The Saturday Night Live Approach to Nuclear Safety: More Cowbell!

, former director, Nuclear Safety Project | September 15, 2015, 6:00 am EDT
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Fission Stories #197

The April 8, 2000, Saturday Night Live broadcast featured a skit with cast members pretending to be the rock group Blue Oyster Cult in the recording studio with a famous music producer, played by actor Christopher Walken. The skit is remembered for Walken’s character stating “I gotta have more cowbell.”

The NRC’s Reactor Oversight Process (ROP) needs more cowbell, too.

The Fort Calhoun nuclear plant shut down in April 2011 for a refueling outage. The outage was planned to last a handful of weeks while workers replaced spent fuel assemblies with new assemblies and performed routine maintenance and testing activities. The plan went awry when the ROP identified safety problems that needed to be corrected before the reactor could be restarted.

The operators restarted Fort Calhoun in December 2013 after a short refueling outage morphed into a 32-month safety restoration outage. On March 30, 2015, the NRC announced that it was returning Fort Calhoun to normal handling under the ROP. The NRC also reported expending over 60,000 hours since December 2011 on inspection, assessment and licensing tasks at Fort Calhoun.

60,000 hours is a number without context. To help put this value in context, the NRC reported having expended 6,652 hours, 6,612 hours, and 6,782 hours of total oversight effort at the average nuclear plant in 2011, 2012, and 2013, respectively. So the average nuclear plant received an average of 6,682 hours of oversight from the NRC annually.

Between 2012 and 2014, Fort Calhoun received an average of 18,462 hours of oversight effort each year from the NRC.

Thus, Fort Calhoun received the equivalent of 2.76 nuclear plants’ worth of regulatory oversight attention from the NRC between 2012 and 2014.

Too Little Much, Too Late

Figure 1 shows where the NRC placed Fort Calhoun within the ROP’s Action Matrix each quarter from the inception in the fourth quarter of 2000 until late 2014.

Fig. 1 (click to enlarge) (Source: UCS)

Fig. 1 (click to enlarge) (Source: UCS)

When performance fell within expected ranges, Fort Calhoun went into Column 1. When performance levels dropped, Fort Calhoun moved into Column 2, Column 3, Column 4, and Column 5 (Column 5 marking when the NRC placed Fort Calhoun under its Manual Chapter 0350 process for especially troubled reactors.)

On two occasions (3rd quarter 2007 and 2nd quarter 2008), the NRC returned Fort Calhoun to Column 2 from Column 3 after determining that safety performance had improved sufficiently.  In the 3rd quarter 2008, the NRC returned Fort Calhoun to Column 1 and routine oversight activities.

What’s wrong with this picture?

As UCS documented in  No More Fukushimas; No More Fort Calhouns fact sheet, many of the safety problems had existed at the Fort Calhoun plant since 1996. Several dated back to the original construction of the plant in the late1960s and early 1970s. In other words, both the NRC’s baseline inspections (those applied to Fort Calhoun when it resided in Column 1) and its supplemental inspections (those applied when the plant was in Columns 2 and 3) failed to detect ALL of these safety problems.

The problems that kept Fort Calhoun shut down for 32 months were not introduced in 2009 and 2010 after the NRC returned Fort Calhoun to Column 1—they existed all along. Yet the NRC’s ROP missed them all. The ROP missed every single one of them, until after the first quarter of 2011. After that time, finding safety problems was like shooting fish in a barrel—NRC inspectors could hardly turn around without finding yet another safety problem that had to be fixed prior to restart.

So how could more cowbell improve nuclear plant safety?

Rather than expending so much time and effort ensuring that the barn door has been closed, safety would be better served by noticing that it’s open sooner. Cowbells should have sounded long before the first quarter of 2011.

UCS’s fact sheet documented many safety problems that existed at Fort Calhoun for years before the ROP’s inception in 2000. Two of the safety problems involved the emergency diesel generators (EDGs).

