Cumulative Effects of Non-Regulation

, former director, Nuclear Safety Project | August 23, 2012, 6:36 pm EST
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On August 15, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission unanimously approved a plan to formally evaluate the cumulative effects of its regulations on nuclear plant owners. The NRC says the goal of the Plan for Retrospective Analysis of Existing Rules is “to determine whether any such regulations should be modified, streamlined, expanded, or repealed” because of their regulatory burden.

This will also satisfy an Executive Order that recommends independent agencies (like the NRC) periodically review their regulations with the goal of improving their effectiveness or reducing unnecessary regulatory burden; a similar Order requires federal agencies to do this.

But this plan to have NRC staff evaluate existing rules to determine whether they represent a hardship on the nuclear industry could be very time-consuming, and could have the effect of reducing the NRC’s capacity to deal with safety issues that benefit the public.

During public meetings over the past year, the NRC’s senior managers have repeatedly cautioned their Commissioners that insufficient staffing levels at the NRC may prevent the agency from implementing the lessons learned from Fukushima as rapidly as desired. This planned evaluation of the cumulative effects of regulation only makes this situation worse.

The NRC can significantly reduce the staffing needs for this evaluation by confining the review to only those regulations the agency bothers to enforce. After all, what’s the burden from an unenforced regulation?

For example, this would eliminate any need to review fire protection regulations, or the regulations (allegedly) governing leaks and spills of radioactively contaminated liquids, or the environmental qualification of electrical equipment “requirements” in 10 CFR 50.49 for boiling water reactors with Mark I and II containments. The NRC enforces these regulations so seldom that their burden, even if discernible, could only amount to pico-pain, or micro-pain at most.

Consider the three reactors at the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama. A disastrous fire in March 1975 nearly caused two of its reactors to melt down. The NRC adopted fire protection regulations in 1980 seeking to prevent another serious nuclear plant fire. But the three reactors at Browns Ferry, along with nearly four dozen other reactors in the U.S., still do not comply with fire protection regulations more than three decades later.

It’s not the cumulative effects of regulation that the NRC should be evaluating.

The NRC should be concerned about the cumulative effects of non-regulation.

Around the same time the NRC approved its cumulative effects of regulations game plan, the NRC staff provided the Commissioners with its annual report on the agency’s “generic issues program”. (Until recent years, it was called the “generic safety issues” program. But seldom resolving safety issues was unpalatable so the NRC merely dropped “safety” from the name to at least make the situation appear better.)

What’s a “generic issue”?

It’s a known safety hazard affecting the public living around multiple nuclear plants.

In the annual report the NRC staff updated its Commissioners about five “active” generic issues:

  • GI-189, involving the susceptibility of pressurized water reactors with ice condenser containments to fail due to hydrogen explosions. This affects 13 U.S. reactors. This generic issue has been “active” since 2001.
  • GI-191, involving the potential for debris created during an accident at pressurized water reactors (69 total in the US) to clog the screens for the emergency pumps providing reactor core and containment cooling and disabling these safety functions. This generic issue has been “active” since 1996.
  • GI-193, involving the potential for air bubbles in water released during the initial stage of an accident at boiling water reactors (35 total in the US) to get drawn into emergency pumps providing reactor core cooling and impairing or disabling the pumps. This generic issue has been “active” since 2002.
  • GI-199, involving the known seismic hazard at 27 reactors in the U.S. being greater than the magnitude assumed in the seismic protection design measures. This generic issue has been “active” since 2005.
  • GI-204, involving inadequately evaluated external flood hazards (e.g., river flooding, upstream dam failure, and tsunami). The baby of the bunch, this generic issue has only been “active” since 2010.

The average age of these five known, unresolved safety hazards is over nine years. Millions of Americans have been burdened with the undue risk from unresolved safety hazards over this period.

Cumulatively, just the first four of these add up to 1,786 reactor-years—almost two reactor-millennia—of known, unresolved safety hazards.

Whatever burden exists on plant owners from the cumulative effects of regulation, it almost certainly pales in comparison to the burden placed on innocent Americans from the cumulative effects of non-regulation. Millions of Americans live near nuclear reactors that violate federal regulations adopted to manage risks from safety hazards and that are afflicted by one or more unresolved generic issues.

