Breaking: NRC Cites San Onofre Nuclear Plant for Lapse in Security

An aerial view of the troubled San Onofre Generating Station. (photo: Jelson25 via Wikipedia)

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission hit Southern California Edison’s San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) with a violation for what it called a lapse in plant security, the agency announced late Thursday.

The NRC noted the violation during a four-day inspection in May. SONGS has been completely offline since January, when a radioactive leak led to the discovery of severely degraded heat exchanger tubes in both of the plant’s (nominally) operating reactors. (In July, the NRC released its report on the tube failures, saying that although plant operators had made major design changes that affected the stability of the tubes, they had not violated any laws.)

Regulators said Edison “failed to develop procedures to monitor electronic devices related to security,” but the NRC has withheld most of the details of the violation.

San Onofre has a long list of safety and security problems dating back long before the latest tube debacle. In January, around the same time as the radioactive leaks, a SONGS worker accidentally fell into one of the facility’s spent fuel storage pools while trying to retrieve a dropped flashlight. And just two weeks ago, an investigation uncovered a staggering number of fire safety violations that continue to go uncorrected, despite previous NRC warnings.

Thursday’s notice of violation comes just days after a high-ranking official on California’s Public Utilities Commission said that SCE and San Diego Gas & Electric should not be allowed to collect revenue on a plant that is not generating any electricity:

Joseph P. Como, head of the PUC’s Division of Ratepayer Advocates, sent a letter to the commissioners this week stating they should “remove [San Onofre] from Southern California Edison’s … and San Diego Gas & Electric’s… rate base now instead of waiting several more months and allowing hundreds of millions of dollars in needless costs to be borne by customers.”

And, as noted in the Orange County Register, that cost is substantial:

Edison, the plant’s operator, is charging ratepayers about $54 million per month for a nonproducing plant, the letter said. Edison holds 78 percent of the plant’s ownership, SDG&E owns 20 percent, and Riverside 1.8 percent, the CPUC said.

While the PUC has a provision to investigate rate cuts when plants are down for over nine months (which would be November and December for the two SONGS reactors), Como noted that San Onofre is almost certain not to restart before then, if it is ever to restart at all. The full commission has twice postponed votes on an earlier investigation.

In moving for earlier action, Como referenced a 1982 decision that upheld rules requiring that power plants actually function to be included in the rate base. The California Supreme Court agreed, saying a facility must be “used and useful.”

“It seems very obviously that a fundamental prerequisite for a power generator to be considered “used and useful” is that it actually be generating power,” Como writes. “SONGS does not meet this test.”

Southern California Edison released a letter stating that it looks forward to working with the commission through the normal, long, dragged-out process.

As for the security violation, all the utility would say was that the problem had been addressed.

Word of the latest SONGS violation comes the same week as an NRC announcement of an investigation into violations at North Carolina’s Harris Nuclear Plant [PDF], and a demand from Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) that the regulator’s Inspector General investigate the way the NRC handled the restart of Davis-Besse after cracks were discovered in its containment building.

Edison may think it has addressed its problems, and the NRC might think its process addresses the problems of the country’s nuclear fleet as a whole, but the regular drumbeat of security and safety violations coupled with the perpetual fleecing of the public till calls for a paraphrase of a famous line from the movie The Princess Bride: Address. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Does the Netroots Care about Nuclear Power?

Van Jones speaking to the faithful at this year’s Netroots Nation conference in Providence, RI – June 9, 2012.

On Thursday, June 7, as hundreds of online journalists and activists gathered in Providence, Rhode Island for the seventh annual Netroots Nation conference to discuss what were deemed the most pressing issues of the day, a smaller group made up of nuclear industry representatives and officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the US Department of Energy got together 400 miles south to discuss matters they thought even more urgent. While the attendees in the Ocean State were getting training on “how to navigate the action-packed schedule at Netroots Nation [and] survive on two hours sleep (and still be alert for a day of panels!),” owners of the nation’s aging nuclear facilities pursued doubling the length of new operating licenses, floating the possibility that reactors will be allowed to run into their 80th year–twice the original design life of most plants.

As bloggers, organizers, pundits and politicians were discovering the charms of the Beehive of Industry (yes, that is one of Providence’s nicknames), inspectors at Davis-Besse, the oft-discussed, always troubled nuclear power plant near Toledo, Ohio were reporting what they termed a “pinhole” leak releasing about a gallon of radioactive coolant every 10 minutes. The reactor had been shut down for refueling, maintenance and safety inspections, but was supposed to restart last week. . . before the leak was discovered in a pipe weld. (Though the reason behind the leak has yet to be determined, FirstEnergy, Davis-Besse’s owner, has now resumed the restart. . . without so much as a raised eyebrow from regulators.)

This incident at Davis-Besse comes not so very long after the Ohio primary, where the safety of the plant and trustworthiness of its owners and regulators was an issue in the race between two sitting Democratic members of Congress–Representatives Dennis Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur. Forced to run against each other because of redistricting, the plight of Davis-Besse became a defining issue between the two, with Kucinich calling for the plant to remain off-line until the cause of cracks in the containment structure was determined, while Kaptur affirmed her faith in FirstEnergy. Kaptur argued that the failing facility meant jobs for the struggling district–a district that was drawn to favor Kaptur’s old base–and in the end, beat Kucinich for the Democratic nod.

