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Cover story

America’s aging nuclear reactors

NCR Staff

There’s a quiet war underway in this city over the future of aging U.S. nuclear power plants -- and the nuclear power industry is winning it.

Winning, say proponents like the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry lobby with a $25-million-a-year budget, because in an age fearful of global warming from carbon dioxide emissions, nuclear energy is clean.

Winning, say nuclear power opponents and public interest groups, because of what the public doesn’t know, such as: “Are aging commercial nuclear reactors safe at 40 years, let alone 60?”

It’s a crucial question. The first half-dozen nuclear power plants are lining up to have their 40-year licenses extended.

The nuclear industry, subjected to long and tedious public examination when it wanted to build the original power plants, now gets fast-track approval to extend the reactor’s life, while the public’s leverage has been diminished. Almost extinguished, critics contend.

The actual regulatory situation is worse than it might appear. The nation’s commercial nuclear reactor watchdog agency, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which, like Caesar’s wife, ought to be beyond reproach, is more like a kept woman. The problem is built into the agency’s structure. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is funded not out of taxpayer moneys, but from fees levied against the nuclear licensees it is supposed to regulate.

Beyond the lack of general public scrutiny -- and what critics describe as a pro-industry regulatory environment -- lies the other industry motivation for keeping what some call nuclear dinosaurs alive. These reactors are cash cows for a new breed of nuclear entrepreneurs. The relicensing of the nation’s aging nuclear plants is a money-spinning offshoot of the proposed but currently stalled-in-Congress deregulation of the U.S. electricity industry.

Nothing better illustrates the latter point than the purchase last year by Philadelphia-based entrepreneur AmerGen Inc. of the $4 billion Clinton, Ill., nuclear power site for $20 million. At the time, Forbes Magazine noted that AmerGen Inc. (a 50/50 joint venture between PECO, the former Philadelphia Electric Co., and British Energy, the United Kingdom’s largest nuclear generating company) had effectively bought “27 years of capacity for $20 million -- a steal.”

Project those multimillion dollars across the 40 nuclear sites that the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s high-powered lobby, says will seek re-licensing by 2015 and the nuclear power industry can be plucked for billions -- all at the ratepayers’ expense.

There are more millions to be garnered from “goldmining” the reactors. That’s the phrase the public interest groups use to describe what’s likely to happen to the decommissioning funds utilities set aside to finally dismantle each reactor at the end of its working life.

Paul Gunter of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service explains. “AmerGen, which bought [GPU Nuclear Corp.’s] Oyster Creek reactor [in Tom’s River, N.J.] basically in a garage sale atmosphere, paid $10 million and intends to inherit over $400 million in decommissioning trust funds.” GPU didn’t keep Oyster Creek because under deregulation, utilities have to choose between deregulated electricity production or regulated electricity transmission (delivery). GPU decided to stay with transmission.

“Clearly,” said Gunter, “the strategy [for the new owners] is to operate the reactors as long as they can through secure power contracts with a utility desperately looking to dump its liability. Then AmerGen goldmines the decommissioning funds. That’s our concern.”

Gunter means that if AmerGen decommissions the reactors for less than the amount in the trust funds, it -- not the original ratepayers -- gets to keep the leftover millions. He’s further concerned that AmerGen is a limited liability company with “only $110 million in their coffers.” That’s not enough for one serious clean-up, let alone resultant health/safety liabilities. “All this cuts into safety margins in an already aging nuclear power industry.”

Where are the public’s representatives in the Senate and House on all this? According to public interest groups lined up against the nuclear power industry, Capitol Hill is in the nuclear industry’s pocket. In the run-up to the 1998 congressional campaign, according to a Public Citizen study, House members received $15.5 million from political action committees, plus $7.5 million in “soft money.”

The result is Inside-the-Beltway predictable: The nuclear industry funds political re-election campaigns across the political spectrum, and the U.S. Senate and House pressure the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to be more industry friendly.

Nuclear power industry critics argue that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has changed its oversight methods and lowered the bar on safety standards while speeding up the re-licensing process in such a way that public oversight involvement -- and consideration of safety issues -- get shorter shrift than ever.

