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Worldwide, safety regulators still see role as implementing nuclear industry plans

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Martin Cohen
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The Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant after the 2011 T├... Źhoku earthquake and tsunami} by Image courtesy of Digital Globe |Author =Digital Globe |Date =2011-03-16

The 'freeze' on new nuclear has rapidly thawed. China, France and the UK have all announced the 'all clear'. Even in the U.S. as reported last week, (Friday, March 30, 2012 by Common Dreams) despite fears this week that the Fukushima nuclear accident, which Arnold Gundersen, (a former nuclear industry senior vice president) has described as "the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind", may be even worse [http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2012/03/28-1] than previously thought, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has given approval for two new nuclear schemes. One  is for two nuclear reactors at the Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia [http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2012/02/09-4], and the other, swiftly following on, is two combined licenses for two nuclear reactors in South Carolina. These new approvals end a three decade-long freeze  in approvals for new nuclear plants, following the Three Mile Island nuclear incident in 1979.

Unusually, the NRC granted approval to the Southern Company to build the new reactors at the Vogtle plant despite a no vote from the NRC chair, Gregory Jaczko. He objected to the licenses over the absence of guarantees to implement recommendations made following the Japanese disaster.

The recent US approvals have been interpreted as a victory for the lobbying powers of the nuclear industry but some analysts say that this is to misread the situation. This is because nuclear regulators worldwide have never seen their role as policing safety, but rather have acted as government-funded advisors to projects.

In 2000, for example, the Japanese Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency admitted to a scandalized public that for over 25 years,  documents relating to its safety inspections had been regularly falsified. It acknowledged no less than 200 such incidents, including concealing 19 'critical' incidents and hiding three actual full-blown accidents, including one at the soon-to-be-infamous Fukushima complex.  Following this, the country's major nuclear operator, TEPCO, shut down no less than 7 of its 17 reactors, pending a new inspection and correction of safety defects.

Despite this, by 2007, the situation in Japan was still such that when an earthquake caused the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant to partially explode, the International Atomic Energy Agency privately expressed concern again at the lack of security at the site, and in 2008, during a meeting of the G7 industrialized countries in Tokyo, went further and warned that Japanese that ALL its reactors were unfit to cope with major earthquakes. Yet by 2011, the earthquake and tsunami was still able to wreak havoc in Japan because indeed, the Japanese regulator set plants a low bar on safety.

The reality is that although the International Atomic Energy Agency is famous for its draconian powers to stop states building nuclear bombs, it has no authority over national regulators, and must content itself with diplomatic recommendations given in private. Advice that the operators can choose to ignore, and often generally do.

In Japan, the regulator reports to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which overtly seeks to promote the nuclear industry. Ministry posts and top jobs in the nuclear business are passed revolved amongst the same small circle of experts, a practice that the Japanese have a word for: amakudari - or descent from heaven.

Commenting on nuclear regulation in Japan, post Fukushima, Eisaku Sato, the governor of the province at the time that the secret cracks were revealed, was appalled that the regulators had allowed the company to continue operating such dangerous reactors. 'An organization that is inherently untrustworthy is charged with ensuring the safety of Japans's nuclear plants - the whole system is flawed. that's frightening.'

A similar situation has been claimed to exist in the US. According to Frank N. von Hippel, a nuclear physicist responsible for national security issues in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 1993 to 1994,  a dangerous custom has developed whereby only supporters of the nuclear industry are allowed to supervise it. Lobbyists have been allowed to have an effective veto over regulators who have ever been publicly critical of the industry.

In other key nuclear countries, the situation is even more alarming. In China, Kang Rixin, former general manager of the state-owned China National Nuclear Corp, was sentenced to life in jail last year for accepting bribes (and other abuses) raising questions about the quality of his work on the safety and trustworthiness of China's nuclear reactors.

In India, where the nuclear regulator reports to the national Atomic Energy Commission, whose role is to promote the building of nuclear power plants, the revolving chair is also evident. The Chairman of the regulatory board there, S.S. Bajaj, was previously a senior executive at the Nuclear Power Corp. of India. And now this is now the key company he is now supposed to regulate.

Or in Europe, consider the case of the new so-called Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR), to use the name it registered with US safety authority, the one promoted as 'the safest reactor ever'. The French have applications in to build these in Normandy, on the French coast, in Finland, in Britain and even in the United States, applications which have been delayed by wrangling over safety.

There have been particular questions raised about overheating and fracturing of the control rods at the heart of the reactor, and about the ability of essential machinery to withstand small leaks of radiation.

Applications to build EPR plants in Britain and the United States have been delayed by requests for more investigations of these safety issues. But within France, the regulator approved a reactor on the Channel coast without asking for more research, in recognition of, in the words of Guillaume Wack, director of the French safety directorate itself, the fact that the cost of detailed testing would be too high for the industry to finance without the certainty of having at least one launch order.

The fuel for the new-style EPR reactors, called MOX, is also especially risky, being a mix of plutonium and uranium oxides. Harder to use, to store, and to cope with in the event of an accident, it is, however,  cheaper than the uranium fuel used in most reactors. Again, according to Guillaume Wack, the safety regulator, the sole motivation to take on this extra risk was purely economic. And of course he had no problem with that.

The key to understanding the recent and apparently contradictory approval of nuclear plants in the US, in the UK and in China, is that the chill that settled over the world-wide nuclear industry following Three Mile Island was essentially economic, not due to tighter regulation or increased safety requirements. Safety concerns are not driving anything. Instead, in the US what has now changed that is the opening up of a flood of public money. Just a year before Fukushima, President Obama announced $8 billion in loan guarantees to the Southern Company, the largest energy producer in the southeastern US, for the construction of those two new nuclear power plants in Waynesboro, Georgia, at the Vogtle power plant, on the South Carolina border [http://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/03/08-12]. As Amy Goodman put it last month: "Democrats and Republicans agree on one thing: they're going to force nuclear power on the public, despite the astronomically high risks, both financial and environmental."

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Martin Cohen is a well-established author specializing in popular books in philosophy, social science and politics. His most recent projects include the UK edition of Philosophy for Dummies (Wiley June 2010); How to Live: Wise and not-so-wise (more...)

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