John Sullivan

NRC panel calls for safety upgrade after Fukushima

Last month, we reported on the widespread deficiencies found in the procedures and equipment the country’s 104 commercial nuclear reactors are supposed to rely on in the event of a catastrophe like the one that hit the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant in Japan.

This week, a special task force of Nuclear Regulatory Commission experts proposed to do something about those problems and other safety issues raised by the Fukushima disaster, where the fuel in three reactors melted down and an unknown amount of radioactive materials escaped into the surroundings.

The NRC’s Japan Task Force said that U.S. nuclear plants are safe but called for potentially sweeping and costly changes to protect against catastrophic events like earthquakes and long-term blackouts.

The panel’s 83-page report calls for upgrades at many plants and broad revisions to what it called a “patchwork” of NRC regulations governing catastrophic events that need to be streamlined.

Groups ranging from nuclear industry representatives to nuclear power critics and regulators cautioned that the NRC report is only the first step in what will almost certainly be a long process of adopting lessons from the Fukushima disaster, where three reactors partially melted down.

“We have a lot of work in front of us,” said Tony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer for the nuclear industry’s trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute. The watchdog group Union of Concerned Scientists also on Wednesday released its own set of safety recommendations in light of Fukushima’s experience.

“If a U.S reactor were faced with a similar challenge, maybe not the exact combo of earthquake and tsunami, but some other natural disaster or human error, it’s unlikely that the story would have a happier ending,” David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who works with the group, said in a statement.

ProPublica has been tracking nuclear safety issues since the March disaster, including the risk posed by spent fuel pools and the results of NRC inspections that found flaws of varying severity with emergency equipment and disaster procedures at all but five of the 65 U.S. reactor sites.

The NRC Task Force, launched in April, is scheduled to present its report to the five-member commission on July 19. Among the 12 main recommendations:

The Task Force also called for a broad reworking of NRC regulations governing preparation and response for major disasters that can cause damage exceeding the design limitations of a plant.

The current system reflects NRC’s piecemeal reaction to disasters, such as the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island and the threat of a 9/11-style terror attack, over several decades, the report said. It should be replaced, the task force said, with a streamlined and “coherent regulatory framework.”

Release of the report Wednesday touched off immediate debate about whether new rules would mean costly upgrades for nuclear companies and only a marginal safety benefit.

“Done poorly, they could significantly increase costs in the current operating fleet without improving safety one iota,” Margaret Harding, an industry consultant, told Reuters. “Done well, and they will get at the real issues, eliminate the vagueness in the regulation, and improve safety.”

Pietrangelo, of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said the companies expect there will be costs involved but that it was “way too early to speculate.” He said nuclear companies already are mining the lessons from Fukushima and working on plans to extend their plants’ ability to operate during a blackout.

Ed Lyman, an expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, called the Task Force’s recommendations “a good first step” but said the real test would be whether the commission follows them. “The devil is in the details,” he said. “We are taking a wait and see approach.”

Among other things, the UCS recommended that NRC extend the scope of its regulations to cover extreme, low-probability events; strengthen emergency planning; require plants to transfer spent fuel from storage pools to dry casks after five years; and bring all plants into compliance with fire rules.

This story appeared originally at ProPublica

Nuke plant inspections find flaws in disaster readiness

A special inspection of U.S. nuclear plants after the Fukushima disaster in Japan revealed problems with emergency equipment and disaster procedures that are far more pervasive than publicly described by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a review of inspection reports by ProPublica shows.

While the deficiencies don’t pose an immediate risk and are relatively easy to fix, critics say they could complicate the response to a major disaster and point to a weakness in NRC oversight.

The NRC ordered the inspection in response to the March earthquake and tsunami that crippled Fukushima’s reactors. The purpose was to conduct a fast check on the equipment and procedures that U.S. plants are required to have in place in the event of a catastrophic natural disaster or a terrorist attack.

Agency officials unveiled the results in May, stating in a news release that “out of 65 operating reactor sites, 12 had issues with one or more of the requirements during the inspections.”

But ProPublica’s examination of the reports found that 60 plant sites had deficiencies that ranged from broken machinery, missing equipment and poor training to things like blocked drains or a lack of preventive maintenance. Some of the more serious findings include:

Plant officials said they have moved to fix those problems and that none would have prevented them from responding in an emergency. The NRC told ProPublica that all the issues raised by inspectors “fell well short of being imminent safety concerns” and were being addressed.

In a summary attached to the inspection findings, however, the NRC expressed some concern.

“While individually, none of these observations posed a significant safety issue, they indicate a potential industry trend of failure to maintain equipment and strategies required to mitigate some design and beyond design-basis events,” the summary says.

The NRC reported fewer problems at the plants than ProPublica because it only counted those in which a plant had a problem demonstrating how its emergency preparedness plan would work. The agency said that, despite these questions, all the plants could protect their reactors.

The special inspection covered equipment and procedures for use in disasters that are beyond the scope of the plant’s design — major earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and terrorist attacks.

Many of the items covered in the special inspection are supposed to be checked by NRC inspectors on a regular basis. Items that were required after the 9/11 attacks to respond to large explosions and fires — like extra pumps, hoses and generators — are supposed to be reviewed as part of regular triennial fire protection inspections.

David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says the large number of problems uncovered in the special inspection shows that NRC must strengthen oversight.

“I think they need to look at the inspections,” said Lochbaum, whose group monitors safety matters. “Why did they find so much in these inspections? Shouldn’t these have been found sooner?”

Nuclear plants conduct emergency drills every two years, and Lochbaum said that one possible improvement would be for inspectors to check the condition of the emergency response equipment then.

Mary Lampert, executive director of the advocacy group Pilgrim Watch in Massachusetts, said many of the deficiencies uncovered by the NRC may seem minor but could quickly turn into bigger problems in an emergency situation.

“They all add up. They cannot wait for a disaster to start looking around for a screwdriver that is required to open a valve because time is typically of the essence,” she said.

Lampert said it is important for the NRC to keep an eye on the problems they found and not simply assume the nuclear companies will fix everything.

The Fukushima accident has focused the NRC’s attention on the risk that a natural disaster or attack could knock out a plant’s safety systems for an extended period and lead to a radiation release.

Although all plants are designed to withstand natural disasters, U.S. nuclear facilities are aging. Recent studies have shown that earthquake risks are now higher than they were predicted when some plants were built, although the NRC says reactors can still withstand the highest expected quake. Now historic flooding on the Missouri River is testing design limits at two Nebraska plants.

Flood waters are expected to come within a few feet of levels the Fort Calhoun and Cooper nuclear plants were built to withstand. At Fort Calhoun, a special berm providing backup protection collapsed Sunday after being damaged. Operators briefly turned on emergency diesel power but said there was no risk to reactor cooling systems. The plant has been shut down for refueling since early April.

On April 1, the NRC launched a task force of senior agency managers to examine the ability of plants to respond to events that might overwhelm existing safety systems and procedures. The panel is concentrating on disaster preparedness and the ability to survive a lengthy blackout, as at Fukushima.

The six-member group is scheduled to report its findings to the commission on July 19, and the NRC has held two briefings on the subject so far. Until the task force reports back, the NRC said it would not comment on what, if any, changes the agency might propose.

The Union of Concerned Scientists and other watchdog groups have said that Fukushima points to the need for some obvious improvements, such as adding backup generators and moving used nuclear fuel out of cooling pools and into safer storage locations.

The nuclear industry’s main trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, is teaming up with the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations and the research organization the Electric Power Research Institute to develop disaster preparedness guidelines for nuclear companies, said Thomas Kauffman, a spokesman for NEI.

