AP: US nuclear power plant safety isn't being tightly regulated

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As you may have noticed, I'm not against nuclear power. I'm not aggressively pro-nuclear power, either. It's just that I recognize that energy is complicated and I think that the very real risks of nuclear power have to be considered in tandem with the risks of other energy sources, and the risks of not having enough energy. From that perspective, we can't just immediately shut down all the nuclear power we currently have, and nuclear power still does some things that no other energy source can currently do—namely, provide a reliable, low-carbon, high-capacity factor source of electricity that can be located anywhere and doesn't vary its output with the seasons, the time of day, or the weather. That doesn't mean we must use nuclear. And it definitely doesn't mean we should go all nuclear. But it does mean that we have to make our choices about nuclear as part of a bigger picture.

Of course, all of this comes with a big caveat. From my perspective, the benefits of nuclear power can outweigh the risks, as long as there's competent safety regulation in place that's being monitored by somebody independent of the people who are being regulated. There's two things you should have learned from the ongoing flood watch at Nebraska's Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant. First, regulation protects us. If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hadn't done its job here, the Fort Calhoun plant would not have been prepared for floods of the level that it has experienced this summer. Second, the nuclear industry can't be relied upon to make the necessary safety upgrades on its own, without outside prodding. It's not that they're evil. Nobody sits around cackling about the prospect of a radiation leak. It's just that businesses, like people, don't always behave in a logical way. Sure, logic says that it's worth it to upgrade your flood protection system because, if it fails, the outcome would be a lot worse for you and cost you a lot more money. But there are other pressures the owners of Fort Calhoun were dealing with, and they chose not to make those upgrades until the NRC essentially forced them to do it.

That's why I think you absolutely need to read the 4-part Associated Press series on nuclear industry regulation, written by AP reporter Jeff Donn. It will make you angry. It made me angry. Donn presents an effective case showing that the NRC does not always act as independently as it needs to, and that it has frequently made choices that favor the needs of industry over the needs of the public. That's bad. So far, nothing that's happened has been particularly dangerous for the public. But the more you let small problems slide, the faster you find yourself facing a larger problem.

At the heart of Donn's series is a serious set of issues that every American needs to consider: Our electric demand is too high to simply shut off nuclear power plants and not replace them. Public opinion won't allow for old nuclear plants to be replaced by new, safer ones. Other replacement options (namely, coal, our other widely available source of base load electricity) aren't particularly popular, either, for good reasons. And so social and economic pressures have given the nuclear industry an incentive to keep aging power plants online decades longer than their original licenses envisioned. There is not an easy ultimate answer to this problem. At least, not one that can be implemented quickly. But while we work to add more renewables and (most importantly) more storage to the electric grid, we need to know that regulators are watching our backs. From what Donn has written, that doesn't seem to be the case.

I can't excerpt anything from Donn's stories here, because the Associated Press is notoriously ridiculous about preventing people from sharing the fine work it does do. (Even finding a full set of links to all the parts of Donn's feature was frustratingly complicated. AP: When you publish a series as important as this, it needs to be easily accessible on your website.) Frankly, if your local newspaper didn't run this series (or didn't run it in its entirety) or if you don't read the paper, there's a good chance you missed this entire report when it first came out around the end of June and first week of July. But you do need to read this report. And you can, at the links below:

Part 1—AP IMPACT: US Nuke Regulators Weaken Safety Rules

Part 2—AP IMPACT: Tritium Leaks Found at Many Nuke Sites

Part 3—AP IMPACT: Populations Around US Nuke Plants Soar

Part 4—AP IMPACT: NRC and Industry Rewrite Nuke History

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  1. “Can be located anywhere”? Good luck building one away from a fresh water source. Each reactor uses 35-65 million liters of uninterrupted fresh water per day.

