Power Play: Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Jaczko Resigns after Push by Industry

Outgoing NRC Chmn. Jaczko testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last year.

The Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, submitted his resignation Monday morning. Chairman Jaczko, a former aid to Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) and Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) who holds a PhD in particle physics, was originally appointed to the NRC in 2005, and elevated to chairman in 2009. Jaczko said he will relinquish his post upon confirmation of a replacement.

Jaczko’s announcement is hard to separate from pressing questions about the safety of commercial nuclear power in the United States–especially in the context of the ongoing crisis in Japan–the debate over the future of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, signs of shifting power dynamics in Washington, and, perhaps most importantly, the influence of wealthy and well-connected private industry on public policy.

As has been discussed here before, Greg Jaczko has been at the center of an orchestrated controversy for much of the last year, with nuclear industry lobbyists, Republican members of Congress, and other NRC commissioners pressing for the chairman’s ouster. Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), head of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has been an especially dogged critic of Jaczko, holding hours of hearings and serving as the driving force behind two inspector general reports on the allegedly hostile workplace environment at the NRC.

Issa, it must be noted, represents a district that includes the extremely troubled San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). The plant is currently offline as regulators try to determine the root causes of radiation leaks and rapid degradation of copper tubing used to move radioactive steam in and out of the reactors. The Orange County Republican has received copious campaign contributions from the companies that operate and maintain San Onofre.

Issa called hearings (while calling for Jaczko’s head) last year after the four other commissioners made public their letter to the White House complaining about Jaczko’s managerial style. The complaint revolved around a handful of issues that help explain the apparent urgency behind the anti-Jaczko putsch.

First, critics were upset about the way that Jaczko helped end work on the Yucca Mountain nuclear storage site. Yucca had proven problematic for a number of reasons–environmental, economic, security, and social–and had long been the target of Nevada politicians (most notably, Senate Majority Leader Reid), who felt their state had been dealt with unfairly in the original selection process.

The Obama administration had seemed to agree, and had the Department of Energy withdraw a request for the licensing of Yucca Mountain. In addition, very little money remained in Yucca’s budget, and no more has been approved.

But the nuclear industry desperately needs an answer to the problem (crisis, really) of long-term nuclear waste storage, and Yucca Mountain is the only site that has even been started. (It is nowhere near finished.) Without a place to move “spent” fuel and the other dangerous detritus of the process, nuclear power cannot realistically expand the number of rectors in the US, nor can it long continue to maintain and refuel those already in operation.

The nuclear industry, through its proxies in Congress and on the NRC, has complained that Jaczko didn’t allow advocates for Yucca to perpetuate the process. Most recently, a fight went public when President Obama nominated NRC Commissioner Kristine Svinicki for another term over the vocal objections of Senator Reid and his colleague Barbara Boxer (D-CA). Of special contention, the role Svinicki played in drafting the documents that called for the construction of the Yucca repository.

Second, the dissenting NRC commissioners complained that Jaczko used his emergency powers as chairman to guide US policy in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that caused a triple-meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility. Complainants seem especially upset that Jaczko recommended evacuation of American citizens from a 50-mile radius around the crippled nuclear plant–a call he made with the support of NRC experts and in coordination with the State Department. Radioactive contamination from Fukushima has, of course, been found across Japan, even beyond the 50-mile limit. (In the US, 65 percent of the population lives within 50 miles of a nuclear plant, and late in December, federal regulators moved to scale back requirements for evacuations and emergency drills around commercial reactors.)

In the wake of the initial accident, Jaczko sought recommendations for US nuclear safety. The Near-Term Task Force (NTTF) Review of Insights from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Accident produced a collection of basic (and, as discussed here, rather weak) recommendations last summer. Chairman Jaczko tried to start the process of turning those recommendations into rules–a process that could stretch beyond five years–but met objections from each of the other four commissioners. Jaczko also wanted lessons learned from Fukushima included in construction and licensing permits granted to four AP1000 reactors (two to be built in Georgia, two in South Carolina), but the chairman was outvoted four-to-one by his fellow NRC members.

The third (and most often referenced) complaint fired at Jaczko was that he had created a “hostile work environment,” especially for women. Though Svinicki, the only woman on the commission, lamented Jaczko’s tone, the specific “charge” (if it can be called that) was brought by Commissioner William Magwood. Magwood said there were female staffers that Jaczko had brought to tears, though none of those women personally came forward (because, it was said last year, they did not want to relive the humiliation).

The story gained extra prominence when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY; Kentucky, by the way, home to a nuclear waste nightmare called Paducah) attempted to use this alleged incident to disrupt the rising narrative of the Republican “war on women.” McConnell and others from his side of the aisle took to the microphones to denounce the administration’s treatment of whistleblowers and praise the apparently brave and much put-upon Svinicki.

In what seems to be a rare case where the public’s relative lack of interest in nuclear regulation can be called a positive, McConnell’s gambit failed. . .

. . . at least in derailing the “War on Women” story. (It also probably owes much to the GOP actually continuing its war on women.)

But when it came to serving the nuclear industry, McConnell’s contribution to the ouster of Jaczko will likely be rewarded. . . with industry contributions of the monetary kind.

Chairman Jaczko’s resignation comes just before issues of his workplace demeanor would likely again dominate headlines (if, again, any story regarding nuclear regulation can be imagined to dominate this year’s headlines), as a second IG report on the NRC work environment is due next month, and Issa had already promised more hearings. But Jaczko’s announcement would likely not have come without the intervention or, at least, tacit blessing of Senator Reid. As mentioned, Reid has been Jaczko’s best friend on the Hill, and Jaczko has helped Reid and the Obama administration move away from making Nevada the final resting place for a country’s worth of hazardous nuclear waste.

After President Obama defied Reid’s private and public requests, and nominated Kristine Svinicki for another term as NRC commissioner, the Senator had a choice to make–and some political calculations to do.

While, to the nuclear industry, Jaczko represented an insufficiently pliant regulator–be it concerning NTTF recommendations, fire safety rules, or waste storage–to Harry Reid, the NRC chairman is most importantly a staunch opponent of the Yucca project. And Jaczko is the only one of the five NRC commissioners who meets that description. With Jaczko’s public image under attack and his ability to function as chairman challenged by the other commissioners and nuclear-friendly forces in Congress, questions of how much longer he could survive would have continued throughout the year. With that baggage, and with Senator Reid’s Democratic majority and possibly even his leadership position up in the air come November, there seems little chance that Obama would have shown Jaczko the same deference he did Svinicki and offered to nominate him for another term when the chairman’s current one expired in 2013.

As it is custom for NRC commissioners to be nominated in pairs–one from the Democrats, one from the Republicans–to smooth their paths to confirmation, Reid likely looked at Jaczko’s predicament, Svinicki’s nomination, and his own future and saw this as a moment to make some lemonade out of a crate of rotting lemons.