Kauffman said U.S. nuclear plants have survived hurricanes, tornadoes and extended power outages without damage to their reactors, but the industry is looking hard at Fukushima nevertheless. “We want to take the lessons learned and make sure they are applied across the industry,” he said.

Chairman Gregory Jaczko raised the issue of emergency preparedness this month at an International Atomic Energy Agency conference in Vienna. According to a copy of his speech, he brought up the post-Fukushima inspection results.

“While I see nothing that calls into question the safety of our plants, I see areas where performance was not as good as would be preferred,” Jaczko said. Changes are likely, he added, “although it is too early to say right now precisely what those changes might be.”

Jaczko visited the Nebraska plants this week and declared that, while flood conditions were likely to continue for some time, the plants are safe.

“Water levels are at a place where the plant [workers] can deal with them,” Jaczko said at Fort Calhoun on Monday, according to the Iowa Independent. “The risk is really very low that something could go wrong.”

ProPublica intern Ariel Wittenberg contributed to this story, which appeared originally at ProPublica.

NRC Waives Enforcement of Fire Rules at Nuclear Plants

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is routinely waiving fire rule violations at nearly half the nation’s 104 commercial reactors, even though fire presents one of the chief hazards at nuclear plants.

The policy, the result of a series of little-noticed decisions in recent years, is meant to encourage nuclear companies to remedy longstanding fire safety problems. But critics say it is leaving decades-old fire hazards in place as the NRC fails to enforce its own rules.

Fires present a special risk to nuclear plants because they can knock out cables that control-room operators need to safely cool down a reactor. The explosions and fires at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant have shown what can happen when operators can’t activate pumps, valves and other equipment needed to prevent damage to the radioactive core.

At the Browns Ferry plant in Alabama, where a devastating cable fire 36 years ago prompted the NRC to adopt tough new fire rules, the plant still doesn’t comply with the requirements to protect cables.

Hazards at other plants include unprotected equipment, inadequate fire doors and missing alarms and sprinklers. To compensate for being out of compliance with the rules, Browns Ferry and other plants are relying on temporary measures such as stationing workers on a fire watch.

No member of the public has ever been injured from a fire at a U.S. nuclear plant, and the NRC says the reactors are safe. But longtime observers of NRC’s fire enforcement say the agency is pressing its luck.

“The agency takes full credit for the grace of God,” said George Mulley, who wrote several scathing reports about lax fire enforcement while chief investigator at the NRC’s Office of Inspector General.

The five-member commission has procrastinated on the issue for a simple reason, he said: “They don’t want to cost the industry money.”

Fires are common at U.S. plants. In all, there have been at least 153 since 1995, or an average of about 10 a year, according to NRC records. Small fires, brief fires and fires in areas that were not considered critical to reactor safety have damaged essential equipment and forced emergency shutdowns, reports reviewed by ProPublica show.

An explosion in an electrical panel at Arizona’s Palo Verde plant in March 2010 and anelectrical fire at the Columbia Generating Station in Washington in August 2009 each knocked out reactor cooling pumps.

Last week, a truck delivering flammable hydrogen to the Duane Arnold plant in Iowa burst into flames near a building holding machines that control the reactor. Plant operators declared an emergency while firefighters poured water over nearby hydrogen tanks.

Nine years ago, the NRC did try to confront the fire compliance issue, saying nuclear companies had to address problems such as unprotected cables and missing fire barriers, detectors and sprinklers. But the industry dug in its heels, arguing that the plants already were safe enough.

So the agency offered an alternative: Companies could sign up for a new program requiring them to exhaustively study their plants and write new, customized fire plans. As they worked toward repairs, inspectors would issue violations for only the most dangerous hazards.

Nuclear companies owning 50 reactors initially enlisted. While two test plants have completed their plans and overhauled their plants, the rest continue to operate with a patchwork of interim procedures and fire watches.

“They are not effective measures,” said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer with theUnion of Concerned Scientists who has worked at Browns Ferry and as a trainer for the NRC. “You can limp by, but you can’t rely on them.”

Gregory B. Jaczko, the NRC’s chairman, said in an interview that the agency’s enforcement approach has not diminished safety. Before waiving a violation, inspectors make sure the safety risk is low and that companies plan to fix the problem or put interim protection in place.

“We do require them to address the deficiencies,” Jaczko said. “It doesn’t give them a blanket pass on being in compliance (or) meeting the safety standard. It’s a very subtle difference.”

But when ProPublica asked the NRC for a list of all the fire safety gaps at plants enrolled in the new program, the agency said it did not have one. Instead, companies are required to maintain a list at each plant so inspectors can review them, NRC spokesman Eliot Brenner said.

Those lists are not publicly available, so there is no way to assess what deficiencies exist, how serious they are and how they are addressed.

Until there is a fire.

At South Carolina’s H.B. Robinson plant last year, a high-voltage cable blew up, temporarily disabling a cooling pump, damaging equipment and shutting down a large part of the plant’s power grid. Errors by operators caused a second fire when they tried to reset the system.

Robinson is one of several plants where the NRC recently has waived fire violations under its new program.

Inspectors had visited Robinson in 2007 and said that it didn’t have enough fire detectors and suppression in the area of the plant where the cable later blew. They did not write a violation, and the detectors and sprinklers were never installed.

How long plants like Robinson will have to address such deficiencies is unclear. The NRC originally gave the plants two years to transition into the new program. That would have required the first enrollees to submit proposed fire plans by 2007.

But just a few weeks ago, the commission voted unanimously to extend the deadlines for at least the third time, pushing final approvals to 2016 or later.

“The NRC has basically granted all these people the ability to not meet the regulations with impunity,” Lochbaum said. “They can continue to drag their feet, and the NRC just sits there and watches.”

An Awakening on Fire

For the first quarter century of U.S. nuclear power, fire wasn’t much of an issue. The Browns Ferry blaze forced a paradigm shift.

It began with a tiny flame.

On March 22, 1975, a worker using a candle to hunt for air leaks accidentally set fire to insulation near electrical cables underneath the Browns Ferry control room, which two reactors shared. The plastic foam material flared, and before the flames could be smothered they were sucked along cables into the adjacent reactor building.

The fire seared through trays carrying hundreds of cables, triggering a cascade of shorts and creating havoc in the control room. Indicator lights flicked on and off at random; pumps started on their own and then restarted after being shut down. Smoke poured from a cabinet that controlled emergency cooling, and key pumps on the Unit 1 reactor were lost. Operators “scrammed” the reactor, an emergency shut down.

Loss of cooling is a serious event. When a reactor shuts down, the radioactive fuel remains hot enough to melt. With only one small pump operating, water in the Unit 1 reactor boiled off, dropping nearly 13 feet in depth until only 48 inches covered the top of the reactor core. Uncovered, hot fuel reacts with air to create hydrogen — the gas that ignited and blew buildings apart at Fukushima Daiichi.

Browns Ferry operators were able to stop conditions from degrading further, but only by manually operating valves and calling in electricians for help. In all, it took more than 15 hours to stabilize cooling at Unit 1.

The accident riveted the NRC’s attention on the damage fire could do to control cables. Nuclear companies already were required to have backup cables for safety-related equipment, but Browns Ferry showed that a fire could destroy both sets if they were near each other, a situation common to the design of many plants.

So after five years of study, the agency adopted rules that required companies to separate primary and backup cables by at least 20 feet. Where that wasn’t possible, they had to install protection — automatic sprinklers and fireproof wrappings, or barriers that could protect cables for up to three hours.

