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Friday, June 3, 2011

Nuclear Sanity, Nuclear Insanity, Fukushima, and the NRC

It has been nearly three months since the beginning of the Fukushima Daiichi Accident, which itself properly cannot be defined as being 'over' and in fact now is proving to be an affair as protracted as anyone familiar with such scenarios (all of which have until now been only theorized) might have imagined. While the struggle to perform many crucial tasks continues on site, another struggle rages on all around the world; that struggle is for the majority opinion regarding nuclear energy.

In some places, there has been a media fueled knee-jerk anti-nuclear response the like of which has not been seen before. Witness Germany, which has announced its plans to rid itself of nuclear energy by the year 2022. While there are numerous theories about many political motivations for this plan... which is actually a revived plan temporarily stalled by Angela Merkel, who now supports it ... the fact of the matter is that it is being hailed in some quarters as indicative of that attitude which all environmentally responsible persons should strive to adopt. Italy has announced as well (some time ago, actually) that it will no longer pursue nuclear energy. Switzerland also will follow.

On the other hand, in some places the nuclear energy aspirations continue exactly as before with no change. Witness Saudi Arabia's just-announced plan to have 16 plants on its grid by the year 2030. Economic reasoning, not environmental hyperbole, is the driving factor behind this program.

Somewhere in the center, in a much more nebulous position, is the United States. The USA has no central nuclear energy policy, and has had none for decades. After it became perceived generally that the Atomic Energy Commission was in an all too powerful a position vis a vis nuclear energy, given its mandate to regulate but also its mandate to promote, and seeing that the NEPA did not have entirely the desired effect, the Congress abolished the AEC in 1974, assigning its duties to an office which now is part of the Department of Energy (the promotional and research duties) and to the newly formed Nuclear Regulatory Commission (the licensing, oversight / regulatory, and punitive duties.) At that point, with environmentalism newly developing, the Congress essentially set up a department that was as powerful in an anti-nuclear sense (the NRC) as the AEC had ever been in a pro-nuclear sense.

Following this, the only body in the country that was part of the government and which could be considered as pro-nuclear was the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, or the JCAE. After the JCAE fought on by itself with some limits (it also lost some powers in 1974) it finally fought its last after heavily promoting the Clinch River Breeder Project (an attempt to improve the fuel cycle economics of nuclear energy) among other things, and was disbanded by Congress in 1977. Its duties were spread around to roughly 24 different subcommittees.

At this point -- 1977's disbanding of the JCAE -- pro-nuclear forces in this country no longer had any hope of centralized support from the federal government, and this was absolutely deliberate. Instead, the reverse has been seen; as pointed out recently by Rod Adams, the NRC has never in its existence received an initial application for a nuclear plant, processed it, granted licenses and then seen that plant given an operating license. To be clear, the approval rate for new plants start to finish then for the NRC is ZERO; all plants ordered after formation of the NRC were cancelled. No agency or committee could be thought of then as being more obstructionist than the NRC, whose job very clearly would, given its track record, seem to be to prevent the construction of any further nuclear plants in the United States.

Recently, over the last two years, there has been a growing surge toward new nuclear plants in the USA; many including this author call this the Nuclear Renaissance. Much of the attention was given to the Westinghouse AP1000 plant as a leader in the new generation of plants, but recently some very suspicious "whistle blower" letters to the NRC caused a very public negative statement about the AP1000 and Westinghouse in general to be released. To its credit, Westinghouse responded strongly (but calmly) and publicly to this almost unprecedented NRC action.

Further, the NRC has not only issued a number of statements (and its officials have been quoted in the press) along the line that Fukushima Daiichi means we must review all plants in the United States for safety but now has released a statement indicating that there have been indications to the NRC that it is "too lax" in regulating, and this is why the new tough stance.

Let me be clear: This is a "straw man." There are no such statements. No one can possibly think for one moment that the NRC -- with a zero order-to-on-the-grid approval rating -- is too lax. The NRC is in fact quite the opposite. Its chairman, Gregory Jaczko, is not in the position he is in because he is an experienced nuclear engineer or plant operator; he is neither. It would seem that he is there because he is anti-nuclear in point of fact.

