UCS’s Standard for Nuclear Power Safety

December 23, 2014
Dave Lochbaum

Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit #45

Past as Prologue

Bob Pollard joined the Union of Concerned Scientists in early 1976 and served as the organization’s primary voice on nuclear power plant safety for nearly 20 years before retiring in January 1996. I joined UCS in the fall of 1996 to take over Bob’s role. My task was made easier by my also taking over Bob’s files. He left behind a legacy of steadfast commitment to nuclear safety—he also left behind five four-drawer file cabinets of the paper trails covered by UCS’s efforts spanning two decades. I tried to set aside about an hour each workday morning to re-trace those many steps. It took me nearly a year and a half to complete the review, but that time investment produced many dividends over the ensuing years.

The records chronicled hundreds of cases where UCS engaged the NRC over nuclear safety issues. Sometimes, UCS contended that existing safety regulations did not provide adequate protection of the public and sought to have the NRC raise the safety bar. For example, UCS petitioned the NRC in November 1977 to take steps to reduce the vulnerability of electrical cables to damage caused by environmental conditions during an accident (e.g., radiation levels, high temperatures, and elevated humidity). The petition also sought to better protect electrical cables from being damaged during a fire.

But far more often, UCS was not seeking to compel the NRC to raise the safety bar—UCS merely sought to have the NRC enforce its regulations and stop plant owners from doing the limbo beneath that bar. For example, we seek to have the NRC enforce the fire protection regulations it adopted in 1981—in large part due to our 1977 petition—that nearly four dozen reactors operating today have never, ever met.

Vermont Yankee Precedent

One of the documents in Bob’s voluminous files was the decision dated July 31, 1973, by the three judges on the Atomic Safety and Licensing Appeal Board (ALAB) in a proceeding involving Vermont Yankee. The New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution (NECNP) had intervened against the continued operation of the reactor. The Atomic Safety Licensing Board (ASLB) ruled that NECNP had raised five valid contentions, but that the reactor could continue operating as the dispute was litigated. All parties in the proceeding appealed the ASLB ruling—one side arguing that the contentions were invalid and should not be allowed and the other side arguing that Vermont Yankee could not safely operate in the interim.

The “Right” Height of the Nuclear Safety Bar

The ASLAP rendered its decisions on the points argued by the parties. In two eloquently crafted paragraphs, the ALAB articulated the best answer to “how safe is safe enough?” I’ve ever found. They wrote:

N45 Figure 1

(click to enlarge) (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission ALAB-138)

Thus, a reactor meeting all regulatory requirements cannot be said to be unsafe because safety is defined by compliance.

Likewise, a reactor violating one or more regulatory requirements cannot be said to be safe nonetheless.

A reactor can neither be in compliance and unsafe nor out of compliance yet safe.

Regulatory requirements comprise the NRC’s federal safety regulations as well as the terms and conditions specified in the licenses issued by the NRC to plant owners for operation of their reactors. The NRC issues and revises regulations and operating licenses through public proceedings. These public proceedings, like the one that culminated in the ALAB decision about Vermont Yankee, provide opportunities for the public to contend that a proposed requirement is not enough and for plant owners to counter that it is too much. After properly considering all these viewpoints, the NRC’s final regulation or license answers the “how safe is safe enough?” question as the ALAB described.

Regulatory Contracts

UCS views regulatory requirements as essentially three-way contracts between the NRC, plant owners, and the public. The contracts protect plant owners from the unnecessary costs from the NRC imposing more stringent requirements than those espoused in the regulations and licenses. Likewise, the contracts protect the public from the NRC accepting less protection than that established by the regulations and licenses.

When the NRC feels that additional requirements are necessary to adequately protect the public or feels that existing requirements are overly burdensome for plant owners, it should revise the contract. In other words, it should formerly revise its regulations or amend the operating licenses. The NRC’s formal licensing proceedings afford all parties the opportunity to challenge potential revisions that might cause public safety or financial harm and yield the right answer to the “how safe is safe enough?” question.

Bottom Line

UCS does not apply arbitrary and capricious standards to define what nuclear power plant safety means to us. Instead, we apply the level of safety established by the NRC in its regulatory requirements.

When we feel the regulatory requirements are not enough, we submit petitions for rulemaking to the NRC seeking to initiate the public process to add new requirements or revise existing ones.

When we feel the regulatory requirements are being violated, we labor to get the NRC simply enforce them.

The only thing worse than having the wrong answers to the “how safe is safe enough?” question is to have the right answers but accept the wrong ones.

The NRC is accepting the wrong answers at many reactors including Oconee (fire and flooding protection violations), Diablo Canyon (fire and earthquake protection violations), and Browns Ferry (fire protection violations).

It’s a recipe for nuclear disaster.


The UCS Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit (NEAT) is a series of post intended to help citizens understand nuclear technology and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s processes for overseeing nuclear plant safety.