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.

The Party Line – September 2, 2011: Earthquakes, Hurricane Highlight Serious Flaws with Nuclear Power and its Regulation

On Friday, August 26, as Hurricane Irene began its slow journey up the US central Atlantic coast, power companies operating 20 nuclear reactors in nine states made plans to deal with the storm and its potential aftermath.

North Carolina’s Brunswick reactors, operated by Progress Energy, were powered down to 70 percent of peak capacity. At New Jersey’s Oyster Creek, near Barnegat Bay, plant operator Exelon chose to shutdown its reactor completely. Dominion Resources, owner of New London, Connecticut’s Millstone plant took one reactor down to 70 percent, the other to 50 percent.

Dominion’s Surry plant in Virginia stayed at full power, as did Entergy’s Indian Point, 35 miles north of New York City, and the Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts.

The reason some plants chose to reduce output or go offline was because, if an accident caused or required the plant to scram–that is, quickly and completely shut down–the stress on the reactor increases the chance of a future safety breach. As Bob Alvarez, of the Institute for Policy Studies, explains:

Keep in mind that when these large reactors scram, it’s like a jumbo jet making a quick forced landing. The sudden insertion of control rods creates unexpected stress on the reactor. This is why when a reactor is normally shut-down for refueling, it is done gradually. If a reactor experiences several scrams during a year, this should raise a red nuclear safety flag.

While working in DOE, I was involved in energy emergency planning, and electricity blackouts, NRC staff were definitely concerned about the safety of increased scrams caused by forced power outages.

By reducing output, a reactor comes under less stress during a rapid shutdown. It is like hitting the brakes at 35 mph as opposed to slamming them on at 60 mph. The stop is faster and results in less wear-and-tear on the vehicle.

One plant that decided not to reduce output was Constellation Energy Group’s Calvert Cliffs facility near Lusby, Maryland. That was probably a mistake:

A nuclear power reactor automatically went offline late Saturday in Calvert Cliffs after its main transformer was hit by a piece of aluminum siding that Hurricane Irene had peeled off a building. . . .

A follow-up NRC Daily Event Report filed on August 29 by Constellation Energy to the NRC identified that the wind blown debris crashed into an electrical transformer at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear station causing an electrical short and “An unanticipated explosion within the Protected Area resulting in visible damage to permanent structures or equipment.”

To be clear, automatically going offline is a scram.

That is bad news for CEG, which has to keep the reactor offline pending a full inspection by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but it might have actually been good news for the surrounding communities. As it turns out, the transformer explosion was not the only problem encountered at Calvert Cliffs during Irene’s visit. As the NRC’s August 29 Daily Event Report [PDF] states:

At 2400, 8/27/2011, numerous alarms on the 1A DG [Diesel Generator] started to be received. These were investigated and it was found that water was intruding down the DG exhaust piping resulting in a DC ground. Based on these indications the 1A DG was declared inoperable and appropriate technical specifications implemented.

In other words, the backup power generator would not have worked if the Calvert Cliffs reactor had lost its main power source. As previously observed, nuclear plants require a steady stream of electric power to operate safely, as cooling systems and monitoring devices depend on it.

It was also noted in the NRC event report that Hurricane Irene “disabled public notification sirens in two counties in the reactor’s emergency planning zone.” They lost power, and CEG had not provided any battery back-up system. So, if an accident severe enough to require precautions or evacuation took place that night, large numbers of people would have been left in the dark, as it were. As the editors of Beyond Nuclear put it, “So much for defense in depth.”

And so much for oversight, it seems. The problems at Calvert Cliffs are not really a revelation–at least not to the NRC:

Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant in Southern Maryland is due for closer scrutiny by federal regulators after unspecified security lapses discovered there earlier this year.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has finalized a “greater than green” finding of security deficiencies spotted during a special inspection from January to July of this year, according to a letter released Wednesday. The agency has not disclosed the nature of the problems, saying that releasing such information might help someone to attack or sabotage the twin-reactor plant in Lusby in Calvert County.

That is the sum total of an item in the August 31 Baltimore Sun. Curious civilians with an abundance of time can access some of the reports through the NRC’s Calvert Cliffs page, but there is no digest for lay readers.

And even the untrained eye might take issue in light of recent developments. For instance, a May report [PDF] on an inspection instigated in the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima disaster gave a passing grade to backup equipment designed to kick-in if a so-called SBO, or Site Blackout, occurred. As observed, rainfall from Irene rendered a backup diesel generator inoperable.

The lingering safety questions, coupled with dual mishaps caused by high winds and heavy rain, appear not to have resulted in a dangerous event at Calvert Cliffs this time. However, it is just this kind of “what are the chances?” one-two punch that so exacerbated the crisis in Japan, and it is events like this that again should serve as an urgent wakeup call for regulators and legislators alike to quickly implement safety improvements to America’s nuclear facilities.

