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Nuclear industry has been pushing for less oversight, and it’s working

Three Mile Island nuclear plant
Cooling towers at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Middletown, Pa.
(Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

Fewer mock commando raids to test nuclear power plants’ defenses against terrorist attacks. Fewer, smaller government inspections for plant safety issues. Less notice to the public and to state governors when problems arise.

They’re part of the money-saving rollbacks sought by the country’s nuclear industry under President Trump and already approved or pending approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, largely with little input from the general public.

The nuclear power industry says the safety culture in the U.S. nuclear industry — 40 years after a partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania — is “exceptional” and merits the easing of government inspections.

Maria Korsnick, president of the industry’s Nuclear Energy Institute trade group, said she welcomed changes in NRC plant oversight “to ensure that it reflects a more robust understanding of the current performance of the U.S. nuclear fleet.”

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Opponents say the changes are bringing the administration’s business-friendly, rule-cutting mission to an industry — nuclear reactors — in which the stakes are too high to cut corners.

While many of the regulatory rollbacks happening at other agencies under the current administration may be concerning, “there aren’t many that come with the existential risks of a nuclear reactor having a malfunction,” said Geoff Fettus, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council on nuclear issues.

This week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released staff recommendations for rollbacks in safety inspections for the 90-plus U.S. nuclear power plants and for less flagging of plant problems for the public. Democratic lawmakers and one commissioner expressed concern about the safety risks and urged the commission to seek broader public comment before proceeding.

The country’s nuclear regulators were looking at “far-reaching changes to the NRC’s regulatory regime without first actively conducting robust public outreach and engagement,” Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a letter to Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairwoman Kristine Svinicki.

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Svinicki and two other commissioners did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment made through the agency’s public affairs staff. Public affairs director David Castelveter said the commission would respond directly to lawmakers on Pallone’s letter.

A fourth commissioner, Jeff Baran, spoke out Tuesday, saying he opposed cutting inspections and reducing oversight. Baran called for more public input on proposed rollbacks.

Nuclear regulators post notices of meetings on proposed rollbacks of oversight of nuclear power plants on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission website. Lawmakers complained that there has been scant notice to the public at large about the meetings or proposals.

In general, according to attendance logs, the rollbacks are being hashed out at meetings attended almost solely by commission staffers and nuclear industry representatives. Occasionally, a single reporter or representative for private groups monitoring or opposing nuclear power is shown as attending.

U.S. nuclear plant operators have seen their operating costs rise as the country’s nuclear plants age. Competition from cheaper natural gas and renewable energy sources is increasing marketplace pressure on nuclear power providers, making the financial costs of complying with regulation ever more of an issue.

Korsnick, the head of the industry trade group, said the safety of workers and the public remains the priority.

“Our outstanding performance as an industry is due [to] an exceptional culture of safety at the nation’s nuclear power stations and a strong, independent regulator,” she said in Wednesday’s statement.

Commissioners have been moving more assertively to cut regulation requirements for the nuclear industry under the Trump administration, which has now nominated or renominated all four current members of the five-member board.

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Edwin Lyman, a nuclear safety expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group, pointed to a board move last fall, when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission cut the number of scenarios tested in commission-run mock commando raids at nuclear power plants.

The drills are meant to test whether attackers would be able to reach the heart of a nuclear reactor.

Lyman said the security changes “are jeopardizing public health and safety by restricting the NRC’s ability to ensure that nuclear plants are sufficiently protected against radiological sabotage attacks.”

In January, in one of the comparatively few widely reported changes, commissioners rejected staff recommendations for making nuclear plants harden themselves against natural disasters on the scale of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused meltdowns at three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.

New recommendations by staff made public Tuesday would cut the time and scope of annual plant inspections. They also would change how the commission flags safety issues at plants for the public and for local and state officials.

Some of the changes would be subject to a vote by commissioners.

Greg Halnon, an official at Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp., was one of those complaining at an industry trade meeting this spring about the news media putting “out a headline on the webpage to the world” whenever the regulatory commission released notices of nuclear safety issues.

Some rollbacks pushed by the industry have been rejected by the commission’s staff. Others are still under consideration, including one that would further cut inspections by regulators and allow more self-inspections overseen by plant operators.

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This week’s staff recommendations for rollbacks in government oversight are “just the tip of the iceberg,” Lyman said.


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