US Nuclear Regulatory Commission's 'enforcement' is as fierce as the comfy chair

The transformer fire at Vermont Yankee nuclear power station, 18th June 2004. Photo: anonymous whistleblower via
The transformer fire at Vermont Yankee nuclear power station, 18th June 2004. Photo: anonymous whistleblower via
The NRC routinely fails to enforce its own safety codes at nuclear power plants, writes Linda Pentz Gunter - putting all of us at risk from accidents. It's the US's most extreme example of regulatory capture, rivalling Japan's 'nuclear village' of crony agencies and feeble regulation that led to the Fukushima disaster. How long can it be before the US experiences another nuclear catastrophe?
The nuclear industry has consistently challenged the NRC's safety compliance orders to avoid the expense, putting profit well ahead of safety. The NRC has consistently and obligingly capitulated, even when the risk itself is identified as a top priority.

Fetch the comfy chair! The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is in town to enforce its own safety regulations at your local nuclear power plant. Reactor owners have been duly warned. Comply or else ...

Or else what? Three more last chances? No, unlike Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition, the NRC isn't bothering to read the charges. It's handing out immunity.

The US still has 30 operating reactors of the same General Electric design that exploded at Fukushima. Yet the NRC has decided not to require a significant safety retrofit that it had ordered in 2013, and that would have reduced the radioactive consequences of a major accident at one of these dangerously flawed reactors.

Or rather, the NRC will require it, but only after the reactor closes. The Oyster Creek nuclear generating station in New Jersey, which happens also to be the world's prototype for the Fukushima reactors, is scheduled to close on December 31, 2019.

The NRC agreed to owner Exelon's request for an extension to comply with the installation of a reliable severe accident-capable hardened vent. Exelon's new deadline? January 2020, just after the reactor will be permanently shuttered.

Similarly, the Entergy-owned Pilgrim nuclear plant near Plymouth, MA, also a GE Fukushima design, and which has announced a June 1, 2019 shutdown date, has requested and extension to comply with the vent order until December 31, 2019.

It's tempting be cynical and assume that by agreeing to extend such deadlines, the NRC is hoping owners will change their minds and keep their reactors open. After all, shutdowns are bad for business, and the NRC is very much in league with the interests of its industry friends.

Nothing illustrated this better than the NRC's decision to provide a 20-year license extension to the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant - another Fukushima clone - ten days into the 11th March 2011 Japan nuclear disaster. Luckily, the owners closed the financially hemorrhaging plant at the end of 2014.

The consistent pattern: industry cost cuts before public safety

Beleaguered by an economic nosedive, the nuclear industry has consistently challenged the NRC's safety compliance orders to avoid the expense, putting profit well ahead of safety. The NRC has consistently and obligingly capitulated, even when the risk itself is identified as a top priority.

For example, the agency allowed the nuclear industry to remove fire barriers that were found to be combustible from around safe shutdown electrical cables at reactor buildings, and in some cases replace them with ... nothing! In the absence of replacement barriers that actually function, workers are expected to patrol vulnerable fire zones (and presumably shout 'Fire!') This, despite the fact that the NRC rates fire as the most likely cause of a meltdown.

The nuclear industry has consistently challenged the NRC's safety compliance orders to avoid the expense, putting profit well ahead of safety. The NRC has consistently and obligingly capitulated, even when the risk itself is identified as a top priority.

Just this April, the agency issued less than a slap on the wrist to Entergy Nuclear Corporation for its security guards' falsification of safety inspections for missed fire watches at its Pilgrim and Waterford (LA) nuclear power plants.

Recently, Entergy's Palisades plant dismissed 22 security guards under investigation for the same falsification violation. The malfeasance extends to supervisors who then falsified company time cards for fire patrols that never happened. How far does this extend up the corporate management ladder? Bring on the soft cushions and the NRC will find out.

Genius - let the nuclear industry self-report its own violations!

The list goes on. At the Exelon-owned Braidwood, IL nuclear power plant, starting in 1996, millions of gallons of water contaminated with tritium (radioactive hydrogen) leaked from the plant for 10 years while Exelon covered it up.

The tritiated water spilled onto roadways and into ditches, contaminating nearby agricultural fields, ponds and the drinking water wells of surrounding homeowners. Two on-site NRC inspectors supposedly failed to notice the lake of radioactive water flooding on and off the site.

The NRC's solution was to allow the industry to self-report future leaks through an unenforceable voluntary honor system; a guarantee for further cover-ups. This despite revelations including in a report by my organization Beyond Nuclear - Leak First, Fix Later, and by the Associated Press that radioactive leaks were likely occurring at almost every nuclear plant in the country.

At the Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Ohio, the NRC chose to risk losing Toledo and the Great Lakes after years of saving owner FirstEnergy the trouble and expense of finding and fixing a growing and eventually gaping corrosion hole in the reactor vessel head. Just three-sixteenths of an inch of a bulging stainless steel inner liner was all that remained on the six-inch thick reactor pressure vessel lid - and all that prevented a likely meltdown.

