The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is one of the best places to work in the federal government. It is staffed with dedicated professionals who provide technical expertise and work very hard. It is a fair, but tough regulator that goes by the book. However, it is not providing Americans with the service that they deserve from the government, mainly because the law that the NRC is required to follow is completely unbalanced. In other words, “the book” is what needs to be revised to include a more comprehensive view of what is safe and what is not.
Here is an exchange from an interview with Dale Klein, the chairman of the NRC that illustrates my point. the quote comes from a February 27, 2008 article titled Nuclear chair discusses Palo Verde conditions. All questions refer to the Palo Verde nuclear station, which is currently considered to be a Category 4 plant that needs special NRC attention because of a couple of events that never endangered public safety.
Q: Is the plant safe?
A: For Palo Verde, the public never was at risk. They are just not operating at the high level that we demand.
Q: Is the plant in danger of shutting down?
A: They are not expected to be in Category 4 forever. There would come a point where the commission says enough is enough.
Q: The plant is a major provider of electricity in the West. If you shut it down, it would likely cause blackouts. How do you balance the energy needs of the region with safety concerns at the plant?
A: Very easy, if we feel the plant is unsafe, we shut it down. The consequences of that are up to someone else. Then the West would have to look at where it could buy power from someone else.
Just imagine a situation where there is a significant cold wave or heat wave in the Western US that just happens to occur at a time when an NRC regulator determines that some common component in a number of currently operating plant does not have the right pedigree. That regulator could determine that the “conservative” approach would be to shutdown the plants that contain that component until such time as it could be verified, tested or replaced.
Under some conditions, such an action might not have unintended consequences, but if the power grid is already operating at near capacity, the results could be catastrophic compared to the very minor – perhaps so close to zero that you cannot tell the difference – risk that something might happen to that common component. Thousands of people could end up dead if the power starts going out in places with extreme temperatures, especially when you consider the effects on hospitals, traffic lights, police stations, network operating centers and other vital components of modern living.
Electricity is not an option for Americans; it is part of the way that we have constructed our society and it something that we do without only at some amount of peril.
I am not saying that the NRC should lose its focus on safety – just advocating a broader definition of the term to include reasonably foreseeable, if unintended, consequences outside of the very narrow definition of “reactor” safety. That change could come with a fairly simple alteration of the Atomic Energy Act to include a consideration of outside consequences.
You have to know where I come from – I was the engineer officer of a single reactor plant submarine. We cared very much about the safety of that reactor, but we cared more about the safety of the ship. In certain circumstances, we would willingly put the reactor into a less safe condition in order to get the ship to a safe place – like on the surface. There was no such thing as saving the reactor if we lost the ship!
We learned that lesson very early in the nuclear program – USS Thresher (SSN 593) April 10, 1963 – 129 Men Lost. Though the USS Thresher was not lost because of any issue with the nuclear plant, there was some thought that the plant could have helped to save the ship if certain procedures – that later became standard practice – had been available. We did not only put those emergency procedures into place – we practiced them with as much realism as possible on a regular basis.
I have had this conversation with people on occasion over the years and they try to tell me that it is different since no land based plant will ever sink.
The fact is that it is very possible to kill a lot of people if you suddenly turn off major sources of power in certain circumstances – if there is an option that does not cause as large of a risk, it should be taken. The people who inhabit the NRC are smart enough to figure out when those circumstances exist – if they are legally required to take them into consideration and to do some advance scenario based planning.
Update – February 29, 2008 – I learned something today. The NRC enforcement policy is not quite as stark as my understanding of Chairman Klein’s remark above led me to believe. There is such a thing as “enforcement discretion” that would probably cover the scenario that I described above to give the NRC the ability to take specific circumstances into account. You can find out more by visiting NUREG 1600 – NRC Enforcement Policy.
Here is a quote from that document that indicates to me that my concern might have been misplaced:
On occasion, circumstances may arise where a licensee’s compliance with a Technical Specification (TS) Limiting Condition for Operation (LCO) or other license condition would involve: (1) An unnecessary plant transient; (2) performance of testing, inspection, or system realignment that is inappropriate
with the specific plant conditions; or, (3) unnecessary delays in plant startup without a corresponding health and safety benefit. The staff may also grant enforcement discretion in cases involving severe weather or other natural phenomena. This decision is based upon balancing the public health and safety or common defense and security of not operating against the potential radiological or other hazards
associated with continued operation, resulting in a determination that safety
will not be impacted unacceptably by exercising this discretion. The
Commission is to be informed expeditiously following the granting of
a NOED in such situations.
In these circumstances, the NRC staff may choose to not enforce the applicable TS or other license condition. This enforcement discretion, designated as a NOED, is only exercised if the NRC staff is clearly satisfied that the action is consistent with protecting the public health and safety.