Act now, and Reid would play a prominent role in choosing Jaczko’s replacement–who could theoretically get confirmed alongside Svinicki for a full, five-year term–wait, continue to back Jaczko and fight the administration and the GOP on Svinicki, and the best Reid could hope for is a year of controversy over NRC personnel and an uncertain amount of influence in shaping the future of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Indeed, current reporting is that the White House will move quickly to nominate Jaczko’s replacement (and rumors are it will be a woman), and that the administration is in consultation with Reid to choose someone he will help move through the Senate confirmation process. It is hard to believe Reid will look kindly upon any nominee interested in re-starting the Yucca Mountain process.

. . . timing

It is said that, in life, timing is everything. In politics, money probably keeps timing from cornering the be-all-end-all market, but timing has played a part in the NRC’s saga. As Reid hopes to use this moment to keep his objectives on course, the nuclear industry is trying to desperately to turn back time to an era where the term “nuclear renaissance” wasn’t said with a smirk and a glance eastward toward Japan.

As with Yucca Mountain, where atom-loving electeds and regulators scramble to get the federal government to take their waste–with its risks and expense–off of the nuclear industry’s hands, the threat of new safety rules (and their perceived expense) emerging from the post-Fukushima review also motivated a profit-centric industry to step up their efforts to remake the NRC in their own image.

As noted here in December, Darrell Issa’s public release of the commissioners’ letter complaining about Jaczko was oddly timed:

[T]hough the commissioners’ complaint was written and delivered to the White House in October, it was only made public by Rep. Issa last Friday. A slot usually reserved for news dumps seems like bad timing if Issa and his allies wanted to create a splash, unless you consider that Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) had planned to release a report on Monday showing how NRC commissioners had coordinated with pro-nuclear legislators to slow or stop post-Fukushima safety reforms. Markey’s report (PDF) includes emails revealing commissioner Magwood and staffers for pro-nuclear Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) worked together to discredit Jaczko for taking the lead on the US regulatory response to Fukushima.

And as reported in October, this behavior was not new for Magwood. During his time at the Department of Energy, Magwood held private meetings with top nuclear industry lobbyist Marvin Fertel. In December, Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post detailed–in a scenario eerily similar to what culminated this week–how Magwood and his industry friends worked behind the scenes to oust his superior at DoE.

It also deserves mentioning that between his time in the George W. Bush Energy Department and his appointment to the NRC by President Obama, Magwood formed the consulting firm Advanced Energy Strategies, whose clients included not only TEPCO, the nominal owner of Fukushima Daiichi (until the Japanese government finishes its bailout/buyout), but a veritable who’s who of the Japanese nuclear elite.

As discussed above, Jaczko was the only NRC commissioner who voted to include future post-Fukushima rules in the licensing requirements for new reactors in Georgia and South Carolina. Both those projects are still wanting for full financing, and Georgia’s reactors are already behind schedule and, as revealed recently, nearly $1 billion over budget. The last thing the industry wants to see are demands for pricy safety upgrades or reminders of all that can go wrong at a nuclear plant. Jaczko’s desire for inclusion of Fukushima “lessons learned” held out a threat (however weak) of both.

Weak in review

But it was the rather weak recommendations, the glacial pace of change, and the seemingly futile lone votes against four other commissioners in the nuclear industry’s hip pocket that also helped end Jaczko’s run as NRC chair.

Theoretically, election cycles are when elected officials are most responsive to public pressure, but what part of the public felt particularly compelled to fight on Jaczko’s behalf? As stated during an earlier act in this power play, the nuclear industry and its acolytes were never going to see Jaczko as anything but the enemy, but the chairman’s “moderate” response to the Fukushima moment, along with the continued granting of license extensions to aging nuclear plants, and his oft-repeated statements of faith in the broken regulatory process left Jaczko with no strong allies in the anti-nuclear movement. Between the ongoing Fukushima disaster and the dynamics of an election year, the timing could have been favorable for a regulator bold enough to dare to regulate.

Instead, Chairman Jaczko, who no doubt saw his split-the-middle path as a reasonable one, was left alone to watch as his colleague, Bill Magwood, helped orchestrate a coup, and as his benefactor, Harry Reid, moved to cut his losses. For America, however, losses have not been cut–nuclear power is still a perpetual economic sinkhole and a looming ecological disaster–and no matter how the politicians try to massage the regulatory process, the science that makes nuclear power so untenable remains constant.

Constant, too, is the global trend–most of the industrialized world is turning away from this dirty, dangerous, and exorbitantly expensive way to boil water. Jaczko’s chairmanship of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may be at its dénouement, but that does nothing to magically create a nuclear renaissance. The good and bad news here is that all of nuclear power’s problems are just as real and just as pressing, with or without Greg Jaczko.

The War on Gregory Jaczko: Attempt at NRC Coup Evidence of Bigger Problems

NRC, nuclear

NRC Chair Gregory Jaczko (photo: Gabrielle Pffaflin/TalkMediaNews)

Readers of this space know that the pace of safety reforms for America’s nuclear facilities, especially in the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima disaster, has been alarmingly slow. The recalcitrance–if not active hostility–exhibited by the nuclear operators and their government handmaidens borders on the criminal. So, it might sound more than a little bit shocking to hear that the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, is now under attack. . . for trying to implement new safety standards too quickly.

That’s not how House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) is putting it, of course. In doublespeak that would make Orwell proud, Issa has written to the White House, issued a report, and fallen just shy of calling for Jaczko’s head:

“The current Chairman, through his blatant disregard for the Commission and its core beliefs, is testing this resolve,” the report says. “The NRC has survived thus far but the cracks are forming and all symptoms point to catastrophe.”

The report comes several days after Issa released a mid-October letter from the NRC commissioners to the White House that alleges that Jaczko is causing “serious damage” to the agency that could harm the body’s ability to protect health and safety.

The reality, of course, is that Issa–who has summoned Jaczko and fellow commissioners to appear at hearings this very day–has a vested interest in obstructing new health and safety rules, and the hubbub and hearings he is now orchestrating do not in any way focus on post-Fukushima lessons learned, unless that lesson is that the nuclear industry must engage a full-court press to preserve their privilege and profits in light of a new global awareness of the true cost and real dangers of nuclear power.

Since taking the gavel at Oversight, Issa has used his authority to disrupt government’s regulatory roll in the service of his corporate benefactors. In the case of the nuclear industry, Issa’s district includes the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), and Edison International, which owns nearly 80 percent of SONGS through its subsidiary, Southern California Edison, is Issa’s third largest source of career campaign contributions:

[Edison's] political action committee has given Issa’s campaigns $46,000 over the years, including $5,500 during the last cycle. The PAC has also given $10,000 to Issa’s own PACs.

A company–in this case a nominally public utility–paying the piper and calling the tune is, sadly, not necessarily breaking news in 21st Century American politics, but when it comes to the nuclear sector, the level of influence and the nakedness of the quid pro quo should offend everyone.

And the ties don’t stop at the electoral level. Many regulators today come with strong connections to the industries they are supposed to regulate, but few demonstrate a closer relationship or a more unsettling affinity for their private-sector counterparts than NRC commissioner William Magwood, IV.

