Asleep at the Controls
The Fukushima meltdowns, which began a year ago this week, were a disaster — but also, at least in the United States, an opportunity. Everyone was awake and interested. Thoughtful questions, wild speculation and genuine, heartfelt public concern about nuclear safety were everywhere.
Predictably, the nuclear industry hunkered down, filling the airwaves with its own spin. The real failure, however, was at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which, some hoped, might seize the moment to push for real discussion and change. It didn’t.
A year has passed, though, with almost no progress. One thing has become clear: It’s not enough to push for change at the industry level. We must also reform the regulators themselves.
The commission’s failures are legion. For one thing, it has repeatedly fallen short on the issue of fire safety. In 1975, a reactor in Alabama almost melted down because the electric cables that control reactor shutdown in an emergency burned through. The commission required upgraded insulation of the cables in all nuclear plants, but when it tested the insulation, it failed.
But instead of enforcing its own standards, the commission issued secret and arguably illegal exemptions that allowed many reactors, including those at New York’s Indian Point, to continue the use of the defective insulation.
Then there is the question of relicensing. The operating licenses of dozens of plants are about to expire, and the companies that own them are seeking new 20-year licenses. In the years since the reactors were built, the commission has toughened design, operations and location standards, which cover such things as fire protection, emergency evacuation, spent-fuel safety and terrorism.
These rules should logically apply to all plants, new or old. Instead, the commission refuses to ask if the reactors up for relicensing meet them.
Moreover, the Fukushima meltdowns, which were set off by an earthquake-triggered tsunami, raised questions about the vulnerability of America’s reactors to earthquakes. Indian Point, for example, is built above and near a series of faults. But the commission refused to do a full risk assessment and refused to consider earthquake damage as part of relicensing, announcing that “this is really not a serious concern.”Keep reading