Oyster Creek Nuclear Alert: As Floodwaters Fall, More Questions Arise

Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in pre-flood mode. (photo: NRCgov)

New Jersey’s Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station remains under an official Alert, a day-and-a-half after the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission declared the emergency classification due to flooding triggered by Hurricane Sandy. An Alert is the second category on the NRC’s four-point emergency scale. Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the federal regulator, said that floodwaters around the plant’s water intake structure had receded to 5.7 feet at 2:15 PM EDT Tuesday, down from a high of 7.4 feet reached just after midnight.

Water above 6.5 to 7 feet was expected to compromise Oyster Creek’s capacity to cool its reactor and spent fuel pool, according to the NRC. An “Unusual Event,” the first level of emergency classification, was declared Monday afternoon when floodwaters climbed to 4.7 feet.

Though an emergency pump was brought in when water rose above 6.5 feet late Monday, the NRC and plant owner Exelon have been vague about whether it was needed. As of this writing, it is still not clear if Oyster Creek’s heat transfer system is functioning as designed.

As flooding continued and water intake pumps were threatened, plant operators also floated the idea that water levels in the spent fuel pool could be maintained with fire hoses. Outside observers, such as nuclear consultant Arnie Gundersen, suspected Oyster Creek might have accomplished this by repurposing its fire suppression system (and Reuters later reported the same), though, again, neither Exelon nor regulators have given details.

Whether the original intake system or some sort of contingency is being used, it appears the pumps are being powered by backup diesel generators. Oyster Creek, like the vast majority of southern New Jersey, lost grid power as Sandy moved inland Monday night. In the even of a site blackout, backup generators are required to provide power to cooling systems for the reactor–there is no such mandate, however, for spent fuel pools. Power for pool cooling is expected to come either from the grid or the electricity generated by the plant’s own turbines.

As the NRC likes to remind anyone who will listen, Oyster Creek’s reactor was offline for fueling and maintenance. What regulators don’t add, however, is that the reactor still needs cooling for residual decay heat, and that the fuel pool likely contains more fuel and hotter fuel as a result of this procedure, which means it is even more at risk for overheating. And, perhaps most notably, with the reactor shutdown, it is not producing the electricity that could be used to keep water circulating through the spent fuel pool.

If that sounds confusing, it is probably not by accident. Requests for more and more specific information (most notably by the nuclear watchdog site SimplyInfo) from Exelon and the NRC remain largely unanswered.

Oyster Creek was not the only nuclear power plant dealing with Sandy-related emergencies. As reported here yesterday, Nine Mile Point Unit 1 and Indian Point Unit 3–both in New York–each had to scram because of grid interruptions triggered by Monday’s superstorm. In addition, one of New Jersey’s Salem reactors shut down when four of six condenser circulators (water pumps that aid in heat transfer) failed “due to a combination of high river level and detritus from Hurricane Sandy’s transit.” Salem vented vapor from what are considered non-nuclear systems, though as noted often, that does not mean it is completely free of radioactive components. (Salem’s other reactor was offline for refueling.)

Limerick (PA) reactors 1 and 2, Millstone (CT) 3, and Vermont Yankee all reduced power output in response to Superstorm Sandy. The storm also caused large numbers of emergency warning sirens around both Oyster Creek and the Peach Bottom (PA) nuclear plant to fail.

If you thought all of these problems would cause nuclear industry representatives to lay low for a while, well, you’d be wrong:

“Our facilities’ ability to weather the strongest Atlantic tropical storm on record is due to rigorous precautions taken in advance of the storm,” Marvin Fertel, chief executive officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry group, said yesterday in a statement.

Fertel went on to brag that of the 34 reactors it said were in Sandy’s path, 24 survived the storm without incident.

Or, to look at it another way, during a single day, the heavily populated eastern coast of the Unite States saw multiple nuclear reactors experience problems. And that’s in the estimation of the nuclear industry’s top lobbyist.

