David Lochbaum: “The NRC Is Not Doing Its Job”


January 17, 2012
A nuclear engineer, Lochbaum is director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists. He’s found that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has successfully intervened in some critical situations and dropped the ball in others. “The biggest concern I’ve had with the NRC over the years I’ve been monitoring them is lack of consistency,” he says. “They’re a little bit slow at solving known safety problems.” This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Nov. 29, 2011.

Would you consider yourself a critic of the nuclear industry?

We’re critics, but we’re not an anti-nuclear organization. We’re a pro-safety or safety advocate.

If a safety problem is identified, we want to see that problem fixed. The only fix isn’t shutting the plant down permanently, taking away the keys. It could be just fixing the safety problem and allowing the plant to operate safely into the future. …

When Fukushima happened, I suppose it’s an article of faith in your business that an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere. Is that what happened?

UCS’s founder, Henry Kendall, used to say that you can’t have but one half of a boat sink. They are basically all in the same boat.

So the accident at Fukushima does affect plants worldwide, and should affect it. It’s a learning exercise. You try to learn from things that work well as well as things that don’t work so well.

Is Fukushima one of those Black Swan events, or are there lessons that we should draw upon, and that the industry is drawing upon, as it looks at what happened there?

I think prior to Fukushima, the thought was that a reactor accident would only affect one reactor at a plant. Fukushima showed that you need broader support — staffing levels, equipment levels — to deal with a problem that affects the entire site, not just one reactor at that site. That really wasn’t understood or known before Fukushima. …

“The NRC is not doing its job. Safety is defined by compliance with the regulations. When it knows that half the plants in the country don’t meet fire protection regulations, it can’t say those plants are safe.”

In retrospect, should they have seen that one coming? In other words, did they build a flawed design there?

TEPCO [Tokyo Electric Power Co.] didn’t build a flawed design. They built it based on standard approaches that people worldwide were using. They looked at a low-probability event, a tsunami, and designed a seawall for the size, the height of the tsunami wave that they expected. When the tsunami came in that was about three times that size, that seawall did little good.

They did have some warning, and there was some indication that about every thousand years you get something that is of epic proportions, which is of course what we saw. There’s plenty of evidence that they didn’t pay a lot of attention to that. Is that what you’re finding as well?

That’s correct. Their own staff in 2008 looked at the situation and said, “We could have a tsunami of 15 meters,” which is about what they received. The company didn’t act upon that information.

In hindsight, those kind of warnings come out all the time. If you recall back to Katrina, the [Army] Corps of Engineers had said that the levees needed to be improved.

Nobody has enough money to fix every what-if. The key, the success, is picking out the right what-ifs and allocating the money to the right problems. …

A lot of experts have told me that a fairly inexpensive fix, if you go back to really where the dominoes started tumbling, was to move those generators to higher ground, or at least put them in some sort of watertight vault.

I think the key to that problem is diversity. If you don’t put them all in the same place, they’re not vulnerable to the same effect.

The reason they put them where they did was to better protect them against earthquakes, because the higher you locate them, putting them up on stilts, the more vulnerable they are to earthquake movement.

So they put them in the basement, which is great for earthquakes but not so great for tsunamis. If instead you put some of them up high and some of them down low, it makes it harder for one thing to take them all off the table.

So that is the essence of defense in depth right there, right?

Defense in depth is having multiple barriers and diversity, so that it takes more things to put you in a bad day.

… Since Chernobyl in the mid-80s, the nuclear industry has done single-point vulnerabilities, which attempts to look at, have we put all our eggs in one basket and put the basket in a vulnerable spot? The single-point vulnerability assessments try to lessen the likelihood that you lose everything due to a common cause. …

When you talk to the NRC, there’s almost a sense of smugness, that we’re much better here; we have better designed plants; we have tighter regulations; we don’t have as cozy a relationship with the operators themselves. Is all that true?

Much of it is true, if not all of it. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is often accused of being cozy with the industry, but there’s a lot of examples where they don’t do that.

