By Karl Grossman and Harvey Wasserman
Of all the daunting tasks Joe Biden faces, especially vital is the inspection of dangerously embrittled atomic reactors still operating in the United States.
A meltdown at any one of them would threaten the health and safety of millions of people while causing major impact to an already struggling economy. The COVID-19 pandemic would complicate and add to the disaster. A nuclear-power plant catastrophe would severely threaten accomplishments Biden is hoping to achieve in his presidency.
The problem of embrittlement is on the top of the list of nuclear-power concerns. The "average age" -- length of operation -- of nuclear-power plants in the U.S., the federal government's Energy Information Administration, reported in 2019, was 38 years. Click Here .
Now, in 2021, the "average age" of nuclear-power plants in the U.S. is 40 years -- the length of time originally seen when nuclear power began in the U.S. for how long plants could operate before embrittlement set in.
That's why the operating licenses originally issued for the plants were limited to 40 years.
Here's how Arnold "Arnie" Gundersen, a nuclear engineer with more than 44 years of experience in the nuclear industry, who became a whistleblower and is now chief engineer at Fairewinds Associates, explains embrittlement: "When exposed to radiation, metal becomes embrittled and eventually can crack like glass. The longer the radiation exposure, the worse the embrittlement becomes.
"A nuclear reactor is just like a pressure cooker and is a pot designed to hold the radioactive contents of the atomic chain reaction in the nuclear core," continues Gundersen, whose experience includes being a licensed Critical Facility Reactor Operator. "And metals in reactors are exposed to radiation every day a plant operates.
"If the reactor is embrittled and cracks," says Gundersen, "it's 'game over' as all the radiation can spew out into the atmosphere. Diablo Canyon [a twin-reactor facility in California] is the worst, the most embrittled nuclear-power facility in the U.S., but there are plenty of others that also could crack. Starting with Diablo, every reactor in the U.S. should be checked to determine they are too embrittled to continue to safely operate."
Metals inside a nuclear-power plant are bombarded with radiation, notes Gundersen. The steel used in reactor-pressure vessels -- which contain the super-hot nuclear cores -- is not immune.
Every U.S. reactor has an Emergency Core Cooling System and a Core Spray System to flood the super-hot core in the event of a loss-of-coolant accident.
Embrittled metal would shatter when hit with that cold water.
The ensuing explosion could then blow apart the containment structure -- as happened at the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear-power plants -- morphing into a radioactive plume moving into the atmosphere and be carried by the winds, dropping deadly fall-out wherever it goes.
This apocalyptic outcome was barely missed in Pennsylvania where, starting at 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, fuel inside the Three Mile Island Unit Two nuclear power plant began to melt.
Its Emergency Core Cooling System was activated. But only the year before -- in 1978 -- did the plant receive a license to operate and begin operating.
Had TMI, like so many of U.S. nuclear-power plants now, been decades old and its metal pressure vessel embrittled and had shattered -- a far greater disaster would have occurred. The entire northeastern U.S. could have been blanketed with deadly radioactivity.
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).