Community bears nuclear risk, should be heard on easing regulations

As someone who was reporting on Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Waterford in the bad old days, news that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering easing its oversight of nuclear plants leaves me queasy.

In the early 1990s, following in the footsteps of a great Day reporter, Robert Hamilton, who before moving on to the defense beat had done a terrific job exposing problems at the nuclear station in Waterford using public records and information provided by plant sources, I continued to document the serious erosion of safety standards.

(Hamilton, tragically, died suddenly of health issues five years ago this month, after having become a spokesman for Electric Boat. He was 57.)

Environmental records at Millstone were falsified, plant operations were allowed to continue despite equipment problems that eroded the multiple levels of safety backups, employees were intimidated when they tried to point out problems.

The local reporting eventually got the attention of Time magazine, which ran a cover story on the troubled nuclear station in 1996, and that got the attention of folks in Washington. The NRC shutdown all three reactors for an extended period until then owner Northeast Utilities could prove their safe operation. Millstone 1 never restarted, while reactor 2 restarted in 1999 and reactor 3 in 1998.

I offer this brief history review as a reminder that any assurances that the industry can do a good job of policing itself have be viewed with skepticism. It would be in keeping with the Trump Administration’s philosophy that less government regulation is good for business, if not, in this case, public safety.

Granted, while having an operational issue now and again, current owner Dominion Energy has not demonstrated any of the reckless behavior of its predecessor (though, curiously, it dropped “nuclear” from the Millstone Power Station name).

But the government should not base its regulations on the assumption nuclear plants will be run by good actors. And reducing inspections and other requirements now seems like a particularly bad idea, given that nuclear plants are aging and operating well past their originally licensed lives and face stiff financial pressures in competing with cheap natural gas.

Yet a new staff report prepared for the NRC suggests doing just that for the nation’s 59 nuclear power stations, with some, like Millstone, having multiple reactors. Among the changes under consideration is decreasing the review of plant safety programs from once every two years to every three years. There would be fewer mock commando raids to test plant security defenses. Changes with how the NRC identifies problems at plants would lead to fewer issues being flagged as public safety risks.

Edwin Lyman, acting director of nuclear safety programs for the Union of Concerned Scientists, has warned that some of the changes could make it harder to identify a pattern of violations — the kind of patterns that led to the former problems at Millstone being taken seriously.

There may well be legitimate reasons for reforming rules that don’t materially contribute to improved safety. So far, however, the discussion appears to be driven primarily by the less-regulation philosophy of the Republican administration and the input of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s lobbying group.

Last October, Jeff Semancik, director of the Radiation Division of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, did testify to the NRC about the state's concerns. Semancik said the focus must remain on safety, that any regulatory changes should be based on the best science and facts, not industry expedience, and that the point should be to manage risk, rather than accept higher risk as a tradeoff for lower operational costs.

He urged the commission to engage the communities that bear that risk, meaning us. So far that has not been happening.

The Connecticut Nuclear Energy Advisory Council was formed in large part as a reaction to the former scandal that shutdown Millstone. It meets quarterly to get updates about Millstone operations, hear from NRC officials, provide community feedback and advise state officials.

Bill Sheehan, a former chairman and longtime member of the group, said the first he heard about the NRC considering reduced regulations was reading about it in The Day.

“I was surprised and disappointed,” he said, noting that the NRC had not informed the council about potential rule changes, in the works for a year, or seek its input.

Gov. Ned Lamont should pay heed and demand that the NRC conduct a public hearing, with input from the advisory council, here in southeastern Connecticut. As Semancik noted, it is communities such as ours that bear the risk.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

 

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