Senators call for investigation of ties between nuclear industry and regulators after AP investigation reveals dangerously permissive relationship and lowered safety standards.
June 27, 2011 - Comments Off
Three Senators have asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate ties between the nuclear power industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (the NRC), the industry’s principal safety regulators, after a year-long Associated Press investigation revealed last week that the NRC has colluded with the industry higher ups for decades to progressively lower and ignore safety standards so as not to interrupt the plants’ operations and profits. The investigation also found that radioactive Tritium has leaked from three quarters of US commercial nuclear power sites from corroded, buried piping, threatening public water supply. The Senators, Barbara Boxer (D – CA), Bernard Sanders (I – VT), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D – RI), have also asked the GAO to investigate the industry’s relicensing process, earthquake standards, upkeep of the plants, and evacuation planning. New Jersey Democratic Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez made similar requests to the GAO last week.
The AP’s in-depth investigation reveals that “a cozy relationship prevails between the industry and it’s regulator,” uncovering the NRC’s history of systematically reducing and ignoring official safety standards as the country’s aging reactors fail to keep up with them. Predominantly constructed during the industry’s Golden Age in the 1960s and 1970s, the US reactors were only licensed for twenty years of operation each, on the projection that the materials and machinery in use would be dangerously corroded and antiquated thereafter, posing a workplace and public safety risk. When the deadline approached, the NRC allowed the industry to renew individual licenses, and has since not denied a single application for licensing renewal in its history, despite the plants’ antiquated construction and systems designed before the onset of the computer age, as well as the wisdom gained from the Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima Diaiichi catastrophes. The AP investigation found that since 2005 aging was a probable factor in a striking sixty-two percent of reported emerging safety problems, with figures as high as seventy percent in 2008. In short, the reactors were never expected to last this long, and the industry has become increasingly inventive with ways to bypass the safety concerns that would otherwise shut them down or burden them with repair costs.
The AP investigation found an operational understanding to exist between the industry and the regulators in which the NRC would overlook the degrading safety of these aging reactors by “sharpening the pencil,” or “pencil engineering,” the industry shorthand for the process of bypassing safety concerns by relaxing regulatory standards. In the past decades, as valves that control the flow of radioactive steam have weakened, the industry saw a twenty-fold increase in the valve leak allowance at the hands of the NRC. Similarly, when regular cracking caused leaks from steam generator tubing, an easier test for the tubes operability was devised. Similarly, just last year the NRC lowered the safety standard for acceptable radiation damage to reactor vessels for the second time. Similar allowances were made for the aging structures’ rusted and peeling paint progressively clogging the circulation systems of the reactors’ cooling water that prevents meltdown. The NRC regulators have also repeatedly delayed safety investigations for extended periods of time at the industry’s request, exacerbating preexisting problems, until scheduled refueling outages when the problems would go largely unnoticed.
The AP reports to have found the industry concealing “thousands of other problems linked to aging,” but the most pressing of them, the AP reports, involve radiation damage to the steel vessels protecting the core, leakage of the valves used to contain radioactive steam, cracking in steel alloy tubes used in older reactors to generate steam, and leakage of underground pipes in damp areas. This last malfunction is of especially alarming concern, as the AP found that high amounts of the dangerous radioactive element Tritium has leaked form three quarters of US commercial nuclear power sites, often into groundwater, from corroded, buried piping. Leaks from at least 37 of those sites had Tritium concentrations in the water exceeding the federal drinking standard, sometimes by more than one-hundred fold, though Tritium leaks have yet to be found to contaminate public water supplies.
Testimony from industry insiders confirms this permissive relationship between the NRC and the private sector. Paul Blanch, for example, a former nuclear engineer who abandoned his post in the industry to focus on nuclear safety issues, agrees that “It’s a philosophical position that [federal regulators] take that’s driven by the industry and by the economics: What do we need to do to let those plants continue to operate? They somehow sharpen their pencil to either modify their interpretation of the regulations, or they modify their assumptions in the risk assessment.”
The AP’s report is the first in a four-part series of its findings on the matter.