Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Nobelist Suggests an NRC for Big Oil

8Dec_richter The other day, we suggested that the Price-Anderson Act might provide a model for similar legislation for the oil industry in light of the BP spill. It turns out we’re not the only one with suggestions based on the nuclear energy industry’s experience, but unlike Burton Richter, a member of the Department of Energy's Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee, we don’t have a Nobel Prize (yet) and he does, in physics.

And his suggestion is much more ambitious: create a Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the oil industry. In his view, after the NRC was created:

U.S. nuclear reactors went from a typical 60 percent capacity factor to more than 90 percent today, the world's best. U.S. licensing and training requirements are today regarded worldwide as the gold standard. The industry also became more profitable in the years after regulation.

Now, Richter is using a comparison of the oil spill to the Three Mile Island accident, calling them “eerily similar.” That’s about as true as it was of the Exxon Valdez spill, which also occurred after Three Mile Island - that is to say, not much. TMI frightened people, but took no human or ecological toll. Neither can be said of the BP spill.

Regardless, his idea is not bad and we’re certainly in an era of increased regulation. Here’s his conclusion:

Congress should do the same [create an NRC] with oil. Sever the connection between leasing and regulation, including taking regulation out of the Interior Department. This is easy to do because the NRC exists as a model of how to do it.

So there you go. He wrote this as a letter to the Washington Post, so it’s pretty short. Do read the whole thing.


We’re a little dim on comparing the spill to Three Mile Island, but we expect it and the comparisons have gone from thoughtless to thoughtful – Richter makes a valuable suggestion based on it. Here’s just such a comparison –perhaps not as thoughtful – but from an unexpected source:

“It will be a game changer like Three Mile Island,” he said in his first public remarks since the accident on April 20, which killed 11 workers. “We will learn to do it in a better way ... We have to learn from it.”

And who’s he? Carl-Henric Svanberg, the chairman of BP. He doesn’t offer any concrete ideas for what might be learned – beyond avoiding similar accidents, of course. Here’s a little more:

He said that the accident would have far-reaching implications for the oil industry, but that deepwater drilling was essential to feed the vast demand for energy.

Pretty generic, and about what you’d expect an oil guy to say, but at least he’s on the right track. Let the learning begin.


And in the nuclear sphere? Well, the NRC – the one that regulates nuclear energy plants – has taken a look at the procedures used by Vermont Yankee to determine groundwater contamination.

This happens in the wake of increased tritium – irradiated hydrogen - found in the wells at the plant. None was found in wells outside the plant and the drinking water inside the plant was safe. Both Entergy, which owns Vermont Yankee, and the NRC made it clear that there was no danger whatever to the public or plant workers.

Vermont Yankee workers found and sealed the leak causing the contamination, but not before the state legislature voted to close the plant in 2012 (Vermont is unique in being able to not renew the license.) You might call this TMI-in-a-teapot; cooler heads may well prevail before that 2012 shutter date. The New York Times has a reasonable account here.

But anyway, here’s what the NRC found:

“Based on the results of this inspection, the NRC determined that Entergy-Vermont Yankee appropriately evaluated the contaminated groundwater with respect to off-site effluent release limits and the resulting radiological impact to public health and safety; and that [Vermont Yankee] complied with all applicable regulatory requirements and standards pertaining to radiological effluent monitoring, dose assessment, and radiological evaluation. No violations of NRC requirements or findings of significance were identified.”

In other words, Vermont Yankee’s employees did their jobs. And remember, their jobs were to identify the problem, find the leak and seal it without any consequences to the public. And that’s what happened.

As Mr. Svanberg says above, there are certainly lessons to take away from the incident. We’ll be keenly interested to see if the Interior Department’s report on the BP spill will find regulations and rules so diligently followed as in Vermont. We suspect that will be a lesson in itself, with many more to follow.

Burton Richter.


ahmet sinan yurdadoğan said...

nuclear energy very dangerous for innocent lifes. my name is ahmet yurdadoğan and my mother is breast cancer survivor. Since UKRAİN's chernobil plant accident so many innocent peoples effected(especially black sea coast provinces of the Turkey). goverments which have nuuclear weaponns and materials should have big responsibility. Becuase radiasion waves easily reaching other states which have innocent peoples. that is important issue. my english not good i know sory for that sir.

Joffan said...

Ahmet, your comment is not really on topic for this particular blog entry, but I will respond here anyway.

I accept your fears are genuine, but they are not correct. The health effects of Chernobyl in Turkey are tiny, even though the moutains of that northern coast are the first high ground 1500km south of the destroyed reactor. There are many scary stories about Chernobyl on the internet but truth is not a popularity contest. People prefer to have an identifiable cause of their illnesses and Chernobyl is just a convenient label to give to a problem like cancer - which has happened in every age.

I think everyone will agree that nuclear materials of any kind are a significant responsibility for government to regulate. No arguments there.

I'm not sure that I understand your point on radiation waves. Ionizing radiation does not travel far from its point of origin. Radioactive material, like the fire-dispersed core of Chernobyl, can travel, but becomes much less concerning as it disperses. If your mother had radiotherapy for her cancer, you will know directly that radiation is not necessarily a killer.