But step back, and an even larger systemic problem takes shape. Each private energy company made its own decisions on what to do with each of its reactors in the face of an approaching (and somewhat predictable) natural disaster. The call on whether to decrease output or shutdown reactors in advance was not the federal government’s call, not the NRC’s, and not the call of at-risk states or municipalities. There is no federal rule, and, apparently, no federal authority to direct plants on how to operate in cases of multi-region events such as a hurricane.

The NRC’s post-Fukushima-disaster task force did not specifically address this issue, but it did recommend a reexamination of the way the entirety of US nuclear power generation is regulated. The majority of NRC commissioners, however, found even that vague recommendation to be too urgent, and any consideration of this question is now at least 18 months away.

Meanwhile, at North Anna’s quake-damaged plant. . . .

On August 26, Dominion, the company that operates the reactors at Virginia’s North Anna plant, notified the NRC that the 5.8 magnitude Earthquake centered in Mineral, Virginia, might have caused more shaking than the facility was designed to withstand. (Some confusion has surrounded the seismic standard to which North Anna was built. The tolerances are often shorthanded to a Richter scale magnitude number, but, in fact, plant design is supposed to be evaluated against the amount of shaking a quake will cause. Shaking at one point depends on magnitude, but also on the distance from the epicenter and the depth of the quake, as well as other geological factors.) Full results of an examination of the “shake plates” (which measure ground motion) are supposed to be released later today (September 2).

What is already known, though, is that the shaking caused many of North Anna’s dry casks–a type of spent-fuel storage container–to move by as much as four inches. Twenty-five of the 27 vertical casks moved as a result of the quake. Each of those steel and concrete casks contains 32 spent fuel rods and weighs 115 tons. Newer horizontal casks did not move, but some of the 26 (13 already full of spent fuel) show what has been termed “cosmetic damage” to exterior concrete.

As discussed, but, as noted here, not addressed in the NRC task force report, dry cask storage is preferable to the spent fuel pools where “fresher” old fuel is stored at most US plants. Pools require a dependable electrical source to keep liquid circulating and completely covering stored fuel rods. An interruption of power or damage to the cooling system can cause dangerous conditions where the liquid overheats, boils away, and even “cracks” as a result of the nuclear reaction, which accelerates as the pools heat and disappear, and hydrogen explosions are possible, further damaging the vessels and sending radioactive material into the atmosphere.

Dry casks store fuel further removed from “active service,” and are cooled by naturally circulating air.

While the March quake and tsunami provoked the described dangerous events in Fukushima Daiichi’s spent fuel pools, there are no reports of any problems with any of Japan’s dry casks.

But the movement of and damage to North Anna’s casks, though minor, is not meaningless. Beyond the contrasts with liquid storage, the August event highlights the lack of a national repository for spent-but-still-highly-radioactive nuclear fuel. Fifty-five of the nation’s nuclear facilities currently have dry casks on site, but the United States has no centralized facility for the long-term storage. And, since the Obama administration declared Nevada’s partially built Yucca Mountain repository closed, the US has no current plan for the disposal of this dangerous material.

The NRC Fukushima task force acknowledges the need for a long-term plan, but there exist no specific recommendations and no process or funding for developing any.

And speaking of Fukushima. . . .

Al Jazeera has a disturbing report on radioactive waste from the ongoing nuclear disaster overwhelming sewage treatment facilities hundreds of miles from Fukushima.

In Japan, before March, processed sewage sludge was often shipped out for use by fertilizer and concrete manufacturers. But now, even far from the destroyed nuclear plant, the sewage is too dangerous for any use. As a result, piles of highly radioactive sludge are accumulating at sewage plants that have no capacity or expertise for handling the toxic material. Instead, containers and piles of sludge are just being lined up at the processing plants, out in the open, covered by simple plastic tarps. Workers are told they face no imminent danger, but Geiger counters say otherwise.

 

The Japanese government has no plan for dealing with this latest sinister wrinkle, saying only that it is not yet an urgent problem.

Such a lack of urgency is stunning and sad for a country and a people so directly in harm’s way, but a similar lackadaisical, industry-coddling attitude in the US should be no less troubling. True, nothing as terrible as Japan’s catastrophe has yet occurred at an American nuclear plant, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility, as almost every passing week or natural disaster seems to accentuate.

Theoretically, the United States has a body tasked with responding to these new probabilities–the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And if the NRC won’t do its job, the US has a body with strict oversight powers–Congress. The Congress and the president also have the ability to demand from the nuclear industry improvements in safety and emergency preparedness in exchange for the federal subsidies and loan guarantees the industry needs to operate at all.

But if the Commission or the politicians cannot break free of their cozy relationships with–and the campaign donations from–private energy companies, then who or what, beyond nature, will hold the nuclear industry accountable?

The lifespan of a nuclear plant or a political career is short, but the half-life of many byproducts of nuclear power generation is long. In some cases, very, very long. Is any nation’s political system able to take that long a view?