Why is the US teaming with Russia to gut international nuclear safety standards?

The U.S. is teaming up with the people who brought us Chernobyl. Not in an effort to improve nuclear safety, but to block new safety rules proposed by Europe.

Michael Mariotte
December 9, 2014

Even after 30 years at NIRS, some days the news is just so appalling that it makes one want to scream. And some days, the actions of the U.S. government–regardless of who is in charge–are just wrong on so many levels that it makes one embarrassed to be an American.

Today is one of those days.

Actually, it should have been three or so weeks ago, when I first heard about this story from a European colleague who sent me a rather vague newslink about it. But I was swamped at the time, and it just sort of glanced off me then, victim of too much other pressing business. But when it came up again today; well, I’m appalled and embarrassed to be an American.

To me, it’s almost unbelievable. It sounds like the beginning of a plot from a bad spy novel. But here’s the headline from a December 1 article from Bloomberg News, brought to my attention today: Russia-U.S. Face Off Against Europe on Nuclear Safety.

That’s right: The government of the United States and the government of Russia are teaming together in an attempt to gut new post-Fukushima nuclear safety requirements proposed by European nations.

I could point out that, since the Windscale accident in the UK in 1957, there haven’t been any major meltdowns on European soil. By contrast, the U.S. had Three Mile Island and the Soviet Union had Chernobyl. Yes, Chernobyl was on Ukrainian soil, but make no mistake, it was a Soviet project and what’s left of the Soviet Union is called Russia. And Ukraine wants no part of Russia.

In fact, Ukraine wants so little to do with Russia that Russia felt compelled to seize Crimea – a part of Ukraine, and then invade Ukraine itself to make sure Ukraine noticed that Russia is still the big boy in the region. In response, the U.S. has imposed, and helped convince those same European nations to impose, major sanctions on Russia. And so now we’re in this new Cold War with Russia. Except, apparently, when it comes to nuclear power and nuclear safety, when the two nations other than Japan that actually suffered through a nuclear meltdown join together to try to tell all those other countries that have better nuclear safety records that their rules are too strict.

No wonder our colleagues in Europe are, if anything, even more appalled than I am–if that’s even possible.

What’s really going on here?

What’s going on is that European regulators, who are not exactly an anti-nuclear force it should be noted – our colleagues in Europe butt heads with them the same way we do with the NRC – had the gall to propose that their post-Fukushima safety modifications be made requirements under the Convention on Nuclear Safety treaty, which was created after the Chernobyl disaster. The U.S. and Russia are signers to that treaty. Thus, if the European modifications were made requirements, the U.S., theoretically at least, would have to implement them.

It probably goes without saying that the European modifications go much further than the NRC’s post-Fukushima actions. France alone will have to spend some $13 Billion implementing those requirements. And while France may get far more of its electricity from nuclear power than does the U.S., we still have many more reactors than they do. But estimates of the upgrade costs for our entire fleet run only around $3 Billion. And that’s if the NRC ever gets around to enforcing its post-Fukushima regulations. So far, not a single one has been implemented, and the NRC is rapidly backing off the most important ones – like requiring filtered vents for GE Mark I and II reactors, the same design that failed at Fukushima and would have permanently destroyed north-central Japan had the wind not been blowing nearly all the legions of airborne radiation over the Pacific Ocean instead of Japan itself.

So instead of teaming up with the Europeans, who apparently at least recognize that nuclear power may be just a little bit dangerous at times, the U.S. teams up with the nation that brought us Chernobyl and left a wasteland across northern Ukraine and southern Belarus. Yeah, good thinking.

Or maybe the U.S. is worried that if we agree to better safety regulations, some of that other European feeling – the kind that has gripped Germany, and Austria, and Italy and others, you know, the kind that leads nations to end the use of nuclear power entirely – might rub off on us. And who knows where that could lead? Maybe to abundant and affordable clean energy, and reduced profit and maybe even bankruptcy for a few utilities overly reliant on aging, dangerous nuclear reactors.

The reality is that no amount of nuclear safety regulation can assure nuclear safety. The next major accident could well occur on European soil, even with its post-Fukushima fixes. That’s why we work, every day, to end nuclear power entirely.

But, as long as reactors are operating, it’s simply irresponsible – negligent in fact – not to apply the lessons learned from nuclear accidents to those remaining reactors. And by collaborating with Russia in an attempt to block new safety steps, the U.S. is acting with deliberate negligence. The U.S. nuclear infrastructure – the NRC, the DOE, EPA, in this case the State Department, and the industry itself – thinks it knows better. It thinks it’s the gold standard for the world. But instead, it’s showing the world that far from going for the gold, it’s not even trying to place. It’s going to protect its nuclear industry from the rest of the world no matter the cost to our credibility abroad and our people and environment at home.

Sure, the next major nuclear accident could occur on European soil. But with its actions, the U.S. is making it more likely that it will happen here. And that is unforgivable.

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