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Nuke Industry Eager for "Generic" Fed Approval

by J.A. Savage

Nuclear Power Industry Seeks Life Extension For Aging Plants
Generic branding isnŐt a bad thing. At twenty-five cents less per can, the grocery chain tuna is as good, and apparently as dolphin-safe as premium labels. In a blind taste test, my dog could not discern the difference between white-label chunks du boeuf and Alpo.

But generic approval for all things nuclear strikes me more like recent reports of taco shells -- generic and otherwise. They might all appear the same on the outside, but they are very suspicious indeed.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, at the urging of the nuclear industry and its henchperson Senator Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico), is going the way of all things generic. According to the feds, a storage cask for high level radioactive waste is a storage cask no matter where it's bolted down. The NRC maintains an inspector is an inspector whether s/he has a background in engineering or operations. And a license to operate a reactor an extended 20 years is just that, whether it's in freezing Wisconsin or earthquake-prone Southern California.

Unlike the 1970s and 1980s, where massive public awareness of the safety, and later, the economic hazards, of nukes halted all new projects, the teensy glimmer of activism that might appear now is completely obliterated by the ultimate impact of the NRC's plans to genericize all things nuclear.

The NRC and industry vehemently reject they are being secretive about making nuke oversight generic, but their tempers belie their actions. The NRC says: "Everything is published in the Federal Register. Everything is on our Web site." Alas, invoking regular readers of the Federal Register rather narrows what could be called "public openness." And it takes a huge amount of stamina to wield the "public's" cyber machetes through the impermeable NRC Web site, only to find documents unreadable (as in plain English) or simply broken.

My favorite example of the NRC's "openness" was telling me the agency was welcoming public comment on the current proposal to generically re-license nuclear plants for an extra 20 years.

The agency had exactly one public meeting before closing the public comment period for the generic re-licensing of all reactors -- at its headquarters in Maryland. The NRC points to several regional meetings on reactor re-licensing, but those are under the current rules, not the proposed generic rules that would do away with regional meetings. And for weeks prior to its October 16 deadline for public comments on generic re-licensing, if someone really was able to hack through the NRC Web site and find the tiny print leading to a form to register feedback, that one feedback mechanism, and only that one on the relevant list, was broken. No alternate instructions were available for feedback.

There is no way for the public to make their views known once a generic approval is issued
The full impact of generic re-licensing, generic approval of dry cask storage and generic plant inspections, is that the people most impacted by the hazards of running reactor and resultant radioactive waste no longer have any say about the nukes in their backyards. They, for instance, might be able to apprise the NRC of a problem with shifting sands along Lake Michigan where a dry cask storage facility might have its foundation blown out from under it. Or the NRC might find out about odd impacts of earthquakes not assumed in the reactor's original Environmental Impact Statement, but recent temblors offer experience. Or, the public might advise the NRC that a particular reactor in the desert might have constant operational problems, while a reactor in the Gulf might have perpetual engineering problems.

But the public is completley foiled in these endeavors due to the NRC's white label products. Generic inspection requirements no longer let inspectors focus on what they deem necessary, they can only fill in the blanks as if all reactors and their human operators, designers, construction workers -- and oh, the weather -- remain constant. Generic storage doesn't take into account shifting sands. Eneric re-licensing doesn't appreciate reactor sales to sleazy corporations.

I'm not the only one with a problem over the NRC's and industry's drive to genericize nuclear reactor operation, safety and waste storage. There are two or three others -- of the hundreds of millions that could be affected if generic oversight doesn't work. They get paid by non-profit organizations to keep track of it. They fight it when they can in the halls of the Capitol and across the shiny floors of NRC's Maryland headquarters. They are few. They are losing.

They are losing because nuclear plants might be in the backyards of a lot of people, but the folks in San Luis Obispo aren't so anxious to get involved in a plan for a reactor in Pennsylvania -- even if it's the same generic plan.

In the event that locals actually do find out about a change in their local nuke -- say on-site storage at Diablo Canyon -- there is no way to make their views known once a generic approval is issued because the powers that be have already made up their minds for them for the sake of streamlining the process. By removing the immediacy of changes to reactor operations in "backyards," the NRC is finally able to do what it the old AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) did -- encourage and assure nuclear power from on high, without the messy business of local politics and public input.

I'm going to check that "dolphin-safe" warning with Earth Island Institute and see if the generic brand really follows up on its promises. At least as a consumer, I have a choice, unlike being a victim of unintended consequences of genericisizing radioactive perils.

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Albion Monitor December 11, 2000 (

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