The Reality of Nuclear Power
Speech at Syracuse University, October 20, 1999
Good evening. My name is David Lochbaum. I have been the Nuclear Safety Engineer for Union of Concerned Scientists for the past three years. Prior to joining UCS, I worked for over 17 years as a nuclear engineer in the nuclear industry. Between 1992 and 1995, I was a consultant to the New York Power Authority working primarily on their FitzPatrick nuclear power plant and some on their Indian Point Unit 3 facility.
I am going to speak a little bit about the history of nuclear power, but will focus more on its future. Many people have stated recently that the nuclear industry is at a crossroads because of electric utility deregulation. I personally do not subscribe to that theory because it implicitly implies either that we are all going in a big circle because we reach a crossroad every three or four months or that we are not moving at all and remain at the first crossroad we reached.
Workers at the Shippingport nuclear power plant outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, flipped a switch in December 1957 to connect the plant’s turbine-generator to the electrical grid. This marked the first time that a civilian utility company in the United States supplied electricity to its customers from nuclear power. In the subsequent four decades, nuclear power has generated billions of kilowatts of electricity, several thousand tons of highly radioactive waste, and immeasurable controversy.
Proponents claim that nuclear power is vital if the United States is to have energy independence and to combat global warming. Antinuclear activists claim that nuclear power plants are unacceptably risky and that nuclear waste is the wrong legacy for us to leave future generations.
This debate is what I call the politics of nuclear power. Three years of working inside the DC beltway have taught me one important lesson — I don’t want to work in politics, particularly the politics of nuclear power.
Instead, I try to focus on the reality of nuclear power. Setting aside whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, the fact remains that there are 104 nuclear power reactors licensed to operate in the United States today. None of these reactors is inherently safe. They are authorized to operate by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under the assumption that conservative defense-in-depth features reduce their risk to an acceptably low level.
Setting aside whether the NRC’s risk level is too high, too low, or just right, the fact remains that several conditions exist today that could erode safety margins. First, nuclear power plants are aging more rapidly than expected. In the past two years, the metal tubes inside the isolation condensers at Nine Mile Point Unit 1 had to be replaced and cracks in its metal core shroud had to be repaired not once but twice. This vital safety equipment was supposed to last for the plant’s entire operating lifetime, but it did not. Second, nuclear plant owners and NRC inspectors are performing far fewer safety checks today than they did five and ten years ago. The NRC plans to perform 15 percent fewer inspections next year than it did this year. As humans get older, we go to doctors more often to make sure we maintain our health at optimum levels. As nuclear plants get older, fewer checkups are done.
The reason for the cutbacks is the third factor challenging safety margins — electricity deregulation is forcing nuclear plant owners to become competitive. In the last decade, 11 nuclear power reactors have closed due to economics. More plants will close unless their operating costs are reduced. Plant owners cut costs by eliminating safety tests and inspections, by trimming staffing levels, and by putting off repairs.
For many years, the Maine Yankee nuclear plant had a reputation as a low-cost electricity producer. In 1996, the NRC peeked behind Maine Yankee’s curtain and discovered that the owner acquired this reputation by simply not doing required maintenance. The backlog of such work, which averages a few hundred items at a typical nuclear plant, rose to several thousand items at Maine Yankee. In August 1997, Maine Yankee’s owners decided to close the plant rather than spend the money needed to repair all the safety equipment.
The fourth factor challenging safety margins is complacency. Some nuclear plant owners and the NRC often point out that we haven’t melted a reactor core down in over 20 years. That’s true, but it’s also true that bad procedures and human error are commonplace. In June 1998, UCS released a report titled, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” We examined the performance of ten nuclear power plants over a 14-month period using data supplied by the plant owners and the NRC. We discovered that 44 percent of the serious problems reported involved inadequate procedures, while 35 percent involved worker mistakes. These numbers are simply too high for a mature industry. Recall that the tragic nuclear accident in Japan three weeks ago was caused by poor procedures and human error, as were the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
The reality of nuclear power is that plant safety margins are being eroded by equipment aging, by reductions in tests and inspections, by cost-cutting measures, and by complacency. The NRC is currently testing an oversight program that may be the best protection against safety margin erosion. The FitzPatrick nuclear plant is one of eight plant sites testing out the new program. If successful, this program will be extended nationwide next spring.
The new oversight program replaces the Systematic Assessment of Licensee Performance (SALP) and Watch List that the NRC used for most of the past two decades. The new program has the following features which, on paper, make it much better than the old method:
- More evaluation categories: SALP evaluated plant performance in four broad categories while the new process examines about 20 areas.
- More frequent assessments: SALP assessed plant performance every 18 to 24 months while the new process issues reports every 3 months.
- More realistic performance scores: SALP’s lowest possible score was “acceptable” while the new process defines, for the first time in NRC history, unacceptable performance.
- More active regulatory response: The Watch List reduced the NRC’s role to that of spectator. The new process defines explicit NRC reactions to declining performance trends.
By examining performance in more discrete areas on a much more frequent basis, the NRC should be able to identify declining trends before they reach epidemic proportions. By drawing a line between acceptable and unacceptable performance, the NRC should be able to determine how much safety margin erosion can be tolerated. By following predetermined response actions, the NRC should be able to consistently engage owners of troubled plants.
The new oversight program may be the best roadmap to effective regulation, but it will not guarantee that the NRC reaches this destination. The NRC’s history contains more overlook than oversight.
But don’t take my word for it. In May 1997, the United States General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report on its investigation of NRC actions at the troubled Millstone, Salem, and Cooper nuclear power plants. The Salem plant was shut down for over two years. The NRC had a list of 43 items that had to be fixed before the Salem plant could be restarted. The GAO looked at that list and discovered that 38 of the problems had been known to the NRC before the plant was operating. At least one of the problems was around for about four years before the plant was shut down. The GAO asked how problems which were so serious that Salem could not be safely restarted could possibly be not so serious when the plant was running.
Unfortunately, the NRC retained the right to repeat the Salem saga. The new program allows the NRC to ignore safety warnings, even those generated by plants crossing the line into unacceptable performance areas, if their gut feelings are that the plant is doing okay. Gut feelings may be okay when selecting the paint color of a new car or the entrée selection at a restaurant, but they should not be used — anymore — to overlook safety warnings at nuclear power plants.
As the politics of nuclear power are debated, it is essential that the NRC aggressively guard against safety margin erosion from equipment aging, reductions in tests and inspections, cost-cutting measures, and complacency. If not, the debate over nuclear power may be decided by the reality of a very serious nuclear accident.