Nuclear Lessons from Japan
Rubber Stamping Licenses is Very Dangerous
The U.S. currently has 104 operating nuclear reactors, which provide a total of about 20% of U.S. electricity net generation. Operating nuclear reactors are located at 65 sites in 31 of the 50 states, most of which are in the eastern US. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is the federal agency responsible for reactor licensing and ensuring their safe operation.
NRC: Watchdog or Rubber Stamp for License Extensions?
Reactor operating licenses are valid for 40 years, but the NRC is in the process of extending licenses (also called “license renewals”) for another 20 years. Reactor operators are allowed to apply for license extensions 20 years before the 40-year license expires, even though relicensing only takes 22 to 30 months. The NRC has streamlined license extensions, so that many issues have already been decided in a generic analysis and cannot be raised in the relicensing of a specific reactor.6 Relicensing largely focuses on managing the aging of passive reactor equipment, such as pipes. Any components that move are assumed to be covered by the ongoing maintenance program, even if the current program is not well-managed. The NRC has complete discretion over regulating the ongoing maintenance program, and it is nearly impossible for the public to challenge it.
Many other important issues are also excluded from review in relicensing. For example, the impacts of storing additional low- and high-level radioactive waste indefinitely on-site and of population and vehicle traffic growth on the sufficiency of 20-year old emergency evacuation plans, have already been determined to be “small” at all reactor sites.7 The public safety threat posed by over-packed spent fuel pools is also off-limits, despite the fact that the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that these pools are at risk from terrorist attacks.8 The NRC claims that it has “mitigated” the threat, though the agency will not release any information about the measures taken. In addition, the NRC has set up additional procedural hurdles that limit the ability of the public to challenge the generic analysis and participate in the proceeding. Few have been able to successfully intervene.
The NRC has not turned down a single renewal application thus far: 62 reactors have received extensions and another 12 reactors have pending applications. A September 2007 audit by the NRC’s Office of Inspector General concluded that in over 70% of the reviewed license renewals, NRC staff did not verify the technical safety information provided by the reactor operators and routinely copied word-for-word entire sections of the industry’s application into the NRC’s safety review document. Not surprisingly, the public tends to view the relicensing process as an NRC “rubber stamp” that gives perfunctory approval to all license extensions. Five reactors are now operating past their 40-year licenses. Many of the reactors that have received extensions would never be approved for construction today. For example, in some designs the spent fuel pool is located several stories above ground and outside the containment dome, making it vulnerable to air attack. If all existing reactors are given license renewals, reactors that started up in the 1980s will be licensed to operate into the 2040s. There are proposals to eventually extend licenses to a total of 80 years.
Safety Problems with Aging Reactors
Safety problems at operating reactors have galvanized public opposition to relicensing. The oldest commercial reactor is Oyster Creek in New Jersey, which received its operating license in 1969. Oyster Creek has had a myriad of safety problems, including the release of 1 million curies of radioactivity into the environment in 1979, after the Three Mile Island accident. When Exelon Nuclear filed for the license extension of Oyster Creek in 2005, the NRC had relicensed about 30 reactors without admitting a single public intervener. For the first time in relicensing, a state filed a contention with the NRC, raising the issue that the reactor’s elevated spent fuel pool was vulnerable to aircraft impact; the NRC denied the contention and a court upheld the decision. Also for the first time in relicensing, the NRC admitted a coalition of six public interest organizations that had requested a hearing on the severe corrosion of the reactor containment.
The NRC ultimately granted the 20-year license extension in 2009, despite evidence of corrosion in the containment structure. However, a program is now in place to monitor the corrosion, which would not have been implemented without the public intervention. Within days after the Oyster Creek renewal was approved, tritium was found leaking from buried pipes under the reactor. The pipes were never inspected in the relicensing process. Radioactively contaminated water has leaked, spilled or been unintentionally released from nearly all reactors in the U.S., some of which were not detected for many years. Exelon is the only nuclear operator that has committed to digging up the pipes and replacing them.
In Vermont, the state legislature voted to deny the Entergy the ability to proceed with relicensing of Vermont Yankee. According to Vermont law, the state legislature must agree to the license extension before the state Public Service Board decides whether to issue a new state license. In February 2010, Vermont state senators voted down a bill that would have authorized the Public Service Board to complete its process. As a result, the legislators rejected the license extension by stopping the process. Without a license extension, the reactor must be shut down in 2012. Despite the State legislature’s decision, the NRC approved the license extension in March 2011. Vermont is an unusual case: it is the only U.S. state that has a role in reactor relicensing due to a deal – struck by the state and Entergy when Entergy wanted to buy the reactor – that allows the state to prevent relicensing. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 makes licensing of nuclear facilities the exclusive purview of the federal government; therefore, it is not clear whether the court will accept the state’s decision if Entergy challenges it in court.
The State’s decision was the result of significant public opposition created by ongoing and dramatic accidents, as well as perceived lies by the owner, Entergy. In 2007, part of the cooling tower collapsed as a result of corrosion, leaking thousands of gallons of cooling water. In January 2010, it was discovered that underground pipes, which Entergy had denied existed, were leaking radioactive tritium at alarming rates. Water under the site was found to have 120 times the legal limit of tritium. According to the NRC, leaking pipes are not illegal until the contamination moves off-site and is above the standard. Once the radiation moves off-site, however, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to remediate. Public interest groups argue that the NRC has failed to enforce its own regulations requiring that its licensees must control, monitor, and cap radioactive releases.16 Entergy’s campaign to convince the public that tritium is a “low-level” radionuclide that is not dangerous and that jobs at the site must be preserved was not successful.
Oyster Creek and Vermont Yankee are not the only examples of public opposition to operating reactors. As another example, there has been a long history of opposition to the Diablo Canyon reactors in California, including one of the largest acts of civil disobedience opposing nuclear reactors in the U.S. The primary issue raised by the public is the safety threat posed by the numerous earthquake faults in the area. In 2008, a new earthquake fault was discovered at the site. Despite the fact that the seismic study will not be completed until 2013, the Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) has applied for a license extension 15 years before the current license expires. The NRC recently granted hearings on four issues raised by a local group, San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, including whether PG&E should have to wait until after the seismic study is completed before applying for a license extension.
Michele Boyd is the director of the Safe Energy Program at Physicians for Social Responsibility. She leads a U.S. coalition to educate members of Congress, the media, and the public about the economic risks of new nuclear reactors.