For example, the Fort Calhoun plant in Nebraska. Last year, Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors found that plant wasn’t protected against the flood the way it should be. They required that plant to fix that problem, and this summer, when the flood arrived, that plant was much better able to deal with that than had the NRC not done its job.

So they had mandated some fixes in advance of that flood? Can you be more specific about what they did?

… [NRC] inspectors found that plant wasn’t protected for the flood that might happen at that plant, the one-in-a-thousand-year flood. It was designed for something about 5 feet less than that.

The company argued: What’s the chance of it happening? It’s been that way for 20 years. Don’t worry about it. May not be exactly right, but it’s close enough.

The NRC resisted all that and mandated those fixes be made. Those fixes were made. Flood barriers were put in; watertight doors were installed, other things that allowed that plant to survive the flooding [of the Missouri River] it faced this summer, which was a flood above what the plant was ready for last year, and up to the point where the NRC thought it should be.

Just to be clear, had the NRC not intervened as they had in advance of that flood, what would have happened there?

The flooding at Fort Calhoun may not have triggered a meltdown, but it would have severely eroded the defense in depth. Many of the barriers, many of the pumps, much of the equipment that’s needed to deal with that would have been underwater and unavailable.

The NRC’s actions allowed that plant to face that flooding challenge with the full complement of safety equipment needed to protect workers and the public.

So there’s a case in point that the NRC is doing its job.

Exactly. We issued a report in March of this year, the week after Fukushima. … We have a chapter of great Nuclear Regulatory Commission catches last year.

They found problems at the Browns Ferry plant in Alabama that had been missed for quite a while and also found that the same problems existed at other plants in the United States. So that one catch at Browns Ferry led to safety improvements there and elsewhere.

So the NRC does identify problems that make plants safer. What we’re concerned about is consistency. We’re trying to get that to be not the exception but more the standard practice at the agency.

The issue that always comes up is fire protection, this lingering issue that these mandates to enhance fire protection at the plants have still yet to be answered. How should we interpret that? Is that just an unusual situation, or does that reflect some problems that aren’t really at the surface of the NRC?

I think Browns Ferry is the classic example of a problem that’s been identified, attempts were made to fix it, and they were unsuccessful across the board. Unfortunately it’s not an isolated case.

Seismic issues, earthquake risk, is another one. In the mid-90s, the NRC recognized that some [27] U.S. plants were in an area where the seismic risk was larger than they thought.

The NRC took steps to change its regulations so any new reactors built in that part of the country would have to be better protected, but they didn’t do anything about the 27 reactors that were already built and operating in those regions. …

… To consider the idea of taking an existing plant and retrofitting it seismically, is this a cost issue? Is that why it hasn’t happened?

Partly is a cost issue, because it does cost a lot of money to upgrade a plant to meet today’s safety standards.

It has been done. The San Onofre nuclear power [plant] in California, the first reactor there, in the early ’90s was shut down for almost a year to put in better pipe supports and other protection. And it did restart, against the greater seismic hazard.

So it can be done. The cost is an issue the plant owners aren’t willing to pay for unless you can prove to them that it’s necessary.

In the case of Indian Point, [the nuclear power plant about 35 miles south of New York City,] it’s almost as if the seismic issue becomes almost grandfathered in. But that doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the real-world safety implications of having a fault right beneath a plant.

The fire protection issues, the seismic issues that we know about and are a little bit slow in dealing with, are issues that if a plant were to have a bad problem due to that vulnerability, would automatically be fixed.

Our point is, if they would be fixed after a tragedy, why not fix them now and avoid that part where a whole bunch of people get hurt?

It’s difficult to do, because once you do the what-if here, then you say, how do you protect it against asteroids? How do you protect it against fires? How do you protect against sea rise due to global warming?

You could what-if these people till they have not a nickel left in their pockets, so the challenge is to fix the real issues in time before they’re exploited. …

To summarize the overall concern you have with the NRC, is it a lack of consistency? And if so, why?

The biggest concern I’ve had with the NRC over the years I’ve been monitoring them is lack of consistency. They’re a little bit slow at solving known safety problems.

