In the United States, radiation-related "safety" decisions regarding commercial nuclear power plants are handled very undemocratically. They are considered to be strictly the purview of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. State and federal courts, public utilities commissions, state energy commissions, water boards, air boards, EPA, DOE, and everyone else whose regulatory authority touches on nuclear power will insist that you cannot talk to them about "safety." You must go to the NRC.
And the folks at the NRC think they know everything because they've: "watched a lot of valves get turned" as one NRC resident inspector actually put it at a public hearing here last year.
Somehow that makes them "experts" regarding the economic costs of genetic damage to embryos in the womb, but I'm not sure how.
Ninety percent of the NRC's funding comes from the industry they regulate. The five largest nuclear power corporations own nearly half of the 104 commercial reactors in operation in the U.S.: Exelon (17), Entergy (11), FPL (8), Duke and Dominion (7 each). Lobbyists from these and other nuclear corporations hound our Congresspeople every day.
There are about 4,000 people on the NRC's staff. Usually two NRC inspectors are on site at each location, which might have 1,500 employees (the number of workers varies with the work load, the reactor design, the number of reactors on site, etc.). Overall, less than 1/2 of 1% of the working public is employed by the nuclear industry.
Radiation is supposed to be carefully contained on site. Assurances of >99.999999% containment are given with straight faces. Yet for every atom split for energy, at least two dangerous fission products are created on average, which are the first in a long chain of perhaps dozens of "radioactive decay products," all of which are harmful to humans. Every radioactive decay is capable of destroying DNA (the genetic code of life), or any container the radioactive material is stored in. Some of the radioactive products are noble gasses or radioactive hydrogen, which are virtually impossible to contain. Yet containment is always promised anyway (and always with a straight face).
Although records are invariably poorly kept, 2011 was surely the nuclear industry's worst year for containment ever, because of Fukushima. A million years worth of promised containment has already left the containment buildings, and Fukushima is still spewing more poisons daily. No matter how radiation escapes -- willfully, accidentally, noticed or unnoticed -- it can give you cancer or make you sick in all sorts of other ways.
On March 10, 2011, the day before Fukushima, the NRC revealed to the media that Vermont Yankee, a poorly-designed old reactor in America, would be granted a license extension in a few days. After an earthquake and tsunami in Japan the next day, a slew of nearly identical reactors began melting down and exploding before our eyes. Did the NRC change their minds and delay their decision? NO! Did they want to find out if what went wrong in Japan was applicable to Vermont? NO! The NRC does not lack in hubris, or in skill in manipulating the media to its advantage. Every accident -- even Fukushima -- is an "opportunity to learn," and so in their macabre way of thinking, every accident, no matter how severe, can be considered a GOOD thing!
Five politically-appointed commissioners make all the "big" decisions at the NRC, and so just three commissioners constitute a majority. There are about 320 million citizens in America, so in a sense, these three people -- who are not elected -- control the fate of more than one hundred million Americans each. That's what we call "democracy"?
And it gets worse: They have very finely-crafted laws to protect their power, such that over the past half century, thousands of local, state, and federal judges, as well as commissioners and other officials at all levels, have all deferred to the NRC, and thus, to these three individuals, whose identities change over time, but whose basic philosophy -- "keep the nuclear industry running, ignore the dangers" -- remains the same.
In addition to being lobbied constantly, politicians (who pick the commissioners) are given huge campaign contributions by the nuclear industry -- hundreds of millions of dollars every decade. Often, campaign contributions are given to BOTH candidates in a close election, so regardless of who wins, the winner is beholden to the nuclear industry.
In Vermont recently, a Federal judge threw out the state's attempt to get Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant shut down permanently after 40 years of constant leaks, piling waste, and random outages, because the judge was convinced the "real" reason Vermonters want the plant shut down is safety concerns -- regardless of the OTHER legal rationalities brought forth by the state's attorneys, such as: A prior agreement by the utility to shut the plant down if requested by the state; Lies told repeatedly by the utility to the state's citizens, and: Overpriced electricity the utility was offering the state.
But sooner or later, it always comes down to "safety". And as long as the NRC says the plants are safe, everyone else says they're safe too.
America is the most energy-wasting nation on the planet. Every nuclear power plant in America could be closed down if Americans would turn off extra lights, change to LED and CFL bulbs from incandescents, buy energy-efficient computers and other appliances, and make other small but important lifestyle changes and conservation efforts. No matter how frequently or how loudly the pro-nukers say it can't be done, the data clearly shows that it CAN be done (and dozens of other countries are doing it).
Instead, the NRC plans to continue to allow on-site nuclear waste storage in highly populated areas for the next 200 years because they don't know what else to do with the waste, even after 60 years and tens of billions of dollars worth of research. Not that there's anything surprising there: How can you make a container for something that can destroy its container? But the NRC doesn't see that as insurmountable, even though it is.
The NRC is beholden to no one but the nuclear industry they regulate. Their motto -- protecting people and the environment -- is criminally hollow.
The author is a computer programmer and educational software developer. In 2008 he wrote The Code Killers, a pictorial expose of the nuclear industry. The Code Killers is available online at his web site: www.acehoffman.org .
For more information about Vermont's attempt to shut down its sole reactor, check out these URLs:
Conservation Law Foundation hopes that perhaps Vermonters can get VY shut down on grounds other than "safety", such as: "economics, land use, and trustworthiness of the plant�s owners":
Also see Karl Grossman's article, "The Saga of Vermont Yankee, Nuclear Power in the US: a Rigged System," on CounterPunch at http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/01/23/nuclear-power-in-the-us-a-rigged-system/