Energy Department, NRC Back Nuclear, Ignore Industry

Thursday, 07 January 2010 12:44 By Art Levine, t r u t h o u t | News Analysis | name.

Energy Department, NRC Back Nuclear, Ignore Industry’s Dirty Little Secrets
(Photo: Alberto OG; Edited: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t)

Edith Hood isn’t part of the grand debate over climate change as leading environmental groups and President Obama’s secretary of energy increasingly accept nuclear power as a necessary part of any solution to the global warming crisis.

She is just a Native-American woman living in the Coyote Canyon reservation area of New Mexico, and back in 2007, she tearfully tried to convince a House oversight committee that the federal government should do more to clean up the uranium waste where she lives - and the legacy of death and illness all the mining caused. “Where I’m from, there are pinon-covered mesas, our beautiful and sacred mountains, sandy deserts,” she told the Congressmen about her community. “Where I’m from, in a placed called Red Water Pond Road, there is also uranium waste and sickness. I live on the Navajo Reservation, between two abandoned mine sites.”

ALSO SEE: Art Levine | Meltdown, USA: Nuclear Drive Trumps Safety Risks and High Cost

Meanwhile, mining companies are looking again to exploit Navajo lands - and their workers - as demand for uranium increases and the Department of Energy is seeking to back the construction of more nuclear plants with billions in loan guarantees. These include supposedly cutting-edge reactors that have turned out to have thousands of safety errors, and are years behind schedule while being built in Finland and elsewhere. At the same time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that is supposed to monitor the nuclear industry has been repeatedly found to have failed to effectively regulate plants - in Toledo and other cities - in ways that brought the public dangerously close to nuclear meltdowns at some plants, while leaving too many plants still vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

The damage has already happened to those unlucky enough to live or work near uranium mines and processing facilities. The dangers of uranium mining linger even after the mines close up, as some cancers have a latency period as long as decades until their symptoms become obvious. For many Native-Americans living in reservations in New Mexico and elsewhere - like native people around the world victimized wherever there is uranium mining - they have worked or lived near the mines, and, as a result, they've been killed and sickened by radiation. Relatively little has been done so far about it, even with limited legislation to compensate miners.

The continuing plight of families living near the 500 or so abandoned mines in Navajo territories in the Southwest was underscored by testimony in 2007 before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. As Edith Hood declared:

Today, as I pray in the early morning dawn, there is a man-made mesa of radioactive and hazardous waste about a quarter of a mile northeast of my residence. In the other direction, to the south about one thousand feet away, is another mound of uranium mining waste. The one to the south has been left uncovered since it was created in 1968 and since the company stopped mining twenty-five years ago. From my front yard I can see these waste piles. This waste seems to be piled everywhere. There are mountains of it - fifty, sixty feet high. This is the tailings or muck of pulverized uranium ore. This stuff is spread by wind and water. We breathe it and live with it every day ...

I worked at the Kerr McGee mine, 2000 feet underground. I was diagnosed with lymphoma in the summer of 2006. My father has a pulmonary fibrosis. My mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer. My grandmother and grandfather died of lung cancer. Many of my family members and neighbors are sick, but we don't know what from.

Today, there is talk of opening new mines. How can they open new mines when we haven't even addressed the health impacts and environmental damage of the old mines? Mining has already contaminated the water, the plants, and the air. People are sick and dying all around us.

We need your help to clean up the mess that the mining companies and the US government have burdened us with. We need help to stop mining companies from coming in and making a new mess.

Currently, there are only four active uranium mining and milling facilities in the US, but other mining companies, including sites in New Mexico and Colorado, are considering opening more.

At the recent Copenhagen 15 summit, the fate of native peoples facing these dangers was given little attention, despite protests, as the rush to nuclear continued apace, all part of the so-called nuclear renaissance. It was apparently ignored by the major media as just another fringe sideshow of loonies eager for publicity, rather than the dirty little secret behind the "clean air energy" PR blitz of the nuclear industry. That message has essentially been enhanced by the drive for subsidies, and enabled by leading environmental groups such as Sierra Club and legislators such as Sen. John Kerry, who have accepted nuclear energy so far as the price of a climate bill.