The rules required extensive retrofits, and the industry balked. Two nuclear companies sued to block them, but a federal judge agreed with the NRC that they were “urgently needed to protect the public safety.”

Yet over the next two decades, the sense of urgency faded. Some plants installed fireproofing material that later turned out to be defective; others never added required protection. Many companies — acting without NRC approval — got around the rules by substituting manual procedures. If a fire cut off the control room, for example, workers would fan out and operate switches and pumps by hand.

Some of these assignments amounted to implausible acts of derring-do. Shearon Harris assigned a worker to run through the plant, squeeze into a high-voltage electrical cabinet, mount a step stool and disconnect a switch with a screwdriver. (Shearon Harris has since discarded the procedure.)

Other plants assumed workers could pass through burning areas to keep safety systems running. Companies created dozens or even hundreds of such assignments. In a 2008 report, the Government Accountability Office said one plant used 584.

The extensive use of unapproved work-arounds — dubbed “operator manual actions” — came to a head in 2001.

Inspections found that some plants were using an “extreme interpretation” of the rules, relying exclusively on work-arounds instead of fire-wraps. “This condition is similar to the condition Browns Ferry was in prior to the 1975 fire,” according to an NRC white paper in 2001.

The NRC advised inspectors that unapproved measures violated the rules and had to be enforced — a stance that alarmed the industry.

At a pivotal 2002 meeting, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s trade group, asked the agency to hold off. While conceding that most plants relied on unapproved actions, the industry insisted they were safe and that the NRC had known about them for years.

Taking the Industry Approach

By 2004, the NRC came up with an alternative. Under a new fire program, nuclear companies could tailor fire protection at their plants based on an in-depth analysis of risk conducted by their own engineers.

To get companies to take part, the agency offered to ease up on enforcement. While the companies wrote new fire plans and the NRC reviewed them, the agency would exercise what it calls “enforcement discretion.” Inspectors would write up violations for the only most serious offenses — red on the agency’s four-color severity scale.

Jaczko, the NRC chairman, has called the program an “industry-developed approach.” As it frequently does, the NRC tapped the Nuclear Energy Institute to help write official guidance for engineers to follow while devising the new plans.

The new approach promised a way out of a long-term problem. But it wasn’t an immediate solution, as the Browns Ferry plant shows.

Except for a brief period after the 1975 fire, the plant’s Unit 1 reactor was mothballed for more than 20 years. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which operates the plant, decided in 2002 to reopen it. The authorityspent $1.8 billion on renovations that included new instruments, modern power supplies and 200 miles of cable.

As the work was under way, the NRC began warning that Browns Ferry didn’t meet the rules prompted by the cable fire at that very unit.

In a 2005 letter, inspectors cited “use of an extensive number” of manual work-arounds to deal with unprotected cables all over the plant. Inspectors and the TVA traded letters about missing fire protection right up to the May 2007 restart. But in the end, NRC gave the go-ahead after TVA promised to fix the problems later.

That June, President George W. Bush visited the plant to hail the restart as the beginning of a nuclear renaissance. Browns Ferry, he reassured, was “a safe facility to have in the area of the country in which you live.”

But when NRC inspectors looked again in 2009, they found the cables still weren’t sufficiently protected. The NRC finally sent the TVA a formal notice of violation last year, and in response the authority admitted it “took no action between 2006 and 2009 to comply” with the rules. TVA said it would do so under the new fire program, a promise the NRC said was an appropriate response to the violation.

Today, the problems still aren’t fixed. TVA spokesman Ray Golden said the authority is working on modifications that include better protecting cables. He said the process of transitioning to the new program is expected to cost $30 million to $50 million and take three to five years.

Until then, he said, Browns Ferry is using temporary measures like fire watches to compensate in areas don’t comply with the rules.

Running on Exemptions

ProPublica reviewed the most recent NRC fire inspection records for plants enrolled in the new fire program and found more than three dozen instances in which inspectors had identified deficiencies but invoked their discretion not to write violations.

At the Calvert Cliffs plant, 60 miles southeast of Washington, D.C., a 2007 inspectionfound that if control room workers were forced to evacuate because of a fire, plans didn’t allow enough time for a manual procedure to protect reactor cooling pumps.

Inspectors did not cite the plant. Returning in 2010, they found three different violations that could impede a safe reactor shutdown during a fire, but they also exercised discretion instead of writing a violation.

Last year, inspectors found that cables used to control reactor valves at the Turkey Point plant outside Miami were unprotected from fire. The protection had been missing since at least 2001 and was initially noted in 2004. Citing enforcement discretion, inspectors waived a violation.

The NRC said both plants had taken interim steps to protect the reactors while they worked on their new fire plans.

The NRC conducts special fire inspections at each plant once every three years. Notice is provided in advance, and inspectors single out three to five areas for scrutiny, a review of records and testing safety procedures.

Plants that aren’t in the new fire program can also avoid strict adherence to the rules by obtaining a formal exemption from NRC. Companies must have an alternate method of fire protection that is no less safe.

Fire exemptions are common. In a 2008 report, the GAO found that NRC had issued more than 900. ProPublica examined the agency’s current list of exemptions and counted nearly 700 at 56 reactors, most dating to the 1980s. Three plants with six operating reactors also have pending exemption requests or are planning to submit one.

Among the most controversial exemptions is at the Indian Point Nuclear Plant, 24 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River.

In 2007, the NRC granted an exemption to Indian Point, saying it was safe for certain cables to be protected with a fire barrier rated to last 24 minutes rather than the one hour required under NRC’s fire rules.

Opponents sued the following year, claiming that NRC’s analysis was inadequate and that the agency had violated its procedures. Federal district and appeals courts dismissed the suit on procedural grounds and did not examine the underlying safety technical issues.

“There is an incredible depth of fire protection at this site,” said Jerri Nappi, a spokesman for the plant’s owner, Entergy. “If the NRC believes the plant was not safe, they would shut it down.”

Separately, Entergy has asked NRC for another exemption that identifies 33 instances in which Indian Point fails to meet fire rules. Nappi said the issue involves longstanding work-arounds that operators would perform outside the control room in the event of a fire.

The request has come under fire from New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. In a petition asking NRC to enforce its rules, Schneiderman said Indian Point does not meet requirements for protecting cables or installing fire detectors in 275 areas.

In an interview, Schneiderman called the situation “ludicrous.”

“It’s pretty hard to argue that the NRC should not enforce its own rules,” he said, “or that they should grant exemption after exemption.”

Taking Risk Into Account

The NRC’s new fire program hinges on the idea that sophisticated mathematical models can help engineers predict fire risk. Companies can then make better decisions about how much protection is truly needed and not worry about situations where it isn’t.

So far, the NRC has approved risk-based plans at the two test plants, Shearon Harris and Oconee in South Carolina. The process can be expensive. Shearon Harris, for example, spent $14 million on engineering work and another $23 million on 44 modifications that included a new fire detection system and upgrading ventilation.

Jaczko said he is so confident of the voluntary program’s effectiveness that he would like to make it mandatory for all plants. “We’ve seen from the pilot programs that it really enhances safety,” he said.

But critics say the new approach gives too much control to companies and their engineers. Unlike straightforward mandates such as detectors or fire barriers, they say, the science of predicting fire is still maturing. Fire models have limited uses and are susceptible to misinterpretation.

“There is no reason to have any confidence that a vaguer, more opaque kind of safety assessment is going to have any enforcement at all,” said Paul Gunter of Beyond Nuclear, a group that opposes nuclear power.