As reported in October, Bill Magwood, an Obama appointee, spent many years in the Bush administration’s Department of Energy as director of the Office of Nuclear Energy. During that time, Magwood was alleged to have had regular private meetings with Marvin Fertel, then-Senior Vice President and now President and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the lobbying arm of the nuclear power industry. (Not, coincidently, Fertel is quoted in several of this week’s stories hostile to Greg Jaczko.) FOIA requests were filed for records of those meetings, but Magwood’s email correspondence and calendars were destroyed just one month after he left the DOE in 2005.

After leaving the Bush administration, Magwood formed a consulting firm, Advanced Energy Strategies, which had as clients many of the nuclear power companies he dealt with at the Department of Energy and is now tasked with regulating as a commissioner at the NRC. One of those clients, as was uncovered this week by The Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim, was TEPCO, the Japanese power consortium that officially still owns and operates the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility. And that’s not all:

Magwood’s recent client list makes up a who’s who of Japanese power and nuclear companies, and included CLSA Japan Equities Division, the Federation of Electrical Power Companies in Japan (FEPC), IBT Corporation, Marubeni Corporation, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, RW Beck, Sumitomo Corporation and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, which was roundly criticized for its response to the crisis.

It is Jaczko’s use of his authority to push for new rules based on the post-Fukushima Near-Term Task Force (NTTF) recommendations that reportedly triggered the discord that motivated Issa’s current attack. But the controversy is deeper and more complicated.

First, Magwood and other NRC commissioners were vocally differing with Chairman Jaczko before the Fukushima nightmare started. Most notably, some of the commissioners and much of the nuclear industry were upset when Jaczko removed the unfinished Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility from the NRC budget after President Obama announced an end to the troubled Nevada dumpsite. Magwood was a strong proponent of Yucca Mountain during his years at the DOE and after, when he worked in the private sector. US nuclear facilities face a spent-fuel disposal crisis, and desperately need the federal government to take the hazardous waste off their hands.

Second, though the commissioners’ complaint was written and delivered to the White House in October, it was only made public by Rep. Issa last Friday. A slot usually reserved for news dumps seems like bad timing if Issa and his allies wanted to create a splash, unless you consider that Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) had planned to release a report on Monday showing how NRC commissioners had coordinated with pro-nuclear legislators to slow or stop post-Fukushima safety reforms. Markey’s report (PDF) includes emails revealing commissioner Magwood and staffers for pro-nuclear Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) worked together to discredit Jaczko for taking the lead on the US regulatory response to Fukushima.

Magwood, it should be noted, is thought to be next in line for NRC chief, if attempts to unseat Jaczko are successful.

Still, as internecine as all this sounds, this story would be easier to grasp if it were a simple tale of strong regulators vs. industry shills. Alas, as has often been the subject of these columns, the Jaczko-led NRC is far from the zealous industry antagonist depicted in pro-nuclear critiques. While Greg Jaczko might be the most regulation-friendly member of the current commission, his positions and policies are hardly progressive.

Those post-Fukushima recommendations, while all positive moves, are still weak tea when compared with the crisis that motivated the report. The speed at which they will be adopted–if they are ever adopted–can only be described as glacial. Despite Jaczko’s expressed wish that post-Fukushima realities be considered in the design, licensing and re-licensing of US reactors, the approvals of new construction and the renewals of operating licenses for aged reactors continue without any additional, Fukushima-influenced requirements. Further, disturbing domestic nuclear power events have not been met with the level of scrutiny they deserve.

November alone saw the approval of new reactors in South Texas, the refusal to consider the Fukushima report in the proposed relicensing of Seabrook, and reactor restarts of the quake-damaged North Anna facility and of the troubled Davis-Besse plant, even after its owner was forced to admit the presence of new cracks in its reactor building.

In October interviews, Jaczko expressed an interest in increased safety, but he also hid behind a regulatory process that quite plainly was not accomplishing his stated goals. The chairman also made assertions about the lifespan of reactors and the long-term safety of on-site spent-fuel storage that seemed cavalier and contrary to both existing evidence and current science.

While Jaczko might wish to see the Fukushima taskforce recommendations become rules, his pronouncements on the need for progress were weaker than the demands made by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) before her Environment and Public Works Committee (one of the committees charged with oversight of the NRC) during August hearings on the NTTF report:

The California Democrat said that if the industry wanted to operate and expand, it had to demonstrate that it could do so safely. Boxer stressed that it was important that citizens saw regulators as their defenders, able to act quickly in response to a crisis and honestly assure the safety of nuclear facilities. It takes a trusted regulatory regime for an industry to prosper.

. . . .

Boxer, to her credit, vowed to hold hearings every 90 days to push for action on the task force report.

The decision to stop construction on the Yucca Mountain waste facility, while the right one, was as much a victory for NIMBY politics as it was for progressive values. Indeed, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid (D), long an opponent of putting a nuclear dump in his state, was once Jaczko’s boss. The end of Yucca Mountain and Jaczko’s NRC job likely owe much to Reid’s early support of Obama in 2008.

Now Reid and Obama (through his Chief of Staff, Bill Daley) have come out for Jaczko again. But is this enough to counter the nuclear industry’s attempt at a coup?

While it would not be a surprise to see “no drama” Obama–who has benefitted greatly from nuclear industry campaign contributions–abandon his NRC chief, especially in the run-up to the 2012 election, it would be more difficult if anyone outside the Beltway felt moved to fight on Jaczko’s behalf.

It’s been the same story for Democrats for years now–Jaczko’s fight is just the latest example. Democrats from the president on down have repeatedly leaned right, disheartening and alienating their activist base, while gaining no measurable concessions from Republican opponents. Nothing Jaczko has done to appease the nuclear industry (or their government surrogates) has made them like him any more–to them, any regulator is a bad regulator. The nuclear lobby wants their loan guarantees, their tax breaks, and their Price-Anderson indemnity without any strings attached.

While it is very possible that any chair that replaces Jaczko will be even friendlier to the nuclear industry, there still exists little pro-Jaczko excitement on the left. Fukushima is a signal moment (well, in actuality, it is a never-ending series of signal moments), one that demands a much broader rethink of US nuclear policy than the regulatory tweaks in the taskforce report. If Jaczko and his elected allies want to energize America’s very-energize-able anti-nuclear community, then they need to seize the Fukushima moment with more than a proposal that better backup power systems be in place at some nuclear plants by 2016.

In the wake of the Japanese earthquake, the nuclear industry mobilized to secure their bottom line. Before there were recommendations to oppose, the industry had a plan in place to oppose them. If Jaczko and his backers want to see a mobilized response to this industry putsch, then they have to give people something to fight for. They can’t just make a few ripples and hope pro-nuclear forces will let it go; Jaczko, and Markey, and Boxer–and any others in government that grasp the meaning of nuclear’s “annus horribilis“–have to make waves.

