Regulatory Commission (NRC), the governmental body that oversees nuclear
power in the United States, seems to be following the script of the
movie Groundhog Day—reliving the same bad event over and over again. But
instead of reporting on the whims of a hibernating groundhog, the event
the NRC keeps reliving is a gathering cloud of safety problems that
force nuclear power plants to shutdown for a year or longer.
A new report on these
long-term shutdowns shows nuclear power in the United States is more
dangerous and more costly than necessary. Since the first commercial
plant opened 40 years ago, reactor shutdowns of a year or longer have
occurred a staggering 51 times at 41 different plants. Most of these
were due to widespread safety problems in that eventually could not be
ignored. While these reactors shut down before they experienced a major
accident, we cannot assume our luck will hold.
Some proponents of
nuclear power have dismissed such safety concerns by arguing that no
United States nuclear plant has experienced a meltdown since Three Mile
Island’s partial one in 1979. That’s as fallacious as arguing that the
levees protecting New Orleans were fully adequate prior to Hurricane
Katrina because there were no similar disasters between 1980 and 2004.
The tremendous cost
of these shutdowns—a total of nearly $82 billion in lost
revenue—suggests how intently operators try to avoid them, and how
serious shutdowns are when they occur. But nuclear reactors that are not
operated as safely as possible are accidents waiting to happen.
“Walking a Nuclear
Tightrope: Unlearned Lessons of Year-plus Reactor Outages,” is the first
study to analyze every United States nuclear power outage lasting a year
or longer. In researching and writing the report as director of the
Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, I found
this was a nationwide problem, reaching from Maine Yankee in the north,
to Turkey Point south of Miami, from San Onofre outside of San Diego to
La Salle in central Illinois.
Most of the shutdowns
happened because safety margins at the plants were allowed to
deteriorate to such an extent that reactor operations could not
continue. Inadequate attention to safety by plant owners and operators,
combined with poor oversight by the NRC, caused 36 of the 51 year-plus
outages. There are 104 nuclear power reactors in the United States.
Forty-one have experienced year-long outages. A 1-in-3 chance of
incurring a year-plus outage was not part of the bargain when these
plants were built and licensed.
Since 1973, long-term
safety-related shutdowns have occurred, on average, once per year.
Despite the continued need for these shutdowns, the NRC has not
adequately improved its oversight of nuclear safety. The NRC should
detect falling safety margins and intervene before it takes longer than
a year to restore safety to acceptable levels.
There are things the
NRC can and should be doing. Systems for ensuring safety at nuclear
plants clearly aren’t working as well as they should, and the NRC must
step up its oversight efforts. When longstanding problems are
identified, the NRC must require the owner to determine why its tests
and inspections failed to find the problems earlier. The NRC must
develop a central repository of information about plant safety levels so
people can identify a plant headed for trouble. And to make sure the NRC
is doing its job, Congress should expand the monthly reporting it
requires to verify that it is taking these steps.
Nuclear power is
clearly not safe enough when so many reactors have to shut down for so
long to restore safety to acceptable levels.
The nuclear power
industry can’t guarantee Hollywood-style happy endings when problems
arise at a plant. That’s why Congress needs to step in and compel the
NRC to be a more aggressive enforcer of federal safety regulations.
Without improved oversight, declining safety at nuclear power plants
could result in a disaster rather than another costly year-plus outage.
Even Bill Murray would be hard-pressed to find the humor in that dismal
Lochbaum is the director of the nuclear safety project in the Global
Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He holds a degree
in nuclear engineering from the University of Tennessee and worked for
nearly 20 years in the U.S. commercial nuclear power industry prior to
joining UCS. For more than 25 years, the Union of Concerned Scientists
has monitored nuclear plant performance and taken action whenever safety
margins were compromised.
Copyright 2006 MinuteManMedia.org