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.

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For Nuclear Power This Summer, It’s Too Darn Hot


You know that expression, “Hotter than July?” Well, this July, July was hotter than July. Depending on what part of the country you live in, it was upwards of three degrees hotter this July than the 20th Century average. Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis and St. Louis are each “on a pace to shatter their all-time monthly heat records.” And “when the thermometer goes way up and the weather is sizzling hot,” as the Cole Porter song goes, demand for electricity goes way up, too.

During this peak period, wouldn’t it be great to know that you can depend on the expensive infrastructure your government and, frankly, you as ratepayers and taxpayers have been backstopping all these years? Yeah, that would be great. . . so would an energy source that was truly clean, safe, and too cheap to meter. Alas, to the surprise of no one (at least no one who watches this space), nuclear power, the origin of that catchy if not quite Porter-esque tripartite promise, cannot.

Take, for example, Braidwood, the nuclear facility that supplies much of Chicago with electricity:

It was so hot last week, a twin-unit nuclear plant in northeastern Illinois had to get special permission to continue operating after the temperature of the water in its cooling pond rose to 102 degrees.

It was the second such request from the plant, Braidwood, which opened 26 years ago. When it was new, the plant had permission to run as long as the temperature of its cooling water pond, a 2,500-acre lake in a former strip mine, remained below 98 degrees; in 2000 it got permission to raise the limit to 100 degrees.

The problem, said Craig Nesbit, a spokesman for Exelon, which owns the plant, is not only the hot days, but the hot nights. In normal weather, the water in the lake heats up during the day but cools down at night; lately, nighttime temperatures have been in the 90s, so the water does not cool.

But simply getting permission to suck in hotter water does not make the problem go away. When any thermoelectric plant (that includes nuclear, coal and some gas) has to use water warmer than design parameters, the cooling is less effective, and that loss of cooling potential means that plants need to dial down their output to keep from overheating and damaging core components. Exelon said it needed special dispensation to keep Braidwood running because of the increased demand for electricity during heat waves such as the one seen this July, but missing from the statement is that the very design of Braidwood means that it will run less efficiently and supply less power during hot weather.

Also missing from Exelon’s rationale is that they failed to meet one of the basic criteria for their exception:

At the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that is generally critical of nuclear power safety, David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer, said the commission was supposed to grant exemptions from its rules if there was no increase or only a minor increase in risk, and if the situation could not have been foreseen.

The safety argument “is likely solid and justified,’’ he wrote in an e-mail, but “it is tough to argue (rationally) that warming water conditions are unforeseen.’’ That is a predictable consequence of global warming, he said.

Quite. Lochbaum cites two instances from the hot summer of 2010–New Jersey’s Hope Creek nuclear station and Limerick in Pennsylvania each had to reduce output due to intake water that was too warm. In fact, cooling water problems at US thermoelectric generators were widespread along the Mississippi River during the hot, dry summer of 1988.

And the problem is clearly growing. Two months ago, a study published in Nature Climate Change predicted continued warming and spreading drought conditions will significantly reduce thermoelectric output in coming decades:

Higher water temperatures and reduced river flows in Europe and the United States in recent years have resulted in reduced production, or temporary shutdown, of several thermoelectric power plants, resulting in increased electricity prices and raising concerns about future energy security in a changing climate.

. . . .

[The Nature Climate Change study] projects further disruption to supply, with a likely decrease in thermoelectric power generating capacity of between 6-19% in Europe and 4-16% in the United States for the period 2031-2060, due to lack of cooling-water. The likelihood of extreme (>90%) reductions in thermoelectric power generation will, on average, increase by a factor of three.

Compared to other water use sectors (e.g. industry, agriculture, domestic use), the thermoelectric power sector is one of the largest water users in the US (at 40%) and in Europe (43% of total surface water withdrawals). While much of this water is ‘recycled’ the power plants rely on consistent volumes of water, at a particular temperature, to prevent overheating of power plants. Reduced water availability and higher water temperatures – caused by increasing ambient air temperatures associated with climate change – are therefore significant issues for electricity supply.

That study is of course considering all thermoelectric sources, not just nuclear, but the decrease in efficiency applies across the board. And, when it comes to nuclear power, as global temperatures continue to rise and water levels in rivers and lakes continue to drop, an even more disconcerting threat emerges.