But the concerns of indigenous people, although marginalized, are well worth hearing, as organized by Building Action for Sustainable Environments Initiative (BASE):

We are citizens who represent some of the communities in the US who bear the legacy of 50 years of nuclear energy and weapons production. We are indigenous nations, we are Latino citizens and farm-workers, and we are African American communities living near nuclear power and weapon production sites ...

Our communities suffer from diseases and illnesses that we contend are related to our exposure to the highly toxic processes of mining and milling uranium, the unsafe storage of radioactive materials and the lack of clean-up of sites and facilities, the transportation of highly radioactive waste through our communities, and the lack of safe disposal methods for highly deadly nuclear waste. Cancer, neurological damage, genetic damage, lung disease, respiratory disorders, lupus, and heart problems are among some of the illnesses that affect our communities.

All that doesn't seem to cause too much concern to environmental champions of Congressional climate legislation, the nuclear industry or the Department of Energy, whose leadership has favored at least doubling loan guarantees. As Dow Jones reported last week:

Federal loan guarantees for new nuclear power plant construction should be at least doubled to allow construction of four to five additional plants, US Energy Secretary Steven Chu said late Thursday ...

Chu, in an interview with Dow Jones Newswires, said additional nuclear power plant loan guarantees would help rejuvenate a domestic industry and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Although companies have submitted 18 new nuclear power plant license applications to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy only has authority for $18.5 billion, enough for four to five plants ...

"If you really want to restart the American nuclear energy industry in a serious way ... we [need to] send signals to the industry that the US is serious about investing in nuclear power plants," Chu said on the sidelines of a conference here.

Chu didn't say when he would formally propose such an expansion.

Republicans have urged construction of 100 new nuclear power plants. While not going that far, Chu said, "there's real interest out there [for] another four to five or more, we could easily do."

One of the new reactors under active consideration is a Constellation Energy Group Inc.'s (CEG) Calvert Cliffs plant in Maryland, which is developing it through UniStar Nuclear Energy, a joint venture between Constellation and Electricite de France SA (EDF.FR) to build the plant designed by AREVA.

Unfortunately, AREVA has had so many cost over-runs, financial crises and safety problems, that Greenpeace awarded it the world's leading (unintended) champion of the anti-nuclear cause:

Our winner's achievements this year are almost endless. It has ...

- With the eyes of the world on it as it single-handedly tries to launch the nuclear 'renaissance' by building a flagship state-of-the-art third-generation nuclear reactor, it lets the project's costs and schedule spiral out of control. The reactor construction has thousands of defects and its design has been heavily criticised by nuclear regulators in three countries.

- Spooked potential clients by conducting a very public row with its customer for the above project and attempting to change the terms of their contract.

- Demonstrated the terrible economics of nuclear power by having the above reactor project wipe out its profits.

Ladies and gentlemen, we give you French nuclear corporation, AREVA!

Indeed, AREVA's problems underscore the fast-fading myth of a nuclear renaissance being pushed by the nuclear industry's spin doctors with the tacit or active help of most environmental groups and leading members of Congress. As Greenpeace, in its end of the year award for the "Spin of the Year," pointed out:

For us the finest piece of spin this year was the nuclear industry's continuing attempt to convince us that the nuclear 'renaissance' is actually happening. Just look.

The construction of the so-called state of the art EPR [European Pressurized Reactor] reactors at Olkiluoto, Finland and Flamanville, France continue to descend further and further into over-budget and behind-schedule farce. The Olkiluoto EPR single-handedly destroyed AREVA's profits this year. AREVA is now conducting a very public fight with its Finnish customer TVO. The UK nuclear industry is already being subsidised by the public before new reactor designs are off the drawing table. Those new reactor designs safety features have been heavily criticised by nuclear safety regulators in the UK, Finland, France and the US.

Then there are worries about uranium shortages in India and China. New nuclear reactor projects canceled or in trouble in Canada, Turkey, Bulgaria, Texas, Alabama and elsewhere. Citigroup calling new nuclear reactors 'corporate killers'.

