Why didn’t the US “ground” its Fukushimas?

Ralph Nader calls out FAA “tombstone mentality” and it’s the same story at NRC

By Linda Pentz Gunter

Ralph Nader* the country’s leading consumer advocate, hit the nail on the head last Wednesday when he labeled the United States Federal Aviation Adminstration’s (FAA) hesitance to ground the Boeing 737 Max 8 an example of “tombstone mentality.” Even after two planes of that model crashed under suspicious circumstances that suggest the aircraft’s automated software systems over-rode manual control by pilots, Boeing insisted there was no problem with the design. The FAA, which Nader called a “patsy”, did nothing until insurmountable pressure forced Boeing’s and the aviation agency’s hands and both the Max 8 and Max 9 models were grounded in the U.S.

Nader is no stranger to this “tombstone mentality,” not only in the airline industry, about which he wrote a book — Collision Course: The Truth About Airline Safety — but in the automobile and nuclear industries, among others. His Critical Mass Energy Project, created in 1974, was the largest nationwide anti-nuclear power movement ever created in the US.

Why was there a delay in grounding the Boeing 737 Max 8s? Even if, after exhaustive investigation, no fault is found with the plane itself, shouldn’t even the possibility of doubt mandate precaution? Was it Boeing’s major role in the U.S. military industrial complex, including nuclear weapons, that shielded them from risking reputation and profit? 

According to Nader, Boeing has some 3,000 orders for the new plane from around the world. There is a lot at stake for the company. But, Nader told Democracy Now!, “Boeing is not going to get away with this, because this is not some old DC-9 about to be phased out. This is their future strategic plan. And they better own up.”

How eerily familiar this all rings. Substitute “Federal Aviation Administration” for “US Nuclear Regulatory Commission” and the story is the same. The NRC, whose official slogan is, jaw-droppingly, “protecting people and the environment” has excelled for decades at doing exactly the opposite, most notably at the Commission level.  Indeed, the commissioners, with the occasional exception whenever someone of conscience slips into a commission chair, have worked scrupulously for decades to put the financial priorities of the nuclear industry ahead of their public safety mandate. 

This was never more startlingly obvious than when the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster began to unfold. You would think that the multiple explosions and triple meltdowns of those American reactors — the GE Mark I boiling water design (BWR) — would have been a wake-up call for the NRC. But like Boeing and the FAA, the nuclear industry and the NRC failed to shut down its near identical reactors still operating in the US — at the time of the accident 23 GE Mark I BWRs, and eight Mark IIs, now reduced to 29 with the permanent closures of Vermont Yankee and Oyster Creek.

Even worse, the NRC actually relicensed one of them — Vermont Yankee — to operate another 20 years, just 10 days after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster began. (Vermont Yankee closed in December 2014 due to failed economics.)

Learning nothing from history, the NRC is today poised to extend the operating license for a second time of yet another Fukushima-style US nuclear power plant — Peach Bottom 2 and 3, both GE Mark Is — a decision that would let these outdated, aged and deeply flawed reactors run for a total of 80 years.

It’s worth remembering that GE’s own senior-level engineers testified before Congress in February 1976 that the GE Mark I design was too deeply flawed to operate safely. “The consequences of containment failure are frightening,” they testified. “It is unthinkable that plant operation can be continued on the very tenuous argument that the probability of the accident occurring is low.”

However, it is precisely that mentality that persists today at the captured NRC, an approach that is becoming ever more reckless, given the confluence of aging decrepitude at America’s nuclear power plants and the industry’s increasingly dire economic straits. Cutting costs while maximizing output have become paramount to the nuclear industry’s survival. 

Consequently, the NRC Commission deploys its own version of tombstone mentality, gambling that not implementing its own safety regulations is a chance worth taking, betting against the likelihood that they would ever be needed. Just as the GE engineers warned, the NRC continues to assume that the “probability” of a nuclear power plant accident in the US is too remote to be worth the expense of preparing for. Better to let the nuclear industry ignore safety regulations and cut safety corners rather than make them pay to upgrade, retrofit or shut down.