The NRC claims to put safety first. If they’re talking about the financial safety of power companies, I’d wholeheartedly agree.

No agency putting public safety first and foremost can legitimately justify such dismal performance on known safety hazards.

The NRC should not devote a person-minute to evaluating the burden from the cumulative effects of regulation until it has eliminated the burden on Americans from the cumulative effects of non-regulation.


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  • Jesper

    New nuclear power can hardly be built due to excessive regulation. The US and many other Western countries has made the world a big disservice by hindering nuclear, not keeping the nuclear construction industry alive and not putting enough funds into R&D. Now China is trying to pick up the slack, but more than 30 years has been lost. The result is that we stand no real chance of stopping global warming in a timely fashion.

    Remember, the only country (without great hydro resources per capita) that has gotten rid of fossil electricity is France, and they employed nuclear and were done in the early nineties. Germany has really, really tried with renewables and has poured enormous amounts of money and two more decades into it, but has no real fossil reductions to show for it.

    With your opposition to streamlining regulation, you’re not only stopping a good investment that will result in lower costs for US electricity consumers and taxpayers. You may also doom all of the Earth to inhabitability due to global warming tipping points. OTOH, it might already be too late, and the US may be too irrelevant. China will likely have to lead the way.

  • William Wilgus

    How can one expect the NRC to effectively regulate the Nuclear Energy Industry when it doesn’t even know the applicable meaning of the word ‘generic’? To wit:

    “relating to or characteristic of a whole group or class”
    Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary,

    Since these issues DO NOT apply to every nuclear reactor / plant (or type / class or plants), they are not ‘generic’.

  • Nuclear anything is a crime against humanity. To put the waste 100 feet in the air is the work of a psychopath. Time will tell, it is now a dead world walking. My descendants curse you!!!

  • As a concerned citizen following the regulatory activities of the NRC it has become obvious the NRC is not placing the health and welfare of citizens first. They are placing the financial concerns of the multinational nuclear industry first.

    The poster “Jester” suggests that the nuclear industry is over regulated. I would disagree with that statement. I agree with Mr. Lochbaum in the article; there is a failure to enforce regulation and hold nuclear facility owners accountable for continuing failures.

    I live downwind of Browns Ferry, Alabama and attend the various NRC inspection debriefs and follow all things related to Browns Ferry and the TVA’s nuclear program. My education and experience in personnel reliability as it relates to risk management causes me to pause and reflect on teachings of accident causes as a result of repetitive safety culture failures, corrective action failures and leadership failures.

    We are witnessing numerous human reliability failures in the management of one of the most dangerous scientific and engineering processes in the history of human kind. The nations aging and obsolete nuclear power reactors are being managed by a style which can only be called “teetering on the edge of disaster.”

    The intentional disregard for enforcing safety law, policy and standards coupled with various nuclear power industry’s management failures to correct known nuclear power plant deficiencies and failed corrective actions programs is courting disaster. The NRC’s failure to correct repetitive deficiencies is appalling and negligent.

    I’ll name five important human factor failures. 1) Failure to enforce Fire Safety Regulation and Standards. 2) Failure to correct repetitive corrective action program failures in maintenance and training of key personnel at nuclear facilities nation wide. 3) Failure to resolve highly radioactive spent fuel waste storage problems. 4) The continuation of operating known defective nuclear reactor types, the GE Mark 1 Reactor is but one. There are 24 GE Mark 1 Rectors in operation in the United States today which should be shut down and decommissioned. 5) A trend of misinformation pandered onto the public by the NRC and the multinational nuclear industry concerning inaccurate and intentionally false information as it relates to nuclear safety and risk.

    By all appearances the nuclear power industry and its regulator, the NRC, are “bed fellows” supporting the industry bottom line. Placing money before citizen safety is a fact which will run its course of probabilities toward the inevitable disaster.

    History has demonstrated we are a nation which is reactive to accident prevention not proactive, with very few exceptions. History also demonstrates that a continuous trend of unintended events and human failures result in disaster. In the case of nuclear power, this historical fact may have consequences which will affect millions for centuries. Citizens should be asking the question, can we truly afford the nuclear power reactor, its risks and costs?