Following this latest breach in safety, Representative-for-another-six-months Kucinich has petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Inspector General (PDF) for an investigation into the NRC’s lax supervision of Davis-Besse.

As the netroots community and representatives of organized labor pondered in Providence whither the union movement in the wake of the Wisconsin recall results, 250 actual union workers, locked out of their jobs at Massachusetts Pilgrim nuclear plant (a short drive from the Rhode Island Convention Center), some for as long as 10 weeks, were filing a five-point grievance with the National Labor Relations Board. The union accused Pilgrim’s operator, Entergy, of coercive and threatening behavior leading up to a June 2 vote on a new labor contract. The workers overwhelmingly rejected the contract a week after the NRC granted Entergy a 20-year license extension for the plant–and 10 days after Pilgrim had to scram because of reduced vacuum in the plant’s condenser.

That there would be problems at a plant where replacement workers have been complaining that they are being asked to do jobs outside their expertise hardly seems surprising. That an ongoing labor action, safety concerns and licensing fight happening just two counties away from Providence would not be an issue at the Netroots Nation convention is a bit more vexing.

While conventioneers in Providence listened to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman explain his relative lack of action on the foreclosure fraud crisis as somehow part of what he called a “transformational moment,” members of Pilgrim Watch, a citizen’s group opposed to the Massachusetts nuclear plant, were in court demanding that regulators do more to require post-Fukushima lessons learned be incorporated in required upgrades to Pilgrim’s GE Mark I boiling water reactor (the exact same design as those at Fukushima Daiichi). Activist groups have mounted similar (and additional) legal challenges to the relicensing of Vermont Yankee, another ancient Mark I reactor well into its break-down phase. And in New York, public activism mounts as the Indian Point reactors approach their relicensing hearing.

In fact, Friday, as Netroots Nation attendees wondered why there was a 90-minute gap in the midday schedule (word is conference organizers were hoping to bag the president or vice president as a lunchtime keynote, and the extra time was allotted for additional security. In case you missed it, the closest the conference got to any high-level White House official was a new campaign video, introduced on tape by Obama), the DC Court of Appeals handed down an important decision that could have broad implications for the future of domestic commercial nuclear power. A three-judge panel unanimously ruled that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was negligent in the way it evaluated plant safety because regulators assumed a solution to the country’s long-term radioactive waste storage crisis when none currently exists.

If you were watching your twitter feed, you might have caught this. If you were sitting in on any of Friday afternoon’s Netroots panels, this ruling probably didn’t come up.

Indeed, throughout the three-plus days of panels, training sessions, caucuses and keynotes, attendees quite likely heard no mention of nuclear power, its persistent threats to safety, its drastic drain on the budget, its onerous oppression of workers or its brazen gouging of rate-payers. For, while there were well over 100 panels, and dozens of other training sessions and caucuses, nothing on the schedule even made a passing attempt to address nuclear energy here in the United States or the ongoing (and growing) crisis of radioactive contamination from Fukushima spreading across the globe.

It would be one thing if this were purely fodder for wonks and science geeks, but as demonstrated above, and in over a year’s worth of columns, nuclear power touches on many (if not most) of the issues considered to be core concerns of the netroots movement. Corporate greed, captured government, worker rights, environmental justice, and a lazy legacy media–its all part and parcel of the nuclear narrative.

And it might not be worth a few precious hours of conference schedule if the fight against nuclear power and its acolytes were a lost cause, but in this post-Fukushima moment (and, yes, we are still in it), the country and the world stand at a crossroads. While the US government seems hell-bent on backstopping a failing, flailing industry, other countries are using this crisis to step back from the next potential nuclear nightmare and commit to a cleaner, renewable energy future. Meanwhile, here in the United States, engaged communities of activists and concerned citizens are organizing to fight on the local level for the protections their federal government has failed to deliver.

The appeals court decision on Friday is a monument, really, to the years of hard work put in by individuals and organizations across the country–and it is a monumental opportunity to learn from this success and build the future of the anti-nuclear movement.

It is a movement that could benefit greatly from the online organizing tools that have breathed so much life into the netroots, but the netroots, too, could learn a few things from the anti-nuclear movement. Providence, with its physical proximity to Pilgrim, and its temporal proximity to so many developments on the nuclear front, would have seemed like a golden opportunity. But the organizers of Netroots Nation appeared to have other priorities.

While the good folks at NIRS–the Nuclear Information and Resource Service–where awarded a booth in the exhibition hall at the Providence convention center, veterans of the conference know there is quite a different level of engagement when it comes to the booths, versus what happens at panels and speeches. (This is to take nothing away from NIRS, which had a table filled with great information, much of which can also be found on their website.)

Fired up?

