Twenty-two years ago this week the United States experienced the worst commercial nuclear reactor accident in the brief history of its atomic experiment. That's when the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania experienced a meltdown and spewed an undetermined amount of radiation into the environment and surrounding communities.
Now, the nuclear industry is claiming that it is so "safe" that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should rewrite nuclear safety requirements to reduce the regulatory and financial burden on the industry. Essentially, the industry wants to police itself and allow the agency to step in only when a problem is so significant that it threatens the public health and safety.
Unfortunately, the government already has given the industry much of what it is seeking. The agency has cut the number of inspectors at reactor sites from four to three at sites with three reactors, and from three inspectors to two at sites with two reactors. The agency has slashed by 40 percent its list of safety-related reasons to shut down a reactor and is hard at work to find ways to reduce the remaining 60 percent. This should concern everyone in America. There are 104 nuclear reactors in 31 states, many in highly populated areas. The states with at least half a dozen reactors include Pennsylvania, New York, South Carolina and Illinois. But reactors also put other large states at risk, including California, Texas and Minnesota. Further, the nuclear industry is seizing on the electricity crisis to push to build more reactors.
Most U.S. reactors have passed their 20-year mark, which means they need more oversight, not less. In fact, an internal agency survey published last year showed that almost 45 percent of the agency's regional staff did not believe that reducing on-site inspectors would catch safety performance failures before there was "a significant reduction in safety margins." If agency insiders are worried about agency's hare-brained plan, we certainly should be, too.
Further, a Public Citizen study found that between October 1996 and May 1999, 102 of the 111 reactors then online were operated outside the safety parameters established in their licenses. Clearly, it is unwise to let the industry police itself.
Already, we have seen what can happen when safety rules are relaxed. In the mid-1990s, the agency didn't issue safety rules governing steam generator tubes, as planned. Instead, it decided to rely on the industry to voluntarily monitor the tubes.
But we can't afford to skimp when we're dealing with radioactive materials.
The Arthur Andersen Co., hired by the agency, recognized this in December 1996 when it concluded that "the threat exists that nuclear utilities, in their desire to cut costs and increase competitiveness, will be forced to impair their operational safety and increase risk."
The industry argues that loosening standards is acceptable because there hasn't been a meltdown since Three Mile Island. However, that doesn't prove an operation is safe. So what are we left with? Fewer inspectors, aging reactors and an industry keen on cutting costs. There is no better recipe for disaster. The agency needs to reverse course now, before we face an accident that would cause tens of billions of dollars in damage and cost untold number of lives.
Joan Claybrook is president of Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.