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View Diary: New Fukushima Report Says Regulatory Capture to Blame (25 comments)

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  •  People will read into it what they want. (1+ / 0-)
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    It isn't a pretty picture and, most alarmingly, the report plainly suggests that the same problems threaten nuclear safety in the USA.
    When I read the report I was more struck by the differences from the US than the similarities. Such as:

    1. The same agency that promotes nuclear power in Japan is the same agency that regulates it. That is analogous to the old Atomic Energy Commission and the current Federal Aviation Administration. In the 1970s the functions of promoting and regulating nuclear power were split between the Department of Energy and NRC.

    2. In Japan, plant operators are self "certified" by the utility and are poorly trained to deal with emergencies. In the US control room operators are licensed by the NRC and receive rigorous training on emergency response contingencies.

    3. In the US, in the event of an emergency the senior reactor operators make the decisions. Utility management's role is to support the operators and get whatever resources are required. At Fukushima, direction was provided from TEPCO headquarters. Even the Japanese prime minister was weighing in on whether to inject sea water into the reactor (in the end the operators wisely ignored his dumb ass). The report stresses the "Japaneseness" of their style of regulation, management and oversight being the cause.

    4. In response to the Three Mile Island accident the US nuclear industry pioneered the development of statistical tools (probabilistic risk assessments) that look at plant design, equipment reliability, and human reliability to determine safety margins. They are techniques now commonly used in oil refineries, chemical plants and even NASA adopted it after the Challenger explosion. Managing risk is a large part operations at US plants. It dictates the order in which maintenance activities are performed during refueling outages and whether the NRC will grant a license amendment request from a utility. In Japan, risk was not quantified and even qualitative assessments of risk were ignored.    

    I could go on. Having said that, I don't want to be misunderstood as dismissing Fukushima as irrelevant. Far from it. Even though tsunami's aren't going to strike power plants in the heartland, plants can be subject to flooding and other natural disasters (as demonstrated at Ft. Calhoun and Cooper in Nebraska a year ago and at Duane Arnold before that.  Fukushima forced the industry to take a hard look how well it was prepared and asked itself hard questions about how portable emergency equipment (that the Japanese lacked) could be brought to bear during a natural disaster.

    I found this piece from Bloomberg to be serious and thoughtful in candidly reporting that regulatory capture in the nuclear power industry is just as complete in the USA as it was in Japan.
    The Bloomberg article provides little objective evidence for that assessment.
    According to Arnie Gunderson, a nuclear engineer and licensed power plant operator,
    Yes, Arnie Gunderson has a Masters Degree in Nuclear Engineering. No, he was never a licensed power plant operator, much as he doesn't mind the confusion. He held a Senior Reactor Operator license at a 100 watt "critical assembly" or "zero power reactor" when he went to school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. It rarely operated above 1 watt. He also claims to have almost 40 years of nuclear industry experience when in fact he worked at a small nuclear services company for about twenty years before being fired around 1990, and spent the subsequent time hiring himself out as an expert witness in losing cases when he wasn't teaching high school science. Now he's the Justin Bieber of the anti-nuclear crowd and lazy journalists. At least real whistleblowers like Paul Blanch and David Lochbaum have actually worked at nuclear power plants.
    “Here in the U.S., the industry basically forced out Gregory Jaczko as chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” Gundersen said, referring to the commission chairman who resigned amid criticism from the industry for pushing a faster agenda to toughen safety regulations after Fukushima.
    Well, that's Arnie's spin on what happened. Mine would be that Jaczko embarrassed the Obama administration on several occasions and made himself a distraction that the administration didn't need in an election year. He unilaterally recommended a 50-mile evacuation zone around Fukushima out of a (wrong) belief that a spent fuel pool had been drained and created a diplomatic mess.  He also manipulated his fellow commissioners, and pissed them off royally, when he unilaterally closed the Yucca Mountain project (the judges in a related federal lawsuit have pretty much said he lacked the authority to do so but are struggling with whether it is worth the effort to order the project to be re-started). He created such a hostile work environment, particularly with senior female staffers, that the other four commissioners (two of them Democrats) asked the White House Chief of Staff to do something about him. He has been the subject of several highly unflattering reports by the NRC's Inspector General that stop just short of saying he violated the law. The reports use phrases like "not worth prosecuting" and in Senate testimony the IG staff said things to the effect "an argument could be made" that he stepped over the line.

