Preface. After presenting a lot of evidence for why nuclear power plants are inherently unsafe, Jaczko concludes: “There is only one logical answer: we must stop generating nuclear waste, and that means we must stop using nuclear power. You would think that it would make sense to suspend nuclear power projects until we know what to do with the waste they create”.
Jaczko isn’t the first to sound the alarm on the safety of nuclear power plants. There’s also the 128 page report by Hirsch called “Nuclear Reactor Hazards Ongoing Dangers of Operating Nuclear Technology in the 21st Century”, or my summary of this paper at energyskeptic “Summary of Greenpeace Nuclear Reactor Hazards”.
I read this book hoping Jaczko would explain why he shut Yucca mountain down. The 2013 book “Too Hot to Touch: The Problem of High-Level Nuclear Waste” by William M. Alley & Rosemarie Alley, Cambridge University Press goes into great detail about why Yucca Mountain is the ideal place to put nuclear waste.
I have a lot of problems with Yucca being shut down. How is it safer to have 70,000 tons of spent nuclear reactor fuel and 20,000 giant canisters of high-level radioactive waste at 121 sites across 39 states, with another 70,000 tons on the way before reactors reach the end of their life?
Spent fuel pools in America’s 104 nuclear power plants, have an average of 10 times more radioactive fuel stored than what was at Fukushima, most of them so full they have four times the amount they were designed to hold.
All of this waste will harm future generations for at least a million years, all of these above ground sites are vulnerable to terrorists, tsunamis, floods, rising sea levels, hurricanes, electric grid outages, earthquakes, tornadoes, and other disasters.
So Yucca mountain isn’t perfect? Not making a choice about where to store nuclear waste is a choice. We will expose many future generations to toxic radioactive wastes if we don’t clean them up now.
Here is what Jaczko has to say for why he shut down Yucca Mountain:
“There were many technical, political, and safety reasons why the site was not ideal, in fact Yucca failed to meet the original geological criteria. The rock that would hold the nuclear waste allowed far too much water to penetrate; water would eventually free the radiation and carry it elsewhere. In addition safety studies that showed the site to be acceptable were based on infeasible computer simulations projecting radiation hazards over millions of years. Realistically forecasting the complex, long-term behavior of spent nuclear fuel in underground facilities is scientifically impossible. After 35 years, the Yucca mountain project was over.”
Yet Jaczko knows his decision to leave nuclear waste at 121 sites is dangerous:
“As waste piles up, we leave behind dangerous materials that later generations will eventually have to confront. The short-term solution—leaving it where it is—can certainly be accomplished with minimal hazard to the public. But such solutions require active maintenance and monitoring by a less than willing industry. This is already an organizational and financial burden. In 30,000 years when these companies no longer exist who will be responsible for this material?” [my comment: or even 30 years after a financial crash or oil decline]
Thousands of scenarios were modeled at Yucca mountain of every combination of earthquake, volcanic intrusion and eruption, upwelling water, increased rainfall, and much more. Jaczko offers no countering scientific evidence, which I expected to find in his book. Yucca mountain passed with flying colors, here are just a few reasons why:
- Volcanic activity stopped millions of years ago
- Earthquakes mainly affect the land surface — not deep underground storage
- Waste could be stored 1,000 feet below the land surface yet still be 1,000 feet above the water table in an area with little water and only a few inches of rain a year. Rain was not likely to travel 1,000 feet down.
- The entire area is a closed basin. No surface water leaves the area. The Colorado River is more than 100 miles away.
- There’s no gold, silver, or oil to tempt future generations to dig or drill into the nuclear waste.
- The mountain is made of a rock that makes tunneling easy yet at the same time tough enough to form stable walls that are unlikely to collapse.
If Jaczcko’s secret motive was to stop Yucca waste storage so states wouldn’t build more nuclear power plants (6 states won’t allow new plants until there’s nuclear waste disposal), he shouldn’t have worried. The upfront costs to build a nuclear power plant is 4 times an equivalent natural gas plant so banks aren’t going to lend money, no money will be coming in for the minimum of ten years it takes to get permission and fight off lawsuits and NIMBYism, there are uninsurable liabilities, and there are limited uranium reserves left.
