2011-05-18 NRC Decades Late in Considering Public Safety

This Viewpoint was published in the San Luis Obispo Tribune on May 18, 2011. It points out that only since the disaster in Fukushima is the NRC beginning to ask nuclear plants to report on how they plan to prevent massive radiation releases in case of an extreme event.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has been caught like a deer in the headlights.  All of a sudden, the NRC is demanding detailed information from all 104 nuclear plants in the U.S. “to ensure reactors can withstand damage or prolonged loss of power due to terrorists attack.”  The NRC is requiring reports on safety equipment availability in the event of a terrorist attack, as well as the training of personnel who would be relied upon in case of an emergency.

This is the agency that has long assured us that its priority is the protection of public safety. But the fact that these requirements are new makes it clear that for decades the NRC has allowed nuclear plants to operate without documentation that radiation releases could be limited in the event of a terrorist attack.

The San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace (MFP) first raised the issue of sabotage in 1976. More recently, MFP unsuccessfully urged the NRC to restore the spent fuel pools to their original design. With sufficient spacing between the rods a radiation-releasing fire could be prevented in the event that a terrorist attack, earthquake, or human error caused a loss of coolant.  In 2006, the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with Mothers for Peace that the NRC was irrational to refuse to consider the possibility of a terrorist attack on the Diablo Canyon Nuclear power plant.  As MFP attorney Diane Curran told the Court “the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have removed any shred of credibility from the NRC’s stance that terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities are ‘speculative’ events that cannot be predicted.”

The two most recent NRC inspection reports of Diablo Canyon (available on the NRC website) document on-going problems with such crucial safety equipment as a fire door and the sources of off-site power. These types of deficiencies have been recurring themes in inspection reports for many years. It is time for the NRC to do more than report the problems. The NRC should suspend Diablo’s operating license if safety equipment can not be managed in accordance with the NRC’s safety requirements.

It took the catastrophic releases from the Fukushima plants to get the NRC to require information that is essential to avoid a run-away melt-down or spent fuel pool fire at a U.S. plant.

While control of the Fukushima plants was lost because of unforeseen acts of Mother Nature, and the NRC’s new requirements for information from plant operators address terrorist attacks, the root question is the same. When the usual means of controlling and cooling nuclear power plants are destroyed, how might catastrophic releases of radiation be prevented?

The NRC is correct to require information about each nuclear plant’s capability to prevent a melt-down or fire should safety equipment be disabled or destroyed. Given the history of neglect of these issues over the decades, the agency has a long way to go to earn the public’s trust of its commitment to provide for public safety.

- Jane Swanson, Spokesperson,

San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace