America’s Nuclear Nightmare

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Indeed, the NRC's "safety-last" attitude recalls the industry-friendly approach to regulation that resulted in the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year. Nuclear reactors were built to last only 40 years, but the NRC has repeatedly greenlighted industry requests to keep the aging nukes running for another two decades: Of the 63 applications the NRC has received for license extensions, it has approved all 63. In some cases, according to the agency's own Office of the Inspector General, NRC inspectors failed to verify the authenticity of safety information submitted by the industry, opting to simply cut and paste sections of the applications into their own safety reviews. That's particularly frightening given that some of America's most troubled reactors — including Davis-Besse in Ohio, where a football-size hole overlooked by NRC inspectors nearly caused a catastrophe in 2002 — are now pushing for extensions. "If history is any judge, the NRC is likely to grant them," says Gundersen, the former nuclear executive.

Even after a reactor is found to be at higher risk because of new information about earthquake zones — as is the case at Indian Point, located only 38 miles from New York City — the NRC has done little to bolster safety requirements. The agency's current risk estimate of potential core damage at the Pilgrim reactor in Plymouth, Massachusetts, is eight times higher than its earlier 1989 estimate — yet it has done little to require the plant to prepare for an earthquake, beyond adding a few more fire hoses and other emergency gear. The Diablo Canyon plant in California, which sits near one of the most active seismic zones in the world, is supposedly engineered to withstand a 7.5 earthquake. There's only one problem: Two nearby faults are capable of producing quakes of 7.7 or higher. Should it be shut down? "That's the kind of big question the NRC should be capable of answering," says Gilinsky, the former NRC commissioner. "Unfortunately, they are not."

The biggest safety issue the NRC faces with old nukes is what to do about the nuclear waste. At Fukushima, the largest release of radioactivity apparently came from the concrete pools where spent fuel rods, clad with a special alloy, are placed to cool down after they are used in the reactor. These spent rods are extremely hot — up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit — and need a constant circulation of water to keep them from burning up. But in America, most plants have no way of keeping the water circulating in the event of a power failure. Nor are the pools themselves typically housed in secure bunkers, because the NRC long considered it virtually impossible for the special alloy to catch fire. Fukushima proved them wrong. The earthquake damaged the systems that cooled the spent rods, allowing the water to drain out. The rods then heated up and the cladding caught fire, releasing cesium-137 and other radioactive particles. The rods were eventually cooled with seawater fired from water cannons and pumped in by firetrucks, but not before a significant amount of radiation had been released.

In theory, pools in the U.S. were only supposed to hold spent fuel rods for a short time, until they could be moved to a permanent disposal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But the site has remained unfeasible despite two decades and $7 billion in research, prompting President Obama to finally pull the plug on it last year. That means tens of thousands of tons of irradiated fuel continue to sit in spent fuel pools at reactors across the country — America's largest repository of radioactive material. A release of just one-tenth of the radioactive material at the Vermont Yankee reactor could kill thousands and render much of New England uninhabitable for centuries. "Yet the NRC has ignored the risk for decades," says Alvarez, the former Energy Department adviser.

According to a 2003 study, it would cost as much as $7 billion to move the spent fuel out of the pools and into more secure containers known as dry-cask storage. So why hasn't the NRC required such a precaution? "Power companies don't want to pay for it," says Alvarez. "They would rather let the public take the risk." Gilinsky offers another explanation. "After insisting for years that spent fuel pools were not a problem," he says, "the NRC doesn't want to admit what everyone knows after Fukushima: They were wrong."

As chairman of the NRC, Gregory Jaczko was supposed to reform the agency. He formerly served as science adviser to Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, and won his seat on the commission in 2005 over protests from the industry. Under his leadership, however, the NRC has displayed an alarming lack of urgency in the wake of Fukushima. The agency says it is currently taking a quick look for immediate problems at U.S. reactors, and promises to follow up with a more in-depth review later. But it's an indication of how little respect the agency commands that no one expects much to change. Indeed, ever since the terrorist attacks in 2001, the NRC has become increasingly secretive. "The agency has used national security as an excuse to withhold information," says Diane Curran, an attorney who specializes in nuclear safety.

Some critics argue that it's time for an outside agency, such as the National Academy of Sciences, to take an independent look at the safety and security of America's aging nukes. A better idea might be to simply repeal the Price-Anderson Act and force the nuclear industry to take responsibility for the risks of running these old plants, rather than laying it all off on taxpayers. The meltdown in Japan could cost Tokyo Electric some $130 billion — roughly three times what the Deepwater Horizon spill cost BP. If nuke owners had to put their own money where their atoms are, the crumbling old reactors would get cleaned up or shut down in a heartbeat.

Instead, by allowing the industry to cut safety margins in exchange for profits, the NRC is actually putting the "nuclear renaissance" itself at risk. "It has not been protesters who have brought down the nuclear industry," said Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts. "It has been Wall Street." Wind and natural gas are already cheaper than nukes, and the price of solar is falling fast. And with each new Fukushima, the cost of nukes — as well as the risks — will continue to rise.

"The question is not whether we will get an earthquake or a tsunami," says Lochbaum. "The question is whether we are fully prepared for unexpected events, and whether we are doing everything we can to protect the public. I don't think we are. If and when there is a nuclear disaster, I would hate to be the one who has to stand up in front of the American people and say, 'We knew about these problems, but did nothing about them.'"

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