NRC: Dreaming of Safety

, former director, Nuclear Safety Project | October 26, 2012, 7:50 pm EDT
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I recently had the strangest dream. It seems I’d challenged the NRC to a softball game on four conditions:batter

1)      NRC is the home team.

2)      NRC can play its entire organization.

3)      NRC managers are the umpires.

4)      The game lasts 7 innings or until any team has a 10-run lead.

The NRC accepted my challenge and terms and we met on the softball field. .

I stepped to the plate to lead off the top of the first inning. Looking out, I see hundreds of NRC staffers in the field. It’s allowed under the rules, so the NRC home plate umpire yells “Play ball!”

The first pitch nears the plate and I swing, only to miss by a country mile.

“Strike one!”

I windmill the bat a few times a la Willie Stargell, dig in my cleats, and whiff at the second pitch.

“Strike two!”

“Strike three!” soon follows. I glance back at the NRC home plate umpire.

“Safe!” he proclaims.

“Strike four!”

“Strike five!”

“Strike six!”

My performance at the plate is getting embarrassing, which is doubly unfair since it’s my dream

“Strike seven!”

“Strike eight!”

The mighty Lochbaum has struck out. Not for Mudville, not for the dugout, but struck out for first base. The catcher overcomes her surprise and throws the ball to one of the dozen NRC staffers playing first base. The staffer steps on the bag and reaches out to tag me with the ball for good measure.

“Safe!” the NRC first base umpire roars.

I round the bag and head for second, then third, and then home where I’m tagged out but called safe each time.

Lochbaum 1, NRC 0.

I step to the plate again. This time, I drop the bat and head out for first base after only five strikes. Again, I’m safe at first, second, third, and home.

Lochbaum 2, NRC 0.

For variety, I step into the batter’s box on the first base side of the plate to try my luck batting left-handed. The NRC pitcher on the mound is a little flustered, having given up back-to-back inside-the-park strikeout home runs.

I inch toward first base, extending my lead off the plate. Then I drop the bat and take off down the base path. Maury Wills and Ricky Henderson may have stolen hundreds of bases in the major leagues, but I’m trying to do something they never accomplished – stealing first base.

The pitcher realizes I’ve bolted for first base and tosses the ball over to the legion of NRC first basemen. One of them steps on the bag and tags me with the ball as I waddle by.

“Safe!” yells the NRC first base umpire.

I’ve done it – stolen first base for the first time since Abner Doubleday (purportedly) invented the game!

I proceed to steal second, third, and home, too.

Lochbaum 3, NRC 0.

On my team of one, I also bat clean-up. I step to the plate, swing, and actually get metal on the ball, finally. I race towards first base. One of the many NRC second basemen catches the ball on the fly and tosses it over to one of the first basemen.

“Safe!” yells the NRC first base umpire.

Around the bases I slow trot for my fourth inside-the-park homer of the inning.

Lochbaum 4, NRC 0.

The rout is on. I’ve batted through my entire lineup and step back to the plate with a nine run lead. The NRC pitcher is more than a little peeved. He throws the next pitch at my head. Even though some say I have a big head, he missed and the ball went to the backstop. I head towards first base, then second, and third. One of the NRC third basemen who tagged me jumps onto my back. I carry him and the ball across home plate.

“Safe!” the NRC home plate umpire announced.

Lochbaum 10, NRC 0. Game over.

I jumped into my car and drove to the nearest Baskin-Robbins to treat the winning team to ice cream. I paid for the well-earned treat and woke up. That’s right, I woke up after paying for the ice cream but before eating it. What a nightmare!

What has this dream to do with nuclear safety? Other than the parts about beating the NRC and my paying for ice cream I didn’t eat, it’s a pretty accurate account of how NRC views safety. It literally doesn’t know the meaning of the word “unsafe.”

On October 19, 2012, the Huffington Post ran an article by Tom Zeller, Jr. about the hazard faced at the Oconee nuclear plant in South Carolina if the upstream Jocassee Dam were to fail. According to NRC risk analyst Melanie Galloway, the ensuing flood waters would disable vital equipment leading to a 100 percent chance that the plant’s three reactors would meltdown.

Zeller’s article quoted an NRC spokesperson as saying:

NRC continues to conclude that appropriate actions have been taken at Oconee to address potential flooding issues and that the plant is currently able to safety mitigate flooding events.”

“Safe!” said the NRC umpire.

This ruling is despite the fact that the NRC issued a Confirmatory Action Letter to the plant’s owner in June 2010 requiring it to take a long list of steps to protect Oconee from flooding, and the fact that the NRC knows that many of those steps have not yet been taken.

“Safe!” said the NRC umpire with a limited vocabulary.

This vocabulary limitation has been around for many years.

On January 6, 1997, I wrote to Hubert Miller, then Administrator of NRC Region 1. At that time, several reactors in Region 1 had been shut down for long periods of time to correct long lists of safety problems that had built up over the years. The NRC had issued orders to the owner of the Millstone reactors detailing a long list of tasks that it had tocomplete before those reactors could restart. (Unit 2 and Unit 3 remained shut down for 3.2 and 2.3 years, respectively, to fix all those items and incurred a then-record $2.1 million fine from the NRC for the associated safety violations. Unit 1 never restarted.

Similarly, the NRC had a long list of measures the owner of the Salem reactors had to take before they would be allowed to restart. (Unit 1 and Unit 2 remained shut down for 2.9 and 2.2 years, respectively, before resuming operations). The owners of another reactor, Maine Yankee, voted in late 1997 to permanently close the plant rather than pay for all the safety fixes required by the NRC.

