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America’s Nuclear Nightmare

The U.S. has 31 reactors just like Japan’s — but regulators are ignoring the risks and boosting industry profits

April 27, 2011 9:00 AM ET
The Davis-Besse nuclear generating station in Ohio, where a football-size hole overlooked by NRC inspectors nearly caused a catastrophe in 2002
The Davis-Besse nuclear generating station in Ohio, where a football-size hole overlooked by NRC inspectors nearly caused a catastrophe in 2002
Entergy Nuclear via the NRC

Five days after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, triggering the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, America's leading nuclear regulator came before Congress bearing good news: Don't worry, it can't happen here. In the aftermath of the Japanese catastrophe, officials in Germany moved swiftly to shut down old plants for inspection, and China put licensing of new plants on hold. But Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, reassured lawmakers that nothing at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors warranted any immediate changes at U.S. nuclear plants. Indeed, 10 days after the earthquake in Japan, the NRC extended the license of the 40-year-old Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor — a virtual twin of Fukushima — for another two decades. The license renewal was granted even though the reactor's cooling tower had literally fallen down, and the plant had repeatedly leaked radioactive fluid.

Photo Gallery: See America's Worst Nuclear Plants

Perhaps Jaczko was simply trying to prevent a full-scale panic about the dangers of U.S. nuclear plants. After all, there are now 104 reactors scattered across the country, generating 20 percent of America's power. All of them were designed in the 1960s and '70s, and are nearing the end of their planned life expectancy. But there was one problem with Jaczko's testimony, according to Dave Lochbaum, a senior adviser at the Union of Concerned Scientists: Key elements of what the NRC chief told Congress were "a baldfaced lie."

This article appears in the May 12, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now.

Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer, says that Jaczko knows full well that what the NRC calls "defense in depth" at U.S. reactors has been seriously compromised over the years. In some places, highly radioactive spent fuel is stockpiled in what amounts to swimming pools located beside reactors. In other places, changes in the cooling systems at reactors have made them more vulnerable to a core meltdown if something goes wrong. A few weeks before Fukushima, Lochbaum authored a widely circulated report that underscored the NRC's haphazard performance, describing 14 serious "near-miss" events at nuclear plants last year alone. At the Indian Point reactor just north of New York City, federal inspectors discovered a water-containment system that had been leaking for 16 years.

Read Jeff Goodell on the Gulf oil spill, one year later

As head of the NRC, Jaczko is the top cop on the nuclear beat, the guy charged with keeping the nation's fleet of aging nukes running safely. A balding, 40-year-old Democrat with big ears and the air of a brilliant high school physics teacher, Jaczko oversees a 4,000-person agency with a budget of $1 billion. But the NRC has long served as little more than a lap dog to the nuclear industry, unwilling to crack down on unsafe reactors. "The agency is a wholly owned subsidiary of the nuclear power industry," says Victor Gilinsky, who served on the commission during the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979. Even President Obama denounced the NRC during the 2008 campaign, calling it a "moribund agency that needs to be revamped and has become captive of the industries that it regulates."

In the years ahead, nuclear experts warn, the consequences of the agency's inaction could be dire. "The NRC has consistently put industry profits above public safety," says Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear executive turned whistle-blower. "Consequently, we have a dozen Fukushimas waiting to happen in America."

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