You can’t fault anybody for not fixing an unknown safety problem, but when you know about a problem — whether it’s fire protection or increased seismic risk — and you study it and [don’t] solve it, that’s not what should be done.

I think the challenge the NRC has is, when something happens, it’s easy to convince people they need to spend money, prevent the next one. But when something hasn’t happened yet, and it’s just a postulated event or a hypothetical disaster, it’s more difficult to get people to pony up millions of dollars to fix the hypothetical problem.

In the course of a summer, Fort Calhoun and North Anna [in Virginia] sort of offered examples of the NRC doing its job well and perhaps not so well.

Exactly. It’s kind of the yin and yang of the nuclear power industry.

Fort Calhoun was a stellar example of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission taking proactive action to protect people living in Nebraska.

[An August 2011 earthquake near] North Anna was an example of the NRC knew about that problem for more than 15 years and waited till it happened before they took steps. So it was a reactive mode.

The reason that North Anna didn’t turn into a really bad day was essentially defense in depth, just overdesign, or both?

North Anna experienced an earthquake larger than it was designed for, but the reason it came out so well is its owner voluntarily upgraded its seismic protection when they knew about the hazard in the early ’90s.

The NRC didn’t require owners like [those] of North Anna and others to fix it. But that was a billion-dollar asset that could become a billion-dollar liability if you don’t protect it, so North Anna’s owners voluntarily upgraded its seismic protection.

The other 25 reactors have not upgraded things. Fortunately, we got the surprise, or the challenge, at a plant where the owner had already taken steps to defend against it.

If a similar event happened near Indian Point, what will we see there?

Depending on the size of the earthquake and how much equipment was lost, we could have a very bad day next to a very large city, because the seismic protection is not where it needs to be. So therefore the plant is more vulnerable than it needs to be.

That plant owner has not taken voluntary action to retrofit seismically, right?

… Indian Point, at the time when the increased seismic hazard was known, was owned by a company that was trying to divest itself of nuclear power. So if you’re trying to get rid of something, you tend not to spend a lot of money to make it better protected.

The new owner [Entergy Nuclear Operations, Inc.] had a lot of other problems to pay for. They put millions of dollars into fixing some of the problems of the past. They weren’t able, or haven’t yet been able, to fix the seismic problems that that plant has. …

In the U.S., should we be relying on voluntary measures like that?

What we believe is that if voluntary measures are undertaken, you can give credit for that owner. North Anna was safer than Indian Point because that owner had voluntarily taken those measures. So the risk of a seismic threat, or seismic issue, was lower in North Anna. That owner should get credit for that.

Unfortunately, the way credit is given is, once a voluntary initiative is adopted, the NRC gives credit for everybody, whether you’ve taken the measures or not.

So it’s kind of like an IOU. Once a fix is identified, even if you haven’t taken it off the shelf, you get full credit for being there, and that’s not the way it should go.

It should be if you have the voluntary measures, if you’ve done your homework, you’ve installed the equipment, you should get credit. If you’ve just thought about it, there should be no credit for thinking. …

So right now Indian Point is very vulnerable seismically, isn’t it?

Indian Point and the 24 other reactors that haven’t voluntarily done the upgrades face a greater threat than they’re designed for. They’re relying more on luck than they should be. 

What other issues are you concerned about as you survey the 104 -reactor fleet?

The other big issue is fire protection. There are 47 reactors in the United States, roughly half the fleet, that don’t meet fire protection regulations.

Oddly enough, three of those reactors are at Browns Ferry; that started all that. A worker using a candle to look for air leaks in 1975 started a fire that wiped out all the safety systems on Unit 1 and most of them on Unit 2. It was very heroic actions by the operators that saved the day at Browns Ferry.

After that, the NRC adopted fire protection regulations to better protect against that hazard. Browns Ferry today doesn’t meet the regulations adopted because of the Browns Ferry fire, and that’s just unacceptable. …

The regulations that the NRC adopted in 1980 to prevent the next Browns Ferry were very prescriptive. You had to have physical separation of cabling for primary pumps and their backups, so that made it less likely that one fire would knock everything off the table.