When a coal plant is forced to shut down because of a lack of cool intake water, it can, in short order, basically get turned off. With no coal burning, the cooling needs of the facility quickly downgrade to zero.

A nuclear reactor, however, is never really “off.”

When a boiling water reactor or pressurized water reactor (BWR and PWR respectively, the two types that make up the total of the US commercial reactor fleet) is “shutdown” (be it in an orderly fashion or an abrupt “scram”), control rods are inserted amongst the fuel rods inside the reactor. The control rods absorb free neutrons, decreasing the number of heavy atoms getting hit and split in the fuel rods. It is that split, that fission, that provides the energy that heats the water in the reactor and produces the steam that drives the electricity-generating turbines. Generally, the more collisions, the more heat generated. An increase in heat means more steam to spin a turbine; fewer reactions means less heat, less steam and less electrical output. But it doesn’t mean no heat.

The water that drives the turbines also cools the fuel rods. It needs to circulate and somehow get cooled down when it is away from the reactor core. Even with control rods inserted, there are still reactions generating heat, and that heat needs to be extracted from the reactor or all kinds of trouble ensues–from too-high pressure breaching containment to melting the cladding on fuel rods, fires, and hydrogen explosions. This is why the term LOCA–a loss of coolant accident–is a scary one to nuclear watchdogs (and, theoretically, to nuclear regulators, too).

So, even when they are not producing electricity, nuclear reactors still need cooling. They still need a power source to make that cooling happen, and they still need a coolant, which, all across the United States and most of the rest of the world, means water.

Water that is increasingly growing too warm or too scarce. . . at least in the summer. . . you know, when it’s hot. . . and demand for electricity increases.

In fact, Braidwood is not the only US plant that has encountered problems this sultry season:

[A] spokeswoman for the Midwest Independent System Operator, which operates the regional grid, said that another plant had shut down because its water intake pipes were now above the water level of the body from which it draws its cooling water. Another is “partially curtailed.”

That spokeswoman can’t, it seems, tell us which plants she is talking about because that information “is considered competitive.” (Good to know that the Midwest Independent System Operator has its priorities straight. . . . Hey, that sounds like a hint! Anyone in the Midwest notice a nearby power plant curtailing operations?)

So, not isolated. . . and also not a surprise–not to the Nature Climate Change people this year, and not to the industry, itself. . . 17 years ago. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a non-profit group of scientists and engineers funded by the good folks who generate electricity (a group that has a noticeable overlap with the folks that own nuclear plants), released a study in 1995 that specifically warned of the threat a warming climate posed to electrical generation. The EPRI study predicted that rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide would make power production less efficient and more expensive, while at the same time increasing demand.

And climate predictions have only grown more dire since then.

Add to that mix one more complicating factor: when the intake water is warmer, the water expelled by the plant is warmer, too. And there are environmental protections in many areas that limit how hot that “waste” water can be. There have been instances in the past where thermoelectric plants have had to curtail production because their exhaust water exceeded allowable temperatures.

And yet, despite a myriad of potential problems and two decades of climate warnings, it is sobering to note that none of the US reactors were built to account for any of this. . . because all American nuclear reactors predate these revelations. That is not to say nuclear operators haven’t had 20 years (give or take) to plan for these exigencies, but it is to say that, by-and-large, they haven’t. (Beyond, that is, as described above, simply lobbying for higher water temperature limits. That’s a behavior all too recognizable when it comes to nuclear operators and regulators–when nuclear plants can’t meet requirements, don’t upgrade the procedures or equipment, just “upgrade” the requirements.)

But, rather than using all this knowledge to motivate a transition away from nuclear power, rather than using the time to begin decommissioning these dinosaurs, nuclear operators have instead pushed for license extensions–an additional 20 years beyond the original 40-year design. And, to date, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to reject a single extension request.

And now the nuclear industry–with the full faith and credit of the federal government–is looking to double down on this self-imposed ignorance. The “Advanced Passive” AP1000 reactors approved earlier this year for Georgia’s Plant Vogtle (and on track for South Carolina, too) may be called “advanced,” but they are still PWRs and they still require a large reserve of cool, circulating water to keep them operating and nominally safe.

