Circumstances sometimes create some rather strange alliances. This week, despite being a proud liberal who proudly supports public education, comes from a family of union school teachers, appreciates the value of being covered by a single payer medical plan and voted for President Obama, I find myself cheering for a group of representatives who are mostly conservative Republicans as they call NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko to task for dishonest political maneuvers designed to impose his will (or the will of his political puppet masters). The weirdest part about my confused, supportive cheering is that I started trying to kill the Yucca Mountain project – in my own small way – more than 15 years ago. I have often described the project as the right answer to the wrong question.
Even after all of the money that has been poured down that hole in the mountain, I still think it would be better for the country if we do not plan to move any used nuclear fuel assemblies to a remote part of the desert southwest. However, I have to agree that it is fundamentally stupid and incredibly wasteful to have invested as much time, money and intellectual effort as we have at Yucca Mountain without getting a final answer regarding the long term safety of geological storage.
In my opinion, the best outcome would be using the facility to dispose of radioactive wastes that truly do not have any further uses. Those materials should be placed in small enough packages so that they can be delivered on existing roads in standard trucks. The volume of several hundred years worth of actual waste products would almost certainly fit into the tunnels that have already been dug.
I expect that other liberals who generally favor the policies of the President will recognize that his selected Chairman needs to be replaced because he has demonstrated his incompetence and unreliability. This should not be a partisan or regional issue; there are at least 31 states that have nuclear power plants or defense facilities that are being negatively affected by the disarray caused by Jaczko’s blatantly political maneuver to refuse to allow the staff at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to complete its legally assigned task. Before he issued a June 2010 memo telling them to slow down, the technical staff working on the Safety Evaluation Report was apparently nearly finished with the job evaluating the technical adequacy of the Department of Energy’s Safety Analysis Report for its design of the Yucca Mountain repository.
Many of the states affected by that wasteful memo and the sneaky maneuvers that followed in subsequent months are as blue as I am.
Though I have many areas of disagreement with Chairman Jaczko, the most important one is that he apparently has no sense of personal integrity. Only a man who is fundamentally dishonest could read what the Inspector General said about his reign, issue a press release that claimed that the report vindicated his actions, and then attempt to prevent the report from being released. That vain attempt also provides evidence for another reason that I am sure that Jaczko must go; he must be completely disconnected with the real world that exists outside of Capitol Hill if he thought for a moment that the IG report would not be released by someone else.
There are no secrets in the Internet era, especially when they involve a man who has run roughshod over a whole agency full of technically savvy individuals. The chances of ensuring that none of them would leak the document to the Congress or the press were close enough to zero to be ignored by any reasonable odds maker.
There are parts of this saga that continue to baffle me. Based on my education and professional experience, I cannot understand how a senator from a lightly populated state can accumulate enough power so that there becomes a general perception that his patronage makes his selected appointee invulnerable to criticism, no matter how badly he goofs. Why would the rest of the Senate care so much about the opinion of a man from Nevada who just barely won reelection? A friend of mine made the incredible suggestion that perhaps the explanation can be found in the advertising slogan for the city that forms his power base – what if a number of politicians were worried that what went on in Las Vegas did not stay in Las Vegas?
I also cannot understand why the nuclear industry has been so restrained in its criticism of a whole series of Jaczko imposed decisions.
Why have they let him rewrite fire protection rules and impose an unknown level of additional cost? Why didn’t they strongly condemn his actions as he met exclusively with antinuclear activists in Vermont? Why have they not shouted from the rooftops that a 50 mile evacuation order was fundamentally wrong instead of mildly questioning the scientific basis of the decision? Why did they not step up in support of their colleagues at Westinghouse when the Chairman took it upon himself to turn a minor difference of technical opinion about insignificant terms in a calculation model into a press release that put many billions of dollars at risk? Why have they not raised public concerns about the ratcheting of the color coded levels assigned to minor discrepancies found by resident inspectors or reported and fixed by the nuclear plant operators themselves?
I posed similar questions on a private email list frequented by people who actually operate nuclear power plants. The answers I got were disturbing – nuclear operators are reluctant to push back too hard for fear of reprisals by a man who is known to be vindictive. Contrary to false reports spread by professional antinuclear activists, the nuclear industry does not have a compliant regulator. It has a regulator that has the power and demonstrated tendency to impose enormous costs in the form of fines, bad ratings that raise insurance costs, and orders to shut down operational reactors that can cost a couple of million dollars per day in replacement power costs. Industry operators are logically wary of doing anything that would make that regulator angry.
As a freedom-loving American who has a deep respect for the checks and balances system devised by our founding fathers, I think the situation indicates how out of balance our current system of nuclear regulation is. There is a role for a government agency that can ask hard questions and ensure that “bad apples” do not make short-sighted decisions based on greed. The industry also does a pretty fair job of policing itself because of the often repeated mantra that an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere. The Price-Anderson insurance pool arrangement gives a strong financial reason to believe that mantra; every nuclear plant would have to pay up to $100 million in the case of an accident at any facility that exceeds the individual unit’s liability insurance cap.
Regulations and regulators are not the reasons that nuclear fission is a safe form of power generation; safety is provided by the tens of thousands of dedicated designers, manufacturers, pipefitters, welders, electricians, mechanics, and qualified operators who go to work every day and take personal responsibility for doing their jobs well. Nuclear power plants are not fragile beasts; they are tough, resilient facilities with multiple layers of both physical protection and well-trained, responsive human operators. You do not develop a 50 year history of safe operations because of fear that someone is looking over your shoulder. You do it by inculcating an entire work force with pride and good work habits that do not attempt the impossible task of completely eliminating human errors, they make errors less likely and less important.
By allowing the government regulator too much power, we have allowed politicians to make too many decisions and allowed them to resist too many excellent technological improvements. Our current system has imposed inertia of the worst kind – something that was approved long ago is considered to be “safer” than a far better design that might require the regulator to bend a bit in enforcing old rules. Few in the industry are willing to directly challenge this situation for fear of the consequences. That needs to change.
I hope that this week’s hearings about the reign of Chairman Gregory Jaczko result in teaching more Americans that the nuclear energy profession is full of people with a high standard for personal integrity and technical competence. I hope that the testimony helps them to understand that someone who has both implemented and repeatedly defended a policy of dishonest political maneuvers has proven that he is not suited to holding a position of responsibility.
The person who serves as the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can either enable or hobble an important, prosperity-producing technology that can provide abundant, safe, affordable, emission free power for humans to do both necessary and desirable tasks. An effort to fire the man who is currently using the position to halt nuclear energy development should not be allowed to be seen as a partisan issue; it is a matter of reclaiming a better functioning government by the people and for the people.