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April 11, 2011

NRC: Watchdog or Lapdog?

New_england_ref_2001 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.

Wait, you're citing yourself as a source for your conclusion?

"That's the conclusion of a third report — and one that I authored —"


These op-ed pieces passed off as investigative journalism are laughable. They all have the same exact formula : a.) Put up some complainant filed by an advocacy group, b.) mention Japan to trump up hysteria, c.) trot out Arnie Gunderson as an expert d.) Then take a few quotes, label them as facts and then submit.

"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"

That's a rather inflammatory statement that any journalist would realize needs a source.

"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"

Anyother outlandish and trumped up statement. Heightened sense.... BS!! The only people worred about a similar meltdown in New England are VPIRG/CLF/John Greenberg, and they all had the same concern before Japan. It is neither realistic nor heightened.

As for David Lochbaum, the man has been discredited more times then James Hanson.

This piece easily could have been the April's Fools Day article.

To JCarter

Do you have evidence to contradict any of the findings reported? If so, please share them. If not, your criticisms are without any merit.

Doug,

" If so, please share them. If not, your criticisms are without any merit."

LOL !!!! do you not see the hypocrisy in your post? I directly stated several things I disagreed with. You did not, and then you tell me my post is without merit?? Good one.

JCarter

Disagreeing is your right. Credibility must be earned. You trash the report but offer no evidence to support your assertions.

You asserted that the piece is "laughable" because
1. it uses complaints from advocacy groups; you are free to dismiss them out of hand but it would be more persuasive if you addressed the particular complaints so we could judge their veracity
2. it mentioned Japan which, you say, is intended to "trump up hysteria"; events in Japan are horrendous (now judged equivalent to Chernobyl) and it is perfectly appropriate to reference them here
3. it trotted "out Arnie Gunderson as an expert"; actually, he is an expert; are you prepared to contradict his statements about nuclear energy?

You also refered to what you characterized as "a rather inflammatory statement that any journalist would realize needs a source."

Have you read the full report? That's why I asked you the question. I might agree with you if there's no source in the report. But you didn't say that and now after being given an opportunity you still haven't told us.

You objected to the statement that "there is a heightened sense of concern throughout the United States that a similar meltdown could occur, particularly in New England."

You referred to it as "outlandish and trumped up" and said "it is neither realistic nor heightened." Again, have you read the full report? If so, did Shay support the statement? In any case, do you have evidence to support your assertion that "it is neither realistic nor heightened"? If not, aren't you guilty of what you accused Shay of doing? You told us your opinion, which is not the same as representing the views of New Englanders.

Doug,

1.) There was no particular complaint listed here. I'm not a journalist, so it isn't really my job to do Shay's for him. However complaints that deal with for example "NRC has routinely allowed operators to pack spent fuel rods into cooling pools far beyond the pools’ original licensed capacity and design basis" are just that...complaints and frivilous at best. Justifications such as "beyond original design, or beyond original licensure" are clear indicators of the ignorance of the complainers who clearly have no idea what the "orginal design or licensure" were even based on. Therefore, I judge in particular that complaint to be fear and ignorance induced hogwash. As for the complaint of this "report" and the NRC being too leniant, I judge that to be rather misinformed as Shay clearly doesn't have the time and capabilities to review every document, paper, and bit of information the NRC has used to determine whether a nuclear plant should or shouldn't be relicensed.

2.) You didn't read my post well. Japan is being used to trump up and instill hysteria by, case in point, saying that people, particularly in New England are growning more concerned over a similar event here. That's just absurd or a distortion if you like. The NRC has specifically released the odds of such events. Experts have weighed in. So yes a few people standing out on church street may be more concerned a journalistic endeavor should focus not necessarily on what people think, but on what those people whose opinions are informed think. And, while Japan has been a horrific event for those people, we will not see a similar chain of events in New England.
3.) Gunderson is an expert with an ax to grind. That's what Guderson is, and his straw in a bottle is absolutely false. You most certainly can get soda even with foam in a bottle. Moreover, my contention about Gunderson wasn't what was said in this particular blog entry rather this same tired old news formula. It is the same in every anti-nuke story. Credit to Shay who at least found another anti-nuke hysteric to side with him. Problem is David has a habit of "mixing up" dates and facts.

To answer the rest of you post... No I did not yet read the report. I commented on the blog and was dicussing the blog. That may have confused you, I apologize.

Finally,
"If not, aren't you guilty of what you accused Shay of doing? You told us your opinion,"

No its not the same. I don't parade around or represent myself as a journalist. If I posted what I said on the internet calling it a recap of an investigative report then it would be the same, but I didn't so no it's not.

I read the report. There is nothing there that isn't in this little blurb outside a few more garbage lines.

"A UCS report of safety problems issued last month found 14 “near misses” at U.S. nuclear power plants, a high number for what Lochbaum calls a “mature industry.”"

An investigative reporter may have followed up with, 14 near misses over how long of a period? Forever? A high number relative to what? What were the nature of these "near misses"? What actually constitutes as a near miss?

For example, Lochbaum has been shown to call situations that occur as "events" even though they functioned exactly as intended.

