The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has had a busy few weeks. Last month, thanks to Freedom of Information Act queries filed by numerous organizations, the Commission was forced to disclose a dossier of emails showing the lengths it had gone to in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima disaster to downplay the risk of a similar catastrophe happening in the US. The correspondence showed a startling lack of preparedness.
In one example, NRC public affairs officer David McIntyre offered his opinion on what Energy Secretary Steven Chu should have done when asked by CNN whether American nuclear plants could withstand a force 9.0 earthquake: “He should just say, ‘Yes, it can.’ Worry about being wrong when it doesn't. Sorry if I sound cynical."
The documents also show a background briefing for then NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko and other commissioners that split intelligence into “public answer" and "additional technical, non-public information." In some cases the NRC withheld crucial details and misdirected the media.
It's been 35 years since an American nuclear plant has malfunctioned. At 4 AM on March 28, 1979, a relief valve failed to close at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, severely damaging the reactor's core. Two days later gas was released from the facility, but only exposed local residents to background doses of radiation. Some are concerned the next accident could be disastrous.
Edwin Lyman, a senior global security scientist with the nuclear watchdog Union of Concerned Scientists, concedes that the NRC's disclosed email exchanges have been taken out of context. Nevertheless, he remains a savage critic of the regulator.
“After Three Mile Island there was an effort to take a more expansive view of nuclear safety. A lot of the recommendations in the wake of the accident were to take a broader view and not be so sure you understood all possible contingencies as well as you thought you did,” he told me. “The NRC at the time ended up not taking that strategy, instead going forward with a piecemeal approach. We're worried that after Fukushima they're still not getting the message and are going to try to patch a few more holes but not take a broader view necessary to really reduce the risk of something like that happening again in our lifetimes.”
One of the NRC's guiltiest shortcomings is its torpid reaction to changing seismic hazards.
When reactors were sited three decades ago, the worst known earthquakes and ground motion in the area were evaluated. Power plants were then built with a safety margin. But in many cases those risks were underestimated. Take the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in California. Commissioned in 1985, the reactor had to be reinforced halfway through construction following the discovery of the nearby Hosgri fault. Now the plant is at the center of controversy once again, following the discovery in 2008 of a shoreline fault just over half a mile off the coast.
In the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the utility company operating the site, Pacific Gas and Electric, asked the NRC to suspend a pending license-renewal request (the NRC grants 40-year licences, which it can choose to extend by 20 years) so that it could carry out a three-year seismic study. The results of this study will determine whether or not the plant pursues its license renewal.
At the same time PG&E halted its license renewal application, the NRC gave Diablo Canyon a clean bill of health after completing a safety evaluation report. It found that PG&E had “identified actions that have been or will be taken to manage the effects of aging in the appropriate safety systems, structures, and components of the plant, and that their functions will be maintained during the period of extended operation.” The findings of PG&E's seismic study are pending, but the utility corporation contests that the Diablo Canyon plant is perched 85 feet above sea level, putting it out of reach of any possible tsunami.
“The NRC has been dragging its feet for a long time on dealing with this,” says Lyman. “It has been locked in a kind of dance with the utility about how to interpret and react to that. It seems like the preferred view these days is to acknowledge there is a higher risk but say that it's still small, then use cost-benefit analysis to decide there is no need to spend on the upgrade.”
Three years ago a 5.8 magnitude earthquake shook Mineral, Virginia, 11 miles from the North Anna Nuclear Station. It was a shock the plant was never built to withstand. Its operator, Dominion, claimed there was no functional damage (despite a small crack) and that spent fuel canisters had shifted no more than four inches during the tremor.
A preliminary NRC review made public in 2011 concluded that North Anna's two reactors are among 27 in need of upgrades because they are at risk of being struck by an earthquake more powerful than they were designed to bear. Nonetheless, two months after the earthquake, the regulator, which approved North Anna's licence renewal in 2003, permitted the plant to go back online.
