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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Emergency Evacuation, Drill Requirements Quietly Cut While Nuclear Regulators Consider Doubling Length of License Extensions

Map showing the evacuation zone around Indian Point Energy Center by the NRDC (via Riverkeeper).

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will hold a public meeting tonight (Thursday, May 17) on the safety and future of the Indian Point Energy Center (IPEC), a nuclear power plant located in Buchanan, NY, less than 40 miles north of New York City. The Tarrytown, NY “open house” (as it is billed) is designed to explain and answer questions about the annual assessment of safety at IPEC delivered by the NRC in March, but will also serve as a forum where the community can express its concerns in advance of the regulator’s formal relicensing hearings for Indian Point, expected to start later this year.

And if you are in the area–even as far downwind as New York City–you can attend (more on this at the end of the post).

Why might you want to come between Entergy, the current owner of Indian Point, and a shiny new 20-year license extension? As the poets say, let me count the ways:

Indian Point has experienced a series of accidents and “unusual events” since its start that have often placed it on a list of the nation’s worst nuclear power plants. Its structure came into question within months of opening; it has flooded with 100,000 gallons of Hudson River water; it has belched hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive steam in the last 12 years; its spent fuel pools have leaked radioactive tritium, strontium 90 and nickel 63 into the Hudson and into groundwater; and IPEC has had a string of transformer fires and explosions, affecting safety systems and spilling massive amounts of oil into the Hudson.

That poor, poor Hudson River. Indian Point sits on its banks because it needs the water for cooling, but beyond the radioactive leaks and the oil, the water intake system likely kills nearly a billion aquatic organisms a year. And the overheated exhaust water is taking its toll on the river, as well.

Indian Point is located in a seismically precarious place, right on top of the intersection of the Stamford-Peekskill and Ramapo fault lines. The NRC’s 2010 seismic review places IPEC at the top of the list of reactors most at risk for earthquake damage.

Entergy was also late in providing the full allotment of new warning sirens within the 10-mile evacuation zone, which is a kind of “insult to injury” shortfall, since both nuclear power activists and advocates agree that Indian Point’s evacuation plan, even within the laughably limited “Plume Exposure Pathway Emergency Planning Zone,” is more fantasy than reality.

With this kind of legacy, and all of these ongoing problems, it would seem, especially in a world informed by the continuing Fukushima disaster, that the NRC’s discretionary right to refuse a new operating license for Indian Point would be the better part of valor. But the NRC rarely bathes itself in such glory.

Instead, when the nuclear industry meets rules with which it cannot comply, the answer has usually been for the regulatory agencies to just change the rules.

Such was the case the night before the-night-before-Christmas, when the NRC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency quietly changed long-standing emergency planning requirements:

Without fanfare, the nation’s nuclear power regulators have overhauled community emergency planning for the first time in more than three decades, requiring fewer exercises for major accidents and recommending that fewer people be evacuated right away.

Nuclear watchdogs voiced surprise and dismay over the quietly adopted revamp — the first since the program began after Three Mile Island in 1979. Several said they were unaware of the changes until now, though they took effect in December.

At least four years in the works, the changes appear to clash with more recent lessons of last year’s reactor crisis in Japan. A mandate that local responders always run practice exercises for a radiation release has been eliminated — a move viewed as downright bizarre by some emergency planners.

The scope of the changes is rivaled only by the secrecy in which they were implemented. There were no news releases regarding the overhaul from either FEMA or the NRC in December or January. Industry watchdogs, such as the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, only learned about the new rules when questioned by the Associated Press.

It was the AP that published an in-depth investigation of lax nuclear regulation last June, and it was the AP that spotted this latest gift to the nuclear industry:

The latest changes, especially relaxed exercise plans for 50-mile emergency zones, are being flayed by some local planners and activists who say the widespread contamination in Japan from last year’s Fukushima nuclear accident screams out for stronger planning in the United States, not weaker rules.