And once peak oil production hits, most likely within the next 5 years according to the latest IEA 2018 report, the odds are that we’ll spend dwindling energy on nuclear waste disposal to protect thousands of future generations is nil. That rapidly disappearing oil (at an exponential 6% per year) is going to be spent growing food and wars.
Jaczcko spends a few paragraphs on the hazards of spent nuclear fuel pools and points out that terrorism, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, mudslides, and hurricanes could affect them enough for another Fukushima to happen here.
But if his agenda is to stop new nuclear power plants, he should have mentioned the 2016 report of the National Research Council “Lessons Learned from the Fukushima nuclear accident for improving safety and security of U.S. Nuclear plant” in which it was learned that “If electric power were out 12 to 31 days (depending on how hot the stored fuel was), the fuel from the reactor core cooling down in a nearby nuclear spent fuel pool could catch on fire and cause millions of flee from thousands of square miles of contaminated land, because these pools aren’t in a containment vessel.”
The National Research Council estimated that if a spent nuclear fuel fire happened at the Peach Bottom nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, nearly 3.5 million people would need to be evacuated and 12 thousand square miles of land would be contaminated. A Princeton University study that looked at the same scenario concluded it was more likely that 18 million people would need to evacuated and 39,000 square miles of land contaminated (see my post on this here).
In the worst case, nearly all of U.S. reactors would be involved if there were a nuclear bomb generated electromagnetic pulse, which could take the electric grid down for a year or more (see U.S. House hearing testimony of Dr. Pry at The EMP Commission estimates a nationwide blackout lasting one year could kill up to 9 of 10 Americans through starvation, disease, and societal collapse.
Okay, enough criticizing. Overall this book will interest anyone who is concerned about nuclear power, which comes up a lot now as a potential part of the Green New Deal and a way to provide power without CO2.
Here are some excerpts from the first half of the book, the second half is worth reading too.
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report
Gregory Jaczko. 2019. Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator. Simon & Schuster.
The problem was that I wasn’t the kind of leader the NRC was used to: I had no ties to the industry, no broad connections across Washington, and no political motivation other than to respect the power of nuclear technology while also being sure it is deployed safely. I knew my scientific brain could stay on top of the facts. I knew to do my homework and to work hard. But I could also be aggressive when pursuing the facts, sometimes pressing a point without being sensitive to the pride of those around me. This may have had something to do with why I eventually got run out of town. But I also think that happened because I saw things up close that I was not meant to see: an agency overwhelmed by the industry it is supposed to regulate and a political system determined to keep it that way.
And I was especially determined to speak up after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima in Japan, which happened while I was chairman of the NRC. This cataclysm was the culmination of a series of events that changed my view about nuclear power. When I started at the NRC, I gave no thought to the question of whether nuclear power could be contained. By the end, I no longer had that luxury. I know nuclear power is a failed technology. This is the story of how I came to this belief.
The next step in my nomination, beyond excitedly telling my parents, was to wait. And wait. And wait. And wait. Nominees to commission positions become hostages for leverage in the U.S. Senate, as the confirmation process creates the opportunity for senators to fulfill other related—or unrelated—goals by placing a hold on a nomination until they get what they want. In my case, the confirmation process took two years.
Up until that point, I had been a surrogate for Senator Reid and for Congressman Markey, with very little record of my own. Since both of these legislators had been antagonists of the nuclear power industry for decades, I was guilty by association. With little to go on, the industry had to assume the worst: that my bosses’ views were my views. That triggered relentless opposition from the industry and its standard-bearers in the U.S. Senate.
The blunt message I would get over the next two years of Senate stalling was that honesty and integrity mean nothing if you are perceived to be critical of nuclear power.
Frustrated with the two years of obstruction, Reid decided to place holds on every nominee waiting to pass through the Senate’s approval process—more than three hundred people—until I was confirmed. But even this muscular action—which made for great headlines in Nevada, where Reid was seen as fighting for the interests of the state—was not enough. There was one hold on my nomination he could not get released, that of Pete Domenici. The New Mexico senator was known as “Saint Pete” among nuclear proponents because of his prolific and unflinching support of the nuclear energy and nuclear weapons industries. In the mid-1990s he had made a very simple threat to the NRC: Reduce your intrusiveness by adopting more industry-friendly approaches to regulation, or your budget will be slashed.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversees all the commercial nuclear power plants in the United States. It is part of the family of government agencies known as independent regulatory commissions,
To ensure that each commission has, at least in theory, a diversity of views, no more than three of its members can belong to any one political party.