The fire at H.B. Robinson shows what’s riding on the NRC’s approach — and how even a minor fire safety issue, compounded by equipment failures and operator error, can quickly ratchet up the level of risk.

The event on March 28, 2010 — the 31st anniversary of the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history at Three Mile Island — took place in the cavernous building where huge turbines churn out electricity.

Fire inspectors had checked out the areathree years earlier and determined it lacked adequate fire detectors or automatic suppression. But after judging it a low safety risk and noting that Robinson was in the new fire program, they chose not to write up a violation.

Just before 7 p.m., a 4,160-volt electrical cable exploded on the turbine building’s ground floor. A massive arc of electricity seared though the steel conduit holding the cable and slammed into a 7-foot-high electrical cabinet, buckling its steel doors and sending smoke into a room above.

A circuit breaker should have isolated the short from the plant’s electrical grid, but it failed — investigators later discovered that it had been flagged for maintenance 18 months earlier but was never properly repaired.

In the control room, dozens of alarms flashed. One was a fire alarm — but from a detector on the floor above the flaring cabinet. A main reactor pump wound down, and as operators scrambled to figure out what was happening, they learned of the fire from two supervisors who arrived at the control room and said they saw it.

While the plant’s fire brigade put out the ground-floor cabinet fire, two security guards upstairs frantically tried to reach the control room to report a smaller fire. They blasted away with extinguishers, a move investigators said created “potential danger” for unknowing operators.

Automatic systems shut down the reactor but didn’t halt the emergency.

Within 12 seconds, a huge swath of Robinson’s electrical system had gone dark, disabling equipment across the plant. Circuits needed to shut down the reactor still worked, partly on an emergency generator. But when operators tried to reset dead circuits four hours into the event, they inadvertently restarted the fire and triggered a second spate of outages.

Lochbaum, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, analyzed the NRC’s investigation of the event and concluded that operators were fortunate that damage wasn’t worse.

“These plants are not a house of cards. It takes a lot of wrong things lined up to lead to a very bad outcome,” Lochbaum said, referring to the many backup systems all nuclear plants have to prevent a serious accident.

“But when you start with a bunch of bad things already lined up, like fire protection violations, that shortens the list that is needed to complete the path from challenge to disaster.”

The NRC’s follow-up investigation criticized H.B. Robinson for multiple failures, including bad maintenance, poor operator responses and actions that started the second fire. Still, the NRC said the response to the fire itself was fine. Missing fire detectors did not figure in the report.

“There were no violations of fire protection regulations,” the chief of the NRC investigation, Brian Haag, told ProPublica.

Jessica Lambert, a Robinson spokeswoman, said lack of an alarm did not affect the fire brigade’s response. The NRC concluded the plant’s fire protection “was adequate to control and extinguish the fire,” she said, “and the fire protection equipment performed in accordance with plant design.”

Robinson’s engineers will decide whether it’s needed, she said, as they move forward with their new fire plan.

ProPublica interns Nick Kusnetz and Sergio Hernandez and news researcher Liz Day contributed to this story.

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PR Industry Fills Vacuum Left by Shrinking Newsrooms

This story has been co-published with the Columbia Journalism Review.

The Gulf oil spill was 2010′s biggest story, so when David Barstow walked into a Houston hotel for last December’s hearings on the disaster, he wasn’t surprised to see that the conference room was packed. Calling the hearing to order, Coast Guard Captain Hung Nguyen cautioned the throng, “We will continue to allow full media coverage as long as it does not interfere with the rights of the parties to a fair hearing and does not unduly distract from the solemnity, decorum, and dignity of the proceedings.” It’s a stock warning that every judge gives before an important trial, intended to protect witnesses from a hounding press. But Nguyen might have been worrying too much. Because as Barstow realized as he glanced across the crowd, most of the people busily scribbling notes in the room were not there to ask questions. They were there to answer them.

“You would go into these hearings and there would be more PR people representing these big players than there were reporters, sometimes by a factor of two or three,” Barstow said. “There were platoons of PR people.”

An investigative reporter for The New York Times, Barstow has written several bigstories about the shoving match between the media and public relations in what eventually becomes the national dialogue. As the crowd at the hearing clearly showed, the game has been changing.

“The muscles of journalism are weakening and the muscles of public relations are bulking up — as if they were on steroids,” he says.

In their recent book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” Robert McChesney and John Nichols tracked the number of people working in journalism since 1980 and compared it to the numbers for public relations. Using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, they found that the number of journalists has fallen drastically while public relations people have multiplied at an even faster rate. In 1980, there were about .45 PR workers per 100,000 population compared with .36 journalists. In 2008, there were .90 PR people per 100,000 compared to .25 journalists. That’s a ratio of more than three-to-one, better equipped, better financed.

How much better?

The researcher who worked with McChesney and Nichols, R. Jamil Jonna, used census data to track revenues at public relations agencies between 1997 and 2007. He found that revenues went from $3.5 billion to $8.75 billion. Over the same period, paid employees at the agencies went from 38,735 to 50,499, a healthy 30 percent growth in jobs. And those figures include only independent public relations agencies — they don’t include PR people who work for big companies, lobbying outfits, advertising agencies, non-profits, or government.

Traditional journalism, of course, has been headed in the opposite direction. The Newspaper Association of America reported that newspaper advertising revenue dropped from an all-time high of $49 billion in 2000 to $22 billion in 2009. That’s right — more than half. A lot of that loss is due to the recession. But even the most upbeat news executive has to admit that many of those dollars are not coming back soon. Six major newspaper companies have sought bankruptcy protection in recent years.

Less money means fewer reporters and editors. The American Society of News Editorsfound the number of newspaper reporters and editors hit a high of 56,900 in 1990. By 2011, the numbers had dropped to 41,600. Much of that loss has occurred since 2007. Network news did not fare any better — the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism estimates that employment there is less than half of what it was in the peak period of the 1980s.

“I don’t know anyone who can look at that calculus and see a very good outcome,” said McChesney, a communications professor at the University of Illinois.

The dangers are clear. As PR becomes ascendant, private and government interests become more able to generate, filter, distort, and dominate the public debate, and to do so without the public knowing it. “What we are seeing now is the demise of journalism at the same time we have an increasing level of public relations and propaganda,” McChesney said. “We are entering a zone that has never been seen before in this country.”

The First Modern PR Man

Modern public relations was born from a train wreck.

Michael Schudson, a journalism professor at Columbia University, CJR contributor, and author of “Discovering the News,” said modern public relations started when Ivy Lee, a minister’s son and a former reporter at the New York World, tipped reporters to an accident on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Before then, railroads had done everything they could to cover up accidents. But Lee figured that crashes, which tend to leave visible wreckage, were hard to hide. So it was better to get out in front of the inevitable story.

The press release was born. Schudson said the rise of the “publicity agent” created deep concern among the nation’s leaders, who distrusted a middleman inserting itself and shaping messages between government and the public. Congress was so concerned that it attached amendments to bills in 1908 and 1913 that said no money could be appropriated for preparing newspaper articles or hiring publicity agents.

But World War I pushed those concerns to the side. The government needed to rally the public behind a deeply unpopular war. Suddenly, publicity agents did not seem so bad. Woodrow Wilson picked a former newspaperman, George Creel, to head his new Committee on Public Information in 1917. The group cranked out thousands of press releases in support of the war and started a speakers bureau that eventually grew to 75,000 people, all giving morale-boosting talks across the country.

“After the war, PR becomes a very big deal,” Schudson said. “It was partly stimulated by the war and the idea of journalists and others being employed by the government as propagandists.”

