At least some nuclear power plants in the US contain counterfeit parts that could pose significant risks, according to an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Those parts “raise nuclear safety and security concerns that could have serious consequences,” says the resulting report, published Feb. 9.
While concerns over safety and nuclear waste have plagued the nuclear power industry for decades, the new findings come amid growing enthusiasm for nuclear power as a zero-carbon energy source that could help countries meet their climate goals.
The investigation was conducted after unnamed individuals claimed that “most, if not all” nuclear power plants in the US have false or defective parts. The Inspector General’s office discovered problems with counterfeit parts in a few different factories during its investigation. The report also says that the DOE separately flagged 100 “incidents” involving counterfeit parts last year. It’s an issue the US will have to address if it continues to plan to include nuclear power in its clean energy transition. Without more scrutiny from the NRC, the report warns, the risk could increase that counterfeit parts go undetected in the country’s nuclear power plants.
As part of its investigation, the Inspector General’s office looked for parts that have been illegally modified to look like legitimate products, parts that have been “deliberately misrepresented to mislead”, and parts that do not meet product specifications. It sampled four power plants in the US and found evidence of counterfeit parts at one of those plants in the Midwest. It also points to nuclear power plants in the northeast, apart from the sampled, where a “well-placed NRC principal” found that counterfeit parts were involved in two separate component failures.
The first malfunction identified by the NRC boss was a water pump shaft used by emergency services that broke shortly after installation. At a separate factory in the northeast, temperature monitors in “safety-related areas” used to identify steam line breaks suddenly failed “at a significantly faster rate”. Prior to that failure, some instruments had been repaired with defective parts.
The NRC may be underestimating the prevalence of counterfeit parts, the report warns, because the regulatory body does not have a robust system for detecting problematic parts. It only requires factories to report counterfeits in extraordinary circumstances, such as if they lead to an emergency shutdown of a reactor. The report also notes that the NRC has not thoroughly investigated all allegations of counterfeiting. There were 55 nuclear power plants in the US as of September 2021, and the Inspector General’s office took only four for its report.
NRC Public Affairs Officer Scott Burnell told: The edge in an email that “nothing in the report indicates an immediate security risk. The office of the NRC’s Executive Director for Operations is thoroughly reviewing the report and will direct the agency’s program offices to take appropriate action.”
Other groups, including the Electric Power Research Institute and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), have also identified false valves, bearings, circuit breakers, tubing and structural steel in nuclear power plants in the US and abroad in recent years. They are a growing problem in the nuclear power sector and other industries around the world, states a 2019 IAEA report.
The debate over whether or not to step up nuclear power is escalating as countries make new commitments to fight climate change. The EU recently made a controversial proposal to classify nuclear energy as a sustainable investment, dividing members of the bloc. While Germany plans to shut down all of its remaining nuclear generators this year for safety reasons, France — which already relies on nuclear power for more electricity than any other country in the world — said yesterday it would build 14 new reactors.
Today, the US Department of Energy called for public input on a new $6 billion program to keep aging nuclear actors online. The bipartisan infrastructure bill is funding the program, which also plays into the Biden administration’s goal of achieving a 100 percent clean energy grid by 2035.