Each commissioner serves a term of 5 years and the terms are staggered, so one member leaves the commission every year as a new one is seated. These agencies are designed to be independent of but not isolated from the president, whose power comes from the fact that the president chooses each board’s chair. This chair wields tremendous authority,
When I chaired it means having executive responsibility for nearly 4,000 staff members and a budget of over $1 billion. Congress, however, has even greater control than the president over the independent regulatory commissions, because it oversees and funds them.
Because these regulatory commissions wield enormous power over industries like telecommunications, commercial banking, investment, and electricity, the commissioners are often the subject of intense fighting in Washington.
In the case of the NRC, powerful electric utilities strongly influence the choice of commissioners, as they depend on allies on the board for their livelihood; no nuclear power plant can operate without the agency’s approval. For the past several years, this has meant that the NRC’s board has been made up primarily of industry-backing commissioners. Prospective commissioners who might make safety a priority—or even dare to oppose nuclear power—don’t survive the Senate confirmation process.
Although people talk about the nuclear power industry as if it were a monolith, nuclear power is produced by many different companies in many different sectors of the economy. Some of their names are familiar: General Electric, Westinghouse, Toshiba. Most of them make products, plants, and services that create all types of electricity, not just from nuclear power, using a combination of traditional and renewable energy resources.
What all of these disparate electricity producers, suppliers, and distributors have in common is membership in the Nuclear Energy Institute, the lobbying organization representing the industry’s interests.
When it comes to influencing laws and regulations, NEI members have a history of acting as one. This solidarity gives them tremendous influence with Congress.
Killing regulations, or even modifying them slightly, can produce savings of millions of dollars per year in operating costs, equipment purchases, and technical analysis. With millions to spend and a unified message, NEI shapes every NRC regulation, guidance, and policy. In some instances, NEI works through formal channels, commenting on documents produced for the public. In others, it exerts its power through informal meetings with commissioners. In any given month, I could be visited by as many representatives of the industry as I would be by public interest groups across my entire seven and a half years on the commission.
A typical visit from a representative of NEI or a utility company would start at the middle manager level and end with the commissioners. That way, if NEI heard troubling news from midlevel staff, they could raise the issue with one or more friendly commissioners, and actions would be taken. I saw this happen all the time, even though staff members were repeatedly told to not take direction from commissioners or industry executives.
“Health care and energy are the president’s two most important issues. And nuclear power is crucial to his energy program. We don’t need any distractions from that basic goal. So don’t fuck it up.” I took this to mean that I shouldn’t be too hard on the industry because the president needed its support to address his climate change goals.
Although I had already spent more than four years at the agency, I had kept my distance from industry leaders. I knew them and they knew me, but I believed it would be easier to make objective safety decisions if I didn’t get too friendly with them.
Then bigger issues came along. The first arose when I pushed to make good on the president’s promise to end the program to store nuclear waste in Nevada.
No one can design a safety system that will work perfectly. Reactor design is inherently unsafe because a nuclear plant’s power—if left unchecked—is sufficient to cause a massive release of radiation. So nuclear power plant accidents will happen. Not every day. Not every decade. Not predictably. But they will happen nonetheless.
The designers of nuclear facilities would not agree that accidents are inevitable. When building their safety backups, they essentially say, “Whatever you need, double or triple it.” If it takes one pump to move water during an accident, for example, then put in another pump somewhere in the plant. However, this fail-safe setup only reduces the chance of an accident; it does not eliminate it. What if a failure disables both pumps simultaneously? And what about the problems that no engineer, scientist, or safety regulator can foresee? No amount of planning can prepare a plant for every situation. Every disaster makes its own rules—and humans cannot learn them in advance. Who would have thought a tsunami would cause a nuclear disaster in Japan?
