Sunday, May 8, 2011

The NRC, Japanese Regulators, and the New York Times

In a blog post in late March, I suggested that the nuclear regulators and the nuclear industry in Japan might have a relationship that was too cozy. I contrasted this with the adversarial relationship between the NRC and the nuclear industry in America. I stated my thoughts about Japan tentatively, because I didn't want to bash the Japanese industry while they were having so many problems.

Japanese Regulators

Later articles about the Japanese regulators have confirmed my comments. Time Magazine described Japan's regulatory role as promoter (of nuclear power) and regulator (of nuclear power) as a conflict unusual in the nuclear world. In America, those two functions were split forty years ago: the Department of Energy develops nuclear power and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission NRC regulates its safety. On April 27, the New York Times described a Culture of Complicity in Japanese nuclear industry regulation, including earlier scandals.

Nuclear bloggers come to the same conclusions as the mainstream media. Gail Marcus is a former president of the American Nuclear Society and has served in many national and international nuclear agencies. She spent several months working in Japan on regulatory matters. In her blog post, Fukushima and Amakudari, a Problem with a Long History, she discusses the amakudari system in Japan, where regulators are funneled into high-paying jobs within the industry when they leave the regulatory world. The agencies they work for help place their employees into industry jobs. This system is bound to lead to regulatory indulgence. Marcus ends her post with the comment: Many people feel that Chernobyl helped to topple the old Soviet Union. It would be fitting for Fukushima to topple amakudari.

The NRC and Inspection

As the New York Times Culture of Complicity article pointed out:
In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission....can choose from a pool of engineers unaffiliated with a utility or manufacturer, including those who learned their trade in the Navy or at research institutes like Brookhaven or Oak Ridge.

In a blog post at the American Nuclear Society Nuclear Cafe, I described the extensive scrutiny of nuclear plants given by the NRC. The NRC gives each nuclear plant 5000 hours a year of technical inspection. Many more hours are spent if the plant applies for an extended license. I compared the NRC inspections to the confused work (lack of reliability due to tritium leaks which never caused the plant to go off-line?) of the politically-appointed Public Oversight Panel (POP). The POP was appointed by the Vermont legislature to investigate Vermont Yankee.

The New York Times and the NRC

Yesterday, however, the New York Times published a long article describing the NRC as a practically toothless watchdog, an agency in league with the industry it regulates. This article, Nuclear Agency Criticized as Too Close to Its Industry, includes a front-page picture of the cooling tower collapse at Vermont Yankee. The cooling towers are not safety-related equipment and were never part of the NRC inspections. Whatever you say about the cooling tower problems, they have nothing to do with the NRC, but they are front-and-center in this article.

This New York Times piece was written by a Tom Zeller, a NYT reporter covering Alternative Energy and Green Business, not by the Times reporter, Matt Wald, who has covered the nuclear industry for years. Wald can be a harsh critic, but he is always knowledgeable and even gives an on-line course in nuclear energy.

Dan Yurman has an excellent blog post on the Zeller article, NYT holds BBQ at NRC. Yurman points out that Zeller mainly interviewed people who are well-known for their anti-nuclear bias: Lochbaum at Union of Concerned Scientists and Peter Bradford of Vermont Law School. Zeller also interviewed George Mulley, a former NRC employee who feels that the agency doesn't assess enough fines. The article has only a short quote from Marvin Fertel of NEI defending NRC. That quote is nearly at the end of the long article.

Zeller does include this statement, though it is completely unexplained:

For all the agency’s shortcomings as a regulator, even the most vocal critics acknowledge that it should not be compared to the Minerals Management Service, the scandal-plagued agency that oversaw the oil and gas industry and was reorganized by Mr. Obama after the BP oil spill last year.

Well, that's nice. Perhaps Zeller could have explained why even the critics say it "should not be compared." Perhaps because President Obama used the NRC as a model agency when re-organizing the Minerals Management Service? A few more words on this might have led to a better article, with a little more perspective.

He Said, She Said

I usually don't like articles to be "he-said, she-said." However, when I read this article, I suddenly saw the virtue of quoting both sides of the story, even when the reporter doesn't try to make sense of their differences. Zeller could have quoted both sides. He didn't.

His article is more of an opinion piece than any attempt at solid reporting.

Looks like She Said will be up to me. Tomorrow.

1 comment:

Travelogue for the Universe said...

Biased reporters will cause their own undoing as more people wake up. Citizen reporters will take center stage in the new world order. We must speak up for sensibility and true science. Nice job.