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US nuclear safety regulations softened by industry influence

Government regulators are allowing faulty equipment to remain in service at nuclear facilities across the United States in order to keep aging reactors in service, the AP has found.

Nearly 75 percent of U.S. nuclear sites leak radiative water.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has regularly watered down safety standards- even wholly ignoring problems - when encountering violations at the nation's aging reactors.

Kudos to the Associated Press for some impressive investigative journalism on the U.S. nuclear power industry. Its investigation uncovered an outwardly disturbing trend: regulations are being manipulated to allow damaged equipment to remain in place.

The AP includes testimony from nuclear engineers to support its findings. It cites "failed cables, busted seals, broken nozzles, clogged screens, cracked concrete, dented containers, corroded metals and rusty underground pipes." The standard for how brittle a reactor vessel can become has been weakened - twice.

In case you were wondering, reactors vessels are the first line of defense in the event of a meltdown. Radiation from cores weakens the vessels over time.

Safety regulations have been deemed "unnecessarily conservative" by the NRC, and engineers have manipulated tests to allow for faulty equipment to remain in compliance "without peril." Meaning, there's problems, but no immediate threat to that critical systems will fail.

Leaks are prolific at nuclear sites, but officials dismissed the impact as being too insignificant to affect public health. The AP's investigation found that radioactive tritium has leaked into groundwater at three-quarters of U.S. commercial nuclear power sites.

However, the AP cited an industry expert who said that the leaks indicate problems with cooling systems that could cascade into a meltdown. I'm also wondering if corroded pipes could be relied upon if a  Fukushima type scenario ever occurred in the United States.

It's not all doom and gloom - even old reactors are built with redundant safety systems. The NRC has also obligated commercial power companies to upgrade their facilities as a condition for extending operating licenses, and the nuclear industry  believes that the NRC has procedures for accidents well worked out.

My concern is that all too often lessons are learned only after things go wrong. The reasons behind the "great recession" seem obvious in hindsight, but very few people took the risks seriously.

Nuclear power is necessary to meet the public's energy demands

The NRC has the burden of having a dual role. It is compelled to keep reactors in service mainly because there's effectively been a moratorium on building new reactors in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island incident in 1979. It's also responsible for nuclear safety.

U.S reactors are operating beyond their intended lifecycle, and industry experts expect most to remain in service for several more decades. If the reactors were to be decommissioned, nothing would make up for the lost capacity for a number of years without significant new investment.

There are a total of 104 nuclear plants in the U.S today, according to NRC data. 61 were recently given another 20 years to operation. Nuclear power accounts for nearly 20 percent of electricity generated nationwide, and it may be a necessary part of the energy mix well into the next century.

Ironically, the public's concern over nuclear safety is why aging reactors remain in service. Reactor designs have been upgraded significantly since Three Mile Island, and meet  more stringent safety standards . Yet, outside help is still required to cool reactors in worst case scenarios.

I'm not going to be an alarmist. There are likely some regulations that the NRC could modify without unnecessary risk, but the government should not have too a cozy relationship with the nuclear industry. We've seen what happens.

Japanese nuclear regulators gave Tokyo Electric Power the kid glove treatment, and the result was three core meltdowns that may have been preventable. The BP oil spill also comes into mind.

Hopefully those incidents will motivate the NRC to fulfill its role as an independent regulator, or else the AP's report is cause for greater investment in renewable technologies and newer generation reactors. One accident is one too many.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com