Why the NRC Should Act Now on Post-Fukushima Reforms

Since the Fukushima catastrophe the US nuclear industry has cautioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to move cautiously on new regulations. After all, says the industry’s chief lobbying group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, all the facts aren’t known so how can the NRC be sure that new regulations – such as installing reliable hardened vents in BWRs (like the ones at Fukushima) — will be really necessary? But moving too slowly risks doing nothing at all, as Ed Lyman, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, has repeatedly pointed out. This was particularly true after 9/11 when proposed security-related nuclear regulations were watered down to the point of being rendered ineffective.  As I wrote in an op-ed for the Christian Science Monitor today, the NRC should learn from that experience and act decisively on recommendations for new safety regulations from an NRC post-Fukushima task force. There is a real risk that the agency will again be dragged through years and years of debate over minor details by an industry determined to avoid new regulations at any cost. It’s a tactical maneuver that puts all of us at risk, particularly all of us living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant. So tweet and email about jobs, but don’t forget about nuclear safety!

7 Responses to “Why the NRC Should Act Now on Post-Fukushima Reforms”

  1. Rod Adams  on October 16th, 2011

    Stephanie:

    A more important model that scares the heck out of nuclear professionals is the not yet dim memory of the way that the NRC rushed to “respond” to the Three Mile Island accident without fully understanding the root causes and effective cures. Many prescriptive regulations were written and implemented without sufficient consultation; plants that were under construction had to engage in some major rework for what turned out to be useless changes.

    The agency did not approve a new operating license for nearly 5 years after the event, even though there were dozens of plants under construction at the time. Costs skyrocketed; interest was one reason but so was the effect of rework and idle crews waiting for approval to move forward.

    The damage at Fukushima Daiichi happened after a natural disaster of a scale that has never occurred in the United States. It is exceedingly unlikely that any similar event would happen here; even if there was a tsunami that wiped out the substantially better protected and redundant diesels we have at our nuclear plants, we would not be hamstrung by incompatible 50 and 60 cycle generating systems. We would be able to get power restored quickly enough to prevent significant releases to the public.

    Even if we did not do that, the releases at Fukushima were acceptably low in consequence – even if people have been carefully taught to be more afraid of radiation than almost any other risk.

    Not one person has even been made ill from the released material. The very worst that happened was when two workers waded into a pool of water full of radioactive isotopes without proper protective clothing. Their skin was “reddened.”

    The NRC is led by a man who was a professional antinuclear political campaigner before his appointment. Fortunately, his position is moderated by 4 other commissioners who are actually experienced nuclear professionals who will take a more moderated approach to implementing any available lessons learned.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights

  2. Stephanie Cooke  on October 16th, 2011

    Speaking of models – we now have had two major nuclear catastrophes of the type that were never supposed to occur and which are not included in the design basis of any reactor, built or planned, anywhere in the world. It seems to me the onus on the industry should be to start altering their risk models to incorporate these type of outliers — if anyone knows of such an effort please let me know. I am curious about your statements about the health effects at Fukushima. Have you had access to the most recent health records of the 6 or more plant workers who received well over the (extended) annual limit? Do you know how the 100,000 or so people who were evacuated will fare over the next 60-70 years? How do you know none have been made ill? Do you know what it would be like to be told you could never return to your home, or face an increased risk of cancer if you did? Do you know that your home insurance policy does not protect you from radiation damage of any kind? We have been covering the aftermath of Fukushima on a weekly basis since it happened. I would not presume to assert that I know the answers to many of these questions about health impacts because either the information is not out there, or it is not reliable, or it’s simply too soon to know. What matters is that thousands of lives were disrupted — and in many cases, that disruption will have a profound impact for decades. Let’s hope nothing like this ever happens in the US — apart from the disruption, Congress would have a hard time paying for it. As for your post-TMI analysis, the cost escalations and project cancellations started well before the accident.

  3. Rod Adams  on October 18th, 2011

    @Stephanie

    I am not sure where you were taught that the accidents that have happened at nuclear plants were “never supposed to occur.” We design our plants to survive (remain functional) in the case of natural events up to a certain level. We do not stop there; we then add additional safety margins and layers of protection for the public – just in case our initial analysis was wrong.

    Our beyond design basis accident analysis efforts start with the assumption that everything bad has already happened and then we do the calculations to verify that there is minimal impact on public health.

    My statements about Fukushima’s health effects are based on a combination of research on the specific event reports along with research on the effects of such events as Chernobyl, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Atomic Insights has published at least a dozen stories about Fukushima, many with corroborating reports from experts with significant professional experience.

    The maximum doses received at Fukushima were below the levels at which any significant negative health effects were measured in the many decade long follow up studies for the Life Span Survivor Studies from the atomic bombings and from the UNSCEAR led studies after Chernobyl.

    I am aware that my home insurance policy does not cover radiation damage. There is no reason why it should; all nuclear plants in the US carry a $300 blanket liability policy and participate in a $12 billion insurance pool that assesses every operating plant for about $104 million in the off chance that there is an event that exceeds the basic liability coverage. In 50 years, none of that coverage has been exceeded and not a single dime of public money has been spent.

    I would not want to pay for insurance to cover an event that is already well covered; I am glad that my state does not allow anyone to write such a policy because it would just be a license for fraud.

    I am sick to my stomach about the disrupted lives in the Fukushima prefecture – especially since there is no reason why the evacuation orders remain in effect. The measured radiation levels outside of the fence at the power plant are all below the naturally occurring radiation levels in places like Ramsar, Iran or Kerala, India.

    http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf05.html

    There is plenty of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) that has been spread about nuclear energy and radiation health effects. The carefully taught fear of radiation is responsible for much more negative health effects than any effects from the radiation itself as long as the doses are within the range of normal background doses.

    http://atomicinsights.com/2011/04/fear-of-radiation-is-killing-people-and-endangering-the-planet-too.html

    If you wonder who would teach us to be irrationally afraid of radiation, just think about who makes the most money if we do not use nuclear energy? What rich and politically powerful industry loses market share with every new nuclear plant? Who sells another million dollars per day worth of fuel for each functional plant that is forced to shut down due to a silly government edit like the one imposed in Germany after Fukushima?