Shay then comes up with this beauty "he closest the U.S. has come to full-scale core reactor meltdown was in February 2002 when workers at the Davis-Besse reactor in Ohio"

Well, if that is the closest call then there is zero to worry about and Shay needs to find another industry to stalk. The Davis Besse reactor found a cavity in metal that was used to contain (gasp) about 2500 psi. Now thats a significant amount of pressure, but we are talking 3+ inches of remaining steel. Capable of withstanding that pressure. But, that's not very interesting to talk about....much more gossipy to call it the closest call to a meltdown because by and large the uninformed masses will jump and think of some movie where cataclysmic failure is emminent and only narrowly avoided at the last second. When in fact there was never any danger. Shay then seemingly chastizes the NRC for not "learning a lesson" from it. Of course what lesson would they learn? That when you shut down to do inspections you find that shit happens?

SImple fact of the matter is this a Cosmopolitian article. Nothing more then gossip and heresay with a few distorted facts sprinkled in. And this line holds about the same truth.. "Vermont investigative journalist Shay Totten"

Well he does live in vermont, is a journalists and did SOME investigating, so technically when you string the words together it is true. Practically speaking not so much

Hoffer attacks jcarter for taking issue with hysterical assertions reported in this blurb summarizing the report, but gives doesn't question the report itself.

Cart before horse much?

Hoffer gives the left wing report a free pass, despite its apparent bias and lack of support, but absolutely demands citations from someone who only points out that the report itself appears to be substantiated.

Left wing bias much? And this DB wanted to be our Auditor?

correction: the report itself appears to be UNsubstantiated.

1) JCarter writes: ""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"

Anyother outlandish and trumped up statement."

AP (4/8/11)reported: " Most Americans doubt the U.S. government is prepared to respond to a nuclear emergency like the one in Japan, a new Associated Press-GfK poll shows. But it also shows few Americans believe such an emergency would occur.

Nevertheless, the disaster has turned more Americans against new nuclear power plants. The poll found that 60 percent of Americans oppose building more nuclear power plants. That's up from 48 percent who opposed it in an AP-Stanford University Poll in November 2009."

http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jRPD-jfv0NGTkmIx21R_9mWAlPLg?docId=98e772861c084821b2a32e6a3bfa0142

2) JCarter writes: ""A UCS report of safety problems issued last month found 14 “near misses” at U.S. nuclear power plants, a high number for what Lochbaum calls a “mature industry.”"

An investigative reporter may have followed up with, 14 near misses over how long of a period? Forever? A high number relative to what? What were the nature of these "near misses"? What actually constitutes as a near miss?"

From the UCS report: "In 2010, the NRC reported on 14 special inspections it launched in response to troubling events, safety equipment problems, and security shortcomings at nuclear power plants. This report provides an overview of each of these significant events, or “near-misses.” http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/nuclear_power/nrc-exec-summ-2010.pdf

3) JCarter: "Shay then comes up with this beauty "he closest the U.S. has come to full-scale core reactor meltdown was in February 2002 when workers at the Davis-Besse reactor in Ohio"

Well, if that is the closest call then there is zero to worry about and Shay needs to find another industry to stalk. The Davis Besse reactor found a cavity in metal that was used to contain (gasp) about 2500 psi. Now thats a significant amount of pressure, but we are talking 3+ inches of remaining steel."

The NRC report: "The remaining thickness of the RPV head in the wastage area was found to be approximately 3/8 inch. This thickness consisted of the thickness of the stainless steel cladding on the inside surface of the RPV head, which is nominally 3/8 inch thick. The stainless steel cladding is resistant to corrosion by boric acid, but it is not intended to provide structural integrity to the vessel. Failure of the stainless steel cladding would have resulted in a loss-of-coolant accident (LOCA)."
http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/nuregs/brochures/br0353/br0353r1.pdf

Oh for Pete's sake Greenberg give it a rest or at least try and respond to the actual posts. I'm an entirely sick of your misdirected responses.

1.) You aren't even responding to what I posted. If you want to make that statement thats all fine and dandy, but don't address off topic garbage at me. If I post NEW ENGLAND, keep the "most american's" drivel to yourself

2.) Again, you didn't address the post.

3.) There are photos, including ones with a tape measure. The remaining steel is clear. I would provide a link, but I have zero inclination to bang my head against the wall any more.

@ Greenberg:

You write: "AP (4/8/11)reported: " Most Americans doubt the U.S. government is prepared to respond to a nuclear emergency like the one in Japan, a new Associated Press-GfK poll shows. But it also shows few Americans believe such an emergency would occur."

Um, so in fact, jcarter was right: There appears to be no basis for the vague statement that, "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." It seems that the author of this posting just made this uncited statement up because he felt like it. What exactly does "heightened sense" mean? How many people possess this supposed "heightened sense"? No information is given.

For accuracy sake, after reviewing the pictures, it is clear that there is over an inch of steel at the top of the RPV head, it also appears that the cavity is deeper as you look down into the head. So I will acknowledge that it is likely the stated 3/8 inch of steel remaining is accurrate.

In the context of this blog, the "investigative report" and my point to which GREENberg responded. There was no failure, the cavity was detected during routine inspection, the plant was taken offline while it was repaired and the system worked exactly as designed. Again, if this is the closest to a meltdown then there is no need to 'investigate' possible meltdowns further, because it wasn't even close, nor was there a "lesson for the NRC to learn" unless of course the lesson was that current protocols and inspections are adequate.

How does the former nuclear industy (sic) executive / occassional (sic) consulant (sic) think we should replace the emerrgency (sic) pumps?

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