Some noise was made, quite publicly, as a matter of fact, about this year’s Netroots convention being friendlier to the Obama administration. “I think people are generally on board [with Obama's reelection effort],” said Raven Brooks, the executive director of Netroots, as he explained to Talking Points Memo that this year’s convention would be relatively free of the confrontation that met White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer at the 2011 conference.

“People are fired up about 2012,” said Mary Rickles, who is communications director for Netroots, noting in the same TPM article that she expected an administration presence at this year’s conference. (Again, unless you count Schneiderman, there was none.)

Inside the convention center, Van Jones–briefly part of the Obama administration until driven out by a rightwing witch-hunt, and cofounder of Rebuild the Dream–headlined the last night of speeches. Jones, himself a longtime advocate for renewable energy, instead turned to a theme he has hit often in recent years: that while some might be disappointed with the pace of progress, in the end, it is not Obama’s failing, it is ours. But this time, it being an election year, and everyone thusly “fired up,” Jones put it this way: “We have two tasks: to re-elect the president and re-energize the movement to hold the president accountable.”

Quoting Jones in an email announcing next year’s convention, Brooks underscored the point:

After November has come and gone, our job of pushing for the strongest possible progressive policies will begin in earnest. In short, we’ve got to step up our game.

Inspiring thoughts, perhaps, but ones completely contrary to the way electoral politics has worked in this country about as far back as anyone can remember. Making demands of office-seekers after you’ve pledged your vote is not just cart-before-the-horse, it’s asinine and ass-backwards.

The netroots played a roll in the election of Barack Obama in 2008, though in the eyes of the now-POTUS, not an overly large one. After the election, Team Obama moved quickly to rein in the less-predictable elements of its grassroots campaign while one-by-one riding roughshod over most of the issues that mattered to left-leaning bloggers and online activists. Previous NetNat attendees had a right to boo Obama surrogates, and the folks charged with re-electing the president should be taught to fear that wrath–if not through activism, at least by way of apathy.

Mitt Romney would no doubt make a dismal president–but that is not the point. This election will be decided by turnout, and the Obama campaign will need to motivate parts of his base such as the netroots with reasons to get out and vote for his second term. If online activists want something from Obama in return for going to the polls, the time to demand that, the time to get that on paper–or in pixels–is before election day, not after.

After, Obama doesn’t need you anymore. It’s called a lame duck term for many reasons, but one of them is that the president can easily duck any kind of obligation some might feel he should have to his blandly loyal netizens.

Which brings us back to nuclear power and Netroots Nation. It is not a secret that one of Obama’s great benefactors in past elections has been Exelon, the nuclear giant that not only gave heavily to the 2008 campaign, but once employed both former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, once a senior Obama advisor and now Communications Director for his 2012 campaign. Obama’s steadfast support for nuclear power–making the point, not once, but twice, in the first weeks after the Fukushima crisis began, to publicly assure that the US commitment to nuclear was strong–now puts him at odds with many countries in the industrialized world, but, more important here, it has always put him at odds with many in the online progressive community. It would be sad to think that conference organizers decided against any anti-nuclear content in an effort to keep this year’s Netroots Nation “onboard” with and “fired up” about a possible administration presence.

But it would be even sadder to think that the fault lies not in these self-anointed stars, but in ourselves. While chances are if you are reading this you have at least some degree of interest in nuclear issues, is it possible that what once was called the “blogosphere” (but now should be considered something more) does not see nuclear power, the looming environmental catastrophe and financial sinkhole it presents, as relevant? Is it that the almighty and always invisible atom is just not as juicy as, say, fracking, or anything with the word “occupy” in it?

That would be a shame–and a mistake–for it is all part of a piece. The work of occupiers across this country over the last year is to be applauded, but some of the things central to the protests, a broken system, a captured government filthy with corporate cash, are central to the fight against nuclear power, as well. And while hydrofracking represents a tremendous threat to our water supply and our climate, and so should be protested full bore, its current profitability might make it less sensitive to activism than nuclear power at this point in its history.

Without government support–without the federal loan guarantees, the Price-Anderson indemnity, state and local tax breaks and rate subsidies–the commercial nuclear power industry would collapse. There would be few demands for license renewals because few plants would turn a profit.

And without a government-run long-term waste repository, the nuclear industry faces even more safety and financial concerns. The lack of storage options is actually a crisis for nuclear operators–and a threat to the safety of a majority of Americans. What this country does with its atomic waste has always been a political issue, too–and it has played out on the political stage throughout this past year. It is an issue that is very sensitive to old-time, easy to grasp, electoral politics, and so it is one sensitive to the newfangled tools of internet organizing.

So, between environmentalists and budget wonks, between regulatory hawks and electoral junkies, and between old-line environmental activists and 21st Century online organizers there is much to discuss. Let’s hope that no matter who is running for whatever office next year, the netroots, and the Netroots Nation conference, find the time and space–and the political will–to engage the dirty, dangerous and expensive threat of nuclear power.

