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Greenpeace: Cracks in Western Reactors Heighten Meltdown Risk

March 26, 1993

LONDON (AP) _ The most common Western nuclear reactors are developing cracks that greatly increase the risk of a meltdown, Greenpeace said in a report issued today.

Pressurized water reactors - built by American, French and Japanese companies - should all undergo comprehensive inspections, and those with cracks should be shutdown immediatedly, said Antony Frogatt of the international environmental group.

Cracks have been found in 13 of 18 French reactors that have been inspected. Cracks also were found in all three pressure water reactors in Sweden, one in Switzerland and one in Belgium, the Greenpeace report said.

″The key components are wearing out, which may well lead to their functioning incorrectly at a key time,″ Frogatt said. ″Often these failures cannot be detected.″

Greenpeace accused power companies and authorities responsible for the reactors of not taking the threat seriously.

″Inspection programs are haphazard and unsystematic, and in the country with the most to fear - the United States - have not begun at all,″ it said.

Joe Fouchard, spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington, said the cracking ″has not become a problem here. ... But we are developing a program with American utilities to inspect for these cracks.″

Carl Goldstein, a spokesman for the U.S. Council for Energy Awareness, the communications arm of the nuclear industry, said the cracking ″is not a catastrophic phenomenon. ... It is a preoccupation, and we are looking at it.

″It’s unfortunate that Greenpeace, in order to be heard, has to talk in apocalyptic terms.″

The first cracks were discovered in September 1991 during a routine test on a French 900-megawatt pressurized water reactor. They were discovered in the huge pressurized container that holds the burning nuclear core.

Greenpeace said the cracks are occurring in tubes at the top of the pressurized container that carry the control rods into the nuclear core. Control rods are the basic safety component of nuclear power plants because they can stop the nuclear chain reaction.

If enough control rods could not enter into the reactor core in an emergency, operators could not immediately stop the nuclear reaction, which could lead to a meltdown and the release of dangerous radiation.

The reactors at highest risk of developing the cracks appear to be those that use a nickel alloy called Inconel-600 in the control rod tubes, Greenpeace said.

These reactors were built by the American companies Westinghouse, Babcock & Wilcox and Combustion Engineering; Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of Japan; and the French firm Framatome.

There are 188 pressurized water reactors operating in the United States, France, Japan, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, South Korea, Germany, Brazil and South Africa.

Greenpeace said it did not know how many used Inconel-600.

Frogatt said nuclear experts first suspected stress was causing the cracking, but now realize the problem is far more complex and do not know why it is happening or whether Inconel-600 is the sole cause.

The Greenpeace report was written by Helmut Hirsch and Thomas Panten, nuclear engineers with Gruppe Oekologie in Hannover, Germany; Norbert Meyer and Detlef Rieck, nuclear engineers formerly working in nuclear power plants in East Germany; and Mycle Schneider of the World Information Service on Energy in Paris.

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