Friday, September 16, 2011

UCS and The Politics of Naïveté

ucs_logoSometimes, when you see an attack on the nuclear energy industry, it may have some grain of truth in that a facility did not implement something perfectly or a license application is missing some data.

But when you don’t like something – as in the case of anti-nuclear campaigners – then any perceived flaw proves the industry negligent.

So that’s one thing.

But some arguments just seem willfully naïve – about how the industry works, how NEI works, the NRC, in the hopes that information that is fairly benign is instead shocking evidence of malicious intent.

That brings us to the Union of Concerned Scientists. The group says it’s nominally in favor of nuclear energy – as long as the industry passes a long litmus test devised by UCS to prove its worth. This allows UCS to nibble at the edges in the hopes that enough holes will cause the edifice of the nuclear energy industry to crumble into dust.

The blatancy of the approach is actually rather amusing. Take for example a blog post from the UCS All Things Nuclear blog earlier this week:

The [NRC] document, entitled The Evolution of Mitigating Measures for Large Fire and Explosions: A Chronological History From September 11, 2001 Through October 7, 2009 (Part 1, Part 2), provides an extensive, detailed account of the delaying tactics used by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) to prevent the NRC from enforcing requirements that it imposed on the nuclear industry soon after the 9/11 attacks.

Really? That’s what it shows? Let’s see:

The bottom line revealed in this document is that the NRC issued orders on February 25, 2002 to all nuclear plant licensees to immediately upgrade security in a number of areas by August 31, 2002. Among those areas was Section B.5.b of the order, which required “licensees to adopt mitigation strategies using readily available resources to maintain or restore core cooling, containment and spent fuel pool cooling capabilities to cope with the loss of large areas of the facility due to large fires and explosions from any cause, including beyond design-basis aircraft attacks.”

That’s true. What this is about is section B.5.b. of the NRC’s order, which deals with plant security and the context was the implementation of that requirement in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Naturally, right after the attacks, industrial facilities erected barriers, secured the perimeters of the plants, beefed up security – essentially what was done across many realms of American life after the attacks. The B.5.b. requirements were part of a comprehensive approach by the industry and NRC to enhance security further. So what went wrong in UCS’s view?

However, the lack of specificity in this requirement, including the meaning of “readily available,” led to differing positions between the industry and the NRC as to what, if anything, was actually required by B.5.b. As a result of extensive arguments on these points and others, it took nearly five years before the NRC and NEI came to agreement on what actually was required and how those requirements could be met.

This is partly true, partly not. It didn’t really lead to a disagreement in the sense of the NRC and the industry taking entrenched, mutually exclusive positions. But it’s a good enough word – even the NRC calls it a disagreement. The salient point, though, is that NRC can assert its will even while it works with licensees to ensure it isn’t forcing unrealistic requirements. Here’s what the report itself says:

Industry representatives interpreted the definition [of the B.5.b. rule] more narrowly than did the [NRC] staff, which resulted in a smaller number of required strategies. This continuing disagreement resulted in the NRC’s position that additional actions by licensees were necessary to meet the requirements of the ICM Order, after August 31, 2002, which was the original implementation date for the ICM Order.

In other words, the NRC recognized itself that the phrase “readily available” was open to interpretation. But you’ll note that NRC did not bend to industry’s “narrow” interpretation (remember, NRC is writing this report) but imposed its own, more expansive interpretation. If NEI and the industry were attempting to delay this, they failed rather spectacularly. 

Moreover, all companies that operate nuclear energy facilities implemented the original ICM order on or before August 31, 2002, as required. NRC began inspections in October 2002 and completed them in a year. This became the first phase of an expanded three-phase implementation of B.5.b. Again, there was no alleged attempt to stonewall the commission; it’s hard, based on the report’s narrative, to even posit such an attempt. Phases 2 and 3 of the implementation took more time, but that’s to be expected. Plants are not less safe as a result, and as the initial panic over further terrorist attacks receded, cooler heads prevailed and the plan to implement B.5.b. became more refined.

