Monday, July 7, 2008

Nuclear safety: Regulators must make industry toe the line

Our nation's nuclear power industry and its dance partner, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, have been waltzing around fire safety regulations for nearly 30 years. The NRC, it seems, is afraid of stepping on toes.
The rules were enacted in 1980, five years after a potentially disastrous blaze at a generating station in Alabama exposed the vulnerability of power plants' automatic shutdown systems to fire. If the systems fail to function in an emergency, reactor cores can overheat and nuclear meltdowns can occur.
Federal regulators prescribed a long list of curative measures - automatic fire-suppression systems, fire barriers, flame-resistant wrapping for electrical cables, etc. - to safeguard the shutdown systems. But the cost-conscious industry found portions of the pill hard to swallow. Instead of complying, some power plant operators have continually sought and received exemptions to the rules, or instituted NRC-approved "interim compensatory measures."
The NRC's shortcomings were revealed in a report by the Government Accountability Office, which urged the agency to resolve "long-standing" fire safety issues. NRC officials said they will give the GAO's findings and conclusions "serious consideration." Kind of cavalier, don't you think? The NRC needs to make the industry put its atoms in order, now.
This should be a burning issue, even in Utah, where a nuclear power plant has been proposed. Already, nearly 3 million Americans live within a 10-mile radius of a nuclear generating station, and 125 fires have been reported at nuclear power plants since 1995. Each was a calamity in the making.
And, with the non-carbon industry on the cusp of a climate change-related renaissance - the NRC has received applications for 13 new commercial reactors since November and anticipates 14 more by the end of the year - the need for stringent regulations, aggressive enforcement and strict compliance will only increase.
Nuclear power, due to the risk of catastrophic damage to the environment and public health, plus the high cost of plant construction that is passed along to consumers, is a poor substitute for other clean and green alternative energy sources. But it's going to happen. For it to happen safely, the NRC needs to be the industry's master, not its friend.

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