Peter Bradford, former member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has some advice for Vermonters who are wondering if they can trust the NRC’s oversight of Vermont Yankee, its corporate parent, Entergy, and the nuclear industry in general. He suggests reading a few telling pages from Pete Domenici’s book A Brighter Tomorrow: Fulfilling the Promise of Nuclear Energy.
Domenici, who represented New Mexico in the U.S. Senate from 1973 to 2008, was the most powerful senator on nuclear matters for 15 years. In his book he writes how, in 1998, he called up the NRC chair and threatened to slash her budget by one-third unless the agency became “friendlier” to the nuclear industry.
“He then boasts openly that he was very happy with the way she got the message and reined in her staff,” says Bradford, a Peru, Vt., resident who serves on the Public Oversight Panel created by the legislature to advise on whether Vermont Yankee should be relicensed. “That’s as clear a data point as you’re going to get on this phenomenon I’m talking about.” That is, federal regulators have become far too chummy with the industry they are meant to regulate.
This complaint isn’t exclusive to the nuclear industry; for years, government watchdogs have complained about too-close relationships between the Pentagon and military contractors, and between the Food and Drug Administration and Big Pharma, to name just two.
What’s unique here is how jealously the NRC guards its dominion over issues surrounding nuclear power — the ones the public cares most about, including security, emergency planning, radiological safety and effects on health and the environment, and the long-term storage of nuclear waste. Simply put, if state regulators so much as broach the subject of “safety” in their deliberations, they expose themselves to potential legal action from the NRC and the industry.
Indeed, if and when Vermont lawmakers vote on whether to approve Vermont Yankee’s operation for another two decades, their decision must be based solely on assessments of “reliability” and Vermont’s demand for power. (See “The Statehouse on Vermont Yankee: Democracy in Action or Lawsuit Waiting to Happen?”.)
Mary Lampert likens the NRC to the three monkeys that “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.” Lampert, 67, is the founder of Pilgrim Watch, an environmental organization based in Duxbury, Mass., that has repeatedly filed motions challenging the relicensing of the Pilgrim Nuclear power plant in Plymouth, Mass. Pilgrim, like Vermont Yankee, is owned by Entergy and has a license that expires in 2012. And, like Vermont Yankee, it is experiencing age-related malfunctions, including a tritium leak that is not as large as the one at the Vernon facility.
Lampert can see Pilgrim from her study window across Cape Cod Bay. She says the NRC makes it next to impossible for citizen groups to challenge the industry. Lampert points out that when she files legal motions against Pilgrim, she typically goes up against one team of lawyers representing Entergy, and another team of lawyers working for the NRC. As she puts it, “It’s two against one ... and I just have what I can beg, borrow or steal.”
One of the fundamental tenets of nuclear licensing is that the NRC relies exclusively on the assurances of the licensee at virtually every stage of its decision-making process. And, even though the NRC keeps inspectors at these facilities all the time, the feds only conduct a paper inspection of the plant before making their decision on relicensing.
James Moore, clean energy program director for the Vermont Public Interest Research group, says the NRC’s statutory mandate — what it’s supposed to do and who it’s supposed to represent — is very different from the reality on the ground.
“We’ve seen this time and time again, whether it’s Wall Street, the airline industry or the nuclear industry: When the regulators get too cozy with the people they’re supposed to regulate, regulation goes right out the window,” Moore says. “I’ve given up on the NRC. They’re not there to protect Vermonters, despite what they say.”
Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin says he “never paid any attention to the NRC until tritium started leaking into the ground at VY in my district.” But now that he has, he says he and House Speaker Shap Smith have had several conversations with “high-level people in the NRC, and all I can say is, they spin facts and evade questions better than a political candidate running for office.” Shumlin should know; he’s a candidate for governor.
Has the nuclear regulatory climate improved under President Obama? Somewhat, Lampert suggests, noting that Obama’s appointment last May of NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko was a step in the right direction. Indeed, former commissioner Bradford describes Jaczko as “the best chair they’ve had in many years, possibly ever.”
Bradford further suggests it’s a mistake to view the NRC as a bloated bureaucracy that’s rotten to the core.
“It’s got thousands of people, and a lot of them are good people who just want to do the right thing,” he says. “But the tone gets set from the top. If the White House and Congress send over commissioners and insist on an oversight process that’s constantly driven by industry, then the tone won’t be conducive to good performance.”
Lampert notes that Obama is anything but antinuke, judging from his recent State of the Union address remarks about building the next generation of nuke plants. As she points out, “What state is he from? Illinois. And which state has the most nuclear reactors? Illinois. It’s sad.”
For her part, Lampert has spent $7000 of her own money to challenge Pilgrim Nuclear’s relicensing. Still, she’s not naive enough to believe her efforts will ultimately tip the NRC’s decision in her favor.
“Nuclear reactors only shut down when something breaks that’s too expensive to fix. That’s what happened at Maine Yankee, Yankee Rowe and Connecticut Yankee,” she says. “It’s not my business to shut it down. My business is focusing on things that can, hopefully, make it safer.”
One hopes that’s the NRC’s priority, too.
Another day, another tritium-leak story. Vermont Yankee has dominated the news in recent months, owing to a perfect storm of factors: physical problems at the aging plant; a relicensing deadline; and the Vermont legislature’s unique opportunity to vote on the future of the state’s only nuclear facility.
Why should you care? Because every nuke plant, handled improperly, is a potential Chernobyl. Handled properly, nuke plants are touted as low-cost, low-carbon sources of energy.
Vermont Yankee’s affordable power prices, coupled with political inertia, have slowed the development of local renewable power sources. The economic recession has eroded Yankee’s decommissioning fund — the money VY’s parent company, Louisiana-based Entergy, is required to set aside to pay for the plant’s eventual dismantling. As if that weren’t enough to worry about, Entergy wants to create a spin-off company that would end up owning Yankee. Critics allege it would allow the nuke facility to declare bankruptcy, leaving Vermonters with the bill to clean up VY.
This week’s Vermont Yankee package aims to bring readers up to speed on a complicated issue that can’t be reduced to “Nuclear Energy for Dummies” — although Lauren Ober does explain the basic science in her story about Yankee’s hometown of Vernon. Juxtaposed profiles of federal whistleblower Arnie Gundersen and his arch nemesis, public service commissioner David O’Brien, reveal a tense behind-the-scenes conflict that has shaped state policy on Vermont Yankee for years.
In an expanded “Local Matters,” Shay Totten investigates the legal ramifications of shutting down Yankee and asks experts to predict what will power a post-nuke Vermont. Ken Picard examines the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s dual role of regulator and industry promoter. Andy Bromage looks at Entergy’s ongoing — and expensive — lobbying efforts.
Since nuclear contamination doesn’t recognize state borders, Vermont’s problem is spilling over into New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Totten gives a voice to Yankee’s downstream neighbors. They’d like to have a say in this, too.