*  *  *

[Full disclosure: I had submitted a panel proposal for the 2012 Netroots Nation conference, and though it was given consideration and, I am told, was in the running till the end, it was not included in the final schedule. The panel was to be called "Clean, Safe, and Too Cheap to Meter? Countering Nuclear's Lies in a Post-Fukushima Landscape," and while I was disappointed at not having this opportunity, the far bigger concern for me was that conference organizers chose not to include any sessions on nuclear issues at all. One year's personal slight is not really a big deal; ignoring the obvious and broad importance of this topic, however, signals a bigger problem.]

Score One for Big Nuclear: Kaptur Bests Kucinich in Ohio Primary

Davis-Besse and its critic, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D OH-9). (photos: NRC & Rep. Kucinich)

Fifteen-term House veteran Marcy Kaptur has defeated seven-term incumbent Dennis Kucinich in Tuesday’s primary for Ohio’s 9th congressional district. Rep. Kucinich previously represented OH-10, but was forced to compete with Kaptur when Ohio lost two seats in the last census. Republicans in the Ohio State House (with the blessing of US House Speaker–and OH-8 Representative–John Boehner) merged two Democratic strongholds into a new 9th district that included parts of Kucinich’s Cleveland base, but was dominated by Kaptur’s old Toledo constituency.

With nine-tenths of precincts reporting, Kaptur leads Kucinich, 60 to 39 percent.

Both members of the progressive caucus, Kucinich and Kaptur have been on the same side of many issues–each has a 95 rating from the AFL-CIO and a 100 percent score from the ACLU–but, as John Nichols points out, they had their differences, too:

Kucinich, who for many years voted with opponents of reproductive rights, switched his position before the 2004 presidential election and ran this year as the more socially liberal contender. Kaptur, the longest-serving woman in the House and a champion of many feminist causes, was ranked as “mixed choice” by NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Kucinich was also a stronger critic of America’s military follies, and pointed out that Kaptur, the Democrats’ number two on the powerful Appropriations Committee, should have pushed harder for cuts in defense spending.

But for readers of this column, one of the clearest dividing lines between the two Ohio pols was drawn earlier this year when Kucinich and Kaptur both attended a public forum on the future of one of America’s most troubled nuclear plants. The Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station, near Oak Harbor, Ohio, rests inside of Kaptur’s old OH-9, just east of Kucinich’s current district, and, well, it’s had some problems:

[In November 2011] a fire at Ohio’s crippled Davis-Besse facility cut ventilation to the reactor control room. A faulty valve in a pipe sending water to the reactor core leaked on an electrical switchbox, triggering an electrical arc, which started the fire. This could have been a potentially catastrophic emergency. . . had the reactor not been shut down seven weeks earlier to replace an already once previously replaced, corroded, 82-ton reactor lid. This “transplant operation” revealed a 30-foot crack in the concrete shield building that will require a separate repair program. . . .

That repair program is still nowhere near completion. And all of this was on top of acid leaks years earlier that caused some of the worst corrosion ever seen at a US reactor–a lapse that cost plant operator FirstEnergy some $33 million in government fines and civil penalties.

But with all that on the table, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission still gave its thumbs-up to a reactor restart in December. Then, one day after the OK, FirstEnergy admitted it had withheld news of new cracks discovered on a different part of Davis-Besse a month earlier. But FirstEnergy said it had only hidden that information from the public–the NRC had been clued in. So, the nuclear regulator knew of the latest problems and still gave the go-ahead to a restart.

And the reason we know all of this is because of Rep. Dennis Kucinich.

An ardent critic of Davis-Besse for years, Kucinich called for a public meeting with the NRC and FirstEnergy before the new Ohio district lines were announced. And it was at this meeting in early January where some of the latest news was revealed–along with the contrasting positions of Kucinich and Kaptur.

As was reported here the next day, both House members were in attendance, and Kucinich made his position clear, saying his fight was with the NRC and FirstEnergy, not Kaptur:

“The cracking is not architectural, it’s structural,” Kucinich said. “FirstEnergy finally admitted this tonight. It’s an issue of public trust. FirstEnergy did not give the public, media or us a true picture of what really happened at the start.”

Rep. Kucinich has repeatedly stated that the Davis-Besse reactor should not have been allowed to restart until plant operators and regulators could explain why the reactor building was cracking and prove that the problem had been arrested. To date, neither of those criteria has been met.

Kaptur, for her part, tried to finesse it–if you can call this finesse:

“I came to assure the people that I am a proponent of public safety, I am convinced the NRC did its job this time, and I also want to see advanced energy production that’s affordable and see the plant increase employment,” Kaptur said. “We have to live in the 21st century . . . not the 20th . . . which is what Davis-Besse is providing. I know what [Kucinich] believes, but I’m in my 30th year as a public servant and I think I’ve learned something in that time.”

Again, as noted in January, the jobs claim made little sense, and the idea that a light water reactor from the 1970s represents living in the 21st Century makes even less. Kaptur’s concern for public safety is a hard match for a facility that has been the site of two of the five most dangerous US nuclear events since 1979.