Some owners opted not to do that. Some locations where cables ran from the plant into the control room, [it] was tight; you couldn’t physically get 20-foot separation.

So instead, they would allow a cable to burn up, and they would send an operator to the other end of the cable to manually operate the pump or the valve or whatever needed to be run.

That wasn’t allowed under the rules, unless you got prior NRC permission to do so. Owners didn’t do that. They just substituted these operator manual actions [OMAs].

In the late 1990s, the NRC started finding out that many plant owners were not in compliance with the 1980 rules. Many owners said it would be too costly to do that.

So in 2004, another set of fire protection regulations were adopted, and owners had the choice of meeting the 1980 regulations or the 2004 regulations.

The 2004 regulations were more risk-informed. You could look at a fire in an area. Even if the cables were very close together, if the fire would be put out before both cables were burned up or damaged, you could justify that, if the NRC agreed.

TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority], with its Browns Ferry plant, is now transitioning to the 2004 regulations, as are the owners of 47 reactors in the United States.

The goal to complete that evolution is 2016, five years from now, and it’s already slid about five years, so it’s a goal that keeps moving past the closer we get to it.

So we’re talking 40 years after a fire before anything changes?

I facetiously used to say that the reason we’re getting 20-year license extensions to plants is so that they have more time to come into compliance with the fire protection regulations.

That can’t be the reason, but that is one of the outcomes. Now they have two more decades to try to come into compliance with safety regulations. For an industry and a regulator to say that safety is first, you would think you might be able to actually achieve safety in less than a lifetime.

So the NRC has backpedaled off of its initial regulations, essentially?

The NRC has basically found that many plants weren’t meeting its old regulations, and rather than enforcing them, gave the owners more time to come up with some other type of regulation.

What does that tell you? Are they being regulators, or are they a little too cozy maybe?

The NRC is not doing its job. Safety is defined by compliance with the regulations. When it knows that half the plants in the country don’t meet fire protection regulations, it can’t say those plants are safe, because that is the safety bar.

What complicates that, or what further disturbs that in my view, is that after 9/11, the NRC said, “Well, these plants are protected against suicide aircraft and other acts of terror because of the fire protection regulations.” That would only work if people met the fire protection regulations. Not meeting fire protection regulations doesn’t give you much protection against terrorist actions. …

… How is it an industry can go on for so long ignoring regulations?

Well, the regulator is more like Sgt. Schultz [from Hogan’s Heroes] than an aggressive nuclear cop on the beat. It knows things are unsafe.

I think it’s complacency more than coziness. It’s been more than 30 years since we melted down a reactor [Three Mile Island] in the United States. Some look at that legacy as saying we’ve solved all the problems; we’ve really addressed all the issues; the plants are safe; we have defense in depth. Yes, it would be nice if the plants met the fire protection regulations, but there’s really no need to make them do so. We’re safe; we’re immune to those kind of problems.

But what’s in it for the NRC in not enforcing the law?

The nuclear industry’s a fairly strong lobbyist. They give more to the Congress than the tobacco industry did in the mid-90s, when all the problems were going on.

In 1998, the industry got the Congress to threaten the NRC by cutting its budget. They threatened to cut the NRC’s budget by 40 percent, which at that time would have meant 500 people being fired from the NRC.

The quid pro quo was the NRC needs to stop enforcing regulations and allow these plant owners to succeed in business. So the NRC stopped enforcing its regulations, cut back on safety inspectors, and focused on nuclear business.

So the nuclear industry, you would suggest, is buying influence in Congress, and that is why regulations are not enforced.

In 1996, the NRC was on the cover of Time magazine, and not for winning the lottery. It was a very damning article on the NRC’s performance.

Shirley Jackson was the chairman at the time. She undertook a number of reforms that led to enforcement of the safety regulations. How novel. But because of that enforcement, nine reactors in the United States were shut down [in] all of 1997 to restore safety levels.

