USA’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s first priority – protecting the nuclear industry

US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s ‘enforcement’ is as fierce as the comfy chair, Ecologist  Linda Pentz Gunter 2nd August 2016 

The NRC routinely fails to enforce its own safety codes at nuclear power plants, writes Linda Pentz Gunter – putting all of us at risk from accidents. It’s the US’s most extreme example of regulatory capture, rivalling Japan’s ‘nuclear village’ of crony agencies and feeble regulation that led to the Fukushima disaster. How long can it be before the US experiences another nuclear catastrophe?

Fetch the comfy chair! The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is in town to enforce its own safety regulations at your local nuclear power plant. Reactor owners have been duly warned. Comply or else …

Or else what? Three more last chances? No, unlike Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition, the NRC isn’t bothering to read the charges. It’s handing out immunity.

The US still has 30 operating reactors of the same General Electric design that exploded at Fukushima. Yet the NRC has decided not to require a significant safety retrofit that it had ordered in 2013, and that would have reduced the radioactive consequences of a major accident at one of these dangerously flawed reactors.

Or rather, the NRC will require it, but only after the reactor closes. The Oyster Creek nuclear generating station in New Jersey, which happens also to be the world’s prototype for the Fukushima reactors, is scheduled to close on December 31, 2019.

The NRC agreed to owner Exelon’s request for an extension to comply with the installation of a reliable severe accident-capable hardened vent. Exelon’s new deadline? January 2020, just after the reactor will be permanently shuttered.

Similarly, the Entergy-owned Pilgrim nuclear plant near Plymouth, MA, also a GE Fukushima design, and which has announced a June 1, 2019 shutdown date, hasrequested and extension to comply with the vent order until December 31, 2019.

It’s tempting be cynical and assume that by agreeing to extend such deadlines, the NRC is hoping owners will change their minds and keep their reactors open. After all, shutdowns are bad for business, and the NRC is very much in league with the interests of its industry friends.

Nothing illustrated this better than the NRC’s decision to provide a 20-year license extension to the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant – another Fukushima clone – ten days into the 11th March 2011 Japan nuclear disaster. Luckily, the owners closed the financially hemorrhaging plant at the end of 2014.

The consistent pattern: industry cost cuts before public safety

Beleaguered by an economic nosedive, the nuclear industry has consistently challenged the NRC’s safety compliance orders to avoid the expense, putting profit well ahead of safety. The NRC has consistently and obligingly capitulated, even when the risk itself is identified as a top priority……..

Genius – let the nuclear industry self-report its own violations!

The list goes on. At the Exelon-owned Braidwood, IL nuclear power plant, starting in 1996, millions of gallons of water contaminated with tritium (radioactive hydrogen) leaked from the plant for 10 years while Exelon covered it up.

The tritiated water spilled onto roadways and into ditches, contaminating nearby agricultural fields, ponds and the drinking water wells of surrounding homeowners. Two on-site NRC inspectors supposedly failed to notice the lake of radioactive water flooding on and off the site.

The NRC’s solution was to allow the industry to self-report future leaks through an unenforceable voluntary honor system; a guarantee for further cover-ups. This despite revelations including in a report by my organization Beyond Nuclear – Leak First, Fix Later, and by the Associated Press that radioactive leaks were likely occurring at almost every nuclear plant in the country……….

Who is watching? Certainly not Congress, to whom the NRC is supposed to answer but which has rarely asked the agency to explain its negligence. Instead, there have been scores of close calls at US nuclear plants -166 in the last decade alone according to Greenpeace. The NRC has issued dozens of license extensions to old, decrepit reactors and denied none.

‘The agency is a wholly owned subsidiary of the nuclear power industry’

All this should have changed in 1974 when the Energy Reorganization Act divided the then Atomic Energy Commission into two new agencies – the NRC and what would become the Department of Energy. This was done to create a dividing line between nuclear regulation and promotion, with the NRC assuming the former role.

But the umbilical cord never got cut. The NRC didn’t just climb straight back into bed with the nuclear industry. It crawled back into the womb, as former NRC commissioner and now critic, Peter Bradford, told the New York Times“The NRC inherited the regulatory staff and adopted the rules and regulations of the AEC intact.”

Meanwhile, since the agency’s inception, many outgoing NRC Commissioners have sailed away in golden parachutes straight into plum nuclear industry jobs…….

A few former commissioners, including Bradford (1977-82) and Victor Gilinsky (1974-84) became stern critics of the agency after their tenures. “The agency is a wholly owned subsidiary of the nuclear power industry”, Gilinsky said.

“It’s common knowledge in Washington that anyone nominated to be a commissioner to the NRC has to be pre-approved by the nuclear industry”, Union of Concerned Scientists senior scientist, Edwin Lyman told Forbes“In order to get a more independent mindset, you’ve got to break that stranglehold.”

nuclear-village-Just like Japan’s ‘nuclear village’

The Japanese parliament found that out after it commissioned a causal study on the Fukushima disaster in 2012. When the independent investigators delivered their verdict, they described the calamity as “man-made” and attributed it to collusion between government, regulator and TEPCO.

The NRC seems bent on repeating those mistakes while Members of Congress continue to do the bidding of the nuclear industry lobby and little to represent the safety and wellbeing of their real employers: all of us.

Do those nice fat checks from lobbyists buy their silence? Do they just not care? Or are they in fact worse than the NRC itself? The industry is once again pitching for a reduction in what it sees as burdensome regulatory oversight. Will Congress agree and slash the NRC budget to streamline what is already a rubber stamp system on safety?

Meanwhile, the NRC continues to look the other way on violations of its own safety regulations. It is happy to ignore potentially deadly defects and age-related degradation at the country’s nuclear plants in order to save the beleaguered industry any additional expense.

It will choose to risk potentially tens of thousands of lives to keep that revolving door spinning and the pathway clear to cushy jobs in the nuclear industry. That’s worse than collusion and negligence. It’s criminal. Are we outraged yet? http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2987972/us_nuclear_regulatory_commissions_enforcement_is_as_fierce_as_the_comfy_chair.html

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