Dr Gregory Jaczko, former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), has called for the phase-out of nuclear power reactors in the US because they are based on "flawed technology" and "flawed design" and because regulators and plant operators cannot guarantee there won't be a another severe accident.
Jaczko made the call at a Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference in Washington in early April, and in interviews. "Continuing to put Band-Aid on Band-Aid is not going to fix the problem," he said.
Jaczko said that many US reactors that had received permission from the NRC to operate for 20 years beyond their initial 40-year licenses probably would not last that long. He resigned as NRC chairman last year, having often advocated for more vigorous safety improvements which the other four NRC Commissioners considered unnecessary.
Jaczko said the NRC "damaged significantly" its reputation by voting recently to delay by at least four years a decision on whether to require filtered vents on older boiling water reactors, and by ruling out any options that would take full account of the cost of lengthy evacuations in weighing measures to prevent a major radiological release.
Another former NRC commissioner, Victor Gilinsky, pointed out that the NRC's two decisions fell well short of recommendations by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers' Presidential Task Force on Response to Japan Nuclear Power Plant Events, which was headed by yet another former NRC Commissioner, Nils Diaz. ASME recommended a "new nuclear safety construct" reaching beyond "adequate protection" to "consider all risks, and includes rare yet credible events." The ASME report lists "filtration of containment vents or comparable measures" as a mitigation measure in the event of a severe accident.
Union of Concerned Scientists report
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has released 'The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety 2012 Report: Tolerating the Intolerable', the third report in this annual series. The report takes the NRC to task for its failure to consistently enforce its own regulations, effectively leaving long-term holes in the safety net that is supposed to protect the public from the inherent hazards of nuclear power.
According to the report, the NRC's lax oversight "reflects a poor safety culture," including a disconnect between the agency's workforce and its senior management, with managers tending to downplay safety problems and react negatively when workers point them out.
"The NRC has repeatedly failed to enforce essential safety regulations," wrote David Lochbaum, director of the UCS Nuclear Safety Project and author of the study. "Failing to enforce existing safety regulations is literally a gamble that places lives at stake."
The report offers examples of both positive and negative aspects of the NRC's safety performance. Two positives listed were the NRC's proactive development of an action plan and improve its procedures for identifying and responding to problems with counterfeit, fraudulent and suspect reactor components, and its work on nuclear security issues.
Negatives include the following:
- Safety culture. In 2011, the NRC issued a statement outlining its expectation that the nuclear industry would take steps to "promote a positive safety culture." However, a 2012 survey of NRC staff found that nearly half of its employees expressing scepticism that the NRC is serious about improving the safety culture, and half of the NRC's employees had heard about co-workers who received negative reactions from supervisors and senior managers after raising a concern.
- Fire non-protection. After a 1975 fire at the Browns Ferry plant, the NRC adopted a new set of fire protection regulations, issued in 1980 and revised in 2004. In 2012, the NRC granted an extension to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), giving the TVA more time to prepare a fire regulation compliance plan—for that very same Browns Ferry plant. For over 30 years, the plant has been allowed to operate out of compliance with the regulations its own accident prompted.
- Temporary storage of spent fuel. In 2012 a federal court ruled that the NRC had failed to meet its obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 by neglecting to prepare an environmental impact statement for its Waste Confidence Decision, which specifies how long nuclear waste may safely be stored at nuclear power plant sites.
- Recurring reactor cooling water leaks. The near-miss at the Palisades plant, in which cooling water leakage was allowed to continue for nearly a month, even though the leak was in an area where NRC regulations require the plant to be shut down within six hours, points to an ongoing problem: the NRC routinely allows violations of this type to go unpenalised.
- Nuclear plant flooding hazards. NRC commissioners told a Senate committee in a 2012 hearing that a Fukushima-like disaster could not happen in the U.S. In fact, two years earlier the NRC had notified the owner of the Oconee reactors, located downstream from the Jocassee dam, that they needed to implement measures to guard against what NRC risk analysts considered a near certainty of flood damage in the event of a dam failure. Not only did the commissioners mislead the Senate, they withheld this information from the public for two years.
