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America’s Nuclear Nightmare

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The meltdown in Japan couldn't have happened at a worse time for the industry. In recent years, nuclear power has been hyped as the only energy source that could replace coal quickly enough to slow the pace of global warming. Some 60 new nukes are currently in the works worldwide, prompting the industry to boast of a "nuclear renaissance." In his 2012 budget, President Obama included $54 billion in federal loan guarantees for new reactors — far more than the $18 billion available for renewable energy.

Without such taxpayer support, no new reactors would ever be built. Since the Manhattan Project was created to develop the atomic bomb back in the 1940s, the dream of a nuclear future has been fueled almost entirely by Big Government. America's current fleet of reactors exists only because Congress passed the Price-Anderson Act in 1957, limiting the liability of nuclear plant operators in case of disaster. And even with taxpayers assuming most of the risk, Wall Street still won't finance nuclear reactors without direct federal assistance, in part because construction costs are so high (up to $20 billion per plant) and in part because nukes are the only energy investment that can be rendered worthless in a matter of hours. "In a free market, where real risks and costs are accounted for, nuclear power doesn't exist," says Amory Lovins, a leading energy expert at the Rocky Mountain Institute. Nuclear plants "are a creation of government policy and intervention."

They are also a creation of lobbying and campaign contributions. Over the past decade, the nuclear industry has contributed more than $4.6 million to members of Congress — and last year alone, it spent $1.7 million on federal lobbying. Given the generous flow of nuclear money, the NRC is essentially rigged to operate in the industry's favor. The agency has plenty of skilled engineers and scientists at the staff level, but the five commissioners who oversee it often have close ties to the industry they are supposed to regulate. "They are vetted by the industry," says Robert Alvarez, a former senior policy adviser at the Energy Department. "It's the typical revolving-door story — many are coming in or out of jobs with the nuclear power industry. You don't get a lot of skeptics appointed to this job."

Jeffrey Merrifield, a former NRC commissioner who left the agency in 2007, is a case in point. When Merrifield was ready to exit public service, he simply called up the CEO of Exelon, the country's largest nuclear operator, and asked him for a job recommendation. Given his friends in high places, he wound up taking a top job at the Shaw Group, a construction firm that builds nuclear reactors — and he's done his best to return the favor. During the Fukushima disaster, Merrifield appeared on Fox News, as well as in videos for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's lobbying group. In one video — titled "Former NRC Commissioner Confident That Building of New U.S. Nuclear Plants Should Continue" — Merrifield reassures viewers that the meltdown in Japan is no big deal. "We should continue to move forward with building those new plants," he says, "because it's the right thing for our nation and it's the right thing for our future."

Such cozy relationships between regulators and the industry are nothing new. The NRC and the utilities it oversees have engaged in an unholy alliance since 1974, when the agency rose from the ashes of the old Atomic Energy Commission, whose mandate was to promote nuclear power. "For political reasons, the U.S. wanted to show something good could come out of splitting the atom," says Robert Duffy, a political scientist at Colorado State University who has written widely about the history of nuclear power. "There was great pressure on the industry to get nuclear plants built quickly." With no effective oversight by the government, the industry repeatedly cut corners on the design and construction of reactors. At the Diablo Canyon plant in California, engineers actually installed vital cooling pipes backward, only to have to tear them out and reinstall them.

But even the lax oversight provided by the NRC was more than the industry could bear. In 1996, in one of the most aggressive enforcement moves in the agency's history, the NRC launched an investigation into design flaws at a host of reactors and handed out significant fines. When the industry complained to Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, a powerful nuclear ally, he confronted the head of the NRC in his office and threatened to cut its funding by a third unless the agency backed off. "So the NRC folded their tent and went away," says Lochbaum. "And they've been away pretty much ever since."

The Japanese disaster should have been a wake-up call for boosters of nuclear power. America has 31 aging reactors just like Fukushima, and it wouldn't take an earthquake or tsunami to push many of them to the brink of meltdown. A natural disaster may have triggered the crisis in Japan, but the real problem was that the plant lost power and was unable to keep its cooling systems running — a condition known as "station blackout." At U.S. reactors, power failures have been caused by culprits as mundane as squirrels playing on power lines. In the event of a blackout, operators have only a few hours to restore power before a meltdown begins. All nukes are equipped with backup diesel generators, as well as batteries. But at Fukushima, the diesel generators were swamped by floodwaters, and the batteries lasted a mere eight hours — not nearly long enough to get power restored and avert catastrophe. NRC standards do virtually nothing to prevent such a crisis here at home. Only 11 of America's nuclear reactors have batteries designed to supply power for up to eight hours, while the other 93 have batteries that last half that long.

And that's just the beginning of the danger. Aging reactors are a gold mine for the power companies that own them. Nuclear plants are expensive to build but cheap to operate, meaning the longer they run, the more profitable they become. The NRC has done its part to boost profitability by allowing companies to "uprate" old nukes — modifying them to run harder — without requiring additional safety improvements. Vermont Yankee, for example, was permitted to boost its output by 20 percent, eroding the reactor's ability to cool itself in the event of an emergency. The NRC's own advisory committee on reactor safety was vehemently opposed to allowing such modifications, but the agency ultimately allowed the industry to trade safety for profit. "The NRC put millions of Americans at elevated risk," says Lochbaum.

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