Cumulative Effects of Non-Regulation

August 23, 2012
Dave Lochbaum
Former contributor

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Analysis of Existing Rules is “to determine whether any such regulations should be modified, streamlined, expanded, or repealed” because of their regulatory burden.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.