The industry doesn’t like when its revenue makers are shut down, so the industry went to the Congress, got the Congress to tell the NRC to knock it off: “Stop enforcing the regulations. Let these plant owners survive in these economic times.” The NRC heeded that message, because the Congress controls its budget.

The industry, of course, is not interested in an accident. If they were sitting here right now, they’d tell you, “Safety first.” But in the real world, what happens?

From our monitoring of the nuclear industry, most of the owners do more than is required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, because regardless of what they view about safety, that’s a billion-dollar asset that they don’t want to see become a billion-dollar liability. So most of the owners go well beyond what the NRC requires … so the NRC’s job really should be looking at the laggards that aren’t doing it, for whatever reasons. But the NRC has a challenge in dealing with the people who aren’t doing very well.

If there’s concern about companies that are just meeting the minimum standard — and the implication you would suggest here is that that minimum standard is not enough — why not raise the bar for everybody?

Following the Three Mile Island accident [in Pennsylvania in 1979], the industry itself formed the Institute [of] Nuclear Power Operations. INPO seeks excellence, sets standards of excellence, so that sets the ceiling. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission with its regulations basically sets the floor. So most plant owners should be above safety minimums and approaching, if not reaching, the INPO standards of excellence.

What we’ve found is, it’s not working that well. Since Three Mile Island, since INPO was formed, there have been I think 48 reactors in United States that have been shut down for more than a year to restore safety levels. It’s more than one a year.

If you’re aiming for excellence, and you’re falling more than a year below the floor, something’s not working right. We estimate that cost approximately $82 billion to fix all those safety problems at all those plants. …

Let’s talk a little bit about the age of the fleet. They’re almost all 40 years old. … As these plants age, when you factor in your concerns about the NRC as it is and then throw in the concerns brought forward by Fukushima, how does that change the equation on these plants and whether they should continue operating for 60 or even 80 years?

As plants get older, the chance of failure goes up. It’s defined by what’s called a bathtub curve, due to its shape. On the left-hand part of the curve, you have the break-in phase, the infant mortality phase, and the right hand’s part of the curve is the wear-out phase as things age and degrade, get older.

Plants are licensed for 40 years, but that doesn’t mean all their parts last for 40 years. There’s pumps, there’s gaskets, there’s motors that get replaced along the way.

The bigger structures have to last for the life of the plant, like the frame of a car, but it’s really how well the owner maintains that asset that determines what its risk is.

I’ve compared it to people who buy cars off the same lot, same time. If a year later the first owner has changed, rotated the tires, done all the preventative maintenance that the owner manual [says should be] done, that car is going to be in better shape than the second car if the owner has only changed the radio station. …

A well-maintained car or well-maintained nuclear plant doesn’t automatically get bad at seven years for a [car] warranty or 40 years for a plant.

If you look at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fermi 1 [in Michigan in 1966], even Fukushima, those plants didn’t get to 40. It’s no guarantee that you’re safe till 40, just like there’s no guarantee that it’s unsafe past 40.

The challenge is, as plants get older, safety margins can degrade. And if you’re not doing what needs to be done, if you’re not doing your homework, safety risk goes up because plant equipment is getting older, wearing out.

[It] becomes more important for the NRC to step in and make sure that plant owners are doing it right, doing their homework, rather than doing the FRAM Oil commercial, where “Pay me now or pay me later.” You skip the maintenance to save you a few bucks today, but it costs you thousands of bucks tomorrow.

So when you look at Fukushima on the face of it, it had nothing to do with age. Should Fukushima be part of the discussion as these plants come up for renewal, or is Fukushima really a separate issue about how it was designed in the first place?

In this country, after Fukushima, there was a call for a moratorium on nuclear plant relicensing. We didn’t support that moratorium, because whatever the lessons learned from Fukushima, they need to be made to plants that are operating, whether those plants have already been relicensed or those plants that are last in line for that. It’s not a license-renewal topic. …

We do support fixing the lessons learned from Fukushima. That’s a no-brainer. …

If there’s things that can be done to make plants less vulnerable, then the best time to do that is before they’re built. That’s the cheapest time; that’s the safest time to do it. …

But we’re not breaking ground tomorrow for new reactors, so it’s not that urgent. We can learn the lessons from Fukushima, factor them into going forward.