EDGs are among the most safety significant components at the plant. Consequently, they receive considerable oversight attention by the NRC. Yet that attention failed to identify either of these two problems that had existed since at least 1990.

And it was not just one miss or even two misses by one NRC inspector—it was a lot of misses by a lot of NRC inspectors over a lot of years. A search of ADAMS, the NRC’s online digital library, identified 39 inspections conducted at Fort Calhoun by the NRC between 2000 and 2010 inclusive that included some oversight of the EDGs.

Something is fundamentally wrong with safety inspections of highly safety significant components that fail to notice safety problems. Finding safety problems isn’t one of the reasons for conducting the safety inspections—it’s the only reason for doing them.

And yet many safety problems remained undetected until 2011 when it took an army of workers more than two years to correct them all.

Our Takeaway

Fort Calhoun is not an isolated case. It marked the 52nd time that a U.S. reactor had to remain shut down longer than a year while safety problems were corrected. The majority of these year-plus outages involved a myriad of safety problems that had existed for months and sometimes years before being noticed.

Consider how safe Fort Calhoun really was on April 10, 2011, or during the preceding years when it operated despite a large and growing number of undetected, uncorrected safety problems. The NRC placed Fort Calhoun in Columns 1, 2, and 3 of the ROP’s Action Matrix. In reality, the presence of the same safety problems that put Fort Calhoun into Column 5 in the third quarter of 2011 should have had it there in the fourth quarter of 2000. The safety problems were there in 2000—it took the NRC another decade to notice them.

Fig. 2 (Source: UCS)

Fig. 2 (Source: UCS)

Safety and economics both scream out for the NRC to prevent the 53rd time. As more and more pre-existing safety problems accumulate at an operating reactor, the path shortens for an initiating event to lead to nuclear disaster. Put another way, defense-in-depth works better when there are fewer and smaller holes in each protective barrier.

Likewise, finding and fixing problems sooner results in better financial performance. UCS estimated the cost of the 51 year-plus reactor outages before Fort Calhoun to be over $80 billion.

The NRC should construct timelines for each major safety problem corrected during the 2011-2013 outage at Fort Calhoun. The timelines should indicate when the safety problems were introduced and the subsequent NRC inspections that examined the associated system or component. Because the safety problems existed for long durations, many NRC inspection procedures will correlate to each safety problem. The NRC should then evaluate changes to the inspection procedures that increase the likelihood of detecting similar problems in the future. The NRC does not inspect everything; instead, the NRC audits samples. Conducting a Fort Calhoun retrospective would allow the NRC to adjust the number of items selected for each sample or revise the choice of items within the samples or change how it evaluates sample items so as to become more capable at finding safety problems.

The safety problems at Fort Calhoun were not invisible—they were easily found after the 1st quarter of 2011. The NRC must figure out how to make them visible sooner. The NRC must detect safety problems sooner and ring cowbells as the barn doors are opening.

More cowbell = better nuclear safety.


“Fission Stories” is a weekly feature by Dave Lochbaum. For more information on nuclear power safety, see the nuclear safety section of UCS’s website and our interactive map, the Nuclear Power Information Tracker.

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  • Richard Solomon

    This appears to be sound advice for the NRC. Question: how will it be motivated to actually implement better inspection routines in order discover these kinds of problems much sooner rather than later as is the case now? Through its own devices? NOT likely. Where/how can oversight by Congress apply here to get the agency to work more effectively and this protect the public as it should?

