Nuclear Nines

, director, Nuclear Safety Project | December 17, 2015, 6:00 am EDT
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In early July 2015, I emailed a survey form to nearly 80 colleagues and acquaintances posing three questions:

  1. What do you think have been the three largest nuclear safety gains since January 1, 1975?
  2. What do you think have been the three largest nuclear safety declines/challenges since January 1, 1975?
  3. What do you think are the top three safety priorities for the future?

I selected January 1, 1975 because it was when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) took over regulation of nuclear power safety. The Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 had fissioned the Atomic Energy Commission into the NRC and the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA). ERDA underwent a subsequent transformation to become today’s Department of Energy (DOE).

The three responses to these three questions formed the Nuclear Nines.

In the email transmitting the survey forms, I explained that I’d post all the survey forms that were returned in their complete and unedited form along with a brief tally of the most common responses. I promised not to editorialize in this commentary or a subsequent one about agreement/disagreement with responses or otherwise critique responses.

My primary reason for conducting the survey was curiosity—I have met many people who have worked in the nuclear power industry, for the NRC, for state and federal elected officials, and for anti-nuclear organizations for decades. I thought it would be interesting to see how nuclear safety over those decades was perceived from these varied perspectives.

My ulterior and selfish motive for the survey was to inform my efforts. If the responses revealed common traits and attributes among the outcomes considered to yield the largest safety gains or the biggest safety declines, I might be able to adjust how I work so as to achieve more of the former and avoid more of the latter. And the collective insights on future safety priorities can steer me towards higher value outcomes.

Ironically, I received nine responses to the Nuclear Nines survey (ten if count mine). I greatly appreciate these individuals taking the time and effort to complete and return the survey forms with thoughtful and constructive responses.

Bottom Line

The tables show the issues identified most often as largest safety gains, safety declines, and safety priorities.

Fig. 1 (Source: UCS)

Fig. 1 (click to enlarge) (Source: UCS)

As promised, the actual survey forms are also available for viewing (Nuclear Nines – Survey Forms). The respondents provide reasons for their selections. Their issues and reasons are probably more interesting than the tally of top vote-getters.

Finally, my sincere thanks to John Butler, Mike Callahan, Larry Foulke, Mary Lampert, Brian McCabe, Garry Morgan, Rich Andrews and two anonymous individuals for their thoughtful responses. American democracy works best when it’s not a spectator sport. The engagement on nuclear safety issues by these individuals spanning many years certainly makes them active and effective participants.

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  • HopelessAboutChange

    “There is a dangerous mind-set at work in the nuclear industry and even in the NRC that nuclear power is overregulated and even inherently safe.” – Rich Andrews, Retired, Former Senior Reactor Operator, Nuclear Plant Manager, 30+ years experience.

    That statement from someone who spent a career on inside is very, very telling.

  • neroden

    The biggest safety gain is the number of nuclear bomb power plants which have been shut down.
    The biggest safety risk is that the shut down plants are suffering from even less monitoring and maintenance than the operating plants, and so are *still* likely to spill spent fuel and other toxics everywhere. Until all the spent fuel is in dry cask storage, and all the dry casks are moved to someplace like WIPP where their rupture won’t get into the water table, we have a major risk.

  • Aaron Rizzio


    In the field of economics there is the basic concept of an “opportunity cost” i.e.: the more time/resources devoted to one particular objective inevitably detracts from a plethora of other possible virtues/opportunities. Here UCS and you in particular have made it your life work critiquing issues of debatable safety significance in nuclear energy generation; meanwhile the US EPA, National Academies of Sciences, United Nations, Harvard School of Public Health, etc. have all noted that electric energy generation via burning of coal shortens the lives of >10,000 Americans per annum. Averaged over the past 40 years since 1975 the annual mortality rate would be closer to 20,000 to 25,000 premature mortalities per year in the US alone, on the order of a million fatalities from coal particulate fallout, SO2, NOx, toxic metals such as mercury, to say nothing of the purported LNT dangers UCS maintains accompany any quantity of the radionuclides thorium, uranium, radon, radium present in the burned coal and dispersed into the biosphere (totally unregulated) as fly ash in ppm quantities. Since we burn nearly a billion tons of coal per year this amounts to a greater mass of radionuclides than the annual ~2000 tons of LWR UNF discharges (n.b. UNF is ~95% the same uranium atoms nature buried as ore in the ground). This does not even factor in the global coal death toll which, according to the UK Lancet, numbers in the millions per year or the AGW impact of CO2.
    As UCS should publicly acknowledge often there is no credible scenario in which any nuclear accident or series of accidents projected over a conceivable 100,000 reactor-years could claim such a mortality figure. Worldwide coal generates annually a factor of ~4-5 times more electricity than fission but is responsible for, conservatively, 1000 times more mortality and morbidity than nuclear reactors even extrapolating from the non-empirical (and therefore unscientific) LNT theory of radio-carcinogenesis, even inclusive of notorious Chernobyl style RBMK designs. One could even go so far as to say that early commercial Western-design reactors (such as the Fukushima Daiichi Mk 1 GE BWRs) THAT ARE IN THE PROCESS OF MELTING DOWN are significantly safer than the nominal operation and routine emissions fallout of most of the developing and developed worlds’ coal fleet.

    I think it also deserves to be publicly noted right now by esteemed individuals such as yourself and UCS that nuclear fission is the leading US and worldwide source of what we can rightly call “ultra-low emission lifecycle footprint baseload electricity”; a far lower footprint then hydro or solar PV by nearly all independent measures and on par with wind turbines but unlike wind it has the great merit of being both dispatchable and scalable.