Fukushima-type disaster inevitable in U.S.?

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was to meet Tuesday to discuss sweeping new safety recommendations, after having just finished inspecting all 104 U.S. nuclear plants in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster.

On "The Early Show," CBS News Chief Investigative Correspondent Armen Keteyian spotlighted one of those facilities' post-Fukushima inspection reports.

Watts Bar, in Spring City, Tenn., is the last nuclear plant to be licensed in the U.S., and a textbook study of the pros and cons of nuclear power. It provides electricity to some 9 million people in seven states, yet is dogged with a long history of safety issues and whistle-blower lawsuits -- including six by a 71-year-old great-grandmother named Ann Harris.

If you walk through the front door of Harris's house in rural Tennessee, you'll meet one of the most unlikely and feared advocates of nuclear safety.

Harris said she "began as a clerk in instrumentation engineering at Watts Bar in construction on Unit 1. And I could barely spell 'nuclear' when I went to work."

What was the turning point in her work? "Basically," she replied, "the books are being cooked. People are saying things, they swear under oath it's been done, and it hadn't been done."

When Harris refused to sign a multimillion-dollar construction contract riddled with errors, she said, Tennessee Valley Authority executives told her that her career was over. Instead, it sparked a 28-year crusade devoted to preventing a nuclear accident.

Harris said, "You can see a Fukushima happening here in the U.S."

So it's not a matter of 'if,' it's a matter of -

"When," Harris finished the sentence.

CBS News has obtained a copy of a National Regulatory Commission (NRC) "Post Fukushima" Watts Bar report, dated May 2011. CBS News had two nuclear engineers look at the report. One gave Watts Bar a "D-" and called it "appalling." The other cited what he called more than 40 "disturbing findings" during a 40-hour inspection, including:

  • A lack of emergency responder training
  • Faulty control panels
  • Malfunctioning communications equipment
  • Issues with portable backup diesel generators

We asked David Lochbaum, a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists why the NRC isn't  pounding on the door of Watts Bar, saying, "Look we need these problems fixed?"

"I think the fact that there hasn't been a major reactor accident in the United States for over three decades allows the industry and the NRC to become complacent," Lochbaum said.

Are they just gambling, taking one huge risk with people's lives with these reactors, particularly Watts Bar?

Lochbaum replied, "In some respects, it's the biggest poker game in the country. You're playing high-stakes poker with American lives."

But Bill McCollum, chief operating officer of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the government-owned electricity corporation, said of Lochbaum's conclusion, "I think that's absurd."

McCollum says the NRC's findings are far-outweighed by safeguards built into Watts Bar.

McCollum said, "We're certainly gonna take those seriously, correct those issues. And then, even beyond that, our own reviews of the events in Japan have shown us that we have opportunities to bring in additional backup equipment that will make our response even more robust."

Tucked into the foothills of Eastern Tennessee, Watts Bar took 23 years to build, at a cost of nearly $8 billion. It was shut down in the mid-1980s over an avalanche of safety issues. In 1986, one independent report alone documented 5,081 "concerns."

Roger Hannah, senior public affairs officer for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told CBS News, "The NRC treats every single allegation very seriously. It doesn't matter what the source. It doesn't matter what the subject. We look at it, we screen those allegations. We have done that for years. All the allegations that were provided over the years at Watts Bar have been addressed in one way or another. If we had doubts about the ability of TVA to operate the Watts Bar plant safely, we would not allow that plant to operate."

So he'd shut it down?

Hannah replied, "Absolutely."

To that end, TVA executives gave CBS News an extensive tour of Watts Bar's reactor and its twin, Watts Bar 2, scheduled to go online next fall.

They showed us diesel-powered generators -- one of four critical back-up systems to keep water flowing to the reactor, preventing a meltdown. They also showed CBS News the main control room, said to be able to shut down the reactor in less than three seconds.

You'll have to pardon Ann Harris if she's heard it all before. She's won a record six whistle-blower lawsuits against Watts Bar over issues like millions of feet of faulty electrical cable, and says she's paid a price for speaking out.

There have certainly been attempts at intimidation, recrimination and really, threats on your life?

Harris responded, "Yes. They ran me off the road. They wired my car for firebombing. They dropped the universal joint out of my car."

Harris left the TVA in 1997, but she's still taking late-night calls from whistle-blowers, still driven to hold the TVA and NRC accountable, standing square in the cross-hairs of the nuclear power debate.

In Part Two of our report, we'll take a close look at the very personal impact of a culture war at Watts Bar.

  • Armen Keteyian

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