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August 4, 2004 4:59 PM   Subscribe

Nuclear Safety Lapses Won't Be Revealed -- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced the change in policy during its first public meeting on power plant safety since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It drew barbs from critics who said the secrecy would erode public confidence in the agency. Until now, the NRC has provided regular public updates on vulnerabilities its inspectors found at the country's 103 nuclear power reactors, such as broken fences or weaknesses in training programs. The NRC's release is here, which also states that they'll be exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests.
posted by amberglow (13 comments total)

Huh. And yet they seem to have restored access to the Daily Events reports, which I used to read every day. They're fascinating - every mishap, from a missing Geiger counter to an emergency reactor shutdown, reported using the same ASCII form, without analysis or spin. I've always found them perversely reassuring: there are processes in place, and exceptions are noted and tracked; at least we know when we don't know where some of our radioactive material is.

I wonder if they'll disappear behind the secrecy shield too?
posted by nicwolff at 5:46 PM on August 4, 2004

because pinko terrorist child molesters from france might use a nuclear power plant to empower the antichrist. thank god for this government.
posted by quonsar at 5:56 PM on August 4, 2004

Someday, I want journalists who ask actual questions of prospective and existing leaders, and belittle them if they don't answer. And some of the questions I want are:

Do you beleive public confidence should be based on reality or well-managed publicity?

What the hell were you thinking would happen if you removed public accountability?
posted by namespan at 6:08 PM on August 4, 2004

Well, if they remove public accountability, we won't know things like this.

(A portion of the emergency alert system at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant was inadvertently shut off by an electric company line worker last week, officials say. It was several days before the plant, as well as state and local officials, corrected the problem.)
posted by five fresh fish at 6:17 PM on August 4, 2004

See also the cover story in the August issue of The Progressive magazine.

The Bush Administration is actually relaxing the fire safeguards [in nuclear power plants.] Instead of insisting that the plants have heat-protected mechanical systems in place that will shut down reactors automatically in case of fire, which is the current standard, the Bush Administration would actually let the power companies rely on workers to run through the plants and try to turn off the reactors by hand while parts of the facilities are engulfed in flames. . . .

So why is the NRC proposing to relax the fire safety standard? Amazingly, because many nuclear power plants have not been abiding by current regulations to put up proven fire barriers. Rather than demanding better fire safeguards or insisting that nuclear power companies at least abide by the current ones, the NRC wants to let them off the hook. It's as if car drivers were regularly going 90 mph, so the government raised the speed limit to 90.

posted by LeLiLo at 6:26 PM on August 4, 2004

The great irony of nuclear energy is how very simple it is. A radioactive core heats up water in a sealed system. That water heats up other water in a second sealed system. And *that* water heats up water in a third sealed system that powers turbines.

But from that point on it becomes insane.

First of all, the little pellets of enriched uranium that are put in rods: when their outer 10% has been used and become ash, their efficiency plummets. So ideally you reprocess the uranium to remove the ash, and re-use the other 90% of the fuel. Unfortunately, there are only a few reprocessing plants in the US, and it is extremely difficult, or even impossible, to ship pellets there for reprocessing. So what is done? The fuel is thrown away as "high grade nuclear waste." On spec, really, that someday, somebody might actually reprocess it. They must throw it away, as they are prohibited from storing it on site.

Second, the triple redundant safety systems in nuclear power plants are actually the most dangerous parts of the plant. Not just inherently so, but also because of bureaucratic requirements. Even simple decisions often require many different levels of approval.

For example, some years ago, there was an 80-step checklist for the replacement of a red lightbulb in a walkway corridor. It required approvals from three different managers, a power plant committee, and a Department of Energy approval. No fewer than 12 people were involved and 60 total man-hours. To replace a single light bulb.
And that was just a small example of how unwieldly the process has become.

This ridiculous system was intentional. It was created to make nuclear power generation so inefficient and expensive that it would be discarded as an energy source, by people adamantly opposed to nuclear energy.

Now, this is not to say that nuclear power is safe. However, when compared with its alternatives, it may still deserve a place at the table. Now that the radically pro-nuclear energy and radically anti-nuclear energy pendulum swings have pretty much past, perhaps we can figure out how much is enough, and how to mitigate the downsides.

You can get a massive amount of energy from nuclear, and without greenhouse gases, or all the radioactive isotopes you get from burning coal.
posted by kablam at 8:22 PM on August 4, 2004

So this means we won't hear when they find out about their login/login problem?
posted by srboisvert at 8:53 PM on August 4, 2004

there was an 80-step checklist for the replacement of a red lightbulb....

This ridiculous system was intentional. It was created to make nuclear power generation so inefficient and expensive that it would be discarded as an energy source, by people adamantly opposed to nuclear energy.

I don't buy that. Insane processes like that existed long before the opposition thought that cleverly. I think things like that are more often just an example of petty bureaucratic turf wars. (So petty that you just wouldn't believe it.)

Also: You state that it's illegal to store nuclear fuel on site. Yet you don't mention that, since there's nothing else that *can* be done with it, that's more or less what they do. I remember that back in the '80s, a lot of researchers spent a lot of simulation hours testing denser and denser storage arrays, to see just how much they could store and how tightly packed before the water got too hot to be safe...

I agree, though, the NIMBY crowd do drive nuclear policy now, one way or another. They are why we can't move spent fuel to safer, more secure locations; they're why we can't seem to build a storage facility; they're the reason for the persistence of basic errors like the length of time which fuel waste will remain dangerous. At some point, though, you've got to stop fighting and solve the goddamn safety problem, and that doesn't happen by leaving the fuel stored in lots of insecure, geologically and meteorologically unstable locations.
posted by lodurr at 8:57 PM on August 4, 2004

It's as if car drivers were regularly going 90 mph, so the government raised the speed limit to 90.

Er. In my province, that does happen.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:03 PM on August 4, 2004

Nuclear Power will become socially acceptable when we have institutions who've put in some real time building up public trust. When you realize that, the NRC's decision makes sense -- they want to increase public confidence, as namespan mentioned, by managing their image. It probably flows from a perception on the part of those driving policy that fear of nuclear power exists largely because most of the population is ignorant, and therefore suspicious.

The problem is, image management is a band-aid, and ignorance is only half the problem. *Lots* of us trust things we don't understand. But most of us don't trust the government to be truthful about the effects of nuclear power and waste disposal, because our government hasn't acted in a particularly trustworthy way over lots of issues. Some recent local discussion highlights, some of the things that have broken trust when it's come to government management of consequences that went beyond the expected. Not nuclear power per se... but nuclear energy, at any rate.
posted by weston at 9:43 PM on August 4, 2004

Why the French like nuclear energy.
posted by homunculus at 10:13 PM on August 4, 2004

homunculus, how do you *do* that?
posted by weston at 10:34 PM on August 4, 2004

nicwolff - those daily event notifications are facinating, thanks. Like you, I'm reasured that today when the #2 safety valve lited at 1010 psi instead of 1050 someone noticed and reported it.

I'm sorely tempted to scrape the site so I can read them offline but the way things are these days I don't think I would want to draw that sort of attention to myself. :)
posted by adamt at 1:47 AM on August 6, 2004

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