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Thursday, July 14, 2011 12:15 pm

How safe is U.S. nuclear power?

John W. Kindt, a U of I business and legal policy professor, is an expert on environmental law who has studied the regulation of nuclear power since the 1970s. He discusses the future of nuclear power in the U.S. with News Bureau Business and Law editor Phil Ciciora.

The head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently declared that the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant in Nebraska is now safe from Missouri River floodwaters. We also heard a lot of upbeat talk from government officials in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. How concerned should we be about the safety of Fort Calhoun and the rest of the U.S. nuclear power infrastructure?

I think we should be concerned about the way the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been approaching all of these types of issues, as well as the industry itself. We need to grow our nuclear power industry, simply because we need the energy. But too many safety concerns seem to have been ignored by the agency.

With respect to the Fort Calhoun plant, they really dodged a bullet in that the plant was already shut down for other reasons. But there’s really no excuse for the plant to be this close to a problem, especially since they experienced similar flooding back in 1993. Granted, they have made some safety upgrades since then, but they shouldn’t be this close to another problem. And if this were an operating nuclear plant – that is, if the nuclear reactor were producing energy – there would be some serious concerns about what might happen.

With nuclear power, it only takes a minor error to create a major problem, and that should be a concern for all of us.

Why have some companies been increasingly lax with public safety? Is it because the money spent on safety would otherwise eat into profits, or have regulators just not been tough enough with them?

I would say both. The problem is, you have a short-term cost-savings that can then translate into a huge long-term economic problem. The best example of that is the Department of the Interior’s regulation of the BP oil spill. Here you take some short-term cost-saving measures at the expense of safety. Well, in the long-term, you’re going to lose, not only everything you’ve saved, but perhaps the entire company.

But the greater concern should be with the bloated NRC, because they are not adequately monitoring the safety concerns. The commission, like a lot of other government agencies over the last 40 years, has been growing exponentially – even though the nuclear power industry itself hasn’t been growing since the Three-Mile Island incident in 1979.

That was the wrong thing to happen, because now we have all of these aging nuclear power plants, and 75 percent of them are leaking tritium into the groundwater. We’ve also lost the continuity of how to upgrade the older plants. We don’t have an industry that knows how to upgrade what’s been aging for the last 40 years. The plants were only built with a lifespan of 40 years, so now what? The NRC has been turning a blind eye to the red lights that have been flashing – they’re kicking the can down the road or lowering the standards that have been around for 40 years. They’ve been relicensing these aging nuclear power plants. There’s been no independent watchdog or auditing for what’s been going on. They’ve lost the managerial oversight that they should be exercising.

Is it unrealistic to expect a problem-free world when it comes to energy?

Problems are always going to happen. Both industry and government know that, and they should be prepared to address it. That’s what regulatory government is for. They’re called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission – but they’re not regulating. And that hurts the industry, our energy policy and the public.

To contact John W. Kindt, call 217-333-2177; email jkindt@illinois.edu.
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