FEMA officials say the revised standards introduce more variability into planning exercises and will help keep responders on their toes. The nuclear power industry has praised the changes on similar grounds.

Onsite security forces at nuclear power plants have practiced defending against make-believe assaults since 1991 and increased the frequency of these drills after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The new exercises for community responders took years to consider and adopt with prolonged industry and government consultations that led to repeated drafts. The NRC made many changes requested by the industry in copious comments.


But, if a nearby resident or a city official were to express concerns about a nuclear plant’s emergency preparedness–like, say, those that live and work around Indian Point–regulators would likely dismiss them as alarmist:

None of the revisions has been questioned more than the new requirement that some planning exercises incorporate a reassuring premise: that little or no harmful radiation is released. Federal regulators say that conducting a wider variety of accident scenarios makes the exercises less predictable.

However, many state and local emergency officials say such exercises make no sense in a program designed to protect the population from radiation released by a nuclear accident.

“We have the real business of protecting public health to do if we’re not needed at an exercise,” Texas radiation-monitoring specialist Robert Free wrote bluntly to federal regulators when they broached the idea. “Not to mention the waste of public monies.”

Environmental and anti-nuclear activists also scoffed. “You need to be practicing for a worst case, rather than a nonevent,” said nuclear policy analyst Jim Riccio of the group Greenpeace.

From the perspective of the industry-captured regulators, if you can’t handle the truth, rewrite the truth. And if there were any doubt about the motives of the nuclear industry, itself, when it comes to these new rules, a reading of the AP report makes it clear: from top to bottom, the revisions require less of nuclear operators.

While officials stress the importance of limiting radioactive releases, the revisions also favor limiting initial evacuations, even in a severe accident. Under the previous standard, people within two miles would be immediately evacuated, along with everyone five miles downwind. Now, in a large quick release of radioactivity, emergency personnel would concentrate first on evacuating people only within two miles. Others would be told to stay put and wait for a possible evacuation order later.

This rule change feels ludicrous in the wake of Fukushima, where a 12-mile radius is assumed to be a no-go zone for a generation, and the State Department advised US citizens to evacuate beyond 50 miles, but it is especially chilling in the context of Indian Point. The stated reasoning behind the tiny evacuation zone is that anything broader would be impossible to execute quickly, so better to have folks just “hunker down.”

“They’re saying, ‘If there’s no way to evacuate, then we won’t,'” Phillip Musegaas, a lawyer with the environmental group Riverkeeper, said of the stronger emphasis on taking shelter at home. The group is challenging relicensing of Indian Point.

Over 17 million people live within 50 miles of IPEC. In February, environmental and anti-nuclear groups asked the NRC to expand evacuation planning to 25 miles from the current 10, and to push readiness zones out to 100 miles, up from 50. They also asked for emergency planners to take into account multiple disasters, like those experienced last year in Japan.

That might have been an opportune time for the regulators to explain that they had already changed the rules–two months earlier–and that they had not made them stronger, they had made them weaker. Not only will the 10 and 50-mile zones remain as they are, the drills for the 50-mile emergency will be required only once every eight years–up from the current six-year cycle.

With the turnover in elected officials and municipal employees being what it is–especially in times of constricting local budgets–even a run-through every six years seems inadequate. An eight-year lag is criminal. (Perhaps the NRC can revise assumptions so that disasters only happen within a year or two of a readiness drill.)

But an extra two years between drills is cheaper. So is the concentration of the evacuation zone in case of quick radiation release. So are many of the other changes. At a time when regulators should look at Japan and ask “What more can we do?” they instead are falling over themselves to do less.

And the nuclear industry needs all the help it can get.

The fact is that without this kind of help–without the weakened rules and limp enforcement, without the accelerated construction and licensing arrangements, without the federal loan guarantees and liability caps, and without the cooperation and expenditures of state and local governments–nuclear could not exist. Indeed, it would not exist, because without this wellspring of corporate welfare, nuclear power plants would never turn a profit for their owners.