“Some people look at [the North Anna earthquake] and say, 'The way we build these reactors leaves a lot of extra margin,'" says Lyman. "The problem is that because there hasn't been a full analysis to understand all of the potential impacts, you can't really just extrapolate. What the NRC has done since Fukushima is to ask all of the utilities to re-examine the size of the seismic and flooding risks and that process is ongoing. The problem is, no one really knows how to do that because, to plug into the formulas that the NRC uses to decide whether a reactor is risky enough to impose new regulations, you need a pretty good knowledge of what that risk is, and no one can predict with any certainty what the seismic risk of any site is. It's an exercise in futility."
New York is going head to head with the NRC. State governor Andrew Cuomo is calling for the closure of Indian Point, a 2,000-megavolt site (America's biggest, the Vogtle plant in Georgia, generates 4,536 megavolts) located 30 miles up the Hudson from Yankee Stadium. By way of comparison, Chernobyl has a 18.5-mile exclusion zone, and the Fukushima Daiichi plant's cordon has a 12.5-mile radius. The NRC's current rules prescribe only a 10-mile evacuation zone, regardless of the size of the plant.
Entergy, Indian Point's operator, has said it is confident it will win a pending licence renewal from the NRC. Earlier this month, the Commission rejected a petition to stretch its evacuation zone to 25 miles.
America's nuclear energy infrastructure is creaking. The industry's biggest problem is that it has become uneconomic in the face of the shale gas revolution and subsequent crash in energy prices. This has made it harder for utilities to justify investing in safety when there's less money to be made.
Corporations are scrimping on infrastructure upgrades and applying to an obliging regulator for renewals, kicking the can down the road. There are currently 62 commercially operated nuclear power plants with 100 reactors in 31 states in the US. The NRC, meanwhile, has approved 73 license renewals and only blocked one application… ever. This has left the industry to moulder—the average age of commercial reactors clocks in at 33 years.
To its critics, the NRC is an industry patsy. Its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, was dissolved in 1975 for its impotence. The same mistakes are being repeated. In 1987, a year after the Chernobyl meltdown, a congressional committee published a report rebuking the NRC's cozy relationship with the industry it was tasked to regulate.
Only one of the body's five commissioners is elected away from outside influence, argues Lyman. He says it's an open secret that the rest are pre-approved by the nuclear industry itself before being appointed by Congress. Former chair Gregory Jazcko, backed by senator Harry Reid, was the first presidential appointee to come up against serious opposition from the industry and became a lone gadfly in a biased regulator.
In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Jazcko rejected the development of two new reactors at Georgia's 27-year-old Vogtle plant, the first to be approved by the NRC since 1978, saying that he could not “support issuing this license as if Fukushima never happened.” He was voted down 4–1 and forced out of the organization three months later. Vogtle's new reactors are currently under construction.
His replacement, Allison Macfarlane, has been invested in the same causes. Like Jaczko, she opposed the burial of America's 56,000 (and counting) tons of spent nuclear fuel under Yucca Mountain. She argued against the project, located beneath a ridgeline 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, on the grounds that seismic activity in the area posed too great a risk.
The site had its federal funding pulled in 2009 after meeting resistance from the Obama administration, but last August the court of appeals ordered the NRC to renew its licensing review. By abandoning the assessment in 2011 the NRC had ignored due process, the court ruled.
While the NRC has been ordered to complete the review on a technicality, Yucca Mountain has all but been abandoned. The Obama administration is not willing to underwrite the project, and it's likely too sensitive for any future government to revive. Short of any agreement on alternatives, however, waste continues to be stockpiled on site across the South, Midwest, and Northeast.
In Fukushima, clinicians are discovering increased cases of thyroid cancer in children and young adults. Japanese scientist Toshihide Tsuda has observed a surge among under-18s in the region. Some have questioned the veracity of his and similar findings, arguing that the population is simply being screened more closely than before, meaning higher recorded rates of cancer are inevitable. But if the Environmental Protection Agency's guidelines are anything to go by, no one truly knows the levels of exposure above background radiation that cause stochastic damage such as cancer.
The NRC says it is taking adequate precautions to ensure the public's safety; for the NRC's critics, its historical partisanship means that whatever solution is reached for America's decrepit reactors and growing mountain of nuclear waste is likely to favor the industry.
Lyman, for one, has little faith in future regulation unless something is done to claw influence back from those who stand to gain the most from the sale of nuclear energy. “Do you shut down a plant because it fails to meet new standards," he asks, "or do you adapt the standards?"