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Thursday, September 28, 2006

It's Groundhog Day at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission - by David Lochbaum

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the governmental body that oversees nuclear power in the United States, seems to be following the script of the movie Groundhog Day—reliving the same bad event over and over again. But instead of reporting on the whims of a hibernating groundhog, the event the NRC keeps reliving is a gathering cloud of safety problems that force nuclear power plants to shutdown for a year or longer.

A new report on these long-term shutdowns shows nuclear power in the United States is more dangerous and more costly than necessary. Since the first commercial plant opened 40 years ago, reactor shutdowns of a year or longer have occurred a staggering 51 times at 41 different plants. Most of these were due to widespread safety problems in that eventually could not be ignored. While these reactors shut down before they experienced a major accident, we cannot assume our luck will hold.

Some proponents of nuclear power have dismissed such safety concerns by arguing that no United States nuclear plant has experienced a meltdown since Three Mile Island’s partial one in 1979. That’s as fallacious as arguing that the levees protecting New Orleans were fully adequate prior to Hurricane Katrina because there were no similar disasters between 1980 and 2004.

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The tremendous cost of these shutdowns—a total of nearly $82 billion in lost revenue—suggests how intently operators try to avoid them, and how serious shutdowns are when they occur. But nuclear reactors that are not operated as safely as possible are accidents waiting to happen.

“Walking a Nuclear Tightrope: Unlearned Lessons of Year-plus Reactor Outages,” is the first study to analyze every United States nuclear power outage lasting a year or longer. In researching and writing the report as director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, I found this was a nationwide problem, reaching from Maine Yankee in the north, to Turkey Point south of Miami, from San Onofre outside of San Diego to La Salle in central Illinois.

Most of the shutdowns happened because safety margins at the plants were allowed to deteriorate to such an extent that reactor operations could not continue. Inadequate attention to safety by plant owners and operators, combined with poor oversight by the NRC, caused 36 of the 51 year-plus outages. There are 104 nuclear power reactors in the United States. Forty-one have experienced year-long outages. A 1-in-3 chance of incurring a year-plus outage was not part of the bargain when these plants were built and licensed.

Since 1973, long-term safety-related shutdowns have occurred, on average, once per year. Despite the continued need for these shutdowns, the NRC has not adequately improved its oversight of nuclear safety. The NRC should detect falling safety margins and intervene before it takes longer than a year to restore safety to acceptable levels.

There are things the NRC can and should be doing. Systems for ensuring safety at nuclear plants clearly aren’t working as well as they should, and the NRC must step up its oversight efforts. When longstanding problems are identified, the NRC must require the owner to determine why its tests and inspections failed to find the problems earlier. The NRC must develop a central repository of information about plant safety levels so people can identify a plant headed for trouble. And to make sure the NRC is doing its job, Congress should expand the monthly reporting it requires to verify that it is taking these steps.

Nuclear power is clearly not safe enough when so many reactors have to shut down for so long to restore safety to acceptable levels.

The nuclear power industry can’t guarantee Hollywood-style happy endings when problems arise at a plant. That’s why Congress needs to step in and compel the NRC to be a more aggressive enforcer of federal safety regulations. Without improved oversight, declining safety at nuclear power plants could result in a disaster rather than another costly year-plus outage. Even Bill Murray would be hard-pressed to find the humor in that dismal outcome.

David Lochbaum is the director of the nuclear safety project in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He holds a degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Tennessee and worked for nearly 20 years in the U.S. commercial nuclear power industry prior to joining UCS. For more than 25 years, the Union of Concerned Scientists has monitored nuclear plant performance and taken action whenever safety margins were compromised.

Copyright 2006
It's Groundhog Day at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission


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