When the New York Times’ Bob Herbert wrote his column last week saying “We’re Not Ready for Nuclear,” he called upon David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, as his principle witness. Lochbaum has long been one of the nation’s foremost critics of nuclear power.
A nuclear engineer trained at the University of Tennessee, Lochbaum worked for ten different reactors, from Brown’s Ferry to Connecticut Yankee, before leaving the industry in 1996 and joining UCS. He says it was his concerns about safety that drove his conversion.
Since then, Lochbaum has become a fountainhead of anti-nuclear information, including his 2006 study, “Walking a Nuclear Tightrope,” cited by Herbert. Yet some of Lochbaum’s opinions may surprise you. He appears to concede that "most" reactors are being run to his satisfaction — and extends some plaudits to the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). He says that the pace of decision-making at the Nuclear Regulator Commission actually inhibits efforts to make American reactors safer. He also argues that Japan, Korea and China are doing well at building reactors because they’re “not afflicted by the NRC.”
There were more than a few surprises when we caught up with him for an interview at his home in Tennessee last week.
NTH: You began your career in nuclear right about the time of Three Mile Island.
LOCHBAUM: Don’t blame me, I was still in college.
NTH: Well, once and for all, is the Union of Concerned Scientists for or against nuclear power?
LOCHBAUM: We’re safety advocates. If I see a safety problem, I want to see it fixed. We were at the table in the restarting Millstone back in 1999 and we opposed it because we felt that, although the plant had made a lot of improvements, the oversight problem hadn’t been solved. It was the same with the D.C. Cook plant in Michigan, which was restarting after a multiyear outage. The NRC hadn’t fixed its oversight problems.
NTH: So you wouldn’t characterize yourself as anti-nuclear.
LOCHBAUM: I’m anti-nuclear disaster, not anti-nuclear power.
NTH: Are there any reactors anywhere being run to your satisfaction?
LOCHBAUM: Most of them are. Still, there are people who don’t get the message or don’t have the wherewithal to heed that message. We did a study ranking the plants on a safety scorecard we had developed and the safest plant in the country turned out to be the lowest-cost plant, the Surry plant in Virginia, run by Dominion. We found they were achieving very good economics and safety by very aggressively looking for problems and fixing them right the first time. We also found that the plants that the bottom of the list on safety also did poorly in terms of economics.
NTH: Are we doing better than we were in 1979 when Three Mile Island occurred?
LOCHBAUM: I think so. We learned a lot from that accident and would have learned a lot even if it hadn’t occurred. There’s a lot more information-sharing now. With the formation of INPO, everybody is in the same boat.
NTH: So overall, are we meeting the standards well enough so that we could go forward in building more reactors?
LOCHBAUM: I think that would be the stupidest thing mankind has ever done. In those years since Three Mile Island we’ve had 47 instances where a plant shut down for more than one year for safety reasons. Billions of ratepayer’s dollars have been wasted. I think we have to stop that hemorrhaging before we can move forward.
NTH: So the reason for not building new plants is those 47 plants that have shut down for over a year?
LOCHBAUM: Each of those outages was taking us down a road closer to nuclear disaster.
NTH: You’re referring to the “Walking a Nuclear Tightrope” paper you put out in 2006. I remember reading that and noting that of the 47 shutdowns, only one had occurred since 1997 – although that was not made clear in the report and only emerged in a bar chart The New York Times developed.
LOCHBAUM: That’s not quite true. The D.C. Cook plant was shut down for over a year. It started up sometime the spring of last year. And Crystal River in Florida has been shut down since last September. The last thing I saw said that it won’t be starting up until late September, which would be another yearlong outage.
NTH: But at the time of that report, the only shutdown that had occurred over the last eight years was Davis-Besse in 2002. So the most obvious trend was that we had come a long way from the 1970s and 1980s and yearlong shutdowns didn’t occur much anymore.
LOCHBAUM: Well, we’ve also done some studies that show that the conditions in some of plants like Salem are exactly the same as they were when it was shut down fifteen years ago. So the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is just much less effective than it was in the 1990s. After 1998, the regulators ran away. On June 4th of that year, Senator [Pete] Domenici [of New Mexico] threatened to cut the NRC budget by 40 percent. About 500 NRC employees would have lost their jobs. So the NRC reacted by going underground and, like Sergeant Schultz, saying they see no safety problems. They hear nothing, they know nothing.
NRH: So there hasn’t been any improved performance by the industry that would account for the fewer shutdowns?
LOCHBUAM: Well, INPO and some of the plants have improved performance. In most of the plants we’re doing real well. But the plants that are not getting that message or heeding the message – the population of those plants is not zero. And INPO and the NRC both are unable to do much about it. We need to get right with the104 plants that provide 20 percent of our electricity, get them operating safely and reliably before we build more plants.
NTH: Most reactors seem to be making a lot of money right now. Does that reflect on their safety record?
LOCHBAUM: If those plants were operating safely and reliably, Wall Street wouldn’t require federal loan guarantees for new construction. Wall Street must think there’s much uncertainty about their performance.
NTH: So you think Wall Street’s reluctance to invest because of the safety record?
LOCHBAUM: The industry has always had difficulty delivering on its promises. We started out building 130 plants and we ended up canceling half of them. So Wall Street wants some assurance that these companies are better managed.
NTH: The rest of the world is going ahead with nuclear. The Koreans, Japanese and Chinese are all building reactors. Is it that Korean, Japanese and Chinese engineers are more capable of reducing the inherent risks in nuclear technology?
LOCHBAUM: They’re not afflicted by the NRC. They don’t have to worry about the incompetence of the NRC at their plants.
NTH: Are you saying that the NRC has a NEGATIVE effect on safety?
