Fall 2011

Interview: He Can't Quit Fighting for Nuclear Safety | Fall 2011

Interview

He Can’t Quit Fighting for Nuclear Safety

Dave Lochbaum (center) testifies before a House committee considering an expanded role for nuclear power in the U.S. energy mix.

Dave Lochbaum has overseen the UCS nuclear power safety project for nearly 15 years. An expert in power plant operations and a former plant employee, he has worked tirelessly to educate policy makers and the public about safety problems—most visibly in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in Japan—and to compel U.S. plant owners, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and Congress to not only fix these problems but also improve the safety culture overall. He left UCS in 2009 to serve as a technology instructor for the NRC but returned to his watchdog role with us about a year later.

Dave spoke with Assistant Editor Heather Tuttle in July, shortly after an NRC task force released its post-Fukushima safety review.

Does the crisis at Fukushima appear to be over?

While the height of the crisis seems to have passed, significant challenges remain. The primary challenge is all the radioactive water that must be processed before it leaks into the ground or evaporates. A secondary challenge is all the damaged structures that are vulnerable to collapse, which would expose the local community to even more radiation.

Given the fact that the NRC reported 14 “near-misses” at U.S. reactors last year alone, is the industry any safer today than it was in the 1970s?

The nuclear industry is safer today than it was decades ago. But just as a car speeding through a school zone at 75 mph is technically safer than one at 95 mph, being safer doesn’t equate to safe enough. “Safe enough” is defined by compliance with established safety regulations. Too many reactors operate today in known violation of regulations—for example, the NRC has a list of nearly 50 reactors that do not meet fire protection regulations. That means luck, rather than skill, protects too many Americans. Fukushima demonstrated the tragedy that can occur when you run out of luck.

Based on your personal experience, what do you think has been the biggest obstacle to improved safety?

Complacency is the prime safety barrier. Just as the Titanic became vulnerable when its builders deemed it unsinkable, nuclear plants become vulnerable when their owners deem accidents unthinkable.

Did any of the NRC task force’s recommendations surprise you?

The task force surprised me most by essentially endorsing the status quo on emergency planning in America. The U.S. government advised Americans within 50 miles of the Fukushima reactors to evacuate, yet the evacuation radius around U.S. reactors only extends—at most—10 miles. It’s baffling that Americans are better protected against nuclear accidents in Japan than here at home.

How confident are you that these recommendations will bear fruit?

As I testified to Congress in March, I am confident that the NRC will identify what needs to be done, but I lack confidence that those safety fixes will be implemented in a timely manner.

What can UCS, our members, and the public do to improve nuclear safety?

It sometimes seems that NRC stands for Nielsen Ratings Commission. Letters to the editor and letters to elected officials urging them to pressure the NRC to fix the safety problems it has identified will hasten progress down that path.

What motivated you to leave the industry to come to work for UCS—not once but twice?

As my colleague Paul Blanch has observed, the nuclear industry practices ethical cleansing. Raising safety concerns in the industry is the surest ticket out of it. UCS, on the other hand, pays me to identify safety problems and advocate solutions.