In fact, with the cost of new plant construction escalating by the minute (the new AP1000 reactors approved for Georgia’s Plant Vogtle this February are already $900 million over budget), the strategy of energy giants like Entergy rests more on buying up old reactors and spending the bare minimum to keep them running while they apply for license extensions. This is the game plan for Indian Point. It is also Entergy’s plan for Vermont Yankee, a plant granted a license extension by the NRC in March, over the objections of the state government.

The case of Vermont Yankee is currently before a federal appeals court–and New York has filed an amicus brief on Vermont’s behalf, since New York Governor Andrew Cuomo would like to see Indian Point shuttered at the end of its current license, and it knows the NRC has never met a license extension it didn’t like.

Meanwhile, however, Entergy continues to hemorrhage money. The second largest nuclear power provider in the nation posted a first quarter loss of $151.7 million–its stock is down 13% this year–directly as a result of its creaky, inefficient, often offline nuclear reactors. It needs quick, cheap, easy relicensing for facilities like Indian Point if it is ever going to turn things around.

Although maybe not even then. Take, for example, the current plight of California’s San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). San Onofre’s two reactors have been offline since the end of January, when a radiation leak led to the discovery of accelerated wear in over 1,300 copper tubes used to move radioactive water to and from the plant’s recently replaced steam generators:

[Southern California] Edison finished installation of the $671-million steam generators less than two years ago, promising customers they would create major energy savings. Now, officials estimate it will cost as much as $65 million to fix the problems and tens of millions more to replace the lost power.

Both those figures are likely low. No one has yet isolated the exact cause of the wear, though attention focuses on excessive vibration (and that vibration will likely be linked to faulty design and the attempt to retrofit off-the-shelf parts on the cheap), and the time it will take to correct the problem, make repairs and get the reactors up to something close to full power is somewhere between unpredictable and never.

Indeed, Edison is instead talking about running SONGS at reduced capacity, at least for several months. Plant engineers say they believe running the reactors at lower power will minimize vibration (though critics point out this will not resolve the problems with already badly worn tubing), but the reality is much simpler. Every kilowatt the nuclear plant can manage to generate is one kilowatt that Edison won’t have to buy from someone else. There is some warranty coverage for the new generators, but there is none for the replacement costs of the electricity.

Edison will, of course, ask the California Public Utility Commission if it can pass replacement costs on to consumers, but that, in turn, begs another question. When the PUC approved the cost of replacing the steam generators, they did so with the assumption that SONGS would average 88% capacity until its license expires in 2022.

An analysis at the time showed that a one-year outage or a scenario in which the plant would run at lower capacity for an extended period could make the project a money loser. But the PUC found those scenarios to be unlikely and determined that the project would probably be a good deal for ratepayers.

“If the plant runs at 50 to 80 percent capacity for the rest of its life, the entire cost-effectiveness analysis is turned on its head,” said Matthew Freedman, attorney for advocacy group The Utility Reform Network.

Sound familiar?

Regulators, be they at the federal NRC or a state’s PUC, can re-imagine reality all they want, but reality turns out to be stubborn. . . and, it seems, costly.

And don’t think that the industry hasn’t already cottoned to this.

In the midst of a battle over extending the 40-year licenses of two Entergy Corp. nuclear plants near New York City, federal regulators are looking into whether such plants would be eligible for yet another extension.

That would mean the Indian Point plants and others around the county might still be running after reaching 60 years of age.

Bill Dean, a regional administrator for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said Wednesday the agency “is currently looking at research that might be needed to determine whether there could be extensions even beyond” the current 60-year limit for licenses.

Yes, the article attributes the initiative to federal regulators, but it strains credulity to believe they came up with this idea on their own. The industry can do the money math–hell, it’s pretty much the only thing they do–extending a license for 40 years beyond design life has got to be more profitable than extending a license for only 20 years.

