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Power play.

Twenty-four-year-old Jim Horn, an engineer new to California's Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, was flipping through a copy of the reactor's blueprints when he spotted a design flaw so massive it could have been a Cal-Tech marching band prank. Huge segments of the plant, which was just weeks away from full-power operation, had been assembled backwards. Many of the cables and supports for the two reactors, which were mirror images of each other, had been erected exactly opposite where they should have been. Although construction at the $2.3 billion Southern California plant was 97 percent complete, no one before Horn--not the thousands of engineers and construction workers, not the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) team of inspectors--had spotted the screw-up.

Horn's finding back in 1981 made a lot of people unhappy, especially at the utility, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), and the NRC. Perhaps the only ones who came out pleased were the activists who made sure that the NRC paid attention to Horn's allegations.

It wasn't the first time interveners--a euphemism for the activists best known for stunts like chaining themselves to reactor gates --had helped bring to light flaws at Diablo Canyon. Seven years earlier, before construction had begun, they dug up evidence that the plant site was just three miles from the second largest geologic fault in California. PG&E was forced to build reinforcements. And later, after the botched construction had been uncovered, they pushed the NRC to undertake a full reexamination of the plant's construction, a review that unearthed 111 new safety-related errors. "I don't think any of us anticipated the 'scope of the problems," said an NRC commissioner at the time.

In hindsight, the unrelenting, if often annoying, prodding of activists at Diablo Canyon not only made the plant safer but arguably averted a massive disaster. And Diablo Canyon is just one of nearly a dozen sites where grassroots interveners have rabble-roused the NRC and utilities into fixing defective plants or mothbailing clunkers. Sure, the activists can cause construction delays and cost overruns, but in the long run, the record shows that they've made nuclear power safer and smarter.

But now, thanks to a decade-long effort by the industry, and the tacit approval of a utility-friendly NRC, activists and the rest of the public are quietly being regulated out of nuclear power oversight. A spate of NRC rules enacted in the past four years essentially allows the industry to power up the next generation of reactors without having to deal with their long-- time nemesis--ordinary citizens like you. And all just in the nick of time: The sagging nuclear power industry, paralyzed by public distrust, skyrocketing costs, and an aging complement of reactors, has been stymied--not a single new reactor has been ordered since 1978. After decades of optimistic projections, the nuclear power industry suddenly finds itself in danger of extinction.

The industry's logical response to its woes should be, of course, to win back the confidence of the public by shutting down dozens of old, decaying plants and working to replace them with lower-cost, safer plant models. And while there's no question that the industry is lumbering in this direction, it's taking no risks on its financial future: Four new NRC rules, all supported and in some cases co-written by industry lobbyists, will allow utilities to design, construct, refurbish (or not refurbish), and disassemble power plants in coming years while answering to no one but themselves and the NRC. The agency's subtle effort ensures that the businessmen who control the industry will have virtually unchecked control over where, when, and how nuclear power is used in the future. And with a track record like theirs--from Diablo Canyon to Three Mile Island to Shoreham--that's not a particularly comforting thought.

There's little mystery about why the industry has pushed the NRC to change the rules. In the seventies, when it became clear that nuclear power was more expensive than nonnuclear sources, the public mood began to sour. Safety concerns mounted after Three Mile Island, and the enduring waste problem furthered public grumbling.

In the meantime, public interveners had become enraged and savvy enough to litter the plant approval path with enough obstacles to give the utilities fits. By 1978, ordering a nuclear power plant had become a utility's version of Russian roulette. Just ask the managers at the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO), whose attempt to build Shoreham in the seventies and eighties ran headlong into an angry, unrelenting public who argued that evacuation would be impossible in the event of an accident. After a 20-year struggle, a battle-weary LILCO threw in the towel last February, after spending more than $5 billion.

But you can't really blame feisty granola-eaters for fiascoes like Shoreham and Diablo Canyon. After all, the interveners wouldn't have had a case unless the utilities' work was shoddy and the NRC's oversight lax. And at plants including Aliens Creek (Texas), Byron (Illinois), Seabrook (New Hampshire), Midland (Michigan), Comanche Peak (Texas), Zimmer (Ohio), and Jamestown and Shoreham (New York), utilities have given activists plenty of mistakes to capitalize on. And it's hurt them. As cost overruns ran into the billions of dollars and delays ate up years, Wall Street financiers grew gun shy and new funding dried up. By the mid-eighties the industry found itself in a meltdown, unable or unwilling to take on new projects. But instead of heeding the message of more emphasis on safety, it blamed the messenger, saying, as did one industry spokesman recently, that "frivolous intervention is the bane of our existence."

By 1988, the utilities had, in effect, handed the NRC an ultimatum: Change the rules to muzzle the public, or we won't build another plant. The result is new regulations that help ensure the utilities' investment in new plants will bring a guaranteed return, even if it means sacrificing safety.