So where is the nuclear 'renaissance'? It's everywhere and yet it's nowhere. It's all talk. We salute the nuclear industry's spin doctors for fashioning such an exquisitely intangible creation

The Finland fiasco overseen by AREVA is the poster boy for mismanaged nuclear plant construction, based on the supposedly innovative, safer European Pressurized Reactor [EPR] model that has created nonstop headaches. Even so, that model is one of the top likely recipients of US financial aid in the version planned for Calvert Cliffs, Maryland. Balanced news accounts by the German magazine Der Spiegel, The New York Times and other outlets, along with advocacy groups, have pinpointed the major problems.

As recounted in October by Der Spiegel:

Problems Plague Launch of 'Safer' Next-Generation Reactors

The executives of electric utilities worldwide are dreaming of a renaissance in nuclear power. But problems with a new, state-of-the-art reactor in Finland suggest that this is unlikely to happen. The industry's alternative strategy is to modernize older plants to drastically extend reactor lifetimes..

[Finnish electric utility] TVO and the two manufacturing companies are involved in a heated dispute, as they battle over billions in out-of-court settlements. Costs have exploded, and the project is already several years behind schedule. Critics accuse the consortium of having made dangerous mistakes. The concrete, they say, is porous, the steel is brittle and some of the design principles seem so risky that experts from the Finnish nuclear regulatory agency can only shake their heads in wonder.

TVO and Areva are doing their best to create the impression that everything about the project is fine ...

In reality, however, the problems with this showcase plant are bad news for the nuclear industry, which has been hoping for a comeback of its large-scale technology. Olkiluoto was meant to be its model for the future, but now those hopes appear to have been dashed.

Nuclear industry executives in the industrialized countries are not pinning their hopes on new plants as much as on a sort of low-cost renaissance. The want to see their aging plants, built in the days when VW was still making the Beetle in Germany, simply continue to produce electricity well beyond the end of their originally planned lives ...

Modernization instead of new construction. Is the new strategy to launch a renaissance through the back door? ....

3,000 Construction Mistakes To Date

The EPR, the first reactor in the so-called third generation, is the world's most modern nuclear machine, a hybrid of German and French reactor development ... But hybrids are complicated things, which helps to explain the more than 3,000 mistakes that have occurred in construction to date ...

In a letter of protest STUK [the Finnish nuclear agency] General Director Jukka Laaksonen sent to Areva CEO Lauvergeon last December, he wrote that he could see no "real progress" in the "design of the control and protection systems," and complained that "evident design defects" are not being corrected. According to Laaksonen, the "attitude or lack of professional knowledge" of Areva representatives is obstructing progress. Unfortunately, Laaksonen wrote, his authority was still waiting for "a proper design that meets the basic principles of nuclear safety." According to Areva, the sharply worded letter is simply part of a normal dialogue over safety issues. [Emphasis added.]

So, with its 3,000 mistakes, and ignoring the "basic principles of nuclear safety," this is essentially the same reactor - and plant designer - that is being looked to by the American nuclear industry as its savior, with potentially generous help from the Department of Energy. It's little wonder that a coalition of anti-nuclear, public interest and environmental groups recently urged Secretary Chu not to grant a multi-billion dollar bailout to the American utility hoping to build a similar plant at Calvert Cliffs. What is surprising is that the rest of the environmental movement, most progressive environmental bloggers and mainstream national publications apparently couldn’t care less about the fiscal and safety dangers such a plant poses. In a virtually ignored press release and street theater demonstration outside the Department of Energy, the plans for nuclear bailouts were denounced in December:

"Two of the reactor designs that the Department of Energy is on the verge of financing with taxpayer-backed loan guarantees are not yet even certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission," said Allison Fisher, Organizer at the Public Citizen Energy Program. "The French Areva Evolutionary Power Reactor design proposed for Maryland's Chesapeake shore has been reprimanded by safety regulators in Finland, Britain, and even France itself for significant design flaws."

