America can’t afford to ease up on nuclear safety


There was a brief scare earlier this week from the part of the world that gave us the Chernobyl nuclear disaster nearly 30 years ago, In the Ukraine, a strife-torn nation where good information is often in short supply, officials announced there had been an accident at one of the country’s nuclear power plants. It was only later that more information emerged that, at least according to the government, there was no danger of a radiation leak:

An accident at a Ukrainian nuclear power station that forced the shutdown of a 1,000 megawatt energy unit presents no threat of nuclear leak, the country’s energy minister has said.

The accident at the Zaporizhia nuclear plant, in the east of the country, came to light on Wednesday when Ukraine’s prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, upbraided the country’s newly appointed energy minister over power supply problems.

Still, the story is yet one more reminder that nuclear power’s grip is a fragile one. In Chernobyl, officials announced last week the first black bear sighting there since the 1986 accident, an echo of that disaster’s massive impact on the environment. And I don’t need to remind you of the ongoing crisis in Japan, where workers continue to struggle to bring radioactive leaks under control at the Fukushima nuclear plant, where the surrounding region is no where near recovered.

Here at home, much of our nuclear grid consists of aging plants built a half-century ago or more, and some of our facilities — like coastal California’s two operating nuclear plants, not far from a major earthquake fault lines — are poorly sited, to say the least. In other words, this is not the time to be easing up in our regulatory oversight of the American nuclear industry. But with the new,  more-pro-industry Congress looking to assume control, it seems as if that is exactly what is happening:

WASHINGTON — Sen. Barbara Boxer is about to give up leadership of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane has already announced that she’s leaving that post. But none of that decreased the intensity of their battle Wednesday.

Boxer, D-Calif., will be in the minority in the 2015-16 version of the Senate and will cede her chairmanship of the committee to Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. In doing so, she will lose much of her leverage to press issues she has with the nuclear regulator — including documents that the commission has refused to turn over in response to her demands and those of Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass.

But she’s not done yet. On Wednesday, Boxer took her final shots at an agency — and by extension an industry — that she has bedeviled for years with demands for transparency, accountability and action.

Boxer sparred with Macfarlane on a variety of topics:

•On the nuclear commission joining with Russia to block a European proposal to mandate retrofitting of reactors to withstand severe earthquakes: “You teamed up with Russia to block a safety proposal … and it’s disturbing to me.”

•On what she sees as the agency’s lack of progress in improving U.S. nuclear safety after the Fukushima disaster: “The NRC task force made 12 recommendations in July 2011. July 2012 passed. July 2013 passed. July 2014 passed. And there isn’t one of these recommendations that’s in place.”

•On the continued operation of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant operation despite a senior NRC inspector’s recommendation that it be shut down until seismic upgrades can be made: “It’s not in dispute that PG&E is not in compliance with their license. … Why didn’t you listen to your own inspector?”

It’s hard to imagine how these issues will be solved favorably with Republicans now in control of the Senate. It should be noted, however, that President Obama has two more years in office, and he can accomplish a great deal by regulatory powers. But that would mean a more environmentally conscious outlook from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the other agencies that oversee American energy policy. Hopefully, the public can apply more pressure to the White House to do exactly that. In Japan, we’ve already seen what failure looks like.

Read more about this week’s nuclear scare in the Ukraine:

Check out SFGate’s report on Sen. Barbara Boxer and Senate oversight on nuclear power issues:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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