Many who worked for the massive wartime propaganda apparatus found an easy transition into civilian life. Samuel Insull, president of Chicago Edison and an early radio magnate, launched a campaign on behalf of electric utilities, which, according to Schudson, was the most far-reaching public relations effort of the era. It prompted an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission and a new raft of angry reports about the increasing power of PR.

People “became more conscious that they were not getting direct access, that it was being screened for them by somebody else,” Schudson said.

But there was no turning back. PR had become a fixture of public life. Concern about the invisible filter of public relations became a steady drumbeat in the press. From the classic 1971 CBS documentary, “The Selling of the Pentagon,” warning that the military was using public relations tricks to sell a bigger defense budget, to reports that PR wizards had ginned up testimony about horrors in Kuwait before the first Gulf War, the theme was that spin doctors were pulling the strings.

Gary McCormick, former chairman of the Public Relations Society of America, said that was unfair. McCormick acknowledged that there have been PR abuses, but he said most public relations people try to steer clear of falsehood. And he makes a pretty logical argument: lying does not work, because you are almost always going to get caught. And when you do, it makes it worse for your client.

“If I burn you, I am out of business,” said McCormick, whose organization has a membership of 21,000. He concedes that can be a tough message to relay to a client facing bad press. “The problem is when you get caught up with a client, and the business drives you to tell a message differently than you would advise,” McCormick said.

McCormick is right: lies are not ubiquitous, and they are not the heart of the matter. The problem is that there is a large gray zone between the truth and a lie.

Eric Alterman, a professor at Brooklyn College and a columnist at The Nation, said skillful PR people can exploit this zone to great effect. “They are able to provide data that for journalistic purposes is entirely credible,” he said. “The information is true enough. It is slanted. It is propagandistic. But it is not false.”

PR Up — Journalism Down

So what has changed? Isn’t this article yet another in a long line of complaints, starting with Silas Bent’s counting of stories generated by publicity agents in one day’s issue of The New York Times in 1926 (174) or Peter Odegard’s 1930 lament that “reporters today are little more than intellectual mendicants who go from one publicity agent or press bureau to another seeking ‘handouts’”? It is, in a way. But the context has changed. Journalism, the counterweight to corporate and government PR, is shrinking.

“We are coming out of a period when news organizations were extraordinarily prosperous and able to insulate themselves from a lot of pressures,” said Paul Starr, a sociology professor at Princeton University and author of “The Creation of the Media.” “The balance of power has shifted.”

When public relations began its ascent in the early 20th century, journalism was rising alongside it. The period saw the ferocious work of the muckrakers, the development of the great newspaper chains, and the dawn of radio and, later, television. Journalism of the day was not perfect; sometimes it was not even good. But it was an era of expansion that eventually led to the powerful press of the mid to late century.

Now, during a second rise of public relations, we are in an era of massive contraction in traditional journalism. Bureaus have closed, thousands of reporters have been laid off, once-great newspapers like the Rocky Mountain News have died.

The Pew Center took a look at the impact of these changes last year in a study of the Baltimore news market. The report, “How News Happens,” found that while new online outlets had increased the demand for news, the number of original stories spread out among those outlets had declined. In one example, Pew found that area newspapers wrote one-third the number of stories about state budget cuts as they did the last time the state made similar cuts in 1991. In 2009, Pew said, The Baltimore Sun produced 32 percent fewer stories than it did in 1999.

Moreover, even original reporting often bore the fingerprints of government and private public relations. Mark Jurkowitz, associate director the Pew Center, said the Baltimore report concentrated on six major story lines: state budget cuts, shootings of police officers, the University of Maryland’s efforts to develop a vaccine, the auction of the Senator Theater, the installation of listening devices on public busses, and developments in juvenile justice. It found that 63 percent of the news about those subjects was generated by the government, 23 percent came from interest groups or public relations, and 14 percent started with reporters.

An example: when the University of Maryland announced on July 22, 2009, that it would test the new swine flu vaccine, the university press release read this way: “The research is a first step toward the U.S. government’s stated goal of developing a safe and effective vaccine.”

The Daily Record newspaper in Maryland, Pew said, was first out with the story: “Research on the vaccine is the first step toward the U.S. government’s aggressive goal of developing a vaccine for the virus.”

Tom Linthicum, executive editor of The Daily Record, said that first story reflected the reality of the Internet age. “It’s kind of like working for the wire services in the old days,” he said. “You write the short lede to get it up there first. You come back the next day and flesh it out.”

Linthicum said the vaccine story, while important, was not really in The Daily Record’s typical coverage area — the paper is more business-oriented. “We came back and fleshed it out some; frankly, we did not flesh it out a lot,” he said. “I think we did with it about what we could given our other priorities.”

This is not terrible. It is a decision that editors make every day. But, as Pew points out, it does hand a lot of control over the narrative to the institution that is peddling the story.

Of the 19 stories Pew reviewed that covered the development of the vaccine, three contained significant new information, another three had new details, and the rest either repeated the same basic facts as the press release or were identical stories appearing on a different platform. “One of the key findings of the study was that as the press scales back, dissemination of other people’s work becomes a more important part of the news system,” Jurkowitz said. “There is also a greater emphasis on time, on speed, on getting the first bit of information up quickly. Often that first bit of information is coming from government agencies or public relations.”

Of course, in the modern world, news does not stay in one place for long. Stories may begin on a newspaper blog or a TV website, but they soon ripple across the Internet like a splash in a pond. Tom Rosenstiel, Pew’s director, said that ripple effect makes the original story that hits the web — and the source of information it is based on — even more important.

“The nature of digital technology is that it is distributive,” he said. “A story would be grabbed and distributed and when the original story is later updated, other versions out there might not be. It all depends on when someone grabs it.”

Some experts have argued that in the digital age, new forms of reporting will eventually fill the void left by traditional newsrooms. But few would argue that such a point has arrived, or is close to arriving. “There is the overwhelming sense that the void that is created by the collapse of traditional journalism is not being filled by new media, but by public relations,” said John Nichols, a Nation correspondent and McChesney’s co-author. Nichols said reporters usually make some calls and check facts. But the ability of government or private public relations to generate stories grows as reporters have less time to seek out stories on their own. That gives outside groups more power to set the agenda.

PR Goes Direct

Leonard Downie Jr., who was executive editor of The Washington Post for 17 years, does not believe that reporters working for reputable organizations are going to let PR people dictate their stories, no matter how busy they get.

“Observing our own newsroom” at the Post, “I don’t see a difference in the way people are working,” said Downie, who is now a professor at Arizona State University and vice president at large of the Post. “In addition to talking to PR people, both in government and in business, our reporters want to talk to principals all the time. I don’t see a change in that relationship.”

What Downie does see is a change in the relationship between PR and the public itself. The Internet makes it easy for public relations people to reach out directly to the audience and bypass the press, via websites and blogs, social media and videos on YouTube, and targeted email.

“Let’s take a hypothetical situation in which there had been no reduction in the media; at the same time, there still would be growth in the ability of public relations people to directly reach the public,” Downie said. “They are filling a space that has been created digitally.”

Some quick examples: in the academic world, the website Futurity regularly offers polished stories from research universities across the country like “Gems Clear Drug Resistance Hurdle” (Northwestern University) and “Algae Spew Mucus to Alter Sea Ice” (University of Washington); on the business front, Toyota used satellite press conferences and video feeds on its website to respond to allegations about sudden acceleration in its cars last year, and published transcripts on its website of a long interview with reporters at the Los Angeles Times; and in the realm of political advocacy, Media Matters for America led a battle across the Internet for the past several months with the anti-abortion group Live Action over a videotaped sting that Live Action did on Planned Parenthood.

