NRC, EPA and federal regulators fall short
By: Glenn Scherer, Pine Journal
Newly unearthed memos confirm that U.S. regulators knew of a fatal defect in the General Electric reactor design that likely intensified Japan’s nuclear disaster. A safety officer at the Atomic Energy Commission – precursor to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission – wanted to ban the design in 1972, but his boss stamped it “safe” to protect the nuclear industry.
That jaw-dropping revelation causes me to reconsider recent Tea Party demands for the death of the Environmental Protection Agency. Despite my staunch environmentalism, I’m now willing to consider ridding us not only of EPA, but also NRC and every federal regulatory agency corrupted by big corporate influence.
My thinking is this: we might actually be safer if we eliminated all regulatory agencies and the false sense of security they provide. Agencies like NRC and EPA lull us with promises of environmental compliance, while often conniving with big corporations to fast-track pet projects, as they shove horrific public safety risks under the regulatory rug.
The NRC case is damning: in 1972 a federal safety official eerily described the disaster at Fukushima, saying that General Electric’s Mark I reactor presented unacceptable safety risks and should be banned. His supervisor, Joseph Hendrie, nixed the idea, arguing that a ban, “could well be the end of nuclear power. It would throw into question the continued operation of licensed plants, would make unlicenseable… plants now in review, and would generally create more turmoil than I can stand thinking about.” Had Hendrie foreseen Japan’s “turmoil” one wonders if he would have decided differently.
Instead, Mr. Hendrie was rewarded for siding with industry over safety. He was later made head of NRC! Today, 23 GE Mark I reactors are in service across the U.S. – with the same fatal engineering flaw built into every one.
As with NRC, so with EPA, where corporate corruption often turns the agency into a rubberstamp for unsafe practices. Observe, for example, natural gas companies clamoring to drill new wells across the U.S. using a controversial technique called hydraulic fracking. The New York Times recently revealed that EPA suppressed numerous studies showing fracking to be seriously harmful to freshwater, but the agency never acted.
Unpublished EPA studies, for example, concluded that radioactive fracking wastewater cannot be fully diluted in waterways. But despite wastewater radioactivity levels hundreds or thousands of times higher than the maximum federal drinking water standard, EPA has not required frequent testing of treated radioactive drilling wastewater before it goes into streams like Pennsylvania’s Delaware River, serving over 15 million people with drinking water.
The U.S. Mineral Management Service offers another example of corporate corruption courting disaster. MMS personnel under the Bush and Obama administrations regularly moved from oil companies to the agency. Maybe that’s why MMS waived a required environmental impact statement for BP’s Deepwater well. Instead it approved the company’s Gulf-wide Oil Response Plan, which included references to walruses (cut-and-pasted from BP’s Arctic Drilling Plan), and an emergency list with contact info for a dead scientist and a Japanese home shopping network. No one went to jail, but MMS was given a new alias to mask its past, redubbed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
No matter where you look you’ll find U.S. regulatory agencies in bed with big business. The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, is known for its chummy relationship with big water polluters like Occidental Chemical, and big shipping interests that support harbor dredging over ecological and public health concerns.
The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management – an agency supposed to protect public resources – regularly offers ridiculously low leasing prices to big mining and drilling companies, then allows them to ravage our public lands and waters.
Government agencies also do an abysmal job reviewing new products. There are, for example, 80,000 potentially toxic synthetic substances in current use today across America, of which only about 200 have been safety tested by U.S. regulators. Such genies – out of the bottle – can’t be re-corked.
After 9/11, we logically became obsessed with national security. But today, I’d argue that if you’re concerned for your kids, don’t only urge government to hunt down Al-qaeda. Demand that it create efficient federal regulators by slamming shut the revolving door between big corporations and agencies, and by lifting the veil of secrecy that conceals undue corporate influence. Most importantly, prosecute federal officials and corporate managers who subvert public safety in order to make rich corporations even richer.
Glenn Scherer is senior editor of Blue Ridge Press. To comment go to www.blueridgepress.com.