By Linda Pentz Gunter
Ralph Nader* the country’s leading consumer advocate, hit the nail on the head last Wednesday when he labeled the United States Federal Aviation Adminstration’s (FAA) hesitance to ground the Boeing 737 Max 8 an example of “tombstone mentality.” Even after two planes of that model crashed under suspicious circumstances that suggest the aircraft’s automated software systems over-rode manual control by pilots, Boeing insisted there was no problem with the design. The FAA, which Nader called a “patsy”, did nothing until insurmountable pressure forced Boeing’s and the aviation agency’s hands and both the Max 8 and Max 9 models were grounded in the U.S.
How eerily familiar this all rings. Substitute “Federal Aviation Administration” for “US Nuclear Regulatory Commission” and the story is the same. The NRC, whose official slogan is, jaw-droppingly, “protecting people and the environment” has excelled for decades at doing exactly the opposite, most notably at the Commission level. Indeed, the commissioners, with the occasional exception whenever someone of conscience slips into a commission chair, have worked scrupulously for decades to put the financial priorities of the nuclear industry ahead of their public safety mandate.
This was never more startlingly obvious than when the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster began to unfold. You would think that the multiple explosions and triple meltdowns of those American reactors — the GE Mark I boiling water design (BWR) — would have been a wake-up call for the NRC. But like Boeing and the FAA, the nuclear industry and the NRC failed to shut down its near identical reactors still operating in the US — at the time of the accident 23 GE Mark I BWRs, and eight Mark IIs, now reduced to 29 with the permanent closures of Vermont Yankee and Oyster Creek.
Even worse, the NRC actually relicensed one of them — Vermont Yankee — to operate another 20 years, just 10 days after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster began. (Vermont Yankee closed in December 2014 due to failed economics.)
Learning nothing from history, the NRC is today poised to extend the operating license for a second time of yet another Fukushima-style US nuclear power plant — Peach Bottom 2 and 3, both GE Mark Is — a decision that would let these outdated, aged and deeply flawed reactors run for a total of 80 years.
It’s worth remembering that GE’s own senior-level engineers testified before Congress in February 1976 that the GE Mark I design was too deeply flawed to operate safely. “The consequences of containment failure are frightening,” they testified. “It is unthinkable that plant operation can be continued on the very tenuous argument that the probability of the accident occurring is low.”
This is undoubtedly to Commissioner Caputo’s liking, whose nuclear industry background (she worked for Exelon) should, one would have thought, have disqualified her from a role regulating that same industry. She already has a track record on subverting safety. Following the Fukushima disaster, Caputo was a senior Congressional advisor who helped the then Republican majority squash the NRC technical staff’s unanimously supported recommendation that the agency order the installation of high-efficiency radiation filters on severe accident-capable hardened containment vents in all U.S. Fukushima-style reactors.
As the agency’s own staff had determined, the retrofit was not only “cost beneficial” but provided “substantial safety benefit.” Adding the external radiation filters in their own separate containment structure could significantly contain the release of harmful radioactive gases generated in a major accident, while allowing control room operators to vent the containment of extreme heat, pressure and non-condensable explosive gases to save it from failure.
The filtered vent fiasco was yet one more example in a list of similarly notorious incidents of regulatory capture, where the NRC has put nuclear industry production and profit margins ahead of “protecting people and the environment.” But, like old dogs and spotted leopards, this collusive behavior continues at the NRC unabated.
On January 24, 2019, a majority of five voting members of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) rolled back more than seven years of the agency’s technical study on the hazards and lessons learned from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear catastrophe. The three Presidentially appointed Republican Commissioners voted against ordering reactor operators to incorporate new science and management strategies to safely contain a severe nuclear accident following extreme earthquakes and flooding.
The Commission vote drastically undercut requirements to industry operators to make safety upgrades at US nuclear power stations that were built decades ago. Instead of requiring operators to upgrade, the Commission reduced the rule to allow industry voluntary self-regulation, effectively stripping the agency of its own enforcement action. Nuclear power stations will now only pay a small fraction of the cost for implementing Fukushima upgrades originally determined as necessary by agency staff and independent nuclear safety experts.