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Reinventing Government At The NRC
The effects of deregulating nuclear power
As deregulation sweeps across the market place for electric power, public utilities are quickly changing the way they do business. No area of change will have more effect on public health, safety, and the environment than that pertaining to commercial nuclear power. The deregulation of the nuclear power industry has the potential to create thousands of new deaths from cancer each year, yet it is rapidly taking place with virtually no public knowledge, involvement, input, or dialogue.
Because of deregulation, public utilities now must compete with one another to become low cost providers of electricity. One result is cost cutting in the operation and regulation of nuclear power plants. Already utilities have reduced staff and lengthened the intervals for some inspections and maintenance activities at commercial power plants. Nuclear plant operators are also lobbying for license extensions for many aging nukes so as to increase their profitability. This makes some near neighbors of geriatric nukes beset with leaks, cracked welds, inoperable emergency core cooling systems, and other issues very uneasy indeed. Many of these plants are nearing the end of their designed life spans and industry assurances as to how sound they are seem of little comfort to the people living down wind from them.
Deregulation is also affecting the way the NRC regulates the nuclear industry. Faced with mounting pressures from industry to cut costs, the NRCs top management has decided to change the way it oversees the nations nukes. The NRCs publicly stated goal in making these changes is to maintain safety and to enhance public confidence even as it improves the effectiveness, efficiency, and realism of its regulatory and decision making process and reduces unnecessary regulatory burdens. This is occurring against a backdrop of staff cuts of up to 30 percent at some commercial plants and an ever growing mountain of low and high level radioactive waste for which no long term storage plan has yet been worked out. The NRC has also rewritten its policies to create a temporary amnesty program that began in 1996 and is supposed to end in March 2001 for plants that are not complying now with NRC-mandated safety parameters. This program, charges James Riccio, attorney for Public Citizens Critical Mass group has severely circumscribed the NRCs ability to take enforcement action (issuing a fine and a violation) against nuclear utilities However other activists charge that there have been so many uncited violations of safe operating procedure over the years that the NRC has in effect declared an amnesty program for far longer than 1996. Now there will be even less NRC oversight.
The NRC claims it can reduce its oversight of the nations ageing nukes because the industry is now much more experienced at operating their complex collections of plumbing than it was when the NRC monitoring program was first set up. However, critics charge these new policies will make it harder to collect data on plant performance and also will make it more difficult for interested parties such as investors or citizens living near a plant to access that data.
Previously the NRC rated plant performances as being excellent, good, fair, etc. and placed particularly poorly performing plants on a watch list. Now it has scrapped the watch list and is implementing something called a performance matrix. While the performance action matrix actually contains more information on performance in several categories and is more timely and theoretically more objective than the old grading system, critics charge that the information is far harder for the non specialist member of the public to understand and evaluate than the previous rating system was. It also may be harder for some members of the public to access than previously.
To save money the NRC is reducing its paper trail and increasing its reliance on the Internet and its website to disseminate information to the public. However, access to that information is not always available to rural residents and to public libraries located in small towns and sparsely populated areas near nuclear plants because of its computing power requirements for access to the site and its specialized document management system, ADAMS, used to search the data base. At least one anti-nuclear activist and long-time critic of the NRCs regulatory policies, Dr. Judith Johnsrud, believes that as the NRC converts its data base to an online digital format, potentially useful historic data on plant operations that is relevant to license extension requests will simply be lost, and no longer be available to the public.
In early 2000 at a meeting hosted by the NRC to review its new regulatory program in Oswego, New York, anti-nuclear activist Cindy Gagne spoke about her difficulty in accessing the public comments listing regarding the new reactor oversight process. It took the librarian twenty-nine minutes to find the data and two and a half hours to find the public comments. She said the right protocol hadnt been used. I talked to people who had submitted comments and they werent posted on the web.
NRC inspections and oversight procedures have always been essentially sampling operations, since the day-to-day operation of a nuclear plant is so complex and intricate that no one person could possibly oversee every aspect of it. So as in the past, the new NRC regulation policy will also rely on much voluntary reporting from the plant operators. However, as utilities are now competing against one another, they are increasingly declaring some of this information to be proprietary and are refusing to release it, lest their competitors make use of it.