In fact, according to a January 2000 Government Accounting Office report, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has so altered its safety assessment methods that there’s a significant staff lobby inside the commission itself protesting the new nuclear safety assessment standards.

Ralph Beedle, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer of the pro-industry Nuclear Energy Institute, counters that the accounting office report is based on “skewed indicators.” He said the report surveyed “the [commission] at large. If you went to inspectors involved in the process management team, you’d get different results.”

Why doesn’t the public know what’s going on? Because nuclear reactor relicensing is a Washington Beltway war bereft of war correspondents. The Nuclear Information and Resource Service describes “a virtual media blackout” as print and electronic media ignore the national implications of nuclear reactor relicensing.

Further, nuclear power remains a battlefield with no middle ground. Americans are either pro- or anti-nuclear power. When, for an earlier article, NCR interviewed university-based physicists seeking an authority respected by both sides of the nuclear power debate (NCR, Nov. 19, 1999), the physicists’ comments ranged from “Good luck,” to “The sides are so far apart you’re not going to find somebody respected by both.”

In the beginning

Originally there was just the Atomic Energy Commission, which proposed, promoted and regulated the nation’s governmental and commercial nuclear reactor activities.

By 1974, however, it was felt prudent to split the Atomic Energy Commission’s dual role of both promoting and overseeing the domestic nuclear industry in an era when 2,000 U.S. reactors were envisioned. The Three Mile Island nuclear accident (1979) scuttled those ambitious industry plans.

The split of the Atomic Energy Commission, meanwhile, produced the Department of Energy to promote and handle governmental nuclear development, and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for commercial oversight.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was soon a child of the nuclear industry. Because its budgetary source is not U.S. taxpayer monies but fees levied against the industry it is supposed to regulate, it follows that the smaller the commercial U.S. nuclear industry is, the lower the commission’s budget would be.

In a related development, Reagan era ideas and mid-1990s congressional Republican activism brought about the decision to throw open the state utility monopolies to competition. Under the existing system, an electric utility appears before the state utility commission, presses for a particular percentage increase in the rates charged to customers and the commission decides yea or nay to the increase.

With deregulation, electricity producers will face no utility commissions; transmission companies, those delivering the electricity, still will. (Deregulation itself is a three-way fight among big corporations that want cheap electricity, investor-owned utilities that like the cozy situation that currently prevails, and private power generators that want access to the electricity marketplace.)

By July, for example, Baltimore Gas & Electric, a subsidiary of Constellation Energy Group, expects to deliver electricity, not generate it. BG&E owns Calvert Cliffs, the first nuclear site to apply for relicensing. Though Calvert Cliffs still had 13 years to run on its 40-year license, the commission on March 22 approved the application for a 20-year extension, lengthening the lifespan of the reactor to 60 years. By midsummer, BG&E will have spun off Calvert Cliffs, plus 12 other coal, oil and hydroelectric plants into a separate operating subsidiary of its parent company. In the bargain basement sell-off atmosphere, nuclear reactors with licenses for a further 20 years have a higher market value than those expiring at 40.

The significance of this new era of nuclear reactor “garage sales” and the subsequent “goldmining” of the reactors comes into sharp focus in light of the diminishing importance of nuclear reactors to the overall U.S. energy picture, away from the time when they were seen as vital to future U.S. energy needs. At the 1995 peak, U.S. nuclear reactors generated 22 percent of U.S. electrical power from 109 reactors. Now it’s less than 20 percent.

Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry lobby, points out that if all 40 reactors expected to seek license renewal by 2015 were closed down tomorrow, 16 million homes would be without electricity. This in a land of 109 million households, 14 million commercial customers and a half-million industrial consumers.

Calvert Cliffs, Calvert County’s largest private employer, provides about half of BG&E’s electricity. If Calvert Cliffs were to close, in an instant, with deregulation and today’s national grid, BG&E customers’ lights would click on with electric current from anywhere else in the nation. BG&E, too, will deliver electricity to its central Maryland customers from wherever it can buy it cheapest.

This is happening all across the United States, though down that road there is also little agreement on whether nuclear power-generated electricity will be competitive in the deregulated market. Nuclear entrepreneurs say it will.

Don’t weep for the utilities selling off their nuclear reactors at mind-boggling losses.

