I am a Three Mile Island baby.
What I mean is I was in college in 1979 when America’s first major nuclear plant accident occurred. I was 100 miles away. Had things gotten bad, and the wind changed….
Since then I’ve studied nuclear evacuation zones and how they are supposed to work.
That’s why I filed a federal Freedom of Information request one year ago seeking 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 U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s response to an open records request. How forthcoming would this important but often overlooked federal agency be?
The answer is in. The NRC failed The Watchdog’s test. They ignored my request for a full year. It wasn’t until I contacted them last week and reminded that I had a year-old request that was unfilled that they reacted. Otherwise, I’m fairly certain that my request would have gone unanswered forever.
Grade? I give the NRC an “F” for this.
When I made the request on Aug. 23, 2021, some of the facts about the fire were already publicly known. There was a fire in the plant’s main transformer that was put out by the plant’s fire department. External fire departments were not called in.
After that, the plant’s Unit 2 was shut down for two weeks for repairs, and then it went back online.
Our reporter, Marin Wolf, did an excellent job covering the event in two stories.
What I didn’t 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 points of combat.
Russia has taken control of two plants in Ukraine and is using them as weapons in the conflict. Nuclear plants there are crucial, highly-dangerous sites in the ongoing battle.
Reuters reported that the battle for control of one of the plants “could trigger catastrophe.”
Here in the U.S., the first new nuclear plant to power up in decades is getting ready to go online in Georgia.
For me, these developments gave my request more urgency.
The last study I made of the Comanche Peak evacuation plans was in 2011. I studied hundreds of pages of evacuation plans I received from the NRC through the Freedom of Information Act. Little details were somewhat alarming.
In the event of an evacuation, records stated that pets were not allowed in the “reception centers” outside the evacuation zones.
“Where possible, shelter livestock,” the plan stated. “Leave them with food and water.”
More advice: “Keep your car’s vents and windows closed while driving within 10 miles of the power plant. If you use your car air conditioning, set it on ‘inside’ or ‘maximum’ so it does not pull in outside air.”
“Residents are also advised to communicate with neighbors personally, rather than clogging phone lines.”
How would that happen if you’re in your car, with the vents closed, driving away?
It’s clear to me that chaos would ensue.
A bad battery
Four months after my initial FOIA request I sent the NRC a note with the subject line “Missing in Action.”
“Hello, I’m wondering what happened to my August 2021 FOIA request – NRC-2021-000233.”
I received an acknowledgement of my letter — but no records.
Obviously, this could have gone on forever. Did the NRC forget me?
Finally, last week, I revealed my experiment to the NRC in a note: “It wasn’t so much that I was interested in the information as I was testing your obedience to the FOIA law. Well, the test is over.”
Only then did I receive 45 pages of records from the NRC’s regional office in Arlington.
Flipping through, I see the August 2021 fire is barely mentioned. The package does not contain any incident reports, which I had requested. The records sent to The Watchdog are about post-fire inspections.
One “non-cited violation” found that operators of the plant, which is owned by Vistra Energy, “failed to maintain batteries associated with the steam generator fill pumps.” Those pumps are part of the process used to create steam which is converted into energy that ultimately yields electric power.
One battery was found to be dead, and the battery charger was missing, the inspection report stated.
That single violation was described in the report as being “of very low safety significance.”
Note that I requested any incident reports on the 2021 fire, but in the 45 pages, the word “fire” only appears 20 times.
‘Some valuable lessons’
A statement from the NRC arrived last week with the records. NRC spokesperson Victor Dricks wrote The Watchdog: “We acknowledge the length of 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 caused delays in our ability to provide you with all the documents you requested in a timely fashion. Looking back, I think we should have released any available documents to you as soon as we determined we could, instead of trying to present you with a complete set of records.
“We have learned some valuable lessons here regarding our processes and recognize that we should have kept you better informed on the status of your FOIA request. Thanks for your patience as I researched the matter. I hope this helps you better understand what happened.”
This is yet another example of a federal agency failing to follow the tenets 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 Three Mile Island baby, and this is serious stuff. In a world where nuclear plants become weapons of war, this is no time for secrets.
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