Two separate investigative reports by news organizations have uncovered some extremely troubling flaws in the way U.S. nuclear plant safety regulations are monitored and enforced.
The public is at risk, and Congress and regulatory agencies need to get to work now fixing the cracks in the system.
An exhaustive report by The Associated Press showed that nuclear plant operators and regulators haven’t figured how to detect leaks of radioactive water from pipes beneath nuclear plants. A separate Government Accountability Office report ordered by two congressmen showed that three-quarters of 65 nuclear plants in the U.S. have leaked radioactive material called tritium. Some of that has leaked into small community groundwater systems.
The Associated Press series “Aging Nukes” shows how plants have not kept up with safety standards. And worse, the government agencies charged with enforcing rules have weakened them or haven’t enforced them at all.
While the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has argued for its program of carrots over sticks, getting nuclear plants to voluntarily come up with their own safety plans, the GAO report says there is no evidence that approach allows NRC to detect leaks quickly.
GAO reported: “We continue to believe that NRC has no assurance that the Groundwater Protection Initiative will lead to prompt detection of underground piping system leaks as nuclear power plants age.”
In a separate investigation the nonprofit investigative journalism organization Pro Publica determined the NRC has been guilty of similar lax enforcement for regulations requiring fire prevention systems at nuclear plants.
The group cited hundreds of cases where fire safety regulations were not only violated but also weakened when companies were not in compliance. Companies were allowed to come up with their own fire prevention plans formulated by their own engineers. Obviously, this is a situation of the fox guarding the henhouse.
Fire-prevention equipment and systems are extremely important at nuclear plants mainly because fire can destroy a plant’s ability to cool a nuclear reactor. Cables and electrical systems that start on fire can’t carry the electricity needed to cool a reactor in the event of an accident.
In case after case, Pro Publica cited the NRC’s own inspection records that detailed fire protection was not adequate, yet let years pass without the plants fixing the problem. In some cases, the plants were approved for so called fire prevention “work arounds” if their own systems were inadequate. Some of those work arounds had employees running to hard-to-reach places and flipping switches or pulling plugs.
Pro Publica’s report concludes “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is routinely waiving fire rule violations at nearly half of the nation’s 104 commercial reactors.”
While the NRC has said its approach involves working with the industry to develop safety plans cooperatively, cost of the safety plans created significant push back from the industry. But there doesn’t appear to be any solid evidence industry-derived plans are helping solve either the fire safety problem or the leaking radioactive water problem.
Congress and President Obama need to take these deficiencies seriously before we have a situation on our hands similar to the meltdown in Japan.