‘Stranded costs’

As the electricity industry deregulates and spins off its nuclear problems, it has found “stranded costs” with which to hit the ratepayers for billions more. (Oversimplified, stranded costs are the difference between what a nuclear reactor cost and what it’s actually worth; or, depending on who is using the term, between its book value and market value.)

The Limerick, Pa., nuclear plant owned by PECO, the former Philadelphia Electric Co., was supposed to cost $1 billion to build but actually cost $7 billion. Its electricity consumers, who already had some of the highest rates in the nation, are now paying PECO a total $5.4 billion extra on their bills. For 11 years they’ve an extra 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour added to their bills -- to bail out investors whose nuclear power generation hopes went awry.

In “The Great Ratepayer Robbery: How Electric Utilities Are Making Out Like Bandits at the Dawn of Deregulation,” the Safe Energy Communication Council contends that nuclear reactor bailouts are the largest part of “stranded costs.” In 11 surveyed states, that means each residential ratepayer would pay $950 and each commercial user $6,500 toward the so-called “stranded cost.”

Clemson University professor Robert E. McCormick told NCR, “There’s no question stranded costs” recovery is a way of bailing out investors at the ratepayers’ expense. On bargain basement reactors, adds economist McCormick, “it’s my impression that the utility companies suggested to the rate-making authorities that their power plants were worth much less than they’re actually going to receive.” As low as prices were for the early nuclear reactor sales, they still brought prices “far higher than the utilities claimed they were going to get,” he said, and “in a just world” those higher prices should be reflected in rebates to the ratepayers.

Most Americans over 35 are familiar with the West’s worst two nuclear accidents, the Three Mile Island nuclear core meltdown, 10 miles from Harrisburg, Pa., March 28, 1979, and, seven years later, on April 26, 1986, the reactor explosion at a site 20 kilometers from the town of Chernobyl in north central Ukraine.

GPU’s Three Mile Island’s Unit 2 accident occurred when water was closed off to the reactor cooling supply. A series of human errors and equipment failures led to a serious loss of coolant, the reactor core was partially exposed and reacted with the surrounding superheated steam to produce a build-up of radioactive gases, some of which leaked into the atmosphere. Three Mile Island’s Unit 1 was kept out of service until 1985; 52 percent of Unit 2’s core had melted down. More than 200 reactor projects in the U.S. nuclear pipeline were canceled.

In 1983 Three Mile Island’s licensees were indicted on 11 criminal counts of falsifying leak-rate test results. The following year the GPU Nuclear Corp. pleaded guilty to one count and no contest to six others. This year, a 13-year-long University of Pittsburgh study reported April 25 that it found no link between the Three Mile Island radioactive leak and an increase in cancer deaths among people living within a five-mile radius when compared to those in adjoining counties.

The same day, April 25, the United Nations issued a new assessment of the Chernobyl meltdown that posits worsening health consequences for the 7.1 million people affected by the radioactive release. (Also on April 25, the death was reported of the second victim of the September 1999 uncontrolled nuclear reaction at the JCO Co. uranium processing facility in Tokaimura, Japan, 70 miles northeast of Tokyo.)

Chernobyl’s explosion followed a steam explosion that blew off the protective covering at one of the site’s four nuclear reactors. The resultant radioactive cloud drifted across Northern Europe, and a vast radioactive wasteland exists at the Chernobyl site. Thousands of the more than 100,000 Ukrainians evacuated from the region have since been diagnosed with cancer; 7.1 million people are still considered at risk.

Four days after Chernobyl, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff submitted to the five NRC commissioners a 37-page report, “Impacts of Budget Cuts on NRC’s Ability to Assure Safety.” On human error, the report stated, “there are no objective methods for assessing the effectiveness of current or proposed regulations applicable to human reliability or for measuring the performance of plant operating and maintenance personnel.” A broken fuel rod at Vermont Yankee went undetected for 14 months.

After Chernobyl

Since the Chernobyl accident, France, which is 77 percent reliant on nuclear-generated electricity, has placed a moratorium on new reactors. Former East Germany closed all its nuclear power plants; the federal German government plans -- over strong industry objections -- to phase out its remaining 19 reactors (representing 30 percent of the country’s electrical power).