Here's how the new rules work:

* One-step licensing. Until 1989, the public had two chances to examine and oppose construction of a nuclear power plant before it could operate: the first, through heatings before construction that focused on the safety of the plant's design, and the second, through heatings that dealt with the safety of the construction when the plant was nearly complete.

The new "one-step" rule--recently approved by the NRC, but yet to be applied--requires only one heating just prior to a plant's construction. Industry may now submit a "genetic" plant design to the NRC at any time with no specific construction site in mind. The NRC reviews the design and approves or disapproves. Citizens may raise objections, but considering that no one--not even the NRC--knows when or where the industry will eventually build the plant, there is little motivation for citizens to take a close look.

Concerning the plant site, utilities can apply for a permit valid for 20 years. Area residents can raise objections, but, again, considering that no one is sure when, if at all, the plant will be built, there's little incentive to do so.

And what objections can be raised at the one and only heating? Just those that concern the matching of the design to the site. And what exactly does that mean? "We're still trying to figure that out," says Michael Manotte of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a Washington-based advocacy group opposed to nuclear power.


Streamlining the licensing process makes bureaucratic sense. But issues such as quality of workmanship simply can't be resolved until the plant is built. Consider the case of Texas' Comanche Peak plant, built in the seventies and eighties. Interveners, contacted by whistleblowers in the early stages of plant construction, revealed an array of problems, including faulty pipe supports, that eventually forced the utility to undertake a five-year, multimillion dollar reconstruction of the plant. And in Midland, Michigan, whistleblower allegations of a sinking foundation eventually led the utility to cancel the plant and convert it to natural gas. In both cases, without the early heating process, the problems might never have come to light, or even worse, come to light too late.

* The evidence rule. Even where interveners can challenge plant construction under the one-step rule, there are new restrictions on what evidence can be used. In the past, activists were permitted to request a heating by simply alleging the possibility of a problem. Now, because the NRC doesn't want to waste its time hearing frivolous complaints, the agency requires objectors to produce hard evidence of a problem, such as data supported by studies or outside experts-in other words a virtually proven case--just to get inside the heating room. The problem is that poorly funded interveners have traditionally built their cases around bits and pieces of information provided by whistleblowers or by NRC staff evaluations. And even when lacking proof positive, some have sounded a justified alarm.

Look at what happened during the construction of the Zimmer, Ohio, plant. Tom Applegate, a security official at the nearly completed plant, informed interveners that plant officials knew of construction flaws but were ignoring them in an effort to keep costs down. Applegate, though far from a nuclear expert, said he had seen enough to suspect that key safety welts--steel reinforcements--were faulty, a problem that experts later concluded could have caused a meltdown. Although Applegate lacked direct evidence, his charges were enough to instigate a new round of public heatings, which revealed, among other problems, falsification of records and evidence that parts of the plant were built with steel purchased from a nearby junkyard instead of the required nuclear-grade steel. In the end, the problems ran so deep that the utility was forced to abandon the project and turn Zimmer into a coal-powered plant.

* License renewal. Because it's cheaper for utilities to keep old plants alive than build new ones, and because many of the nation's 110 nuclear power plants, most of which were built in the firties and sixties, are nearing the end of their 40-year operating licenses, license renewal has become a top priority in the industry's survival plan. Utilities have long lobbied for permission to keep plants running past their original expiration dates without having to undertake costly, large-scale safety improvements or even answer questions of public safety. Recently, their efforts paid off.

The NRC's license renewal regs, which took effect in January of this year, are the equivalent of a patient giving himself a checkup. A utility seeking a 20-year renewal inspects its own plant for any safety or age-related problems and passes its report onto the NRC. The commission then gives thumbs up or thumbs down. No NRC inspection or public heating on safety is required (although the NRC can grant one if it so desires). Even worse, old plants have to live up only to plant-specific safety requirements-- ones that may have been set as far back as 30 years ago, when standards were far more relaxed.

What can local citizens do if they feel the nearby plant is too rickety to last another score? Nothing, unless you count writing letters to the NRC-- letters that the NRC is under no obligation to consider.

This new rule is particularly scary considering that in 1988, NRC Commissioner Kenneth Rogers labeled age-related degradation "a loaded gun, an accident waiting to happen." Consider what happened in 1986 at the then-l3-year-old Surry plant in Virginia when water pipes, worn thin by age-related decay, ruptured, killing four workers. Studies since then have shown that similar pipings have been used in nearly 40 other plants, and yet the public still can't challenge the renewal of those plants' licenses.

"The NRC is simply not using common sense," says Robert Pollard, a former NRC official and now a scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "I don't know anything as complicated as a nuclear power plant that can run safely for 40 years, let alone 60."