The Party Line – August 26, 2011: Virginia Quake Yet Another Wakeup Call for Sleepy Nuclear Regulators (Plus: Japan’s PM Resigns)

Late Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) made this observation over at The Huffington Post:

Uninterrupted electricity is essential for nuclear safety. Without electricity, nuclear power plants are unable to pump cooling water through reactor cores and spent fuel pools to prevent overheating and fuel melting.

Without power, plant operators cannot control reactor activity or remotely monitor spent fuel.

It was the loss of electrical power that led to the partial-meltdown of multiple reactors, significant radiation release and damage to the spent fuel pools at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan after the devastating 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in March.

First, I can’t move on without noting two problems there in the last paragraph.

I don’t know how Feinstein defines it, but I think most of the world has dropped the “partial” from the assessment of the meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility. Maybe DiFi has some secret pictures that show tiny bits of intact cladding floating on top of the blobs of corium now understood to be at the bottom of at least some of the damaged reactors, and so she feels uncomfortable going all the way, but the company that nominally runs the facility and the country that is unlucky enough to serve as its home feel sure enough to call it a meltdown without the modifier, so I think US Senators should, too.

Also, it is now believed that a meltdown in at least one of the reactors started before the tsunami that followed Japan’s March 11 earthquake. In other words, as I reported previously, the earthquake damaged the containment vessel or, more likely, the cooling system before the massive wave knocked out the backup generators and, thus, power to the cooling system. So, the loss of power did not lead to at least some of the meltdown—earthquake damage did.

That is not just an academic nitpick, it goes directly to how Feinstein and the entire US regulatory structure should evaluate the safety of domestic nuclear power plants.

Second: “Uninterrupted electricity is essential for nuclear safety.” Just think about that for a second. Uninterrupted electricity is essential for the safe generation of electricity. It is a logic that seems as vulnerable to reason as nuclear cooling systems are to seismic and tidal events.

But third, I do want to congratulate Senator Feinstein for recognizing and writing the obvious:

The incident [Tuesday’s magnitude 5.8 quake centered in Virginia] was a stark reminder of how vulnerable America’s nuclear power plants are to natural disasters.

I mean that congratulations sincerely. Yes, we didn’t really need a new reminder—Japan’s Fukushima disaster is recent and ongoing—but the Mineral, VA earthquake was another indication that our nuclear plants are vulnerable to natural and manmade disasters at many points. And more American politicians should say just what DiFi said, instead of brushing off Japan’s already extant stark reminder as a “can’t happen here” event, or quickly forgetting Tuesday’s quake because it resulted in “minimal damage and no loss of life” (to use Feinstein’s own rosy words).

Feinstein continues by laying out four “lessons” that Japan and Virginia should teach us. (It is really more like two or three points with repeats, but that’s OK.) The headlines:

First, our country needs a comprehensive, national policy to address the management of spent fuel, the radioactive waste produced while generating electricity by fission.

Second, today’s efforts to protect against seismic and flooding hazards may not be sufficient.

Third, we must improve the redundant safety systems to respond to disasters.

Finally, for spent fuel stored at reactor sites, dry casks are safer and more secure than permanent storage in spent fuel pools.

Both the first and fourth points note that storing spent fuel in pools of circulating water is not a particularly safe, efficient, or cost-effective way of dealing with one of nuclear power generation’s biggest problems. Not only are these pools also dependent on an uninterrupted source of electricity to keep water circulating and levels high enough to keep the rods—now packed in at many times the pools’ original designed capacity—from overheating and melting themselves or cracking the water and triggering hydrogen explosions, the cooling systems for the pools are also vulnerable to seismic events.

Feinstein says that spent rods should be moved to dry casks and eventually to a secure repository, observing that spent fuel in Japan housed in dry casks had no problems after the March 11 quake and flood. Strangely, though, the senator cites the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s special taskforce report on the aftermath of the Japanese disaster as the inspiration for making this call for dry casks and a national fuel repository—strange because, as both Physicians for Social Responsibility and I noted back when the report was released, the task force pointedly did not make any recommendations for moving spent fuel to dry casks or to off-site repositories.

Feinstein also says she has learned that protections against earthquakes and flooding may not be sufficient. Again, DiFi modifies—there is really no need to say “may” here. From Fukushima Daiichi to the reactors in Virginia known as North Anna 1 and 2, it should now be very clear that nuclear plants are walking a precarious line between “minimal damage” and catastrophic failure.

Let’s look more closely at what happened on Tuesday. A 5.8 earthquake centered 15 miles from the North Anna nuclear power generating facility cut electrical power to the plant. Backup diesel generators kicked in to provide power to the cooling systems, averting the overheating of either the reactor core or the pools of spent fuel. Good news, as far as it goes, but there are several disconcerting caveats.

First, we don’t know if the plant—which is theoretically designed to withstand a quake of a 6.2 magnitude—has actually emerged from Tuesday’s tremor completely unscathed. The reactors are currently being brought to a cold shutdown so that they may be inspected further. Not only must the containment vessels be more closely inspected, the cooling system must be tested for leaks. Some of the pipes and conduits for that system are underground. As reactor expert Paul Gunter has noted, an underground rupture, one that might be leaking radioactive tritium into ground water, is quite possible and needs to be investigated more fully.

(As a caveat to the caveat, I must note that we also need to find a way to verify that the public is being fully informed about any damage and radioactive leaks—not a sure thing in light of both the evolving story of cover-up in Japan and this summer’s expose on collusion between the NRC and the nuclear industry.)

Second, the North Anna plant gets its name from Lake Anna, an artificial lake created to provide a reservoir for the cooling requirements of the nuclear facility. What if the quake had caused the dam that holds the water in Lake Anna to rupture? Beyond the dangerous flooding to well-populated communities downstream, the water level in the reservoir would drop to a point where the nuclear plant’s cooling system would fail. If this were to happen, no amount of redundant power generation would fix the problem. Does this sound farfetched? It is not. Virginia is noteworthy for its lack of attention to its aging infrastructure—in fact, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ infrastructure report card [PDF], the condition of Virginia’s dams gets a D-minus.

(It should be noted that the initial inspection of the Lake Anna dam after Tuesday’s quake showed no new damage.)

Third, not all of North Anna’s backup generators worked on Tuesday. Only three of the four came online after power was lost. (Hooray for required redundancy.) What is not clear is what effect this had on the plant’s ability to function normally, or what would have happened if grid power had not been restored as quickly to the facility.

Fourth, there is emerging evidence that seismic activity can increase as the result of the pressure from dammed reservoirs, as well as from hydraulic fracturing (which has been going on in the vicinity of Tuesday’s epicenter).

And finally, to simply give a Richter scale number as a sort of assurance of the safety of a nuclear facility is overly simplistic if not downright deceptive. Here’s why:

As noted here today and before, there are many systems that have to survive an earthquake—the reactor containment vessel, its cooling system, the spent fuel pools, their cooling systems, the reactor building, the monitoring equipment, and a plant’s connection to a steady supply of electrical power. In theory, all these systems were evaluated when the plans for a nuclear facility were initially approved. They all should survive a quake of a specified magnitude.

