Marijuana and Nuclear Power Plants

, former director, Nuclear Safety Project | July 26, 2017, 6:00 am EDT
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The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) adopted regulations in the mid-1980s seeking to ensure that nuclear power plant workers are fit for duty. The NRC’s regulations contained provisions seeking to verify that workers were trustworthy and reliable as well as measures intended to prevent workers from being impaired on duty. The former measures included background checks before workers could gain access to the plant while the latter components included drug and alcohol testing.

The regulations require that nuclear plant owners test workers for marijuana and alcohol use at the time of hiring, randomly thereafter, and for cause when circumstances warrant it. In 2014, marijuana use was the #1 reason for positive drug and alcohol tests by contractors and vendors and was the #2 reasons for positive tests by nuclear plant employees. Positive tests for alcohol are the #1 reason for positive tests by employees and the #2 reason for positive tests by contractors and vendors. A positive test may not be a career killer, but it is often a career crimper.

Alcohol can be legally purchased and consumed in all 50 states. So, mere detection of having used alcohol will not result in a positive test. But detection of a blood alcohol concentration of 0.04 percent or higher yields a positive test. People have different metabolisms and alcoholic beverages come in different sizes, but that threshold is often equated to having consumed one alcoholic beverage within five hours of the test. Similar to the reason that states require motorists to not drive under the influence of alcohol (i.e., don’t drink and drive), the NRC’s regulations seek to control alcohol consumption by workers (i.e, don’t drink and operate nuclear plants.)

Unlike the reason for the alcohol controls, the NRC’s ban on marijuana use is not because it might make them more likely to make mistakes or otherwise impair their performance, thus reducing nuclear safety levels. The NRC banned marijuana use because at the time marijuana was an illegal substance in all 50 states and its criminal use meant that workers fell short of the trustworthiness and reliability standards in the fitness for duty regulation. Since the NRC adopted its regulation, 8 states have legalized recreational use of marijuana and another 12 states have decriminalized its use.

Fig. 2 (Source: NORML)

The NRC recognized that marijuana’s legalization creates potential problems with its fitness for duty regulation. If an individual uses marijuana in a state that has legalized or decriminalized its use but tests positive at a nuclear plant in a state where its use is not legal, is the individual sufficiently trustworthy and reliable? In the eyes of the NRC, the answer remains no.

The NRC conceded that no comparable scientific basis links marijuana use to performance impairment as existed when the alcohol limits were established. But the NRC continues to consider marijuana use as indicating one lacks the trustworthiness needed to work in a nuclear power plant.

The NRC is in a hard spot on this one. Revising its regulations to eliminate marijuana as a disqualifier for working in a nuclear power plant would likely spawn news reports about the agency permitting Reefer Madness at nuclear plants. But the country’s evolving mores are undermining the basis for the NRC’s regulation.

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  • An inescapable fact is that the causation of almost every harmful event involves impaired human performance. These impaired behaviors and/or inactions are influenced by phenomena such as distraction, fatigue, cognitive work load, multitasking, hours of service, sleep deprivation, sleep interruption, task interruption, circadian rhythm issues, exposure to neurotoxins, use of alcohol, use of drugs, use of medicines, nutrition, transient emotions, mental stress, mental health issues, physical stress, ergonomics, ambient conditions, noise, vibration, lighting, clothing, equipment, family crises, marital challenges, pre-event activities, chilling effects, culture, leadership, schedules, budgets, and the like.

    Reported causation of harm is incomplete without the inclusion of human performance impairments and their causations. Impaired human performance subsumes human error. All human error involves impairment. Impairment is never a root cause.

    Observation: Confidence in the quality of corrective and preventive actions for specific harmful conditions, behaviors, actions, and/or inactions due to human performance impairment depends on confidence in the causation of the impairment even when the impairment cannot be confidently eliminated.

    Quotation: “Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” -Luke 23:34 (KJV)

    Observation: The presence of impairing medications in aviation accident pilot victims suggests medicinal impairment as being involved in causation.

    Observation: Substance abuse impairment is a national issue .

  • It’s not just nuclear:

  • dhaessel

    This was a good article and one that was un-biased (most of the articles are anti-nuclear). Also the link in the comments was very good. I like this article.

  • Observation: The clear implication of impairment being revealed through random testing is that there are probably other impaired individuals in the population from which the random sample was drawn.

    Observation: The clear implication of impairment being revealed through post-event testing is that there are probably other impaired individuals in the population from which the sample was drawn.

  • FrNelomar

    There will come a case that is ultimately successful where the demand for drug tests gets between doctor and patient in a way that causes clear harm to the patient. There are over 200,000 unfilled high tech jobs in the U.S.

    We need lighten up, and put otherwise able-bodied people to work.

  • What is the science behind equating drug test results with cognitive and/or behavioral impairment?

    Is this an elephant in the room?