I asked Mr. Miller this question:

If these plants are not safe enough to operate today, does the NRC think that these plants were operating safely in the days and weeks prior to their being shut down?

Samuel Collins, then Director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, answered my question on behalf of Mr. Miller:

Although the causes of the extended shutdowns for each of the Millstone, Salem, and Maine Yankee units existed before the shutdown of the facilities, the NRC considers that the plants were operating safety before they were shut down …”.

“Safe!” said the NRC umpire, knowing no other call.

Norm Cohen, head of the Unplug Salem group in New Jersey, requested a public meeting with the NRC in the late 1990s about steam generator problems at the Salem nuclear plant. I attended this meeting at Norms’ request. Five NRC staffers explained why Salem, despite experiencing a number of incidents, was operating safely. I asked the NRC presenters how long each had worked for the agency. The “rookie” among them had 11 years of NRC experience. Collectively, they represented more than a century of NRC experience. I then asked each of them if they had ever seen or read about an unsafe condition at any U.S reactor during their tenure. None had. Ever. Not once. I then asked, apparently rhetorically because none answered it, how the public could trust assurances of safety from a group that had never, ever seen something unsafe. Never.

“Safe!” proclaimed the NRC squad, knowing no other call to make.

The Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Ohio was shut down for 2.1 years beginning in February 2002. Its primary problem was a gaping hole in the reactor vessel head caused by years of corrosion from leaking boric acid. The NRC estimated that this reactor came closer to a meltdown than any other U.S. reactor since the partial meltdown of the Unit 2 reactor at Three Mile Island in March 1979. The NRC levied a still record $5.45 million on the plant’s owner for numerous safety violations associated with that near-miss.

Tom Henry of the Toledo Blade covered the speech given by then NRC Chairman Nils Diaz at the agency’s Regulatory Information Conference in April 2003. Henry quoted Chairman Diaz as saying Davis-Besse “was not an impending disaster” and it was “not an imminent threat to the public.”

“Safe!” said the NRC umpire, after fining Davis-Besse’s owner millions of dollars.

On March 15, 2012, the Senate Environment and Public Works committee conducted a hearing on nuclear safety. Senator Barrasso cited a recent UCS report that concluded Fukushima could happen here and asked the NRC’s Commissioners if they agreed:

Commissioner Magwood: I think that our infrastructure, our regulatory approach, our practices at plants, our equipment, our configuration, our design bases would prevent Fukushima from occurring under similar circumstances at a U.S. plant. I just don’t think it would happen.

Commissioner Svinicki: I agree with my colleagues.

Commissioner Apostolakis: I disagree with the statements from UCS. I don’t think that what happened in Fukushima can happen here.

Commissioner Ostendorff: I also disagree with the UCS report.

“Safe!” shouted the choir of NRC umpires.


Just three days earlier – on March 12 – the NRC ordered plant owners to take steps estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars to reduce vulnerabilities of U.S. reactors to Fukushima’s safety problems. So, if we are to believe the NRC, they ordered plant owners to spent millions to fix problems that they believed could not happen here. Was that just for economic stimulus reasons?

When the NRC says that the Oconee nuclear plant is safe despite not having yet implemented many required safety upgrades, or that San Onofre is safe despite not knowing why the plant’s steam generator tubes are degrading almost as fast as if they were water soluble, or that Browns Ferry is safe despite not meeting fire protection regulations adopted more than three decades ago in response to a disastrous fire at Browns Ferry, it’s not necessarily because these plants are safe. It may be because the NRC’s vocabulary is limited to only that label.

The NRC’s vocabulary once was larger. On March 31, 1987, the NRC ordered both of the operating reactors at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant to be shut down. The NRC senior manager issuing the order explained the reasons behind it:

I am unable to determine that there is reasonable assurance that the facility will be operated in a manner to assure that the health and safety of the public will be protected. Accordingly, I have determined that continued operations of the facility is an immediate threat to the public health and safety. Therefore, I have determined that the public health, safety and interest requires that the Licensee should proceed to place or maintain its units in a cold condition.

“You’re out!” determined the NRC umpire. Double-play, both units are out.

Maybe the NRC just has a small vocabulary.

But if they don’t wake up soon and stop dreaming of safety, some U.S. reactor somewhere will have the next nuclear nightmare.


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Posted in: Nuclear Power Safety Tags: ,

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  • Paul M. Blanch

    Another great piece. I understand that the Jon Stewart show has an opening for a writer.

    Keep up the great work.

  • As we cheer for the Giants here in California, you perfectly describe how NRC baseball is played. Here i thought that reason and facts were how those who live by these “safe” reactors should proceed as we attempt to convince the NRC to investigate problems. However, now I understand that we just need to provide them with a dictionary to expand their vocabulary. You are our hero – thanks Dave.

  • “It’s hard for a man (NRC) to understand something (fallibility of nuclear fission) when his (the NRC umpire’s) salary, depends on him not understanding it (Safe!!!) – Upton Sinclair

    Excellent play-by-play Mr. Lochbaum. Thank you

  • Richard Solomon

    Thanks for ‘turning up the heat’ on the NRC in recent weeks.

    Now we all have to follow up with emails, etc to our Senators and Reps in Congress after the election is over so they know that ‘the public’ out there is concerned about and expecting them to take action over the NRC’s laxity in enforcing its own rules and regulations. If we don’t do this, our elected officials will continue to believe the NRC’s assurances that everything is ‘safe’ out there on the field.

    I will be awaiting word as to how your testimony regarding San Onofre goes. GOOD LUCK and KEEP UP THE GREAT WORK, Dave!!