Investigate the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was created by Congress in 1974 after its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, was abolished due to its blatant promotion and protection of nuclear power expansion and the absence of effective enforcement action of public health and safety requirements. But little has changed. By charter, the NRC is tasked with the licensing, operational oversight and enforcement of regulations for US nuclear power reactor operations “to ensure public health and safety.” However, documented malpractice, accidents and near-miss events at US reactors reveal the agency’s ongoing failure to uphold its charter. Beyond Nuclear is calling on Congress to hold a “special investigation” of the NRC. To support this, Beyond Nuclear is drawing up a list of "charges" that itemize the NRC’s collusion with the nuclear industry and its undermining of public health and safety. 



Charge Four: Endangering Nuclear Plant Workers and the Public through Non-Enforcement of Fire Safety Laws

The Problem: A near catastrophic fire on March 22, 1975 at the Brown's Ferry 1, Alabama nuclear plant set in motion federally-mandated fire protection laws to ensure the safe shutdown of nuclear power plants following a significant fire. Yet, for decades, nuclear reactor owners across the U.S. have failed to comply with these regulations and, most ironically, the Brown's Ferry plant that instigated the regulations is itself not in compliance with them. Equally ironically, the NRC cites fire as the most likely contributor to “station blackout” – a loss of on-site and off-site power which can then set in motion a catastrophic accident such as occurred at the Fukushima-Daiichi reactors in Japan. 

Furthermore, in defiance of federal Orders to bring reactors into compliance, owners have illegally substituted their own, less protective actions without first seeking the required approval for exemptions. In at least one case and likely more, reactor owners have then misled the NRC regarding the completion of corrective actions per federal Orders to come into compliance with law. The nuclear industry has abandoned frontline fire protection using control room-powered safe shutdown at many reactors. Instead, it is relying on sending workers into the plant to execute last-ditch manual actions. 

The Charge: NRC is charged with endangering the public and nuclear plant workers through non-enforcement of — and exemptions for — measures that govern fire safety, which the agency itself identifies as the highest risk to nuclear plant safety. After decades of non-enforcement of its own fire-protection laws, the NRC has instead granted exemptions to reactor owners that diminish reactor safety and increase the risk of a meltdown. Yet, the NRC cites fire as the most likely contributor to “station blackout” – a loss of on-site and off-site power which can then set in motion a catastrophic accident such as occurred at the Fukushima-Daiichi reactors in Japan. Ultimately, rather than enforce its own law and its own Orders, the NRC repeatedly ignored violations until finally issuing exemptions to allow the manual actions.

Next Steps: Beyond Nuclear is requesting an investigation and public accounting of how many reactor operators did not complete corrective actions per Order and willfully misrepresented compliance with Orders which would be a felony violation of NRC law. The Fukushima disaster calls for the examination of protracted non-enforcement policy and the abandonment of front line control room powered operations. Beyond Nuclear is also sounding the alarm for the broader implication of industry compliance with future NRC Orders.

Background: Statement of Paul Gunter, Beyond Nuclear Director of Reactor Oversight. Before the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Commission Briefing on National Fire Protection Association 805, December 13, 2011.

Beyond Nuclear press release: Beyond Nuclear Investigation Shows Nuclear Reactor Fire Safety Laws Unenforced, December 13, 2011.


Charge Three: Let Leaking Pipes Lie: Ceding Oversight to Self-Regulation

The Problem: The highly-publicized leaks of radioactive hydrogen – or tritium – from buried pipes at the Braidwood (IL), Oyster Creek (NJ) and Vermont Yankee (VT) nuclear power plants are just three examples of a more widespread and longstanding problem. Leaking U.S. reactors are in fact ubiquitous. There is evidence of 15 radioactive leaks from March 2009 through April 16, 2010 from buried pipe systems at 13 different reactor sites.  At least 102 reactor units are now documented to have had recurring radioactive leaks into groundwater from 1963 through February 2009. Groundwater can reach well water and drinking water supplies, putting surrounding populations at significant health risk.

The Charge: The NRC has replaced its own oversight responsibilities in favor of industry self-regulation. Instead of mandating compliance with established license requirements for the control and monitoring of buried pipe systems carrying radioactive effluent, the NRC cedes responsibility to industry voluntary initiatives that will add years onto the resolution of a decades-old environmental and public health issue. Of further concern, the agency and the industry continue to downplay and trivialize the health risks of prolonged exposure to tritium which is shown to cause cancer, genetic mutations and birth defects. The delinquency of the NRC is made more alarming by the fact that the nuclear industry has deliberately misrepresented the truth about its leaking reactors to state governments, most dramatically in Illinois and Vermont. Given the history of untrustworthiness of the nuclear industry, it is even more important to have a vigilant and responsible regulator.

Next Steps: Congress must include this NRC pattern of ceding oversight to the industry it is supposed to regulate, in a sweeping Congressional investigation of the agency. Regulatory oversight, authority and enforcement must be strengthened. Buried pipes must be promptly replaced so that systems carrying radioactive effluent can be inspected, monitored, maintained and contained in the event of leak. The nuclear industry must be held accountable for radioactive releases to air, water and soil. There must be more public transparency describing the source, cause and extent of radioactive releases from nuclear power plants. Radiation protection standards must be strengthened and applied consistently nationwide.