Or, should we say, the underestimation? Of the ten reactors not in Fertel’s group of 24, seven were already offline, and the industry is not counting them. So, by Fertel’s math, Oyster Creek does not figure against what he considers success. Power reductions and failed emergency warning systems are also not factored in, it appears.

This storm–and the trouble it caused for America’s nuclear fleet–comes in the context of an 18-month battle to improve nuclear plant safety in the wake of the multiple meltdowns and continuing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility. Many of the rules and safety upgrades proposed by a US post-Fukushima taskforce are directly applicable to problems resulting from Superstorm Sandy. Improvements to flood preparation, backup power regimes, spent fuel storage and emergency notification were all part of the taskforce report–all of which were theoretically accepted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But nuclear industry pushback, and stonewalling, politicking and outright defiance by pro-industry commissioners has severely slowed the execution of post-Fukushima lessons learned.

The acolytes of atom-splitting will no doubt point to the unprecedented nature of this massive hybrid storm, echoing the “who could have predicted” language heard from so many after the earthquake and tsunami that started the Fukushima disaster. Indeed, such language has already been used–though, granted, in a non-nuclear context–by Con Edison officials discussing massive power outages still afflicting New York City:

At a Consolidated Edison substation in Manhattan’s East Village, a gigantic wall of water defied elaborate planning and expectations, swamped underground electrical equipment, and left about 250,000 lower Manhattan customers without power.

Last year, the surge from Hurricane Irene reached 9.5 feet at the substation. ConEd figured it had that covered.

The utility also figured the infrastructure could handle a repeat of the highest surge on record for the area — 11 feet during a hurricane in 1821, according to the National Weather Service. After all, the substation was designed to withstand a surge of 12.5 feet.

With all the planning, and all the predictions, planning big was not big enough. Sandy went bigger — a surge of 14 feet.

“Nobody predicted it would be that high,” said ConEd spokesman Allan Drury.

In a decade that has seen most of the warmest years on record and some of the era’s worst storms, there needs to be some limit on such excuses. Nearly a million New York City residents (including this reporter) are expected to be without electricity through the end of the week. Residents in the outer boroughs and millions in New Jersey could be in the dark for far longer. Having a grid that simply survives a category 1 hurricane without a Fukushima-sized nuclear disaster is nothing to crow about.

The astronomical cost of restoring power to millions of consumers is real, as is the potential danger still posed by a number of crippled nuclear power plants. The price of preventing the current storm-related emergencies from getting worse is also not a trivial matter, nor are the radioactive isotopes vented with every emergency reactor scram. All of that should be part of the nuclear industry’s report card; all of that should raise eyebrows and questions the next time nuclear is touted as a clean, safe, affordable energy source for a climate change-challenged world.

UPDATE: The AP is reporting that the NRC has now lifted the emergency alert at Oyster Creek.

Alert Declared at Oyster Creek Nuclear Plant

Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station (photo courtesy of NRC)

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reporting that an “alert” has been declared at the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in Ocean County, New Jersey. An alert is the second level on the four-point scale, a step above an “unusual event.”

The NRC declared the alert at 8:45 PM local time, as a combination of rising tides, wind and the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy caused water to rise above safe levels in the plant’s water intake structure. Sandy, which made landfall at around 8 PM in southern New Jersey with 90 mph winds, has caused power outages and widespread flooding along the Atlantic coast from Maryland to New York.

Oyster Creek is the oldest operating commercial reactor in the US. It is a GE boiling water reactor of similar design to the ones that failed in Fukushima, Japan during 2011’s Tohoku earthquake, though Oyster Creek is actually older. As Sandy moved up the coast, fears were raised about several nuclear facilities in the storm’s path. The NRC had issued no specific directives in advance of the hurricane, though extra inspectors were dispatched to threatened plants early on Monday.

Particular concerns were raised about Oyster Creek. The reactor is currently offline for maintenance, which means all the reactor fuel, along with generations of used fuel, is in the plant’s spent fuel pools. The plant itself is not generating any electricity, and so is dependent on external power. If the power were to fail, there would be no way to circulate cooling water through the pools.