LOCHBAUM: I think if the NRC were accused of being an effective regulator, it could not be convicted. When I see these recent reports saying the offshore oil industry ought to be following the NRC’s template, well I don’t think I’m in that camp. The NRC is broken, not bent but badly broken.
NTH: So you’re saying the Koreans and Japanese and Chinese are able to proceed better BECAUSE they don’t have the NRC making things worse for them?
LOCHBAUM: I’d say that’s true. When the NRC takes years to make up its mind whether to do or not do something, that kind of regulatory uncertainty and instability makes it hard for companies and vendors to figure out what time it is.
NTH: Well, I’m sure a lot of people in the industry would agree with you. They might also be surprised to hear this coming from you. But does this mean it’s possible we’re going to end up importing this technology that we invented? I don’t think it will be more than five years before the Koreans, Japanese and Chinese get so far ahead of us that they’ll be setting the world standard.
LOCHBAUM: I think we’re there now, aren’t we? If you look at the reactor vessel head count from recent years, you’ll find that they’re all coming from overseas suppliers. If you look at the new ones that are being talked about, it’s Areva’s EPR and Toshiba’s Westinghouse designs. Those are all foreign companies.
NTH: Well, isn’t this going to have some consequence? If the world goes ahead without us on nuclear, aren’t we going to suffer some economic deprivation if we can’t get out of this coal trap and move ahead with new technology?
LOCHBAUM: I think we’re behind on information technology already. But we’ve still got things like monster truck rallies and studio wrestling. The world has to come to us for that kind of stuff.
NTH: You sound like you’re being a little cynical. Is it just the NRC that you’re down on, or is it American culture in general?
LOCHBAUM: Well, if any country comes up with a better mousetrap, then they’ll capture the market. I can’t say whether that’s good, bad or indifferent for the United States.
NTH: So for you it’s not a matter of nuclear technology. It’s just the NRC that is the problem?
LOCHBAUM: I think if the NRC were more consistently effective regulator, I’d be out of a job. That would be fine, because in the long run we’d have better economic and safety performance. And more important, it would be better for the country because people wouldn’t fear plants if they were built in their backyard. Some of the basic concerns about nuclear power would be lessened if there were an effective nuclear cop on the beat.
NTH: What is it that makes nuclear so different? There’s general agreement with the EPA’s evaluation, for instance, that 24,000 people a year die of coal pollution. You also have a long history of deaths from other aspects of coal. Why aren’t you expressing the same kind of concern about that?
LOCHBAUM: We’re working to block construction of coal-fired plants.
NTH: Are you putting out daily bulletins or arguing that some of these plants should be shut down?
NTH: Well, in terms of the proportions, the number of deaths from nuclear power operations seems pretty slim. What is it about nuclear that attracts so much attention?
LOCHBAUM: I think it’s because two cities were wiped out by nuclear energy. Then there was the accident at Three Mile Island. You don’t see Hollywood making movies about the “Bowling Green Syndrome” or something like that. I’m trying to think of an example of a coal-fired plant.
NTH: So because Hollywood makes movies like “The China Syndrome” but they don’t make movies about coal . . . ?
LOCHBAUM: I don’t know. There may have been one. I also know that if there’s an earthquake anywhere in the world and if it’s within 25 miles of a nuclear plant there’s always a paragraph that says, “The effects were felt at the nuclear plant.”
NTH: Well, that may be true. But I remember a year ago CNN ran a headline on its website saying that a helicopter had made an emergency landing on a beach near the San Onofre reactor in California. Isn’t there a self-reinforcing syndrome here where anything associated with nuclear is assumed to be catastrophic?
NTH: I gave a talk at Brookings a couple of years ago and just before I did, there was a story that two people in Virginia Beach had been attacked by a shark. So I looked up the statistics and I found that since shark attacks were first recorded in 1924 there had been only 422 people killed by sharks. Every year about 500 people drown, in the ocean, in swimming pools, in their bathtubs. Yet if someone drowns it only makes the local news, whereas if someone is attacked by a shark, it makes the national news.
NTH: So are you saying that nuclear issues have more sex appeal, more press appeal?
LOCHBAUM: Yes. It’s similar to shark attacks. People are more scared. I remember one of the last big airline crashes was down in Florida, a couple of hundred people were killed. And that same weekend the same number of people were killed in traffic accidents. But for better or for worse, the airplane crash gets more attention.
NTH: But when most people cite these figures, they do it for correcting purposes. They say we should be more concerned about coal and less concerned about nuclear. You seem to be saying that this disproportional response is a good reason for being disproportionately responsive.
LOCHBAUM: That’s just the way people are. People are afraid of being attacked by a shark. It’s the same way with nuclear power. It’s not like other forms of power generation. Most people’s first awareness of nuclear energy – their first impression – was the mushroom cloud. I don’t know what people’s first impression of a coal plant is, but it’s kind of difficult to get past that mushroom cloud.
NTH: Yes, that’s probably true. But shouldn’t it be the role of intelligent people to help the public find some relief from these anxieties? You’re saying the public is fearful and it’s not your fault. That’s’ just the way people are. People think that nuclear power equals a mushroom cloud, that a reactor can blow up, and that it’s your job to help them exercise those fears.
LOCHBAUM: I don’t think so. I think the proper approach is to deal with the risk. If people had confidence in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission then those fears would be greatly alleviated.
NTH: So when Bob Herbert draws the conclusion that we have to give up nuclear power because of these perceived risks, he’s not misinterpreting you?
LOCHBAUM: His conclusion was not that nuclear power could never, ever play a role in American’s nuclear future. What he said was that we’re not ready. I think I would agree with that. We can become ready. We’re just not ready now. And it’s up to the administration to act upon this and get us ready or get us out of the game.
NTH: Mr. Lochbaum, thanks very much for your time.