Of course the notion of building new plants — we’ve got the AP1000s being built in South Carolina and Georgia — but is it realistic to even be thinking about new plants? If so, how can Fukushima inform those decisions and how they are designed?

There’s talk about building new nuclear power plants in the United States for the first time in decades. There are some lessons that can be learned from Fukushima that can make those plants less vulnerable. …

The plants have already factored much of that into it. They’ve tried to split, separate things to make the new reactors less vulnerable to fires. It’s a good time to look at it to see if you can even expand upon that advancement and further increase the value of diversity and defense in depth.

How much did 9/11 and the concern over the terrorist threat harden up the U.S. nuclear industry such that a Fukushima-type accident is less likely?

A major difference between the United States and Japan was that 9/11 occurred here. As a result of that tragedy, a lot of things were done at nuclear power plants to make them less vulnerable to acts of terror.

For example, there are more portable generators and portable pumps at plants today in the United States than in Japan. Those additional tools that are available to the operator make it more likely that they’d be able to deal with an act of nature that Fukushima faced, if something like that were to occur at one of our plants.

It’s not complete immunity, because those additional equipment or assets were deployed only with suicide aircraft in mind. … We just need to re-locate some of that equipment to make it dual purpose: acts of terror, acts of nature.

Subsequent to Fukushima, the NRC had a committee look into this, and there was a series of recommendations. Were those appropriate? Do they go far enough?

I testified before the Senate in late March of this year, and the question from one of the senators was, “Should the NRC have an independent commission look over their shoulders to tell them what are the lessons learned from Fukushima?”

My answer then is the same as it is today. I fully trust that the NRC will come up with the right lessons learned from that accident, that tragedy. My concern was, how quickly would they then act upon that to-do list?

Right now there are schedules [of] four and a half years to develop the order, to tell the orders to go out and do X, Y and Z. That’s four and a half years from the owners even getting ground zero, so that’s a long time. And that’s even if they meet that schedule. …

Given the track record, especially when it comes to fire prevention, we have no reason to believe it’s going to happen quickly, do we?

We have doubts, but to the NRC’s credit, after a near miss at the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio in 2002, the agency also assembled a task force. That task force identified 49 things that the agency could do to prevent the next Davis-Besse.

They also established a timeline for working those off within about three or four years, and they met that timeline for all 49 of those items. So the NRC can meet a schedule. We’re just trying to ensure that they do set a schedule and then meet it, because safety IOUs don’t protect anybody.

Prior to Fukushima, the phrase that was used quite frequently — and I think it might have been hatched by the industry — was “nuclear renaissance.” How real was that before Fukushima? How real is it now, after Fukushima?

… The nuclear renaissance was in play before Fukushima. If you look at today’s fleet of 104 reactors, most of them have gotten license renewal for 20 more years on top of the original 40-year license.

Most of them also have power uprates of up to 20 percent, so you’re getting 20 percent more electricity from the same plant. That, in a sense, is replacing the construction of X number of new nuclear power plants.

So in a sense, that — increasing the power levels and increasing the lifetime of existing plants — is by some definitions a nuclear renaissance.

In some respects, that success has pushed back the need for new plants, so that success has been a barrier to building new plants, because you just don’t need the electricity if you’re going to run this plant in this location for 20 more years. It’s been a hindrance to new reactor construction, but it does mean we have more nuclear power in this country.

Over the last two decades, the percentage of electricity coming from nuclear power has been fairly constant at about 20 percent. We haven’t added new nuclear power plants, so we’re getting more performance, more product out of the existing plants to meet growing electricity needs.

We’re getting better at running them?

We are much better. The average capacity factor at the U.S. plants today is about 90 percent, which means they’re generating electricity roughly 90 percent of the year.