      1. “The largest nuclear generation facility in the United States is also the only nuclear generating facility in the world that is not situated adjacent to a large body of above-ground water.”

        i don’t know that hooking a plant to a metro area’s wastewater system is a practical solution for built-up areas. phoenix was growing at an incredible pace when they planned & built that system. it was installed along with the pipes to support it.

        1. Oh cooling a nuclear power facility with wastewater is almost certainly a horrible idea, hapa. Sure, there was plenty of empty land out there, but all the water that comes out of the wastewater system has come from somewhere, possibly quite far away, in an area where water is scarce and water rights are a major factor in almost everything. The losses from leaks, evaporation, etc by the time the water gets from where it started to where it enters the reactor cooling systems could probably support an entire additional nuclear power facility of the same size — if they were both located near the source of the water.

  2. “At the heart of Donn’s series is a serious set of issues that every American needs to consider: Our electric demand is too high to simply shut off nuclear power plants and not replace them. Public opinion won’t allow for old nuclear plants to be replaced by new, safer ones. Other replacement options (namely, coal, our other widely available source of base load electricity) aren’t particularly popular, either, for good reasons. And so social and economic pressures have given the nuclear industry an incentive to keep aging power plants online decades longer than their original licenses envisioned.”

    I’m so glad people are beginning to recognize this on a larger scale. The issue requires innovation and science, but it will never get it with people treating energy with the same zeal as abortion or the death penalty. That includes innovations in solar, wind, or even a yet to be implemented energy source.

  3. Read it on Google News without the Yahoo ad garbage:
    Link
    Link
    Link
    Link

    When looking for an AP story, I search it in Google News and find the link sourced as “The Associated Press.” Because they don’t want to hurt their members’ newspapers, The AP (a cooperative of news orgs) doesn’t host their own stories. But, partially to avoid AP’s lawyers, Google News themselves became a member and hosts pretty much any AP story ad infinitum.

  4. In before “but market forces will ensure we get exactly as much safety as we are willing to pay for”.

  5. It’s not that they’re evil. Nobody sits around cackling about the prospect of a radiation leak. It’s just that businesses, like people, don’t always behave in a logical way.

    Let’s talk about this bit.

    I don’t know about times past, but in the modern world, the very definition of evil has to be refusing to take responsibility for the consequences of your actions. There are actual evil people, but you’re right, they don’t wake up wondering “How can I be especially evil today?” They just don’t wonder how their actions affect other people.

    Nuclear power is a perfect example of a technology where the benefits apply to one set of people (in the case of Ft. Calhoun, a public utility and its customers), but the costs are largely externalized. If there’s a release of radioactive material from Ft. Calhoun, which drifts a few miles downwind to my house, I can’t sue for damages. Well, I can sue, but I can’t collect, because there’s a federal law that limits the liability of the utility. If the damages exceed the liability cap, well, too bad for me and my neighbors. (And by the way, without this massive government intervention nuclear power could not exist, because no one would insure it.)

    If I build a meth lab that threatens to destroy my neighbors’ homes, no one would dispute that I’m both evil and a criminal. If I build a nuclear plant that threatens to destroy my neighbors’ homes, over a much wider area, and render their land permanently uninhabitable, inexplicably I’m not a criminal. But I’m still evil. There are risks that are simply wrong to take.

    1. I think you nailed it.

      Evil:lack of empathy.

      Or, inability to recognize the interconnectedness of beings, thoughts, feelings, ecosystems, and every living thing.

      After all, if you’re isolated, you’ll be liable to do any ol’ darn thing (including murder), thinking you’ll get away with it.

      The empathy part is what that fella Jesus was talking about, and the do unto others bit. (The Golden Rule). It’s opposite, is called evil.

  6. The US nuclear industry has completely captured its regulators, and is about to end. Recent developments in the Thorium nuclear reactor design mean that a new generation of safe nuclear reactors powered by inexpensive Thorium will be available. So, all these nuclear plants will be entirely obsolete.

