Federal regulators have been working closely with the nuclear power industry to keep the nation’s aging reactors operating within safety standards by repeatedly weakening those standards, or simply failing to enforce them, an investigation by The Associated Press has found.
Time after time, officials at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission have decided that original regulations were too strict, arguing that safety margins could be eased without peril, according to records and interviews.
The result? Rising fears that these accommodations by the NRC are significantly undermining safety — and inching the reactors closer to an accident that could harm the public and jeopardize the future of nuclear power in the United States.
Examples abound. When valves leaked, more leakage was allowed — up to 20 times the original limit. When rampant cracking caused radioactive leaks from steam generator tubing, an easier test of the tubes was devised, so plants could meet standards.
Failed cables. Busted seals. Broken nozzles, clogged screens, cracked concrete, dented containers, corroded metals and rusty underground pipes — all of these and thousands of other problems linked to aging were uncovered in the AP’s yearlong investigation. And all of them could escalate dangers in the event of an accident.
Yet despite the many problems linked to aging, not a single official body in government or industry has studied the overall frequency and potential impact on safety of such breakdowns in recent years, even as the NRC has extended the licenses of dozens of reactors.
Industry and government officials defend their actions, and insist that no chances are being taken. But the AP investigation found that with billions of dollars and 19 percent of America’s electricity supply at stake, a cozy relationship prevails between the industry and its regulator, the NRC.
Those are the opening paragraphs of a long and devastating piece by the AP. Please go read it all.
This echoes something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, something I plan to take up in considerable length in The Book Project: Have we reached peak competence for managing highly dangerous and complex things like nuclear power? I don’t say this casually, and I realize there are numerous factors that determine the answer, from economics to politics to mass psychology to all the usual technical details of the industry and procedures in question. But looking at Fukushima and the blizzard of screw ups and instances of a government and/or a private company lying to the public that have come to light, and then adding the endless mess that is nuclear power in the US, it increasingly looks and feels like nuclear power is simply too tough for us to do acceptable well.
This is not to imply that we’ll execute renewable energy projects perfectly, but you can’t escape the issue of the costs and consequences of a screw up. If you totally botch a wind farm or concentrating solar project you waste money and fail to deliver the promised electricity. That’s certainly not a good thing for anyone involved, but you’re not forcing the government, businesses, and individuals to measure and worry about radioactivity for years or decades, and you’re not incurring a huge decommissioning cost. You can tear down a huge wind farm and build one just like it somewhere else for a tiny percentage of the costs Japan will have to pay for Fukushima over the next several decades.
Of course, none of this will stop us from charging ahead with nuclear power, especially in China. I’ve long said that peak oil and climate change will force people from all portions of the political spectrum to accept some things they really hate. The righties will have to live with much greater levels of government regulation and presence in markets, while lefties will have to live with much more nuclear power and a much slower fossil fuel phase out than they would prefer. To some extent this is brute force politics — fossil fuel and nuclear power companies wield a lot of influence in the US, for example — and some of it is caused by economics — the cost of decommissioning nearly new fossil fuel electricity plants is seen as prohibitively high.
This is one of our biggest challenges as we wrestle with peak oil and climate change: Figuring out how to overcome the baggage of our past, from infrastructure to how our evolutionary path shapes our world view. It will be neither dull nor easy.