Fukushima Nuclear Disaster “Man-Made” Reports Japanese Panel; Quake Damaged Plant Before Tsunami

Aerial view of the Oi Nuclear Power Plant, Fukui Prefecture, Japan. (photo: Japan Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport via Wikipedia)

The massive disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility that began with the March 11, 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami could have been prevented and was likely made worse by the response of government officials and plant owners, so says a lengthy report released today by the Japanese Diet (their parliament).

The official report of The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Committee [PDF] harshly criticizes the Japanese nuclear industry for avoiding safety upgrades and disaster plans that could have mitigated much of what went wrong after a massive quake struck the northeast of Japan last year. The account also includes direct evidence that Japanese regulatory agencies conspired with TEPCO (Fukushima’s owner-operator) to help them forestall improvements and evade scrutiny:

The TEPCO Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties. They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents.

. . . .

We found evidence that the regulatory agencies would explicitly ask about the operators’ intentions whenever a new regulation was to be implemented. For example, NISA informed the operators that they did not need to consider a possible station blackout (SBO) because the probability was small and other measures were in place. It then asked the operators to write a report that would give the appropriate rationale for why this consideration was unnecessary.

The report also pointed to Japanese cultural conventions, namely the reluctance to question authority–a common refrain in many post-Fukushima analyses.

But perhaps most damning, and most important to the future of Japan and to the future of nuclear power worldwide, is the Investigation’s finding that parts of the containment and cooling systems at Fukushima Daiichi were almost certainly damaged by the earthquake before the mammoth tsunami caused additional destruction:

We conclude that TEPCO was too quick to cite the tsunami as the cause of the nuclear accident and deny that the earthquake caused any damage.

. . . .

[I]t is impossible to limit the direct cause of the accident to the tsunami without substantive evidence. The Commission believes that this is an attempt to avoid responsibility by putting all the blame on the unexpected (the tsunami), as they wrote in their midterm report, and not on the more foreseeable earthquake.

Through our investigation, we have verified that the people involved were aware of the risk from both earthquakes and tsunami. Further, the damage to Unit 1 was caused not only by the tsunami but also by the earthquake, a conclusion made after considering the facts that: 1) the largest tremor hit after the automatic shutdown (SCRAM); 2) JNES confirmed the possibility of a small-scale LOCA (loss of coolant accident); 3) the Unit 1 operators were concerned about leakage of coolant from the valve, and 4) the safety relief valve (SR) was not operating.

Additionally, there were two causes for the loss of external power, both earthquake-related: there was no diversity or independence in the earthquake-resistant external power systems, and the Shin-Fukushima transformer station was not earthquake resistant.

As has been discussed here many times, the nuclear industry and its boosters in government like to point to the “who could have possibly imagined,” “one-two punch” scenario of quake and tsunami to both vouch for the safety of other nuclear facilities and counter any call for reexamination and upgrades of existing safety systems. Fukushima, however, has always proved the catastrophic case study that actually countered this argument–and now there is an exhaustive study to buttress the point.

First, both the quake and the tsunami were far from unpredictable. The chances of each–as well as the magnitude–were very much part of predictions made by scientists and government bureaucrats. There is documentation that Japanese regulators knew and informed their nuclear industry of these potential disasters, but then looked the other way or actively aided the cause as plant operators consistently avoided improving structures, safety systems and accident protocols.

Second, even if there had not been a tsunami, Fukushima Daiichi would have still been a disaster. While the crisis was no doubt exacerbated by the loss of the diesel generators and the influx of seawater, the evidence continues to mount that reactor containment was breached and cooling systems were damaged by the earthquake first. Further, it was the earthquake that damaged all the electrical systems and backups aside from the diesel generators, and there is no guarantee that all generators would have worked flawlessly for their projected life-spans, that the other external and internal power systems could have been restored quickly, or that enough additional portable power could have been trucked in to the facility in time to prevent further damage. In fact, much points to less than optimal resolution of all of these problems.