    I'm not saying the subject of regulatory capture is irrelevant, but name a federal agency that is immune. If the NRC was seriously captured I would expect the courts to regularly overturn NRC rulings (the anti-nuclear community certainly files enough lawsuits). Other than a rare win recently regarding the waste confidence rule that I believe should be straightforward to be remedy, it simply doesn't happen often. If anything, the lawsuits, pre-Jaczko, generally affirm that the NRC is operating within its mandate.  

    •  If the NRC weren't captured (4+ / 0-)

      you might expect that they would occasionally deny the recertification for plants well beyond their design lifetime, instead of colluding with industry to loosen standards or "Pioneer the development of statistical tools (probabilistic risk assessments) that look at plant design, equipment reliability, and human reliability to determine safety margins" to redefine 'safe' to mean whatever prevents costly shutdowns.

       This AP piece documents systematic capture of the NRC by the industry to squeeze private profit out of incalculable public risk and milk more decades out of decrepit rust-buckets that should  already be shut down.

      Regulators and industry now contend that the 40-year limit was chosen for economic reasons and to satisfy antitrust concerns, not for safety issues. They contend that a nuclear plant has no technical limit on its life.

      But an AP review of historical records, along with interviews with engineers who helped develop nuclear power, shows just the opposite: Reactors were made to last only 40 years. Period.

      The record also shows that a design limitation on operating life was an accepted truism.

      In 1982, D. Clark Gibbs, chairman of the licensing and safety committee of an early industry group, wrote to the NRC that "most nuclear power plants, including those operating, under construction or planned for the future, are designed for a duty cycle which corresponds to a 40-year life."

      And three years later, when Illinois Power Co. sought a license for its Clinton station, utility official D.W. Wilson told the NRC on behalf of his company's nuclear licensing department that "all safety margins were established with the understanding of the limitations that are imposed by a 40-year design life."

      One person who should know the real story is engineering professor Richard T. Lahey Jr., at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. Lahey once served in the nuclear Navy. Later, in the early 1970s, he helped design reactors for General Electric Co.; he oversaw safety research and development.

      Lahey dismisses claims that reactors were made with no particular life span. "These reactors were really designed for a certain lifetime," he said. "What they're saying is really a fabrication."

      •  First, the useful life of anything (0+ / 0-)

        depends on how well you operate, test, and maintain it. Jay Lenno is famous for his collection of old cars that he keeps in perfect working order. If there is a limiting component it would probably be the reactor vessel and concerns of aging due to neutron embrittlement. Just about everything else can be, and at one plant or another probably has been, replaced or repaired. But the reactor vessels are not aging as fast as assumed when they were originally licensed.

        Second, preparing and applying for license renewal takes years and millions of dollars. The industry demanded clear guidance up front. If the expectations are clear and the plant demonstrates a commitment to meet the new requirements why would the NRC deny a license? Do you expect the DMV to arbitrarily deny drivers licenses to prove it isn't a rubber stamp organization? That said, I recall several years ago a plant voluntarily withdrew its license renewal application and later reapplied when it became clear that their first attempt wasn't going to cut it. Plants also have been known to accept additional expensive license conditions to get their licenses renewed.

        •  So the miles of pipes embedded in concrete (1+ / 0-)
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          Jim P

          Have been magically replaced, even though they don't really know how to test them let alone repair them. Those same pipes which are crucial for cooling the aging reactor vessels, which also have not been replaced.  Your glib industry dogma is just packed with fail. From the AP series:

          Many safety experts worry about what the leaks suggest about the condition of miles of piping beneath the reactors. "Any leak is a problem because you have the leak itself — but it also says something about the piping," said Mario V. Bonaca, a former member of the NRC's Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards. "Evidently something has to be done."

          However, even with the best probes, it is hard to pinpoint partial cracks or damage in skinny pipes or bends. The industry tends to inspect piping when it must be dug up for some other reason. Even when leaks are detected, repairs may be postponed for up to two years with the NRC's blessing.

          "You got pipes that have been buried underground for 30 or 40 years, and they've never been inspected, and the NRC is looking the other way," said engineer Paul Blanch, who has worked for the industry and later became a whistleblower. "They could have corrosion all over the place."

          Nuclear engineer Bill Corcoran, an industry consultant who has taught NRC personnel how to analyze the cause of accidents, said that since much of the piping is inaccessible and carries cooling water, the worry is if the pipes leak, there could be a meltdown.

          During its Aging Nukes investigation, the AP conducted scores of interviews and analyzed thousands of pages of industry and government records, reports and data. The documents show that for decades compromises have been made repeatedly in safety margins, regulations and emergency planning to keep the aging units operating within the rules.


