Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of a New York Times series on nuclear power in the U.S. For the full story in today’s Times, visit www.nytimes.com.
In the fall of 2007, workers at the Byron nuclear power plant in Illinois were using a wire brush to clean a badly corroded steel pipe — one in a series that circulate cooling water to essential emergency equipment — when something unexpected happened: The brush poked through.
The resulting leak caused a 12-day shutdown of the two reactors for repairs.
The plant’s owner, the Exelon Corp., had long known that corrosion was thinning most of these pipes. But rather than fix them, it repeatedly lowered the minimum thickness it deemed safe. By the time the pipe broke, Exelon had declared that pipe walls just three-hundredths of an inch thick — less than one-tenth the original minimum thickness — would be good enough.
Though no radioactive material was released, safety experts say that if enough pipes had ruptured during a reactor accident, the result could easily have been a nuclear catastrophe at a plant just 100 miles west of Chicago.
Exelon’s risky decisions occurred under the noses of on-site inspectors from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. No documented inspection of the pipes was made by anyone from the NRC for at least the eight years preceding the leak, and the agency also failed to notice that Exelon kept lowering the acceptable standard, according to a subsequent investigation by the commission’s inspector general.
Exelon’s penalty? A reprimand for two low-level violations — a tepid response all too common at the NRC, said George Mulley Jr., a former investigator with the inspector general’s office who led the Byron inquiry. “They always say, ‘Oh, but nothing happened,’” Mulley said. “Well, sooner or later, our luck — you know, we’re going to end up rolling craps.”
Critics have long painted the commission as well-intentioned but weak and compliant, and incapable of keeping close tabs on an industry to which it remains closely tied. The concerns have greater urgency because of the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in Japan, which many experts say they believe was caused as much by lax government oversight as by a natural disaster.
The Byron pipe leak is just one recent example of the agency’s shortcomings, critics say. It has also taken nearly 30 years for the commission to get effective fireproofing installed in plants after an accident in Alabama. The NRC’s decision to back down in a standoff with the operator of an Ohio plant a decade ago meant that a potentially dangerous hole went undetected for months. And the number of civil penalties paid by licensees has plummeted nearly 80 percent since the late 1990s — a reflection, critics say, of the commission’s inclination to avoid ruffling the feathers of the nuclear industry and its Washington lobbyists.
Although the agency says plants are operating more safely today than they were at the dawn of the nuclear industry, when shutdowns were common, safety experts, congressional critics and even the agency’s own internal monitors say the NRC is prone to dither when companies complain that its proposed actions would cost time or money. The promise of lucrative industry work after officials leave the commission probably doesn’t help, critics say, pointing to dozens over the years who have taken jobs with nuclear power companies and lobbying firms.
Now, as most of the country’s 104 aging reactors are applying for, and receiving, 20-year extensions from the NRC on their original 40-year licenses, reform advocates say a thorough review of the system is urgently needed.
The agency’s shortcomings are especially vexing because Congress created it in the mid-1970s to separate the government’s roles as safety regulator and promoter of nuclear energy — an inherent conflict that dogged its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission.
“It wasn’t much of a change,” said Peter Bradford, a former NRC commissioner who now teaches at Vermont Law School. “The NRC inherited the regulatory staff and adopted the rules and regulations of the AEC intact.”
For all the agency’s shortcomings as a regulator, even the most vocal critics acknowledge that it should not be compared with the Minerals Management Service, the scandal-plagued agency that oversaw the oil and gas industry and was reorganized by Obama after the BP oil spill last year.
Still, David Lochbaum, a frequent critic of the NRC who recently worked as a reactor technology instructor there, said the agency too often rolled the dice on safety. “The only difference between Byron and Fukushima is luck,” he said.
What frustrates some critics is that the NRC has the expertise and resources — a staff of 4,000 and one of the highest densities of Ph.D.s in government — to do a better job. As with many regulatory agencies, the movement from NRC jobs to industry jobs — and sometimes vice versa — is a recurring issue.