Nuke power could help in warming fight


Tuesday, January 15
BRATTLEBORO -- An increase in the number of nuclear power plants could help limit the effects of greenhouse gases on the environment.

"The risks posed by climate change may turn out to be so grave that the United States and the world cannot afford to rule out nuclear power as a major contributor to addressing global warming," wrote Lisbeth Gronlund, Edward Lyman and David Lochbaum, of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The urgency of this situation demands that we be willing to consider all options."

However, they wrote, many issues need to be addressed before the nation -- and the world -- embarks on a construction spree to erect the power plants necessary to address increasing electricity demands.

Of major concern for the authors is the danger to human health from the "massive release of radiation due to a power plant meltdown or terrorist attack, and the deaths of thousands due to the detonation of a nuclear weapons made with materials obtained from a civilian nuclear power system."

To address these and many other issues, the UCS called for an overhaul of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the way it does business. The NRC should bring in managers from outside agencies to rebuild its safety culture, to help it enforce existing standards and re-evaluate its oversight programs, wrote the authors.

"The NRC needs to do its job and Congress needs to make sure they do," said Gronlund late Monday afternoon.

The UCS is not pro- or anti-nuclear power, she said, but has been addressing nuclear safety issues since its inception in 1969.

"There are really serious problems that are associated with nuclear power, but there are some pragmatic ways in which we can minimize those risks," she said. "Even if we don't build another (nuclear power plant), all of these things are relevant. Nuclear power is an inherently risky technology, but there's no reason it can't be safer and more secure."

The NRC has a poor safety culture, wrote the authors, which is evident in how the agency has failed to enforce its own regulations, has let safety problems fester for years before addressing them and has focused more on sticking with schedules than on ensuring safety.

"This lack of a good safety culture within the NRC may in part derive from the desire not to push too hard on the industry," said Gronlund.

One critic of the NRC was even more blunt.

"There is no safety culture at the NRC," said Ray Shadis, technical consultant to the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution.

"We do our own safety culture surveys," responded Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the NRC, the last of which was conducted in February 2006. Previous surveys "were less positive than we would have liked," he said, "(but) subsequent reviews showed there was substantial improvement."

Sheehan also pointed to a "differing opinions program," in which staffers can challenge NRC conclusions and processes. And as proof of the agency's dedication to its staff, he said, last year the NRC was rated the No. 1 federal agency to work for.

"There has been improvement," he said. "Does that mean it's perfect? No. There always could be improvement."

The NRC could make improvements immediately, said Gronlund by brining in new managers that will enforce the agency's current regulations.

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"When you get too familiar with an industry you become very attuned to their concerns," she said. "We need to insure the regulatory agency is as independent as possible."

"They have proven again and again that they will bend over backwards to make it simple for a licensee to get what it wants," said Shadis.

"Most regulators get accused of being too close with the industries," said Sheehan. "We understand our role and we don't hesitate to take action when it's warranted."

The NRC has also limited public input in relicensing and power uprate hearings, wrote the authors, removing the public's right to discovery and cross-examination. Such public input is necessary, they wrote, to ensure all safety issues are addressed.

"The hurdles are astronomical," said Shadis. "It's absolutely impossible to successfully intervene against the industry. The deck is stacked."

But Sheehan said the NRC has in fact made it easier for the public to get involved.

"The vast majority of license renewal proceedings are done in writing," he said. "That does not in any way foreclose parties from making filings and getting their points across. If anything, it reduces legal costs because the bulk of the work is being done in writing, as opposed to court proceedings."

A pair of nuclear power proponents said the UCS study was designed to appear unbiased, but was in fact written to stop nuclear power from supplying more electricity to the United States.

"Their tactic has always been to say they want safe nuclear power, but to raise the bar so high that it would be driven out of the market," said nuclear power expert Howard Shafer.

"The UCS is attempting to throw cold water on nuclear power while at the same time recognizing the significant role it can play in reducing greenhouse gases," said Patrick Moore, nuclear power industry consultant and a founding member of Greenpeace. "All in all they are simply obfuscating and avoiding the real issue: What is the risk of nuclear versus fossil fuels when it comes to climate change policy? Clearly nuclear wins on this front and they are unwilling to admit it."

Moore said all of the issues raised in the UCS report can be addressed. More importantly, he said, the public needs to realize the world is teetering on the edge of a catastrophe.

"If, as is the 'consensus' position, our entire civilization is threatened by climate change and 30 to 80 percent of all species will go extinct, surely the risks of expanding nuclear power pale in comparison," said Moore. "Even if the worst-case accident as the UCS sees it occurs, it will hardly be the end of civilization or the mass extinction of species. Rather it would be a very localized event, not a global one."

Gronlund, Lochbaum and Lyman were also concerned over the growing threat of sabotage and acts of terrorism against nuclear power plants and their spent fuel pools.

"Today's security standards are inadequate to defend against credible threats," they wrote. "If a team of well-trained terrorist forcibly entered a nuclear power plant, it could disable safety systems within a matter of minutes."

The NRC has shown its lack of concern related to terrorists in emergency plans that don't take into account sabotage and terrorism, its refusal to consider attacks during environmental assessments and its failure to address the vulnerability of spent fuel pools.

"They, and all the other opponents," said Shafer, "have yet to explain why the Sept. 11 terrorists flew over Indian Point and many other reactors in the Northeast. I say it's because they know nuclear power plants are not good targets because they are so robust. Plants are designed to withstand tornadoes."


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