The government is offering $8.3 billion of financing for the Georgia reactors at rock-bottom rates, and with very little cash up front from the plant owners. There have already been numerous concerns about the safety of the AP1000 design and the economic viability of the venture; factor in the impact of climate change, and the new Vogtle reactors are pretty much the definition of “boondoggle”–a wasteful, pointless project that gives the appearance of value while in reality delivering none. It is practically designed to fail, leaving the government (read: taxpayers and ratepayers) holding the bag.

But as a too-darn-hot July ends, that’s the woo being pitched by the nuclear industry and its government sweethearts. Rather than invest the money in technologies that actually thrive during the long, hot days of summer, rather than invest in improved efficiency and conservation programs that would both create jobs and decrease electrical demand (and carbon emissions), rather than seizing the moment, making, as it were, hay while the sun shines, it seems the US will choose to bury its head in the sand and call it shade.

Nuclear power was already understood to be dirty, dangerous and absurdly expensive, even without the pressures of climate change. Far from being the answer to growing greenhouse gas emissions, the lifecycle of nuclear power–from mining and milling to transport and disposal–has turned out to be a significant contributor to the problem. And now, the global weirding brought on by that problem has made nuclear even more precarious–more perilous and more pricy–and so an even more pernicious bet.

According to the Kinsey Report, every average man you know would prefer to play his favorite sport when the temperature is low. But when the thermometer goes way up and the weather is sizzling hot, a gob for his squab, a marine for his beauty queen, a GI for his cutie-pie–and now it turns out–the hour for nuclear power is not.

‘Cause it’s too darn hot.
It’s too. Darn. Hot.

As World Honors Fukushima Victims, NRC Gives Them a One-Fingered Salute

Sign from Fukushima commemoration and anti-nuclear power rally, Union Square Park, NYC, 3/11/12. (photo: G. Levine)

Nearly a week after the first anniversary of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that started the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility, I am still sorting through the dozens of reports, retrospectives and essays commemorating the event. The sheer volume of material has been a little exhausting, but that is, of course, compounded by the weight of the subject. From reviewing the horrors of a year ago–now even more horrific, thanks to many new revelations about the disaster–to contemplating what lies ahead for residents of Japan and, indeed, the world, it is hard just to read about it; living it–then, now, and in the future–is almost impossible for me to fathom.

But while living with the aftermath might be hard to imagine, that such a catastrophe could and likely would happen was not. In fact, if there is a theme (beyond the suffering of the Japanese people) that runs through all the Fukushima look-backs, it is the predictability–the mountains of evidence that said Japan’s nuclear plants were vulnerable, and if nothing were done, a disaster (like the one we have today) should be expected.

I touched on this last week in my own anniversary examination, and now I see that Dawn Stover, contributing editor at The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, draws a similar comparison:

Although many politicians have characterized 3/11 and 9/11 as bizarre, near-impossible events that could not have been foreseen, in both cases there were clear but unheeded warnings. . . . In the case of 3/11, the nuclear plant’s operators ignored scientific studies showing that the risks of a tsunami had been dramatically underestimated. Japan’s “safety culture,” which asserted that accidents were impossible, prevented regulators from taking a hard look at whether emergency safety systems would function properly in a tsunami-caused station blackout.

Stover goes on to explain many points where the two nightmare narratives run parallel. She notes how while governments often restrict information, stating that they need to guard against mass panic, it is actually the officials who are revealed to be in disarray. By contrast, in both cases, first responders behaved rationally and professionally, putting themselves at great risk in attempts to save others.

In both cases, communication–or, rather, the terrible lack of it–between sectors of government and between officials and responders exacerbated the crisis and put more lives at risk.

And with both 9/11 and 3/11, the public’s trust in government was shaken. And that crisis of trust was made worse by officials obscuring the facts and covering their tracks to save their own reputations.