However, all of America’s nuclear facilities were licensed during a time when regulators assessed designs based on what is called Deterministic Seismic Hazard Analysis (DSHA). But, as noted in a May Congressional Research Service report [PDF]:

Since then, Probabilistic Seismic Hazard Analysis (PSHA) has been adopted as a more comprehensive approach in engineering practice. Consequently, the NRC is reassessing the probability of seismic core damage at existing plants.

I am not an expert in plate tectonics, but what I read tells me that you would feel more secure with a PSHA-generated standard—and what I have learned from Fukushima is that I want that standard applied to all the systems needed to safely operate a nuclear power plant. But what this report tells me is that the NRC is only in the midst of some process of reevaluating plants’ seismic vulnerability—a process that was to have begun last year but has moved very slowly (and this is only the evaluation stage)—and that this re-evaluation is of the probability of core damage, which, to my eye, is not the same as an evaluation of every system needed for the reactor and the spent fuel pools to remain safe.

And I am not alone in my worries. Here’s the NRC itself after it looked at North Anna in April (via the Institute for Southern Studies and the Center for Public Integrity):

Specifically, the NRC report notes that portions of water and gaseous suppression systems and hose stations “are not seismically designed.”

The report noted that “potential leakage can occur through penetrations following seismic event.”

And with specific regard to the spent fuel pools, ISS continues:

There’s also concern about what a major quake would mean for the water-filled pools used to store spent fuel at most U.S. nuclear plants. Bob Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies who recently authored a report on the dangers of spent fuel storage in the United States, addressed the issue in a piece on the IPS blog posted shortly after the quake:

The North Anna reactors are of the Westinghouse Pressurized Water design and went on line in 1979 and 1980 respectively. Since then the reactors have generated approximately 1,200 metric tons of nuclear spent fuel containing about 228,000 curies of highly radioactive materials — among the largest concentrations of radioactivity in the United States.

Alvarez went on to note that almost 40 percent of the radioactivity in North Anna’s spent fuel pools is in the form of cesium-137, a long-lived isotope that presents serious health risks and accumulates in the food chain. He continued:

The spent fuel pools at North Anna contain four to five times more spent fuel than their original designs intended. As in Japan, all U.S. nuclear power plant spent fuel pools do not have steel lined, concrete barriers that cover reactor vessels to prevent the escape of radioactivity. They are not required to have back-up generators to keep used fuel rods cool, if offsite power is lost. Even though they contain these very large amounts of radioactivity, spent reactor fuel pools in the United States are mostly contained in ordinary industrial structures designed to protect them against the elements.

This goes to explaining the confusion I see over whether just parts or the entirety of a nuclear facility is required to meet a specific earthquake safety standard. But what it doesn’t do is imply that a single, plant-wide standard will be used in the future.

As noted when the special task force report came out earlier this summer, the recommendation that the current patchwork of safety rules should be unified and standardized was actually being slow-walked by three of the five NRC commissioners. Finally, one week ago, the commission agreed to give its technical team 45 days to analyze some of the recommendations, but they will be given a full 18 months to analyze the recommendation that the NRC revise its entire regulatory framework in light of lessons learned after the Fukushima disaster.

It should also be noted that there is currently no law that requires the NRC to apply the new, better seismic standards when evaluating requests for license renewals or the building of additional reactors at existing facilities. (There is a bill, languishing in the House, designed to fix this. . . did I mention it was languishing?)

Which brings us back to Senator Feinstein, or, really, her California colleague, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), who chairs the Committee on Environment and Public Works and has oversight responsibilities over the NRC. While DiFi has written about the lessons of this week’s Virginia quake, Boxer has demanded action on the NRC taskforce report on the lessons learned from Fukushima. At a hearing on August 2, Boxer demanded the NRC pick up the pace on evaluating the recommendations and report back to her by November. With the NRC’s decision on how it will move forward, and the latest in a lengthening string of “wakeup calls” having caused incidents at North Anna and a number of other eastern nuclear facilities, perhaps both of California’s Senators might consider official hearings before then.

It must also be mentioned that while I was writing this post, Japan’s Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, has stepped down. Stories on the resignation concurrently cite his dismal poll numbers from an anti-nuke electorate, and the lack of support from pro-nuclear members of his party. Kan, who had previously hinted at leaving after the Fukushima crisis was brought under control (it seems I correctly predicted he’d be gone well before that), has also signaled that he wanted to wean Japan off nuclear power for electrical generation and move more aggressively toward renewable sources. Both possible reasons for his early exit speak to some form of accountability—one to the public, the other to entrenched nuclear industry masters—and both have probably played some roll. But what matters going forward is to whom the next leader will answer, and what happens with Japanese nuclear facilities will make that very clear.

In the US, we have a less clear choice—no one has proposed a move away from nuclear power (quite the contrary)—which, alas, probably tells us who calls the shots in our country. But that ugly political reality doesn’t change the physical one—United States nuclear facilities remain vulnerable to numerous seismic and tidal threats. As Diane Feinstein concludes, “We need to learn the lessons we can to assure that next time we are ready—not just lucky.”

The Party Line – August 5, 2011: Japan Worries About More Radiation, US Officials Worry About Red Tape

News this week out of Japan that workers at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have detected extremely high levels of radiation in and around reactor 1. The first incident, on August 1, pinned the Geiger counter at 10 sieverts (1000 rem)—yes, that’s as high as the device could measure, so that number is a minimum—and was taken at the base of a ventilation stack. The second reading, the following day, clocked in at five sieverts per hour inside the reactor building.

I have yet to read an explanation for the discovery of the second reading, but the initial, sky-high measurement on Monday has me and many others scratching heads. A thousand rem is not some little ho-hum number. A half-hour of exposure at that level is fatal in a matter of days, I am told. Where did that radiation come from? When did contamination occur? How is it that such a dangerous level could go unreported for what is now over 140 days?

Officials from the Japanese power company, TEPCO, who have been repeatedly criticized for withholding critical information, insist that contamination likely happened in the first few days of the disaster when workers tried to vent hydrogen from the reactor building in a futile attempt to prevent an explosion. Somehow, though, this part of the facility (which, it should be noted, has been extensively mapped for radioactive hotspots over the last several months) was not measured till August.

Others, such as Arnie Gundersen, chief engineer at Fairwinds Associates, believes levels this high would not have gone undetected this long, and that these new readings represent a recent accumulation. Because the measurement was taken at the base of a ventilation stack that has continued to vent undisclosed amounts from the damaged reactors, Gundersen believes that condensation and radioactive cesium trickled down to the base of the stack—which means that some amount of radioactive isotopes continues to be vented into the atmosphere. And it seems, some not inconsequential amount.

Back in April, TEPCO was ordered to give an accounting of the amounts of radiation released during the crisis, and TEPCO promised to do so by August. It is now August, but there is no sign yet of this report or an indication of when it will be released.