Taking all of the above into account, I now get to the heart of the matter at hand; what then is the nuclear industry as a whole, and the mass of pro-nuclear advocates to do with the NRC? Surely the NRC cannot be imagined to be PRO-nuclear at any point since clearly its duties were set up from the first to be ANTI-nuclear. Surely with appointments of anti-nuclear persons to the NRC in high places it cannot be assumed that the NRC will support, much less befriend, anyone pro-nuclear.

The plain fact of the matter is that it is vitally important that the NRC only regulate plants, provide oversight, and not have any input from any political agendas. In order that this be possible, it is essential that all of the most senior persons in the NRC have serious experience in the nuclear energy field. There is no excuse why a governmental regulatory body such as the NRC should be staffed with politically chosen appointees instead of people accomplished in, and recognized in, the field. This must be pursued.

Since this is not likely ever to happen, it then becomes essential that the pro-nuclear groups (and that can mean everyone from the large trade groups to the individual bloggers and authors) call the NRC on every politically motivated action it takes, and on every obstructionist action it leverages. It is also vital that "straw man" arguments (indicating that there is some sentiment when there is not, some statement when there is not, some accusation when there is not) be rightly identified and exposed for what they really are.

It is also essential that the NRC's gross exaggerations about supposed lapses in judgement, incapabilities of analysis, and errors in calculation by reactor vendors, architect-engineers, utilities and contractors be spotlighted for what they are.

The agency that pro-nuclear advocates need to encourage to be more vocal, more involved, and better covered in the big media really is the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Energy. This is the lineal descendant of the section of the AEC that got divided off into what originally in 1974 was called the ERDA or Energy Research and Development Administration. What, you say? Never heard of it? Many have not, but it has a rather elaborate website here:

DOE Office of Nuclear Energy

Of course, 'big media' will never report on items seen in this agency's reports. They're sensible, and not panicked hyperbole. One of the reports of interest at this agency's site covers the ability to manufacture forgings of the size needed for Gen III nuclear plants.. and how we don't have that capability here in the United States. (We can still make forgings large enough for plants the size that we have now, if needed.) A number of interesting reports on development in, and the future of, nuclear energy are available at the site. Nowhere near what is at the NRC site in a negative sense, but significant in a positive sense even if small.

In the final analysis, we must see in this country that since the only presently operating and involved and vocal and publicly seen body is the anti-nuclear NRC, the chips overall in the nuclear future of our country may well fall more to the states and ongoing problems at some plants (Vermont Yankee) or the economic promises of others (Vogtle.) We know one thing; the environmentalists have no easy ground to walk, given reports such as this seen on Reuters:

40 million tonnes more CO2 per year when Germany goes non-nuclear

They cannot have their cake and eat it too. Other forms of energy cannot ever economically provide base load power like nuclear energy can, and all the figures point to that. The recent push back against the economics of nuclear energy and our growing need worldwide for electricity is purely driven by unrealistic fear of nuclear accident, specifically because of Fukushima Daiichi. The environmentalists must now either as a result backtrack on their decades of global warming diatribes if they are to allow wholesale shutdown of nuclear (recently one of their darlings, now a stepchild again) or else become better informed about the actual safety of nuclear energy if global warming is to be averted. It seems at the moment that the NRC is acting as their lap dog, which is unfortunate at best and diabolical at worst.

As pro-nuclear advocates go, we may find ourselves at a watershed moment when nuclear literacy is in demand, when the NRC is being exposed for what it really is, when the NRC and the EPA might actually be thought of as being at odds (given the CO2 emissions that will increase if nuclear is abandoned) and when little media such as the blog you are reading is getting 1200 page views a day from all around the world, or better. At the surface it seems a bad moment for pro-nuclear advocacy but in point of fact there may be no better hour to act boldly, with confidence that what the public really wants is the truth, and results.. something the EPA, global warming advocates, and the NRC cannot hope to produce.

