Thirty years ago, Americans stood in shock watching unfold what had been officially deemed by federal officials as "incredible"—a major accident at a nuclear power reactor. Americans watched their fellow citizens flee their homes and businesses in panic, watched as regulators and utility employees tried to address the accident, watched and tried to understand why poisonous radiation was being released into the atmosphere when they had been told such an outcome was impossible.
The accident at Three Mile Island was a watershed moment in American history. It is perhaps difficult for people who did not live through it to understand just how momentous the event was. People throughout the country realized their government had been lying to them: that nuclear reactors could in fact—just like the movies said—cause severe disruption and possibly destruction across large parts of our country; and, just as many Americans feel today about the breakdown in regulation that is in no small part responsible for our economic crash, that the regulatory system they had counted upon to protect them had failed.
Thirty years after Three Mile Island, unfortunately, not much has changed. Indeed, the regulatory system intended to protect Americans from the inherent dangers of nuclear power has become more lax and complacent than ever. A very brief aggressive period of regulation immediately following the accident, which brought about a Three Mile Island Action Plan that resulted in numerous improvements to nuclear reactors, has long since been replaced by an attitude that not only allows, but encourages a regime of self-regulation by the nuclear industry; that is sluggish to respond to demonstrated safety issues; that is encouraging licensing of new reactors at the expense of meaningful safety reviews and public participation; and that will, inevitably, lead to another Three Mile Island—or much worse..
This laxness and complacency on the part of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) manifests itself in a myriad of ways, each disturbing on its own: together they are potentially catastrophic. Aging reactors are subject to cursory oversight and inspection even while the NRC expends great resources on efforts to prevent public and governmental participation in nuclear reactor license extension proceedings. Major safety issues, such as fire protection at reactors, are allowed to fester and remain unresolved for years—even decades--as the nuclear industry searches for ways to reduce regulatory requirements and meet remaining requirements in the cheapest manner possible, regardless of public safety concerns. Basic security issues, such as providing adequate protection against potential terrorist attacks or sabotage are given short shrift by the NRC, even while the agency ignores existing laws such as that requiring distribution of potassium iodide as a precautionary measure for people living near nuclear reactors.
Rather than thoroughly evaluating new reactor designs, as envisioned by Congress when it enacted 1992 legislation establishing a new reactor licensing process encouraging the use of standardized, pre-certified reactor designs, the NRC is bowing to nuclear industry pressure and attempting to approve reactor designs at the same time it is attempting to approve Construction/Operating Licenses (COLs) for new reactors using those as-yet unapproved designs. The result is insufficient evaluation of reactor designs, inadequate understanding of how designs interact with specific proposed reactor sites, substantial difficulty for the public and governmental agencies to effectively participate in the reactor licensing process, and ultimately, a licensing process that will not meet NRC or utility goals of predictability and certainty, nor Congressional goals of improved reactor safety. Instead, we have a process that will likely result in reduced safety, less certainty for utilities, and, in most cases, are likely to be finally decided in federal courts rather than NRC administrative processes.
From a public participation perspective, NRC actions over the past two decades have only made meaningful public involvement—including that of state and local governments—close to impossible. Yet these restraints are not resulting in a commensurate increase in safety margins. Indeed, the opposite is the case. We recognize that there is a substantial minority in Congress who believe there should essentially be no public participation in reactor licensing or re-licensing proceedings. We reject this notion categorically. Public participation has never resulted—in the entire history of the Atomic Age—in the rejection of a single license application for a new reactor. But effective public participation has played a major role in exposing and correcting major safety defects at nuclear plants and is continuing to do so—despite enormous obstacles—at exposing safety deficiencies in the licensing and re-licensing of nuclear reactors, as demonstrated vividly at Oyster Creek, New Jersey, for example.
Organizations currently intervening in NRC licensing and license extension proceedings represent millions of Americans concerned about nuclear power issues. We are on the front lines: spending a great deal of time, money and effort to improve nuclear safety, to challenge what are too often mere assertions in utility license applications, attempting to improve the NRC’s regulatory approach. We are frustrated with decades of NRC indifference and hostility toward even modest efforts to improve nuclear safety and regulatory transparency.
Some initial recommendations for reform are pretty easy:
President Obama should:
*quickly appoint a new chair of the NRC
*quickly appoint qualified individuals with a commitment to public safety and public participation to open seats on the NRC
*initiate oversight hearings on the licensing process for new nuclear reactors. Is the NRC’s Part 52 licensing process working the way Congress intended? Should reactors be licensed before reactor designs are completed and/or certified?
*initiate oversight hearings on the license extension process for existing reactors. Is it really good public policy, for example, to deny a hearing on every issue that might be generic—i.e. apply to more than one reactor—just because it may be generic? Doesn’t that mean the issue is never considered anywhere?
Some other recommendations have wide support in the intervenor community:
- NRC pre-emption of local and state jurisdiction should end;
- The NRC’s Waste Confidence Rule is outrageous and unscientific and should be revoked;
- "Reference man" must be retired as a radiation protection standard and replaced with standards that are protective of the most vulnerable victims of exposure (Reference Embryo);
- The Price Anderson Act is no longer necessary. Nuclear reactor licensees should pay for their own liability insurance up front, just like citizens and other businesses have to;
- A Citizen Advocate should be seated on the NRC.
Thirty years after Three Mile Island, 35 years since the NRC was formed to break up the perceived nuclear industry influence of the Atomic Energy Commission, we find ourselves having come full circle. Like the AEC before it, the NRC has become the captive of the industry it was created to regulate. The system is broken, it must be repaired.
Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Takoma Park, MD
Public Citizen, Washington, DC
Beyond Nuclear, Takoma Park, MD
Coalition for a Nuclear Free Great Lakes, Monroe, MI
Don't Waste Michigan, Holland, MI
Citizens' Resistance at Fermi Two, Monroe, MI
South Carolina Chapter, Sierra Club, Columbia, SC
San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, San Luis Obispo, CA
Grandmothers, Mothers and More for Energy Safety (GRAMMES), Normandy Beach, NJ
Citizens Awareness Network, Syracuse, NY
Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Glendale Springs, NC
Sustainable Energy & Economic Development (SEED) Coalition, Austin, TX
NC Waste Awareness & Reduction Network, Chapel Hill, NC
No Nukes Pennsylvania, Wilkes Barre, PA
PHASE (Public Health and Sustainable Energy), Spring Valley, NY
Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Poughkeepsie, NY
Susan Zimet, Ulster County Legislator, Nepals, NY
End note: you can hear a great radio program (Voices from Three Mile Island) first aired on 65 public radio stations on TMI’s 1st anniversary, plus watch the original CBS News with Walter Cronkite reporting on the accident, and read March 24, 2009 Congressional testimony by Peter Bradford, who was an NRC Commissioner during TMI, by going here: http://www.nirs.org/...
And you can find lots of information on the accident and its 30-year aftermath at Three Mile Island Alert’s website at http://www.tmia.com