I’m a baby from Three Mile Island.
What I mean is, I was in college in 1979 when the first major nuclear accident in the United States happened. I was 100 km away. If things had gone wrong and the tide had changed….
Since then, I’ve studied nuclear evacuation zones and how they work.
That’s why I filed a federal freedom of information request a year ago for records of a June 7, 2021 fire inside the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant. The reactor is outside the city limits of Glen Rose, 60 miles southwest of downtown.
I wanted to test the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s response to an open records request. How open would this important but often overlooked federal agency be?
The answer is there. The NRC failed The Watchdog’s test. They ignored my request for an entire year. It wasn’t until I contacted them last week and reminded them that I had a year-old request that wasn’t fulfilled that they responded. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure my request would have gone unanswered forever.
To note? I give NRC an “F” for that.
When I made the request on August 23, 2021, some of the facts about the fire were already public knowledge. There was a fire in the plant’s main transformer which was extinguished by plant firefighters. Outside firefighters were not called.
After that, plant unit 2 was shut down for two weeks for repairs and then brought back online.
Our reporter, Marin Wolf, did an excellent job of covering the event in two articles.
What I did not know a year ago was that there would be a war between Russia and Ukraine, and that nuclear power plants would be used as strategic combat points.
Russia has taken control of two factories in Ukraine and is using them as weapons in the conflict. The nuclear power plants there are crucial and highly dangerous sites in the ongoing battle.
Reuters reported that the battle for control of one of the factories “could trigger a catastrophe”.
Here in the United States, the first new nuclear power plant to start up in decades is gearing up for commissioning in Georgia.
For me, these developments gave more urgency to my request.
The last time I studied evacuation plans for Comanche Peak was in 2011. I studied hundreds of pages of evacuation plans I received from the NRC through the Freedom of Information Act. The small details were somewhat alarming.
In the event of an evacuation, records indicated that pets were not permitted in “welcome centers” outside of the evacuation zones.
“Where possible, shelter livestock,” the plan read. “Leave them with food and water.”
More advice: “Keep your car’s air vents and windows closed when driving within 10 miles of the power plant. If you use your car’s air conditioning, set it to “indoor” or “maximum” so it doesn’t draw in outside air. »
“Residents are also advised to communicate personally with their neighbors, rather than blocking phone lines.”
What would it be like if you were in your car, with the air vents closed, driving away?
It is clear to me that chaos would ensue.
A bad battery
Four months after my first FOIA request, I sent the NRC a note with the subject “Missing in Action”.
“Hi, I’m wondering what happened to my August 2021 FOIA request – NRC-2021-000233.”
I received an acknowledgment of receipt of my letter – but no file.
Obviously, it could have gone on forever. Has the NRC forgotten me?
Finally, last week, I revealed my experience at the NRC in a note: “It wasn’t so much that I was interested in information that I was testing your obedience to FOIA law. Well, the test is over.
It was only then that I received 45 pages of documents from the NRC regional office in Arlington.
Flipping through, I see that the August 2021 fire is barely mentioned. The package does not contain any crash report, which I had requested. The files sent to The Watchdog relate to post-fire inspections.
An “uncited violation” revealed that operators at the plant, which is owned by Vistra Energy, “failed to maintain the batteries associated with the steam generator fill pumps.” These pumps are part of the process used to create steam which is converted into energy which ultimately produces electrical energy.
A battery was found to be dead and the battery charger was missing, according to the inspection report.
This single breach was described in the report as being “of very low safety significance”.
Note that I asked for incident reports on the 2021 fire, but in the 45 pages, the word “fire” appears only 20 times.
“Some Valuable Lessons”
A statement from the NRC arrived last week with the records. NRC spokesperson Victor Dricks wrote to The Watchdog: “We recognize the time it has taken to respond to your FOIA request.”
He wrote “there were many complex issues” that required federal interagency coordination with owner Vistra Energy.
“This has caused delays in our ability to provide you with all the documents you have requested in a timely manner. In retrospect, I think we should have released all of the available documents to you as soon as we determined we could, instead of trying to present you with a full set of documents.
“We learned valuable lessons here about our processes and recognize that we should have kept you better informed of the status of your FOIA request. Thank you for your patience while I investigated the matter. I hope this will help you better understand what happened.
This is yet another example of a federal agency failing to uphold the principles of the Freedom of Information Act. But how many federal agencies have their own evacuation plans designed to save lives in the event of a nuclear accident?
I’m a baby from Three Mile Island, and this is serious business. In a world where nuclear power plants are becoming weapons of war, this is no time for secrets.
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