Tuesday, May 10, 2011

She Said: A Review of the Zeller Article about the NRC

She Said

As I noted in yesterday's blog post about Japan and the New York Times, the New York Times published an article by Tom Zeller that described the NRC as a practically toothless watchdog:Nuclear Agency Criticized as Too Close to Its Industry.

The article is one-sided and mostly quotes people who are associated with the Union of Concerned Scientist. It is really no surprise that Tom Zeller has left the New York Times and joined the Huffington Post, where this type of one-sided journalism will get more scope. According to news articles about Zeller's switch, HuffPo is probably paying him on the order of $300,000 a year.

I don't think he is about to write a more balanced article about nuclear very soon. His NYT article was all he-said, where "he" was a nuclear opponent.

I guess it is up to me to do the she-said article. I don't have time or resources to be as lengthy as Zeller, but I will make a start. I also recommend Dan Yurman's insightful article on the New York Times Barbeques the NRC.

Zeller's Examples:

Example One: Exelon allowed pipes to get too thin at the Byron plant.The agency did not catch the problem until a worker was cleaning a pipe and he broke it.

My take: the agency definitely should have caught the problem. The description in the article claims that the resulting leak shut the plant down for twelve days. The problem was caused by corrosion in the service water system. Service water causes reliability problems in many power plants.

This is a reason why the agency should have caught the problem earlier, but it is also a reason that Zeller's description of the incident is overblown. "If enough pipes had ruptured during a reactor accident..." That's quite a reach: from service water corrosion to fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Example Two: The NRC hired people in the 1970s. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which developed and regulated nuclear, was divided into two agencies about forty years ago (mid-1970s). One agency, DOE, developed nuclear. The other one, the NRC, regulated nuclear. At that time, many years ago, people in the regulatory group of the AEC were moved into the newly-formed NRC.

In Zeller's article, Peter Bradford said "there wasn't much of a change," because the NRC was started with people from the AEC group. The agency also started off with the rules they had developed in the AEC.

My take: Huh? What did Bradford think they should do? Fire everyone and start making new rules from scratch? The new agency had a new charter without conflict of interest, and it started from the work done by the old agency. Sometimes I think Peter Bradford lives in an alternate reality. He doesn't show much understanding of how things are done in companies and agencies.

Also, forty years ago might be just-yesterday to some people, but not to me. Yes, I am a grandma, but forty years ago is still a long time. Why would the personnel at NRC forty years ago be an issue worth mentioning in an article written this weekend? I guess he couldn't find anything current to criticize, so he decided the break-up of the AEC wasn't done well, and that was an important topic.

Example Three: Vermont Yankee got its license renewal, despite "leaking tritium" and having the vote go against it in the Senate. Lochbaum views the situation with alarm.

My take: My whole blog is about how Vermont Yankee is a well-run, well-regarded plant. Lochbaum asks "How can a plant like that get a license renewal?" Well, because it is a top-performing plant.

I have a question also. My question is "How come only Mr. Lochbaum gets quoted about this plant?"

Mr. Zeller. You could have asked me about this one.

Example Four: Monticello and License Renewal. The problem seems to be that the NRC reviews forward-looking issues for license renewal and sometimes quotes the plant submissions directly in the renewal documents.

My take: Aging-management assessment is the proper assessment for license renewal. Other license issues at a plant are reviewed on an on-going basis. Also, the fact that the license quotes some input from the licensee (a smoking-gun of collusion, in Mr. Zeller's opinion) strikes me as appropriate. Once you get a technical issue written correctly, you should keep using the same wording.

Example Four: Fire-retardant material mandated after the Brown's Ferry Fire is not fire-retardant enough.

My take: The industry adopted two levels of safety in response to one problem. The Brown's Ferry fire occurred in 1975 when a worker was inspecting electrical cabling with a candle, checking for drafts. The first level of safety improvement was to forbid workers to do inspections with a candle! The NRC also required a second level, fire-barriers.

Mr. Zeller says that the new fire-barrier material was not reviewed carefully enough. I am not an expert on barrier material, so I cannot assess this. On the other hand, the change in protocol was the important part. Without candles, there shouldn't be a problem with cabling catching fire.

Example Five: The Davis Besse Reactor Head Inspection. This was a bad situation, where boric acid had eaten at the reactor head at Davis Besse. It led to shutdowns, lawsuits, criminal prosecutions and fines. Millions of dollars in fines.

My take: This was a terrible situation. However, the aspect of the situation Mr. Zeller stresses is that Davis-Besse was able to persuade the NRC to put off an inspection until their next plant outage. I don't think this is fair to the NRC.

At that point, Davis-Besse wasn't inspecting for thinning of the reactor head. (Photo from Wikipedia shows the famous hole-in-the-head.) The plant didn't expect reactor head thinning, and such a thing had never happened before. They were inspecting for cracks in nozzles, and it is quite possible that waiting until the next refueling outage for that inspection was the reasonable thing to do.

I am not saying any of this was good. I am just pointing out that the situation was far from as cut-and-dried as it is presented in Zeller's article. I suggest a recent Dan Yurman post on the history of David Besse.

More examples: At this point, the article is too muddy for me to assess. For example, after pointing out that reactors have been operated more safely in the last ten years (lower levels of worker irradiation, fewer scrams) Zeller jumps back to 1998 to make a point about a budget-cutting move in Congress at that time.

Zeller also has two stories of NRC employees who used to work for industry, or later worked for industry. Neither story seems particularly compelling to me in terms of collusion or revolving doors or whatever. Buried in the middle of all of this is a short piece about how NRC inspectors insisted Duke do more inspections .

At the end of the article, the time-line jumps around and congressional committee squabbles are reported upon as major events. I'm not going to try to review it.


This article is not typical of the New York Times coverage, which usually strives for at least a he-said, she-said presentation of the facts. I am glad to see Mr. Zeller leave that newspaper. We will all be happier when the New York Times stops doing this type of reporting.


Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus said...

"This article is not typical of the New York Times coverage..."

On the contrary, the NY Times is liberal, progressive and Democrat. Maybe Matt Wald tries to be a little more objective about nuclear energy, but as a whole, the NY Times is far to the left of center. Perhaps the former Pravda would alone be more left.

Anonymous said...

Great news about Vermont Yankee! I thought their license was toast.

That Tritium leak was so pathetic. Tritium is a Beta emitter so it is only dangerous if ingested.

It is really hard to ingest Tritium and even if you are perverse enough to do it, the treatment is enjoyable. Beer in large quantities is highly effective.

Bob Stannard said...

Yes, if only the media would stop reporting...

Perhaps your readers/supporters of this site might also be interested in doing a critique of this piece:


Meredith Angwin said...


You said you weren't going to comment on this site any more because it was "useless" to do so. Gosh, I can't believe ANYTHING you say!

At any rate, you did link to an article worth reading. If one reads it carefully, however, one notes that most of the fires were in electrical equipment, and de-energizing the equipment was the main part of stopping the fire. However, the damaged electrical equipment sometimes presented problems for the plant. These are problems that fire-retardant material would not have helped.

The explosions and fires in Japan were also not the sort of thing fire-retardant material would have helped.

The one exception was the hydrogen delivery. You are probably not aware that power plants use hydrogen for cooling the turbines. Like all power plants, the nuclear plant was ready to handle the hydrogen delivery fire.