Oyster Creek Generating Station, in suburban Lacey Township, New Jersey, opened the same month Richard Nixon took office vowing to bring "an honorable peace" to Vietnam. This nuke plant, the oldest in the country, was slated to close in 2009 when its original forty-year license was ending. It had seen four decades of service, using radioactively produced heat to boil water into high-pressure steam that ran continuously through hundreds of miles of increasingly brittle and stressed piping.
If constructed today, Oyster Creek would not be licensed, because it does not meet current safety standards. Yet on April 8 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)--the government agency overseeing the industry--relicensed Oyster Creek, extending its life span twenty years beyond what was originally intended.
Seven days later workers at the plant found an ongoing radioactive leak of tritium-polluted water. Tritium is a form of hydrogen. In August workers found another tritium leak coming from a pipe buried in a concrete wall. Radiation makes metal brittle, so old pipes must be routinely switched out for new ones. The second leak was spilling about 7,200 gallons a day and contained 500 times the acceptable level of radiation for drinking water.
That leaking pipe had erroneously--or perhaps fraudulently--been listed in paperwork as replaced. How this error occurred remains unclear. What seems likely is that the plant's previous owner, GPU Nuclear, was deliberately skimping on maintenance as it approached the end of the plant's license. Then Oyster Creek was sold to Exelon and won relicensing. How many other mislabeled, brittle, old components remain in the plant's guts is impossible to determine without a massive audit and investigation. Unfortunately, stories like this are all too common: crumbling, leaky, accident-prone old nuclear plants, shrouded in secrecy and subject to lax maintenance, are getting relicensed all over the country.
In the face of climate change, many people who are desperate for alternatives to fossil fuels are considering the potential of nuclear power. The government has put up $18.5 billion in subsidies to build atomic plants. As a candidate for president, John McCain called for forty-five new nuke plants.
Environmentalists have rightly pointed out the dangers this would entail. But new nukes are not the issue. New atomic plants are prohibitively expensive. If enough public subsidies are thrown at the industry, one or two gold-plated, state-of-the-art, extremely expensive nuclear power stations may eventually be built, at most.
The real issue is what happens to old nukes. The atomic power industry has a plan: it wants to make as much money as possible from the existing fleet of 104 old, often decrepit, reactors by getting the government to extend their licenses. The oldest plants, most of which opened in the early 1970s and were designed to operate for only forty years, should be dead by now. Yet, zombielike, they march on, thanks to the indulgence of the NRC.
More than half of America's nuclear plants have received new twenty-year operating licenses. In fact, the NRC has not rejected a single license-renewal application. Many of these plants have also received "power up-rates" that allow them to run at up to 120 percent of their originally intended capacity. That means their systems are subjected to unprecedented amounts of heat, pressure, corrosion, stress and embrittling radiation.
These undead nukes are highly dangerous. But constant, careful (and expensive) inspection and maintenance would mitigate the risks. Unfortunately, the NRC does not require anything like that. And the industry often operates in a cavalier profit-before-safety style.
At the heart of the matter is the culture of the NRC. During his campaign Obama called the NRC "a moribund agency...captive of the industry that it regulates." Unfortunately, since then Obama's position has softened considerably.
The NRC is run by a five-member commission. When Obama came to office he inherited one open seat; another opened soon after. Filling those seats with safety-conscious experts not in thrall to the industry would have done much to change the culture of the NRC.
The president's first move was a good one: he made commissioner Gregory Jaczko chair of the commission. Jaczko has openly questioned the safety culture of both the NRC and the industry and is respected among environmentalists as a serious and safety-oriented regulator.
But in October Obama nominated two people for the open seats. In classic fashion, he cut it down the middle. The relatively decent appointment, in the view of environmentalists, is George Apostolakis, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT. He sits on a safety oversight board within the NRC. His academic specialty is probabilistic risk assessment of complex technological systems, risk management and decision analysis.
"He is safety-minded," says Ed Lyman, senior staff scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "But I worry that his approach might be a little too theoretical, too academic. He might not be ready to really regulate the industry."
The other nominee, William Magwood, is described by environmentalists as a disaster. Magwood worked at the Department of Energy as the director of its nuclear energy program. In that capacity, he acted as a booster for the industry. He's made numerous public speeches promoting atomic energy. And most recently he worked as a consultant for the nuclear industry.
Because the NRC is an independent regulatory agency, the president's nominees must be confirmed by the Senate. A key player there--notorious climate-science denier Senator James Inhofe, ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee--greeted the appointments with a backhanded compliment to the president: "At the very least, the selection of these individuals indicates President Obama understands the importance of the NRC in rebuilding our nation's nuclear capabilities." Given the source, this was damning praise indeed.
Lax safety culture at the NRC is at least in part a result of the revolving door between the atomic power business and the commission, including both middle- and upper-level staff. The most prominent example of this involved commissioner Jeffrey Merrifield, who championed accelerated licensing and other major policy initiatives that directly benefited the Shaw Group, the self-described "largest provider of commercial nuclear power plant maintenance and modifications services in the United States." Twelve days after Merrifield left the NRC, in 2007, he became a top executive at--yes--the Shaw Group. Then, in late October of this year, after pressure from public interest groups, the NRC's Office of the Inspector General found that Merrifield had violated government ethics rules by courting industry while still at the NRC.