And, just to wrap up newish news from Japan, the government has announced plans to build a wall around Daiichi reaching 60 feet below ground to try to stop contaminated groundwater from reaching the sea. Beef contaminated with radioactive cesium from the plant has turned up in more markets across Japan, and the government has banned the sale of most beef from the north.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has fired three government officials with ties to the crisis, including the leader of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which would be roughly the Japanese equivalent of the US NRC. Officially, the reason is because the agency did a lousy job of preparing for a tsunami and its disastrous effects, but it also recently came to light that this official had planted pro-nuclear-industry shills at town hall meetings in an attempt to steer public opinion.

Back in the United States, one can only imagine what that kind of accountability would look like—but why imagine, when we have the videotape!

On August 2, when most eyes (like, you know, everyone’s) were on the floor of the Senate, a few of us (probably a very few, it wasn’t even on CSPAN-3) were watching the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works full committee and subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety joint hearing entitled “Review of the NRC’s Near-Term Task Force Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century.” (Sounds so much more important when you spell it all out.)

This was the hearing on the report I discussed three weeks ago, and besides the obvious observation that there’s 150 minutes of life I’ll never get back, there were a few points worth mentioning.

First, it was clear from the opening statements that no Senator (perhaps with the exception of Bernie Sanders. . . perhaps) was going to come close to making a call for a shift away from nuclear power in the US the way leaders in Germany and Japan have in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. In fact, the tone was very much about moving forward with some version of a flourishing nuclear industry.

For Republicans on the panel, the response was predictable. The only thing that is keeping us from rushing headlong into a glorious future with upwards of 100 fabulous, new nuclear plants is excessive government regulation. In fact, Senators Lamar Alexander and Jeff Sessions seemed stunned that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had the primary responsibility of protecting the health and safety of the public rather than helping to foster an environment favorable to the expansion of the nuclear industry. (A funny protest, really, considering that the NRC has long been criticized for acting as a booster club for the industry it is supposed to regulate—and especially risible in light of this summer’s AP exposé on the cozy relationship between power companies and regulators.) The GOP contingent chastised NRC members for thinking of themselves as guardians of public safety without regard to what it would cost what they always euphemistically referred to as “stakeholders” (as did the more overtly pro-industry commissioners).

This, in turn, earned the senators a chastisement of their own from EPW chair, Sen. Barbara Boxer, who literally threw the book at them. . . ok, she didn’t throw the book, she just read from the law that empowers the NRC.

Indeed, Boxer had a more refreshing take on government regulation. The California Democrat said that if the industry wanted to operate and expand, it had to demonstrate that it could do so safely. Boxer stressed that it was important that citizens saw regulators as their defenders, able to act quickly in response to a crisis and honestly assure the safety of nuclear facilities. It takes a trusted regulatory regime for an industry to prosper.

That is a fair point, and one that applies to a much broader discourse about government regulation. Alas, in this case, it papers over a slow, lax regulatory history and a nuclear industry that has done a solid job of dumping campaign cash into the coffers of most of the politicians responsible for oversight.

On the always amusing “did he just say that?” front, there was Sen. Alexander saying that we didn’t have to worry about anything like what happened in Japan because we had a different system, blithely adding that no one had ever been killed by an accident at a US nuclear plant or on a US nuclear submarine. This will be news to the families of the four workers killed in two separate accidents at Surry 2 in Virginia, or to the crews of the USS Thresher and USS Scorpion. Or to the one man killed in the 1959 Navy reactor explosion. (Nitpickers will argue, of course. Lucky for them, the four dead at Surry 2 died from steam burns before they had to worry about radiation, and the two subs imploded after plummeting below their crush depth, and so cannot be classified with surety as “nuclear” accidents. The 1959 USS Triton accident happened on a prototype at a Navy training center, so I guess that won’t count, either.)

And, of course, Alexander has no room in his worldview for the 430 infants (PDF) (the most conservative estimate) that died from radiation released during the Three Mile Island disaster.

Jeff Sessions is a circus sideshow all by himself (an imperious, ignorant sideshow). He used most of his time to criticize Gregory Jaczko, Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for assuming emergency powers in the days after the earthquake and tsunami that crippled Fukushima Daiichi. In essence, Sessions was upset that Jaczko empanelled the task force quickly, rather than allow the process to be sabotaged by commissioners more friendly with those aforementioned stakeholders.

Sessions also used the story of how the Japanese are pulling together to conserve energy now that so many of its nuclear power plants are offline to negatively paint the dystopian hellscape that awaits the US if we were to shift away from nuclear power. Conservation, including the royal family using flashlights in their garden, lord save us! (This New Yorker had to laugh when Sessions told of the horrors of Japanese subway platforms that now went un-air-conditioned for three hours a day.)

The senator also tossed out that nuclear was a clean, safe and cheap domestic source of energy. None of those things are true, of course. Mining and refining the fissile materials for the reactors is polluting and comes with a large carbon footprint. We still have no clear plan to deal with “spent” fuel. Fukushima, TMI, Chernobyl, and dozens of less famous disasters belie the “safe” assumption. As far as “cheap,” when you add in the government subsidies, loan guarantees, tax breaks, security costs, and the need for a fuel -disposal infrastructure, nuclear power is not just not “cheap,” it is one of the most expensive options out there. And, as for “domestic,” as I have detailed before, we import most of our uranium—and not always from the nicest people.

Alas, no one had the inclination in this Senate session to respond with any of that to Sen. Sessions. The real problems facing our nuclear future were not really on the table this week.

What the two-and-a-half hour hearing really boiled down to, really hinged on, was that NRC Chair Jaczko believes that 90 days is plenty of time for disposal of the recommendations (that’s how he put it—we are not talking implementation here, just the decision that the task force recommendations should be turned into rules. . . which would then take about five years to enact), but three of the five-member NRC do not. Those commissioners and their Republican brethren on the committee steadfastly refused to commit to any timeframe on anything, insisting that they needed first to hear from “stakeholders” (yes, that word again).

Democrats for the most part tried to buttress Jaczko, asking for commissioners to at least admit that some of the recommendations could be disposed in 90 days. The results of that request were inconclusive. Boxer, to her credit, vowed to hold hearings every 90 days to push for action on the task force report. (Will any more people be paying attention in November. . . right before Thanksgiving. . . when the SuperCommittee is supposed to deliver its budget-cutting plan? No breaths were held in the crafting of this question.)

But I feel funny rallying around this flag. As I mentioned when the Near-Term Task Force report came out, there is nothing I can see particularly wrong with any of the recommendations, as far as they go, but they fail to address any of the bigger issues, from used fuel disposal to the decommissioning of old, poorly designed, geographically vulnerable facilities. Yes, the NRC should prove that it can act—authoritatively and quickly—in the wake of a disaster. And, the federal government should prove it can rise above campaign considerations to exercise real oversight. But until people like the Senators on the EPW committee, or members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, or the president, face up to the dangers of nuclear power revealed (again) by the Japanese disaster, or confront the myths of an energy source once called “clean, safe, too cheap to meter,” then hearings like this will feel more like redecorating than real policy.

(A version of this post also appears at Firedoglake.)