* Plant decommissioning. Even if plants do get their licenses renewed, they won't run forever. When a plant dies, decommissioning is its burial; it means either dismantling the carcass or simply sealing and cordoning it off. Either way, the costs are immense (up to hundreds of millions of dollars per reactor), and the hazards, such as disposal of the hazardous waste and contaminated parts, are many. (Four years of decommissioning will produce more waste than has been churned out by 30 years of power plant operations.) Although several plants have been shut down in recent years, no large plant has thus far been decommissioned. But by the year 2010, dozens of plants will be eligible.

The NRC has already passed a rule saying no public hearing for how and when each plant should be buried is required. In fact, one "generic hearing" for all plants was held in 1988, a time when decommissioning was safely off the public's radar. (Public interest was so sparse that just 40 letters were received by the NRC on the rule, only one of which was from an environmental group.) The result: Specific decisions on the decornmissioning of each plant will be made by the NRC and utilities when each plant is retired. "The NRC is acting ahead of time, and that's good," explains Martin Pasqualetti, a decommissioning expert at the University of Arizona who has advised the NRC, "But when it comes time to decommission, the public's going to stand there befuddled, saying, 'no one included us.'"

Fission chips

That the industry would push for such regulations is to be expected. But what about the NRC? After all, it's chartered to safeguard the public's interest. And it admits that it needs help: It acknowledges that it can effectively evaluate only 1 percent of a reactor's construction. In fact, the commission has clearly stated that public intervention is a useful tool. "Interveners have made an important impact on safety," reported a 1980 NRC report, "sometimes as a catalyst in the pre-hearing stage ... sometimes by forcing more thorough review of an issue than a reluctant agency."

So why the eagerness to toe the industry line? One reason is ideological: the deregulatory agenda of the past two administrations. The second reason is a pragmatic one: No government agency is of a mind to regulate itself out of a job, and with the industry unwilling to build new plants unless the rules are changed, the NRC faces the choice of giving in or watching commercial nuclear power--and the agency-wither away.

Hence the industry's cozy relationship with the NRC, of which examples abound. Thermo-lag, a fireproofing material, lines cables in nearly two thirds of all U.S. power plants. But after a decade of independent testing revealed that Thermo-lag provides far from adequate fire protection, the NRC requested that plants fitted with the material test and replace it if found faulty. Before sending out letters, however, the NRC ran the idea by NUMARC, the industry's main lobbying arm. NUMARC, of course, bristled at the notion of requiting either replacement or testing, labeling them unnecessary precautions and requesting that the NRC hold off. The agency obliged.

Industry lobbyists don't have to push too hard to get the NRC to see things from their perspective. Most of the commissioners are children of the industry: Four of the five current commissioners worked at one time in the nuclear power business or were officers in the nuclear Navy. "The NvRC is an inbred club of nuclear people trained in the nuclear world," says Herbert Brown, a former NRC official who now works as a Capitol Hill aide in an unrelated area. "They act as though their sole purpose is to explain why interveners are wrong."

Although the NRC's current commissioner, Ivan Selin, who just completed his first year at the helm of the agency, has listed regaining public trust as one of his top priorities, he's yet to back his statements with concrete proposals. Still, simply stating that the agency will be more public-responsive is a step in the right direction, especially compared to the views of the last few chairmen. (Selin's immediate predecessor, Kenneth Carr, once stated that the public could trust nuclear power because plant operators are patriotic Americans.) But unless the NRC is actually ready to stand up to the industry, we'll have to get used to a future in which the public will have little say in how and where its most dangerous energy source will be used.

What's needed is a compromise that will restore the public voice in each of the newly regulated areas without handling the Birkenstock crowd the keys to the plant. In the licensing process, for example, provisions to allow evidence brought in by whistleblowers should be restored, given the fact that unfounded claims can be quickly screened out by licensing boards and legitimate ones may have already saved us from a genuine meltdown. Those whistleblower provisions should also be made mandatory in decommissioning hearings.

In license renewal, the NRC should require that unless plants nearing the end of their licenses are remodeled to comply with new safety standards, they should be phased out. After all, when the utilities built the plants decades ago, they built them with 40year lifespans in mind. It's only fair to make the industry live up to its own standards.

Re-opening the process would allow those most affected by the perils and advantages of nuclear energy--citizens the chance to take a close and careful look. And it doesn't necessarily mean killing off the industry. For if the utilities and the NRC want to ensure the survival of nuclear energy, the first and most important step is to recoup the public trust. To that end, it's hard to imagine a more iII-conceived tactic than attempting to strongarm the public into acceptance instead of winning it over by allowing it a greater say.

Christopher Georges is an editor of The Washington Monthly.
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Title Annotation:citizen oversight of nuclear power plants
Author:Georges, Christopher
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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