Backup diesel generators typical to this design power the heat transfer from the reactor, but the so-called “defense in depth” backups for the spent fuel pools are the plant’s own electrical output and power from an external grid.

Flooding of the coolant intake structure further complicates matters. Oyster Creek does not have a cooling tower (like those seen in classic pictures of Three Mile Island). Safe temperatures are maintained by taking in massive amounts of water from a nearby source (in this case, Barnegat Bay). Water must continue to circulate in and out of the facility to keep temperatures at safe levels.

Another question would be whether floodwaters would carry additional radioactive contamination into Barnegat Bay as they recede.

In the NRC press release on Oyster Creek (PDF), the regulator also noted (with apparent pride) that no reactors had been shut down because of Hurricane Sandy. However, at least one reactor, Millstone 3 in Connecticut, had reduced output in anticipation of the storm. Several other reactors in the region are currently offline for refueling or maintenance.

NRC Halts License Approvals Pending New Guidelines on Nuclear Waste

A nuclear spent fuel pool. (photo: NRCgov)

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced Tuesday it would suspend the issuing of new reactor operating licenses, license renewals and construction licenses until the agency crafted a plan for dealing with the nation’s growing spent nuclear fuel crisis. The action comes in response to a June ruling by the US Court of Appeals that found the NRC’s “Waste Confidence Decision”–the methodology used to evaluate the dangers of nuclear waste storage–was wholly inadequate and posed a danger to public health and the environment.

Prior to the court’s ruling, the Commission had evaluated licensing and relicensing with the assumption that spent fuel–currently stored on site at nuclear power plants in pools and dry casks–would soon be moved to a central long-term waste repository. As previously noted, that option was once thought to be Yucca Mountain, but after years of preliminary work and tens of millions of dollars wasted, Yucca was found to be a poor choice, and the Obama Department of Energy and the NRC ended the project. The confirmation of new NRC Chair Allison Macfarlane–considered a nuclear waste expert and on record as a Yucca Mountain critic–focused even more attention on the country’s lack of realistic plans for safe, permanent waste storage.

The release from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission [PDF] put it this way:

Waste confidence undergirds certain agency licensing decisions, in particular new reactor licensing and reactor license renewal.

Because of the recent court ruling striking down our current waste confidence provisions, we are now considering all available options for resolving the waste confidence issue, which could include generic or site-specific NRC actions, or some combination of both. We have not yet determined a course of action.

In recognition of our duties under the law, we will not issue licenses dependent upon the Waste Confidence Decision or the Temporary Storage Rule until the court’s remand is appropriately addressed.

What this means in real terms remains to be seen. No licenses or renewals were thought imminent. Next up were likely a decision on extending the life of Indian Point, a short drive north of New York City, and a Construction and Operation License for Florida’s Levy County project, but neither was expected before sometime next year. Officially, 19 final reactor decisions are now on hold, though the NRC stressed that “all licensing reviews and proceedings should continue to move forward.”

Still, this should be read as a victory for the originators of the suit that resulted in the June ruling–the Attorneys General of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Vermont in coordination with the Prairie Island Indian Community of Minnesota and environmental groups represented by the National Resources Defense Council–and most certainly for the millions of Americans that live close to nuclear plants and their large, overstuffed, under-regulated pools of dangerous nuclear waste. Complainants not only won the freeze on licensing, the NRC guaranteed that any new generic waste rule would be open to public comment and environmental assessment or environmental impact studies, and that site-specific cases would be subject to a minimum 60-day consideration period.

While there is still plenty of gray area in that guarantee, the NRC has (under pressure) made the process more transparent than most similar dealings at the agency. The commission has also, at least for the moment, formally acknowledged that the nation’s nuclear reactor fleet faces a very pressing problem.