"It is clear that issuing 'conditional' nuclear loan guarantees for as yet unlicensed reactors would be premature and highly risky for US taxpayers,' said Kevin Kamps, Radioactive Waste Watchdog at Beyond Nuclear.

One of the protest letters signatories included the Sierra Club, an influential supporter of pending climate legislation with its provisions for nuclear subsidies.

By signing such little-noticed documents while failing to launch an aggressive lobbying and media campaign against nuclear energy that mobilizes its millions of members, such groups are able to play the issue both ways. They're enhancing their Washington insider status during legislative bargaining to move a climate bill forward while mollifying their members that they really are against expanding nuclear power. So far, it's worked, because there hasn't been any sort of grassroots uprising from the members of leading environmental groups wondering why the green groups they donate to are supporting climate bills with authority for nuclear subsidies included.

These groups apparently see themselves as pragmatists for two reasons: they need to keep climate legislation, even if watered down, moving forward, as a Natural Resources Defense Council expert told me when I reported on Dr. Caldicott's harsh criticism of mainstream environmentalists, and they don't really expect the nuclear industry to be able to succeed in building many new plants.

But even if the industry doesn't build 100 new nuclear plants, as staunch advocates like Sen. Lindsey Graham hope, the continuing operation for decades more of aging plants that were only meant to operate for 30 or 40 years poses its own very serious risks of meltdowns and other disasters, critics of the industry contend.

"They're aging and they're deteriorating," says Paul Gunter of Beyond Nuclear. "They're prone to cracking," with potential "embritlement" of reactor vessels caused by the sharp, contrasting changes in temperatures as reactors generate enormous heat alternating with cooling down.

And then there's corrosion, the most obvious culprit in the near-meltdown in 2002 caused by a hole in the nuclear reactor's pressure vessel lid at the Davis-Besse plant near Toledo, Ohio. As the NRC itself found, as reported by the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

The gaping rust hole found in 2002 in the lid of the Northwest Ohio reactor was the fifth-most dangerous situation at an American nuclear plant in the last quarter century, according to a new government analysis.

In a report issued Monday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission put the odds of a core meltdown of some kind at the FirstEnergy Corp. facility during the year before the rust hole's discovery at 6 in 1,000.

That's about the same chance of winning the Ohio Lottery's twice-daily Pick 3 wheel bet ...

A Davis-Besse near miss in 1985 ranked at No. 2 in significance, just behind the infamous partial meltdown at Pennsylvania's Three-Mile Island in 1979.

In the months leading to the accidental discovery of the rust hole, Davis-Besse was 100 times more likely to have a core-damaging nuclear accident than had it been well-maintained, according to the report.

But it was the NRC's indifferent oversight and caving in to the utility's demand for delayed inspections that contributed to the near catastrophe, Gunter, the GAO, and other critics have found. As Gunter summed it up in a 2002 report:

First Energy, an Ohio electric utility, drove its deteriorating Davis-Besse nuclear power station dangerously close to a catastrophic accident it was revealed today. Moreover, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) capitulated to First Energy pressure to delay inspections of a vital safety component beyond a requested December 31, 2001 deadline in order to accommodate the industry rather than force an early shutdown to conduct inspections on deteriorating equipment.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) then asked for a thorough GAO report on the incident, issued in 2004, and he blasted the agency that's now supposed to protect the public when even more nuclear plants are proposed to be built:

 "The General Accounting Office (GAO) Report highlights shocking, serious and dangerous systemic problems at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Problems that call into question whether the agency can, as it is currently run, continue to perform its most fundamental functions-to protect public safety. This report reveals failures at almost every rung of the bureaucratic ladder at the NRC.

"The crisis at Davis-Besse is the most serious safety issue to face a commercial nuclear power plant since Three Mile Island. The GAO report shows that the NRC was ill equipped, ill informed and far too slow to react. The NRC's reaction to Davis-Besse was inadequate, irresponsible and left the public at grave risk."

And despite a series of GAO reports that found a broader, failed "culture of safety" at the NRC, an agency funded 90 percent by fees from nuclear power plants, the changes so far have been largely cosmetic at best, critics say.

