Shortly after an earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, in March, triggering the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, America’s leading nuclear regulator trekked up to Capitol Hill to assure jumpy lawmkers that, no way, it couldn’t happen here. While Germany shuttered old plants for inspection, and China put new plants on hold, Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told Congress there was no need for immediate changes at America’s 104 nuclear plants.
However, as Rolling Stone‘s Jeff Goodell reports, there was a 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.'”
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.
What gives? The NRC, America’s nuclear watchdog, is essentially captive to the profit-driven industry it’s charged to regulate. Consequently, a former nuclear executive tells Goodell: “We have a dozen Fukushimas waiting to happen in America.”