          Despite the aging problems, relicensing rules prohibits any overall safety review of the entire operation. More conservative safety margins are not required in anticipation of higher failure rates in old plants, regulators acknowledge.

          "Everything I've seen is rubber-stamped," said Joe Hopenfeld, an engineer who worked on aging-related issues at the NRC before retiring in 2008. He has since worked for groups challenging relicensing.

          Numerous reports from the NRC's Office of Inspector General offer disturbing corroboration of his view.

          For example, in 2002 the inspector general wrote: "Senior NRC officials confirmed that the agency is highly reliant on information from licensee risk assessments." Essentially that means the industry tells the NRC how likely an accident is and the NRC accepts the analysis.

          Five years later, in a relicensing audit, the inspector general complained of frequent instances of "identical or nearly identical word-for-word repetition" of the plant applications in NRC reviews. The inspector general worried that the repetition indicated superficial reviews that went through the motions, instead of thorough and independent examinations.

          The problems went beyond paperwork. The inspector general found that the NRC reviews usually relied on the plants to report on their operating experience, but the agency didn't independently verify the information.

          •  A big part of the aging management (0+ / 0-)

            programs plants are required to create as a condition of getting their licenses renewed involves digging up and inspecting the condition of buried piping and tanks. NRC inspectors are required to inspect to make sure licensees are following those programs. The AP article makes nonsensical statements, such as there being no requirement for licensees to compensate for wear and tear. Systems are tested frequently to ensure they will meet the performance requirements assumed in an accident scenario. If those performance standards are not met the system is declared inoperable and the plant is allowed a short period of time to fix it. Under rare circumstances a licensee will request permission to extend that action time and will propose compensatory measures that are specific to the circumstances. You can't predefined what they would be for every possible scenario. Unfortunately, energy issues isn't a "beat" that news outlets like AP devote much time on and it shows in the quality of their reporting. The only reporter worth his pay in the mass media that I know of is Matthew Wald with the New York Times.

            As to Dr. Hopenfeld, I don't know what his specific concerns are but if the NRC has been rubber stamping license renewal applications I know my utility would feel cheated. It took over a year and several rounds of requests for additional information and several meetings with the staff to get each of its license renewals. It was a very expensive and time consuming effort.

            Whatever the IGs concerns are, my experience has been that the Commission takes them seriously with plans for remedying and frequent status reports to the Commissioners but I haven't followed that report in particular.

    •  If regulatory capture is endemic (2+ / 0-)
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      LeftOfYou, jeanette0605

      as you seem to claim when you finally concede the premise of the diary, then clearly we should not be building systems where regulatory failures lead to the nation-crushing consequences we are seeing.  You ask which agency is immune from capture, backpedalling from denial to dismissal with the standard criminal refrain 'everybody does it'. What better proof of endemic capture is there? And then, what other regulators' failures can cause such catastrophic consequences?  Even the banksters' most recent damage will be gone in a generation or 3.

      •  By systems where regulatory failures lead to (0+ / 0-)

        nation crushing consequences, can I assume that would include the FAA's failures leading up to 9/11 and the nation crushing effects of two wars? Clearly we should not allow commercial air travel based on that logic. America's big nuclear disaster, Three Mile Island, had no long term effects. The US nuclear industry and the NRC will learn much from the Fukushima accident but the Japanese didn't model their regulatory scheme after the NRC. That is not going to be a focus for change, of which there are many already taking place.

        I am not excusing regulatory capture, but merely pointing out that it is not unique to the NRC. ALL regulatory agencies need strong congressional oversight and should be pushed to be as open as possible. ALL citizens need to be as informed as possible.

    •  And one last little detail (0+ / 0-)

      the IAEA is also tasked both with promotion of the plutonium cycle through 'civilian' nuclear power, and regulation of the safety of its little PR clients.  From the funding you can see that they are mostly a propaganda agency with no interest in regulating.

      •  Um, (0+ / 0-)

        IAEA promotes the peaceful use of nuclear technology, implements (inspects) safeguards against the military use of nuclear technology, and promotes high standards of nuclear safety. It doesn't "regulate" anyone or anything. It has no enforcement power. That was never a part of its mandate.

        What IAEA has done since 2006 is organize reviews of the regulatory structures of member states (the NRC received one last year). I can find no results of any IAEA reviews of the Japanese pre-Fukushima. I have no idea if they ever were reviewed or if the reviews were ineffective or whether the recommendations were simply ignored.

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