    • CaptD

      Richard – As it is now Congress is trying their hardest to further limit what the NRC and/or the EPA can even do enforcement wise, which is completely opposite than the NRC holding the Utilities feet to the ☢ fire…

      2 Recent comment posted, one by me and the second by waddawadda:

      1) Two analogous situations to show how ☢ Science is being “gamed” by our Government/NRC:

      A. Imagine that our Government told us that their studies have shown that more sex is good for everyone because “it causes us no harm” and therefore we no longer have the personal freedom to decide:

      1) How much sex we want

      2) Who we can have sex with

      3) What forms of sex we must accept

      4) When we must start having sex

      B. Everyone knows that a little sunlight (aka Solar radiation) is good for you but too much can cause many health problems including premature aging of the skin and different types of cancer. If the Government increased the amount of sunshine they said was acceptable, it could have negative health affects on many people, and especially those with fair skin.

      With the Government and/or the NRC deciding that they can raise the “acceptable” radiation limits in our food, the air we breathe and everything else, they are treating us no differently than the laboratory test animals whose lives are controlled by the nuclear Industry.

      The ☢ rule of thumb for everyone should be to accept no additional radiation unless you personally need it for some specific purpose, like an X-ray.

      The idea that all of US should accept additional radiation dosage because it allows Big Nuclear to make Big Money is unacceptable!

      Increasing allowable safety limits is nothing but a “gift” to the nuclear industry that allows them to increase the level of radioactivity over that that which is naturally occurring. Any addition ☢ (aka”pollution”) that is man-made (coming from a reactor, weapons, manufacturing or nuclear waste storage) is not naturally occurring and should not be tolerated.

      Changing the legal definition of the word man-made “pollution” does not make it “acceptable”, it just highlights that our Government is now threatening the quality of our health to benefit the Nuclear Industry!


      I would not call nuclear bloggers radiation health experts. What I have seen right here is some of the worst distortions of the health effects of ionizing radiation, just like I have always seen, just repeats of the same canards and erroneous information, like the famous banana nonsense.

      Nuclear PR.

      The classic background radiation errors and ignorance of radionuclides, bioaccumulation, and fast growing cells.

      Although scientists have behaved badly in the past and there are many historical examples, the scientific method remains the most reliable method we have and continues to this day.

      Utlmately, the truth will be found.

      Read John Gofman, Mangano, Caldicott, Alice Stewart, and others for insight.

      Gofman found and proved that patients who didn’t see doctors were healthier and ascribed it to the excessive radiation doses the doctors of the 50s and early years were dealing out to patients.

      He was hired and blacklisted by the AEC after he discovered the negative consequences of radionuclides and nuclear power plant operation.

      The way he saw it, was that it was like trying to keep massive amounts of the most deadly toxic substance from escaping at levels that were tiny.

      The nuclear industry refuses to face this. Thats a legacy back to the days of the AEC that intentionally harmed citizens in the Green Run and got away with it.

      Children and pregnant women used to be exposed to much too high levels of radiation in X rays.

      Alice Stewart was excoriated for suggesting that the dosages were too large. But eventually, her work was accepted and lead to understanding that infant and pregnant woman X rays should be limited.

    • James Fenimore Cooper

      I recently attended an NRC hearing. I asked them if they could please add review and inspection of the fossil fuel power industry to their responsibilities. If they applied the same standards to protect human life, would there be any fossil fuel energy generators left running? With daily accidents of exploding oil platforms, oil tanker trains careening into towns and incinerating many humans, air emissions of soot, smoke and ozone causing millions of deaths and injuries over the years such an agency would be forced to shut down the whole fossil fuel industry.

      But we don’t do that. Too many lobbyists. Too much cash flowing to Congressmen. We pretend like thousands of actual injuries and deaths are not as important as one POSSIBLE DEATH by nuclear power might happen some day.

  • James Fenimore Cooper

    Mr. Lochbaum’s strident war against nuclear power, always couched in a comment like “Oh, I’m not anti nuclear!” Then he goes on to list scary things that could happen right out of his imagination.

    I attended a talk by Lochbaum in San Luis Obispo where he preached to a room full of avid anti nukes attending to hear yet another sermon about their beliefs. Facts, not so much.