- Incomplete and inaccurate statements. Nuclear plant owners are required by law to include complete and accurate information in all documents they submit to the NRC. Yet each year, NRC staffers find themselves sending thousands of Requests for Additional Information (RAIs) to plant owners in connection with applications for licensing actions.
Over the past three years, 40 of the 104 U.S. reactors experienced one or more serious safety-related incidents that required additional action by the NRC. These "near-misses" are events that increased the likelihood of reactor core damage, thus prompting the NRC to dispatch an inspection team. There were 14 such incidents in 2012, including:
- cooling water leaking from a reactor vessel leading to an emergency reactor shut down;
- switchyard equipment failure triggering an automatic reactor shut-down;
- disconnection from offsite power followed by failure of one emergency diesel generator;
- a fire disabling over half of the emergency equipment at a nuclear plant;
- failure of steam isolation valves;
- a cooling water leak and failure to shut down the reactor within six hours as required by regulations;
- failure to prevent unauthorised individuals from entering secure areas of a nuclear plant;
- erratic performance of an emergency diesel generator during a routine test, caused by an improper fix to another problem four months earlier; and
- an electrical fault in a switchyard causing the main generator to shut down automatically, after which a second electrical fault disconnected the plant from its offsite power supply.
The UCS report, 'The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety 2012 Report: Tolerating the Intolerable', is posted at www.ucsusa.org
A view from Canada (Shawn-Patrick Stensil)
Nuclear safety regulators from around the world gathered in Canada's capital in early April to discuss what lessons they should learn from the Fukushima disaster. It was a bad choice of venue. Canada's approach to nuclear safety isn't one to emulate. In Canada, the nuclear regulator is a promotional agency first and a safety watchdog second.
After investigating the disaster, the Japanese government's Independent Investigation Commission conclude Fukushima was not the result of a freak act of nature and was instead due to collusion between the government, the regulator and plant operator TEPCO. This collusion was driven by the Japanese government's desire to promote its nuclear industry. There was an implicit understanding between the Japanese government, reactor operators and the national reactor safety watchdog that nuclear profits go before nuclear safety.
In this topsy-turvy world, greed is a virtue and respect for human security a vice and as a Canadian, I've seen this same reversal of priorities at play here in Canada's nuclear industry. In 2008, Canada's federal government fired Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) president Linda Keen. Behind her firing was Keen's imposition of more modern international reactor safety standards on Canada's nuclear industry.
Keen's enforcement of nuclear safety standards probably cost the powerful Canadian engineering firm SNC-Lavalin billions in profit. The company didn't take this loss lying down. SNC-Lavalin wanted to boost its profits building new reactors in Ontario by cutting back on safety systems. It hoped to build a reactor on the cheap with a pre-Chernobyl, pre-September 11 Canadian reactor design. Because of Keen saying safety came first, SNC-Lavalin lost the contract.
More than a little enraged, SNC-Lavalin used its backroom influence over Canada's Conservative government to get Keen fired and replaced with a more industry-friendly regulator. We quickly saw the impact on Canada's nuclear regulator. The Canadian commission's new president was quick to establish his mandate and put industry profits ahead of safeguarding Canadians. He even provided promotional quotes for Canadian reactors in industry press releases.
And remember that outdated reactor design that couldn't pass modern, post September 11 safety standards under Linda Keen? Under Canada's new industry-friendly nuclear safety watchdog, it curiously now seems to meet Canadian safety standards.
Like Japan, Canada's nuclear industry has been allowed to pull the strings of its own regulator. The fate of Canada's Keen and America's Jaczko point to a pattern: when nuclear regulators prioritise protecting people above the industry they are quickly shown the door. Keen and Jaczko lost their jobs because their definition of "safety" was different than that of their national governments. For them, safety meant safeguarding health, property and livelihood. But for their governments and most of the regulators gathered in Ottawa this week "nuclear safety" means something entirely different: protecting the profits of nuclear companies. I'm on the side of Keen and Jaczko.
This is an abridged version of a post at www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/nuclear-reaction