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The Commons
Voices / Editorial

Can the NRC be trusted with nuclear safety?

Originally published in The Commons issue #107 (Wednesday, June 29, 2011).

Representatives of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) came to the region last Wednesday to go over the agency’s annual safety review of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.

The safety assessment was done before an earthquake and tsunami heavily damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in Japan, and was done days before the agency granted Vermont Yankee a 20-year extension of its operating license.

Vermont Yankee shares the same containment design as the Fukushima reactors, and while a major earthquake or tsunami is not likely to happen in Vernon, there are concerns that flooding, tornadoes, or hurricanes might lead to a power disruption that would cripple the plant’s cooling system.

If you look at the weather in the United States over the past couple of months, that concern is not unreasonable.

The spate of tornadoes that struck the South in April caused power outages to the Browns Ferry plant in Virginia and the Surry Power Station in Alabama. Right now in Nebraska, record flooding of the Missouri River is affecting two reactors in the Omaha area: the Cooper and Fort Calhoun power stations.

It wasn’t the earthquake or the tsunami that caused a partial meltdown of several of Fukushima’s nuclear reactors. It was the loss of electricity and the failure of backup power systems that were supposed to keep cooling systems running.

We have since learned that Tokyo Electric, the owners of Fukushima, failed to plan for a disaster like the March 11 earthquake, and that Japanese regulators failed to press the company to upgrade its safety planning.

Those who think that a Fukushima-type disaster couldn’t happen here in the United States should turn to the Associated Press’s two-part investigative series last week.

The AP reported that the NRC has weakened safety standards for nuclear plants, and that the agency believes these standards can be eased without endangering the public.

How much did the agency weaken these standards?

The year-long investigation found that when valves at nuclear plants exceeded NRC leakage standards, the NRC changed the standard to allow more leakage to occur. When cracks in steam-generating tubing led to radioactive leaks, the NRC came up with less stressful tests that plants could easily meet.

When reactor vessels at older nuclear plants became brittle with age, the NRC lowered the safety margin for acceptable radiation damage.

In short, the AP found that “as equipment has approached or violated safety limits, regulators and reactor operators have loosened or bent the rules.”

When you are dealing with nuclear power and some of the most hazardous materials known to humankind, that’s not what you want to hear. You want to hear assurances that your local nuclear plant is being held to the absolute highest standards of safety.

Yet, as the AP’s investigation found, radioactive tritium has leaked from three out of four commercial nuclear reactors in the United States. The AP found that the number and severity of these leaks are growing, even as the NRC continues to extend the operating licenses of many of these plants, including Vermont Yankee’s.

Anti-nuclear advocates have long complained that the NRC is too cozy with the industry it regulates. The commission continues to issue assurances that there are no significant health threats, and that there is no heightened risk of an accident.

But in light of the AP’s reports, can these assurances be believed?

* * *

As Entergy Nuclear made abundantly clear in federal court last week, the state of Vermont is prohibited from using safety concerns as a pretext for regulating nuclear power. That is why it is seeking a federal injunction to keep Vermont Yankee open past 2012, even though it has not been granted a Certificate of Public Good by the Vermont Public Service Board.

And that did not happen mainly because the state as a whole does not trust Entergy Nuclear to continue to run Vermont Yankee for another two decades in a way that would benefit Vermonters.

The list of safety mishaps over the past five years was long enough for Vermonters to start doubting Entergy’s assurances that Vermont Yankee was — in the words of their ad campaign — “safe, clean, and reliable.” Last year’s tritium leaks at the plant — leaks that came from underground pipes that plant officials had said didn’t exist — was the clincher. The 26-4 vote by the Vermont Senate last February was a reflection of public sentiment that Entergy can’t be trusted.

Despite their employees’ protests to the contrary, the NRC appears to compromise public safety by giving the benefit of the doubt to the corporations that own these reactors. And Entergy’s actions are proof that giving corporations the benefit of the doubt on matters of public safety is not a good idea.

Considering the United States gets nearly 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, there is enormous pressure to keep reactors running.

But how long can aging reactors keep running before a catastrophe occurs?

What do you think? Leave us a comment

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