7:10 PM Eastern Friday June 3, 2011

Note: Fukushima Daiichi update to come later this evening.


  1. Excellent post!
    You hit the nail on the head, that there is no better hour to go forth and tell the truth about nuclear energy.

    We can only hope that it will not be left to Westinghouse alone, a wholly owned subsidiary of Toshiba, to stand up to political silliness.
    GE has a dog in this fight as well, but is keeping a very low profile, perhaps because they fear possible repercussions from the Fukushima accident. Even so, it seems entirely wrong to just hide when the going gets rough. The industry needs to recognize that it must, as Ben Franklin said, either hang together or its participants will surely be hung separately.

  2. For the heck of it I decided to send a note to the NRC as a comment in support of the AP1000 approval. It wasn't clear at all where to direct the comment. I sent something to the Atlanta public service office, but got a notice that it wasn't sent because the comment field was empty!

    What is the best way to counteract e-mail campaigns to the NRC, like the one described by Rod Adams from 'Friends' of the Earth?

  3. DOE Office of Nuclear Energy website does not seem to have any information on how to contact them. This would seem to be primarily a research organization, so it is not clear that a member of the public can 'help' them in any way.

  4. To refer to Germany's decision as "media fueled knee-jerk anti-nuclear response" shows a deep lack of understanding of the situation there. Some facts: Nuclear power has been opposed by a minority for several decades (since 1970s, well before the major accidents). The decision to abandon nuclear power was already taken about 10 years ago under a previous administration. The current government tried to reverse or extend operation, with an ever increasing opposition of the population. In regional elections after Fukushima, indicative of national sentiment, a green party member was elected regional prime minister for the first time ever. The opposition to nuclear power is now over 70% of the population, shown to be going though all social classes. The German population has been well aware that it would pay, financially and otherwise, for any accident that would occur and the simple result is that they were not willing to take this risk any longer, no matter how small it is suppose to be. Not Merkel did this decision, it was the electorate alone. Germans are passionate about the environment. The decision against nuclear is not an endorsement of burning fossile fuels. It was a choice between two evils and the perceived lesser evil was chosen.

    The statement "XYZ million tonnes more CO2 per year when Germany goes non-nuclear" is often used to create adverse opinion towards the move. We will see it when we they get there in 10 years time. Never under-estimate the Germans.

  5. @ashen: Thanks for picking out what is probably the least relevant part of the whole post vis a vis the NRC to comment on. Nice try.

    I pretty well understand the Germans' standpoint, thank you. Germans are passionate about following the newest trend, spoon fed by anyone who seems competent to explain it to them. The Germans are also not yet aware of their coming dependence on energy from outside sources, because, while SO many of them are SO worried about the (purported) environmental risk of nuclear energy, none of them seems willing to come to grips with the vast increase in cost they'll incur -- or else the rolling blackouts they'll experience. Then, they'll really be shot when their economy has absolutely nothing to export at all -- and that includes the energy they've been exporting for years. But it's their problem.

    Again, for the several-dozenth time (to coin a phrase)... the accident in Fukushima Daiichi has nothing to do with nuclear energy in Germany. Nothing. Zip. Nada. Let's all try to understand that; maybe reading all the past posts of this blog would help. Everyone throwing themselves on their own swords in defense of Great Dear Mother Earth Gaia is all well and good, but when everyone's AC and big screen TV's won't work there'll be hell to pay. Oh.. and when there's no drinking water, or water for irrigation. Or electricity to charge up the cute li'l micro-cars the enviro-whackos want everyone to have. (Or to run the super-conducting supermagnet levitated monorails that they'd really rather see replace all cars.)

    In the final analysis, what the Germans do in their own misguided sense of having their ideology, mirrored in action, reflect events they aren't involved in at all has absolutely no real effect on any nuclear energy programs anywhere else... just exactly as the Fukushima Daiichi accident has no real impact on their program directly either. Their pointless self-immolation may prove their energy progam's undoing, which actually would be quite grand. It would prove the folly of dumping the most economical, reliable and safest base load generating source ever developed .. and that's nuclear energy.