To repeat, there was loss of external power, loss of coolant, containment breach, and release of radiation after the quake, but before the tsunami hit the Fukushima nuclear plant.

And now for the bad news. . . .

And yet, as harsh as this new report is (and it is even more critical than was expected, which is actually saying something), on first reading, it still appears to pull a punch.

Though the failure of the nuclear reactors and their safety systems is now even further documented in this report, its focus on industry obstruction and government collusion continues in some ways to perpetuate the “culture of safety” myth. By labeling the Fukushima disaster as “Made in Japan,” “manmade” and “preventable,” the panel–as we are fond of saying here–assumes a can opener. By talking up all that government and industry did wrong in advance of March 11, 2011, by critiquing all the lies and crossed signals after the earthquake and tsunami, and by recommending new protocols and upgrades, the Japanese report fiats a best-case scenario for a technology that has consistently proven that no such perfect plan exists.

The facts were all there before 3/11/11, and all the revelations since just add to the atomic pile. Nuclear fission is a process that has to go flawlessly to consistently provide safe and economical electrical power–but the process is too complex, and relies on too many parts, too many people and too volatile a fuel for that to ever really happen. Add in the costs and hazards of uranium mining, transport, fuel milling, and waste storage, and nuclear again proves itself to be dirty, dangerous, and disgustingly expensive.

* * *

And, as if to put an exclamation point at the end of the Diet’s report (and this column), the Japanese government moved this week to restart the nuclear plant at Oi, bringing the No. 3 reactor online just hours before the release of the new Fukushima findings. The Oi facility rests on a fault line, and seismologists, nuclear experts and activists have warned that this facility is at risk much in the way Fukushima Daiichi proved to be.

Most of Japan’s reactors were taken offline following the Tohoku quake, with the last of them–the Oi plant–shut down earlier this year. In the wake of the disaster, Japan’s then-Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, suggested that it might be time for his country to turn away from nuclear power. Demonstrators across Japan seemed to agree and urged Kansai Electric Power Company and current Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to delay the restart of Oi. But the government seemed to be hurrying to get Oi back up, despite many questions and several technical glitches.

Noda insists the rush is because of the need for electricity during the hot summer months, but Japan managed surprisingly well last summer (when more of the country’s infrastructure was still damaged from the quake and tsunami) with better conservation and efficiency measures. Perhaps release of this new report provides a more plausible explanation for the apparent urgency.

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House Postpones Witch Hunt While Nuclear Industry Awaits Results of Latest Power Play

The Salem Nuclear Power Plant is in New Jersey, not Salem, MA, but you get the idea. (photo: peretzp)

In case you were wondering what it was all about–“it” being the dealings of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission actually making the popular news for a few months–the House Committee on Energy and Commerce indefinitely postponed its Thursday hearing on the “politicization of the [NRC] and the actions and influence of Chairman Jaczko.” Gregory Jaczko, of course, announced his resignation on May 21, and President Obama nominated Allison Macfarlane as his replacement three days later.

Though stressing that his committee would keep an eye on the NRC, “including a full review of the inspector general’s pending report” on the “breakdown in collegiality at the commission,” Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) did not schedule a new hearing.

And there is no apparent update from Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and, until about the third week of last month, one of the loudest and most persistent critics of workplace morale at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Before Jaczko’s resignation, Issa, too, was promising more hearings. Instead, Issa has turned again to attacking loan guarantees for renewable energy projects (and so, attempting. . . again. . . to make Solyndra an issue in the presidential election)–which also serves his masters (as in, largest campaign contributors) in the nuclear industry just fine, thank you.

Meanwhile, things are suddenly moving on the Senate side. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has given a more public blessing to the suspected private deal discussed here during the weeks leading up to Jaczko’s move. Because Dr. Macfarlane is considered an opponent of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, Senator Reid has agreed to put aside his vocal objections to a second term for NRC commissioner Kristine Svinicki and advance both nominations toward confirmation as a pair. (Stopping Yucca, of course, has been one of Reid’s top priorities throughout his political career.) California Democrat Barbara Boxer, whose Environment and Public Works Committee will conduct the hearings on the NRC nominees, has sidestepped her own strong objections to Svinicki, and now says both the current and potential nuclear regulators should be considered before the end of the month.

