A national wire story, the first of two, alleges the Nuclear Regulatory Agency has undermined safety at aging reactors. Is it true?
A nuclear engineer with impeccable credentials says not so fast.
On June 20 the Associated Press published the results of a year long investigative report on safety at nuclear reactors in the U.S. It is a major effort by an experienced journalist and will receive wide attention.
Coming on the heels of the Fukushima crisis on Japan, the first of two article contains some strong allegations.
AP's investigative reporter Jeff Donn writes that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has watered down safety regulations in order to keep older reactors like Oyster Creek open beyond 40 years.
The article, with its spectacular allegations, was swiftly picked up by the mainstream media including USA Today along with video and a picture of an example of reactor corrosion.
In a piece titled "Nuke regulator, industry compromise safety to keep reactors running," Donn wrote . . .
"Federal regulators have been working closely with the nuclear power industry to keep the nation's aging reactors operating within safety standards by repeatedly weakening those standards, or simply failing to enforce them, an investigation by The Associated Press has found.
Time after time, officials at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission have decided that original regulations were too strict, arguing that safety margins could be eased without peril, according to records and interviews.
The result? Rising fears that these accommodations by the NRC are significantly undermining safety - and inching the reactors closer to an accident that could harm the public and jeopardize the future of nuclear power in the United States."
(Part 2 of the AP Story focuses on Tritium leaks)
Nuclear expert says not so fast AP
Is all this true? Or is it contrary to what many nuclear professionals know to be the case with regulation of the nation's 104 reactors? I turned to John Bickel, who's impeccable credentials include several decades of nuclear engineering experience backed by advanced degrees in the field.
He has a Masters Degree and PhD in nuclear engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
~ John Bickel, left, attending a meeting of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency in Paris, where he chairs the special working group on Defense in Depth of Electrical Systems (DIDELSYS) ~
I asked Bickel what he thought of the AP article. Here are some highlights of what he said in a series of email exchanges.
Bickel agreed to let me post his personal email comments here. Also, he agreed to let me post his contact information at the end of this blog post so that AP, or anyone else in the media, could contact him for confirmation. Here’s what he said.
"I had hoped for more insight from a prestigious organization such as AP. Their article entitled: “US nuke regulators weaken safety rules” is pretty sloppy and indicative of the fact AP failed to research much of what they have written about."
Point and counterpoint
In the balance of this blog post I will walk readers through a few of the key elements of the AP story and Bickel’s responses. Note that this point and counterpoint section is edited down from a series of emails so it isn’t a complete record of the conversation nor is it a complete review of the AP article. AP’s content is in a dark blue color.
AP states: "Time after time, officials at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission have decided that original regulations were too strict, arguing that safety margins could be eased without peril, according to records and interviews."
Bickel responds . . .
"AP failed to note that a majority of the older regulations were created in an era where there was very limited operating experience - and just to be sure the regulations were made unusually severe. In hind sight some of these regulations were counterproductive because they had too many people focused on the wrong things for too long.
Is there anything wrong with eliminating a regulation that takes time and resources away from real safety issues? This is the equivalent of complaining that the FAA wrongly decided parachutes could be eliminated on commercial airliners because they were not effective in preventing deaths in airplane crashes."
AP states: "Yet despite the many problems linked to aging, not a single official body in government or industry has studied the overall frequency and potential impact on safety of such breakdowns in recent years, even as the NRC has extended the licenses of dozens of reactors."
Bickel responds . . .
"That is an incorrect statement which could have been checked on the NRC website. I suggest that one look at the NRC's web pages that are devoted to equipment reliability trends.
NRC and the industry study trends to identify exactly where things need to be tightened and equipment replaced. Do a search on MSPI (mitigating systems performance index). This is the guts of where statistical trending is focused. The AP article somehow missed all of this.”
AP cites an expert - Demetrios Basdekas
"That's what they say for everything, whether that's the case or not," said Demetrios Basdekas, an engineer retired from the NRC. "Every time you turn around, they say, 'We have all this built-in conservatism.'"
"Last year, the NRC weakened the safety margin for acceptable radiation damage to reactor vessels — for a second time. The standard is based on a measurement known as a reactor vessel's "reference temperature," which predicts when it will become dangerously brittle and vulnerable to failure. Over the years, many plants have violated or come close to violating the standard."
Bickel responds . . .
“I knew Mr. Basdekas. I worked with him when he was at NRC, and a few things should probably be pointed out that have been omitted when AP labeled him as an "expert".
He came to NRC from the Nevada Test Site where he had worked on instrumentation for monitoring nuclear weapons tests.
Basdekas later became concerned about "pressurized thermal shock in reactor vessels" which is a subject area that he had no technical competence or training in.
This issue was also studied and resolved technically by folks who understood the subject matter at hand.
One might question how a man with primary training in "instrumentation and controls" (e.g. electronics) would suddenly become an "expert" on metallurgy and neutron embrittlement. “
“The AP reviewed 226 preliminary notifications - alerts on emerging safety problems - issued by the NRC since 2005. Wear and tear in the form of clogged lines, cracked parts, leaky seals, rust and other deterioration contributed to at least 26 alerts over the past six years. Other notifications lack detail, but aging also was a probable factor in 113 additional alerts.”
. . .
"By the standards in place when they were built, these reactors are old and getting older. As of today, 82 reactors are more than 25 years old."
Bickel responds . . .
"What AP failed to note is that these plants are continuously being upgraded and older components replaced -- when their costs to repair exceed the costs to replace. Examples include: replacement of steam generators, piping, pumps, valves, batteries, cables, instrumentation and controls, steam turbines, transformers.
The reason is very simple and AP failed to understand it: It is far easier to replace and upgrade an existing nuclear plant than to find a new site, license it, and build a new one.”
"In 2001, the Union of Concerned Scientists, which does not oppose nuclear power..."
Bickel responds . . .
“The AP statement is incredible. Have you ever seen one of the UCS's fund raising letters? Since its founding the UCS has opposed all things nuclear. Find one instance where UCS has ever supported anything with the word nuclear attached to it. “
Bickel also asks whether AP applied any common sense to risk assessment?
"Now I might ask a question: All energy production involves risks to the public (explosions, release of toxic chemicals, high pressure steam/gas, electrical, fires, etc).
Certainly locating, transporting, and burning of natural gas has some risks (including the release of radium from the hydro-fracturing process). If one focuses all attention on "nuclear" while systematically ignoring equivalent hazards with all other energy sources -- what is the net effect to society?”
Bickel closes with this comment.
“The AP has systematically ignored the environmental damage and public safety risks from the burning of coal and natural gas. These sources of energy regularly kill members of the public and damage the environment.”
For more information contact:
John H. Bickel
Evergreen Safety & Reliability Technologies, LLC
28559 Cavan Lane
Evergreen, Colorado 80439
GSM Mobile +1(303) 359-9664
# # #