Environmentalists: Wait for pro-industry nuclear regulator to go

Nearly three dozen groups and individuals — including Friends of the Earth, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Sierra Club Nuclear Free Campaign — are urging the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to postpone two major votes on nuclear waste storage and reactor licensing until after the announced August 31, 2014 departure of Commissioner William D. Magwood.

Lawyers representing 34 national or regional organizations and their leders wrote to NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane stating: “Magwood has created a real and apparent conflict of interest by pursuing and accepting a position with an international agency whose primary purpose is to promote nuclear power, at the same time he serves on a U.S. agency that is dedicated to protection of public health and safety and the environment.”

Magwood is leaving the commission to become director general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency in September, NRC spokesperson Eliot Brenner announced in March.

Magwood, a Democrat who was appointed by President Barack Obama in April 2010, was previously director of nuclear energy at the federal Department of Energy for seven years.

Magwood has supported efforts to reduce NRC’s regulation of US nuclear power plants by moving toward the ‘probabilistic risk-assessment method’ industry officials want to use to predict the probability of a severe nuclear accident.

Experts have said that grounding safety requirements on probabilistic risk assessments — computer models that calculate the probability of various accidents — is unreliable and creates a false sense of security.

Instead of employing only engineering known to be safe, the ‘probabilistic risk-assessment method’ safe-guards against predictable situations based on elaborate guess work.

The problem guessing method suffers from several flaws, according to Nancy Leveson of MIT, who argued that the chain-of-event conception of accidents typically used for such assessments cannot account for the indirect, non-linear, and feedback relationships that characterize many accidents in complex systems.

Guess assessments do a poor job of modeling human actions and their impact on known, let alone unknown, failure modes. Also, as a 1978 Risk Assessment Review Group Report to the NRC pointed out, it is “conceptually impossible to be complete in a mathematical sense in the construction of event-trees and fault-trees … This inherent limitation means that any calculation using this methodology is always subject to revision and to doubt as to its completeness.”

In the case of many accidents, probabilistic risk assessment models do not account for unexpected failure modes.

At Japan’s Kashiwazaki Kariwa reactors, for example, after the 2007 Chuetsu earthquake some radioactive materials escaped into the sea when ground subsidence pulled underground electric cables downward and created an opening in the reactor’s basement wall.

A Tokyo Electric Power Company official remarked then, “It was beyond our imagination that a space could be made in the hole on the outer wall for the electric cables.”

“Severe accidents at nuclear reactors have occurred much more frequently than what risk-assessment models predicted,” wrote M. V. Ramana, a Princeton University physicist.

Among the groups and individual repesented by the call to wait for Magwood to leave the commission were: Alliance to Halt Fermi 3, Beyond Nuclear, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Center for a Sustainable Coast, Citizens Allied for Safe Energy, Citizens Environmental Coalition, Citizens Resistance at Fermi 2, Coalition for a Nuclear Free Great Lakes, Don’t Waste Michigan, Kay Drey, Ecology Party of Florida, Friends of the Coast, Friends of the Earth.

Also repesented were Green States Solutions, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition, Captain Dan Kipnis, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, NC WARN, Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force, New England Coalition, Northwest Environmental Advocates, Nuclear Energy Information Service, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Nuclear Watch South, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Public Health and Sustainable Energy, Riverkeeper, San Clemente Green, San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, San Onofre Safety, SEED Coalition, Sierra Club Nuclear Free Campaign, and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.


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