By contrast, in the United States, the nuclear energy industry convinced Congress to push the regulatory commission to lead in the opposite direction and keep the reactors going as long as possible.

There have been 23 U.S. reactor shutdowns (six permanent, others temporary) in the past 15 years. They were “voluntary” shutdowns, said Dave Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Wall Street doesn’t like it if reactors are ordered shut down.” The exception was the regulatory commission’s temporary closing in the 1980s of the Peach Bottom, Lancaster, Pa., reactor after safety-control operators were discovered sleeping through their shifts.

Only China, Japan and possibly Iran are still in the nuclear reactor-building business. CBS unloaded Westinghouse Nuclear in 1999 for $1.2 billion, less than the cost of a new reactor. In Europe, Germany’s Siemens and France’s Framatone nuclear operations are surviving on maintenance work.

The nuclear reactor relicensing war is fought with polls, surveys and fact-finding studies that each side creates to batter the other and soothe or alarm the public.

Nuclear power’s supporters dismiss safety concerns saying the regulatory commission has everything under control. Beedle, Nuclear Energy Institute’s senior vice president, told NCR he doubts there’s “going to be another Three Mile Island. The industry’s safety and operating performance has improved dramatically and consistently now for the better part of a decade.”

Less sanguine are groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Public Citizen Mass Energy Project, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service and the Safe Energy Communication Council.

The whole truth of nuclear energy reality is evasive. When the Nuclear Energy Institute surveyed college students in March, it asked: “Can you name any advantages of nuclear energy as a source of electricity?” Forty percent said they could, but there was no parallel question regarding disadvantages -- such as the problem of disposing of high-level nuclear waste.

“It’s called ‘spent fuel,’ ” said the lobbying group’s Beedle. “Of all the industries in the world, we’re the only one since the beginning of time that’s controlled all of our byproducts. I can account for every bit of fuel we’ve ever used. We haven’t lost any. Toxic in the sense it’s out there harming the public -- that’s the wrong view.”

Is there no downside risk to nuclear power?

“I don’t see it,” replied Beedle. “There’re some plusses and minuses with any technology. Dealing with a system that results in radiation means we’ve got to be mindful of that. The advantages are undeniable, that we can generate electricity without polluting the atmosphere.”

On April 4, the lobbying group spread across two pages of The Washington Post an advertisement that said “2 of 3 Americans support nuclear energy. Patty O’Donnell tells why she’s one of them. For Patty, it all comes down to the environment: ‘Nuclear energy is one of the cleanest, safest sources of electricity. It keeps the lights on and the air clean.’ ”

Nuclear power also keeps the taxes low in Vernon, Vt., where O’Donnell lives. NCR called the town hall, and the nearby Brattleboro Reformer daily newspaper.

The Nuclear Energy Institute ad didn’t say that Vernon is the site of Vermont Yankee, a nuclear plant that is threatened with closure but that also supports the local real estate tax base to such an extent that Vernonites, with their first-class school system and their own police force for a population of 3,100, pay $892.40 annual taxes on a $100,000 home. That same home five miles north in Brattleboro is taxed at $2,650.

The ad described O’Donnell as “a mother of four, small business owner, supports nuclear energy,” but didn’t mention that advocate O’Donnell is a Republican pro-nuclear power Vermont state representative.

The energy institute claims that 73 percent of Americans want to keep open the option to build more nuclear power plants. As always, opinions vary according to who does the survey and how the questions are asked. As early as 1992, a National Energy Coalition survey reported 65 percent of all Americans opposed construction of new nuclear power plants. The Washington Post advertisement stated nearly 90 percent of Americans “believe the licenses of safe nuclear plants should be extended for 20 years.”

Who’s for alternatives? A 1998 Sustainable Energy Coalition survey dealing only with federal funding priorities found only 5.9 percent favored nuclear power (Republican 9.1 percent; Democrats 3.8 percent; independents, 6 percent), whereas 32.3 percent favored renewable energy -- solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, hydroelectric -- (Republicans, 31.6 percent; Democrats, 29.7 percent; independents, 38 percent).

What’s safe for America?

“The U.S. nuclear industry says Chernobyl can’t happen here because no U.S. reactors are that design. That’s a red herring,” contends James Riccio of the Public Citizen Critical Mass Energy Project. “The question is: Can you have an accident at a U.S. reactor that’s going to have releases comparable to Chernobyl? And the answer to that is yes.”