Uncertainty about when an accident will happen is exactly why the industry makes the argument for doing nothing. “Why spend billions of dollars to prevent something that might not happen for thousands of years, if at all?” they say. But the accident at the Fukushima plant is a rebuttal to that argument: despite decades of advances in safety systems, reactor physics knowledge, and nuclear plant operator performance, a catastrophic accident shocked most of the world simply by happening. Maybe another accident won’t happen for thousands of years. Or maybe it will happen tomorrow.
Many tried to dismiss Fukushima as a result of Japanese unwillingness to challenge authority. Their engineers simply didn’t push back against the norms that stand in the way of safety, people said. But that same obeisance to the powerful is exactly what I saw at home in the NRC.
When I realized how flawed the safety technology was—not just in Japan but at U.S. nuclear facilities—I decided I would do everything I could to fix it. My determination set up a major conflict between my fellow commissioners and me. Following the Fukushima accident they appeared to me most concerned with preventing the agency from inflicting pain on an industry now struggling to respond to a major nuclear power plant accident in a country far away.
American politicians had long ago been led to believe that these kinds of calamities were no longer possible. And so pressure was placed on the agency—even after the disaster—to do just enough to say safety was taken care of, but not so much that it forced the industry to make meaningful changes. From my prime seat at the most significant contest over the future of nuclear power, I saw the industry and its allies continue to try to thwart even the most basic and commonsense safety reforms.
In hindsight, the Fukushima incident revealed what has long been the sad truth about nuclear safety: the nuclear power industry has developed too much control over the NRC and Congress. In the aftermath of the accident, I found myself moving from my role as a scientist impressed by nuclear power to a fierce nuclear safety advocate. I now believe that nuclear power is more hazardous than it is worth. Because the industry relies too much on controlling its own regulation, the continued use of nuclear power will lead to catastrophe in this country or somewhere else in the world. That is a truth we all must confront.
3 nuclear accidents:
Pennsylvania, in 1979. Three Mile Island
Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union.
2002 at the troubled Davis-Besse nuclear power plant in Ohio.
The problem is that with each new accident, all the people in charge of nuclear safety seemed to revert to the belief that this one would be the last one. As chairman of the NRC I battled nearly every day against this instinct to believe the worst was over. You can prepare for the next accident only if you can get all the players to admit that a next one is coming, even if when and where are impossible to predict.
Three mile island
It started on March 28 at around 4:00 a.m., when a water pump stopped working. The failed pump affected the steam generators, large cylinders filled with many tiny metal tubes that help turn hot water from the nuclear engine into steam so that the turbines can create electricity. When the flow of water was cut off, this massive heat exchange stopped working, creating the conditions for a serious accident. The reactor engine was immediately turned off. But so long as the reactor fuel remained hot (which it would for quite some time), its natural radioactive decay would continue, producing enough heat (called “decay heat”) to melt through the metal containers enclosing the reactor fuel. (This same problem would later affect the Fukushima plant.) The failure of the main feedwater pump was not in and of itself a serious crisis. But the systems responsible for removing the decay heat—and the people operating those systems—did not respond correctly.
As the reactor shut down, the closed cooling system suddenly no longer had anywhere to deposit its energy. This caused a significant spike in pressure in the pipes circulating water to cool the reactor. Plants of this type are outfitted with a large tank of water designed to regulate this pressure; it’s called a pressurizer. Like a bob on a fishing line, the pressurizer water level rises and falls to keep the pressure consistent. When it gets too high, a valve opens to release some of that pressure. During the initial phase of the accident, this safety valve did something it wasn’t supposed to do: it stayed open after the pressure had been relieved. Operators can fix a stuck pilot-operated relief valve, as this pesky component is called. But the people running the plant were let down by their instruments. The control panel, with all its lights, knobs, and switches, told them the valve had closed.
The open valve allowed essential water to pour out of the pressurizer, draining the reactor vessel, exposing the nuclear fuel to air. These hot fuel rods now lacked the necessary cooling to keep from melting.
Seeing the pressurizer appear to go solid—as they were taught to expect—the operators reduced the water in the reactor cooling system. This made the reactor fuel even hotter. As the pressure dropped throughout the system, the immense pumps that circulate water through the plant began to vibrate fiercely. To protect the pumps, the operators turned them on and off, further reducing the heat removal capability of the limited amount of water left in the reactor vessel. The fuel began to melt, releasing a burst of radioactive material into the containment structure.