Analyzing and distributing information on plant performance and safety may become even more difficult if skilled technicians arent available to collect and interpret it, a growing industry problem, charges Cindy Gagne, neighbor to Oswego Countys three nuclear plants. She cites a shortage of qualified technical contractors and consultants who in the past have been a key part of the process of supplying information to the NRC on power plant safety and maintenance. Experienced inspectors with advanced engineering degrees are increasingly in short supply, and as more contractors get out of the business because of deregulation and cost cutting, it may take the NRC several years to hire and train replacements.
As this article was being written in February 2000 the NRC announced cuts in its resident inspection staff. From now on at sites with more than one nuclear reactor an extra back up resident inspector would no longer be posted. Now only two inspectors will be required at two unit sites, where before three were stationed. Eventually about three dozen positions, about 20 percent of the on-site inspection force, will be eliminated. The Union of Concerned Scientists has criticized these cutbacks citing a statistic from an NRC regional administrator that inspectors only spend about 30 percent of their time on the job actually performing inspections.
As plants change hands during the restructuring of the industry, they experience changes in corporate culture and losses of continuity of management that may possibly compromise safety. Management attitudes have a major impact on how a plant operates as well as its response to employee and whistle blower concerns. Against this backdrop, another upstate New York activist, Tim Judson, believes the NRC should increase rather than decrease the regulatory burden of the nuclear industry. He says of the inspector cuts and the NRC, Theyre selling these plants into deregulation and the NRC isnt even waiting until the dust settles before it packs up and goes home.
As pressures grow to dispose of massive amounts of contaminated material, the NRC is also moving to deregulate low level radioactive wastes. This will allow the industry to recycle contaminated scrap from power plants and government facilities that are dismantled. Dealing with contaminated steel and concrete as radioactive waste that must be isolated from the environment for many years is costly, but recycling it as scrap will allow contractors to make money from it. The current proposal is for the material to be mainstreamed with no monitoring or labeling. This will make it impossible to asses its health effects since no one will be able to quantify the total dose being received by various consumers from their slightly radioactive flatware, belt buckles, or baby strollers.
In early January the DOE placed a temporary hold on the release of some radioactive waste from a dismantled government facility at Oak Ridge. However, the hold applied to only a small portion of the steel and nickel. More than 121,00 tons were still scheduled to be released. The NRC rationale for allowing this is that there is a threshold for exposure to radiation. If an exposure is very low, this theory goes, no damage to an organism will occur. A report prepared by Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizens Critical Mass project and Diane Darrigo of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service commenting on the recycling proposal quotes a DOE chemist as saying about 30,000 tons of formerly irradiated scrap, half from the U.S. and half from the nuclear power industry is currently being recycled without harming the public.
The problem with this policy is that it is based on an unproven theory. Indeed, there is growing evidence from medical studies that there is no threshold for radiation effects and that every exposure to ionizing radiation results in cell or DNA damage. Usually the cell DNA subsequently repairs itself, but sometimes the repair mechanism fails. The result, perhaps many years later, can ultimately be a cancerous tumor.
The fact that small numbers of radiation-induced cancers may be difficult to detect when spread over a large population does not mean they dont exist. Dr. John Goffman an epidemiologist and author of several books and many papers on the health effects of radiation writes in Radiation Induced Cancer from Low Dose Exposure, An Independent Analysis, that we must look closely at the aggregate consequences of individually small risks when considering the environmental effects of low level radiation or toxin exposure. If pollution sources of all types are regulated individually and each is allowed to kill one person in 100,000 then only 10,000 sources of pollution could kill up to a tenth of the population and nobody would ever be able to prove it.
Although it is impossible to prove that a given exposure to radiation results in the individual developing cancer 20 years later, there is clinical and epidemiological evidence for the harmful effects of low doses of radiation. As data from studies of radiation effects have accumulated through the years, there has been a steady decline in the recommended safe yearly dose for radiation exposure for industry workers and the public.
In 1972 a scientist, Dr. Abram Petkau, working for the Atomic Energy laboratories in Pinawa Manitoba, published a paper on the interaction of very low doses of radiation and the production of free radicals. He found that prolonged exposure to small amounts of radiation induced the formation of free radicals. These very destructive and toxic forms of oxygen cause extensive cell damage and have been implicated in damage to the white blood cells and the immune system and are thought to accelerate the ageing process. Petkau found that cell damage occurred at an absorbed dose far below what anyone had previously observed from a single short exposure to radiation. Because of this interaction of radiation and free radicals, it now appears that the biological damage caused by very small amounts of radiation is far greater than that created by higher doses received over short periods of time.