So, there you have it–matters supposedly related to oversight of the nuclear industry and the safety of the American people have quite visibly taken a back seat to influence peddling and classic beltway horse-trading. In an era where even cynical deals are rarely struck, some might hail this move to quickly restock the NRC as something resembling bipartisan compromise (as if that were an end in itself). But success is not measured by the number of commissioners collecting government paychecks, it is seen in the actions of regulators who actually regulate.

In the wake of the ongoing Fukushima crisis, and in the presence of countless problems at a multitude of aging American nuclear plants, there is, indeed, much regulating to be done. But when one member of the NRC is forced out for vainly advocating the most minor of safety improvements, while another commissioner is rewarded with reappointment for consistently supporting the nuclear industry, the chances of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulating much of anything seem slim. It effectively defines “regulatory capture,” and practically guarantees that, no matter how fair or interpersonally gifted Dr. Macfarlane might be, the NRC will do little to police nuclear power.

As has been noted here on numerous occasions, the regulatory system is broken. Scientists, citizens, and lawmakers cannot “assume we have a can opener” and pretend a process exists to make commercial nuclear power clean and safe. The NRC may–may–have been created to provide oversight, but, in reality, it works instead to provide cover. Without an honest and active regulatory body, there is no credible argument for a “nuclear renaissance“–there is only the promise of another nuclear disaster.

Something Fishy: CRS Report Downplays Fukushima’s Effect on US Marine Environment

japan

(photo: JanneM)

Late Thursday, the United States Coast Guard reported that they had successfully scuttled the Ryou-Un Maru, the Japanese “Ghost Ship” that had drifted into US waters after being torn from its moorings by the tsunami that followed the Tohoku earthquake over a year ago. The 200-foot fishing trawler, which was reportedly headed for scrap before it was swept away, was seen as potentially dangerous as it drifted near busy shipping lanes.

Coincidentally, the “disappearing” of the Ghost Ship came during the same week the Congressional Research Service (CRS) released its report on the effects of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster on the US marine environment, and, frankly, the metaphor couldn’t be more perfect. The Ryou-Un Maru is now resting at the bottom of the ocean–literally nothing more to see there, thanks to a few rounds from a 25mm Coast Guard gun–and the CRS hopes to dispatch fears of the radioactive contamination of US waters and seafood with the same alacrity.

But while the Ghost Ship was not considered a major ecological threat (though it did go down with around 2,000 gallons of diesel fuel in its tanks), the US government acknowledges that this “good luck ship” (a rough translation of its name) is an early taste of the estimated 1.5 million tons of tsunami debris expected to hit North American shores over the next two or three years. Similarly, the CRS report (titled Effects of Radiation from Fukushima Dai-ichi on the U.S. Marine Environment [PDF]) adopts an overall tone of “no worries here–its all under control,” but a closer reading reveals hints of “more to come.”

Indeed, the report feels as it were put through a political rinse cycle, limited both in the strength of its language and the scope of its investigation. This tension is evident right from the start–take, for example, these three paragraphs from the report’s executive summary:

Both ocean currents and atmospheric winds have the potential to transport radiation over and into marine waters under U.S. jurisdiction. It is unknown whether marine organisms that migrate through or near Japanese waters to locations where they might subsequently be harvested by U.S. fishermen (possibly some albacore tuna or salmon in the North Pacific) might have been exposed to radiation in or near Japanese waters, or might have consumed prey with accumulated radioactive contaminants.