This corrupt symbiosis between the industry and NRC is even found at the level of language. Critics say the staff habitually defers to the industry, rarely double-checking corporate assertions about safety. During relicensing, the NRC has used industry language verbatim in its reports. A recent random sampling of NRC relicensing reports conducted by its Office of the Inspector General found that almost half the language in the documents had been lifted verbatim or nearly so from industry applications. In other words, not only is the NRC failing to conduct its own research; it can't even rewrite the nuke industry's boilerplate self-justifications when issuing new licenses.
"Politically, the nuclear industry is very effective," says Richard Webster, legal director of the Eastern Environmental Law Center, which represents five citizens' groups fighting Oyster Creek. "If only they ran nuclear plants as well as they lobby."
This cozy relationship is helped by the fact that the nuclear power industry's drive for profit coincides with the NRC's bureaucratic will to survive. If all the old plants were mothballed, the raison d'être of the NRC (and maybe much of the bureaucracy itself) would disappear.
Environmentalists describe the relicensing and up-rate process as highly opaque, rigged in the industry's favor, designed to exclude public participation and marginalize opposition. They say safety is closely linked to transparency--which is in short supply.
Over the past two decades the NRC has also promulgated rules that effectively exclude from consideration many of the grounds on which the public could intervene to oppose relicensing. For example, the public cannot raise the issue of terrorism. Nor can it question maintenance plans, or waste storage plans, or even evacuation procedures.
The NRC's Office of the Inspector General found that its own agency had "established an unreasonably high burden of requiring absolute proof of a safety problem, versus lack of reasonable assurance of maintaining public health and safety, before it will act to shut down a power plant."
The parameters for relicensing are sometimes shockingly permissive. For example, Oyster Creek, only fifty miles from Philadelphia, lacks a reactor containment shell strong enough to withstand a jet crash. And the geography around the plant isn't possible to evacuate: originally built in a rural area, the plant is now surrounded by sprawl. But the NRC takes none of that into account.
Even more amazing, Oyster Creek's relicensing process did not require testing metals in the plant's core for embrittlement. The containment shell, such as it is, was found to have been corroded down to half its intended thickness. Citizens' groups had to file a lawsuit just to get the NRC to hold a public hearing that would yield a ruling. And that was the first one the NRC had held during more than forty-five relicensing processes.
Indian Point, forty miles north of Times Square, is also applying for a new license. It too leaks radioactive water like a sieve: tens of thousands of gallons of radioactive, tritium- and strontium 90-laced water from one of its spent fuel pools have polluted groundwater and the Hudson River. The first of several leaks was discovered in 2005, but the plant's owner, Entergy, failed to report the problem for almost a month.
Vermont Yankee, also owned by Entergy, has one of the worst operating records in the country, runs at 120 percent capacity because of a 2006 power up-rate, and is well on its way to being relicensed. As detailed in these pages last year, Vermont Yankee has recently suffered a number of almost comical problems: a fire set off emergency mobilizations in three states; a cooling tower collapsed; a crane dropped a cask of atomic waste; parts of a fuel rod even went missing. To save money Entergy has been caught skipping routine maintenance and not hiring needed staff. This year the plant has been battling what seem to be unending leaks: in February the water cleanup system leaked, in May a condenser tube leak was identified but not repaired, in June there was a leak in a service water pipe. Then a recirculation pump unexpectedly reduced power and locked up, preventing the operators from changing its speed. And in August Entergy announced that it was not doing all of the required monthly radiological monitoring of its spent fuel.
FirstEnergy's Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Ohio also wants a new twenty-year license. In 2002 that plant came very close to calamity. Largely by chance, staff discovered a six-inch-deep hole in the reactor vessel head; only three-eighths of an inch of metal remained. This barrier protects against a reactor breach and a possible chain of events that could have led to a reactor meltdown. The hole could have been found and fixed earlier, but the plant's owner, FirstEnergy, requested that the NRC allow it to delay a mandated inspection. In October 2008 Davis-Besse workers also discovered a tritium leak.
This fleet of poorly regulated zombie plants is the real story of nuclear power. Building hundreds of new nukes to save us from climate change is a pipe dream--the time and expense necessary for that would be impossible to overcome in the decade or two remaining. And so the debate about the future of atomic power in the age of climate change functions mostly as a smoke screen behind which these old, leaky, crumbling plants are being pushed to the limit of their endurance. Half the fleet has already been relicensed and many up-rated to run at more than 100 percent of their designed capacity. To avoid dangerous accidents over the next two decades, the industry must be subject to real oversight. For that to happen, the NRC must be reformed.
There will likely be one more opening on the commission. If the risk of a real nuclear disaster is to be diminished, Obama must nominate a robust safety- and transparency-minded commissioner who will stand up to the powerful companies that own the zombie nuke fleet.
By Christian Parenti:
Reprinted with permission from The Nation