By evening the reactor’s normal cooling had been restored, but the damage was done.
Outside the walls of the Three Mile Island plant, the confusion was just beginning.
The first signal that something serious might be happening came when a general emergency (the highest level of safety alert) was declared around 7:00 a.m. Because of ineffective communication, however, this alert did not reach the NRC’s regional staff outside Philadelphia for another forty-five minutes. Contacting government officials—even in an emergency—is never easy, and this was before cell phones and text messaging. Since the NRC rarely required power plants to notify the agency about less significant issues, these communication challenges were only now becoming apparent. It would take a few more hours before the White House learned about the situation. Nothing about this communication failure is unique. As I learned in the wake of the Fukushima accident, crises on this scale are often characterized by incoherent communication and conflicting information. Both the Three Mile Island and Fukushima disasters featured contradictory assessments of the state of the reactor, a limited appreciation of the fact that the damage to the reactor had occurred very early, and rapidly changing statements from elected officials. To the public, these statements can appear to suggest prevarication or incompetence. But when government officials—imperfect human beings like everyone else—try to make sense of the complicated physics of a nuclear reactor accident, they will invariably make mistakes in communication
After a general emergency was declared at the Three Mile Island plant, the governor of Pennsylvania, Dick Thornburgh, chose not to execute an evacuation. Although state officials are responsible for such decisions, they rarely have the background in nuclear technology to accurately assess the situation and instead rely on experts at the plant or the NRC, who are also scrambling to understand what is going on. Of course, communication between these disparate groups is never perfect. Elected officials in Harrisburg received updates from the press instead of the plant.
The accident was over, but more than ten years would pass before the plant would be cleaned up. Over $1 billion was spent to recover and dispose of the damaged reactor fuel. The nation may have avoided a nuclear catastrophe, but the costs were high—and Americans had lost confidence in nuclear power.
The Three Mile Island accident exposed serious weaknesses in the control rooms, communication and safety systems, and operations of nuclear power plants, leading the NRC to add or modify countless regulations to address these shortcomings. Control room layouts, emergency procedures, and operations practices were changed. More alerts and information panels dotted the control boards.
The Soviet Union’s nuclear plants were also technologically and operationally different from most in the West, which meant that what went wrong at Chernobyl did not exactly apply elsewhere. While water, for example, performs many of the operational and safety functions in American reactor systems, the Chernobyl reactor relied on graphite, which significantly increased the accident’s radiation contamination. What’s more, the accident read like a handbook of everything not to do when operating a nuclear power plant. Even the most ardent nuclear opponents would have had a hard time believing the people who controlled nuclear plants in the West would be so careless.
Chernobyl was not used as a learning opportunity. The NRC’s final assessment of the disaster found that no changes should be required by American plants. The world’s most significant commercial nuclear reactor accident would have no discernible impact on the nuclear industry in the United States.
Before Fukushima, the most prominent nuclear incident in recent times took place at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant near Toledo, Ohio. As so often happens, Davis-Besse’s problem had begun years before it was finally discovered. The designers of the first wave of nuclear plants had limited experience with the metals and other materials used to build these structures, so some of their choices turned out to perform worse than expected in the high heat, harsh radiation, and extreme chemical environment of nuclear reactors.
Throughout that decade each additional probe into Alloy 600 conditions had identified new physical evidence suggesting the problem was worse than the models and many nuclear safety professionals had predicted. This is one of the more important implications of Davis-Besse: despite decades spent evaluating nuclear reactors, we can always discover new problems that surprise us. This challenges the idea that professionals can ever really know for sure what’s safe when it comes to a nuclear plant.
After the NRC’s first formal notice about the vulnerability of Alloy 600, plants responded in a variety of ways. Some made modifications quickly; others asked for more time. This second approach is typical in the nuclear industry. No issue ever appears to be pressing because there is a mistaken belief that early warnings inside the plants themselves will always preface a major incident. Leaks will appear well before pipes ever break. Inspections will catch cracks before they grow big enough to affect the performance of vital safety equipment. Fires will be caught and extinguished before they can spread. The operators of the Davis-Besse plant shared this complacency.