  7. , and nuclear power still does some things that no other energy source can currently do—namely, provide a reliable, low-carbon, high-capacity factor source of electricity that can be located anywhere and doesn’t vary its output with the seasons, the time of day, or the weather.

    Most of France’s reactors are shut down for lack of river flow this year. That’s a LOT of physical capital going idle because of the weather.

  8. I think it’s also very important to keep America’s nuclear infrastructure up-to-date technologically. When we have strong anti-nuclear pushes we lose investment in nuclear research and capital. This creates situations where money is not being spent to research and implement new nuclear safety technologies that produce less bi-products. Also, after the Japan incident we’re starting to focus more closely on our own nuclear infrastructure, something which is probably MUCH better regulated than other power sources, but is also far more risky. While obviously biased (as a lot/all of policy focused non-fiction is), I think Power To Save The World gives an interesting insight into the risk calculation, regulation, and maintainable side of nuclear power.

    1. When we have strong anti-nuclear pushes we lose investment in nuclear research and capital.

      How do you explain away the lack of maintenance and regulation in every other industry?

  9. This is a thoughtful, well-written post, and if newspaper reporters wrote this well about energy, politics, and science issues we’d live in a much better country. Also, kudos for comment #2, that’s my first complaint as well.

    My one minor complaint is with “Sure, logic says that it’s worth it to upgrade your flood protection system because, if it fails, the outcome would be a lot worse for you and cost you a lot more money.” Logic is a tool for achieving goals, it doesn’t tell you what goals to achieve. Reason and logic help us maximize expected goal achievement. For a business, that means maximizing returns. Safety is important only insofar as not investing in safety lowers expected returns. Regulation is necessary because society’s goals can and ought to overrule the much narrower goals of the power company.

  10. Once again, BB groupthink puts the cart before the horse.

    The government will throw the case out in the event that you sue a nuclear plant for radiation exposure. They do so regularly. If the government is protecting you in the event you foul up, how much would you care about safety? Of course, there is the corporate groupthink and profit maximization at work, but it’s silly to pretend that the government isn’t part of the problem here too.

  11. We have a fascinating battle going on in the state of VT with the local nuclear facility. When Vermont Yankee (VY) plant was sold to Entergy, the current parent company, they made an agreement to put re-licensing up to the state’s independent Public Service Board in addition the the usual NRC sign-off. The state then changed it so that the legislature had to agree to re-licensing as well.

    Over the past few years, Entergy has shown to be fairly incompetent in management and safety by discounting tritium leaks, lying to state legislatures about underground pipes carrying nuclear material, and then running advertisements from large local employers threatening to leave the state if the cost of power increases. That, plus the general anti-nuke sentiments in the state led to the legislature withholding the license.

    At the same time, the anti-nuclear crowd is out in full force, with Greenpeace bringing in out-of-staters to demonstrate and conservation groups pressuring local public service companies not to sign long-term agreements with VY. Since most of the power in the Northeast is provided by nuclear, the largest providers signed agreements to buy power from other nuclear plants instead (which did nothing to placate the conservation groups). Then again, some conservation groups also have opposed wind power and water power, so I’m not sure exactly how they feel we’re supposed to power the state. Nobody’s been talking about building a new plant to phase out the old one, even though VY was designed to accommodate another reactor. They’re either for shutting it down immediately or for relicensing for another 30 years.

    Lost in this is the fact that the NRC granted a license to Entergy to continue running the plant for the next 30 years without addressing some of the recurring safety issues that occur at the plant. And if the rumors are true, the NRC’s been lobbying the DOJ to side with Entergy in their lawsuit against the state of VT to get out of the re-licensing agreement.

  12. A simple way to get the level of safety we all want: Remove limited liability and demand insurance be in place. Of course this needs to come with the condition that power prices are not regulated.

    Expecting private companies to take on the job of producing power, then demanding it be cheap doesn’t work. And having the government produce power and expecting taxes not to subsidies it doesn’t work either.

