In its second annual report on the safety of nuclear power facilities (PDF) in the United States, the Union of Concerned Scientists have documented 15 troubling lapses–what they call “near misses”–at 13 of the nation’s atomic plants. The study details specific problems that still want for repairs, but much more disturbing, it also outlines systemic flaws in America’s nuclear regulation and oversight regime.
The problems range from aging and improperly maintained safety systems to unforgivably long delays in the implementation of Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules on fire suppression and seismic security:
We found that the NRC is allowing 47 reactors to operate despite known violations of fire-protection regulations dating back to 1980. The NRC is also allowing 27 reactors to operate even though their safety systems are not designed to protect them from earthquake-related hazards identified in 1996. Eight reactors suffer from both afflictions. The NRC established safety regulations to protect Americans from the inherent hazards of nuclear power plants. However, it is simply not fulfilling its mandate when it allows numerous plant owners to violate safety regulations for long periods of time.
The report also notes instances where nuclear workers were needlessly exposed to unsafe levels of radiation, and plants where failure to follow basic protocols had rendered backup systems functionally useless.
But perhaps most alarming (if not actually surprising) were the UCS findings on how the NRC handled Component Design Bases Inspections, or CDBIs:
Inspectors are supposed to use CDBIs to determine whether owners are operating and maintaining their reactors within specifications approved during design and licensing. Some of the problems concerned containment vent valves, battery power sources, and emergency diesel generators—components that affected the severity of the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant in Japan.
While it was good that the NRC identified these problems, each CDBI audits only a very small sample of possible trouble spots. For example, the CDBI at the Harris nuclear plant in North Carolina examined just 31 safety-related items among literally thousands of candidates. That audit found 10 problems. Beyond ensuring that the plant’s owner corrected those 10 problems, the NRC should have insisted that it identify and correct inadequacies in the plant’s testing and inspection regimes that allowed these problems to exist undetected in the first place. The true value of the CDBIs stems from the weaknesses they reveal in the owners’ testing and inspection regimes. But that value is realized only when the NRC forces owners to remedy those weaknesses.
In other words, it’s nice that you made the good folks at Harris fix those problems, but when a preliminary audit reveals a one-third failure rate, perhaps that plant has earned itself a full top-to-bottom inspection. (The UCS goes even further, recommending that when a nuclear facility operator–like an Exelon or Entergy–has more than one plant that fails an inspection, that company’s entire fleet of reactors should be subject to NRC review.)
As a matter of fact, the Union goes so far as to criticize the NRC’s entire approach to inspections, explaining that the job of regulators is not just to catch deficiencies and fix them. The entire process, UCS stresses, should compel plant managers to operate in such a way that ensures there will be no problems to catch–and so ensures that nuclear plants operate with the safety of its employees and the community at large as a top priority.
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The Union of Concerned Scientists is a great resource. They keep a close watch on the nuclear industry, and do so with an unassailable level of scientific and technical expertise. They are critical of nuclear power as it exists today, but it would be a mistake to call them anti-nuclear. They advocate for safe energy and a clean environment, but if you read their work regularly, it is hard to say they are calling for an end to a certain technology. It makes the nuclear safety paper all the more damning, but it also poses a bit of a paradox.
In fact, reading this report brings to mind the joke about the economist on the desert island. Don’t know it? It goes something like this:
A physicist, a chemist and an economist are stranded and starving on a dessert island when they discover a can of soup that has washed ashore. But there’s a problem, how will they open the can?
The physicist says that with just right length of fallen tree as a lever, and just the right sized rock as a fulcrum, they could knock the top off the can.
“Ridiculous,” says the economist, “you will either smash the can or send it flying. Either way, the soup will splatter across the beach.”
The chemist says that he can analyze the list of ingredients and calculate just how hot they need to get the can in order to expand the soup enough to blow the can open.
“Insane,” says the economist, “if the can explodes, the soup will explode with it. We’ll be lucky to salvage a spoonful.”
“OK, then,” say the physicist and chemist in unison, “what do you propose?”
The economist strikes a thoughtful pose and says, “Assume we have a can opener. . . .”
Perhaps it is not fair to compare an association of scientists to the economist in this story, but UCS goes to admirable length describing the repeated failures of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission–about how the NRC falls short, from rule-making, to inspections, to enforcement–and then essentially says that if America’s nuclear plants are to operate safely, the NRC needs to “aggressively enforce its safety regulations.” Assume we had a regulatory body capable of regulating.
The Union says that the nuclear regulators are not doing their job–and they go further, noting that Congress has also failed by tolerating a flaccid Nuclear Regulatory Commission–but, mirroring the report’s critique of the NRC, the UCS focuses on individual incidents without addressing the systemic problem.
The NRC has had 37 years to evolve from the advocacy-oriented Atomic Energy Commission, the regulatory body’s predecessor, and yet it is still behaving as the nuclear industry’s watchful parent, rather than its top cop. Don’t just take this report as an example (well, 15 examples), look to an in-depth investigation done last summer by the Associated Press that documented the cozy relationship between plant owners and their supposed watchdogs.
The congressional committees that are supposed to provide the NRC with oversight are dominated by politicians beholden to the nuclear lobby for campaign contributions. This winter’s attempted coup against NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko is only the latest in a long list of Capitol Hill follies designed to distract from the problems at hand and delay any increased regulation. Indeed, the problems with lax regulation and laxer oversight have plagued the system so long, it could be argued this is not a bug (as they say), but a feature.
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Calling the 15 gross failures by operators and regulators “near misses” might get headlines because it sounds so ominous, however it is possible that the rubric actually downplays the problem. “Near misses” implies a bullet dodged, a past event, but the incidents highlighted, as well as the overall critique of the process, illustrate an ongoing crisis. These are not so much “near misses” as they are disasters in waiting.
Indeed, even what the report calls “positives”–three (yes, only three) instances where NRC intervention corrected a safety problem in time to prevent an accident–seem more like lucky breaks. For example, the government forced the operators of Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun nuclear plant to improve their flood protection, and in fact, the new equipment was able to protect the facility form a massive flood last summer. But the inflatable levees that were used to keep the flood waters at bay were just barely high enough to avoid being crested, and one even sprang a leak. Had the flooding continued just a little longer, the catastrophe that the UCS report gives the NRC credit for preventing would have likely occurred.
But even if you extend credit for keeping back the flood, what if (and not to get too biblical here) it was not a flood, but a fire? Fort Calhoun is among the 47 plants listed in the report as still not meeting the decades-old fire safety standards. As someone once remarked about another nuclear plant accident, the NRC is getting “credit for the grace of God.”
Alas, God has proven to be an uneven regulator, too. Those who had the misfortune of living downwind of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or Fukushima have learned the Lord regulates in mysterious ways. Does the Union of Concerned Scientists really believe that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can change radically enough to force sufficient safety upgrades on US nuclear plants to assure that no Fukushima-like (or even Fukushima-light) accident will ever happen here?
It is hard to believe they do. The report’s full title, after all, is “The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety: Living on Borrowed Time.”
While a stronger regulatory body is a good idea–and one strongly urged by the UCS–the report provides no way to achieve that goal. Given the problems and the history, it is hard to believe even the best scientists in the field have an answer to nuclear safety’s political impediments.
So, given that, what should be the real conclusion of the Union’s report? It would be the same as the conclusion reached by any honest observer of nuclear power: atomic power–too dirty, too dangerous, and too expensive.
In the short-term, sure, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission needs to do a better job of policing plant safety–but in the long-term, this part of the NRC’s mandate needs to disappear along with its unstable, untenable, and un-regulatable target.