High levels of radioactive iodine-131 (with a half-life of about 8 days), cesium-137 (with a half-life of about 30 years), and cesium-134 (with a half-life of about 2 years) were measured in seawater adjacent to the Fukushima Dai-ichi site after the March 2011 events. EPA rainfall monitors in California, Idaho, and Minnesota detected trace amounts of radioactive iodine, cesium, and tellurium consistent with the Japanese nuclear incident, at concentrations below any level of concern. It is uncertain how precipitation of radioactive elements from the atmosphere may have affected radiation levels in the marine environment.

Scientists have stated that radiation in the ocean very quickly becomes diluted and would not be a problem beyond the coast of Japan. The same is true of radiation carried by winds. Barring another unanticipated release, radioactive contaminants from Fukushima Dai-ichi should be sufficiently dispersed over time that they will not prove to be a serious health threat elsewhere, unless they bioaccumulate in migratory fish or find their way directly to another part of the world through food or other commercial products.

Winds and currents have “the potential” to transport radiation into US waters? Winds–quite measurably–already have, and computer models show that currents, over the next couple of years, most certainly will.

Are there concentrations of radioisotopes that are “below concern?” No reputable scientist would make such a statement. And if monitors in the continental United States detected radioactive iodine, cesium and tellurium in March 2011, then why did they stop the monitoring (or at least stop reporting it) by June?

The third paragraph, however, wins the double-take prize. Radiation would not be a problem beyond the coast? Fish caught hundreds of miles away would beg to differ. “Barring another unanticipated release. . . ?” Over the now almost 13 months since the Fukushima crisis began, there have been a series of releases into the air and into the ocean–some planned, some perhaps unanticipated at the time, but overall, the pattern is clear, radioactivity continues to enter the environment at unprecedented levels.

And radioactive contaminants “should be sufficiently dispersed over time, unless they bioaccumulate?” Unless? Bioaccumulation is not some crazy, unobserved hypothesis, it is a documented biological process. Bioaccumulation will happen–it will happen in migratory fish and it will happen as under-policed food and commercial products (not to mention that pesky debris) make their way around the globe.

Maybe that is supposed to be read by inquiring minds as the report’s “please ignore he man behind the curtain” moment–an intellectual out clause disguised as an authoritative analgesic–but there is no escaping the intent. Though filled with caveats and counterfactuals, the report is clearly meant to serve as a sop to those alarmed by the spreading ecological catastrophe posed by the ongoing Fukushima disaster.

The devil is in the details–the dangers are in the data

Beyond the wiggle words, perhaps the most damning indictment of the CRS marine radiation report can be found in the footnotes–or, more pointedly, in the dates of the footnotes. Though this report was released over a year after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami triggered the Fukushima nightmare, the CRS bases the preponderance of its findings on information generated during the disaster’s first month. In fact, of the document’s 29 footnotes, only a handful date from after May 2011–one of those points to a CNN report (authoritative!), one to a status update on the Fukushima reactor structures, one confirms the value of Japanese seafood imports, three are items tracking the tsunami debris, and one directs readers to a government page on FDA radiation screening, the pertinent part of which was last updated on March 28 of last year.

Most crucially, the parts of the CRS paper that downplay the amounts of radiation measured by domestic US sensors all cite data collected within the first few weeks of the crisis. The point about radioisotopes being “below any level of concern” comes from an EPA news release dated March 22, 2011–eleven days after the earthquake, only six days after the last reported reactor explosion, and well before so many radioactive releases into the air and ocean. It is like taking reports of only minor flooding from two hours after Hurricane Katrina passed over New Orleans, and using them as the standard for levee repair and gulf disaster planning (perhaps not the best example, as many have critiqued levee repairs for their failure to incorporate all the lessons learned from Katrina).

It now being April of 2012, much more information is available, and clearly any report that expects to be called serious should have included at least some of it.

By October of last year, scientists were already doubling their estimates of the radiation pushed into the atmosphere by the Daiichi reactors, and in early November, as reported here, France’s Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety issued a report showing the amount of cesium 137 released into the ocean was 30 times greater than what was stated by TEPCO in May. Shockingly, the Congressional Research Service does not reference this report.