In a vacuum, none of this is bad. Schools need to publicize their research, corporations defend their products, and political groups stake their positions. But without the filter provided by journalists, it is hard to divide facts from slant.

It’s also getting tougher to know when a storyline originates with a self-interested party producing its own story. In 2005 and 2006, the New York Times and the advocacy groupPR Watch did separate reports detailing how television news was airing video news releases prepared by corporate or government PR offices, working them into stories as part of their newscasts. PR Watch listed 77 stations which aired the reports, some of them broadcast nearly verbatim.

Stacey Woelfel, the past-chairman of the Radio Television Digital News Association, said when his group looked into the issue after it was raised by the reports, it was troubled by how widespread the use of the releases had become. “Some stations were running video news releases all the time, sometimes packages from corporate interests,” he said.

There is evidence that it has not stopped. James Rainey, the Los Angeles Times media columnist, recently won Penn State’s Bart Richards Award for Media Criticism for columns last year that showed how local television stations were running paid content in their news programs. “There’s a good chance that your small screen expert has taken cash to sell, sell, sell,” Rainey wrote in a Sept. 15 column.

In 2008, the New York Times again returned to the issue of hidden public relations agendas with a series of stories in which Barstow showed how the Pentagon was using retired military officers to deliver the military’s message on the war in Iraq and its counterterrorism efforts. Barstow described how the officers were presented on the news programs as independent consultants offering unvarnished opinions.

After being stonewalled by the Pentagon for two years, the Times eventually sued to obtain records about the Defense Department’s use of retired military officers. Barstow found evidence that the officers’ appearances on television were not happenstance, but a carefully coordinated effort of what the Pentagon called “message force multipliers.”

Barstow was struck by the sophistication of the operation. “In a world saturated with spin, viewers tend to tune out official spokespeople and journalists,” he said. “Where they are influenced is when they see people who are perceived to be experts in the subject matter but independent of the government and the media.”

Front Groups Obscure Special Interests

Hiding the PR agenda is not a new tactic, but one that seems to be rising to new levels. One form it takes is front groups, supporting this cause or that, this candidate or that, this product or that, without revealing their ties to the cause, candidate, or product.

Jane Mayer focused national attention on such groups in an encyclopedic article about the Koch brothers last summer in The New Yorker. The article described how the Kochs had funded groups to promote their conservative political philosophy and oppose “so many Obama Administration policies — from heath-care reform to the economic-stimulus program — that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.”

Mayer said one of the most difficult tasks in reporting the story was finding the connections between the groups and their funders. Many people and organizations besides the Kochs fund advocacy groups, and from both ends of the political spectrum. Mayer said it takes so much effort to find out what group is connected with what organization that it is difficult for reporters to keep up.

“You never know what you don’t know — it is getting harder and harder to find out who is behind those front groups,” she said. That is no accident, according to Wendell Potter, a former vice president for corporate communications at CIGNA, the insurance company.

Potter, who has since become a vocal critic of corporate public relations, particularly related to the health-care debate, said PR’s influence has become deliberately more opaque as viewers become more attuned to its influence. During the debate over the Clinton health-care plan in 1993 and 1994, Potter said, the health-insurance industry’s trade group openly opposed the measure. In a series of ads featuring Harry and Louise, the fictional married couple, the industry warned that the Clinton plan would mire health care in tangled bureaucracy. The industry’s role in the ad, he said, “was very visible, very vocal.”

The industry’s opposition to the bill reflected the public’s concern at the time about government interference in health care, Potter said. But by 2007, public opinion had changed and polls showed that a majority of Americans felt that some degree of government involvement was needed.

Thus, Potter said, the industry no longer wanted to be closely linked to lobbying on the issue. So instead of directly running ads, it farmed a lot of the work out, obscuring its role.

“You really want someone that seems to be an ordinary person. That gives you credibility and the perception that the public is on your side,” he said.

The health-insurance industry’s trade group, America’s Health Insurance Plans or AHIP, declined to speak for this story. But executives with the public relations firm APCO Worldwide, which has worked for the health-care industry, said that when their agency sets up a group to fight for an issue, they don’t try to hide their association. B. Jay Cooper, APCO’s managing director, said in the recent health-care fight APCO managed such a group, but every reporter who covered the issue knew who APCO represented. That doesn’t mean the link was always reported to the public.

Indeed, it is often difficult for reporters to find the connection. It took Drew Armstrong, a health-care reporter for Bloomberg, months to nail stories showing how the health-insurance industry had funded efforts by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to fight against changing the health system.

Armstrong dug into tax records to show what had previously been hidden — that AHIP contributed a whopping $86.2 million to the Chamber to fight against the Obama health-care plan. “I was shocked by the amount,” Armstrong said. “It was 40 percent of the Chamber’s budget.”

The problem for Armstrong was that neither organization’s filings proved a link. There was no definite proof that it was the same money. The IRS forms filed by the groups are pretty scanty — they require organizations to list donations but not the donor — and Armstrong had to work with sources to confirm the connection.

It took a while for Armstrong to establish the link, but he did so in a Nov. 17, 2010, story. Neither group would confirm that it was the same money — the Chamber still won’t — but no one called for a correction.

“Giving money to the Chamber lets you have it both ways,” Armstrong said. “You can sit with the Democrats, lobby for your position, and have your phone calls returned. At the same time, you have someone like the Chamber out there, running ads, doing the public relations campaign.”

After his first story, Armstrong looked into how the Chamber used the money. He found that it set up a sophisticated operation to oppose the law, particularly in swing states. The Chamber paid for ads that ran in 21 states beginning in August of 2009. The ads warned that the government-proposed plan would lead to tax increases, swell the deficit, and expand “government control over your health.”

Bill Vickery, who Bloomberg said was paid by the Chamber to help run the opposition in Arkansas, told Armstrong that he organized about 50 events targeting incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat who was a key supporter of the health-care law. Lincoln lost by 21 percent in last November’s midterm elections.

“I talked to a lot of consultants, pollsters,” Armstrong said. “They said this was one of the most sophisticated operations, akin to a presidential campaign, that they had ever worked on.”

Steve Patterson, the Lincoln campaign manager, said most of the ad money for the health-care fight actually hit the state the year before the midterm election while the battle over the Democratic plan was in full cry. “Most of it was educational in nature,” he said. “Call Sen. Lincoln and tell her to vote no.”

But Patterson knew early on that the heath-care fight was likely to be the defining issue of the Senate race, and many of the ads were already targeting Lincoln’s position in favor of change to the health-care system. So he asked the campaign’s ad buyer to track the spending. They found $6 million in issue advertising was spent during the period — a very large amount in a small media market state.

From October to early December, Lincoln’s buyer found that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $2 million in advertising. Americans for Stable Healthcare — a coalition of liberal groups, the pharmaceutical industry, and unions in favor of the plan — spent $1.2 million. And the 60 Plus Association, a conservative senior citizen group opposed to the plan, spent $650,000.

“I think it was the critical issue that turned voters against Sen. Lincoln,” he said. “Her numbers started turning when this process began.”

Tom Collamore, who ran Fred Thompson’s presidential campaign before becoming senior vice president of communications and strategy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, likened a modern issue campaign to a presidential race. “There are all the elements,” he said. “You test the message and then you push the message out through all the outlets.”

“If you are really serious about something you have to make a big investment,” Collamore continued. “It involves research and focus groups and proper messaging that will lead to highlighting things that resonate.”

