Skip to main content

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.

Comments

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.

Popular posts from this blog

Knowing What You’ve Got Before It’s Gone in Nuclear Energy

The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

Nuclear energy is by far the largest source of carbon prevention in the United States, but this is a rough time to be in the business of selling electricity due to cheap natural gas and a flood of subsidized renewable energy. Some nuclear plants have closed prematurely, and others likely will follow.
In recent weeks, Exelon and the Omaha Public Power District said that they might close the Clinton, Quad Cities and Fort Calhoun nuclear reactors. As Joni Mitchell’s famous song says, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
More than 100 energy and policy experts will gather in a U.S. Senate meeting room on May 19 to talk about how to improve the viability of existing nuclear plants. The event will be webcast, and a link will be available here.
Unlike other energy sources, nuclear power plants get no specia…

Making Clouds for a Living

Donell Banks works at Southern Nuclear’s Plant Vogtle units 3 and 4 as a shift supervisor in Operations, but is in the process of transitioning to his newly appointed role as the daily work controls manager. He has been in the nuclear energy industry for about 11 years.

I love what I do because I have the unique opportunity to help shape the direction and influence the culture for the future of nuclear power in the United States. Every single day presents a new challenge, but I wouldn't have it any other way. As a shift supervisor, I was primarily responsible for managing the development of procedures and programs to support operation of the first new nuclear units in the United States in more than 30 years. As the daily work controls manager, I will be responsible for oversight of the execution and scheduling of daily work to ensure organizational readiness to operate the new units.

I envision a nuclear energy industry that leverages the technology of today to improve efficiency…

Nuclear: Energy for All Political Seasons

The electoral college will soon confirm a surprise election result, Donald Trump. However, in the electricity world, there are fewer surprises – physics and economics will continue to apply, and Republicans and Democrats are going to find a lot to like about nuclear energy over the next four years.

In a Trump administration, the carbon conversation is going to be less prominent. But the nuclear value proposition is still there. We bring steady jobs to rural areas, including in the Rust Belt, which put Donald Trump in office. Nuclear plants keep the surrounding communities vibrant.

We hold down electricity costs for the whole economy. We provide energy diversity, reducing the risk of disruption. We are a critical part of America’s industrial infrastructure, and the importance of infrastructure is something that President-Elect Trump has stressed.

One of our infrastructure challenges is natural gas pipelines, which have gotten more congested as extremely low gas prices have pulled m…