Indeed, the agency, according to Kucinich and other observers, initially ignored and discounted the GAO report about its failed oversight at Davis-Besse, even as federal investigators pursued a criminal inquiry into cover-ups by FirstEnergy officials, and the company eventually paid over $30 million in fines. As the Toledo Blade reported after a FirstEnergy engineer received probation last year for his role in the cover-up:

FirstEnergy Corp., the nuclear plant's owner-operator, has paid a record $33.5 million in fines to settle civil and criminal probes that were undertaken after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was talked out of executing an emergency shutdown order it had prepared for Davis-Besse in the fall of 2001.

The NRC correctly diagnosed something was amiss at Davis-Besse, but had no idea the plant's old reactor head was weeks away from bursting and allowing radioactive steam to form in containment of a US nuclear plant for the first time since the half-core meltdown of the Three Mile Island Unit 2 reactor in 1979.

A crisis was barely averted when the plant was shut down on Feb. 16, 2002, six weeks later than what the NRC had originally proposed.

But the NRC was hardly just a well-meaning agency duped by wily engineers at FirstEnergy. As Gunter and others have chronicled, the NRC overruled its own staff that had found numerous safety regulation violations that created a potentially hazardous condition.

A little over two years ago, one of the agency's most well-informed critics, nuclear engineer David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists, gave the agency in devastating Congressional testimony a failing grade on such major functions as effective and timely enforcement.

"The NRC today is very much like FirstEnergy was when the depths of the problems at Davis-Besse were discovered," he said, while ticking off safety fiascoes, like leaks and electrical misfires, at other major nuclear utility companies. He noted that fixing the problems at these risky companies involved bringing in senior managers from outside the company and totally overhauling the negligent safety culture in the firms.

"But while the NRC suffers from the same chronic performance malaise, it has never received the same treatment. Thus while Davis-Besse and others are operating today at higher performance levels than in their problem years, the NRC remains at the same level it has been at for the past decades. No better, no worse, no excuse," he said. As a result, the NRC's failings contribute to the ongoing dangers posed by nuclear plants found by the Union of Concerned Scientists in its prescient report, “Nuclear Power in a Warming World.

Surprisingly, the NRC recently hired Lochbaum - which could be a sign that the agency is, at long last, taking reform seriously, or just seeking to co-opt one of its most effective critics.

More recently, the NRC's own inspector general found that in reviewing requests to extend operating licenses for another 20 years, the agency too often used the industry's own slipshod inspections and essentially passed them off as the NRC's own work. "They plagiarized the companies' inspections," says Gunter, adding, "The agency staff has renewed 32 nuclear power plant sites around the country totaling 59 reactor units. Only the Yankee Rowe nuclear power station, the original license renewal pilot plant, did not get NRC approval and instead closed because the operator could not demonstrate that the plant could go another 20 years" without concerns about an embrittled reactor vessel.

The inspector general found that not only did the NRC destroy working documents it used in making renewal decisions, but it also reported: "The identical or nearly identical word-for-word repetition of renewal application text found in the [NRC's] audit, inspection, or safety evaluation reports are not offset or otherwise marked to indicate the text is identical to that found in the license renewal application. A reader could conclude that they were reading NRC's independent analysis and conclusions when, in fact, it was the licensee's conclusions. [Emphasis added.]

In response to such criticisms, a spokesperson for the NRC responded in an email to Truthout, "The NRC's Inspector General found that the agency's license renewal program is technically sound, and the NRC staff have made procedural changes to ensure the agency more clearly describes its findings regarding renewal applications."

Regardless of all the safety, health, financial and regulatory alarms raised by critics, it still seems likely that the nuclear industry itself will play a decisive role in shaping the ongoing embrace of nuclear power by Congress and the Obama administration. Mitch Singer, a spokesperson for the Nuclear Energy Institute, told Truthout proudly it's not spin or ad dollars that's sold nuclear power to Washington: "It's the truth that wins out over advertising."

Or at least the "truth" about nuclear power as accepted by Washington insiders, with most environmental groups going along - regardless of the consequences to the public.

Last modified on Thursday, 07 January 2010 12:52