As for “affordable,” it always bears repeating:

[N]uclear power–with its construction costs, costs of operation, costs of fuel mining and refining, costs of spent fuel storage, accident clean-ups, tax breaks, rate subsidies and federal loan guarantees–is one of the most phenomenally uneconomical ways of producing electricity ever conceived.

Kaptur’s faith in the NRC was also not borne out by the facts. As explained here, the government regulator relied on industry assurances of Davis-Besse’s safety, summing up their supposedly convincing findings this way: “Concrete has a tendency to crack.”

Davis-Besse, in fact, is one of best examples of the cracks inherent in the US nuclear regulatory system, and we know this to a large part thanks to steady pressure applied by Ohio’s own Dennis Kucinich.

* * *

Next January, Kucinich will no longer be a member of Congress, and the House will lose one of its most vocal critics of this country’s dangerous and dirty nuclear boondoggle. If past is prologue, Kaptur cannot be expected to pick up her departing colleague’s fight, so when the next accident happens at Ohio’s Davis-Besse plant–and it is almost certain there will be a next accident–Kaptur will be partly responsible.

But it would be unfair to hand her all the blame–she is, after all, a formidable Democrat in her own right, and she was just fighting to keep her seat. That Ohio is losing two congressional seats is due to population shifts, but that the GOP was in charge of drawing up Ohio’s new districts, that they control the state legislature and the governorship–not to mention the US House of Representatives–that blame can be shared by Kaptur’s colleagues in the Democratic leadership, as well as the Obama administration, for it was the White House and congressional leaders that squandered the mandate of 2008 and created the space for the Republican resurgence in 2010.

This is not the place for a lengthy analysis of the rise of the Tea-O-P, but it is interesting to note that one issue where Kaptur has made a name for herself is in speaking out against the bank bailouts. And, in opposing Wall Street and the banksters, the 29-year House vet sounded markedly different than President Barack Obama or even then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi did during the 111th Congress. If Obama and Democratic leaders had chosen to sound an emotional chord more like Kaptur’s, one has to wonder if the losses in Congress and in state houses across the country would have been nearly as dramatic–and so one has to wonder where redistricting would be with more Democrats in control.

And, it is perhaps more ironic than emblematic, but it still deserves mention: Kaptur’s Republican opponent in November will be none other than pantomime populist Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, hero of the tea-stained right.

With the recently announced retirement by Rep. Norm Dicks (WA-6), Kaptur could take the gavel at Appropriations, should the Democrats retake the House. Even if she is just Ranking Member, her status and power will rise. She can wield that power in many ways–and some might even be good–but it is doubtful she will give nuclear oversight even a fraction of the attention exhibited by the man she beat Tuesday night.

Nuclear industry acolytes might be applauding the end of the electoral career of a persistent critic, but atoms aren’t Tinkerbelle; no one can clap loud enough to make nuclear power’s numerous problems go away. Kaptur’s defeat of Dennis Kucinich might seem like Big Nuclear’s win–and maybe in the short-term it is–but without more vocal and visible watchdogs like the Ohio Representative, everyone loses in the end. Everyone.

Nuclear Regulator Adds Heat to 2012 Congressional Race

Congratulations go out this first week of the new year to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for giving Democrats in Ohio’s 9th congressional district a reason to come out and vote in their March 6 primary. . . and for giving residents from Toledo to Cleveland, not to mention those in a large swath of southern Michigan, something to keep them up at night.

As previously reported, the NRC waited till very late on a December Friday to announce a restart of the Davis-Besse nuclear facility, located near Oak Harbor, Ohio, on the banks of Lake Erie. Davis-Besse, of course, has a rap sheet as long and as disturbing as any power plant in the country:

. . . a fire at Ohio’s crippled Davis-Besse facility cut ventilation to the reactor control room. A faulty valve in a pipe sending water to the reactor core leaked on an electrical switchbox, triggering an electrical arc, which started the fire. This could have been a potentially catastrophic emergency. . . had the reactor not been shut down seven weeks earlier to replace an already once previously replaced, corroded, 82-ton reactor lid. This “transplant operation” revealed a 30-foot crack in the concrete shield building that will require a separate repair program. . . which will in no way be completed before the end of the year.

This was all on top of dangerous acid leaks discovered years earlier that caused what was called the worst corrosion ever seen at a US reactor. For their lack of attention to this little detail, Davis-Besse operator FirstEnergy was fined $5.45 million by regulators, and the company agreed to pay another $28 million in civil penalties.

All of this was public information before the NRC signed off on the December restart. But then:

[O]n December 7, one day after the reactor restart, FirstEnergy, Davis-Besse’s operator, admitted that they had withheld news of new cracks on a different part of the structure, which were discovered in November.

But, hey, FirstEnergy said that they only had withheld this information from the public, and that they indeed did report it to the NRC–which, as was observed at the time, raises some serious questions about the honesty, independence and competency of that body.

Well, one month after the commission gave its latest blessing to Davis-Besse, the NRC arranged a public meeting to explain its decision.

Wait–that’s not quite right. Representatives of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and FirstEnergy were at a public meeting December January 5 at the request Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D), who currently represents Ohio’s 10th congressional district, which lies to the east of Davis-Besse.