But perhaps with that last point, it is more my reading my observations into hers than a straight retelling of Stover. Indeed, it is sad to note that Stover concludes her Fukushima think piece with a similar brand of CYA hogwash:

By focusing needed attention on threats to our existence, 3/11 and 9/11 have brought about some positive changes. The nuclear disaster in Japan has alerted nuclear regulators and operators around the world to the vulnerabilities of nuclear power plant cooling systems and will inevitably lead to better standards for safety and siting — and perhaps even lend a new urgency to the problem of spent fuel. Likewise, 9/11 resulted in new security measures and intelligence reforms that have thus far prevented another major terrorist attack in the United States and have created additional safeguards for nuclear materials.

When it comes to post-9/11 “security” and “intelligence reforms,” Stover is clearly out of her depth, and using the Bush-Cheney “no new attacks” fallacy frankly undermines the credibility of the entire essay. But I reference it here because it sets up a more important point.

If only Stover had taken a lesson from her own story. The Fukushima disaster has not alerted nuclear regulators and operators to vulnerabilities–as has been made clear here and in several of the post-Fukushima reports, those vulnerabilities were all well known, and known well in advance of 3/11/11.

But even if this were some great and grand revelation, some signal moment, some clarion call, what in the annals of nuclear power makes Stover or any other commentator think that call will be heard? “Inevitably lead to better standards”–inevitably? We’d all exit laughing if we weren’t running for our lives.

Look no further than the “coincidental” late-Friday, pre-anniversary news dump from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Late on March 9, 2012, two days before the earthquake and tsunami would be a year in the rear-view mirror, the NRC put on a big splashy show. . . uh, strike that. . . released a weirdly underplayed written announcement that the commission had approved a set of new rules drawing on lessons learned from the Fukushima crisis:

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordered major safety changes for U.S. nuclear power plants Friday. . . .

The orders require U.S. nuclear plants to install or improve venting systems to limit core damage in a serious accident and to install sophisticated equipment to monitor water levels in pools of spent nuclear fuel.

The plants also must improve protection of safety equipment installed after the 2001 terrorist attacks and make sure it can handle damage to multiple reactors at the same time.

Awwwrighty then, that sounds good, right? New rules, more safety, responsive to the Japanese disaster at last–but the timing instantly raised questions.

It didn’t take long to discover these were not the rules you were looking for.

First off, these are only some of the recommendations put before the commission by their Near-Term Task Force some ten months ago, and while better monitoring of water levels in spent fuel pools and plans to handle multiple disasters are good ideas, it has been noted that the focus on hardening the vents in Mark I and Mark II boiling water reactors actually misdiagnoses what really went wrong in two of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors.

Also, it should be noted this represents less than half the recommendations in last summer’s report. It also does not mandate a migration of spent fuel from pools to dry casks, an additional precaution not explicitly in the report, but stressed by NRC chief Gregory Jaczko, as well as many industry watchdogs.

But most important–and glaring–of all, the language under which these rules passed could make it that almost none of them are ever enforced.

This is a little technical, so let me turn to one of the few members of Congress that actually spends time worrying about this, Rep. Ed Markey (D MA-7):

While I am encouraged that the Commission supports moving forward with three of the most straightforward and quickly-issued nuclear safety Orders recommended by their own expert staff, I am disappointed that several Commissioners once again have rejected the regulatory justification that they are necessary for the adequate protection of nuclear reactors in this country. . . .

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the NRC determined that some nuclear security upgrades were required to be implemented for the “adequate protection” of all U.S. nuclear reactors. This meant that nuclear reactors would not be considered to be sufficiently secure without these new measures, and that an additional cost-benefit “backfit” analysis would not be required to justify their implementation. The “adequate protection” concept is derived from the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, and is reflected in NRC’s “Backfit Rule” which specifies that new regulations for existing nuclear reactors are not required to include this extra cost-benefit “backfit” analysis when the new regulations are “necessary to ensure that the facility provides adequate protection to the health and safety of the public.”

Both the NRC Fukushima Task Force and the NRC staff who reviewed the Task Force report concluded that the new post-Fukushima safety recommendations, including the Orders issued today, were also necessary for the “adequate protection” of existing U.S. nuclear power plants, and that additional cost-benefit analysis should not be required to justify their implementation.