FAA woman and Caputo at RIC

The FAA’s Chief Scientist and Technical Advisor for Aircraft Safety, Ann Azevelo (at lectern) on a panel with newly appointed NRC Commissioner, Annie Caputo, at the NRC’s Regulatory Information Conference. (Photo: Beyond Nuclear)

How ironic, then, that current NRC Commissioner, Annie Caputo, appeared on a panel with the FAA chief scientist on aircraft safety during the NRC’s annual Regulatory Information Conference, on the very day the Boeing grounding was announced. The panel’s topic was how both the FAA and the NRC are increasingly using “risk-informed” regulation to determine how much oversight to provide. This approach effectively weighs the “probability” of an accident versus taking prudent and precautionary measures to prevent one, such as grounding an aircraft or shutting down a nuclear power plant. The outcome of this approach is that the assumption of risk as an “improbability” invariably wins out over enforcing safety-related actions.

This is undoubtedly to Commissioner Caputo’s liking, whose nuclear industry background (she worked for Exelon) should, one would have thought, have disqualified her from a role regulating that same industry. She already has a track  record on subverting safety. Following the Fukushima disaster, Caputo was a senior Congressional advisor who helped the then Republican majority squash the NRC technical staff’s unanimously supported recommendation that the agency order the installation of high-efficiency radiation filters on severe accident-capable hardened containment vents in all U.S. Fukushima-style reactors.

As the agency’s own staff had determined, the retrofit was not only “cost beneficial” but provided “substantial safety benefit.” Adding the external radiation filters in their own separate containment structure could significantly contain the release of harmful radioactive gases generated in a major accident, while allowing control room operators to vent the containment of extreme heat, pressure and non-condensable explosive gases to save it from failure.

The filtered vent fiasco was yet one more example in a list of similarly notorious incidents of regulatory capture, where the NRC has put nuclear industry production and profit margins ahead of “protecting people and the environment.” But, like old dogs and spotted leopards, this collusive behavior continues at the NRC unabated.

On January 24, 2019, a majority of five voting members of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) rolled back more than seven years of the agency’s technical study on the hazards and lessons learned from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear catastrophe. The three Presidentially appointed Republican Commissioners voted against ordering reactor operators to incorporate new science and management strategies to safely contain a severe nuclear accident following extreme earthquakes and flooding. 

The Commission vote drastically undercut requirements to industry operators to make safety upgrades at US nuclear power stations that were built decades ago. Instead of requiring operators to upgrade, the Commission reduced the rule to allow industry voluntary self-regulation, effectively stripping the agency of its own enforcement action. Nuclear power stations will now only pay a small fraction of the cost for implementing Fukushima upgrades originally determined as necessary by agency staff and independent nuclear safety experts.

“This outcome is a complete U-turn for NRC,” said appointed Democrat Commissioner Jeff Baran in his notated vote sheet.  Baran charged his Republican members of the Commission with gutting the rule of key Fukushima lessons learned and actions needed to address critical safety vulnerabilities in US reactors. 

With perfect timing, just this past weekend, a “one thousand year flood” hit Nebraska for the second time in less than three decades, inundating the Cooper nuclear power station there. Scant news was emerging at press time, but watch the Beyond Nuclear website for updates.

Depending on how old you are, there is a tendency to remember Ralph Nader only for the Corvair (there is one in his American Museum of Tort Law) or for his alleged role in the outcome of the controversial Bush-Gore election of 2000. (Back then, I wrote a parody about it.) But when Howard Dean lit into Nader over the Florida vote, as a guest on the now canceled John McEnroe Show, the tennis great hit back, reminding Dean and his viewers that Nader was “a national hero” who saved “millions of lives” by pushing for seat belt laws and air bags in automobiles.

Now an octogenarian, Nader isn’t giving up the fight for consumers’ rights. And he wants us to fight back, too. We should listen, take action, or face another Fukushima.

*Ralph Nader is a donor to Beyond Nuclear.

Headline photo of Ralph Nader by Don Lavange for Creative Commons/Flickr.

One Comment on “Why didn’t the US “ground” its Fukushimas?

  1. Pingback: Ralph Nader calls out FAA “tombstone mentality” — Beyond Nuclear International « Antinuclear

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