05/17/2011 05:58 pm ET | Updated Jul 17, 2011

Why They Don't -- and Can't -- Get It Right

Well, now we know that not one but three of Japan's Fukushima reactors suffered core meltdowns within hours of the earthquake and tsunami that cut off their diesel-generated backup power.

And the initial round of (inadequate) Nuclear Regulatory Commission safety assessments found enormous levels of risk at U.S. plants -- particularly the backup systems that caused the problems in Japan. While the NRC's summary blandly assured that "all the reactors would be kept safe, even in the event their regular safety systems were affected by these events," the detailed reports by the inspection teams made it clear that these bromides were anything but reassuring. At the Oconee nuclear plant in South Carolina, for example, inspectors found that "The licensee has stated that most fire suppression components may fail" in a quake. How the NRC can then say that Oconee would be kept safe is not clear.

Earlier last week, in a scathing if not surprising report, the New York Times revealed that the NRC is doing an abysmal job of ensuring that the nuclear industry complies with fundamental safety procedures.

The Times found that when NRC inspectors find problems, they allow plant operators to continue to function, levy only modest fines in even the most severe cases of violations and rely on voluntary compliance with safety procedures for the most extreme accidents (such as simultaneous failure at more than one reactor at a site from, say, an earthquake. At the end of the day, the NRC seems incapable of saying "no" to the industry.

David Lochbaum, a former reactor specialist with the NRC, contrasted a near-miss at the Byron Nuclear Power Plant with what happened in Japan by saying, "The only difference between Byron and Fukushima is luck."

This is a sad and familiar story of regulatory capture. But what's really scary is not that the NRC has failed to be the robust, arms-length overseer that we were promised, but another pattern that has emerged from the Times investigation and from other recent news stories.

Here's a list of things that nuclear power plant operators, who you would think might have an incentive to prevent their extremely pricey assets from turning into radioactive junk piles, apparently thought were prudent business practices:

  • Operating Vermont Yankee without having a clear set of blueprints of where the plant's cooling system plumbing actually ran.
  • Leaving the Indian Point reactor with a substandard electric wiring system that will withstand a fire for only half the time the NRC originally required.
  • Ignoring corrosion at the Byron plant that the operator knew had left critical pipes with only 10 percent of their original strength.
  • Delaying a critically needed safety inspection at the Davis-Besse plant near Toledo for almost a year, resulting in reactor failure that almost led to a meltdown.
  • Purchasing cheap fire-proofing materials from an unknown company using an unqualified lab certification even when known and safe products were available from reliable suppliers like 3M -- to save trivial sums of money.
  • Failing to inspect a series of critical valves and pipes at two reactors at the Oconee Plant to see if a gasket blockage that had occurred at the third Oconee Reactor was also a problem with its sister plants. (In this case the NRC insisted on an inspection, and the two other reactors also turned out to be at risk.)
  • Diverting critical emergency backup safety equipment to other routine uses in plant operations, meaning that in a crisis the safety tools needed would not be available to plant operators, because they would be somewhere else in the reactor complex.
  • Maintaining only four hours of battery capacity to guard against the loss of both grid and diesel power in a shutdown -- only half as much as the Japanese plants that melted down had available.

This pattern of obviously foolish risks reflects the behavior of not just one company but of many -- it's simply how the nuclear industry operates.

And the industry clearly doesn't want more effective oversight. In 1998, Senator Pete Domenici threatened to cut the NRC's budget because it was regulating too stringently. The budget cuts didn't occur, but the message was received. Shirley Ann Jackson, then chairwoman of the commission, told her staff that they were to listen to the industry message: "That we are inefficient, that we over-regulate, that we inspect too much, assess too much, enforce too much, take too long on licensing actions and employ an overly restrictive body of regulation." 

Contrast this record with how airlines react when something goes wrong with a plane. Fleets are immediately grounded, inspections are rigorous, regulatory oversight intense, government investigations far-reaching. Yet the number of people put at risk by even a severe aviation accident is a fraction of those whose lives could be destroyed by even a partial nuclear meltdown.

Are the people who run airlines just better people than those who run nuclear power plants? Well, that seems unlikely and, in fact, a number of companies (GE) are part of both industries. But there are a number of obvious differences between the industries. First, airline customers make decisions about whether and which airline to fly with every day -- and they have choices. Communities located near nuclear power plants at best have one choice as to whether to allow the plant to be built, if they can somehow get into the licensing process. But individuals have no option to just say, "Nope, I don't want a nuclear plant in my community." (Although 62 percent of Americans say they would oppose the building of such a plant in their community.  

But very few people move from a community because it is near a nuke, and even fewer stop patronizing their local electricity company because of its power source -- so the nuclear industry doesn't have the customer alienation threat that keeps the airlines on their toes.

Second, airlines produce a valuable and unique product: air travel. Each plane that takes off and lands generates as much as a hundred thousand dollars in revenue. Nuclear power plants, by contrast, boil water to make electricity -- and their competition is other ways to boil water. Boiling water is profitable only if you keep your costs absolutely rock bottom -- after all, a child with a magnifying class can do the same thing, as Amory Lovins famously pointed out. So the nuclear industry is engaged in a very risky set of activities that generate a cheap commodity (steam) that can also be produced in far safer ways.

Third, airlines, mostly, bear their own risks -- they pay for the insurance and liability if a plane crashes and it's their fault. The real liabilities of nuclear power are borne by the government, not the industry.

As a result, the nuclear industry does not put safety first -- its economic incentives don't force it to. In fact, they discourage prudence. The NRC doesn't even expect the industry to be truly safe. The Commission has set a goal -- only one meltdown per 10,000 reactor years. Sounds reassuring? Well, not really. The U.S. now has 104 reactors. If the nuclear revival being advocated by the nuclear industry occurs, and we add another 100 reactors, then we can expect a meltdown every 50 years under the 1 in 10,000 reactor years standard.

Worse, the NRC knows that the actual safety record of the industry is far, far worse than one meltdown/10,000 reactor years. Thomas Cochran of NRDC has estimated that, depending on the class of reactor, the frequency of core meltdown accidents is six to ten times the NRC's stated goal -- numbers suggesting that we can expect a core meltdown in the US every 10 to 20 years.

Implicitly, other countries are recognizing this reality -- that whatever the theoretical safety potential of nuclear technology, as currently constructed and operated in today's electricity markets, nuclear plants are not safe enough. First Germany, and then Japan, abandoned several of the world's more ambitious and technologically sophisticated nuclear expansion plans. Japan, which had not recently been a real leader in the renewables boom, has committed to using renewables in place of its abandoned nukes.

Having lost Germany and Japan, nuclear advocates are now saying, "Well, India and China are going ahead." So far, that's true. But we do not measure the safety of our drinking water by comparing it to Calcutta's, nor would we accept air quality like Beijing's. More importantly, China (and now Japan) are joining Europe in investing in the renewables revolution. Almost certainly those investments mean that, before long, nuclear will no longer be a low-cost option for even Asia's most rapidly growing electricity markets. The U.S. is obviously not going to build many new nuclear plants -- but time is running out for us to jump on the clean-energy bandwagon.