Monday, April 4, 2011

Combustible Gas

As we observed in our prior blog post, the publication by the Union of Concerned Scientists of their new study of nuclear near misses would likely generate a combustible gas that could find some ignition sources, at least among like-minded nuclear critics.  Thus the March 22, 2011 article* in The Nation magazine was predictable, including the comments by Henry Meyers that the UCS study is evidence of a lack of “serious oversight for twenty years” by the NRC.  Evidence of this includes the reduction in NRC violations and fines in the late 1990s and the contention that then-Chairman Dr. Shirley Jackson caved to political pressure.  Disregarded are the facts that many nuclear plants underwent enormous performance improvement programs in that period and the consolidation of nuclear ownership under a small number of advanced nuclear enterprises.**  These nuclear operators had the significant management, technical  and financial resources to ensure operating excellence in their plants, resulting in much better regulatory compliance.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss lightly the direction that UCS and Christian Parenti of The Nation are taking the post-Fukushima discussion of nuclear safety.  Their thesis is that the current risky state of the nuclear industry in the U.S. (“a fleet of old nuclear plants and the 40,000 tons of nuclear waste they have created”) is due to the lack of strong safety culture, and that the NRC has been compromised through political pressure and the corrosive influence of an inadequate industry safety culture.  Thus,

“...it is imperative to overhaul the inadequate, industry-dominated safety culture that has developed over the past twenty years.  This eroded safety culture is a source of serious danger—and it must be fixed.”

Approaching the current state of nuclear safety from this direction has the potential to open a Davis-Besse size hole in the carefully constructed safety record of the nuclear industry.  By its essence safety culture is perhaps the most far ranging indictment of safety; far more extensive than any specific technical issues that have historically been the target of nuclear critics.  It targets an unprotected flank of both the industry and the NRC; including the recent process where consensus and stakeholder involvement has been emphasized by the NRC to the point that the above quote will gain traction.  The product, a safety culture policy statement by the NRC, something that is not even enforceable, will be framed as a continuation of a lack of “serious oversight” and serve well the newly energized anti-nuclear community. 

*  C. Parenti, "After Three Mile Island: The Rise and Fall of Nuclear Safety Culture," The Nation (Mar 22, 2011).

**  Nuclear industry consolidation was predicted and described in a paper I co-authored with NYPA's Bob Schoenberger, "Capturing Stranded Value in Nuclear Plant Assets," The Electricity Journal 9 (June 1996): 59-65.

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