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NRC: Watchdog or Lapdog? 

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Internal government watchdogs and outside experts alike say the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is too lenient on the industry it is charged with regulating, often making decisions based on the industry’s profit margins rather than safety.

That's the conclusion of a third report — and one that I authored — in an ongoing series regarding nuclear power in New England. The report was posted Sunday.

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting and Connecticut Hearst Media Group found that internal reviews conducted by the NRC's own Inspector General and the U.S. Government Accountability Office, as well as reports by the outside nuclear watchdog the Union of Concerned Scientiests, give the NRC a mixed review.

At times, the NRC has taken swift action and shut down reactors when safety was compromised. In other instances, the agency allowed reactors to remain open despite safety concerns and worries over the impact a shutdown would have on the finances of the individual reactor's owner and the industry as a whole.

The NRC has also been criticized by internal government watchdogs for failing to learn from some of its mistakes that deal, specifically, with a near meltdown at an Ohio reactor in 2002.

In the wake of the events in Japan, there is a heightened sense of concern throughout the United States that a similar meltdown could occur, particularly in New England where reactors similar to those in Japan remain in operation.

Top nuclear industry officials maintain the public has nothing to fret about — that the NRC is a tough regulator that asks tough questions. NRC critics counter that the agency might ask tough questions, but is all too willing to accept easy answers.

As detailed earlier in this series, NECIR and Hearst found that the NRC has routinely allowed operators to pack spent fuel rods into cooling pools far beyond the pools’ original licensed capacity and design basis, rather than forcing the plant owners to move the fuel into safer but more costly dry casks.

But the investigation also has found that the NRC has weakened a key, decades-old safety standard, potentially saving owners tens of millions of dollars by removing a requirement that could avert a nuclear tragedy.

In 2005, both Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear industy executive turned whistleblower and now occassional NRC and anti-nuclear consulant, and David Lochbaum, a former nuclear operator and now a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, questioned the NRC’s decision to allow some nuclear power operators to use containment vessels to help cool reactors before turning to emergency cooling water pumps.

If the containment vessel is allowed to absorb heat from reactor- and spent-fuel-pool water, the overall pressure could add stress to the concrete containment shell, increasing the risk of a failure, Lochbaum and Gundersen contend.

While the analogy isn’t perfect, said Lochbaum, think of a plastic bottle half filled with soda. If you stick a straw down into the soda, you can drink the soda. But, if you put your thumb over the top and shake it up vigorously, the bottle is filled with foam. If you stick a straw into the foam region, you don’t get soda.

That, in a nutshell is what happens inside a boiling water reactor (BWR). Trying to use emerrgency pumps without containment pressure is like drinking foam from a soda bottle with a straw, added Gundersen.

“In the old days, we had protection, and nowadays, we’re relying on one thing, the containment remaining intact. If that’s gone, we lose our ability to cool the reactor cores, and we also open up a pathway for radiation to be released to the environment,” said Lochbaum.

NRC staff and industry officials disagree. In multiple filings, including an allowance at Vermont Yankee, the NRC claims BWR containment vessels can absorb additional heat for short periods of time without causing a drop in the reactor pressure levels necessary to push water through emergency pumps.

“These credits were granted to some licensees on their original licenses, so this issue is not new,” said Tony Pietrangelo, senior vice president and chief nuclear operator, of the Nuclear Energy Institute. The NEI is the industry’s chief lobbying and trade association. “I know there is some disagreement, but the NRC has reviewed this issue extensively.”

It’s not just external critics who disagree with the NRC’s position. The NRC’s own internal Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards has objected to the policy and believes the new stance is a “serious compromise” of reactor safeguards.

To read the full report, along with excerpts from internal and external watchdog reports, click here.

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Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.

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