Meltdown at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

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KARL GROSSMAN l Counterpunch  28 May, 2012

The resignation last week of the chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is another demonstration of the bankrupt basis of the NRC. Gregory Jaczko repeatedly called for the NRC to apply “lessons learned” from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster in Japan.  And, for that, the nuclear industry—quite successfully—went after him fiercely.

The New York Times in an editorial over the weekend said that President Obama’s choice to replace Jaczko, Allison McFarlane, “will need to be as independent and aggressive as Dr. Jaczko.”

That misses the institutional point.

The NRC was created in 1974 when Congress abolished the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission after deciding that the AEC’s dual missions of promoting and at the same time regulating nuclear power were deemed a conflict of interest. The AEC was replaced by the NRC which was to regulate nuclear power, and a Department of Energy was later formed to advocate for it.

However, the same extreme pro-nuclear culture of the AEC continued on at the NRC. It has partnered with the DOE in promoting nuclear power.

Indeed, neither the AEC, in its more than 25 years, nor the NRC, in its nearly 30 years,  ever denied an application for a construction or operating license for a nuclear power plant anywhere, anytime in the United States.

The NRC is a rubberstamp for the nuclear industry. “NRC stands for Nuclear Rubberstamp Commission,” says Kevin Kamps of the organization Beyond Nuclear.

And it isn’t that Jaczko opposed nuclear power. “Greg is not anti-nuclear, but he’s pro-nuclear in a smart and considered way,” says Christopher Paine, director of the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Since the Fukushima accident began last March 11, Jaczko, who has a Ph.D. in physics, has called on the NRC to recognize and incorporate in its rules and actions, the gravity of that catastrophe. As he declared as his four fellow NRC members approved the construction of two nuclear plants in Georgia in February—the first OK for new nuclear plants in the U.S. in years:

“I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima had never happened.”

“Greg has led a Sisyphean fight against some of the nuclear industry’s opponents of strong, lasting regulations, often serving as the lone vote,” commented Congressman Edward Markey of Massachusetts after the Jaczko resignation.

The nuclear industry and promoters of nuclear power in government would have us believe that Fukushima means nothing. As the American Nuclear Society asserts on its website: “No public ill effects are expected from the Fukushima incident.”

In reality, the consequences—in Japan and all over the world—are expected to be enormous. They’ll be worse than the impacts of the Chernobyl disaster, says Dr. Alexey Yablokov, a biologist and lead scientist of the book published by the New York Academy of Science in 2009, Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for the People and the EnvironmentIt reported that now available medical data shows that that 985,000 people died worldwide between 1986, the year of the Chernobyl accident, and 2004 from the radioactivity  released.

“The Fukushima disaster will be worse than Chernobyl,” agrees Dr. Janette Sherman, a toxicologist and the book’s editor. That’s because Fukushima involves, she notes, not one but six  nuclear plants along with spent fuel pools, in a “far more populated” area than the Chernobyl plant, and the radioactive discharges from Fukushima have continued for months.

Importantly, a new report by a noted European science institute has determined that Chernobyl and Fukushima were not isolated occurrences. “Severe Nuclear Reactor Accidents Likely Every 10 to 20 Years,” was the headline of the article last week on the report inScience Daily.

“Catastrophic nuclear accidents such as the core meltdowns in Chernobyl and Fukushima are more likely to happen than previously assumed,” said Science Daily, about the report by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany. Based on “the number of nuclear meltdowns that have occurred,” they “calculated that such events may occur once every 10 to 20 years.”

And impacts would be global—like Chernobyl and Fukushima.Their computer analyses, said Science Daily, found for the leading radioactive poison discharged in a nuclear plant accident, Cesium-137, some 8%  can be expected to fall within 50 kilometers of the accident site, 50% beyond 1,000 kilometers and 25% beyond 2,000 kilometers. “These results underscore that reactor accidents are likely to cause radioactive contamination well beyond national borders,” said Science Daily

Science Daily, like Jaczko, can’t be decried as “anti-nuclear.”

But for the nuclear industry and nuclear promoters within government, including the NRC, denial is the watchword.

At the NRC in recent months a move has begun to negate what has been its benchmark analysis on the impacts of nuclear plant accidents. “Calculation Reactor Accident Consequences 2,” referred to as the CRAC-2 report.  Issued in 1982, it projects the impacts from a meltdown with a breach of containment at every nuclear plant in the U.S.

It divides the consequences into “Peak Early Fatalities,” “Peak Early Injuries,” “Peak Cancer Deaths” and “Scaled Costs” for property damage—and the numbers are chilling. For the Indian Point 3 nuclear plant 28 miles north of New York City, for instance, it projects  “Peak Early Fatalities” at 50,000, “Peak Early Injuries” at 167,000, “Peak Cancer Deaths” at 14,000 and “Scaled Costs” at $314 billion (in 1980 dollars).

The NRC in January issued a report it seeks to have replace CRAC-2, “State-of-the-Art Reactor Consequences Analyses” or SOARCA. SOARCA finds, according to the NRC, that the “risks of public health consequences from severe accidents” at a nuclear plant “are very small.” The “long-term risk” of a person dying from cancer from a nuclear plant accident is less than one-in-a billion. This is because “successful implementation of existing mitigation measures can prevent reactor core damage or delay or reduce offsite releases of radioactive material.”

Tell that to the people impacted by Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Meanwhile, the NRC has been busy extending the operating licenses of existing plants although nuclear plants were never seen as running for more than 40 years because of radioactivity embrittling the metal parts and otherwise causing problems affecting safety. Nevertheless, the NRC has now extended the licenses of 73 of the 104 nuclear plants in the U.S. to 60 years. And next Thursday, June 7, at its headquarters, the NRC is holding a meeting with DOE and the industry’s Electric Power Research Institute on extending licenses to 80 years. Consider the reliability of an 80-year old car.

A “Petition for Rulemaking to Improve Emergency Planning Regulations” was brought to the NRC in February by the Nuclear Information and Resource Service and 37 safe-energy and environmental groups. It declared that “the real-world experience of the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters…were more severe and affected a much larger geographical area than provided for in NRC regulations” and asked, among other things, for the NRC to expand its current 10-mile evacuation planning zone around nuclear plants. “Waiting to see how bad an emergency gets before expanding evacuation…is not a plan of action, it is a recipe for disaster and an abdication of responsibility.” The likely NRC response? No.

On that issue, the nuclear industry was extremely upset that Jaczko, after the Fukushima accident began, advised U.S. citizens within 50 miles of the exploding nuclear complex to evacuate. It sought to continue the myth that 10 miles were fine.

As for the proposed new chair of the NRC, Allison McFarlane, if she seeks to push safety, as the New York Times thinks she can, she would be crucified—just like Jaczko.

The solution?  Abolish the Nuclear Rubberstamp Commission—and shut down every nuclear power plant in the U.S. They provide just 20% of our electricity and this could be substituted for with electricity generated by safe, clean, renewable energy sources such as solar and wind—without the loss of lives.

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College of New York, is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.

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Nuclear Power is not the Answer