The Times has a good run-down of the mediocrity of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which probably isn’t as bad as Japan’s toothless, brainless agency, but is far from the strict regulator it should be:
Situated on the banks of the Connecticut River, the 39-year-old Vermont Yankee, whose reactor is similar in design to the stricken plant in Japan, suffered the partial collapse of a cooling tower in 2007. In January 2010, the plant’s operator, Entergy, discovered that nearby soil and groundwater had been contaminated by radioactive tritium, which had apparently leaked from underground piping. Just months before, the company assured state lawmakers that no such piping existed at the plant.
The Vermont Senate, concerned about the problems, voted overwhelmingly last year to prevent the plant from operating beyond the scheduled expiration of its license on March 21, 2012 — invoking a 2006 state law, unique to Vermont, that requires legislative approval for continued operations.
But one day before the quake and tsunami that set Japan’s crisis in motion, the N.R.C. approved Vermont Yankee’s bid for license renewal — just as it has for 62 other plants so far. Its fate is now the subject of a federal lawsuit.
The major issue with the NRC is that they are handing out 20 year extensions to plant licenses like t-shirts at a minor league baseball game. Since new construction is virtually halted, we’re left with a set of 40+ year-old plants, a lot of them with the same design as the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. Each new generation of reactors and plant designs incorporate improvements, and in light of the recent Japanese experience, I have to believe those improvements are important. Fukushima Daiichi, the older of the Fukushima sites, is a multi-billion dollar disaster. Fukushima Daini, which was designed and built a decade after the first Daiichi reactors, made it to cold shutdown. If we had a tougher NRC, I’d be less worried about the 51 year-old plant 21 miles from my front door.