Or take the early March 2012 revelation that seaweed samples collected from off the coast of southern California show levels of radioactive iodine 131 500 percent higher than those from anywhere else in the US or Canada. It should be noted that this is the result of airborne fallout–the samples were taken in mid-to-late-March 2011, much too soon for water-borne contamination to have reached that area–and so serves to confirm models that showed a plume of radioactive fallout with the greatest contact in central and southern California. (Again, this specific report was released a month before the CRS report, but the data it uses were collected over a year ago.)

Then there are the food samples taken around Japan over the course of the last year showing freshwater and sea fish–some caught over 200 kilometers from Fukushima–with radiation levels topping 100 becquerels per kilogram (one topping 600 Bq/kg).

And the beat goes on

This information, and much similar to it, was all available before the CRS released its document, but the report also operates in a risibly artificial universe that assumes the situation at Fukushima Daiichi has basically stabilized. As a sampling of pretty much any week’s news will tell you, it has not. Take, for example, this week:

About 12 tons of water contaminated with radioactive strontium are feared to have leaked from the Fukushima No. 1 plant into the Pacific Ocean, Tepco said Thursday.

The leak occurred when a pipe broke off from a joint while the water was being filtered for cesium, Tokyo Electric Power Co. said.

The system doesn’t remove strontium, and most of the water apparently entered the sea via a drainage route, Tepco added.

The water contained 16.7 becquerels of cesium per cu. centimeter and tests are under way to determine how much strontium was in it, Tepco said.

This is the second such leak in less than two weeks, and as Kazuhiko Kudo, a professor of nuclear engineering at Kyushu University who visited Fukushima Daiichi twice last year, noted:

There will be similar leaks until Tepco improves equipment. The site had plastic pipes to transfer radioactive water, which Tepco officials said are durable and for industrial use, but it’s not something normally used at nuclear plants. Tepco must replace it with metal equipment, such as steel.

(The plastic tubes–complete with the vinyl and duct tape patch–can be viewed here.)

And would that the good people at the Congressional Research Service could have waited to read a report that came out the same day as theirs:

Radioactive material from the Fukushima nuclear disaster has been found in tiny sea creatures and ocean water some 186 miles (300 kilometers) off the coast of Japan, revealing the extent of the release and the direction pollutants might take in a future environmental disaster.

In some places, the researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) discovered cesium radiation hundreds to thousands of times higher than would be expected naturally, with ocean eddies and larger currents both guiding the “radioactive debris” and concentrating it.

Or would that the folks at CRS had looked to their fellow government agencies before they went off half-cocked. (The study above was done by researchers at Woods Hole and written up in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences.) In fact, it appears the CRS could have done that. In its report, CRS mentions that “Experts cite [Fukushima] as the largest recorded release of radiation to the ocean,” and the source for that point is a paper by Ken Buesseler–the same Ken Buesseler that was the oceanographer in charge of the WHOI study. Imagine what could have been if the Congressional Research Service had actually contacted the original researcher.

Can openers all around

Or perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered. For if there is one obvious takeaway from the CRS paper, beyond its limits of scope and authority, that seeks to absolve it of all other oversights–it is its unfailing confidence in government oversight.

Take a gander at the section under the bolded question “Are there implications for US seafood safety?”:

It does not appear that nuclear contamination of seafood will be a food safety problem for consumers in the United States. Among the main reasons are that:

  • damage from the disaster limited seafood production in the affected areas,
  • radioactive material would be diluted before reaching U.S. fishing grounds, and
  • seafood imports from Japan are being examined before entry into the United States.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), because of damage from the earthquake and tsunami to infrastructure, few if any food products are being exported from the affected region. For example, according to the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, the region’s fishing industry has stopped landing and selling fish. Furthermore, a fishing ban has been enforced within a 2-kilometer radius around the damaged nuclear facility.

So, the Food and Drug Administration is relying on the word of an industry group and a Japanese government-enforced ban that encompasses a two-kilometer radius–what link of that chain is supposed to be reassuring?

