It Could Happen Here
By FRANK N. VON HIPPEL*
Published: March 23, 2011
Yet despite the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has often been too timid in ensuring that America’s 104 commercial reactors are operated safely. Nuclear power is a textbook example of the problem of “regulatory capture” — in which an industry gains control of an agency meant to regulate it. Regulatory capture can be countered only by vigorous public scrutiny and Congressional oversight, but in the 32 years since Three Mile Island, interest in nuclear regulation has declined precipitously.
In 2002, after the commission retreated from demanding an early inspection of a reactor, Davis-Besse in Ohio, that it suspected was operating in a dangerous condition, its own inspector general concluded that it “appears to have informally established an unreasonably high burden of requiring absolute proof of a safety problem, versus lack of a reasonable assurance of maintaining public health and safety.”
More recently, independent analysts have argued, based on risk analyses done for the commission, it is dangerous for the United States to pack five times more spent fuel into reactor cooling pools than they were designed to hold, and that 80 percent of that spent fuel is cool enough to be stored safely elsewhere. It would also be more expensive, however, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission followed the nuclear utilities’ lead and rejected the proposal.The commission has even fought relentlessly for decades against proposals — and more recently a Congressional requirement — to distribute potassium iodide pills beyond the 10-mile emergency zones around American reactors, arguing that the probability of a large release of radioactivity was too low to justify the expense. And yet the American Embassy in Tokyo is handing out potassium iodide pills to Americans 140 miles from the Fukushima plant.
Therefore, perhaps the most important thing to do in light of the Fukushima disaster is to change the industry-regulator relationship. It has become customary for administrations not to nominate, and the Senate not to confirm, commissioners whom the industry regards as “anti-nuclear” — which includes anyone who has expressed any criticism whatsoever of industry practices. The commission has an excellent staff; what it needs is more aggressive political leadership.
Or, if it's easier for you, you could always hear Glenn Beck explain it all away:
*Frank N. von Hippel, a nuclear physicist, is a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton and co-chairman of the International Panel on Fissile Materials. From 1993 to 1994 he was responsible for national security issues in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.