In the heath-care battle, the Chamber created a web hub, healthreformimpacts.com, to continue the fight. It set up coalition groups like Employers for a Healthy Economy. Collamore said much of the effort also involved old-fashioned PR work as well. “We did a lot of online pushing of the message through stories, columns,” he said. “A lot of interaction with the press, a lot of interviews.”

Although the fight over health care was larger than most campaigns, Collamore said it was not fundamentally different than several other public relations efforts the Chamber is working on.

One of the largest is the Chamber’s $100 million “Campaign for Free Enterprise,” an effort to fight government involvement in business matters. Besides the traditional effort of advertising, press releases, and position papers, the Chamber has set up groups like Students in Free Enterprise and the Extreme Entrepreneurship Tour to target college campuses.

It’s also making an online push. The Chamber kicked off part of the campaign with $100,000 in prize money for a video contest on its Facebook page. The campaign received 100,000 views, recorded 10,000 votes, and collected 4,000 email addresses to add to the Chamber’s database. Right now, it has 146,000 fans — not Lady Gaga level (more than 30 million at press time) but not bad for a business group.

“The news cycle never ends. There is a lot of space, there is a lot of competition for people’s attention,” Collamore said. “It’s not just press releases anymore.”

Inform our investigations: Do you have information or expertise relevant to this story? Help us and journalists around the country by sharing your stories and experiences.

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U.S. Nuclear Regulator Lets Industry Help With the Fine Print

In the fall of 2001, inspectors with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were so concerned about possible corrosion at Ohio’s Davis Besse Nuclear Power Stationthat they prepared an emergency order to shut it down for inspection. But, according to a report from the NRC inspector general, senior officials at the agency held off – in part because they did not want to hurt the plant’s bottom line.

When workers finally checked the reactor in February of 2002, they made an astonishing finding: Corrosive fluid from overhead pipes had eaten a football-sized hole in the reactor vessel’s steel side. The only thing preventing a leak of radioactive coolant was a pencil-thin layer of stainless steel.

The Davis Besse incident has resurfaced in the wake of the ongoing nuclear crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant. Stories recounting close ties between Japanese nuclear regulators and utilities there have reinvigorated critics who say the NRC has not been an aggressive enough U.S. watchdog.

The NRC says that is not the case, and commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko defended the agency’s independence and professionalism. “I have a great staff who are dedicated to public health and safety, and people who interact with this agency, they know that and they see that,” he said in an interview.

Critics of the NRC say the problem at Davis Besse, 20 miles southeast of Toledo, is a prime example of the agency’s deference to industry. The inspector general concluded that a conflict between the NRC’s twin goals of inspecting the plant to protect public safety and a desire to “reduce unnecessary regulatory burden” on the owner led to the delay in finding the gaping hole.

In 2003, then NRC’s Chairman Richard Meserve disputed the inspector general’s report, which found that the agency’s decision on Davis Besse “was driven in large part by a desire to lessen the financial impact” on the plant’s owner. Meserve said the NRC had adequate technical grounds for the delay.

The agency insists that it vigilantly watches operations at 104 commercial reactors and frequently issues violations to nuclear companies that step out of line. Since 2001, the agency has averaged about 120 significant enforcement actions a year at power plants and other nuclear facilities it oversees.

While the Davis Besse case focuses on singular allegations of influence, critics say the industry routinely exercises its muscle in a more pervasive way: through contributions to NRC regulatory guides that advise nuclear companies about how to best follow the agency’s rules.

Large parts of the guides, issued by NRC, incorporate or endorse material written by the industry’s trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute. The guides – containing detailed technical procedures and reference materials – are a key part of NRC’s oversight. They provide the nuts and bolts advice that nuclear operators follow to stay in compliance but often refer to even more detailed industry guides.

The NRC’s guide on fatigue, for example, details how many hours employees in key jobs can work, how to respond when a worker is too tired, and how many days off employees in certain jobs need. It officially incorporates, with a few exceptions, another 60-page guide compiled by the industry group.

In an e-mail, Thomas Kauffman, a spokesman for NEI, passed along responses to ProPublica’s questions from the trade group’s director of engineering, John Butler. “NRC endorsement, with or without exceptions, of industry guidance is a common practice,” Butler said.

Some examples from a list the trade group provided to ProPublica:

  • How to apply for an operating license extension. Many aging plants are seeking to extend their original 40-year licenses. The 10-page NRC document endorses a 245-page NEI guide that tells applicants how to identify critical equipment and inspect it to be sure it meets relicensing standards.
  • How to protect plants from fires. The NRC’s regulatory guide cites an NEI document that “provides the majority of the guidance applicable” for analyzing fire risk at plants, with some specific exceptions.
  • How to upgrade plant control rooms. The NRC regulatory guide says that “when possible, this guide has incorporated (NEI’s) ‘Control Room Habitability Guide,’ ” again with some limits.

The NEI said its role in contributing to NRC’s guides does not mean the nuclear industry has too much influence. Kauffman said the NRC has final say on what NEI adds and frequently makes changes.

“They review them completely,” Kauffman said. “It is one thing to draft something and put it out there; it is quite another for the NRC to decide to accept it.”

NRC spokesman Eliot Brenner said in an e-mail that the NEI is not the sole source of information in agency regulatory guides and that NRC accepts comment from a broad array of sources.

“If any stakeholder – company, industry organization, individual or public group – backs up a request with appropriate information, the NRC will consider it,” Brenner said. “The NRC regularly denies industry requests that lack proper support, and we’ve taken properly supported rulemaking requests from non-industry sources on many occasions.”

“The NRC is the final arbiter of what becomes a regulation,” he said, “with safety the total focus of our effort.”

But others said the reliance on the industry creates a potential conflict of interest.

Jim Riccio, who follows nuclear issues for Greenpeace, said that allowing the NEI to play such a large role means the industry can shape much of what nuclear companies are required to do.

Riccio said NRC’s precursor agency, the Atomic Energy Commission, was disbanded after Congress concluded it had become too concerned with promoting nuclear power instead of regulating safety.

In a 1974 overhaul, development of nuclear energy was transferred elsewhere and protection of the public was given to the NRC, a five-member body whose members are appointed by the president.

Riccio asserted that over the years, NRC has become more accommodating to the industry.

“The problem with inviting the industry in is that they tend to dominate the process,” he said. “The NRC has a problem distinguishing between the public they serve and the industry they regulate.”

Status of spent nuclear fuel in question at crippled Japanese power plant

Concerns about a radiation release from the Fukushima Daiichi [1] power facility have focused on its stricken nuclear reactors, but the plants of that design also store highly radioactive spent fuel in pools outside the protective containment structure that surrounds the reactor itself.

Opponents of nuclear power have warned for years that if these pools drain, either by accident or terrorist attack, it could lead to a fire and a catastrophic release of radiation. Now, there have been hydrogen explosions [2] at two of the reactor buildings housing spent fuel pools at Fukushima.

This diagram [3] shows where spent fuel pools are typically located in the 1970s-vintage GE Mark I reactor design in use at Fukushima units 1, 2 and 3, where officials suspect reactor fuel has melted.

The nuclear industry says fears about the storage pools at U.S. plants are overblown because the pools are protected and, even if fuel is exposed to the air, the chance of a fire is incredibly small. And with limited being released about conditions at Fukushima, the status of spent fuel pools is uncertain.

The fuel that powers a nuclear reactor only works so long. When it is exhausted, it is still radioactive and physically very hot. So it needs to cool in a deep tank of water before it can be stored elsewhere.

At Fukushima, these tanks are attached to the outside of the reactor’s containment structure. The pools are deep – typically the fuel lies under 25 feet of water. Although the concrete-and-steel containment is designed to trap radiation leaks, there is no such protection for pools outside.