Last things first: two kilometers? Well, perhaps the CRS should hire a few proofreaders. A search of the source materials finds that the ban is supposed to be 20-kilometers. Indeed, the Japanese government quarantined the land for a 20-kilometer radius. The US suggested evacuation from a 50-mile (80-kilometer) radius. The CRS’s own report notes contaminated fish were collected 30 kilometers from Fukushima. So why is even 20 kilometers suddenly a radius to brag about?

As for a damaged industry not exporting, numerous reports show the Japanese government stepping in to remedy that “problem.” From domestic PR campaigns encouraging the consumption of foodstuffs from Fukushima prefecture, to the Japanese companies selling food from the region to other countries at deep discounts, to the Japanese government setting up internet clearing houses to help move tainted products, all signs point to a power structure that sees exporting possibly radioactive goods as essential to its survival.

The point on dilution, of course, not only ignores the way many large scale fishing operations work, it ignores airborne contamination and runs counter to the report’s own acknowledgment of bioaccumulation.

But maybe the shakiest assertion of all is that the US Food and Drug Administration will stop all contaminated imports at the water’s edge. While imports hardly represent the total picture when evaluating US seafood safety, taking this for the small slice of the problem it covers, it engenders raised eyebrows.

First there is the oft-referenced point from nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen, who said last summer that State Department officials told him of a secret agreement between Japan and Secretary Hilary Clinton guaranteeing the continued importation of Japanese food. While independent confirmation of this pact is hard to come by, there is the plain fact that, beyond bans on milk, dairy products, fruits and vegetables from the Fukushima region issued in late March 2011, the US has proffered no other restrictions on Japanese food imports (and those few restrictions for Japanese food were lifted for US military commissaries in September).

And perhaps most damning, there was the statement from an FDA representative last April declaring that North Pacific seafood was so unlikely to be contaminated that “no sampling or monitoring of our fish is necessary.” The FDA said at the time that it would rely on the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to tell it when they should consider testing seafood, but a NOAA spokesperson said it was the FDA’s call.

Good. Glad that’s been sorted out.

The Congressional Research Service report seems to fall victim to a problem noted often here–they assume a can opener. As per the joke, the writers stipulate a functioning mechanism before explaining their solution. As many nuclear industry-watchers assume a functioning regulatory process (as opposed to a captured Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an industry-friendly Department of Energy, and industry-purchased members of Congress) when speaking of the hypothetical safety of nuclear power, the CRS here assumes an FDA interested first and foremost in protecting the general public, instead of an agency trying to strike some awkward “balance” between health, profit and politics. The can opener story is a joke; the effects of this real-life example are not.

Garbage in, garbage out

The Congressional Research Service, a part of the Library of Congress, is intended to function as the research and analysis wing of the US Congress. It is supposed to be objective, it is supposed to be accurate, and it is supposed to be authoritative. America needs the CRS to be all of those things because the agency’s words are expected to inform federal legislation. When the CRS shirks its responsibility, shapes its words to fit comfortably into the conventional wisdom, or shaves off the sharp corners to curry political favor, the impact is more than academic.

When the CRS limits its scope to avoid inconvenient truths, it bears false witness to the most important events of our time. When the CRS pretends other government agencies are doing their jobs–despite documentable evidence to the contrary–then they are not performing theirs. And when the CRS issues a report that ignores the data and the science so that a few industries might profit, it is America that loses.

The authors of this particular report might not be around when the bulk of the cancers and defects tied to the radiation from Fukushima Daiichi present in the general population, but this paper’s integrity today could influence those numbers tomorrow. Bad, biased, or bowdlerized advice could scuttle meaningful efforts to make consequential policy.

If the policy analysts that sign their names to reports like this don’t want their work used for scrap paper, then maybe they should take a lesson from the Ryou-Un Maru. Going where the winds and currents take you makes you at best a curiosity, and more likely a nuisance–just so much flotsam and jetsam getting in the way of actual business. Works of note come with moral rudders, anchored to best data available; without that, the report might as well just say “good luck.”

