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The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety in 2013

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On March 11, 2011, I was on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC to brief Congressional staffers on the inaugural issue in a planned series of reports on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and nuclear power plant safety. We had scheduled this event several weeks in advance, but an unplanned event in Japan occurred earlier that day kept many staffers in front of TV sets and internet monitors. That event—Fukushima—has not altered the direction or final destination of UCS’s nuclear power safety efforts. But it showed the need to move along this pathway a little faster.

The NRC is charged with establishing and enforcing safety regulations at U.S. nuclear power plants to protect the public from harm. UCS has evaluated nuclear power safety issues for more than 40 years. We have repeatedly found the NRC to be capable of enforcing its safety regulations—yet we have also repeatedly found its enforcement not to always be timely, consistent, or effective.

In other words, the NRC often emulates Dr. Jekyll with fair and effective regulatory oversight, but all too often allows its Mr. Hyde persona to undermine safety.

Wikipedia - Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_poster

This year we are issuing the fourth annual report on the NRC and nuclear power plant safety. As with prior reports, this year’s report contains a chapter summarizing the near-misses that the NRC reported on in 2013, a chapter on positive outcomes achieved by the NRC last year, and a chapter summarizing negative outcomes by the NRC last year.

The positive outcomes from the series of reports, coupled with improving safety trends overall the past three decades, support our view that the NRC is capable of being an effective regulator. The negative outcomes and the near-miss rate of about one per month over the past four years, support our view that the NRC’s Hyde character is not as well hidden as safety warrants.

We urge the agency, with Congressional inducement as necessary, to undertake the reforms necessary for the NRC to be more Jekyll and less Hyde.

Image source.

Posted in: Nuclear Power Safety Tags: , ,

About the author: Mr. Lochbaum received a BS in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Tennessee in 1979 and worked as a nuclear engineer in nuclear power plants for 17 years. In 1992, he and a colleague identified a safety problem in a plant where they were working. When their concerns were ignored by the plant manager, the utility, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), they took the issue to Congress. The problem was eventually corrected at the original plant and at plants across the country. Lochbaum joined UCS in 1996 to work on nuclear power safety. He spent a year in 2009-10 working at the NRC Training Center in Tennessee. Areas of expertise: Nuclear power safety, nuclear technology and plant design, regulatory oversight, plant license renewal and decommissioning

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  • http://www.energytrendsinsider.com/columns/biodiversivist/ Russ

    “…UCS has evaluated nuclear power safety issues for more than 40 years. We have repeatedly found the NRC to be capable of enforcing its safety regulations—yet we have also repeatedly found its enforcement not to always be timely, consistent, or effective.”

    No kidding. The same can be said for any regulatory agency, the FAA included. Perfection doesn’t exist. Considering how few deaths can be attributed to nuclear energy after nearly half of a century of power production, particularly when you discount the single event in a primitive Soviet era reactor that did cause loss of life, your watchdog efforts are quite likely doing more harm than good to the image of the only low carbon energy source we have capable of taking on big coal.

    …near-miss rate of about one per month? Are trying to plant in readers’ minds that we continually barely miss having nuclear melt downs (which isn’t true)?

    • jharragi

      >>>Considering how few deaths can be attributed to nuclear energy after nearly half of a century of power production…

      Ah, that is a beauty of nuclear from the standpoint of the indutrialist. Few deaths are attributed to nuclear. That said, it does not mean that they are not happening – in fact, they are definitely occurring. This has been shown statistically. Like Chernobyl, the Fukushima event will likely claim it’s million victims – in forty years the nuclear industry (if its still around) will be saying there were only 13 deaths.

      Since the dawn of the nuclear age, the rate of cancer deaths has soared – not that this can be attributed directly to nuclear as during the same time frame there arose other insults to the human body such as GMOs, fast food, combustion exhaust, pesticides, herbicides a whole host of other chemical exposures. No doubt some or all of these things are contributing factors.

      We live in a world where science – like truth is dead. But it is clear to any non-ignoramus that the same individuals and corporations that own the industries listed above control the media and put a huge amount of resources into minimizing any perception of risk in order to shape public opinion.

      John

      …a little footnote. Of course science is not dead – it is just the process and environment where it is practiced that is corrupted. Most academic environments now have a great deal of corporate influence. I also suspect that corporate interests are at least in part responsible for the very high tuition costs. Regardless of whether that is the case, most graduates emerge into a state of indebtedness where, if they are lucky enough to land a job, they are now more dependent on employers. Think of it as a state of ‘scientific indenture’. This situation is reducing the fraction of independent scientists and also places company scientists into a position where they are less likely to want to publish results that are contrary to their company’s objectives. Talking truth to power was never a good career move – it is less so now than ever.

      • https://sites.google.com/site/solarwindandnuclear/ fireofenergy

        Ya, corporations and governments “apparently” do not want the FAR safer reactor designs available! In example, any meltdown proof closed cycle can displace many BILLIONS of tons of excess CO2 every year with just a few thousands of tons of fission products that would be isolated (properly in vitrified glass) for only 1,000th the time required by today’s dangerous light water reactor “wastes”. The LWR’s “wastes” (aka spent fuel which can be converted to electricity or industrial high process heat via the MSR or similar closed cycle) are also on the order of 100x the amount of just fission products.

        Science is not dead, just “fashionably” overlooked as old news!

  • Stephen Galperin

    UCS, the hotlink to your report is dead. Please check it, I would like to read the report.

    Thanks

    • Stephen Young

      Fixed, thanks for the heads up!

  • https://sites.google.com/site/solarwindandnuclear/ fireofenergy

    Fukashima would NOT have happened had it been one of the molten fuels type of closed cycle designs. There would have been no hydrogen explosion because the molten fuels designs don’t require water for core cooling. They also passively shut down in the event of a continued loss of power.

    Obviously, this would entail far less danger to the public and therefore MUST be developed in a manner consistent with the urgency of climate change.

    Regulation should be focused on its development as well as proper regulation procedure (for the new and better type of reactor design). The meltdown proof closed cycles such as MSR and PRISM would provide humanity with unlimited power without all the wastes from today’s inherently dangerous light water (and similar) designs. Furthermore, These designs should be built “around” the common gas turbines, to completely replace coal baseload and to accomplish load following due to the expected increase of wind and solar without inefficient “cold starting” of required natural gas back up!
    Please write back if you believe you have any valid arguments against this perfectly awesome “solar, wind, NG and closed cycle nuclear” option.

    Thank you.

  • jharragi

    fireofenergy,

    I think you are probably correct about the urgency of climate change. I am totally for safe and responsible energy production. If plants can be designed in such a way as to operate safely with minimal waste production, I’m all for it. But the economics of current nuclear plants suggest that the technology will not be competitive with wind. Additionally, wind technology already exists.

    Of course it would be fantastic if the so called Low-Energy-Nuclear-Reaction technology pans out, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

    There are those who emphasize nuclear for base-load production, but that argument is sounding somewhat hollow as large scale storage is going to happening in some form; be it dedicated large scale facilities, an electric vehicle fleet or distributed generation with storage. Also to some extent, society can make hay when the sun shines and mill when the wind blows.