NEI issued a press release in 2004 that covered the completion of the original phases:

All of the 103 commercial nuclear power plants operating at 64 sites in 31 states have met the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Oct. 29 deadline for implementing more stringent security measures. The NRC in April 2003 issued three security orders that included a requirement that the industry take measures to meet the agency’s new description of the size and attributes of an attacking force against which the industry must be able to defend its facilities.

And gave a list of what the facilities did to fulfill them:

  • increased the size of their paramilitary security forces by 60 percent to a total of 8,000 officers;
  • made substantial physical improvements to provide additional protection against vehicle bombs and other potential terrorist assaults;
  • increased training for security officers;
  • established a rigorous “force on force” mock adversary exercise regime;
  • increased security patrols;
  • added more security posts;
  • increased vehicle standoff distances;
  • tightened access controls; and
  • enhanced coordination with state and local law enforcement.

So even if one didn’t agree with the NRC and NEI and thought that the original order was not as open to interpretation as they did, the orders certainly became more specific as the NRC and the industry came to an agreement over what measures to implement. The industry effort cost more than $1 billion to implement, so it wouldn’t seem that NEI’s “stonewalling” prevented quite a lot of activity on the security front.


Implementing rules and regulations is a process and, in most instances, the industry’s views, UCS’s views, Congress’ views and the views of you and me, if we have any as private citizens, are solicited before rules are finalized. (B.5.b. was admittedly different because it concerned national security and much of the implementation rightfully was safeguarded.)

Here’s how UCS puts it:

Although there is a legitimate interest in protecting information that could be useful to terrorists planning attacks, in our view the NRC cast an overly broad net over information related to nuclear power plant security after 9/11.

Well, so they say. It didn’t really matter what UCS or NEI thought about it. The American government in late 2001 and into 2002 was figuring out how to keep America’s critical infrastructure safe. That infrastructure, including nuclear facilities, had to be kept safe. How much overreach occurred and how much secrecy was too much are arguments for another day.

Still, it was a process and what the NRC document lays out is how that process unfolded.


The UCS post covers some odd items. For example:

The NRC apparently made mitigation of risks to spent fuel pools more of a priority than mitigation of risks to reactors and containment buildings, and reordered the development of B.5.b measures to address spent fuel pools first. The document cites this change as a “response to heightened public and congressional interest in the potential vulnerability of the SFPs. This heightened interest stemmed from the January 31, 2003, paper by Robert Alvarez, Reducing the Hazards from Stored Spent Power-Reactor Fuel in the United States, of which I [Edward Lyman] was a co-author.

You can read the whole Alvarez paper here. But what doesn’t get mentioned here is that the NRC staff reviewed this paper and offered a critique that might be called blistering.

In the first paragraph of the staff paper:

The NRC staff has reviewed the paper, "Reducing the Hazards from Stored Spent Power- Reactor Fuel in the United States," April 21, 2003, Robert Alvarez, et al., (published in Science and Global Security, spring 2003) and concludes that it fails to make the case for its central recommendation.

It gets worse for Mr. Alvarez:

Our review of the paper indicates that it is a deficient study of the hazards associated with the storage of spent fuel. Many of the 114 cited references are NRC studies or NRC contracted studies conducted for a variety of purposes, and most are not applicable to terrorist attacks.

You can read the rest at the link, but NRC staff is nothing if not thorough. Here’s a bit from the summary:

The use of these previous studies, most of them NRC or NRC contractor studies, provides overly conservative and misleading results when assessing potential spent fuel pool vulnerabilities to terrorist events.

Yet UCS has this paper, it has the experience of Fukushima Daiichi – in which the vulnerability of the fuel pools proved to be much less than was originally assumed – and it recognizes that the public hasn’t caught up with how well the used fuel pools actually weathered the earthquake and tsunami that crippled the Japanese facility. So here they are, via an essentially discredited paper.

But you’ve got to use what you’ve got, even if what you’ve got is not very much.

The UCS logo. Rather pretty.

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