And let’s be clear about that. The design life of Generation II reactors–the BWRs and PWRs that make up the US nuclear power fleet–is 30 to 40 years. When the plans were drawn up for Indian Point, Vermont Yankee, San Onofre, or any of the other 98 reactors still more-or-less functioning around the country, the assumption was that they would be decommissioned after about four decades. Current relicensing gives these aged reactors another 20 years, but it now turns out that this is only an interim move, designed to buy time to rewrite the regulations and give reactors a full second life. Eighty years in total.

It is yet another example of how rules are shaped–and ignored–to protect the bottom line of the nuclear industry, and not the safety of US citizens. (Or, for that matter, the pocketbooks of US consumers.)

And so, it is yet another example of why the Nuclear Regulatory Commission cannot be allowed to continue its rubberstamp relicensing.

And this is where you come in: As mentioned at the top, the NRC’s Bill Dean (the same guy looking into doubling the license extensions) will be in Tarrytown, NY, along with other government and Entergy representatives to answer questions and listen to testimony about the past, present, and future of Indian Point.

The open house is from 6 to 8 PM, and the public meeting is from 7 to 9 PM at the DoubleTree Hotel Tarrytown, 255 South Broadway, Tarrytown, NY.

Riverkeeper, in coordination with Clearwater, NYPIRG, Citizens’ Awareness Network, Occupy Wall Street Environmental Working Group, IPSEC, Shut Down Indian Point Now, and others will be holding a press conference before the open house, at 5:30 PM.

If you live in New York City, Riverkeeper is sponsoring busses to Tarrytown. Busses leave at 3:45 PM sharp from Grand Central (busses will be waiting at 45th St. and Vanderbilt Ave.). More info from SDIPN here. Reserve a place on a bus through Riverkeeper here.

NRC Chair Jaczko: Events Like Fukushima Too Rare to Require Immediate Changes

NRC, nuclear

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

For those that think nothing has changed in United States regulation since the Japanese earthquake and tsunami started the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility, think again. The pre-disaster mentality of “What could possibly go wrong?” has been replaced with reassurances that “Stuff like that hardly ever happens!”

At least that is the impression conveyed by the current chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, in a pair of early October interviews. During two NRC-sponsored events, Jaczko fielded questions first from nuclear industry professionals and those considered friendly to the expansion of nuclear power, and then, in a separate session two days later, responded to representatives from public interest groups and other individuals generally seen as opposed to nuclear energy.

While the tone of the questions differed somewhat predictably in the two sessions, Chairman Jaczko’s attitude did not. Jaczko took several opportunities to praise the NRC staff and the processes and protocols used by the commission, repeating in both panels that the primary duty of his agency is ensuring the safety of nuclear facilities in the United States.

Beyond his broad assurances and patient, capable demeanor, however, many of the chairman’s assertions about both the NRC process and the progress being made toward his stated safety goals highlighted notable contradictions and troubling biases inherent in America’s nuclear regulatory regime.

To be fair, the pre-Fukushima outlook was not exactly “What could possibly go wrong?” In terms of the types of accidents and the repercussions of contamination, containment breaches, radioactive releases, meltdowns, melt-throughs, and a host of other undesirable situations, regulators and industry insiders alike were probably quite aware of what could go wrong. But as US nuclear proponents and profiteers strove to convey the impression of an informed industry, they also moved to downplay the threats to public safety and made sure to stress that, when it came to disaster scenarios, they had it covered.

If the disaster in Japan has proven one thing, though, it is that plant operators and nuclear regulators didn’t have it covered. Events (or combinations of events) that were either not foreseen or not acknowledged leave Japan scrambling to this day to understand and mitigate an ever-evolving catastrophe that has contaminated land and sea, and exposed yet-untallied thousands of Japanese to dangerous levels of radiation. “As we saw in Fukushima,” said Jaczko, “accidents still do happen in this industry. If we are thinking that they can’t, we are in a dangerous place.”

