June 24, 2003
Don’t Rely on Government to Tell the Whole Story About Nuclear Power
Statement by Wenonah Hauter, Director, Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is holding a closed-door workshop today for reporters covering the nuclear power industry. Based on how they agency has handled safety issues in the past, we have every reason to expect the agency will spend today glossing over past near-disasters, rather than seriously discussing legitimate public concerns. Today’s event likely will do nothing to boost public confidence in an agency that too often appears more concerned with helping out the nuclear industry than protecting the public.
Here are some of the facts about nuclear power that you probably won’t hear from the NRC:
- Nuclear security. The NRC’s new nuclear plant security requirements (“design basis threat” requirements) were crafted in secret meetings with the nuclear industry and issued by fiat, circumventing required processes for public notice and comment. The NRC and nuclear industry have opposed congressional efforts to mandate stricter regulation of security at nuclear power plants.
- Vulnerability of pools of highly radioactive nuclear waste to catastrophic failure. The NRC has allowed nuclear operators to reconfigure cooling pools at reactors across the country to pack in more radioactive waste. As a result, if an accident or attack caused water to partially drain from a pool, the densely packed waste could ignite and cause a radiation catastrophe “worse than Chernobyl,” according to a study published in Princeton’s Science & Global Security journal this spring (the “Alvarez study”). Rather than taking these concerns seriously, NRC Commissioner Edward McGaffigan Jr., in a March 27 meeting, directed the agency’s staff to refute the study.
- Nuclear waste transportation. Proposals for high-level nuclear waste dumps at Skull Valley, Utah, and Yucca Mountain, Nev., would initiate the transport of unprecedented quantities of nuclear waste. The NRC does not require physical testing of the transportation casks it licenses. Plans for one-time physical tests of certain casks (the “Package Performance Study”) stop short of evaluating cask response to being submerged in deep water or subjected to explosives.
- Radioactive recycling. The NRC is forging ahead with a rulemaking that would open the floodgates for the deregulation and release of nuclear waste materials, allowing them to be incinerated, dumped into unlicensed landfills, reused for non-nuclear purposes, and even “recycled” into everyday consumer products. While agreeing that any amount of radiation poses health risks and admitting that “the radioactive component may be concentrated in the recycling process” and that potentially “the material will be recycled in a form resulting in more actual contact with the general public,” the NRC has held only one public meeting on this issue, at its Washington, D.C. -area headquarters. So much for prioritizing public health and safety.
- Uranium enrichment. Louisiana Energy Services (LES), a company seeking to build a uranium enrichment plant in Hartsville, Tenn., has brazenly asked the NRC to restrict consideration of six specific issues when it reviews the company’s application for a plant license. These same six issues prevented the company from opening a similar facility in Louisiana a decade ago. The NRC has refused to make public its full consideration of the request, apart from a two-page letter summarizing the agency’s acceptance of two of the six LES requests.
- Davis-Besse. Boric acid corroded a hole nearly all the way through the lid of this Ohio reactor, while its licensed operator, FirstEnergy, and the NRC looked the other way. An NRC Inspector General report concluded that the agency “appears to have informally established an unreasonably high burden of requiring absolute proof of a safety problem, versus lack of reasonable assurance of maintaining public health and safety, before it will act to shut down a power plant.” The reactor was finally shut down in March last year and should stay closed because of the company’s track record of putting profits ahead of safety, but FirstEnergy is planning for an August restart.
- Emergency response. Earlier this year, an independent review of the evacuation plan around New York’s Indian Point reactors (the “Witt Report”), commissioned by New York Gov. George Pataki, concluded that the public would be inadequately protected in the event of a terrorist attack. As a result, county and state governments refused to certify the Indian Point emergency plan, but the NRC continues to allow the reactor to operate.
The NRC refused a request by a Public Citizen representative to participate in today’s workshop. Instead, Public Citizen staff members presented this and other information to reporters entering the workshop and handed out doughnuts, a reference to the doughnut-loving, bumbling Homer Simpson, a television character who works in a nuclear plant and whose focus on food often leaves the plant vulnerable to a meltdown.
Click on the links below to get the side of the story the NRC will not tell: