Dewalt: Why a thinking person should question the NRC

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Dan Dewalt, an anti-Yankee activist, musician, woodworker and resident of South Newfane.

The Vermont legislature, when considering whether or not to allow Vermont Yankee to operate for 20 years past its original license, was not permitted to consider safety issues. The people of Vermont, however, are under no such restriction. In fact, we must scrutinize the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is in charge of reactor safety, to know if we should trust their actions and judgments.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s record does not inspire confidence. In spite of serious leaks, near meltdowns, non-compliance with regulations, and false testimony by reactor owners and operators, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved every single application for reactor re-licensing that has been requested. In the aftermath of the continuing Fukushima meltdown, regulators in countries across the globe are re-assessing or suspending their nuclear programs. They recognize that the disaster in Japan is an indication that the best laid plans can go awry, and they want to be sure that their nations don’t experience the same catastrophe through the complacency of regulators.

In America, President Barack Obama, without knowing the extent of the reactor damage in Japan, without having a clue about how much radiation was rising into the atmosphere or pouring into the oceans, stood in front of the cameras to boldly (and erroneously) say that no radiation would reach our shores. And his Nuclear Regulatory Commission proceeded to blithely issue a license renewal to Vermont Yankee, a virtual twin to the Fukushima reactor, without so much as a pause to consider the implications of the disaster and how we could prevent one here.

Instead they relied upon the same boiler plate statements they have always used, intoning that the reactor design took natural disasters into consideration and that, besides, no tsunami would ever hit Vernon. (Did anyone tell them about the hurricane and flood of 1927?)

Indeed, at a recent hearing in Brattleboro, when asked a direct question about how the pool of spent fuel rods, suspended six stories above the ground protected by sheet metal, should be expected to withstand a direct hit of an F4 tornado like the one that recently devastated brick and stone buildings in nearby Springfield, Mass., Nuclear Regulatory Commission representatives responded only by saying that it has been designed to withstand natural disasters, including the fuel pool. And when a chorus of exasperated voices demanded to know how, they were answered with a shrug. Considering that there is more highly radioactive spent fuel at VY than there is at all of the Fukishima reactors put together, this is unsettling at the very least.

Then consider the chief resident inspector at Vermont Yankee, Dave Bingard. He came to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission directly from working for Entergy at the Fitzpatrick reactor in New York. Within three years, he became the inspector of the reactor operated by his former employer. This doesn’t mean that he will nefariously work in Entergy’s favor. But in order to question or criticize any of Entergy’s practices, he would have to reject the very procedures and policies that he himself had been a part of during his Entergy years. The revolving door culture that is destroying the efficacy of our Congress, does no better to instill confidence in regulators of the safety of our nuclear reactors.

Then we can consider the statements and actions of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. When VY license renewal was approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, chairman Gregory Jazcko explicitly stated that this did not preclude Vermont from the process, and that Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval was just one step for Entergy. This was echoed at the Brattleboro hearing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regional commissioner as well, where he stated that Vermont’s actions “don’t involve any of our authorities or responsibilities.”

However, according to Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the Nuclear Regulatory Commission proceeded to meet with Entergy lawyers, then voted to ask the Justice department to intervene in the court case on Entergy’s behalf. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, illuminating the Obama administration’s commitment to open government and transparency, refused to answer the senator’s charge. Why are they willing to act in secrecy and take their lumps from the public? One might posit that if they revealed their actions, we would be even more outraged. Unfortunately, we cannot really know. And this is precisely why, until they change their procedures and accountability, we have no choice but to question validity of NRC rulings about safety. They have worked hand in glove with the nuclear industry for decades while we will have to live with the aftermath of their mistakes. While we cannot pretend to answer these safety questions for ourselves, it would be the height of irresponsibility if we were to trust the NRC implicitly.

We need only remember George W. Bush’s claim that no one expected the levees in New Orleans to fail during hurricane Katrina to realize the consequences of complacency. When all we hear are unsubstantiated statements telling us not to worry, it’s time to start worrying.

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  • Mike Kerin
  • At a public hearing on April 28, 2011 regarding safety issues at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, the NRC and Southern California Edison (SCE) demonstrated how their combined efforts could subvert the purpose of a public hearing. A representative of SCE shuffled the speakers list and chose a large number of the power plant’s employees who showered praise on the NRC and SCE. Despite the fact that there were over a hundred well informed and outraged residents, engineering professors, employee whistleblowers from the power plant, planners, doctors, toxicologist, and city mayors opposed to the NRC’s conclusion that “all is safe” at the power plant, only a handful from the public were allowed to speak.

    San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station has the 2nd highest number of safety violations of all 104 nuclear power plants in the country. It is a plant designed in the 1950s to inadequate seismic safety standards, built near major seismic faults, in a tsunami zone, with an effective seawall height of 14′, has a record of recent serious cooling issues, is within 50 miles of a population of 7.4 million, and yet the NRC told everyone in the public hearing not to worry because the NRC did their safety checks and everything is safe at the plant. The NRC was never interested in public safety and clearly most people in the audience did not believe the NRC’s safety reassurances. The NRC is losing all crediblity and needs to be overhauled if it is to safeguard the pubic from a reckless industry that has the potential to turn entire regions of the U.S. into dead zones as is happening in Japan’s poorly regulated nuclear industry at Fukushima.

  • Ron Pulcer

    I heard (again) today on the radio that Germany will be closing ALL of their nuclear plants within the next decade or so.

    When the U.S. refused to sign on to the Kyoto Treaty, Germany decided that it would leverage it’s manufacturing prowess to become a leader in manufacturing of solar and wind technology, despite the fact that Germany is not the sunniest or windiest place on earth. Now they have raised the bar by having the stated goal to shut down their nuclear plants and replace energy generation with renewable technologies (some of it yet to be developed). I’m not sure if it will work out for Germany or not.

    But at least the Germans have a VISION. As someone originally from metro Detroit, I am saddened by the loss of our manufacturing economy.

    Yes, I agree this is about SAFETY! I also don’t trust the NRC. But to me this is also about whether we can grow our manufacturing economy with new energy technology, or be ball-and-chained to old nuke plants and oil.

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