    The nuclear industry cannot continue to maintain its aging fleet of nuclear reactors without consequence and citizens cannot afford the risk highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel brings to our nation. Worse, the regulator has failed to perform its mission and it is not held accountable by Congress. We as a nation must not continue playing this deadly game of “nuclear black jack.” History and the laws of probability demonstrate it is only a matter of time before WE loose.

  • Concerned Craft

    I have been involved in nuclear power for several years now, and thought the NRC stood for “Nobody Really Cares”. I think the pendulum has swung in the last few years though. The NRC is currently investigating Granite Construction Employees at Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. It is believed that A PG&E staff member has partnered with Granite to help employees get qualifications to enter the plant by cheating on the qualification tests. It is rumored that the investigation is getting pretty deep, and that The NRC is pretty serious for once. PG&E and the NRC allows the contractor to proctor all of their own employees tests. That allows the contractor to get all of their cousins, brothers, in-laws, fellow gang members, etc. to get a high paying nuclear job. Functionally illiterate people are making in excess of $100K to be qualified nuclear workers. If they can not read the questions on the test, or know the answers, how can they read work packages or understand printed safety notifications.

    I would venture to guess this is going on industry wide, but baby steps will bring it to light. Hopefully before here is a serious breach of safety.

    This could change training and qualification procedures industry wide if the investigation is successful. Hopefully the NRC is headed in a new direction, as missing the little things is what builds up to be the big things.

  • Jesper

    @Garry: You misquoting my name is revealing. Fukushima had multiple meltdowns, and still, the consequences have been orders of magnitude milder than a single year of coal combustion-related pollution in the US, even if we do not count global warming. However, the media coverage of Fukushima is orders of magnitudes larger.

    Since nuclear regulation have stopped nuclear in the US, it is very clear that the public would benefit immensely from less, or at least smarter, more streamlined, regulation. It is doubtful regulation stops the occasional meltdown, but even if it does, it is obviously not worth it, since the result (more coal related cancers) are worse.

    • Richard

      Jesper: your depiction of the degree of damage to the area around Fukushima is grossly understated.

      Farmer’s fields that are close to the plant lie fallow because of the threat of nuclear contamination.

      More than twenty thousand people cannot return home because of the contamination of their homes. Those whose businesses/livelihoods were not wiped out by the tsunami cannot resume their financial lives.

      Very recent reports have noted that genetic defects have been found in butterflies caught near the plant. This has serious implications for humans who might also have been exposed to the radiation leaked after the explosions and the meltdowns.

      Are these ‘minor’ problems? Hardly.

      And there is still the concerns about what to do with the spent fuel sitting in pools of water. This, by the way, is a huge issue, if not risk, that plants here in the USA….as well as France…face. The NRC has done nothing about resolving this issue.

      • jeppen

        Yes, some farmers fields can’t be used, but why is that a big deal? It is a tiny economic problem and certainly no environmental problem at all. If Japan is forced to import more food, that would actually be good for their economy – they are far too protectionistic.

        Twenty thousand displaced, most of them unnecessarily since the radiation dose in most of the evacuated area is low, is not a big deal either. The Three Gorges dam even more permanently displaced 1.2 million for a third of the electricity produced by Japan’s nuclear fleet. The climate migration that inefficient and over-the-top nuclear regulation will cause will likely affect hundreds of millions.

        And the butterfly thing is simply nonsense – bad research in a no-impact publication. Please search the net and you shall find.

        Regarding spent fuel pools: Sweden has a national interim storage and we shuttle all waste there when cool enough for transportation. It can be done simply and cheaply, so why don’t you do that? But why use the inability of the US to come together with rational, common solutions as an excuse to stop perfectly sound regulatory refactoring and streamlining? The latter would actually benefit the former!

  • jharragi

    Jeppen: Nearly all of your arguments are flawed. I will only address this one.

    >>Germany has really, really tried with renewables and has poured enormous amounts of money and two more decades into it, but has no real fossil reductions to show for it.

    The United States has probably dumped substantially more cash and other resources (some of these like liability protection and some future waste disposal are hard to put a dollar amount on – maybe you should contact the Swedish government and get a price on disposing all of the waste for us) into nuclear than the Germans have put into renewables and have we seen fossil reductions?