The issue at Davis-Besse started with the reactor pressure vessel head, which had parts made of Alloy 600. This large steel lid caps the container housing the reactor fuel, making it one of the most important barriers keeping radioactive material out of the environment. Like most barriers in a nuclear plant, the vessel head has openings to allow equipment to access the reactor fuel and measure the status of the reactor engine. One of these penetrations that dot the top of the lid like a series of chimneys was severely corroded. The cause of the corrosion was boric acid, which had leaked through cracks in the Alloy 600. (Boric acid is added to the water used to cool the reactor to help control the nuclear fission process.) The corrosion made the surface of the metal look like popcorn—not a difficult sign to miss.
Indeed the signs of boric acid corrosion are so unmissable that the NRC was confident operators would notice any prospective problem long before it posed a hazard. But at Davis-Besse, if anyone noticed, no one said a word. Earlier in 2001 the NRC had asked all plants to send data on the conditions of parts made from Alloy 600 and the ability of inspection programs to identify cracks long before they became a cause for alarm. This information was due in December. But Davis-Besse delayed responding to the agency’s request. The operators planned to gather the information the following spring, when the plant would shut down to perform routine maintenance.
Worried about the risk of waiting until spring, the NRC ordered Davis-Besse to stop operations.
Subsequent inspections revealed extensive damage: the six-inch steel vessel head had corroded away completely. During the inspection, the chimney-like protrusion where the leak originated toppled over like a domino, hitting the one next to it. The only remaining barrier to the reactor was a thin piece of steel not designed to hold back the pressures that would come during operation. Had Davis-Besse been in operation, a significant accident would likely have occurred.
The incident was a tremendous embarrassment to the industry and the agency. Warning sign after warning sign from inspection after inspection had indicated that there was a leak in the reactor pressure vessel head, yet neither the NRC nor the plant owner took action. While the Three Mile Island accident was the result of a minor equipment malfunction followed by human error, the problem at Davis-Besse was in some ways much more serious. The damage to the reactor vessel was so significant that had the thin steel liner failed, there would have been no easy remedy, no matter what the operators did.
There followed the usual round of hand-wringing, report writing, and penance serving. The Davis-Besse plant owners received a record fine of $5.5 million from the agency and $28 million from the Department of Justice, a pittance compared to the cost of the accident that would likely have occurred. At a time when some nuclear plants were generating profits of nearly $1 million a day, this was hardly a significant penalty. No senior executives were held responsible,
The NRC launched a massive effort, the Davis-Besse Lessons Learned Task Force, to try to prevent this kind of systematic human failure from happening again. The program lasted for more than a decade, well into the time I served on the commission. It is difficult to prevent the kinds of systematic failures that characterized the Davis-Besse accident, especially since the false information provided by the people criminally charged made it harder to identify what actually went wrong.
Fire is one of the biggest hazards inside a nuclear plant. With duplicate and triplicate safety systems throughout, the worst dangers come from events that can take out all these systems at one time—a “common cause failure” in industry jargon. A plant’s maze of hallways and passageways provides an easy environment for heat and flame to sweep through, causing potentially unfixable damage to safety systems. The flames’ most vulnerable targets are the data and power cables that supply information about vital plant systems and make those systems work. In the late 1990s, calculation after calculation by modern computer models confirmed that fire brought the most significant risk of complete breakdown at many nuclear power plants. Yet the industry and the regulators were slow to grasp the importance of these models, so slow that by the time I became NRC chairman in 2009 this issue was still unresolved.
My attempt to improve the ability of nuclear power plants to deal with fires turned into a drama featuring industry foot-dragging, obfuscation, and downright resistance.
Despite their formidable size, the containment structures of many nuclear power plants, designed to corral dangerous radiation in the event of an accident, are punctured by vents and ducts. These penetration points are the weak spots that can undermine an otherwise airtight containment shell. A leak in one of these areas is a significant problem.