Background: A documented analysis of the widespread leaks from buried — and inaccessible — pipes at U.S. nuclear power plant sites can be found in the Beyond Nuclear report: Leak First, Fix Later: Uncontrolled and Unmonitored Radioactive Releases from Nuclear Power Plants. The report examines radioactive leaks in Illinois, New Jersey, Michigan, New York and Vermont that illuminate concerns over continuing groundwater contamination, the accelerating deterioration of buried pipes, the lack of integrity of industry’s reporting of leaks and pipes and the questionable replacement of federal oversight and enforcement with industry “voluntary initiatives.”


Charge Two: Reckless Endangerment of Public Health and Safety

The NRC is charged with Reckless Endangerment of Public Health and Safety through the continued operation of U.S. Mark I and Mark II nuclear power reactors.

The Problem: Despite knowing since 1972 that the containment design for both the General Electric Mark I and later the Mark II boiling water reactors was fundamentally flawed, the NRC — and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission —  licensed both designs and allowed nuclear companies to move forward with construction and operation. The flaws include a dangerously unreliable containment system that violates a licensing agreement which requires it to function as an “essentially leak-tight barrier against the uncontrolled releases of radioactivity” in the event of a nuclear accident. Thirty-one of these reactors operate in the U.S. today. As was demonstrated most horrifyingly by the four GE Mark I reactors that exploded and melted down at Fukushima, the reactor containment is too small and vulnerable to failure during an accident involving the structure’s over-pressurization with highly radioactive steam and explosive hydrogen gas.

The position of Beyond Nuclear is that the GE Mark I and Mark II designs are fundamentally too dangerous and all these reactors should be closed. However, the NRC, over the decades, has studiously avoided ordering even fundamental safety retrofits that could at least reduce the risk of catastrophic containment failure. One such backfit would be the installation of severe accident capable hardened containment vents with high-capacity radiation filters on containment, something even the Japanese nuclear safety authorities have now mandated post-Fukushima. While the NRC staff made this recommendation for all U.S. Mark I and Mark II reactors in follow up to its July 2011 Japan Lessons Learned Task Force report, the NRC Commission over-ruled them to effectively impose the lessons to be "unlearned" for unreliable Mark I and Mark II containment systems.

The Charge: The NRC is charged with a deliberate negligence that demonstrates a willingness to recklessly endanger public health and safety, a gamble the agency routinely takes to spare the nuclear industry the cost of necessary safety retrofits. It has successfully delayed and postponed corrective actions for the Mark I and II reactors that could better protect the public under accident conditions. The NRC has delivered contradictory and inconsistent policy changes over the years regarding oversight of licensing agreements for these reactors, failing fundamentally to ensure public safety, the corner-stone of its Congressionally ordered mandate.

Next Steps: Congress must initiate an investigation of the NRC on this and other charges to be itemized on these pages. However, given the agency’s history of cosy relationships with the nuclear industry and its unfettered operation with no recall from Congress, it will be up to citizens and communities to organize around the still operating  U.S. Mark I and Mark II reactors to ensure they are closed as soon as possible. The public is encouraged to coalesce these efforts under the nationwide Freeze our Fukushimas campaign that seeks to permanently suspend the operations of these, the most dangerous class of reactors operating in the United States today.

Background: For details that support this charge and for the history of the Mark I and Mark II reactor licensing, construction and operation and their complex safety flaws, see the September 2013 Beyond Nuclear backgrounder, Dangerous GE Mark I and Mark II Reactor Containments, prepared by Paul Gunter.


Charge One: The Nuclear Waste Confidence Game

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is charged with perpetrating a con game on the American public by refusing to find answers -- or at least admit there are none -- for the nuclear waste problem while continuing to license reactors that will produce more of it.

The Problem: Since the first cupful of commercial radioactive waste was generated at Shippingport, PA in 1957, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has skillfully avoided addressing the problem of how to manage and store the resulting, and ever-mounting quantities of high-level radioactive waste (HLRW). There are at least 70,000 metric tons of HLRW that have accumulated — and continue to do so — at US commercial nuclear power reactor sites. There is no solution — and may never be — to the long-term safe management of these forever deadly wastes. Yet, the NRC has permitted this unlimited generation of HLRW by hiding behind a 1984 rule of its own making— the “Nuclear Waste Confidence Decision.” 

This so-called “confidence” was in reality an excuse to do nothing. Simply stated, the NRC had “confidence” that one or more deep geologic repositories for permanent disposal of HLRW would open by 2007-2009, and that in the meantime, “interim” on-site storage at reactors would be safe. Today, that “confidence” has been amended to the opening of a repository “when needed,” and a continued adherence to the myth that current on-site HLRW storage is “safe.”

The Charge: This decades-long abdication of responsibility for some of the most lethal and hazardous materials ever created by humans, has endangered lives, livelihoods and the environment without accountability. The NRC is charged with perpetrating a lethal confidence game on an unsuspecting public and on a delinquent Congress that has never required the agency to consider the management of HLRW as an integral and essential component to the licensing or continued operation of nuclear power reactors.

Next Steps: In 2012, a coalition of states and environmental groups won a major legal victory. The court found that the NRC had violated the National Environmental Policy Act. The agency has been ordered to carry out a long overdue Environmental Impact Statement to examine the risks of prolonged HLRW generation and storage. But the NRC is rushing through this process in 24 months, a decision also being challenged along with a call to cease all generation of radioactive waste until the waste problem is satisfactorily addressed. Hearings on the EIS are upcoming around the country. We encourage the public to participate.

Background: For details that support this charge and for the history of – and the political, technological and legal developments in – the radioactive waste story, please see the June 2013 Beyond Nuclear backgrounder, The NRC’s Nuclear Waste Confidence Game, prepared by Kevin Kamps.