Two decades ago, it was down about 60 or 65 percent. So plant owners are managing or running their plants at a much higher level today than they were two decades ago.

Does that mean they’re safer?

The increased performance does mean that plants are running safer, because the shutdowns that led to the 65 percent capacity factors — you run for a while, something in the plant breaks, and you shut down — you’re testing your backups.

Even though the backups are highly reliable, the more often you test a highly reliable system, the more likely you are to come [up] empty someday. So one of the ways to have defense in depth work is not to challenge it very often. And what they’ve done is to reduce the challenges to those safety systems.

… It’s not a great business model, is it, running a plant? …

The problem with nuclear power is it’s very expensive to do it right. Eighty percent passing is not an acceptable score in nuclear safety. You need to be up to 100 percent.

To do that, it takes highly qualified personnel. It takes a lot of investment to keep your plant as pristine as possible and things that you don’t have to do at coal-fire plants and oil-fire plants and other competitors in an electricity marketplace. …

Do we need nuclear?

I try to avoid that question, because whether we need it or not, there’s enough people debating that. I’m trying to look at the hull, and I want the hull to be intact so that ship can get to whatever shore that is, whether it’s more nuclear power or nuclear-free. …

Let other people debate whether nuclear power should or should not be in our future. We have it right now. I want to make sure those ships don’t sink along the way.

In Germany, they’re anchoring the ships. … Was that a rational response to Fukushima?

… That country just seems to react more viscerally to international events. I can’t say whether it’s right or wrong. Just from an observation, they’ve flipped between adding nuclear power to going nuclear-free quite often. So we’ll see if this is lasting or just the latest iteration in those flip-flops.

The one thing Germany has that Japan doesn’t have … is they have a greater foundation for renewables and other things that can replace nuclear’s contribution. …

I think if you look forward a generation or two, we’re going to go to distributing electricity generation. If so, that tends to favor smaller renewable sources, non-nuclear sources.

So I think what we’ve done over the past generation of the large, centralized power stations, whether they’re fossil-fired or nuclear-powered, is a model that’s going away. I think the new model that’s on the horizon is one that favors non-nuclear tech. Not necessarily has anything to do with the security or the nuclear waste or the safety issues — it’s just that the infrastructure’s changing. …

Is Indian Point a fundamentally flawed design in its location and proximity to so many people? Is there any way to make that plant safe and create an evacuation plan that is something other than fanciful notions?

None of our reactor designs is inherently safe. Even the ones we’re talking about in the future aren’t inherently safe. You need federal liability protection for their owners and operators.

You try to make the risk as low as possible. That’s what the safety regulations intend to do, is not to have zero risk but to have an acceptably low level of risk.

Emergency planning is a safety net for that. Even though you’ve tried your best to make these plants as safe as possible, the emergency plans are the safety net to protect the public in case of a disaster.

The problem with the emergency planning is it’s hard to test. The real pivotal element is, can you get people out before the cloud goes by? You exercise every two years the people who would be inside the fences making decisions, but you never test the part about getting people out.

You’d have to notify; you’d have to transport. How do you make that happen? You role-play that, you tabletop it, but you never really know until after the fact whether you’ve been successful or not.

I think you need to retain that, and I think you need to ensure that people have as much confidence as possible in those plans, because one thing that will sink the plan is if the people who hear the siren and get into their car and just [go] buggy, rather than turn on the TV and listen to what they should be doing, could just make things worse.

People have to have confidence in those plans to have them be as good as you hope them to be.

But you know human nature. You know how that’s going to go, right?

I do. Unfortunately, some of the plants today rely on people staying in their homes so they won’t clog up the roads, so the people who are closer in and have a greater need will be slowed down to get out, because people are just going to flood the roads.

The emergency plans currently assume that’s not going to happen, which is a nonconservative assumption that may result in more people being harmed than need to be.

… Is Indian Point safe?

Indian Point is not safe when it doesn’t meet safety regulations. Right now it doesn’t meet safety regulations. …

The emergency plan is a bigger issue. The state and local entities have said, “We can’t get people out if those sirens go off.” We need to resolve that issue.

