Dr. Jeffrey Patterson: Lessons from the Gulf for nuclear reactors
Column by Dr. Jeffrey Patterson
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One crucial lesson from the BP oil spill is that measures to speed licensing, cut corners on safety and undermine regulation can lead to tragic consequences. Yet Congress appears on the verge of repeating mistakes that led to the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf.
Federal lawmakers are weighing a BP-type deregulation of new nuclear reactors – the one energy source in which damage from a major accident could dwarf harm done by a ruptured offshore oil well.
In this effort, the nuclear industry’s backers are working both sides of the street. On one hand, they proclaim that the current nuclear regulatory system is so superior, it could well serve as a model for regulating the petrochemical industry.
At the same time, those nuclear proponents are working behind the scenes for regulatory rollbacks that would dramatically reshape safety and environmental requirements for new reactors. These provisions might be incorporated into a climate bill, or into a narrower “energy-only” bill that could be voted on by the Senate as early as this month.
The result of the changes making the rounds of Capitol Hill would further undermine Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) safety reviews by truncating the licensing process for new reactors, scaling back environmental-impact reviews, and limiting public transparency in reactor licensing decisions. All are bad ideas.
Here are a few of the problematic provisions proposed in draft legislation that should not be included in a final climate or energy bill:
* The NRC would not be authorized to prevent startup of a new reactor, even if fundamental safety components already inspected were later compromised in the construction process.
* The NRC would be required to propose and implement an “expedited procedure” for issuing construction and operating licenses for new reactors under certain conditions.
* An impossibly high standard would be set for including an evaluation of the need for power, the cost of the new reactor, and alternative energy sources within the NRC licensing process.
* The NRC could no longer hold a mandatory hearing to do an independent safety and environmental review in new reactor licensing.
Nuclear reactors already have the most streamlined licensing process of any type of industrial facility in the United States. What is delaying the review of reactor applications isn’t the licensing process, but the fact that the industry has been unable to submit adequate design proposals for reactors or to respond to the NRC in timely fashion.
Rather than weakening reactor safety rules, Congress should send the NRC the right message – safety over speed – by strengthening them.
For example, the NRC should be required to take into consideration “worst-case” accident situations. The NRC has resisted pressure to analyze risks posed by terrorist attacks on spent fuel storage casks, although such an attack could cause a severe release of radiation. As with the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig, mere assurance that the worst-case situation won’t happen is a hollow promise.
The notion that lack of a recent major reactor accident makes such an occurrence a “remote possibility,” therefore justifying lax safety regulation, is the same illogical and irresponsible thinking that set the stage for the BP disaster.
As the oil spill illustrates all too well, the more complex the technology, the greater the chance of catastrophic failure. Because of human error, technological failure or unforeseen events, it is virtually guaranteed that there will be other major disasters. The catastrophic effects of these on human health and our environment will continue for generations. As we have seen at Chernobyl and are seeing in the Gulf, our environment cannot sustain this continued onslaught.
We must drastically change the direction of our energy future. This is possible through the use of clean, renewable and sustainable technologies. When it comes to disasters caused by technologies such as deep offshore drilling or nuclear power, even one accident is one too many.
Dr. Patterson is president of Physicians for Social Responsibility and a professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.