    At least when a private company is running something they can be sued by both the citizens and the state, when the state runs something the citizens end up suing the state funded by their own taxes.


  13. A simple way to get the level of safety we all want: Remove limited liability and demand insurance be in place. Of course this needs to come with the condition that power prices are not regulated.

    Nobody will insure a nuclear plant without a liability cap.

  14. Just deregulate the industry, and the market will make sure that sufficient safety measures are taken. Look how well it worked in the financial sector.

  15. source of electricity that can be located anywhere

    I can hardly think of a worse source of electricity with regards to location than a nuclear plant.

    Not good close to:
    fault lines
    populated areas (do you live close to a nuclear plant, Maggie?)
    coastal areas
    flood or fire prone sites
    countries with poor and/or weak regulation
    anywhere mining and storage of nuclear waste and products hasn’t found a long term solution

    1. Poor wording on my part. When I wrote that, I was thinking about the comparison between nuclear power and hydroelectric dams, which are far more picky about where you can put them. The United States has pretty much used all of our available sites for hydroelectric dams. There are a lot more places where we could build a nuclear power plant.

      Like I say, poor wording. Thanks for pointing that out.

  16. It’s important to remember that when discussing Nuclear power most people refer to Uranium power plants. To produce electricity, a Thorium reactor is a cheaper alternative-Throium is far more abundant and cheaper that Uranium and a Thorium reactor is not subject to run away meltdowns. But the unspoken truth is for the last 60 years Uranium reactors were favored because they produce material for bombs despite the economic rational for Thorium cycle reactors.

  17. I read all the articles. To be more accurate, you should remove the word ‘tightly’ from the headline.

  18. Meanwhile, “The nuclear-power industry voiced concerns Wednesday about new regulatory proposals that could require significant upgrades without taking their costs into account…. The panel also proposed essentially setting aside a 1988 rule that has protected the nuclear-power industry against costly upgrades.”

    Source: WSJ (assuming you don’t hit the paywall)

  19. I haven’t read the links yet, Maggie, but thank you for writing intelligently about nuclear power.

  20. Expecting private companies to take on the job of producing power, then demanding it be cheap doesn’t work.

    Whatever happened to “too cheap to meter?”

    Not good close to:
    fault lines

    Tell that to Diablo Canyon. (Presumably, no one else thought to do so)

  21. I am a nuclear engineer and I am not worried. The nuclear industry is an extremely safety conscious world and people take a lot of pride in it. Anybody that has worked in a fossil fuels plant and switched to nuclear will tell you how much more relaxed they are. Its ridiculous to think some of these things would not happen to plants that are so old. That is why we should actually quit being such ignorant wimps build new plants that have far superior designs and phase out the old aging ones! Nuclear is far safer and cleaner any day of the week compared to alternative methods even if there are set backs.

    Also, all of this talk about thorium cycles is crap. It will not happen for 50 years.

  22. I think Douglas Adams, the late author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, had it covered:
    “The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at and repair.”

  23. Wow, a great discussion for what was a great story. Well written piece, however the picture that was used was of a hyperbolic cooling tower at a coal fired power plant. Using municipal waste water as a cooling medium is actualy a really good idea as once It enters the power plant it must be further cleaned before it can be used as process water. Yes the water “has to come from somewhere” but considering that it is already “used” water, it is an effective use of what is already a waste product. It’s not like Phoenix residents have to flush their toilets an extra 50 times a day just to feed Palo with enough water to operate. The real waste here is that people living in a desert are trying to grow lawns and wash cars. The irony is the water that is discharged from a modern sewage treatment plant is still very dirty. I wouldn’t even use it to water my lawn. However once it passes though the various treatment processes of a modern power plant it is considered potable (fit for human consumption).

  24. Safety upgrades are implemented only when mandated because they cost money that cuts into the business profits. Cut the middle man and nationalize. Remove the profit motive and safety becomes affordable.

  25. Don’t worry, there well never be safety in anything, so long as nobody cares to understand what they are talking about in the first place.