And there’s the rub. A victim of a population shift and a gerrymander by state Republicans, Kucinich’s district is disappearing in the next Congress. After much consideration, Rep. Kucinich recently announced that he would try to win back a seat in Congress representing Ohio’s 9th district, thus setting up a primary against House veteran Marcy Kaptur, the Democrat who has represented OH-9 for 29 years.

It should be noted that Kucinich has been on the Davis-Besse case for a very long time, and had called for the public meeting before the new district lines were drawn. But, as fate would have it, both Representatives Kucinich and Kaptur appeared at Thursday’s event.

Kucinich stated that his fight this January night was with the NRC and FirstEnergy, and not with Kaptur, but the contrast was there all the same:

“The cracking is not architectural, it’s structural,” Kucinich said. “FirstEnergy finally admitted this tonight. It’s an issue of public trust. FirstEnergy did not give the public, media or us a true picture of what really happened at the start.”

Rep. Kucinich has repeatedly stated that the Davis-Besse reactor should not have been allowed to restart until plant operators and regulators could explain why the reactor building was cracking and prove that the problem had been arrested. To date, neither of those criteria has been met.

Despite this uncertainty, Rep. Kaptur, whose district includes the troubled nuclear plant, supports the course currently set by the NRC and FirstEnergy–at least that seems to be what she’s saying:

“I came to assure the people that I am a proponent of public safety, I am convinced the NRC did its job this time, and I also want to see advanced energy production that’s affordable and see the plant increase employment,” Kaptur said. “We have to live in the 21st century . . . not the 20th . . . which is what Davis-Besse is providing. I know what [Kucinich] believes, but I’m in my 30th year as a public servant and I think I’ve learned something in that time.”

The Davis-Besse plant is said to account for about 800 jobs–though, since none of the players is proposing the decommissioning of the reactor, it is not clear how delaying restart until safety issues are addressed would change the employment picture. As for living in the 21st Century instead of the 20th, perhaps Kaptur has forgotten that Davis-Besse broke ground in 1970, and came on line in 1978. Its light water reactor design is older still.

As for believing in public safety, beyond the recent fire, the two reactor head replacements and the numerous unexplained cracks, Kaptur probably should be reminded that the plant in her district is the site of two of the five most dangerous US nuclear events since 1979.

As for “energy production that’s affordable,” even a casual reader is by now aware that nuclear power–with its construction costs, costs of operation, costs of fuel mining and refining, costs of spent fuel storage, accident clean-ups, tax breaks, rate subsidies and federal loan guarantees–is one of the most phenomenally uneconomical ways of producing electricity ever conceived.

And, as for the NRC doing its job–”there is a high level of assurance that the reactor building is safe,” said Cynthia Pederson, a regional director with the NRC responsible for the Midwest. But Pederson also confirmed that their investigation into the cracks is ongoing, and most notably, that the NRC is relying on FirstEnergy to sort it all out:

The commission signed off on restarting the plant following several tests and after its owner, FirstEnergy Corp., assured it that the cracks don’t pose a threat.

The commission has given Akron-based FirstEnergy until the end of February to find out what caused the cracks.

Until the cause is known, there’s no reason to order closer inspections at other plants with similar concrete shields, Pederson said.

It’s possible that the cracks have been around for a while, she said. “Concrete has a tendency to crack,” she said.

“Concrete has a tendency to crack”–how is that an acceptable “finding” from a representative of the regulatory agency responsible for guaranteeing the safety of nuclear reactors? Pederson, in her statements Thursday, has made it quite clear that her agency has no idea why the Davis-Besse containment structure is cracking, or whether it has stopped cracking, and that the NRC has relied on the operator’s assurance that the cracks “don’t pose a threat.”

Remember, this is the same operator that previously had to pay out over $33 million in penalties for a previous lapse in judgment, and has just been caught concealing knowledge of additional cracks.

And beyond those structural cracks, Davis-Besse has, time and again, revealed the troubling cracks in the system. Looking at the history of this Ohio reactor–let alone the history of atomic power across the country–the federal agency responsible for policing the nuclear industry has instead proven itself the patsy. FirstEnergy has proven itself untrustworthy, yet the NRC has said that it trusts them, and that the public should trust them, too.

And now, by coming down on the side of FirstEnergy, Marcy Kaptur has volunteered her constituents as participants in this trust exercise, as well. Rep. Kucinich chooses to trust evidence over faith–and that evidence says Davis-Besse is not just an accident waiting to happen, it is a series of accidents, some still in waiting, some now evolving. With the terrifying results of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident still very much developing, it seems naïve if not criminal to give the nuclear industry the benefit of the doubt.

So, this first week of 2012, the Kaptur-Kucinich race already has a clear issue. Residents of Ohio’s 9th, you have a clear choice.