“All U.S. reactor operational designs are 1960s vintage, basically,” said Gunter of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. He said that a number of U.S. reactors have been identified with inadequate containment structures -- essentially the General Electric Mark I reactors, the same reactors “on the auction block in this divestment -- Pilgrim, in Plymouth, Mass., Vermont Yankee, Oyster Creek, N.J.”

“All reactor designs have chinks in their armor,” he said.

“These designs, identified by the NRC as early as 1985, have a 90 percent chance of failure if challenged by a pressurization accident,” said Gunter. “These are the same reactors that three prominent General Electric engineers in very prestigious positions -- in 1976 public testimony before the U.S. Congress -- said they had simultaneously resigned over.”

Gunter continued, “Some 28 reactors in this country have substandard containment. And any time they cut corners they’re shortchanging public health and safety. Oyster Creek was scheduled to close in September 2000. AmGen’s intended purchase has extended its life by three years -- its 40-year license is up in 2009.”

If no licenses were renewed, U.S. nuclear power would die by 2030; with renewals: 2050 -- unless there are renewals beyond that.

Calvert Cliffs, for example, had a bill of particulars leveled against it by the National Whistleblower Center, which opposed the re-licensing, and won a delay on appeal from a federal appeals court that said the public was being given “the bum’s rush” by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The National Whistleblower Center is a group that has worked with whistle blowers in the nuclear industry (and other scientific whistle blowers, including those in the FBI laboratories) for 15 years. “It’s fortuitous, unique in the history of nuclear safety oversight,” said Center attorney Steve Kohn, “having a body of experts available to the citizenry. [That body] didn’t exist when they were building these plants.”

Both in court and subsequently, the Whistleblower Center compiled a list from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s own public documents detailing 150-plus operating violations or regulation noncompliances at the facility since Calvert Cliffs applied for license renewal Jan. 12, 1998.

Those items included concern over the two reactors’ aging electrical cables. “You know how it is with the electrical systems in your house,” said Kohn. “You buy a house and they sometimes say, ‘Run some new wires.’ Well, in a nuclear power plant, with its stresses, multiply that deterioration by a thousand. Wiring [in nuclear facilities] can be in places almost impossible to inspect -- and very, very costly to change. You’re going to have to tear up all that concrete.”

Calvert Cliffs’ aging electrical cables do worry the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s inspection staff. An NRC internal document described Calvert Cliffs’ electrical cable aging tests run by Sandia National Laboratory under contract with the NRC.

In scientific jargon, the “leaked” report stated “after accelerated aging, some environmentally qualified cables either failed or exhibited marginal insulation resistance during accident simulation.” In other words, while Sandia may have been holding Calvert Cliffs’ cables to higher standards than regulatory commission tests called for, the major conclusions were possible significant risks of electrical component failure if a breakdown (“a harsh environment”) occurred. The regulatory commission staff concluded that a more detailed risk assessment should be completed. Calvert Cliffs was relicensed; the risk is still being studied.

In the Calvert Cliffs application, Gunter said, “Fifty years of U.S. nuclear waste mismanagement and an additional 20 years of nuclear waste generation was not even brought to the table.”

The Web site for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry lobby, claims that: “Nuclear power plants are subject to a rigorous program of NRC oversight, inspection, preventive and corrective maintenance, equipment replacement and extensive equipment testing. These programs ensure that nuclear plant equipment continues to meet safety standards, no matter how long the plant has been operating.”

The lobby’s Beedle takes the industry argument further: “The focus for the license renewal process is to examine the plant’s systems and structures from an ‘aging’ point of view: Are you as an operator maintaining your system, replacing and repairing?”

With Calvert Cliffs approved, four energy companies are currently standing in line seeking renewals: Entergy, Duke Power, Dominion Resources and Commonwealth Edison.

Relicensed or not, if Calvert Cliffs did a Chernobyl, there goes the federal government. Washington is within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s 50-mile “emergency planning zone.” So is Chesapeake Bay, and much of Maryland on both sides of it.