    What is public safety? Isn’t that about protecting peoples lives and livelihoods? If so, why is there so much criticism about the tsunami protection of Fukushima Daiichi, but none at all about that of Minamisoma, Soma, Rikuzentakata and all the other cities where thousands of people died when they were wiped off the map?

    Why is nobody talking about the horrible safety standards of Fukushima Daiichi? There were 13 emergency generators for 6 nuclear reactors – exactly one of those survived.

    a) When I visited a nuclear powerstation in Germany one reactor had 12 emergency generators in three independent groups of four emergency generators standing far apart. Every single one of those 12 being sufficient to provide enough power in an emergency. And each of the three groups using fundamentally different technologies.

    b) After Three Mile Island in 1979 people realized they would need to vent containments in an emergency and they better make sure not to release radioactive substances. Which is why they installed filters that can scrub 99.99% of Cs-137 and 99% of I-131 out of whatever is being wanted.

    Another lesson was that hydrogen would be released in quantities sufficient to cause explosions. Which is why Germany adopted passive catalytic systems that would start “burning” hydrogen long before the concentration of hydrogen was enough to actually spark a flame or an explosion – and keep it that way. (Hydrogen accumulated in Fukushima for hours before it exploded.)

    Again, none of those systems show up anywhere in Fukushima Daiichi.

    While those measures would have likely been enough to prevent an accident from turning into a disaster, there are lessons to be learned, like:

    It’s not enough to assume that power (off-site or emergency generators) can be restored within 8-12 hours. It’s not enough to have just one battery per plant to provide emergency DC power (at least some were flooded). All emergency cooling systems must be capable of removing decay heat indefinitely and there should be redundant systems to do this.

    And there are probably a lot more. Strangely though, none of the real problems are being discussed.

    Instead there are furious discussions raging on, how come the tsunami protection was only one meter (three feet) higher than the highest tsunami on record … when the actual tsunami was some 6-8 meters higher than the highest on record (18-24 feet).

    I guess it’s because everybody thinks they can understand a tsunami and nobody thinks it’s even worth trying to understand what’s going on in a nuclear power plant.

  26. *that can scrub 99.99% of Cs-137 and 99% of I-131 out of whatever is being wanted.

    Of course I meant to write:

    that can scrub 99.99% of Cs-137 and 99% of I-131 out of whatever is being vented.

  27. How many meltdowns would it take to destroy most of the US? And nuclear power plants can’t be made safe because that costs money and the evil capitalists who control the regulatory agencies, much of congress and Republican presidents don’t want to spend that money.

    In 1996, in one of the most aggressive enforcement moves in the agency’s history, the NRC launched an investigation into design flaws at a host of reactors and handed out significant fines. When the industry complained to Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, a powerful nuclear ally, he confronted the head of the NRC in his office and threatened to cut its funding by a third unless the agency backed off. “So the NRC folded their tent and went away,” says Lochbaum. “And they’ve been away pretty much ever since.” America’s Nuclear Nightmare

    The Republicans in congress right now want to stop regulation…of almost everything. So…what’s the solution as long as money and power control our nation? Revolution?

  28. I’ve seen at least a few people talking about safety issues with nuclear power plants, but acting like they are somehow unique to nuclear power, so I thought I’d at least remind people that coal-based power plants cause 30,000-60,000 premature deaths per year (at least according to the Clean Air Task Force, the best figure I could find in a quick google search).

    According the the World Health Organization, Chernobyl will ultimately cause only 4,000 deaths, and even a study disagreeing with this funded by European progressives said it would be 30,000-60,000 total (from Wikipedia). This means that we would have to have a disaster on the level of Chernobyl every single year just to match the damage done by coal power plants (and if you trust the WHO, one every 2 months).

    I strongly agree with this post about the importance of regulation, and I’m not saying anything about the other arguments over nuclear, but it just frustrates me to see unequal standards being applied.

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