Why nuclear is unreformable
I am working on an article on the various ways that the global nuclear power industry dies. I will post it here on my blog when it is finished of course, but some of my research in the post-Fukushima meltdown period has been exciting to me as a long time nuclear news tracker. Despite many people’s complaining that the MSM has basically stopped reporting on the ongoing accident, what i see (as someone who is obsessively looking) is that there is a big spike up in coverage. And that while the US has basically gone back to sleep on the topic of new nuclear reactors being built, the rest of the world has been, perhaps unalterably, woken up by this accident.
What is especially useful is the coverage of the structural corruption which exists between nuclear regulators and the utilities they are supposed to watch. On the 25th Chernobyl anniversary the NY Times ran this story on page one. It documents the corrupt relationship between the Japanese nuclear regulators and the state agencies which are supposed to monitor them to keep the population safe.
Specifically, regulators are hired up by the industry when they retire from government work in a practice which is referred to in Japanese as the “accent to Heaven” insuring that they are well paid for their cooperative relationship with the nuclear utility. Similarly, nuclear executives are hired by the government after they leave the industry to help with the task of regulation. Imagine Dick Cheney when he was vice president giving no-bid contracts to Halliburton for the Iraq war while still holding millions in their stock. Except imagine this as a structural situation, rather than just the pinnacle of corruption.
The core of the problem is that nuclear power is tremendously complicated. There are actually very few people who are qualified to be good regulators. So the prudent thing is to hire people with extensive experience in the industry to regulate it. Prudent if you believe they can do it in an unbiased way, which since their current or future personal profits depend on the industry and it maximizing revenue by minimizing expenditures on safety is impossible. The NY Times piece claims that the US has other sources of nuclear expertise so that we are not in the same terrible place. This is a lie.
This article from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting points out why the US suffers from exactly the same problem. My favorite quote from the article is:
“If you still believe that the NRC is a nuclear watchdog, you are probably still sending your money to Bernie Madoff,” said Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear-industry executive turned whistleblower.
The article points out that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not strengthening regulations in light of 9/11 (or likely the Fukushima accident) but is systematically weakening them. There is a split in the NRC in which the technical staff is trying to make reactor operations safer and the senior management blocks and reverses their recommendations in favor of increasing nuclear utilities profits. Why are they doing this? There are a number of reasons. One is that all the money to pay for the NRC actually comes from the nuclear utilities themselves. And while it is not as bad as the NRC commissioners salary is determined by Exelon and Dominion, it is only a short step away from this. The core mission of the NRC is in conflict, it is supposed to promote nuclear power and regulate it. But what if it turns out that the technology is flawed? What if it turns out that you can’t make money building reactors and making them safe? Well then you have to choose. And the NRC has a long history of choosing in favor of nuclear utility profits instead of public safety. The NRC has never turned down an application for a reactor license. Occasionally, they ask for more work to be done on the part of the utility or the reactor builder and sometimes this can be pricey. But if you are persistent and have deep enuf pockets, you will get your permission.
For an excellent article by Karl Grossman on the media’s complicity in poor reporting on nuclear accidents check out this recent article he wrote for the FAIR magazione.
Update 5/9/11: The NY Times has gotten further into the fray by covering the failures of the NRC to regulate the industry it is to close to. On regulators retiring to industry jobs this article notes:
“The N.R.C. is like a prep school for many of these guys, because they know they’ve got a good shot at landing much higher-paying work with the people they’re supposed to be keeping in line,” Mr. Mulley said. “They’re not going to do anything to jeopardize that.”