Public involvement diluted

Where’s the public involvement? As early as 1991, lawyer Diane Curran, representing the Union of Concerned Scientists and the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, at a public hearing looking into “fast track” relicensing, explained that “the public may not challenge either the sufficiency of [the current license regulations] or the plant’s compliance with [those regulations].”

Why has the public’s involvement been diluted?

“What happened,” said the Whistleblower’s Kohn, “is around 1985-90, nuclear power was dead. The movement for safe energy essentially declared victory. It was evident no one would build a new plant, and the existing 105 would all die out within 40 years. All concern was dropped.”

“Well, the industry didn’t drop its concerns,” continued Kohn. “From that day forward they have been planning this whole relicensing thing. It accomplishes two goals: One, it essentially creates an entire new generation of nuclear power -- re-licensing is the equivalent of building 11 new reactors -- and it alters the profitability equation. They’ll have recouped their costs over 40 years from the ratepayers, [and then] for the next 20 [years]: profitability. Without the public having any serious input.”

Said Public Citizen’s Riccio, “It’s not that the public’s asleep. The public has been removed from the process of license renewal. At first, the criteria for getting a license renewed was to prove the same things they’d proved when getting the original one. Then it was proven the industry couldn’t do that. The industry revolted. So NRC changed the rule.”

Adds Kohn, “During the construction of the existing plants, you had active citizen intervention. Citizens could raise scientific issues, and this was unquestionably the most important safety net because the NRC scientists, the utilities, had to publicly justify their science. Public intervenors and citizen groups had the ability to put up scientists and cross-examine the utility scientists.”

As a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman said, the commission is “a creature of Congress.” And that means it is subject to lobbying influences.

It is a significant lobby.

The nuclear power industry poured money into congressional elections throughout the 1980s and ’90s. From 1985 to ’92, Congressional incumbents of both parties received $22 million from nuclear political action committees. A 1992 Nuclear Information and Resource Services/U.S. Public Interest Research Group report states that U.S. senators who voted for the nuclear industry’s position received an average of $95,806 each from nuclear PACs, while representatives who voted for stripping “citizens of their rights to nuclear reactor post-construction safety hearings,” received $40,745 each.

As a consequence, “The Senate Oversight Committee has cowed the NRC,” said Riccio. In fact, the NRC commissioners have decided the industry is paying too much in fees and is reducing industry licensing costs by 10 percent over a five-year period, thereby making its own budget situation worse. The regulatory commission’s budget has dropped 25 percent since 1993. Its fiscal year 2000 request for just under $500 million, when adjusted for inflation, “is the lowest budget request in its history.”

Many NRC employees themselves are not happy. The commission is a revolving door with senior staff regularly moving into the nuclear industry as employees and consultants. “I deal every day with [industry] lawyers who were NRC,” said Kohn. “Everyone in any NRC position who can goes to private industry.”

A General Accounting Office 2000 survey shows 26.2 percent of all Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff are considering leaving the agency within a year; many because they don’t like increased risks they see associated with NRC’s revised rules on safety inspections. Forty-three percent of potentially departing NRC employees will leave because they are “generally dissatisfied with NRC,” but, more important to public safety, “18 percent because they are dissatisfied with risk-informed, performance-based changes going on in NRC.”

Risk-informed, performance-based changes are the NRC’s substitute for previously established much tougher inspection procedures and demands. (Oversimplified, computer probability programs have replaced people. The new “risk-informed” method’s computer probability projections rely more on the power corporations’ monitoring than on the more tedious and defensive monitoring that the NRC staff and corporations performed under the previous system.)

Steve Kerekes of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry lobby, supports the new system. He said, “The objective of the new [NRC risk-assessment] program is to focus on objective data that gives you a clear, quantifiable sense of performance for all the plants. And while it’s not real time, it’s mighty close to it.”

New oversight process

Said the lobby’s Beedle, “I could envision us sticking to the same old Underwood typewriters for years simply because we bought them and they seemed to be working. Does that mean you shouldn’t go to a word processor? I don’t think so.”

The General Accounting Office reported that “with respect to the change to risk-informed regulation -- the new oversight process to assess the performance of nuclear power plants -- only about one-fourth believe that NRC’s staff have ‘bought into’ the process. Sixty percent of the staff [surveyed] believe it will reduce plant safety margins.”