Union of Concerned Scientists Report: Nuclear “Near Misses” Symptom of Failing Regulatory Regime

(image: UCS report on The NRC and Nuclear Plant Safety in 2011, detail)

In its second annual report on the safety of nuclear power facilities (PDF) in the United States, the Union of Concerned Scientists have documented 15 troubling lapses–what they call “near misses”–at 13 of the nation’s atomic plants. The study details specific problems that still want for repairs, but much more disturbing, it also outlines systemic flaws in America’s nuclear regulation and oversight regime.

The problems range from aging and improperly maintained safety systems to unforgivably long delays in the implementation of Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules on fire suppression and seismic security:

We found that the NRC is allowing 47 reactors to operate despite known violations of fire-protection regulations dating back to 1980. The NRC is also allowing 27 reactors to operate even though their safety systems are not designed to protect them from earthquake-related hazards identified in 1996. Eight reactors suffer from both afflictions. The NRC established safety regulations to protect Americans from the inherent hazards of nuclear power plants. However, it is simply not fulfilling its mandate when it allows numerous plant owners to violate safety regulations for long periods of time.

The report also notes instances where nuclear workers were needlessly exposed to unsafe levels of radiation, and plants where failure to follow basic protocols had rendered backup systems functionally useless.

But perhaps most alarming (if not actually surprising) were the UCS findings on how the NRC handled Component Design Bases Inspections, or CDBIs:

Inspectors are supposed to use CDBIs to determine whether owners are operating and maintaining their reactors within specifications approved during design and licensing. Some of the problems concerned containment vent valves, battery power sources, and emergency diesel generators—components that affected the severity of the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant in Japan.

While it was good that the NRC identified these problems, each CDBI audits only a very small sample of possible trouble spots. For example, the CDBI at the Harris nuclear plant in North Carolina examined just 31 safety-related items among literally thousands of candidates. That audit found 10 problems. Beyond ensuring that the plant’s owner corrected those 10 problems, the NRC should have insisted that it identify and correct inadequacies in the plant’s testing and inspection regimes that allowed these problems to exist undetected in the first place. The true value of the CDBIs stems from the weaknesses they reveal in the owners’ testing and inspection regimes. But that value is realized only when the NRC forces owners to remedy those weaknesses.

In other words, it’s nice that you made the good folks at Harris fix those problems, but when a preliminary audit reveals a one-third failure rate, perhaps that plant has earned itself a full top-to-bottom inspection. (The UCS goes even further, recommending that when a nuclear facility operator–like an Exelon or Entergy–has more than one plant that fails an inspection, that company’s entire fleet of reactors should be subject to NRC review.)

As a matter of fact, the Union goes so far as to criticize the NRC’s entire approach to inspections, explaining that the job of regulators is not just to catch deficiencies and fix them. The entire process, UCS stresses, should compel plant managers to operate in such a way that ensures there will be no problems to catch–and so ensures that nuclear plants operate with the safety of its employees and the community at large as a top priority.

* * *

The Union of Concerned Scientists is a great resource. They keep a close watch on the nuclear industry, and do so with an unassailable level of scientific and technical expertise. They are critical of nuclear power as it exists today, but it would be a mistake to call them anti-nuclear. They advocate for safe energy and a clean environment, but if you read their work regularly, it is hard to say they are calling for an end to a certain technology. It makes the nuclear safety paper all the more damning, but it also poses a bit of a paradox.

In fact, reading this report brings to mind the joke about the economist on the desert island. Don’t know it? It goes something like this:

A physicist, a chemist and an economist are stranded and starving on a dessert island when they discover a can of soup that has washed ashore. But there’s a problem, how will they open the can?

The physicist says that with just right length of fallen tree as a lever, and just the right sized rock as a fulcrum, they could knock the top off the can.

“Ridiculous,” says the economist, “you will either smash the can or send it flying. Either way, the soup will splatter across the beach.”

