A Nuclear Gamble on the Not-So-Distant Horizon

Much like Captain Renault in Casablanca, the White House is suddenly shocked, shocked to find that oil rigs can explode, destroying ecosystems and livelihoods. The Obama administration has backed away from its offshore oil expansion policy in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe as the long-term environmental and economical consequences unfold in the Gulf States. Headlines are clamoring for the criminal investigations of BP, TransOcean, Halliburton and ultimately, the federal regulator, Mineral Management Services (MMS). Rather paradoxically, President Obama is using the oil spill to call for more nuclear power.

Yet, with the exception of a handful of insightful political cartoonists, the obvious parallel between the regulatory delinquency of MMS and that of its nuclear equivalent - the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) - and the potential for an equally catastrophic accident in the nuclear sector, has not been drawn. As with the MMS debacle, the NRC is gambling with inevitable disaster with the same spin of the wheel of misfortune and with potentially even higher stakes.

Investigations have already revealed that MMS had become too friendly and compliant toward the industry it was supposed to regulate. This hands-off approach proved to be a formula for inevitable disaster. Similarly, the NRC consistently puts the financial motives of the nuclear industry it is supposed to regulate ahead of public safety. In instance after instance, the NRC has chosen not to enforce its own regulations even in the face of repeated reactor safety violations, risking a serious reactor accident while leaving often high-risk safety problems to linger unresolved for decades.

The NRC acknowledges that the greatest hazard to a reactor comes from fire. Yet not one of the 104 currently operating reactors is in full compliance with critical federal fire safety regulations. The NRC has known this since 1992 when the majority of U.S. nuclear plants were found to have installed bogus fire barriers prone to fail in a significant fire. Rather than take prompt action, the NRC spent six years discussing the problem with industry, then issued corrective orders which it later discovered the industry had ignored, substituting them instead with less costly, unapproved and illegal measures. The NRC took no punitive action and simply changed its rules to accommodate an "alternative compliance strategy" that relies largely on quantifying or trivializing the risk from fire with computer models, many of which cannot be validated as reliable. Any one of the U.S. reactors operating today could be the next Deep Horizon fire, but spilling cancer-causing radiation instead of oil.

The NRC was similarly industry-favorable when the Chicago nuclear giant, Exelon, spilled millions of gallons of water contaminated with tritium - radioactive hydrogen -into groundwater and neighboring communities from an unmaintained pipe at its Braidwood reactor and kept the leaks secret for years. The radioactive water contaminated offsite groundwater where residents of one community are still on company-supplied bottled water after four years. Although Exelon had violated its NRC-issued operating license that obliged the utility to "control" and "monitor" the radioactive waste flowing through underground pipes, the agency took no action against the utility. When the State of Illinois attempted to enforce its own water resource protection laws the NRC instead acted to undercut these punitive actions, threatening Illinois with court action if the state pursued fining Exelon $35 million for damages. Faced with expensive litigation, Illinois settled with Exelon for a paltry one million dollars.

In fact, uninspected buried pipes carrying radioactive water under virtually every nuclear power plant in the U.S. are deteriorating and springing leaks at an increasing rate. But rather than enforce the license agreements that would prevent radioactive leaks from occurring, NRC has rolled over its regulatory responsibilities to the nuclear industry's "voluntary initiatives" for miles of unmaintained piping in a de facto "leak first, fix later" policy.

As we are learning from the BP accident, prevention is better - and ultimately cheaper - than the cure. The lessons of the Gulf tragedy should extend beyond reigning in the oil industry and its delinquent regulator. The destructive potential of a major nuclear reactor accident is incalculable and incremental radioactive poisoning of water resources, in spite of regulations, is irresponsible. The dispersal of radioactivity from a mature U.S. reactor could dwarf the Chernobyl explosion which, according to new studies, may have already killed close to one million people. Rather than promoting - and rushing to fund - new nuclear reactors - the White House and Congress should be pressing hard on the nuclear power pause button. A thorough Congressional review of the NRC is urgently needed, now. We cannot afford to ask "what went wrong?" again. We must ask "what is wrong right now?" before it is too late.

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