The Party Line – July 22, 2011: Fixing a Hole

Focusing on broad, long-term goals while ignoring obvious, near-term problems is order of the day, be it in the Fukushima reactors or deficit-obsessed DC.

I feel like I am saying this every week, but tear yourself away for a minute, if you can, from the daily deficit follies—I promise we’ll get back to them.

As I detailed last week, a study called the Near-Term Task Force Review listed a set of suggestions for ways the US nuclear power industry could improve safety in the wake of the meltdowns and continuing crisis in Japan’s Fukushima reactors. The recommendations were a mixed bag of mostly regulatory tweaks–nothing particularly bad, as far as they go–but obviously missing from the report was any program that would effectively improve the way spent fuel rods are stored.

Earlier this week, the task force officially presented its report to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and NRC chair Gregory Jaczko said the full commission should move to accept or reject the recommendations within 90 days, and implement any new rules within five years.

That sounds glacial, especially given the ongoing Japanese crisis and many US plants of similar design facing the possibility of similar problems, but even this cautious approach to some cautious recommendations was more-or-less opposed by three of the five commissioners.

The commissioners reacted much like the Republican leadership on the House Energy and Commerce Committee did a day earlier, asking for a “full and deliberate process of review”—a rather naked demand that the NRC slow-walk these recommendations with an eye toward weakening or killing them. The ECC has yet to schedule any hearings on the task force report.

On the Senate side, I am told that the Committee on Environment and Public Works will hold hearings in August, but nothing as yet is listed on the committee website. (EPW is chaired by Barbara Boxer; if you want, give her a call and express your interest in a timely hearing.)

Sadly, it seems like the US takeaway from the triple meltdown and massive environmental disaster in Japan is that we need to stick up for our domestic nuclear industry. In fact, just yesterday, the NRC approved a 20-year operating license extension for Hope Creek in New Jersey. Hope Creek is a boiling water reactor, just like Fukushima Daiichi 1, and stores spent fuel in above-ground pools, just as was done in the now-crippled Japanese plants.

Conveniently, practically no one in the US has any time to devote to nuclear concerns—after all, we are facing a debt-pocalypse!

I write that with a healthy degree of sarcasm, but it seems to me more than a happy accident that absolutely nothing else can get done in Washington because of the never-healing, self-inflicted wound that has tied our governing in knots and threatens to cripple the entire government. Forgive the cheap allusion, but it is a meltdown of accountability.

An easy turn of phrase, but I have been feeling like there is some deeper connection—or, if not connection, parallel—between the ongoing crisis in Fukushima and the never-ending “crisis” in Washington.

Earlier in the week, TEPCO (the power company that owns Fukushima Daiichi) and the Japanese government updated their plans for cleanup and containment of the disaster area. They announced that their goal is a cold shutdown of the crippled reactors in three to six months, and with that, they hope to reduce the radiation level around the plant to one millisievert per year by mid-January. That would be substantial. Officials even talk of allowing some to return to the quarantine area if that goal is met.

But for that goal to be met—for any of the goals to be met, really—the crews at Fukushima will have to do something else first. Namely, emergency workers must find and fix the cracks and holes in the containment vessels of the damaged reactors that continue to allow contaminated, radioactive water to leak into the reactor buildings, the surrounding tunnels and neighboring facilities, and onto the ground, possibly into the ground water, and, almost certainly, into the sea. Yet, the problem of fixing the holes, a goal that was part of the previous plan of action, a goal that has not been met, is not in the latest Japanese report.

When asked about the omission, officials said that they expect progress to be made on the leaks. They did not say how. They did not say when. But, you know, obviously, that will be addressed. The main thing is, though, focus on the big, happy, longer-term goals.

Is this starting to sound at all familiar?

In the current context, I can certainly find fault with many of the details, but let’s say, OK, long-term deficit reduction is not a bad goal, in and of itself. It would, in theory, be good to spend less on interest, and more, say on education or infrastructure. . . .

But that is not how I hear President Obama addressing this. Instead, I hear him mimicking self-interested deficit hawks, blurring the difference between debt and deficit, allowing the Tea-OP to frame budget cuts as linked to the debt ceiling, and purposely dragging entitlements into the mix when they don’t have a bearing on the matter at hand. And, worst of all, the president and practically every other leader in DC has made deficit reduction the stand-in for the warm, fuzzy goal of rebuilding the economy—which is, at best, putting the cart before the horse, but is more likely a damaging and dangerous lie.

Before we get to jump in to the magic happy balanced-budget pool, perhaps there are a few holes and cracks the administration might want to spackle. And the cracks are legion, aren’t they?

Of course, there is the war. . . the wars. . . the three, three-and-a-half, or four wars, sucking trillions out of the economy.

And, of course, there are the very-much-still-here-even-though-they-should-have-already-expired Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest of the wealthy. And there is the hedge-fund-manager’s loophole and any number of other breaks for the rich that deprive the supposedly going-up-in-flames system of a cooling river of cash.

But I want to talk about an even more obvious, immediate, gaping hole, a hole that should be goal one in any discussion of the economy, and yet is embarrassingly absent from the beltway back-and-forth:

Jobs.

Before we spend another breath of air or drop of ink on the goal of deficit reduction, the federal government should be focusing on the goal of decreasing unemployment—focusing on the goal of creating jobs. It is, in fact, the obvious first step, the obvious hole you plug on the way to broader economic health. With more and better-paying jobs, you pump more money into the marketplace, increase demand, and spur expansion. And you also create a more robust revenue stream for the government. Almost every new job is a new taxable income.

And right now, when interest rates are so extremely low, when money is cheap for the government, now is an excellent time to invest in the country by spending. You know what would make this a less-good time for borrowing? Defaulting on our debt.

If the jerk circus in Washington fails to raise the debt ceiling, sends a message that it is some degree less than a sure thing that America will honor its obligations, then the cost of borrowing could go up, and then maybe we have a real problem.

Now, if you were president, what frame would you rather be forced to defend?

Why not take advantage of this situation—which has the added advantage of being the truth—and demand a clean vote, and only a clean vote, on the debt ceiling? Why not tell the American people that if we do this, and keep the money supply cheap and fluid, then government can do what it is supposed to do—what it can do: care for its people, create jobs in a time of need, repair aging infrastructure, research and develop new, greener energy sources (hint, hint—which will not only wean us off of expensive oil and nuclear power, but it could help build the economic engine that could power the US economy for the next decade), and provide a better life for every level of society?

Then, when we are back on terra firma, when we have plugged the gaping hole, we can re-examine the big rosy budget goals. But then we can do so from a place of strength, do so from a place where we are not trying to bail out a sinking ship with a perforated bucket, do so without running from crisis to crisis like terrified citizens in some Japanese horror film.

Let’s at least try to learn one thing from the Fukushima crisis: Make our goal to fix the hole.

 

(A version of this post also appeared at Firedoglake.)