The US has 72,000 tons of radioactive waste and generates an additional 2,000 tons every year. Spent fuel pools at individual sites are already so full they pose numerous threats, some eerily similar to the ongoing disaster at Fukushima. Dry cask storage poses other problems and much additional expense. And regional interim waste storage facilities, an idea possibly favored by Macfarlane, is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that no sites have yet been designated or built.

But nuclear plant operators, already burdened by the spiraling costs of a poorly maintained and aging inventory, are desperate to have the federal government take the waste problem off their backs–and off their books. Whether that is even technically feasible, let alone politically of fiscally possible, remains to be seen. But the NRC has at least recognized–or at least been forced to recognize–that the nuclear industry should not be allowed to create waste indefinitely without a plan to safely secure what is already on hand.

Court Says Regulators Must Evaluate Dangers of Nuclear Waste

A nuclear spent fuel pool. (photo: NRCgov)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission acted improperly when it failed to consider all the risks of storing spent radioactive fuel onsite at the nation’s nuclear power facilities, so ruled a federal court on Friday.

In a unanimous ruling (PDF), a three-judge panel of the US court of appeals for the District of Columbia found that the NRC’s “Nuclear Waste Confidence Decision”–the methodology used for evaluating the dangers of long-term waste storage–was woefully inadequate:

[The Nuclear Regulatory Commission] apparently has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository. . . . If the government continues to fail in its quest to establish one, then SNF (spent nuclear fuel) will seemingly be stored on site at nuclear plants on a permanent basis. The Commission can and must assess the potential environmental effects of such a failure.

Writing for the court, Judge David Sentelle made no bones about the shortcomings of the NRC’s magical, one-size-fits-all method of assuming a future solution for the nuclear waste storage crisis. Spent fuel “poses a dangerous long-term health and environmental risk,” he said.

The suit was brought by the attorneys general of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont, in coordination with the Prairie Island Indian Community of Minnesota and environmental groups represented by the National Resources Defense Council.

The decision harshly criticized regulators for evaluating plant relicensing with the assumption that spent nuclear fuel–currently stored onsite in pools and dry casks–would be moved to a central long-term waste repository. As discussed here before, the only option seriously explored in the US was the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada. After years of preliminary construction and tens of millions of dollars of dollars spent, Yucca was determined to be a bad choice for the waste, and the Obama administration’s Department of Energy and the NRC halted the project.

Despite the wishful reporting of some nuclear advocates, the Yucca repository is nowhere near ready, and even if it were an active option, the facility would be many years and maybe as much as $100 million away from completion. Still, the nuclear industry and its acolytes have challenged the administration to spend any remaining money in a desperate attempt to keep alive the fantasy of a solution to their waste crisis.

Such zombified hopes, however, do not qualify as an actual plan, according to the courts.

The judges also chastised the NRC for its generic assessment of spent fuel pools, currently filled many times over capacity at nuclear plants across the United States. Rather than examine each facility and the potential risks specific to its particular storage situation, the NRC had only evaluated the safety risks of onsite storage by looking at a composite of past events. The court ruled that the NRC must appraise each plant individually and account for potential future dangers. Those dangers include leaks, loss of coolant, and failures in the cooling systems, any of which might result in contamination of surrounding areas, overheating and melting of stored rods, and the potential of burning radioactive fuel–risks heightened by the large amounts of fuel in the storage pools and underscored by the ongoing disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant.

The decision has immediate ramifications for plants in the northeast seeking license extensions–most notably Entergy’s Indian Point facility, less than an hour’s drive from New York City, and their Vermont Yankee plant, which is operating despite seeing its original license expire in March.

New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman released a statement, which reads, in part:

This is a landmark victory for New Yorkers, and people across the country living in the shadows of nuclear power plants. We fought back against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s rubber stamp decision to allow radioactive waste at our nation’s nuclear power plants to be stored for decades after they’re shut down – and we won. The Court was clear in agreeing with my office that this type of NRC ‘business as usual’ is simply unacceptable. The NRC cannot turn its back on federal law and ignore its obligation to thoroughly review the environmental, public health, and safety risks related to the creation of long-term nuclear waste storage sites within our communities.

