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April 26, 2013
Suffolk Closeup: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is inviting catastrophe
Suffolk County had a lot to do with the formation of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has just undergone an organizational meltdown. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko resigned after having been the target of fierce nuclear industry pressure.
The NRC was set up in 1974 when Congress abolished the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission after deciding its dual missions of promoting and regulating nuclear power were a conflict of interest. The AEC was replaced by the NRC to regulate nuclear power. A Department of Energy was created to advocate for it.
Congress acted after AEC hearings were held between 1970 and 1972 in Suffolk on the Long Island Lighting Company’s application to build a nuclear plant in Shoreham. It was to have been the first of seven to 11 nuclear power plants in the county.
Lester Wolff, the only Long Island congressman then against Shoreham, attended the hearings and also testified at them, saying the plant “would be a colossal gamble with the health of future generations.” He was outraged by the AEC judges at the hearings, who were zealous in supporting Shoreham. “It was clear that the culprit and the cop were the same person,” he told me later.
“These people just treated the whole question of radiation in such a cavalier fashion that this could no longer continue.” He worked on a bill to break up the AEC and got other members of Congress involved.
Although the AEC was eliminated, its pro-nuclear culture continued on at the NRC. Indeed, neither the AEC nor the NRC ever denied an application for a construction or operating license for a nuclear power plant anywhere, anytime in the U.S. The NRC has been accurately called a rubberstamp for the nuclear industry. “NRC stands for Nuclear Rubberstamp Commission,” says Kevin Kamps of the organization Beyond Nuclear.
Since the Fukushima accident began to unfold on March 11 of last year, Dr. Jaczko, who has a Ph.D. in physics, has called on the NRC to recognize and incorporate in its rules and actions the “lessons learned” about the disaster. As he said when the NRC voted 4-1 in February to approve construction of two nuclear plants in Georgia — the first OK for new nuclear plants in the U.S. in decades: “I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima had never happened.”
Importantly, last week came news of a report by Europe’s noted Max Planck Institute that the Fukushima and 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disasters weren’t isolated occurrences. Accidents of their severity can be expected every 10 to 20 years, the institute predicted.
But the nuclear industry and NRC are in denial. Over Dr. Jaczko’s objections, the NRC has not only been licensing new nuclear plants but letting most of the existing 104 U.S. nuclear plants run 20 years beyond their original limit of 40 years. Radioactivity makes metal brittle and otherwise causes safety problems.
And this week at its headquarters, the NRC is to meet with DOE and industry representatives to consider allowing nuclear plants to run for 80 years. Consider the reliability of an 80-year-old car. Meanwhile, the NRC also has been allowing plants to be “uprated” — tweaked to produce more electricity than they were designed to generate by running them hotter and harder than first planned.
Shoreham was stopped in the face of solid opposition on Long Island and LILCO abandoned its plans to build more plants. The state created the Long Island Power Authority to use the power of eminent domain to eliminate LILCO as a corporate entity if it persisted with nuclear power.
But we are surrounded by nuclear plants: Millstone in Connecticut; Indian Point north of New York City; Salem and Oyster Creek along the New Jersey coast. The NRC has now OK’d most to run for 60 years and to be “uprated.” Next could be 80-year licenses.
The NRC is inviting catastrophe. The Associated Press, after investigating records and interviewing “engineers who helped develop nuclear power,” concluded last year: “Reactors were made to last only 40 years. Period.”
“In a post-Fukushima world, the NRC has no case to renew life-spans of old, danger-prone nuke plants. Rather, they must be shut down,” says Priscilla Star of Montauk, director of the Coalition Against Nukes (coalitionagainstnukes.org).
The NRC, like the AEC, should be eliminated — and, indeed, every nuclear plant in the U.S. should be shut down. In Suffolk, we’ve done fine without nuclear power. Nationally, it provides just 20 percent of electricity. It could be substituted by electricity generated through safe, clean, renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind power, technologies that don’t threaten lives.