We can’t have the first responders saying, “We can’t protect these people if those sirens go off.” We need to at least they think they can do it. Give them the resources, solve their needs, so that if they’re called upon on that bad day, they can protect the people. We need to have some plans in place that we think are going to work rather than hope for a miracle.

It’s a difficult problem, though, in a populated region that literally includes most of New York City.

It is, but on the flip side of that, there’s been some talk about the plan out in Kansas, Wolf Creek. There’s only one paved road in the 10-mile radius of the plant. …

That’s our bread belt. There’s not many people necessarily around the plant, but there’s a lot of foodstuffs and other. So we need the plants to be as safe as possible everywhere, not just close to Philadelphia or close to Chicago, close to New York.

What needs to be done at Indian Point to bring it into safety compliance?

The areas where the NRC knows that plant doesn’t meet today’s safety standards, like in the seismic risk, it has some fire protection issues, and it has a part that was installed for one purpose that’s known to be leaking for the last 20 years. Those known safety problems need to be fixed. …

It’s had a leak for 20 years?

During refueling, they fill up an area so that fuel can be transferred in and out of the reactor. There’s a stainless steel liner that was installed for one purpose and one purpose only, to prevent leakage after an earthquake. It’s been leaking since 1993.

The NRC’s argument is that it only leaks when it’s filled with water. Most of the time, it’s not filled with water. But that’s its only purpose, its only reason for protecting workers and the public, and you know it’s already broken? To say, “Close enough,” that’s just wrong. …

[Editors’ Note: Read Joe Pollock’s take on the leak. Pollock is Indian Point’s former vice president of operations.]

It’s just hard to imagine a plant could be out of compliance for so long and get away with it.

There’s no statute of limitations on safety. You can’t outlive a problem and say it’s OK now. …

I told the NRC that they essentially become like a bartender who allows a patron to go home drunk. If that patron is involved in an accident, the bartender can be held liable because he knew that person was impaired.

I think the NRC [that] allows a nuclear power plant to operate with safety features that are broken will be just as liable as the owner if people are harmed some day.

… It’s sometimes very difficult to really get at the issue of safety, because there’s stuff that’s kind of just beneath the surface. And that’s what you’ve attempted to do here with these 14 near misses. What does that report tell you? …

… We wanted to see if there’s any common threads among those 14 elements. So what we did was look at the times last year where the NRC sent out a special inspection team to look at an event that occurred at a plant or a discovery of a degraded condition. We tried to characterize what happened and then try to draw common threads.

One of the things we found was, first of all, they happened at a rate of more than one a month. … The other thing we found was that some of the events seemed to have common threads.

One of the companies only owns five reactors; it had near misses at four of the five. So it had more than its share of near misses.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission doesn’t step back to see if there’s a corporate hand responsible for those outcomes, or was it just bad luck. But if you don’t look and answer that question, you’ll never find out if there’s a common reason why so many reactors operated by that owner are having problems.

So the lesson here is, some operators are better than others.

Yeah. About every two or three years, we have to relearn that lesson. But Forbes magazine in the mid-80s, New York Times in the ’90s, was saying it’s management that really determines the quality or safety at a plant, not the age, the location, the type of reactor. …

But it’s not necessarily regulators that determine this.

Good management translates into good safety levels at nuclear power plants. Then the regulator’s job is to make sure that bad management gets weeded out and not encouraged.

Is that happening?

Not as often as it should be. The NRC has known about problems at some plants, and it’s tolerated them until some watershed event forces their hand. …

It’s not enough to simply flag a problem. You need to do something to bring about fixes. …

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

Tampa Lead Factory Faces $518,000 Fine for Environmental Violations
The proposed penalty would be the largest in the history of the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission.
January 22, 2022
Elizabeth Williamson
January 18, 2022
THE PEGASUS PROJECT Live Blog: Major Stories from Partners
A curated and regularly updated list of news articles from our partners in “The Pegasus Project,” a collaborative investigation among 17 journalism outlets around the world.
January 12, 2022