UCS to NRC: Nyah, Nyah, Nyah

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Today I watched the CSPAN livestream of the NRC’s commission members before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, all about how very much safer and better our U.S. nukes are than Japanese nukes. In the closing statements of the hearing I was not very surprised to hear Commissioner Apostolakis state his high regard for David Lochbaum and the Union of Concerned Scientists, which released its anniversary report on March 6th.

U.S. Nuclear Power Safety One Year After Fukushima is a slick 18-page report (plus appendix listing the NRC’s post-Fukushima recommendations from their Near-Term Task Force – NTTF), put together by David Lochbaum as director of the UCS Nuclear Safety Project and UCS Global Security expert Edwin Lyman. Best take-away from Page 1’s Executive Summary is the little tidbit that while it took the NRC 10 years to fully implement the safeguards ordered following the 2001 terrorist attacks, the NRC now says it’ll only take 5 years (or more) to implement their NTTF recommendations.

Highlighted on that first page is a note that the “voluntary” program instituted by the nuclear industry to ensure they’ve got enough backup power to handle terrorists and natural disasters is “too hasty.” This too-hastiness is explained in a UCS article about the report, which highlights the REASON for industry haste in its last paragraph…

This approach appeals to the industry because it is cheaper than hardening existing equipment against natural disasters; as one industry executive commented, “It’s cheaper to buy three [pumps] than one and a heckuva big building [to put it in].” Some nuclear plants have already begun implementing the FLEX strategy, which could make it difficult for the NRC to impose higher standards which FLEX equipment might fail to meet. The industry tail may be wagging the regulatory dog.

As if the industry hasn’t been wagging NRC’s tucked tail ever since the NRC was created. It’s almost like this ‘regulatory’ agency was created for the sole purpose of painting rainbows and unicorns over the many ways the industry manages to mess up – and cover up – on a regular basis. But I do have to say this latest scam is a particularly clever way to ensure that utilities don’t have to ever DO the things they might be required to do (at some point in the misty future) about their most obvious vulnerabilities. When and if the NRC ever does come up with real regulations, the industry will insist that it’s already taken care of all those silly concerns, and ignore them. And the NRC, as usual, will shrug.

Then the UCS report observes that the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi are in fact “similar” to reactors we have right here in the U.S. of A. Yes, our plants would suffer the very same problems of inability to vent or even know what’s going on in the cores when the electricity goes out. Worse, the U.S. is no more immune from multiple meltdowns than Japan, since we too have built our nukes in reservations of two to four (and aiming for more) as well. It’s good that UCS put this right up front, in case some reader somewhere somehow missed this fact.

On Page 2, Lochbaum and Lyman go ahead and address the NRC’s initial response to Fukushima in glowing terms. A bit of back-patting and an A for effort – your basic professional courtesy before mentioning that addressing the most pressing of the NTTF recommendations won’t be happening any time soon. Then they make note of the fact that NRC decided to put its own #1 Recommendation – the MOST important one – last. That’s the one that suggests the NRC maybe think about someday “clarifying” its “patchwork” regulatory framework for severe accidents.

The failure of NRC to address the #1 recommendation is what has allowed the industry to jump the gun and implement its own ideas on how to manage station blackouts by buying up generators and putting them here and there all over the facility so that some are just bound to make it through terrorist attack or natural disaster. As opposed to doing what the NTTF already recommends – hardening the buildings that house the emergency generators. Lochbaum and Lyman seem to want to suggest that this amounts to the industry somehow “pulling the wool over the eyes” of regulators, but that’s silly. The NRC knows how the industry manages to get away with ignoring regulations as a matter of standard operating procedure.

The NRC is dutifully fulfilling its mandate to not define any firm ground rules or give any clear indications of what their final actions might be. At least 5 years down the road. The implication is that you can’t really blame the industry for trying to tackle the issues on their own, even if that does boil down to spending the least amount of money. They are acutely aware that the public has turned en masse away from nuclear power since Daiichi made it so abundantly clear that these things really do melt down and blow up. Nukes represent such a small portion of generation capacity that their claim to tens of billions in government development subsidies appears a bit endangered lately.

The public doesn’t believe hype from the “Too Cheap to Meter” crowd these days. The public is deciding whether the potential for vast dead zones in the wake of meltdowns is an acceptable price to pay for not-really carbon-neutral. Most don’t think so anymore. The industry’s got a lot of money lined up to move through their pockets over the next few decades for their much-vaunted “Renaissance,” and they absolutely don’t plan to share it with cleaner, safer and saner renewable alternatives. They can handle the de-clawed NRC no problem. It’s the people who present the most considerable threat to their expansion plans.

The UCS report is readable, and short enough to be worthwhile. It is aimed primarily at the NRC’s essential uselessness in the face of serious, immediate public health and safety issues Fukushima revealed. Some of us could have hoped for something more technical on the issues themselves, but UCS apparently isn’t playing that role. The report UCS did release is useful for its talking points on the political level. That is, ultimately, the level from which the nuclear industry’s continued participation in the modern world’s energy future will be decided.

Bottom line: Nuclear power is not safe. It will never be safe. And that just might be why UCS chose to put an aerial photograph of San Onofre on the report’s cover.

U.S. Nuclear Power Safety One Year After Fukushima

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