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Chernobyl-Type Accident Likely in U.S. in 20 Years, Regulator Says

May 23, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The nuclear industry has maintained for weeks that a Chernobyl-type accident couldn’t happen in the United States. But a federal regulator says an accident at a U.S. reactor could release comparable levels of radiation.

″Our reactors were not designed for large-scale core melt accidents,″ Nuclear Regulatory Commission member James Asselstine said Thursday at a House hearing.

Unless further safety steps are taken, ″We can expect to see a core melt accident in the next 20 years and possibly a radiation release equal to or greater than the one at Chernobyl,″ he said.

Fifteen people have died so far as a result of the April 26 accident in the Soviet Union, hundreds more were hospitalized with radiation sickness and 92,000 were evacuated from an 18-mile radius around the plant.

Soviet officials said for the first time Thursday that some evacuees had begun returning to their homes.

The five-member NRC was called before the House energy conservation and power subcommittee to discuss nuclear safety, a subject on which Asselstine frequently parts ways with his four colleagues.

Speaking for the commission majority, NRC Chairman Nunzio Palladino asserted that despite some unresolved safety issues, U.S. plants are safe.

He said the likelihood of a core melt accident in the next 20 years, previously estimated at 45 percent, was put at 12 percent in a more recent study of plants with safety improvements ordered after the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident.

In a lengthy opening statement marked by a number of complaints, subcommittee chairman Edward Markey, D-Mass., accused the commission of ″nukespeak″ because plant failures are called ″events″; of defining ″undue risk″ as existing only when people are actually radiated; of encouraging the nuclear industry to regulate itself; of perpetuating secrecy about nuclear safety domestically and internationally; and of failing to adequately upgrade plant safety.

Markey said an NRC-provided list of the 10 most serious plant incidents last year revealed patterns of utility mismanagement and regulatory neglect.

″We don’t like these incidents any more than you do,″ Palladino responded. ″But the fact that we’ve coped with them should provide some degree of assurance that we’ve done things right.″

Markey criticized the NRC for allowing a safety review of all Babcock & Wilcox reactors to be conducted by the owners of the reactors. He also cited an NRC policy of deferring action in areas in which the industry has set up self-improvement programs.

″There’s no deregulation going on here,″ replied Commissioner Fred Bernthal. ″There’s an attempt to get things done better and faster.″

Markey charged that the commission has made one industry group, the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations, ″a branch of government ... a wing of the NRC.″

The group conducts reactor safety reviews and submits the results to the NRC on the condition the information be kept confidential.

″This information in many cases has very profound safety implications,″ Markey said. He said the commission should not agree to keep it secret and should also work out new arrangements with other countries, which have given it information on their reactors on the condition it not be made public.

All five commissioners said their sources at home and abroad would dry up if they didn’t agree to confidentiality and praised the Institute for improving plant safety during its five years of existence.

But Asselstine said the Institute had failed to prevent serious incidents last year at the Rancho Seco nuclear plant near Sacramento, Calif., and the Davis-Besse facility near Toledo, Ohio. He also said the Institute had not averted ″the collapse″ of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s nuclear power generating capacity. TVA’s five reactors in Alabama and Tennessee are all shut down for safety reasons.

Asked to name the five safest and five least safe plants, Palladino said he would submit his list in writing. But Asselstine, Bernthal and Commissioner Lando Zech named several they said were well-run and others they said had problems.

The informal list of problem plants included the TVA reactors; Rancho Seco; Davis-Besse; LaSalle near Ottawa, Ill.; Oyster Creek near Toms River, N.J.; Pilgrim near Plymouth, Mass.; Turkey Point near Laguna Beach, Fla.; Fermi near Detroit; and Fort St. Vrain near Platteville, Colo.

Among the best-run plants, according to the three commissioners, are Kewanee near Green Bay, Wis.; Monticello and Prairie Island near Minneapolis; Farley near Dothan, Ala.; Millstone near New London, Conn.; and plants operated by Duke Power Co. in North Carolina and South Carolina.

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