Did Japan's nuclear-power plant disaster in March occur partly because the Japanese government ignored safety risks as a favor to the power industry?
Critics say that's indeed what happened.
Two months after the accident, The Economist magazine said, “Despite several low-level nuclear accidents, Japan's power generators such as Tokyo Electric Power, owner of the Fukushima plant, have sworn blind that their safety records are exemplary and there is no danger of any meltdowns. This safety mythology has been used by utilities to bypass domestic opposition to nuclear energy and was tacitly endorsed by the government, media, and public at large.”
Some American nuclear-power opponents say that U.S. regulators also are too lenient toward the industry they oversee.
Currently, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is deciding whether most of the 104 reactors in the United States should be relicensed for another 20 years of operation and, if so, under what conditions. According to Jim Riccio, director of nuclear policy for the environmental group Greenpeace, the NRC should be strictly scrutinizing the effects of aging on each of those reactors, especially those that have had maintenance problems in the past. But for the most part, he says, that's not happening. “All you have to do is show you have a program in place to manage aging,” Riccio says.
Increasingly over the past two decades, “the burden of proof has been put onto the NRC” to show that plants have violated safety rules rather than on industry to show that it's done the right thing, says Riccio. “You had a more substantive process in the past,” he says. The power industry touts the fact that nuclear plants have operated much closer to their peak power-production capacity in recent years, meaning, among other things, plants spent less time shut down to fix problems. But Riccio argues that the capacity factors are mainly up because NRC “wiped out 40 percent of the stop signs” in the plant-oversight process that forced shutdowns.
Other critics judge the NRC somewhat less harshly.
“Most of the time it's not that we feel the regulations set too low a standard for safety, but that one or more plants is getting away with limboing beneath it,” says David A. Lochbaum, director of the nuclear power project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental research and advocacy group. “The good news is that the regs are pretty good. But there are owners that fall short, and that's where we're concerned. The NRC needs to step in sooner” in such cases, Lochbaum says.
“Part of the problem stems from Congress,” who, in their eagerness to promote nuclear power, have sometimes accused NRC “of overregulating” and pushed the agency to “change how it did business,” in favor of lighter oversight, Lochbaum says.
NRC inspectors examine an emergency core-cooling pump at California's Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. (Nuclear Regulatory Commission)
Nevertheless, in 2000 NRC introduced a revised inspection regimen that makes catching problems before they worsen somewhat more likely, Lochbaum says. Under the old system, plants were issued report cards stating NRC findings in four large categories at 18- to 24-month intervals. Today, plants get grades every three months in some 20 categories. This process “allows safety problems to be flagged before they get big. It's not perfect, but it's way better than the old” method, Lochbaum says. Workers write up all problems they spot, “and now NRC looks at every one that's written” rather than just at a sample, as in the past, he says.
The agency tries to learn from past mistakes, Lochbaum says. A serious close call at northwestern Ohio's Davis-Besse plant in 2002 occurred partly because the NRC had pulled its scant oversight manpower away from the plant, which it had recently found to be well-functioning, to focus on plants with more problems, he says. Since then, NRC does not let “past laurels dictate” how closely to scrutinize a plant, he says.
The NRC is the sole government agency that investigates accidents and oversees safety. In the airline industry, by contrast, plane crashes are investigated by both the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board. The dual authority may allow a more objective assessment of whether lax regulation plays a role in incidents, says Lochbaum. However, NRC routinely “points the finger at themselves” when things go wrong, he says. After the Davis-Besse incident, for example, “they found 49 problems that they had helped to cause. They were very critical of themselves.”
Perhaps the U.S. nuclear industry's most important safety mechanism is the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), founded in response to the 1979 partial meltdown at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear plant. The membership group, which encompasses all U.S. companies that operate nuclear plants, conducts regular evaluations of all American nuclear plants, sets industrywide performance criteria and management guidelines and facilitates information sharing among plants.
Initially, “people thought [Three Mile Island] occurred because of a design problem,” but when “the big lesson came out that operator error” was heavily involved, INPO was created to improve plant management, says Anthony Pietrangelo, senior vice president at the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry membership organization.
INPO sets worker-training standards and “comes around every 18 months to two years to evaluate” each plant, says Lochbaum. And whereas NRC judges “on a standard of adequacy,” INPO judges “on a standard of excellence.” So “even if you're perfectly adequate by NRC standards,” a plant may not score a top INPO rating. And INPO standards matter “because insurers' rates [for nuclear plants] are based on them,” not on NRC inspection findings, Lochbaum says.
While INPO works quite well in the United States, a matching international organization — the World Association of Nuclear Operators, WANO — “is no good because many countries don't take it seriously,” says Paul Joskow, a professor emeritus of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and board member of Exelon, the nation's biggest nuclear-plant operator. “When was the Fukushima plant last subject to a WANO inspection? The Russians don't even let you visit their reactors,” he says. Other countries are secretive about their nuclear operations as well, he says.
— Marcia Clemmitt