But for US nuclear regulators, there needn’t be any sense of urgency–or so believes the NRC chair. When asked why the agency doesn’t hold up plant relicensing until new standards that include lessons learned from the Japanese disaster are in place, Jaczko expressed confidence in the current system:

Bottom line is that changes get made at a plant. . . some changes will be made quickly, some may take years. It doesn’t matter where a plant is [in the process]–what is the licensing phase–but that changes get made. These are low frequency events, so we have some leeway.

It is a posture Jaczko took again and again in what totaled over two-and-a-half hours of Q&A–accidents are very, very rare. Given the history of nuclear power, especially the very recent history, his attitude is as surprising as it is disturbing. Beyond the depressingly obvious major disasters in nuclear’s short history, unusual events and external challenges now manifest almost weekly in America’s ageing nuclear infrastructure. The tornado that scrammed Browns Ferry, the flooding at Fort Calhoun, the earthquake that scrammed the reactors and moved storage casks at North Anna and posed problems for ten other facilities, and Hurricane Irene, which required a number of plants to take precautions and scrammed Calvert Cliffs when a transformer blew due to flying debris–all are external hazards that affected US facilities in 2011. Add to that two leaks and an electrical accident at Palisades, stuck valves at Diablo Canyon, and failures in the reactor head at oft-troubled Davis Besse, and the notion that dangerous events at nuclear facilities are few and far between doesn’t pass the laugh test.

That these “lesser” events have not resulted in any meltdowns or dirty explosions does nothing to minimize the potential harm of a more serious accident, as has been all too vividly demonstrated in Japan. The frequency or infrequency of “Level 7” disasters (the most severe event rating–so far given to both Chernobyl and Fukushima) cannot be used to paper-over inadequate safeguards when the repercussions of these catastrophes are so great and last for generations.

Storage concerns don’t concern

Chairman Jaczko’s seeming ease with passing current problems on to future generations was also in evidence as he discussed mid- and long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel. Though previously a proponent of an accelerated transfer of spent fuel from pools to dry casks, Jaczko now says, post-Fukushima, he has “no scientific evidence that one method is safer than the other.” The chairman made a point of noting that some dry casks at Virginia’s North Anna plant moved during the August earthquake, but said that it will be well over a year before we can evaluate what happened to wet and dry storage systems at Fukushima.

While it is true a full understanding will have to wait until after Daiichi is stabilized and decontaminated, it is already apparent that the spent fuel pools, which require a power source to actively circulate water and keep the stored fuel cool, posed dangers that in some ways rivaled the problems with the reactors. (So far, no Japanese plants have reported any problems with their dry casks.) So obvious was this shortcoming, that the NRC’s own staff review actually added a proposal to the Fukushima taskforce report, recommending that US plants take more fuel out of wet storage and move it to dry.

Jaczko’s newfound indifference is also odd in light of his own comments about dry casks as an alternative to a central nuclear waste repository. Asked in both sessions about the closing of Yucca Mountain (the proposed US site for spent nuclear fuel), the chairman buoyantly championed the possibility of using on-site dry casks for hundreds of years:

The commission is taking the appropriate action to address the storage of spent fuel. We have come to the conclusion that, over the short- and medium-term, safe storage is possible. We are taking a look at what is the finite limit on current [dry] storage. . . 200, 300, 400 years. Is there a time we have to move the fuel? . . . Nothing tells us we shouldn’t generate the [radioactive] material. We don’t see a safety concern out 100 years, or anything that says at 101 years, everything changes.

Chairman Jaczko then added that while the nuclear industry is generating waste that will require “long, long term storage or isolation,” it is not unprecedented to assume this problem can be taken care of by “future generations.”

