Regulatory Roulette: The NRC's Inconsistent Oversight of Radioactive Releases from Nuclear Power Plants (2010)

September 2010

Protecting People and the Environment is the tagline used by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). This report shows that the NRC is not living up to its self-stated mission when it comes to accidental releases of radioactive liquids and gases from nuclear power plants.

While it is not possible to eliminate the risks of radioactive releases, the NRC has regulations in place to reduce this risk. All releases must be monitored, controlled and not exceed specific limits. These regulatory requirements constitute three-way social contracts between the NRC, plant owners, and the public. The contracts protect plant owners from the NRC imposing more rigorous, and costly, safety measures without first revising its regulations or amending the operating licenses through formal processes. The contracts also protect the public from the NRC accepting lower safety levels than those established by the regulatory requirements.

There have been more than 400 accidental leaks, some involving millions of gallons of contaminated water. Some of the leaks remained undetected for years. Nearly every nuclear plant in the country has experienced at least one accidental leak.

The NRC has breached its contract with the public by repeatedly tolerating unmonitored and uncontrolled leaks of radioactively contaminated water into the ground and nearby waterways. For years, the NRC sporadically sanctioned plant owners for violations of regulations. There was little correlation between the severity of the violation and whether a sanction was issued. But in all 27 cases in which plants accidentally released radioactive materials over the past four years, the NRC has allowed plant owners to violate these regulations with impunity.

While no fatalities have yet been linked to these recurring violations, people and the environment have already been harmed. For example, in 2005 is was reported that over six million gallons of tritium-laden water leaked from the Braidwood nuclear plant in Illinois, and the specter of radioactive contamination depressed the home prices of innocent families in the plume’s path.

The NRC must become the regulator the public deserves. The NRC cannot set the safety bar at acceptable levels and then meekly watch as plant owners limbo beneath it. The NRC must consistently and aggressively enforce its regulations to protect the public and environment from radioactive contamination.