While Chairman Jaczko’s vote re-affirmed his support of all the Near-Term Task Force’s recommendations, including the need to mandate them all on the basis that they are necessary for the adequate protection of all U.S. nuclear power plants, Commissioner Svinicki did not do so for any of the Orders, Commissioner Magwood did not do so for two of the three Orders, and Commissioners Apostolakis and Ostendorff rejected that basis for one of the three. As a result, the Order requiring technologies to monitor conditions in spent nuclear fuel pools during emergencies will proceed using a different regulatory basis. More importantly, the inability of the Commission to unanimously accept its own staff’s recommendations on these most straightforward safety measures presents an ominous signal of the manner in which the more complicated next sets of safety measures will be considered.

In other words, last Friday’s move was regulatory kabuki. By failing to use the strictest language for fuel pools, plant operators will be allowed to delay compliance for years, if not completely excuse themselves from it, based on the argument that the safety upgrade is too costly.

The other two rules are also on shaky ground, as it were. And even if by some miracle, the industry chose not to fight them, and the four uber-pro-nuclear commissioners didn’t throw up additional roadblocks, nothing is required of the nuclear facilities until December 31, 2016.

So, rather than it being a salutary moment, a tribute of sorts to the victims in Japan on the anniversary of their disaster, the announcement by the NRC stands more as an insult. It’s as if the US government is saying, “Sure, there are lessons to be learned here, but the profits of private energy conglomerates are more important than any citizen’s quaint notions of health and safety. ”

As if any more examples were needed, these RINOs (rules in name only) demonstrate again that in America, as in Japan, the government is too close to the nuclear industry it is supposed to police.

And, for the bigger picture, as if any more examples were needed, be it before or after March 11, it really hasn’t been that hard to imagine the unimaginable. When an industry argues it has to forgo a margin of safety because of cost, there’s a good chance it was too dangerous and too expensive to begin with.

* * *

By way of contrast, take a look in at the some of the heartfelt expressions of commemoration and protest from New York’s Fukushima memorial and anti-nuclear rally, held last Sunday in Union Square Park.

You Could Even Say It Glows: NRC Votes to Fast-Track a More Dangerous Nuclear Future

To paraphrase the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Merry Effin’ Christmas.

In a news dump that came a day early (because who really wants to dump on Christmas-Eve Eve?), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission made a pair of moves Thursday that could have significant consequences for America’s nuclear industry–and all the people who have to live with it.

First, the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design got the big thumbs up:

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission unanimously approved a radical new reactor design on Thursday, clearing away a major obstacle for two utilities to begin construction on projects in South Carolina and Georgia.

Whoa–let’s stop it there for a sec. . . . A “radical new reactor design?” Somebody’s being a good little scribe this Christmas. As previously discussed, there is nothing radical about the AP1000–it’s a tweak on the generations-old pressurized water reactor design that theoretically would allow the core to avoid a meltdown in the event of a total loss of AC power. . . .

Well, for 72 hours, anyway.

After that, the manufacturer–in reality the Japanese owner of Westinghouse, Toshiba–says something about it taking only “minimal operator effort” to avert disaster.

Keep in mind that the AP1000 was designed well before the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that started the ongoing Fukushima disaster, but this approval, of course, comes well after.

Designers of the AP1000 assert that gravity and convection will serve to keep reactor cooling functioning even if systems are disabled as they were at Fukushima. That assertion is predicated on the storyline that the Daiichi plant’s safety systems survived the massive quake, and only ran into trouble when the tsunami flooded and disabled the diesel backup generators that powered cooling systems for the reactors and the spent fuel pools.

That is a capricious assertion for two very disturbing reasons:

First, it is by no means established fact that Fukushima’s cooling systems survived the earthquake undamaged. Reports from the Japanese government and TEPCO, Fukushima Daiichi’s owner-operator, have gone back and forth on this matter. It would be naturally beneficial to nuclear advocates to go with the story that the quake did nothing to the reactor and its safety systems. But given the visible damage to the plant and the surrounding area, and given the profound leaking of cooling water that has continued seemingly unabated from the earliest days of the disaster, it is hard to believe all pipes, tubes, couplings, fittings, vents and valves–not to mention the containment vessels and tanks themselves–remained watertight after the massive temblor.