When the U.S. reactors were built, everyone assumed the government would open a national storage center to handle the tons of radioactive spent fuel from nuclear plants. The proposed Yucca Mountain site in Nevada never opened, so the old fuel sits at nuclear plants across the country.

Many plants have been operating for 20 years and have tons of used fuel in cooling pools.

The concern is that if the water in the pools ever drops too low, the zirconium cladding that holds the radioactive fuel pellets would begin to heat up and eventually burn. And if it did, the smoke from the fire could carry radiation away from the plant because the pool is outside the containment.

“People should be very concerned because the NRC has acknowledged that spent fuel pools that are not located inside the containment have the potential to cause catastrophic accidents,” said Diane Curran, a lawyer who has represented environmental groups and governments in challenges to fuel storage plans.

“These are not high-probability accidents,” Curran said, “but we have seen how low-probability accidents can happen.”

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress asked the National Academies to study the vulnerability of spent fuel to a terrorist attack.

The resulting 2005 report, “Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage [4],” concluded that “an attack which partially or completely drains a plant’s spent fuel pool might be capable of starting a high-temperature fire that could release large quantities of radioactive material into the environment.”

The report found that the vulnerability of the spent fuel to fire depends on how old it is and how it is stored. As the fuel ages, it cools, so it becomes less susceptible to a fire.

“The industry standard is that fuel that is older than five years can be dry-stored,” said Kevin Crowley, director of the nuclear and radiation board for the National Research Council, part of National Academies.

The report recommended that the nuclear industry take steps to decrease the vulnerability of the storage pools to fire. Some of those steps are classified, Crowley said. But he said others, like making sure there were fire hoses or spray systems above the pools, were pretty simple.

Crowley said he does not have enough information on the status of the Japanese plants to say whether the pools are vulnerable.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission did not reply to an e-mail for this story. The agency says on its website that it is confident the spent fuel pools [5] at U.S. plants are safe.

The nuclear industry disagreed with the national academy about the vulnerability of the spent fuel to a fire. Carl Baab, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute [6], said studies show that the risk is low in part because the spent fuel contains relatively little energy compared to the fuel inside the reactor.

“The potential for a fire from damage or loss of water is so remote that we believe it is misleading,” he said.

Baab also said plant workers only need to replace about 25 gallons of water each day to the fuel pool to maintain water levels in the event that primary systems were knocked out.

How hydrogen explosions at Fukushima may have affected the spent fuel pools is unclear.

Some nuclear plants have moved their older fuel into reinforced metal storage casks that are located away from the reactor building. According to information on the website [7] of Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the Fukushima facility, more than 200 tons of spent fuel is stored in casks.

Baab said the nuclear power industry has been pushing the federal government to open a long-term storage site for nuclear waste.

“From the beginning it was intended to stay at the sites for a relatively short time,” he said. “It was never intended or designed that it remain at the site.”

This story appeared originally at ProPublica

**

Can U.S. nuclear plants handle a major natural disaster?

As engineers in Japan struggle to bring quake-damaged reactors under control [1], attention is turning to U.S. nuclear plants and their ability to withstand natural disasters.

Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has spent years pushing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission toward stricter enforcement of its safety rules, has called for a reassessment. Several U.S. reactors lie on or near fault lines, and Markey wants to beef up standards for new and existing plants.

“This disaster serves to highlight both the fragility of nuclear power plants and the potential consequences associated with a radiological release caused by earthquake related damage,” Markey wrote NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko in a March 11 letter [2].

Specifically, Markey raised questions about a reactor design the NRC is reviewing for new plants that has been criticized for seismic vulnerability. The NRC has yet to make a call on the AP1000 reactor [3], which is manufactured by Westinghouse. But according to Markey, a senior NRC engineer has said the reactor’s concrete shield building could shatter “like a glass cup” under heavy stress.

The New York Times reported last week [4] that the NRC has reviewed the concerns raised by the engineer, John Ma, and concluded that the design is sufficient without the upgrades Ma recommended. Westinghouse maintains that the reactor is safe [5].

Boiling water reactors [6], like the ones hit by the Japanese earthquake, are built like nested matroyshka [7] dolls.

The inner doll, which looks like a gigantic cocktail shaker and holds the radioactive uranium, is the heavy steel reactor vessel. It sits inside a concrete and steel dome called the containment. The reactor vessel is the primary defense against disaster — as long as the radiation stays inside everything is fine.

The worry is that a disaster could either damage the vessel itself or, more likely, damage equipment that used to control the uranium. If operators cannot circulate water through the vessel to cool the uranium it could overheat and burn into radioactive slag — a meltdown.

Reports say a partial meltdown is suspected [1] in two of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan, which was hit by the 8.9 magnitude quake and ensuing tsunami.

Reactors have multiple layers of equipment to make sure this never happens. But last year, Markey asked Congress’s investigative agency [8], the Government Accountability Office, to look into a long list of nuclear safety issues, including earthquake and flood protection.

Markey cited the 2007 Chuetsu earthquake [9] (6.6 magnitude) that hit the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant. The quake started a fire, spilled some low-level radioactive waste and damaged equipment that was not critical to the reactor. It led Japanese regulators to reassess earthquake danger near the plant, and Markey wanted GAO to see whether NRC had been on top of earthquake risk in the U.S.

As seen here, Hurricane Gustave damaged the River Bend Nuclear Generation Station in St. Francisville, La. (NRC photo provided by Union of Concerned Scientists)

As seen here, Hurricane Gustave damaged the River Bend Nuclear Generation Station in St. Francisville, La. (NRC photo provided by Union of Concerned Scientists)


He also listed a few cases in which other natural disasters had damaged nuclear plants, like a 1998 tornado that knocked out power to the Davis-Besse [10] plant outside Toledo, Ohio, or Hurricane Andrew, which knocked out power to the Turkey Point [11] plant south of Miami site for five days in 1992. In 2008, Hurricane Gustav damaged the River Bend Nuclear Generation Station in St. Francisville, La. [12]

At both Davis-Besse and Turkey Point, the plants’ emergency diesel generators kept the equipment running until crews fixed the power lines.

News reports have said the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station went to backup diesel power after the quake but lost it, along with the ability to keep cooling water flowing.

Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Reuters [13] that U.S. reactors don’t have adequate backup power. “We do not believe the safety standards for U.S. nuclear reactors are enough to protect the public today,” he told the news agency.

NRC spokesman David McIntyre said the agency was not granting interviews about the Japan quake. He pointed to the agency’s website, which does have a lot of information on the seismic issues.

For instance, NRC regulations require that every plant is built to survive an earthquake larger than the strongest ever recorded in the area. The agency says it periodically updates earthquake estimations as more detailed information becomes available.

Most recently, the NRC spent five years reassessing earthquake risk for nuclear plants in the Midwest and eastern United States. The results of the study [14], which were released last September, confirmed that the plants were built to withstand the heaviest quake likely for their area.

However, the NRC found that the risk of earthquake was greater than expected in some areas, so the agency plans further research [15].

In an NRC meeting on earthquake safety last September, Torrey Yee, an engineer for the San Onofre nuclear plant near San Diego, said designers evaluate two levels of earthquakes: the maximum possible quake for a site; and an “operating basis” quake, usually about half of the maximum strength.

The critical structures and equipment at the plant are built to withstand the maximum quake, and the plant has to shut down for inspection if it sustains a quake higher than the operating basis.

The 104 commercial reactors [16] in the United States produce 20 percent of the nation’s power.

This story appeared originally at ProPublica

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