    In fact, I would be interested to know what the investment of energy into the average nuclear plant is. What I mean by this is how many kwh, barrels of oil… are consumed to mine & mill fuel, construct a nuclear facility, power all of the worker’s commutes, deliver and manufacture materials and facility components, supply offsite power. The complete infrastructure – from design to safe disposal of a decommissioned facility. When you sum all of these factors and downtime (many reactors have been idled for years at a time) you might find that nuclear contributes much less to society than the industry would have us believe.

    And then there is the unprovable (or is it?) issue of a nuclear plant’s operation having some health consequence – perhaps each reactor that runs shortens our average life-expectancy by an hour. You might argue that these plants are completely safe – but the fact that Entergy, my neighboring plant’s owner, brags about spending hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years on plant safety upgrades suggests different. They also claim to be spending substantial amounts in the future – which raises the question as to why a plant that 39 years into it’s 40 year license still has unresolved safety issues – and isn’t this the point of Mr. Lochbaum’s article? This is also a good time to point out that only an idiot put’s an industry’s freedom from regulations before his own safety.

    • jharragi

      Jeppen & Jesper,

      If you are two different people, forgive me for mistaking you as one. Your comments are so similar in both their resemblance to those of industry spokesmen and their dismissive nature, I took you as one author.

      In any case, the post applies to either of you…

    • jmdesp

      The German *have* already put more cash into renewables than we in France have building all of our nuclear fleet. For solar alone they pledged to pay 130 billions Euro for the already installed capacity, and then they are 28 GW wind power. The French nuclear fleet only cost around 100 billions Euro to build (using actualized cost).

      And not only is the amount of produced energy tiny, but the records of last may show that when solar peaks, they have to export most of it at bottom prices (it’s reported it was almost 50% of consumption, but public data shows it was only 34% of production. That means they were producing around 26GW of solar and wind, but exporting around 21 GW, so about 75% of it all).

      Compared to Europe, both oil and electricity are very cheap in the US, that helps explain that you consume a lot. Probably the only to see improved efficiency is a high price and more taxes. One things is sure, since any new nuclear plant stopped being installed, there was a huge rise in the number of coal plant and production.

      Go ahead, just *do* check all the nuclear numbers. Health danger ? All analysis show nuclear is at the bottom in the fatality by TWh generated numbers for all energy sources (see this Lancet study and
      ). It’s estimated coal in the US kills around 10 000 peoples a year all included, and the TVA very recently settled in court rather than to try to fight the medical proofs of that. *If* the standard were as strict as for nuclear (radioactivity releases of a coal plant are 10 times those of a NPP), the sum of evacuated area in the US around the various coal plants would be as large as the one currently in Japan. Actual cost ? One 3MW wind turbine, rather small by todays standard, requires 1200 tons of concrete, that 5 time more than a NPP per generated TWh. A single 1GW coal plant needs a 110-car train of coal every 30 hours, when the annual uranium mining in the US would fill only two railroad cars (see )

      But it’s obvious you’re just playing the double bind game here : If the nuclear did not invest big money in security, you’d say it’s the proof they are not taking it seriously and endangering us all, and as it does, you’re saying instead spending so much is the proof it’s very dangerous and can’t be trusted.

      The primary concern of fossil power corporation is also very visible, and has just led BP to be accused of gross negligence by the US justice department :
      Deepwater Horizon has killed more operators, and led to more environmental damage (destroyed wildlife) than the Fukushima disaster.

  • The “NEI Jester:” The one who is whispering deceitful double talk of nuclear propaganda into the politician and bureaucrat’s ear.

    The same “NEI Jester” providing NRC staff with technical assistance related to defective risk modeling and pseudo-science safety reports in support of the Nuclear industry’s bottom line. One of many “Jesters” who lobby the halls of Congress and the NRC.

    Producing commercial electrical power from nuclear reactors where the owner’s primary concern is profit not safety reflects governmental support of insanity. Only to be trumped by the commercialization of Weapon’s grade Mixed Oxide Plutonium fuel for commercial nuclear power reactors.

    It is up to the NRC to demonstrate their loyalty; to the corporate multinational nuclear industry or the citizens of the United States of America.

    Many citizens anxiously await the NRC’s demonstration that they support citizen safety FIRST, not the nuclear corporations bottom line.