Gregory Jaczko Has a Cold

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko (photo: pennstatelive)

In April 1966, Esquire Magazine published a story by Gay Talese that is still considered one of the greatest magazine articles of all time; the article, the cover story, was titled “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”

The piece, still very much worth the read, says much about celebrity, journalism, and, of course, celebrity journalism, but germane here is a point Talese makes early on: for most people, having a cold is a trivial matter–after all, it’s called the “common” cold–but when a man, a cultural icon, a giant of stage and screen like Sinatra (remember, this is 1966) has a cold, well. . . .

Frank Sinatra with a cold is a big deal. It affects him, his mood, his ability to perform, and so it affects his friends, his entourage, his personal staff of 75, his audience, and perhaps a part of the greater popular culture. In other words, as Talese wants you to understand, in this case, a cold is anything but trivial.

Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, made some comments to the press earlier this week. Jaczko, it seems, is worried. He believes, as noted in an Associated Press story, that “U.S. nuclear plant operators have become complacent, just nine months after the nuclear disaster in Japan.” The NRC head thinks that a slew of events at over a dozen domestic nuclear facilities reveal the safety of America’s reactors to be something less than optimal.

To be clear, safety concerns at any kind of plant, be it a soda bottler or a microchip manufacturer, are probably not trivial, but when the safe and secure operation of a nuclear facility comes into question–as the aftermath of Chernobyl or the ongoing crisis in Japan will tell you–it ratchets up concern to a whole different level. So, when the man who more or less serves as the chief safety officer for the entirety of the nation’s nuclear infrastructure says he’s worried, many, many other people should be worried, too.

To put it another way, Greg Jaczko has a cold.

But that’s not the scariest part.

When Frank Sinatra had a cold, he knew he had a cold–pretty much everyone knew he had a cold. It was unpleasant for all of them, but forewarned is forearmed. Jaczko, though, doesn’t know–or won’t acknowledge–he’s sick. As relayed by the AP:

Jaczko said he was not ready to declare a decline in safety performance at U.S. plants, but said problems were serious enough to indicate a “precursor” to a performance decline.

Pardon my acronym, but WTF does “‘precursor’ to a performance decline” mean?

It sounds like a way to talk about erectile dysfunction, but perhaps a more accurate analogy is to say that Greg Jaczko has just told us that, yes, actually, you can be a little bit pregnant.

Of course, that is not true. Either safety–with regards to protocols, equipment and people–is up to snuff, or it is not. As Jaczko observes–and the many “unusual events” he has had to deal with this year make clear–the safety of America’s nuclear reactors is not where it needs to be:

Mr. Jaczko said the NRC has noticed an increase in “possible declines in performance” at some U.S. nuclear facilities, including instances of human error that almost exposed workers to high levels of radiation. He said a number of nuclear plants have experienced safety challenges in recent months, and that two of the plants were having significant issues.

The chairman’s classic understatement here is magnified by the Wall Street Journal. Beyond the fact that “possible declines in performance” means flat-out “declines in performance,” the human error referred to here didn’t “almost” expose workers to high levels of radiation–the accidents at Cooper Nuclear Station in Nebraska and the Perry Nuclear Power Plant in Ohio most definitively exposed workers to high (and possibly dangerously high) levels of radiation.

And the two plants having significant issues–which would those be? Would they be Crystal River in Florida, where news of a third major crack in the containment building recently came to light, and Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun, which is still shut down after flooding earlier this year? Or might they be New Hampshire’s Seabrook, where crumbling concrete was discovered in November, a month after the plant had to shut down because of low water levels, and Vermont Yankee, where radioactive tritium continues to leak into the Connecticut River?

Or maybe Jaczko was referencing North Anna, which of course scrammed when the Mineral Springs, VA, earthquake shook the reactors well in excess of their designed tolerances. Or maybe he’s including Calvert Cliffs in Maryland, where a piece of siding blown off by Hurricane Irene shorted a transformer, and the resulting loss of power to safety systems caused its reactor to scram. And who can forget Michigan’s Palisades nuclear power plant, which had to vent radioactive steam when it scrammed after worker error triggered a series of electrical issues?

Is it possible the NRC head was thinking of the constantly troubled Davis-Besse plant near Toledo, Ohio? Probably not–since the Commission just (as in 4:40 PM on Friday, December 2) okayed a restart there, despite serious concerns about numerous cracks in its shield building. But perhaps Jaczko should think again–on December 7, one day after the reactor restart, FirstEnergy, Davis-Besse’s operator, admitted that they had withheld news of new cracks on a different part of the structure, which were discovered in November. (FirstEnergy says that they only withheld the information from the public, and that they did report it to regulators–which raises grave questions about the honesty, independence and competency of the NRC and how it could approve a restart.)

Representative Dennis Kucinich, by the way, is thinking of Davis-Besse. The Ohio Democrat had called for public hearings in advance of the restart, and is now criticizing both FirstEnergy and the NRC for their lack of candor about the new cracking.

Kucinich appears to understand something that Jaczko does not: when it comes to oversight of the nuclear industry, there is no room for even the germ of a doubt.