    The reason Lochbaum and other prophets of nuclear doom use their imaginations to tell about nuclear injuries or fatalities is because there are so very few actual injuries or fatalities. Chernobyl is their favorite story because people actually died – firemen bravely rushing into the burning reactor’s very core to sacrifice their lives to put out the fire.

    After that that incident, pickings get slim to none. Fukushima caused the anti nuclear faithful’s eyes to light up with joy, at least until they discovered no one died or was even injured by the accident. Undeterred, they moved on to “Ah ha! But the radiation release will kills thousands, maybe (if we’re luck) millions! Take heart anti nukes.

    Then a big, influential skunk came to the Lochbaum and anti nuke lawn party – the United Nation’s scientists who have the annoying habit of sticking to actual facts and going very light on imaginary musings. There you go again, as Ronald Reagan would say.

    UNSCEAR, the UN organization responsible for reporting on nuclear accidents issued reports disclosing that no one had died from the accident, and to make matters worse for the anti nukes, went on to say there would be little or no injury from released radiation. To rub it in, anti nukes imagined, the UN went on to say if there was injury from released radiation “…it would be too small to detect.”

    Who let these guys into our anti nuke party, anyway?

    Well, these guys happen to be the cream of the crop of scientists capable of honestly assessing accidents. They, unlike Lochbaum and the anti nuke crowd have no agenda except to protect the public and tell the whole truth.

    At the San Luis Obispo event, I saw Lochbaum selling a couple cases of his scary books on nuclear power – $25 per copy. The worried crowd, eager to feed their fears, snatched them up fast.

    Forbes had an article showing nuclear power, by actual facts and numbers, has injured or killed far, far fewer people than any form of energy generation – even hydro! (“How Deadly is Your Kilowatt?” 6/10/12).

    The US Navy has 60 years of experience with crew working, eating and sleeping very near highly enriched nuclear reactors without a single injury or fatality. Hows that for safety. An estimated 100,000 crew have rotated duty on up to 100 nuclear powered ships since 1955.

    Admiral Rickover, too, was confronted with anti nukes way back when he started. He listened to their reasons and said, “Baloney – full speed ahead.” The result is the highly successful, safe, efficiently powered Navy we have today.

    America needs a Rickover in charge of our energy decisions today. In fact he did work on civilian atomic power for a while. But it was late in his career and political resistance, so annoying to Rickover, sprung up to stop this progress.

    If he or someone had succeeded at that time – the 50’s to the 70’s – we would have little or none of the climate crisis facing us today. If America went for peaceful atom power surely the whole world would have followed – just as they now follow us in increasing use of earth-killing fossil fuel.

  • The Cow Bell skits will go down in history as well as some of the Debbie downer skits, which, by the way, are appropriate for many of these articles.

    The author is well-versed on nuclear power plant safety inspection protocol but not so much about airline safety inspection protocol. To put nuclear power plant inspections and safety into perspective, we need to compare it to other inspection programs.

    Is Dave aware, as he flies someplace to sell one of his books that the only thing separating him from the barely subsonic blast of fatally cold, rarefied air is a piece of aluminum skin no thicker than the cardboard on a cereal box? Does he know that the wings are filled with a potentially explosive, highly flammable fossil fuel? The heat engines with enough power to propel hundreds of people through the air are some of the most advanced and complex machines ever constructed? At altitude he is receiving more radiation than allowed by nuclear power plant workers? His life depends on proper operation of this machine by a couple of people in the cockpit?

    Does he know how the FAA keeps these flying fatigue test beds from killing people? Well, they don’t. They kill an order of magnitude more people than nuclear energy. But to keep from killing more people, they have mandate inspection programs that are no better or worse than those for nuclear power plants. They are also imperfect but totally adequate to safely keep the most complex machines on Earth flying for decades on end.

    Although there are lots of people who fear flying, just as there are lots of people who fear nuclear power, flying is by far the safest form of transport just as nuclear is the safest form of energy.