Official estimates found that the lid could have breached under the reactor's extremely high pressure in just several more weeks of operations, had the reactor not finally shut for refueling and a long delayed inspection. Both FirstEnergy and the NRC had known the risks but chose to gamble public safety and allowed the plant to keep operating anyway.

At least on this occasion there was some punitive action. The NRC's own Office of Inspector General concluded that the agency had suppressed an order finalized by its own staff to require an early shutdown of Davis-Besse to inspect the corrosion problem. Instead the agency allowed continued operation in deference to FirstEnergy profit motives.

The plant eventually closed for two years, costing ratepayers $600 million. Davis-Besse was fined first $5.45 million and then an additional $28 million, the largest such financial penalty in NRC history. But such outcomes are rare. Instead, collusion with industry is endemic at the NRC.

Who is watching? Certainly not Congress, to whom the NRC is supposed to answer but which has rarely asked the agency to explain its negligence. Instead, there have been scores of close calls at US nuclear plants -166 in the last decade alone according to Greenpeace. The NRC has issued dozens of license extensions to old, decrepit reactors and denied none.

'The agency is a wholly owned subsidiary of the nuclear power industry'

All this should have changed in 1974 when the Energy Reorganization Act divided the then Atomic Energy Commission into two new agencies - the NRC and what would become the Department of Energy. This was done to create a dividing line between nuclear regulation and promotion, with the NRC assuming the former role.

But the umbilical cord never got cut. The NRC didn't just climb straight back into bed with the nuclear industry. It crawled back into the womb, as former NRC commissioner and now critic, Peter Bradford, told the New York Times: "The NRC inherited the regulatory staff and adopted the rules and regulations of the AEC intact."

Meanwhile, since the agency's inception, many outgoing NRC Commissioners have sailed away in golden parachutes straight into plum nuclear industry jobs.

  • The first NRC commissioner, William A. Anders (1975-76), went on to General Dynamics, where he earned $40 million in two years.

  • Thomas M. Roberts (1981-1990) was asked to resign from the commission by critics in Congress due to conflicts of interest.

  • Nils Diaz (1996-2006), exited the commission to become Chief Strategic Officer for Blue Castle Project, described as "leading the West in New Nuclear Power."

  • Jeffrey S. Merrifield (1998-2007), was investigated by the Project On Government Oversight while still a commissioner for getting contracts for the Shaw Group for whom he subsequently went to work, as well as having his travel tab paid by GE while job seeking there during his NRC tenure.

  • Richard Meserve (1999-2003), who resigned during the Davis-Besse scandal, received a 2012 Nuclear Energy Industry Leadership Award from the industry's lobbying arm, the Nuclear Energy Institute, as testament to his industry loyalty.

  • Former NRC Chairman, Dale Klein, (2006-10), now works for Japanese utility Tokyo Electric Power Company, at the center of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, where he oversees the corporation's ongoing reactor restart effort.

  • William D. Magwood, IV (2010-2014), resigned his commission seat to join the Nuclear Energy Association (NEA) in Paris, replacing Stephen Burns who took a new position as ... Chairman of the NRC Commission!

A few former commissioners, including Bradford (1977-82) and Victor Gilinsky (1974-84) became stern critics of the agency after their tenures. "The agency is a wholly owned subsidiary of the nuclear power industry", Gilinsky said.

"It's common knowledge in Washington that anyone nominated to be a commissioner to the NRC has to be pre-approved by the nuclear industry", Union of Concerned Scientists senior scientist, Edwin Lyman told Forbes. "In order to get a more independent mindset, you've got to break that stranglehold."

Just like Japan's 'nuclear village'

The Japanese parliament found that out after it commissioned a causal study on the Fukushima disaster in 2012. When the independent investigators delivered their verdict, they described the calamity as "man-made" and attributed it to collusion between government, regulator and TEPCO.

The NRC seems bent on repeating those mistakes while Members of Congress continue to do the bidding of the nuclear industry lobby and little to represent the safety and wellbeing of their real employers: all of us.

Do those nice fat checks from lobbyists buy their silence? Do they just not care? Or are they in fact worse than the NRC itself? The industry is once again pitching for a reduction in what it sees as burdensome regulatory oversight. Will Congress agree and slash the NRC budget to streamline what is already a rubber stamp system on safety?

Meanwhile, the NRC continues to look the other way on violations of its own safety regulations. It is happy to ignore potentially deadly defects and age-related degradation at the country's nuclear plants in order to save the beleaguered industry any additional expense.

It will choose to risk potentially tens of thousands of lives to keep that revolving door spinning and the pathway clear to cushy jobs in the nuclear industry. That's worse than collusion and negligence. It's criminal. Are we outraged yet?



Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear, a Takoma Park, MD environmental advocacy group.

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