To extend the illness-as-metaphor metaphor a little further, there is a construction often used to imply the broadly felt repercussions of a single action or a major actor: When “x” sneezes, “y” catches a cold. The phrase is believed to have started during the worldwide depression that spread after the U.S. stock market crash of 1929–as in, “When America sneezes, the whole world catches cold.” The cliché has come back into vogue during the last three years of global economic tumult, but it could easily be adapted to the ongoing perils of nuclear power.

On November 26, the Asahi Shimbun gave the world another measure of just how big a disaster the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility has become:

Radioactive substances from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant have now been confirmed in all prefectures, including Uruma, Okinawa Prefecture, about 1,700 kilometers from the plant, according to the science ministry.

The ministry said it concluded the radioactive substances came from the stricken nuclear plant because, in all cases, they contained cesium-134, which has short half-life of two years.

Before the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake, radioactive substance were barely detectable in most areas.

Or, it could be said, when Fukushima sneezed, all of Japan caught a cold.

And not just Japan, of course. Fallout from Fukushima has drifted halfway around the world. Radioactive isotopes directly linked to Japan’s crippled reactors have been detected in milk and vegetables across the U.S. and Canada. And the Pacific Ocean, too, has been contaminated–and continues to be more so. December brings news of new leaks sending more radioactive runoff from the Japanese reactors into the sea. Tens of thousands of tons of overspill have already flowed into the waters around Japan’s northeastern coast–bringing levels of radioactivity to thousands of times what is considered acceptable–and TEPCO, still nominally the Fukushima’s operator, just had to scrap plans to dump untold tons more after protests from Japanese, Chinese, and Korean fishing concerns. (The contaminated water, still collecting at the plant at a rate of 200 to 500 tons a day, will exceed the facility’s 155,000-ton storage capacity by March.)

The effects of bioaccumulation–as dangerous isotopes move with global tides, and contaminated fish (and their contaminated predators) migrate–presents scientists with a long-term research project where much of the world’s population will serve as unwilling subjects.

And, as has been noted here many times, the crisis is far from over. Even TEPCO’s own conservative (or is that “dishonest?”) models now confirm a core melt-through in reactor 1. TEPCO officials insist that somehow they will cool the surrounding steel or concrete enough to stop the molten corium from going further, but the architect of Fukushima Daiichi Reactor 3, Uehara Haruo, sees things very differently. As relayed by Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear, Haruo says:

It is only a matter of time before the molten core, at least of Unit 1–if not Units 2 and 3–does reach ground water, and if it hits it right. . . you’re going to have a powerful steam explosion.

And, as Kamps explains, that steam explosion will again send massive amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. As longtime nuclear activists Paul Gunter recently put it, “It’s pins and needles time,” implying that while much is unknown about what is going on inside the destroyed reactors, nothing indicates TEPCO is gaining the upper hand on this dire situation.

Yet, with all this–with the spreading fallout, the continuing radioactive water leaks, and the real threat of what so many refer to as a “China Syndrome” event–NRC Chair Jaczko worries that the U.S. nuclear industry has become complacent about the safety gaps highlighted by the Fukushima disaster. Given the evidence–and given that the NRC itself spent all summer studying the crisis and drafting recommendations based on “lessons learned”–it is hard to believe complacency is really the problem. It is probably even too generous to say that the industry suffers from willful ignorance. No, when considering the contagion spreading from Japan and the coughs and hiccups that are practically weekly here in the United States, it is probably more accurate to say that the profit-driven, government-protected nuclear sector is actively callous.

The risks, after all, of the nuclear business model are not borne by power companies. In the U.S., federal loan guarantees, state tax breaks and utility rate hikes insulate nuclear operators from the costs of slipshod construction, poor training, and malign management. Even without that, perhaps the only lesson the domestic nuclear industry will choose to learn from Fukushima is that when a catastrophe like this happens, the government is given no choice but to step in. (Beyond the price of the cleanup, and the healthcare and relocation of those in severely contaminated regions, note how TEPCO’s stock price fell all week after word leaked that the Japanese Government would buy $13 billion worth of new shares.)

So, what’s a chief regulator to do? Given the overwhelming evidence of industry arrogance in the face of real danger, Jaczko could have an “I am Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” moment, seize his birthright, as it were, and actually demand compliance from the industry he has been tasked to oversee–but, judging from his tone in many interviews, and the continuing approvals of new and renewed operating licenses, it seems more like the NRC chief will remain the Hamlet of the first four acts of the play.

WWSD–What Would Sinatra Do? Read through the Esquire piece and see how, despite his froggy throat and foul mood, Sinatra takes control of his world. In the end, as Sinatra drives his Karmann Ghia down a sunny LA street, a pedestrian sees him through the windshield and stares, wondering, “Could it be? Is it?” Sinatra, knowing he has done what needed to be done–and done it well–stares back, as if to confidently say, “Yes, it is.”

Gregory Jaczko would do well to read (or maybe re-read–who knows?) “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Even if his nuclear rat pack won’t learn the lessons of Fukushima, the NRC chairman could learn a thing or two from the Chairman of the Board. Let’s hope Jaczko does so before his cold gets worse–because the possibility of another Fukushima, here in the United States, is nothing to sneeze at.