The chemist says that he can analyze the list of ingredients and calculate just how hot they need to get the can in order to expand the soup enough to blow the can open.

“Insane,” says the economist, “if the can explodes, the soup will explode with it. We’ll be lucky to salvage a spoonful.”

“OK, then,” say the physicist and chemist in unison, “what do you propose?”

The economist strikes a thoughtful pose and says, “Assume we have a can opener. . . .”

Perhaps it is not fair to compare an association of scientists to the economist in this story, but UCS goes to admirable length describing the repeated failures of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission–about how the NRC falls short, from rule-making, to inspections, to enforcement–and then essentially says that if America’s nuclear plants are to operate safely, the NRC needs to “aggressively enforce its safety regulations.” Assume we had a regulatory body capable of regulating.

The Union says that the nuclear regulators are not doing their job–and they go further, noting that Congress has also failed by tolerating a flaccid Nuclear Regulatory Commission–but, mirroring the report’s critique of the NRC, the UCS focuses on individual incidents without addressing the systemic problem.

The NRC has had 37 years to evolve from the advocacy-oriented Atomic Energy Commission, the regulatory body’s predecessor, and yet it is still behaving as the nuclear industry’s watchful parent, rather than its top cop. Don’t just take this report as an example (well, 15 examples), look to an in-depth investigation done last summer by the Associated Press that documented the cozy relationship between plant owners and their supposed watchdogs.

The congressional committees that are supposed to provide the NRC with oversight are dominated by politicians beholden to the nuclear lobby for campaign contributions. This winter’s attempted coup against NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko is only the latest in a long list of Capitol Hill follies designed to distract from the problems at hand and delay any increased regulation. Indeed, the problems with lax regulation and laxer oversight have plagued the system so long, it could be argued this is not a bug (as they say), but a feature.

* * *

Calling the 15 gross failures by operators and regulators “near misses” might get headlines because it sounds so ominous, however it is possible that the rubric actually downplays the problem. “Near misses” implies a bullet dodged, a past event, but the incidents highlighted, as well as the overall critique of the process, illustrate an ongoing crisis. These are not so much “near misses” as they are disasters in waiting.

Indeed, even what the report calls “positives”–three (yes, only three) instances where NRC intervention corrected a safety problem in time to prevent an accident–seem more like lucky breaks. For example, the government forced the operators of Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun nuclear plant to improve their flood protection, and in fact, the new equipment was able to protect the facility form a massive flood last summer. But the inflatable levees that were used to keep the flood waters at bay were just barely high enough to avoid being crested, and one even sprang a leak. Had the flooding continued just a little longer, the catastrophe that the UCS report gives the NRC credit for preventing would have likely occurred.

But even if you extend credit for keeping back the flood, what if (and not to get too biblical here) it was not a flood, but a fire? Fort Calhoun is among the 47 plants listed in the report as still not meeting the decades-old fire safety standards. As someone once remarked about another nuclear plant accident, the NRC is getting “credit for the grace of God.”

Alas, God has proven to be an uneven regulator, too. Those who had the misfortune of living downwind of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or Fukushima have learned the Lord regulates in mysterious ways. Does the Union of Concerned Scientists really believe that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can change radically enough to force sufficient safety upgrades on US nuclear plants to assure that no Fukushima-like (or even Fukushima-light) accident will ever happen here?

It is hard to believe they do. The report’s full title, after all, is “The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety: Living on Borrowed Time.”

While a stronger regulatory body is a good idea–and one strongly urged by the UCS–the report provides no way to achieve that goal. Given the problems and the history, it is hard to believe even the best scientists in the field have an answer to nuclear safety’s political impediments.

So, given that, what should be the real conclusion of the Union’s report? It would be the same as the conclusion reached by any honest observer of nuclear power: atomic power–too dirty, too dangerous, and too expensive.

In the short-term, sure, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission needs to do a better job of policing plant safety–but in the long-term, this part of the NRC’s mandate needs to disappear along with its unstable, untenable, and un-regulatable target.