The notion that chronic exposure to very low levels of radiation, such as those experienced by a person living near a power plant, might be more damaging than higher exposures has been hotly disputed by the nuclear community. From its very beginnings 50 years ago the industry and its regulators have promoted the scientific validity of below regulatory concern saying that small amounts of radioactivity are harmless ( or even are beneficial to organisms, a hypothesis called hormesis). If these repeated assertions now prove founded on false assumptions and junk science, the implications for the industry are not good. So there is a strong incentive to suppress both research and publication in this area. Dr. Petkau, employed by a government-funded lab was told not to give interviews to the press on his research.
It is perhaps the suppression and denial of information associated with the NRCs current push to deregulate the industry that is most worrisome. A free exchange of information and viewpoints in democracy as in science is essential for sound conclusions and policies alike. The NRC and the federal government have a long history of schizophrenia towards nuclear power. On the one hand, technical people such as the NRCs on site inspectors or industry health physics technicians know perfectly well how dangerous radiation in the environment can be as it is concentrated many times in body organs or through the food chain. But there is now so much money and institutional power at stake in continuing the industrys existence, that top level NRC managers turn a blind eye to many issues that potentially affect safety and public health.
As they convince themselves of their regulatory diligence, increasingly isolated from the public and ignoring the limited citizen input they now receive at hearings and meetings in the field, dozens of ageing nukes around the country are rumbling along, beset by reactor vessel embrittlement, badly cracked core shroud welds, plugged and sleeved corroding steam generator tubes, and inoperable emergency core cooling systems. To anyone with any objectivity at all, the conclusion must be it is just a matter of time before another meltdown occurs somewhere.
Perhaps one of the greatest tragedies is that of missed opportunity. Driven by national security and cold war concerns in the 1950s and 1960s billions of dollars have since been squandered on a dangerous dirty method of producing power. Hundreds of billions more must now be spent to contain the deadly wastes created by this industry, money that could have been used to develop and promote sustainable power production from wind, fuel cells, or solar power. One GAO estimate puts the bill for the clean up of only our military bomb factories at 171 billion dollars. Add in the bill for commercial nukes and the amount easily doubles.
Some countries have recognized the waste and inefficiency of commercial nuclear power and are now beginning to phase out their nuclear dinosaurs. But here, if present trends of industry and government deregulation, reduced access to information, and lessened public input continues, it seems likely the industry will continue to produce more stockholder profits, more money for Wall Street deal makers, and more cases of cancer among down winders.
It doesnt have to be this way. Legislation is now working its way through Congress that could ultimately shut these deadly steam kettles down. By encouraging development of renewables, we could phase out and retire our plants perhaps in a decade or two. But a formidable nuclear lobby is gearing up for the fight of its life.
Several proposals for redefining the electricity marketplace are now working their way through Congress. These will shape the future of both commercial nuclear power and electricity production in general. Two that are favored by environmentalists and consumer advocates are the Jeffords Bill S 1369 and the similar Pallone bill H.R. 2569. Both seek to promote sustainable energy production through a provision called the renewables portfolio standard. The renewables portfolio standard is a way of creating a place in the market place for energy produced by alternative sources such as wind or solar power. It calls for all electricity generators to produce a steadily increasing amount of electricity from renewable sources over the next 20 years. The Jeffords bill calls for renewables to make up 2.5 percent of the power produced to 2000 with an increase to 20 percent by 2020. It also establishes a system of tradable energy credits so that companies unable to meet the mandated percentage for renewable power production could buy credits from other companies. Both bills also call for a 6 billion dollar trust fund to be set up to provide aid to low income consumers and to fund efficiency and renewable research and development. In addition both bills would allow small producers of power for their own use to sell any excess produced back into the grid, a proposal called net metering.
Recognizing the past subsidies enjoyed by nuclear and coal fired power plants these bills are an attempt to level the playing field for sustainable green energy production. Without the renewables portfolio standard or its equivalent in an unregulated market place it is virtually certain there will be a race to the bottom to produce power as cheaply as possible with no regard for environmental costs or human health. Z