Are Budget Cuts Jeopardizing Nuclear Safety?

TVA Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant
TVA Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant. Photo credit: LLNL
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Is the government conducting too many safety inspections at the nation’s nuclear reactors?

Why would staff at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission actually recommend doing fewer inspections of the nation’s nuclear plants?

Would this not pose a dangerous, even catastrophic, risk to the more than 180 million Americans who live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant?

Or, at a time of severe government cutbacks, would fewer inspections lead, counterintuitively, to more safety, since the inspectors would be able to focus more efficiently on the most pressing security issues?

The debate is on, and while talk of belt-tightening measures are common among federal agencies under the Trump administration, the recommendations by staff at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to do fewer inspections at the nation’s nuclear reactors is drawing wide attention in Washington.

The staff report, released publicly last week, has prompted warnings from House Democrats and concerned scientists about how potentially risky this move would be.

A Budget-Cutting Proposal

The recommendation to cut back on inspections of nuclear reactors was proposed as a cost-cutting move.

The report, titled “Recommendations for Enhancing the Reactor Oversight Process,” calls for reducing the number of inspections the agency conducts, including shifting from a biennial to a triennial inspection process.

“Some staff expressed the view that the two-year frequency for the Problem Identification and Resolution (Pl&R) biennial inspection was too frequent, resulting in overlap of areas reviewed during previous inspections,” the report states. “They noted that a three-year frequency would be more appropriate.”

The plan also suggests that by making the changes, inspectors could operate with fewer regulatory burdens and focus more heavily on “issues of greater safety significance.”

The staff report was released right after the NRC made public its annual report to Congress on its 2018 security inspection program, which notes that last year the NRC conducted 192 security inspections at commercial nuclear power plants and Category I fuel cycle facilities, finding six instances of security-level violations.

“Whenever NRC inspectors identify a security finding during an inspection, they ensure the licensee implements appropriate compensatory measures to correct the situation, if not already implemented by the licensee,” the NRC said in its report.

It’s too early to know if the safety-inspection reductions will go into effect. As the report notes, some of the recommendations need the approval of the commission, and it also calls for “additional internal discussion” by the commission’s staff before proceeding.

Warnings From the Science Community

Edwin Lyman, acting director of the Nuclear Safety Project with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said these recommendations have been pushed by the nuclear plant operators themselves.

“These are all critical ways to get information about the nuclear safely performance of the reactor licensees,” Lyman told WhoWhatWhy. “There’s no compelling reason to actually play around with the current parameters for those inspections, so this is an effort really motivated by the nuclear industry, which is struggling to keep plants open because they’re too expensive to run, and they see NRC regulatory oversight as part of that. That’s what this is really about.”

Lyman said these proposals are very much in the early stages, but he said the direction they’re heading in isn’t encouraging.

Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant inspector

Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant inspector. Photo credit: NRC

“We’re aware of the reform movement that the NRC has started, essentially having inspectors reducing the significance of violations that are found, and reducing enforcement of any violations,” he said. “This is the first step. The NRC has been considering many additional recommendations, and they’re going to be evaluating them in pieces and this is only the first step, but it signals a dangerous direction from the commission.”

He noted that the NRC commission has a Republican majority, and “they have shown every indication that they want to carry out the president’s deregulatory agenda.”

Democrats Shoot Down the Idea

The plan has already been criticized by top House Democrats, including Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) and Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), who said the move could be dangerous.

Democrats from the House Appropriations and Energy and Commerce committees sent a letter to NRC Chairwoman Kristine Svinicki last week noting that “to ensure nuclear power provides safe, reliable, emissions-free energy, it is imperative for the NRC to uphold strong regulatory standards. That is why we are disturbed by the consideration of these far-reaching changes to the NRC’s regulatory regime without … robust public outreach and engagement.

“It would be a mistake to attempt to make nuclear power more cost competitive by weakening NRC’s vital safety oversight,” the letter said. “Cutting corners on such critical safety measures may eventually lead to a disaster that could be detrimental to the future of the domestic nuclear industry.”

That wasn’t the only public outcry against the plan. Pennsylvania state Rep. Peter Schweyer (D) sent out a tweet reminding the NRC about the recent HBO series about the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in what is now Ukraine, when the No. 4 nuclear reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant suffered a meltdown. It was one of two nuclear energy disasters rated at the maximum severity level on the International Nuclear Event Scale. The other was the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan.

And Rep. Harley Rouda (D-CA) sent out a tweet that warned, “Over 180 million Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant. @NRCgov needs to do more — not less — to ensure nuclear reactor safety.”