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights

  4. Stephanie Cooke  on October 18th, 2011

    Actually I was “taught” that the Fukushima accident was beyond design basis by a former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner, a former manager of a BWR nuclear plant in the US and numerous other nuclear industry experts. I am well aware of how the insurance system for nuclear energy works in this country. And the fact is there would not be enough money in the pool to cover the enormity of an accident like Fukushima. Period.

  5. Rod Adams  on October 18th, 2011

    @Stephanie

    I hope that your use of the word “Period” to end your last comment does not mean that you expect I will go away because you believe you have thrown in a trump card.

    Beyond design basis does not mean that if the event happens, the plant collapses to rubble and lets out all of its radioactive material. The phrase does not mean that it is completely unanticipated and will “never happen.” I suspect that your “former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner” is someone like Peter Bradford, who was a commissioner but is a lawyer, not an engineer, technician, or scientist.

    Design basis is more like a 5 MPH bumper on a car. They are events that the plant is supposed to be able to withstand and then keep on performing its function.

    It would be outrageously expensive to design a plant that could withstand any possible event and still keep working, especially since all of the investment in making it resilient against that one in 10,000 or one in 100,000 event would be wasted for the vast majority of its operational history.

    After design basis, we go through detailed analysis of “beyond design basis” events to imagine what the layers of protection (analogous to crumple zones on a well designed automobile) will do to keep radioactive materials from having any significant impact on the public health.

    Those beyond-design-basis cases start with the ASSUMPTION that there has been major core damage and then check out all of the barriers assuming that they also fail – but fail in a realist manner. We are practical engineers and simply cannot believe that thick layers of steel, water and concrete can instantaneously vaporize and disappear.

    The NRC document archives are full of the details of what nuclear plant designers do to convince the regulators that we have done a good job of evaluating plant behavior in the case of a “beyond design basis event”.

    http://www.nrc.gov/site-help/search.cfm?q=%22beyond+design+basis+event%22&s=

    You are correct that there is not enough money in the insurance pool to handle a Fukushima – IF we respond to the event in the same irrational manner as the Japanese have done.

    I say again – and I can point to other knowledgable people who say the same thing – that evacuating areas where radiation doses are less than the variations in normal background exposure is a short-sighted, politically-motivated overreaction. It puts people at an elevated risk and destroys their life and livelihoods for NO GOOD REASON. It adds enormous, nearly unlimited cost without any benefit.

    http://atomicinsights.com/2011/09/if-fear-of-radiation-is-the-most-serious-health-risk-the-cure-is-simple.html

    The current Price-Anderson pool is adequate to cover the damage that might realistically occur. The same cannot be said of the insurance pool that the airline industry, hydroelectric dam industry, the railroads, or the oil and gas industry can draw upon.

    The probability of any draw on the federal purse as a result of an accident at a licensed commercial nuclear power plant in the US is so darned close to zero as to be something most people should be willing to accept or ignore – just like we accept or ignore the possibility that a fuel ladened commercial aircraft might be targeted at the Super Bowl or any of dozens of other major public events.

    However, if insurance against an exceedingly low probability event is really a big issue for you, I have a modest proposal. Join me in actively promoting legislation that would allow the nuclear industry to tax itself and to build up a pool of cash to cover any postulated damage. Allow the industry to invest that cash wisely – as any insurance company is allowed to do.

    For a mere 0.1 – 0.5 cents for every nuclear kilowatt hour, the pool would grow very rapidly. At those rates, without any new build, the money pool would be growing at $800 million to $4 billion per year. If that is not enough, make it a penny per kilowatt hour.

    If the money is not disappearing into a government black hole – like our nuclear waste disposal fund it – but is being used as insurance premiums should be used, we can afford it. The average O&M cost of operating reactors in the US right now is almost a penny per kilowatt hour LESS than the cost of coal fired power and is more than 2 cents per kilowatt hour LESS than the cost of “cheap natural gas.”

    Every year without tapping the pool would see an increased pile of working capital for good investments – like building more nuclear plants that can take market share away from coal and natural gas. Of course, my modest proposal is highly unlikely to be accepted. It would also scare the daylights out of the rich and powerful people who are the real forces behind the organized antinuclear opposition.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights

    PS – someone pointed out that my initial description of the liability insurance that nuclear plants must carry says $300 when it should say $300 million.

  6. Kit P  on October 18th, 2011

    “Fukushima catastrophe ”

    What catastrophe? No one was hurt by radiation.

    Japan suffered huge loss of life when the tsunami swept over 101 evacuation sites. People stopped running because they thought were safe. Just because New York City has not been hit with a huge rogue wave does not mean it can not happen.

    Second, the apparent root cause in Japan was considered All 104 US nuke plants have looked at seismic and flooding events beyond design basis. We have also looked at extreme acts of terrorism.

    There is no indication that that US nuke plants are not adequately regulated. Therefore there is no reason not to take the time necessary to make changes in a deliberate manner.

  7. Stephanie Cooke  on October 20th, 2011

    Rod,

    If I understand your comment, it seems you agree that some kind of change in the nuclear insurance system is called for — if you haven’t seen Mark Cooper’s piece on this in the Bulletin, you might like to read it. Frankly, though, any attempt to undo Price Anderson would be so fiercely resisted by the industry that I doubt it would happen.


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