Another issue for some regulatory commission employees is the NEI lobby’s pushy reach into NRC’s internal affairs. Staff have complained for years. A 1996 report to the Systems Safety and Analysis Division director said, “The current interface with the Nuclear Energy Institute often does not allow for the objective and unbiased exchange of information on a purely technical level. Licensee representatives, industry representatives and NRC staff are sometimes frustrated by the NEI interface when trying to resolve technical issues in a cooperative manner.”

In March this year, the U.S. Inspector General rebuked the regulatory commission for letting the NEI take a first look at its internal policy-making documents and then lying to Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., about it. Markey is the only consistently anti-nuclear power voice on Capitol Hill.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission wrongly claimed it had also made the document available to the public.

A parallel concern of the declining regulatory commission budget is the erosion of NRC’s accident-prevention research abilities. Immediately post-Chernobyl, in an April 1986 report to the commissioners, Operations Executive Director Victor Stello Jr. described the “Impact of Budget Cuts on NRC’s Ability to Assure Safety.”

Looking to the nuclear power industry to pick up the research the regulatory commission could no longer afford to undertake, Stello stated, “the effect of the erosion of research capabilities and the resultant inabilities to provide necessary information to answer safety questions cannot be underestimated for the future.”

In research programs “addressing severe accident issues,” the report stated, “the most serious issues have been identified, but the ability to solve them has been reduced.” The NRC was already reporting that in the final two years of a six-year program “evaluating [NRC’s] regulatory approach to severe accidents in nuclear power plants, it is becoming apparent that some of the uncertainties may be so large, even with the knowledge gained from the four years of intense focused research to date, that NRC may not be able to provide a satisfactory reduction of these uncertainties with existing resources.”

That internal anxiety was expressed at the regulatory commission 14 years ago, when the personnel numbers were at their peak and the budget was on the eve of the first of its two precipitous declines.

Typical of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s lip service to public oversight was a Dec. 6, 1999, NRC public hearing on “Existing Aging Management Programs for License Renewal.” The public information session in the regulatory commission’s Rockville, Md., headquarters basement was not an opportunity for the public to influence either license renewal or regulations affecting license renewal. Of the 98 people present, only a handful was not from industry or government agencies.

“It’s just P.R.,” said Public Citizen’s Riccio. “A show,” said Whistleblower’s Kohn.

Even so, attendee David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists went through the process. Nuclear safety engineer Lochbaum used an overhead projector to describe to those assembled how the regulatory commission staff position on aging reactor management oversimplifies issues. NRC staff appears to base its judgments on questionable assumptions, said Lochbaum. The regulatory commission treats reactors as if they are all alike instead of each being radically different from the next, he said.

The NRC staff approach, said Lochbaum, “assumes that the current licensing requirements are being met, and that all licensees will meet all requirements and effectively implement all administrative programs in the future. The 1996-99 data refutes these assumptions in a very big way.” Lochbaum has been through it all before. At an earlier 1999 meeting, he was assured the questions he raised would be addressed in the final report. However, Lochbaum’s questions weren’t mentioned in the final report. He took the issue up with the regulatory commission and was told his questions have been overlooked.

So, with the computer generated risk assessments and aging plants, how safe down the road are the neighborhood reactors? In late March there was a radioactive steam release from the Indian Point reactor in New York, 35 miles from Manhattan. The issues surrounding the release -- fortunately -- are more important than the radioactive consequences. The regulatory commission said the released gases and liquid were 0.1 millirem and .0009 millirem respectively, whereas the average person in the United States receives 300 millirem annually from “background radiation” -- rocks, soil, outer space.

The point, however, is that a year earlier, in March 1999, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave Consolidated Edison a waiver on inspecting its Indian Point steam generators. The waiver allowed ConEd to delay inspection until some time in 2000. In March, before the inspection, tubing blew, and one steam generator leaked.

Asked if the commission had made an incorrect decision in allowing ConEd an extended inspection period, the regulatory commission told this newspaper: “NRC believed it had sufficient information from the licensee to find that there was reasonable assurance of public health and safety.”

On “reasonable assurances” hangs America’s domestic nuclear reactor safety.

Arthur Jones can be reached at ajones@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2000