devotes $150 million to the project.

Like the nearly-shuttered Diablo Canyon plant in central California, Palisades will require extensive testing and repairs to compensate for deferred regulatory compliance and upkeep. Additionally, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has never considered reauthorizing a license for a shuttered plant. While the regulators are familiar with the reactor design, the unfamiliar nature of a reactor restart muddies the water on timing and cost. Holtec will also have to seek out and finalize contracts for fuel and refueling services.

If Holtec successfully repowers Palisades, it will be able to garner federal incentives such as a production tax credit geared to help keep the current nuclear fleet competitive, as well as an investment tax credit intended to speed new-plant construction. Holtec has also applied to the U.S. Civil Nuclear Credit Program, which has now extended its eligibility to include recently closed plants.

These are heady days for the U.S. nuclear industry: The government and the DOE are solid supporters of commercial nuclear power, providing incentives to build advanced reactors, enrich fuel and keep existing plants open. Citizen sentiment about nuclear power is more positive than it’s been in years. And more than 20 nations, including the U.S., pledged to triple installed nuclear power by 2050 during last year’s COP28 climate conference.

Despite that, the path to adding more nuclear power to the U.S. grid is as murky as ever. The country’s most promising new nuclear project, NuScale’s planned deployment of a small modular reactor in Idaho, fell apart late last year, and there’s no obvious next-best contender in the pipeline.

If successful, the Palisades restart could provide the American nuclear renaissance with a much-needed win — even if that means rousing an old reactor from its nap rather than starting up a shiny new one.


Nuclear industry critics take aim at liability cap extension

BY RACHEL FRAZIN - 03/28/24 6:00 AM ET


A smokestack with money on top of the image with a gavel on top of a stack of papers.Illustration / Samantha Wong; and Adobe Stock

Critics are warning that the recent government funding bill’s newly extended nuclear power liability cap could impact safety and prevent survivors from getting adequate compensation in the case of an accident. 

Congress’s 40-year extension of a law limiting how much money nuclear power companies are on the hook for prompted sighs of relief from the industry and supporters of the measure, who say the liability limit provides certainty for insurers and investors in the carbon-free power source.

But opponents of the extension fear it will disincentivize the industry from prioritizing the safety of nearby communities and hurt potential victims’ ability to secure adequate recompense if an accident were to occur.

Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said there are “very few actual mechanisms driving innovation to actually decrease risk to the public.”

He said removing the cap “would provide a strong incentive for reactor developers to truly put in features that would clearly reduce the risk of accidents.”

Thus far, concerns have been hypothetical, as the U.S. has not seen a nuclear accident whose damages have exceeded the law’s liability limits since it was first passed in 1957. 

“There have not been any commercial accidents or incidents with the U.S. fleet that have had public health consequences,” said Craig Piercy, executive director and chief executive officer of the American Nuclear Society. “I put its safety record up against any other technology that generates electrons.”

The Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979 in Pennsylvania is described by the Energy Department as having no direct health effects. But there are some studies that say there are increased cancer rates

But, critics say it only takes one incident. 

“I don’t think it’s likely … but it could happen,” said Victor Gilinsky, former commissioner with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a government nuclear safety board.

“We … have about 20, 25 reactors that are identical to the Fukushima reactors,” he added, referring to the site of a major 2011 nuclear accident in Japan following an earthquake and tsunami. “They’re the same design.”

The cap came about in the 1950s under the Price-Anderson Act, which sought to catalyze the nation’s nuclear power industry. 

The law requires nuclear power plants to have liability insurance to cover costs of up to $500 million. In the case of an accident, all of the country’s major nuclear plants — regardless of whether they were involved — would have to pay into an additional fund to compensate victims. 

In total, the maximum compensation from the fund and the insurance could be $16.1 billion, according to a nonpartisan Congressional Research Service report from January. 

Proponents of this approach say that it both helps the nuclear power industry stay viable and ensures the immediate availability of some compensation for survivors. They also note that it makes economical sense for insuring and investing in nuclear by providing certainty about the risk — thereby also making electricity cheaper for consumers.

“If all of a sudden Price-Anderson was taken away, it would mean much more expensive electricity [and] more carbon emissions down the line. It just would have been a bad thing for the U.S. [and] the world,” said Piercy.

He also said the law has provided a “a base level of protection” so that companies not only are willing to invest in nuclear but also to develop new nuclear technology. 

But, opponents say that in the case of a severe disaster, the maximum compensation would likely not be enough to cover the costs.

Lyman pointed to the cost of the Fukushima accident, which Japan has said could reach around $200 billion

“So if the scale of a nuclear disaster in the U.S. is anywhere near that order, there’s going to be a shortfall [of] at least tens, or even hundreds of billions of dollars,” he said.

The cap extension is not the only action Congress is eyeing to boost nuclear power. Recently, it provided up to $2.72 billion to bolster nuclear energy in another funding package. And, bipartisan and bicameral lawmakers are working on an additional nuclear package that they hope to advance in the months ahead.

“The extension of the Price-Anderson Act in the minibus sends a clear message that we are committed to the advancement of this safe and reliable power source, but this is only the first step,” Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) said in a written statement. 

“We must send bipartisan legislation to boost the development and deployment of new nuclear technologies to the president’s desk this year, and we are united in our commitment” to do so, the statement said.

RadWaste Monitor Vol. 17 No. 12
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RadWaste Monitor
Article 3 Of 8
 March 22, 2024
Fifth Circuit will not give NRC another chance to prove commercial interim storage is legal
By Dan Leone
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will have to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if it wants another chance to prove that it can legally license commercial interim storage of spent nuclear fuel.

According to an order dated March 14, judges of the Fifth Circuit voted 9-7, with one recused, not to rehear the NRC’s argument that the Atomic Energy Act authorizes the commission to license interim storage of spent fuel away from the reactors that generated it.
“We continue to adhere to our position that the judiciary has not only the authority but the duty to review the NRC’s actions, which may threaten significant environmental damage in the Permian Basin, one of the largest fossil fuel deposits in the world,” the court wrote in its opinion.
In August, as part of a lawsuit filed by the state of Texas, a panel of three Fifth Circuit judges ruled that the Atomic Energy Act did not give NRC this authority, effectively striking down a license the NRC granted to a joint venture of Waste Control Specialists and Orano to store spent fuel in Andrews County, Texas.
The Fifth Circuit’s ruling last year also killed a similar commercial interim storage license the NRC gave to Holtec International for a proposed facility in eastern New Mexico.
Three Fifth Circuit judges disagreed with the majority’s opinion last week, writing among other things that the court’s ruling will allow people to evade regulatory agencies using maneuvers with no basis in federal law.
“This exercise of jurisdiction has grave consequences for regulated entities’ settled expectations and careful investments in costly, time consuming agency proceedings, inviting spoilers to sidestep the avenues for participation that Congress carefully created to prevent this uncertainty,” the three dissenting judges wrote.
Among other things, NRC argued that Texas never participated in the commission’s debate about licensing the Andrews County facility and that therefore the state had no right to sue over the commission’s final licensing decision.
Meanwhile, the NRC continues to argue in a separate but related case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that the Atomic Energy Act allows the agency to license commercial interim storage of spent fuel.