The Party Line – July 15, 2011: Japan’s PM Recommends Shift Away from Nuclear Power; US Report Recommends Regulatory Tweaks

While most of creation is still trying to predict if Congress will raise the debt ceiling, and what will happen to the economy if they don’t, I thought I’d spend some quality time with disasters quite present, and in some ways, quite predictable. I am talking about nuclear power in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster.

As I detailed a few weeks back, Germany’s Prime Minister, Angela Merkel, announced a plan to shut down all of her country’s nuclear reactors by 2022. This week, Japanese PM Naoto Kan made similar noises:

We should reduce our dependence in a planned and gradual way, and in the future we should aim to get by with no nuclear energy. When we think of the magnitude of the risks involved with nuclear power, the safety measures we previously conceived are inadequate.

And, also this week, here in the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released, via its website, an 80-something-page report on the Japanese nuclear disaster [PDF], which included a series of recommendations for improving safety and disaster response at US nuclear power facilities.

Just doesn’t have the same oomph, does it? Kind of missing the gravity or sense of urgency of a head of state declaring an unambiguous move away from nuclear power, no?

Style points aside—I mean, you can hardly expect President Obama to break away from round-the-clock deficit hysteria to address a looming threat that also happens to siphon billions of dollars from federal coffers in the form of subsidies and loan guarantees—the content of the report itself, its findings and recommendations, also leave me feeling a bit underwhelmed.

As noted, the report is long–and it is dense–but as I understand it, the task force recommends that regulators pay more attention to what the report calls “low-likelihood, high-consequence events”. . . you know, like earthquakes and floods that damage nuclear reactors and safety systems.

Hard to argue with that. . . but then the task force also says that the sort of high-consequence disaster that happened in Japan can’t happen in the US—and that is a point that I and many experts and activists would argue against. To put it very briefly, the United States has many reactors past their projected life spans, many similar in design to Fukushima’s, and many built in areas vulnerable to seismic activity, floods and, yes, even tsunamis.

Also recommended, that the government standardize safety regulations and emergency response plans—and make them actual rules as opposed to voluntary industry initiatives (aka “suggestions”)—which is good as far as it goes, but in the wake of a multi-part AP exposé showing how the NRC conspired with the nuclear industry to lower safety standards, I’m thinking that doesn’t go that far.

Perhaps what is most important, however, is what’s missing from the Near-Term Task Force Review. As noted by Physicians for Social Responsibility, the report makes no recommendation for moving spent nuclear fuel from over-packed pools to hardened on-site storage. A striking omission considering that used fuel rods stored in pools inside the Fukushima reactor buildings were and continue to be a serious part of the crisis in Japan.

Also highlighted by PSR, though completely outside the prescribed scope of the investigation, the task force states that there is an “expectation of no significant radiological health effects” from the Fukushima disaster.

No significant radiological health effects. When I first read that, I assumed the NRC review was referring to the United States—an assertion that already strains credulity as far as I’m concerned, but one that can be debated, given the distance and the data (or paucity of data). But, as I read it—uh, re-read it—this “conclusion” is a general one, as in everywhere, as in an expectation of no significant radiological health effects in Japan.

Now, that assertion, without any long-term health screenings or any epidemiological studies, is as worthless as it is irresponsible, but to make such a statement a week after a Japanese report revealed that 45 percent of children in Fukushima Prefecture have thyroids that show evidence of exposure to radiation makes one wonder what the US task force used for data. . . or if they felt the need to use data at all. Also revealed at the end of June, soil samples from the city of Fukushima—an area well outside of the quarantine radius—contained radioactive cesium at levels 1.5 to 4.5 times greater than the legal limit. (Radioactive cesium 137 has a half-life of approximately 30 years and tends to accumulate in plant tissue and fungal spores.)

But wait, there’s more:

Another sample taken from a street ditch — where nuclear fallout often accumulates — registered as much as 931,000 becquerels per sq. meter, surpassing the 555,000 becquerels per sq. meter limit for compulsory resettlement in the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. Samples from the other three locations measured between 326,000 and 384,000 becquerels per sq. meter.

An earlier survey on soil in the city of Fukushima by the science ministry has found 37,000 becquerels of radioactive substances per 1 kg — equivalent to 740,000 becquerels per sq. meter.

That’s Japan. Here in North America, we found out this week that the Environmental Protection Agency was measuring radioactive iodine in rainwater out west at levels 30, 40, and, in one case, 130 times what is considered the safety standard for drinking water. Granted, a drinking water standard is not the same as a rainwater measure (as I understand it, the drinking water standard is based on the chances that consumption of a glass a day for 30 years will result in cancer), but that does not mean that this revelation doesn’t raise many questions.

For instance, what about negative non-cancer health effects? Has rain-borne radiation contaminated reservoirs, wells, or watersheds? What about bioaccumulation, what about the radiation that winds up in and on plants and animals? And what about—and this has been one of my big questions since the early days of this crisis—what about other isotopes, ones with other deleterious health effects, ones with half-lives measured in decades (like Cs-137) as opposed to days (like I-131)? And, of course, since it has been determined that there is no such thing as a “safe” level of radiation exposure, no matter the source, shouldn’t the government do a better job of informing the public of any significant increases?

To that last point, the report on radioactive rainwater, which is from Heart of America Northwest, also revealed that, in many cases, there was a lag time of a week between the radiation readings and the posting of the information on the EPA’s RadNet website. So, even for those that could parse the data on the less-than-lay-friendly site, the news was nowhere close to real-time, and so nowhere close to immediate enough for individuals trying to assess risk and adjust behavior accordingly.

The same report notes that though the EPA says it stepped up rainwater sampling following the start of the nuclear disaster in Japan, several sites (Portland, OR, for example) do not show additional sample dates beyond the standard once per month. That leads one to assume that the EPA was less diligent than they claimed, but could it also be that the EPA collected samples but chose not to post the data? (That’s an honest question—I don’t know if the latter is possible, but it did occur to me.)

By the way, that increase in sampling—it ended on May 3. . . because, of course, the Fukushima crisis is over. . . .

But, of course, the crisis is not over. Beyond the melted cores in several Fukushima reactors—where Japanese response teams are still trying to understand the shape and temperature of fuel and the integrity of the containment vessels—there are the pools of spent fuel rods, still very radioactive, still sitting in reactor buildings without roofs (which were destroyed by hydrogen explosions in the days after the earthquake and tsunami). Those pools are still sending an unknown amount of radiation into the atmosphere, and those pools will remain exposed for months to come (the first attempt to cover one of the reactor buildings is expected in late September).

So, that’s a lot to digest—for me, yes, and maybe for you, too—but at least I am trying to take it all in. Did the NRC task force take in any of this before they issued their report? Did they digest it? Yes or no, I find their assertion of no significant radiological health effects hard to swallow.

The differences in the levels of response—Germany announcing a plan to end its use of nuclear power, and Japan’s PM stating that his country should do the same, versus the United States quietly releasing a wonky report with a set of recommendations for a sustained nuclear future—tells me that the US government will not learn the lessons of the Fukushima disaster, and I find that hard to stomach.

(A version of this post also appears at Firedoglake.)