While the recent government shutdown was still in progress, Jeff Donn of the Associated Press published a slanted story about a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That report had not yet been released to the public, but it was made available to Mr. Donn.
Though Mr. Donn is not responsible for selecting the headlines under which his wire service reporting is published in newspapers around the country, he is responsible for the content of his article. The opening sentence was selected for its attention grabbing potential:
The number of safety violations at U.S. nuclear power plants varies dramatically from region to region, pointing to inconsistent enforcement in an industry now operating mostly beyond its original 40-year licenses, according to a congressional study awaiting release.
I have several issues with that provably inaccurate statement. First of all, once the government reopened and I was able to obtain a copy of the GAO report that was leaked to Mr. Donn during the government shutdown, I did a search of the report for the term “safety violation” and found that the term does not appear in the report. I also took a look at the list of operating reactors that the GAO included as Appendix II in the report. One of the columns in that list is the “Date Commercial Operation Began”. It is a rather simple exercise in fact checking to scroll down the list to find out that 15 out of 104 reactors on the list began operating before September 1973. Since less than 15% of the industry is operating in the extended license period beyond its original 40-year licenses, the report does not support Mr. Donn’s assertion that the industry is “now operating mostly beyond its original 40-year licenses”.
The GAO spent 16 months doing an intensive evaluation of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Before getting to its conclusions, the report includes 48 pages that document the care with which the organization establishes and enforces regulations and the resources that it invests in the process, with a resident inspector for at each operating unit and at least two inspectors at each site. Inspectors are supported by about 4,000 people in regional and central headquarters.
The report describes the NRC categories of risk significance for inspection findings which is what Donn described as “safety violations”. Here is that table quoted from the GAO report:
|Inspection finding category||Risk significance||Description|
|Green||Very low safety significance||Indicates that licensee performance is acceptable and cornerstone objectives are met with nominal risk and deviation.|
|White||Low to moderate safety significance||Indicates that licensee performance is acceptable, but outside the nominal risk range. Cornerstone objectives are met with minimal reduction in safety margin.|
|Yellow||Substantial safety significance||Indicates a decline in licensee performance that is still acceptable with cornerstone objectives met, but with significant reduction in safety margin.|
|Red||High safety significance||Indicates a decline in licensee performance that is associated with an unacceptable loss of safety margin. Sufficient safety margin still exists to prevent undue risk to public health and safety.|
Here is another quote from Donn’s slanted story:
The GAO analysis focuses on lower-level safety violations known as “nonescalated.” They represent 98 percent of all violations identified by the NRC, which regulates safety at the country’s commercial reactors.
The reality is that the GAO report focused on “green” inspection findings. The definition of a “green” finding is a condition with very low safety significance that indicates licensee performance is acceptable and cornerstone regulatory objectives are fully met. Perhaps that more accurate reporting of the GAO report’s language did not meet Donn’s objectives in writing his story. Instead of making readers worry about “safety violations”, it would have been reassuring to the part of the public that is worried about nuclear plant safety to find out that 98% of all of the findings identified during at least 2,000 hours per year worth of inspections at each nuclear plant fall into the “green” category.
Donn also exposes his slanted intentions by quoting three separate nuclear industry critics – Paul Blanch, David Lochbaum, and Phillip Musegaas – while not quoting any independent nuclear energy professional who might have been able to provide an opposing interpretation of the report. He asked a Steve Kerekes of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) for a comment, but Donn refused to share his copy of the GAO document. Not surprisingly, Kerekes declined to comment; He had no way of obtaining an informed understanding of the contents of the report. The NRC also could not respond, Donn’s story was published during the government shutdown.
If the GAO report is read with care and understanding, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the GAO found very little negative information during its 16-month-long, resource-intensive, congressionally-directed effort to study the way that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission establishes and enforces its oversight of the nuclear industry. The only recommendations for improvement that it could find were roughly the equivalent of telling the NRC that some people have noticed that its umpires seem to have slightly different strike zones, that it needs to invest in better database tools to allow easier searches of its hundreds of thousands of documents on the the regulatory oversight process, and that it needs better search tools to allow inspectors to find already required documentation of past experiences.
Aside: As a taxpayer and researcher, I was curious to put some budget numbers on the effort expended by the GAO during its investigation. I contacted Chuck Young, Director, Public Affairs for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and asked for estimates of the full time equivalents and other expenses invested in the research, site interviews and report writing. Here is his response:
Thank you for your email and your interest in our work. However our reports are typically compiled entirely by our staff. We do not issue cost breakdowns for our reports.
My very rough guess — based on my experience in funding similar investigations while on the Navy staff — is that the report cost the GAO at least 5 FTEs plus $100,000 or more in travel expenses. I also estimate that responding to the GAO’s questions added an equivalent burden to both the NRC and the utilities who were part of the investigation.
Reporters need to be put on notice; there are independent, well-informed observers of the nuclear industry and the nuclear regulators who perfer using safe, emission-free energy. Most of us strongly advocate a sensible, cost-aware regulatory system that does not result in excessive effort to correct minor issues with no safety significance.
There are some interesting comparisons and contrasts between the federal oversight of nuclear power plants by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the federal oversight of pipelines and hazardous material by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
Both agencies are funded mostly by user fees. The NRC collects approximately 90% of its roughly $1,000 million annual budget, about 80% of which is spent on oversight of the nation’s 100 operating reactors, for the US Treasury by imposing fees on the nuclear energy industry. The PHMSA collects user fees on pipelines sufficient to cover 82% of the $110 million that it spent in 2012 in the pipeline safety program. That program has oversight responsibility for 2.6 million miles of pipelines carrying mostly oil and natural gas.
The NRC has 4,000 employees; the pipeline inspection portion of PHMSA has 215 full time equivalents.
Here is the quoted safety and environmental goals for PHMSA:
OUR SAFETY GOALS contribute directly to helping achieve the Secretary’s goal—to improve public health and safety by reducing transportation-related deaths and injuries. We work to protect people wherever they might be.
By 2016, we aim to:
- Reduce the number of pipeline incidents involving death or major injury to between 26-37 per year.
- Reduce the number of hazardous materials incidents involving death or major injury to between 21-32 per year.
OUR ENVIRONMENTAL GOALS contribute to helping achieve the Secretary’s goal to advance environmentally sustainable policies and investments that reduce carbon and other harmful emissions from transportation sources. We protect the natural environment, focusing especially on unusually sensitive areas.
By 2016, we aim to:
- Reduce the number of hazardous liquid pipeline spills with environmental consequences to between 65-81 per year.
- Reduce the number of hazardous materials incidents with environmental damage to between 44-64 per year.
Since the PHMSA objectives are listed as future goals, one can only assume that the current statistics are worse.
My point is not to try to make anyone worry about pipelines, but to encourage people with critical thinking skills to ask if our nation’s resource are being properly allocated. Keep in mind that a major competitor to nuclear energy production, the lucrative oil and gas pipeline industry, pays about 1/10th as much for regulatory oversight and inspections while it kills at least 37 people and experiences at least 81 spills with environmental consequences every year.