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US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s ‘enforcement’ is as fierce as the comfy chair via The Ecologist

By Linda Pentz Gunter

The NRC routinely fails to enforce its own safety codes at nuclear power plants, writes Linda Pentz Gunter – putting all of us at risk from accidents. It’s the US’s most extreme example of regulatory capture, rivalling Japan’s ‘nuclear village’ of crony agencies and feeble regulation that led to the Fukushima disaster. How long can it be before the US experiences another nuclear catastrophe?

The US still has 30 operating reactors of the same General Electric design that exploded at Fukushima. Yet the NRC has decided not to require a significant safety retrofit that it had ordered in 2013, and that would have reduced the radioactive consequences of a major accident at one of these dangerously flawed reactors.

Or rather, the NRC will require it, but only after the reactor closes. The Oyster Creek nuclear generating station in New Jersey, which happens also to be the world’s prototype for the Fukushima reactors, is scheduled to close on December 31, 2019.

The NRC agreed to owner Exelon’s request for an extension to comply with the installation of a reliable severe accident-capable hardened vent. Exelon’s new deadline? January 2020, just after the reactor will be permanently shuttered.

Similarly, the Entergy-owned Pilgrim nuclear plant near Plymouth, MA, also a GE Fukushima design, and which has announced a June 1, 2019 shutdown date, has requested and extension to comply with the vent order until December 31, 2019.

It’s tempting be cynical and assume that by agreeing to extend such deadlines, the NRC is hoping owners will change their minds and keep their reactors open. After all, shutdowns are bad for business, and the NRC is very much in league with the interests of its industry friends.

Nothing illustrated this better than the NRC’s decision to provide a 20-year license extension to the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant – another Fukushima clone – ten days into the 11th March 2011 Japan nuclear disaster. Luckily, the owners closed the financially hemorrhaging plant at the end of 2014.

The nuclear industry has consistently challenged the NRC’s safety compliance orders to avoid the expense, putting profit well ahead of safety. The NRC has consistently and obligingly capitulated, even when the risk itself is identified as a top priority.

Fetch the comfy chair! The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is in town to enforce its own safety regulations at your local nuclear power plant. Reactor owners have been duly warned. Comply or else …

Or else what? Three more last chances? No, unlike Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition, the NRC isn’t bothering to read the charges. It’s handing out immunity.

The US still has 30 operating reactors of the same General Electric design that exploded at Fukushima. Yet the NRC has decided not to require a significant safety retrofit that it had ordered in 2013, and that would have reduced the radioactive consequences of a major accident at one of these dangerously flawed reactors.

Or rather, the NRC will require it, but only after the reactor closes. The Oyster Creek nuclear generating station in New Jersey, which happens also to be the world’s prototype for the Fukushima reactors, is scheduled to close on December 31, 2019.

The NRC agreed to owner Exelon’s request for an extension to comply with the installation of a reliable severe accident-capable hardened vent. Exelon’s new deadline? January 2020, just after the reactor will be permanently shuttered.

Similarly, the Entergy-owned Pilgrim nuclear plant near Plymouth, MA, also a GE Fukushima design, and which has announced a June 1, 2019 shutdown date, has requested and extension to comply with the vent order until December 31, 2019.

It’s tempting be cynical and assume that by agreeing to extend such deadlines, the NRC is hoping owners will change their minds and keep their reactors open. After all, shutdowns are bad for business, and the NRC is very much in league with the interests of its industry friends.

Nothing illustrated this better than the NRC’s decision to provide a 20-year license extension to the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant – another Fukushima clone – ten days into the 11th March 2011 Japan nuclear disaster. Luckily, the owners closed the financially hemorrhaging plant at the end of 2014.

The consistent pattern: industry cost cuts before public safety
Beleaguered by an economic nosedive, the nuclear industry has consistently challenged the NRC’s safety compliance orders to avoid the expense, putting profit well ahead of safety. The NRC has consistently and obligingly capitulated, even when the risk itself is identified as a top priority.

For example, the agency allowed the nuclear industry to remove fire barriers that were found to be combustible from around safe shutdown electrical cables at reactor buildings, and in some cases replace them with … nothing! In the absence of replacement barriers that actually function, workers are expected to patrol vulnerable fire zones (and presumably shout ‘Fire!’) This, despite the fact that the NRC rates fire as the most likely cause of a meltdown.
[…]
Genius – let the nuclear industry self-report its own violations!
The list goes on. At the Exelon-owned Braidwood, IL nuclear power plant, starting in 1996, millions of gallons of water contaminated with tritium (radioactive hydrogen) leaked from the plant for 10 years while Exelon covered it up.

The tritiated water spilled onto roadways and into ditches, contaminating nearby agricultural fields, ponds and the drinking water wells of surrounding homeowners. Two on-site NRC inspectors supposedly failed to notice the lake of radioactive water flooding on and off the site.

The NRC’s solution was to allow the industry to self-report future leaks through an unenforceable voluntary honor system; a guarantee for further cover-ups. This despite revelations including in a report by my organization Beyond Nuclear – Leak First, Fix Later, and by the Associated Press that radioactive leaks were likely occurring at almost every nuclear plant in the country.

At the Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Ohio, the NRC chose to risk losing Toledo and the Great Lakes after years of saving owner FirstEnergy the trouble and expense of finding and fixing a growing and eventually gaping corrosion hole in the reactor vessel head. Just three-sixteenths of an inch of a bulging stainless steel inner liner was all that remained on the six-inch thick reactor pressure vessel lid – and all that prevented a likely meltdown.
[…]

All this should have changed in 1974 when the Energy Reorganization Act divided the then Atomic Energy Commission into two new agencies – the NRC and what would become the Department of Energy. This was done to create a dividing line between nuclear regulation and promotion, with the NRC assuming the former role.

But the umbilical cord never got cut. The NRC didn’t just climb straight back into bed with the nuclear industry. It crawled back into the womb, as former NRC commissioner and now critic, Peter Bradford, told the New York Times: “The NRC inherited the regulatory staff and adopted the rules and regulations of the AEC intact.”

Meanwhile, since the agency’s inception, many outgoing NRC Commissioners have sailed away in golden parachutes straight into plum nuclear industry jobs.
[…]

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