And William Sorrell, Vermont’s AG, concurred:

This outcome illustrates how important it is for states to work together on environmental matters of national importance. Today’s decision is a major victory for New York, Vermont, and all other states that host nuclear power plants. The court confirmed what Vermont and other states have said for many years now—that the NRC has a duty to inform the public about the environmental effects of long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel, particularly when it is occurring at nuclear power plants that were never designed to be long-term storage facilities.

Indeed, plants were not designed nor built to house nuclear waste long-term. The design life of most reactors in the US was originally 40 years. Discussions of the spent fuel pools usually gave them a 60-year lifespan. That limit seemed to double almost magically as nuclear operators fought to postpone the expense of moving cooler fuel to dry casks and of the final decommissioning of retired reactors.

But, as reported here last fall, outgoing NRC chief Gregory Jaczko was exploring the possibility of using onsite storage for 200 to 300 years. How these metrics will change when the new head regulator, Allison Macfarlane, is confirmed is not yet known–but Macfarlane is on record as both a Yucca skeptic and an advocate for regional interim waste storage facilities. That plan, however, has many critics, as well, can only take fuel already cool enough to be removed from pools, and, of course, has not been so much as sited or designed, let alone constructed.

While no nuclear plants will close today as a result of this decision, it should also be noted–because some reports assume otherwise–that this finding does not mean Yucca Mountain must open, either. The ruling does, however, underscore the waste crisis–and it is a crisis–faced by the US nuclear industry. No only is it generating approximately 2000 tons of new waste every year that will need an eternal resting place, pools at some plants are so full it actually complicates refueling and maintenance (since fuel needs to removed from reactors and kept cool for both procedures). Plant operators are desperate to have the federal government take on the costs and the risks of waste storage.

But without anything even close to a plan for a long-term repository, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission cannot assume a solution, says the court. Instead, it must look at reality–something the entire country would best be advised to do when evaluating the future of this dirty, dangerous and expensive energy source.

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.

The Party Line – October 28, 2011: NRC Moves to Adopt Fukushima Recommendations “Without Delay”

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted last week to implement recommendations from the Near-Term Task Force Review of Insights from the Fukushima Daiichi Accident (PDF), and to do so “without delay.” Coming over seven months after the earthquake and tsunami that started the crisis in Japan, and over four months after the Near-Term Task Force (NTTF) issued its report, the move highlights what might be accomplished when attention is paid, but also illustrates systemic flaws in the US nuclear regulatory regime.

The NRC identified a set of top-tier recommendations that focus on:

  • Re-evaluation of seismic and flood hazards;
  • Inspections after earthquakes and floods;
  • New regulations for “station blackouts” (the loss of all AC power at a reactor);
  • Reliability of vents on Mark I and Mark II containments; and
  • Better instrumentation for monitoring spent fuel pools.

This list does not represent the entirety of NTTF recommendations, just the ones the NRC wishes to see fast tracked (you know, “without delay”)–which, when it comes to nuclear regulation in the United States, means years. The NRC said its staff “should strive to complete and implement” these changes by 2016 (though Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said he thinks the station blackout rule can be adopted by April 2014 (PDF), so fasten your seatbelts).

Now, these recommendations (as opposed to actual rules, which still have to be drafted) do address some of the specific weaknesses exposed by the Japanese disaster–multiple external threats, power interruptions, hydrogen buildup, failing spent fuel storage systems–and that’s a positive step because these problems are quite real and quite possible at many of America’s nuclear power plants. But these fast-tracked proposals make up only seven of the 12 or 13 recommendations in the NTTF report–which, itself, is several points short of a truly comprehensive response to the threats Fukushima brought to the fore–and the process (much beloved by Chairman Jaczko) relies heavily on the cooperation of other government agencies, the good faith of the nuclear industry, and a seemingly magical belief that manmade or geologic events on a level with the March earthquake and tsunami will not happen here until after everything is brought up to code.