Warnings About Cyber Attacks

These recommendations also follow an NRC Inspector General report issued in June that suggested the chance possibility of cyberattacks at nuclear power stations may increase as more of the federal government’s cybersecurity experts start to retire — a trend the report warned could put the nation’s nuclear power plants at greater risk from digital attacks.

The Office of the Inspector General’s report, titled “Audit of NRC’s Cyber Security Inspections at Nuclear Power Plants,” noted that one-third of NRC’s cybersecurity inspectors are eligible for retirement in 2020, and that that could pose serious security problems for the agency.

“If staffing levels and skill sets do not align with cybersecurity inspection workload requirements, NRC’s ability to adapt to a dynamic threat environment and detect problems with cyber security programs could be compromised,” the report said.

Most of the nation’s nuclear power stations are privately owned. The NRC requires plants to have in place protections from digital attacks, and the NRC has inspectors who evaluate cybersecurity protections — although the audit cautioned that, as more inspectors retire, NRC’s already limited resources could get stretched dangerously thin.

Nuclear power remains controversial with the American public. In March 2016 a survey by the Gallup organization found that a majority of Americans, or 54 percent, now oppose nuclear power. In polls taken between 2004 and 2015, a majority had supported nuclear power, with the highest support registering at 62 percent in 2010. But that support started to erode after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear emergency in Japan.

“The main thing to realize is the public interest in these issues peaks when an actual accident happens, [otherwise] they forget and it falls off,” Lyman noted. “If you want to prevent a bad thing from happening, that takes a sustained effort.”


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from NRC and IAEA Imagebank / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Where else do you see journalism of this quality and value?

Please help us do more. Make a tax-deductible contribution now.

Our Comment Policy

Keep it civilized, keep it relevant, keep it clear, keep it short. Please do not post links or promotional material. We reserve the right to edit and to delete comments where necessary.

print

3 responses to “Are Budget Cuts Jeopardizing Nuclear Safety?”

  1. robert e williamson jr says:

    OH YES BTW THE SHORT ANSWER TO YOUR QUESTION IS A RESOUNDING YES AND THIS MONEY PROBLEM FOR REGULATORS HAS BEEN CONTINUOUS SINCE THE 1990’s.

    For the US nuclear industry it is much later than anyone realizes.

  2. robert e williamson jr says:

    I worked for the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety, which was a cabinet level department created by the governor at the Time Jim Thompson.

    After 911 because of The Office of Homeland Security among other reasons the Department was rolled back into the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

    The mission of the department becoming seeming secondary to the agenda of those in power shoving the Department of Homeland Security mentality down everyone throats. But I digress.

    One point during 2002 March The Davis Besse located in Ottawa county Ohio had a very serious problem. Finally diagnosed March of 2002 most were somewhat horrified to learn of the problem.

    See the wiki for Davis – Bessy Nuclear Power Station for more on the story and for confirmation of my comment.

    BOTTOM LINE: The systemic failure of the managers and maintainers at the plant, the term used in the industry to describe the circumstances that lead to this horror story, is referred to as institutional creep by the industry. This breakdown in operational safety, failure by everyone at the plant to address the constant build of severe corrosion in the containment building should have sounded alarm bells but it didn’t. The NRC charged with inspecting these plants for unsafe conditions, after having repeated budget cuts and their authority undercut by the various owners of the nation wide plants through their lobby, was no where to be found.

    The problem was that the reactor vessel head, the top which is removed for unloading and refueling the reactor, was suffering from erosion from corrosion had developed a hole the size of a football directly under a much thinner layer. 3/8ths inch, of Stainless steel cladding.

    Had that layer failed it would have created a Loss Of Coolant accident very similar to the the accident in Japan. A LOCA as they are identified by is extremely destructive and dangerous. The story got buried, because for one thing it took months for the story to ever come out.

    That part of Ohio and surrounding areas could be a dead zone now had that 3/8ths of stainless steel failed.

    Sure there was an investigation and they got fined but what if? The U.S. nuclear industry has several older reactors in Illinois alone, although some have been closed, that should not be in operation. Many of these plants have been given extended licenses to allow longer operation and many have been allowed to increase the power the reactor can be ran at, it’s cvalled a power up-rate, all to try enforce the lame-brained idea that somehow they will become profitable.

    Rate payers in Illinois are already paying more for their electricity ina losing battle to keep these “albatrosses” running. Lots of farm ground is at risk in Illinois for sure.

    Get the word out and thanks for the story. We will be the next to suffer a catostrophic failure at a Nuke plant if something isn’t done and soon.

    I’m now retired and am somewhat limited on what I can say because of my employment conditions. Given the current environment of Nazis in D.C. I suppose i should fear the establishment much more than I do but feel free to contact me if you wish.