It is good that Jaczko has such faith in the future, because his depiction of the present is not actually that impressive. While the NRC chief repeatedly touted their “process” for evaluating risks, problems, and proposals, he also painted a picture of a bureaucracy that has so far failed to fully act on the initiatives he has considered most important. Neither the fire-safety improvements Jaczko has championed since he came to the commission in 2005, nor the security enhancements required after 9/11/2001 have as yet been fully implemented.

Process is everything

Time and again, whether he was directly challenged by a question or simply asked for clarification, Gregory Jaczko referred to the NRC’s “process.” “We have a relicensing process,” “there is an existing process [for evaluating seismic risk],” there is a process for determining evacuation zones, there is a process for incorporating lessons learned from Fukushima, and there is a process for evaluating new reactor designs. Process, of course, is not a bad thing–in fact, it is good to have codified protocols for evaluating safety and compliance–but stating that there is a process is not the same thing as addressing the result. Too often, what might have sounded like a reasonable answer from the chairman was, in reality, a deflection. “The process knows all; trust in the process. I cannot say what will happen, and what I want to happen does not matter–there is a process.” (This, of course, is a dramatization, not a direct quote.) Form over functionary.

But Jaczko had barely started his second session when his reliance on process suffered an “unusual event,” as it were.

Asked about why the NRC seemed to be moving full-speed ahead with relicensing, rather than pausing to wait for Fukushima taskforce recommendations to be formalized, the agency chief first said, “There is an existing program, there are processes.” But within a breath, Jaczko then said, when it comes to lessons learned from Fukushima being some sort of prerequisite for final license approval, “We are going to look on a case-by-case basis.”

Is deciding whether to apply new requirements on a “case-by-case basis” actually a process? Many would say it pretty much defines the opposite.

The counter-intuitive also took a star turn when it came time to consider new externalities and pending environmental impact surveys. Shouldn’t the Fukushima taskforce findings be considered as part of a series of new environmental impact studies? Well. . . “It is clearly new information, but does it affect the environmental impact survey? Because they are very, very low likelihood events, it is not part of the environmental impact survey.” Jaczko here seems to be saying that unless you know in advance of the new study that the new information will alter the findings, you do not need to consider new information.

Shocked, shocked

With such confidence in the commission and its process, would it be safe to assume that Greg Jaczko is comfortable with the current state of nuclear safety in the United States? Perhaps surprisingly, and to his credit, the NRC head seems to say “no.”

As previously discussed, Jaczko expected faster action on fire safety and security upgrades. He also defended his going public with complaints about design problems with the AP1000 reactors proposed for Plant Vogtle:

We had been going back and forth with [AP1000 designer] Westinghouse for two years. I felt [a lack of] openness; felt if you aired the issues, they get addressed. Now, I feel it was. . . addressed. It ultimately forced these issues to get resolved.

Chairman Jaczko was also asked what tech issues keep him up at night:

Those components that are not replaceable, not easily inspectable. Those subjected to repeated exposure to high radiation, stresses that cause high degradation.

Jaczko said he felt the commission had a handle on what radiation does to the concrete in the containment vessel, but he was less sure about the effect of “shock,” which he defined as “repeated power trips” or scrams. Jaczko acknowledged that this increases stress on the containment vessels, and added, “Some places will not have 20 years [left] on pressure vessels. We get into an unknown piece of regulation on pressure vessel repair.”

That is a pretty stark revelation from a man so passionate about his agency’s ability to, uh, process new data, but it highlights another facet of Jaczko’s approach to regulation.

Noting that New Jersey’s Oyster Creek reactor was granted a renewed operating license for 20 years, but its operator later negotiated with the state to shut it down in 10 years, Jaczko said, “Extension is an authorization to operate, not a requirement to operate.” Relicensing, he said, might come with requirements for modifications or orders that they “monitor aging.”

Jaczko also said that states or facilities might decide it is not economically viable to keep a plant running for the full length of its license, “Like if you have a car and the clutch goes and you make a decision not to replace it.”