Second, the earthquake worthiness of the AP1000, itself, has been officially questioned by senior NRC officials and Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), the Ranking Member of the House committee charged with overseeing nuclear regulation:

Just days before the earthquake in Japan, Rep. Markey wrote a letter to the NRC urging the Commission not to approve the Westinghouse AP1000 design until serious safety concerns were addressed. One of NRC’s longest-serving staff, Dr. John Ma, had warned in NRC documents that the reactor’s containment could shatter “like a glass cup” due to flaws in the design of the shield building if impacted by an earthquake or commercial aircraft. The shield building has the critical safety function of preventing damage to the reactor that could cause fuel meltdowns and radiation releases.

Note, Dr. Ma has been with the NRC since its inception, and this was the first non-concurrence dissent of his career. The NRC acknowledged this concern and asked Westinghouse for a response. . . and the response was, essentially, “nah-ah.” A response that has now proven good enough for the agency tasked with assuring the safety of America’s nuclear reactors.

So, it theoretically would be great if the AP1000 were able to survive without melting down through three days without electrical power–though it should be noted that three days wouldn’t have really saved Fukushima’s bacon (even if it had remained intact) given the devastation to the region’s infrastructure. But that semi-sunny selling point on the AP1000 assumes that there would still be a reactor containment building to cool.

It is the kind of “what could possibly go wrong” assumption that has tripped up nuclear power generation in large and small ways throughout its history–and it is stunning that, especially in the wake of the Japanese crisis, this cavalier attitude continues.

But perhaps it is not so surprising when we consider just why the AP1000 has such a novel/brittle containment building: it is supposedly cheaper to build.

The AP1000 is slated to have a smaller footprint with fewer components, but still use off-the-shelf, previous-generation parts. Most notably, the design uses under a fifth the amount of concrete and rebar, compared with existing PWRs.

Not convinced that economics is the real driving force behind this “innovation?” Take a look at the other action the NRC announced Thursday:

In an unusual step, the commission waived the usual 30-day waiting period before its approval becomes official, so its decision will be effective in about a week. That moves the utilities closer to the point where they can start pouring concrete for safety-related parts of the plant.

The decision also moves the industry toward the first test of a streamlined procedure in which the commission will issue a combined construction and operating license. Up to now reactors had to obtain a construction license and then undergo a long wait for an operating license, resulting in expensive delays in starting up reactors that had essentially been completed.

The approval of a shaky design is disturbing, but the approval of a process that will allow that design to move to completion and operation with far fewer pauses to test safety is unconscionable. (And the fact that this happening because of bottom-line concerns is criminal.) As the distinguished gentleman from Massachusetts put it:

“Today, the NRC has presented its holiday gifts to the nuclear industry,” said Rep. Markey, top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee and a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Instead of doing all they should to protect nuclear reactors against seismically-induced ground acceleration, these Commissioners voted to approve the acceleration of reactor construction. While they continue to slow walk the implementation of recommendations of the NRC professional staff’s Near-Term Task Force on Fukushima, they have fast-tracked construction of a reactor whose shield building could ‘shatter like a glass cup’ if impacted by an earthquake or other natural or man-made impact.”

And it is important to mention that the approval of this accelerated process came over the objections of NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko–who just last week faced both House and Senate panels questioning his leadership style–but the certification of the AP1000 design did not. In fact, at the same time news of the Jaczko witch hunt was blocking out the sun, the NRC chair was actually working with other commissioners–the ones who sent a letter to the White House saying Jaczko was impossible to work with–to secure the unanimous OK for the new reactor.

It is not the first time those wary of a nuclear renaissance had been presented with the dilemma of both praising and cursing Jaczko. In fact, just last week, on December 15, Jaczko was the only vote in support of a move to make all recommendations of the post-Fukushima Near-Term Task Force report mandatory for the “adequate protection” of nuclear power plants. The four other NRC commissioners asserted that it was “premature” to make such a rule–and so Fukushima’s lessons continue to go unlearned, over Jaczko’s protestations and lonely protest vote.

But it is just this sort of nightmare-inducing nuclear mollycoddling that should convince Jaczko that the process he has often praised is deeply flawed. He cannot advocate for new safety rules one week and then grant license to the industry that works so hard against those rules the next. Not if he really wants change; not if he really cares about public safety.

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.