So, yes, there is a process for identifying problems (at least after they happen) and proposing some fixes with something approximating alacrity–which raises the question of why the system has not been more responsive over the last 50 years–but history and experience make it clear that process does not equate with performance.

During an interview earlier this month, NRC Chair Greg Jaczko was asked about one of his biggest efforts before the Fukushima crisis (PDF & Flash)–improving fire safety at nuclear facilities. Jaczko reflected on it this way:

[A]fter the Browns Ferry fire, we came up with a new set of regulations. Those regulations ultimately I think were very, very challenging to implement, so we’ve been struggling really for several decades to really implement those in an efficient and effective way. That’s not to say we don’t have strong fire protection programs, but we don’t have the most effective way to do it.

The Browns Ferry Fire happened in 1975. Jaczko has been an NRC commissioner since 2005; he has been chairman since 2009. And yet, here, now, in October 2011, 36 years after a guy checking for air leaks with a candle started a fire considered to be the second most frightening accident at a US nuclear plant (next to Three Mile Island), six years after Jaczko joined the NRC, Jaczko says that fire safety–a cause he has championed–is a “struggle,” “challenging to implement” and still not at its “most effective.”

In the same discussions, Jaczko also referenced safety upgrades suggested in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and how those are not yet fully implemented. Indeed, a recent story on security at the Indian Point power station underscored just how far the industry still has to go:

[W]hile the NRC came out with new security guidelines in 2003, these were largely voluntary in keeping with the Bush administration’s anti-regulatory policy. They were made mandatory in 2009, but Indian Point, New Jersey’s Salem, Hope Creek and Oyster Creek plants, and about 60 others around the country were granted waivers so they did not have to incur immediate expenses.

If a major domestic accident or a terrorist attack that, frankly, has colored practically every government action over the last decade cannot motivate full and fast compliance with NRC rules, why should the 65% of Americans who live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant believe that the Fukushima recommendations will be handled any better?

Already, events say that they shouldn’t. Within a day of the NRC voting to fast track some NTTF recommendations, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, the body responsible for renewing or extending the operating licenses of existing facilities, declared that it would not consider the proposed post-Fukushima requirements when evaluating an extension for the Seabrook Station nuclear plant, nor would it delay consideration of the license till new rules were in place. This is despite NRC Chair Jaczko’s stated preference to the contrary:

I would like to see some type of license condition that provides a commitment or a requirement for implementation of those [Fukushima] lessons before the plants would operate.

It should also be noted that even with Jaczko’s predilection on record, his term as chairman is set to expire in 2013–over a year before he expects any of the NTTF recommendations to be implemented. Jaczko’s desire to serve another term not withstanding, the question of whether he will be asked–even if President Obama is re-elected–or whether he can get reconfirmed is an open one. Despite originally being appointed by George W. Bush, Jaczko has come under fire from other NRC commissioners and from Republicans on the Hill. And it should be pointed out that Obama’s own appointee to the NRC, William Magwood, IV, is a veteran of the Bush administration’s Department of Energy and has been roundly criticized for his cozy relations with the nuclear industry.

And, of course, the planet also seems to have little regard for Jaczko’s inclinations. As repeatedly noted here, numerous US nuclear reactors have had to scram this year, courtesy of Mother Nature’s tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and hurricanes. (Again, that was all this year.)

So, what’s a country to do? Cross some fingers and hope for the best from a deep-pocketed industry and its weak, captured regulators? Or hit “pause” on license renewals and new plant construction–and even some restarts of sub-standard facilities–until the lessons of nuclear power’s most recent catastrophes are truly learned, and instead spend the time, money and effort on energy sources that don’t require such elaborate safety regimes?

In time, the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble. . . but so many of the problems and byproducts of nuclear power are here to stay. Instead of accepting this eternal and fatalist frame for learning lessons and making changes, perhaps this latest case study in regulation should teach a broader lesson: transition to cleaner, safer, and more sustainable energy sources. . . without delay.

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.