Issue Date: March 21, 2011
Are Safe Nukes Possible?
Premature deterioration of nuclear control rods used in many U.S. nuclear reactors was recently reported to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (“Possible fuel rod hazard seen at some nuke plants,” Wall Street Journal, Feb. 16). The concern is that stress-corrosion cracking and distortions could prevent insertion; reactor shutdown would require use of costly emergency procedures entailing months of cleanup.
The original design life spans of control rods were apparently based on unreliable information. How much unreliable information is out there? I experienced a situation where NRC took no action to correct errors in nuclear fuel rod cladding texture data that went undetected for years (Allegation No. NRR-1999-A-0057). If fuel rod cladding texture is wrong, cladding stress-corrosion cracking increases. However, in its assessment, NRC disregarded explicit written cautions from industrial users that defects in this type of data risked significant radiological hazard.
Citing two unidentified “experts” (neither of whom knew the data purposes), NRC concluded that the inaccurate data were not safety concerns. Citing “no-harm, no-foul” criteria, an official stated that reviews or controls of dissemination of the inaccurate fuel rod information were not required.
Good decisions regarding unforgiving technologies such as nuclear require reliable information and good regulation. At the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant in Ohio, NRC failed to check the nuclear industry at critical times. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports such as “Nuclear Power in a Warming World” and “Anatomy of a Flawed Decision: NRC Has a Brain, But No Spine” describe radiation releases, near accidents, and profit-motivated risk taking by an industry enabled by poor regulation.
Some NRC shortcomings parallel the Minerals Management Service (MMS) problems in regulating offshore drilling (C&EN, Jan. 24, page 24). NRC’s charter requires both promotion and regulation of nuclear technology, which are conflicting interests. Like MMS, NRC sometimes lacks in-house expertise and relies on industry for information and assurances but whose inaccuracies have contributed to serious incidents. NRC ignored its own rules and employees’ safety concerns at Davis-Besse; luck, not sound practices, prevented disaster.
Is regulation robust enough to maintain competent oversight and resist pressures to deregulate or politicize regulation? Poor regulation reduces industry requirements to address technical questions up front before risking disasters. When public interests are obviously harmed, ignorance and poor regulation actually aid “no laws were broken” defenses. Consequences are limited, and profits gained from irresponsible behavior are protected. Heads, industry wins; tails, the public loses.
Safe nukes may be technologically possible, but are they probable under current political and economic pressures?
Mark J. Kelly
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