How to regulate, even without the Regulatory Commission

Yes, another deeply flawed automobile analogy, but note that Jaczko allows for, and maybe even expects, limits to a plant’s life that are not regulated by the NRC. And in detailing such, the chief regulator of the US nuclear industry shows where citizens might exercise leverage when his NRC fails.

First, there is that issue of economic viability. As previously discussed, the market has already rendered its verdict on nuclear power. In fact, it would be absolutely impossible to build or operate a nuclear plant without loan guarantees, tax breaks, and subsidies from the federal government. The new construction at Vogtle is projected to cost nearly $15 billion (and these plants always go way over budget), and the Obama administration has had to pledge $8.33 billion in loan guarantees to get the ball rolling. Without that federal backstop, there would be no licensing battle because there wouldn’t be the possibility of the reactors getting built.

In fact, in this time of questionable nuclear safety, deficit peacockery and phony Solyndra outrage, it is illustrative to note:

. . . in FY2010 alone, $2.82 billion went to natural gas and petroleum interests (through direct expenditures, tax expenditures, research and development funds, and loan guarantees), $2.49 billion to nuclear energy interests and $1.13 billion to solar interests.

Would any of the relicensing and new construction applications be before Jaczko’s NRC if the energy-sector playing field were leveled?

Second, at many points in the interview, federal regulator Jaczko referenced the power of the states. Early in the “pro” nuclear session, an anxious question expressed worry that states such as Vermont could play a role in the relicensing of reactors. While stating it was yet to be determined whether Vermont’s authority overlapped with the NRC, its chairman stated plainly that states do play a role. “States decide what kind of generating sources they use,” Jaczko said, “especially if the state has a public utility.”

When asked in the second panel if the NRC considers whether new rules or licensing delays will cause rate hikes for consumers, Jaczko said the final determination on rates was the purview of a state’s public utilities commission:

If the PUC denies charges, then they won’t get our approval to go forward–but if the PUC denies a rate change, they [the plant operators] still have to make the improvement required.

And when discussing how the NRC draws evacuation zones, Chairman Jaczko said that in the end, it was the responsibility of the state and local governments, acting on data from the utilities and advice from the NRC, to determine where, when and how to evacuate in case of a nuclear accident.

And, yes, that does sound again like some of the buck-passing that marked too much of these interviews, but it is also a roadmap for a possible detour around a recalcitrant or captured federal agency. If activists feel shut out of the regulatory process, they can attack the funding. If federal elected officials are not responsive (because they, too, have been captured by a deep-pocketed nuclear industry), concerned citizens can hit closer to home. As Jaczko says, states can choose their power sources, and states can define evacuation protocols that either better insure public safety or reveal continued operation of nuclear facilities to be untenable.

Such action would not be easy–state and local officials have their own interests and conflicts–but it might prove easier than a broad federal play. Recent successes by those seeking to close aging coal-fired generators show that action at the individual plant level is possible.

Open to openness

For anything to happen, of course, it is important that a dedicated and passionate citizenry organize around a tactic, or, if they prefer, a process. But it will also require a level of openness on the part of government. Sometimes that openness is offered, sometimes it is hard won, but without transparency, progress is hard to make and hard to measure.

Gregory Jaczko repeatedly stated that he is a big advocate of openness, and he offered these interviews in that spirit. These two events obviously didn’t go all the way in that direction–not even close–but the sessions had merit. Chairman Jaczko, despite all the problems detailed above, can still be admired for exhibiting something rather rare in today’s political climate, a regulator that actually believes in regulation. He, in fact, conveys a passion for it. That some of that regulation is based on flawed assumptions, and that much of it is weak or never enforced, cannot be ignored, but if the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission advocates for the regulatory process (even when hiding behind it), then there is at least a process to improve.

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A version of this story was previously posted on Truthout.