The workers were searching for a possible leak in the walls separating the reactor from the public. To determine the location of a draft—which could serve as an escape route for dangerous radioactive material—a technician held a candle up to places where there might be holes and watched to see if the flame wiggled in the slight breeze of outward-flowing air. While performing this low-tech examination, the technician held the candle too close to a nearby cable; its insulation started to burn. Over the next several hours, the fire raced along cables like a fuse on a stick of dynamite in a cartoon, taking out not only many of the safety systems of the reactor where the fire occurred, but also those of a second reactor whose cables shared this spreading room. As the fire burned the plastic insulation coating off the cables, the raw metal wire—now exposed—could easily touch other wires, leading to electrical shorts that disabled vital safety equipment. It took hours for plant engineers and operators to determine how best to arrest the blaze, confusion that wasted precious time and allowed more and more systems to burn. As we all learn as children, water and live electric wires can be a dangerous combination, and so the plant operators feared that water used to douse the flames would react with the exposed wiring of the now-burned cables. Eventually they did use water, and the fire was extinguished, but not before causing significant damage to the plant’s vital systems, despite the fact that the actual fire progressed only a short distance. The primary emergency cooling systems were rendered useless, forcing the plant to shut down for over a year.
The incident alerted the industry and the NRC to the fact that fires could no longer be treated as merely a company problem. They were a public safety threat.
This realization led to a comprehensive rewrite of the agency’s fire safety standards—standards that would then go unenforced for decades.
After the Browns Ferry fire, the agency designed a straightforward approach to safeguard plants against a typical fire that could spread throughout the facility, wiping out many systems. The rules were simple, so simple that I could easily remember and recite them. As the Browns Ferry fire showed, the plant’s most vulnerable elements were the power and control cables that ran throughout the building like nerves in the human body. To address this, the new deterministic rules called for separation: keeping combustibles far away from one another. That way a fire confined to one spot might disable some but not all of the safety systems in a plant. The problem was that not all systems could be separated. Unless plants were going to be completely redesigned to isolate each independent safety system in a separate control room, all the cables for all the equipment would coalesce in one room. This meant that in addition to separating everything that could be separated, you needed a way to prevent fires from spreading in places where you could not achieve separation. So the agency added another requirement: systems that could not be sufficiently separated had to be protected against fires. Either safety systems had to be separated from one another by twenty feet, or the plant had to have each system protected by a barrier that could withstand a nearby fire for three hours, or the plant had to have systems protected by a barrier that could withstand a fire for one hour if there was also a fire suppression and detection system nearby. There was one more requirement too: there had to be an alternate control room in case the main control room was disabled.
In principle, twenty feet of separation between vital safety equipment seems reasonable; if one piece of equipment is fifteen feet away from another, simply move one of them another five feet. But this becomes difficult when the room the equipment is in is only fifteen feet wide. And if the room is locked in like the middle piece in a jigsaw puzzle amid other rooms inside the fortress that is a nuclear power plant, then moving walls to accommodate a greater need for separation is nearly impossible.
So almost as soon as the new fire safety rules were enacted, the industry challenged them in court as unworkable—not to mention a financial burden.
Finally, after years of debate, the courts eventually upheld the rules put in place after Browns Ferry, but only because the NRC promised to be flexible, allowing companies exemptions to pursue alternative approaches to preventing fires from spreading. And so the great fire regulation exemption marathon began. Over the subsequent decades, some plants would have hundreds of exemptions, many of them never even reviewed by the NRC.
Compare, for example, the threat of nuclear disaster with other hazards, like driving a car. Surely, the nuclear power supporters argued, a public that understood they were more likely to die in a car accident than from an accident at a nuclear power plant would come to embrace nuclear technology.
During Senator Pete Domenici’s push to weaken the authority of the NRC in the late 1990s, he advocated for more reliance on voluntary, risk-informed, performance-based standards, shifting the responsibility for oversight from the agency to the industry.
The NRC at the time agreed with Domenici. When I joined the commission in 2005, it was still trying to encourage power plant owners to adopt these voluntary safety standards. Of course, voluntary standards would be accepted only if they worked in the industry’s favor—namely, when they reduced regulation and saved money. In contrast, the new fire protection rules determined by computer modeling would cost money—tens of millions of dollars per plant—making them unattractive to most power plant owners.
It’s worth emphasizing: these were fire safety regulations the nuclear power industry itself had developed. Why was it so difficult to convince them to support their own standards? Because the nation had been living with imperfect fire safety regulations for 30 years. Waiting a little longer couldn’t hurt. Also, it was hard to find safety experts who understood the new cutting edge simulations, another good reason to delay.