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Nuclear Agency Squabbling Throws Smokescreen Over Safety Lapses

Four of the five commissioners at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission have charged their boss, Chairman Gregory Jaczko, with “causing serious damage to this institution.” That is tough talk coming from an agency where mismanagement under previous chairmanships actually did serious damage, not only to the regulatory integrity of the institution, but to safety integrity at nuclear reactors.

For example, in April 2000, the Commission had photographic evidence of extensive corrosive leakage that put the Davis-Besse reactor near Toledo, Ohio within a hair’s breadth of a meltdown. Yet, despite lava-like formations of rust roiling off the top of the reactor pressure vessel, the NRC allowed the reactor to restart, giving it the green light for two more years of operation. The NRC clearly needed a top to bottom safety shakeup.   That’s when Chairman Jaczko showed up.

The grumbling over Jaczko is a convenient smokescreen to draw attention away from the fact that, for the first time in decades, the NRC actually has a Chairman who, in his own words, is “a very passionate person about safety” at the country’s 104 operating nuclear reactors. That shows up the other four, who, much of the time, adhere to an old culture of capitulation to the demands of the nuclear power industry, a practice which almost invariably diminishes safety.

Although he has by no means a perfect record, Jazcko has on several important occasions put his vote where it counts to reinforce safety at the country’s nuclear power plants.

Last June, Chairman Jazcko was alone on the Commission in calling for the end to handing out more “Get out of Jail Free” cards for fire code violations potentially affecting the safe shutdown of reactors during a fire.  For decades, the nuclear industry has been in violation of federal fire safety laws, yet the Commission consistently shields the nuclear industry from potentially costly fixes by negating enforcement of its own regulations.

Jaczko wisely carried out President Obama’s decision to cancel the licensing of the scientifically unsound proposed radioactive waste repository at Yucca Mountain, NV. Jaczko’s was also the only dissenting voice in the September 2005 NRC vote that approved a “parking lot” dumpsite for 40,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste targeted for the tiny Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation in Utah. (The project was later canceled).  He was again the sole opposing vote in April 2009 when the NRC approved a 20-year license extension for the dangerous and decrepit Oyster Creek reactor in New Jersey, the country’s oldest.

The commissioners appear to be using their spat with Jaczko to shroud their own collective inaction despite the lessons that should have been learned from the still unfolding nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. During the early weeks of the accident, it was Chairman Jaczko who urged Americans in Japan to evacuate to 50 miles away from the Fukushima disaster (although US standards still only require 10 miles, a regulation Jaczko should now push to change.) He also created the Near- and Long-Term Fukushima Task Force to examine the implications for a similar crisis on US soil. That shows a concern for public safety that should be central to the commissioners’ mandate.

Congress, to whom the NRC is answerable, should be paying attention to job performance at the agency. But rather than wrangle with the trivialities of alleged workplace tantrums, our elected officials need to scrutinize the NRC’s long history of failure to enforce its own safety regulations.

During the BP Deep Water Horizon debacle, revelations that the now hastily renamed Minerals Management Service was too cozy with the oil industry and disastrously derelict in its duty to enforce safety regulations, made waves. Yet, despite the fact that the NRC is literally playing with fire – and radioactivity – no similar scrutiny has been applied.

Congress could better spend its time looking deeper into lax safety oversight at NRC and tell its commissioners to stop favoring the nuclear industry’s financial priorities over public safety.

Linda Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear, a Takoma Park, Maryland-based safe energy advocacy organization.

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