Gregory Jaczko Has a Cold

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko (photo: pennstatelive)

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s not the scariest part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Party Line – August 19, 2011: Japan Nuclear Crisis Continues, Highlighting More Potential Dangers in US

Imagine, if you will, living somewhat close to a nuclear reactor—not right next door, but close enough—and then imagine that an accident at that reactor causes a large release of radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere. Certainly scary, but maybe less scary because you know your government has computer models that show where the nuclear fallout will blow and fall, and they explain that the amounts that will blow and fall on you are negligible.

Sure, you might think twice about that reassurance, but it is not like they are saying everything is OK. The government, after all, did evacuate some people based on their fallout models. . . so they are on top of it.

Then imagine five months later, after you’ve breathed the air, drank the water, and tramped dirt and snow in and around your home, the government reveals that even though they had the models, and even though they knew the amounts of radioactivity pouring into the atmosphere from the damaged nuclear plant, they didn’t input the known amounts into the fallout model, so that when the government was reassuring people, it was doing so based on a minimum measurable number used to build the model, and not the actual amounts then being released. So, now, you find that not only have you been living in a place that was well within a zone now littered with hazardous fallout, you find that many who were evacuated were moved directly into the path of that radioactive plume.

While you’re at it, imagine that you’ve been eating contaminated beef, because the government failed to stop the distribution of radioactive rice straw. And, also, imagine you’ve been drinking tea containing three times the allowable limit of radioactive cesium because the government didn’t think they needed to monitor tea that was grown over 100 miles from the failed reactor.

Imagine, too, that your children are safe because the amount of ionizing radiation they are exposed to is under the government’s annual limit. . . because the government just increased the allowable annual limit twenty-fold, from one millisievert to 20 mSv.

Of course, as I am sure you have already surmised, if you live in many parts of Northern Japan, you don’t have to imagine any of this—this is your everyday reality.

This rather terrifying reality really isn’t limited to Northern Japan, however. Yes, that region has suffered the worst of the triple play that was a massive earthquake, a tsunami, and reactor meltdowns, but the contaminated food has been found all over Japan (and now there is word that tuna is also showing evidence of contamination), and in Tokyo, outside the evacuation zone and even the worst of the newly revealed plume models, a rainstorm ten days after the earthquake increased levels of background radiation in the city, and they have remained high ever since.

A professor at Tokyo University recently made a speech before the Japanese Diet in which he compared levels of contamination and exposure from the Fukushima disaster to that from the atomic blast at Hiroshima—the current crisis being upwards of twenty times worse.

More troubling still—for the Japanese, and anyone, frankly, that shares a jet stream with them—the last couple of weeks have seen evidence of a fourth meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi facility, and, perhaps even more disturbing, news of highly radioactive steam emerging from cracks in the ground around the reactor buildings. What makes that last point especially scary is that some believe this is evidence that the “corium” (the molten mess of fissile material that was once fuel rods inside of a reactor) has not only melted through the bottom of the containment vessel, but has started to burn through the concrete floor of the complex and is sinking toward the water table. (Images of Jane Fonda and Jack Lemon make this seem less serious to me, but you will hear others talk of this and reference The China Syndrome.) A constant leaking of a sort of radioactive smog is bad enough—it makes working on the cleanup go from ridiculously difficult to nearly impossible—but the bigger concern is an interaction between the corium and the groundwater that separates the hydrogen from the oxygen, causing a big explosion, sending more contaminants up into the atmosphere.

Such a scenario also sets up another imagination exercise: try to imagine just what effect this development will have on the already dubious plan to cover the breached reactor buildings with giant tarps. That’s one you will still have to imagine, because, as yet, there is no reported adjustment in the containment and cleanup plan from the Japanese government.

Of course, as terrible as this all is, it seems terribly removed from what should concern inhabitants of the mainland United States. After all, the US has not suffered this nuclear accident, it has no issues with leaking radioactive isotopes, America is a much larger and less densely populated country than Japan, and, after all, the dual disaster that caused the Fukushima reactors to meltdown is near to completely impossible for almost any of the reactors based in the US.

Except that none of that is true.

Though none have yet risen to the size and scope of the Fukushima disaster, the US has a long history of nuclear accidents. Some are of the instantaneous crisis variety, like Three Mile Island (to name only the most obvious of several), but many are of the slowly evolved, quietly revealed variety. For instance, just this week, health officials announced that radioactive tritium released from aging pipes at the Vermont Yankee nuclear facility had leached into the soil and has now been detected in the Connecticut River. In past years, strontium contamination had also been linked to the same plant. Vermont Yankee officials, now lobbying for a license renewal, have basically responded with “Pipes? What pipes?” and “Those are not our isotopes.”

And Vermont Yankee is just one of a long list of aging nuclear facilities built dangerously close to population centers. One third of Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear reactor.

Feeling eerily similar to the Japanese response, the US government has met elevated readings of background radiation and radioactive isotopes triggered by the fallout from Fukushima with a decrease in the reporting of such data (and in some cases, an actual decrease in data collected). There is talk (behind closed doors, of course) of revising upward the acceptable amounts of radioactive contamination in certain foods. An AP report exposed a history of US government regulators working closely with the nuclear industry to weaken safety requirements and paper-over violations. And, even a series of relatively modest recommendations on how to enhance nuclear safety based on what has been observed in Japan is being slow-walked into non-implementation.

And maybe most disturbing of all, the very premise that is supposed to comfort us, that the meltdowns in Japan were the result of a catastrophic coincidence of events—an earthquake shutting off electricity to the plant, a tsunami knocking out the diesel back-up generators, thus leaving the facility with no way of powering the cooling systems—while already not wholly impossible in the United States, might turn out to be seriously flawed and overly optimistic. Evidence is beginning to emerge that some of the Fukushima meltdowns might have begun almost immediately after the earthquake, likely the result of multiple ruptures to the cooling system itself caused not by the tsunami, but by the tremor. In other words, even with full power to the plant, the cooling systems would have failed.

Reports right after the March earthquake in Japan found a disturbing number of US nuclear plants in active seismic zones, and found several near large population centers in the east to be even more vulnerable to earthquake damage than the two oft-cited California facilities. But here’s the clincher, those probabilities of whether a nuclear plant can survive an earthquake of a size likely to occur in a particular area are calculated on whether the tremor will damage the reactor core—those numbers do not factor in damage to the cooling system as the cause of a crisis.

How does the US government assess risk if a double whammy is not necessary? How does the NRC rate a facility if a breach of the containment vessel is not required to start a meltdown (or an explosion in an overheated spent fuel pool, for that matter)? As best I can tell, it doesn’t.

Imagination, as the song says, is funny. It makes a cloudy day sunny. It makes a bee think of honey. . . but it doesn’t cover-up reality when a real-world disaster continues to provide measurable data and cause considerable suffering. Governments on both sides of the Pacific might want to pretend that what we don’t know won’t hurt us, but the facts will prove that whether we know or not, the pain—both physical and economic—will be felt far and wide.

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