Behind the Scenes at Fairewinds & in the Nuke Industry

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Air Quotes
Written by Maggie Gundersen and Sue Prent

The US originally had 104 operating nuclear power plants. As these atomic reactors have declined with age, only 99 nukes remain operating, of which three more are now scheduled for shut down. Ten more atomic power reactors are on life-support as they await the infusion of taxpayer dollars necessary to continue operation, or shut down at or near the end of their design and material life. 

In preparation for a slew of sudden reactor decommissionings, the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade and lobbyist arm of the atomic power industry, is advocating for weaker decommissioning regulations.

Every time I read their propaganda, I am overcome by an irresistible urge to insert a flock of air quotes wherever the NEI has indulged in revisionist language.

For those less familiar with American popular culture, ‘air quotes’ are an ironic hand gesture indicating that the words being spoken probably mean something more or other than what you are intended to understand from them.   Air quotes function as the jargon of persuasion.

The NEI like many organs of the atomic power industry makes a lot of statements that beg for air quotes, so we thought it might be instructive to do a regular ‘Air Quotes’ feature on the Fairewinds website: sort of a cross between an instructional public service and a head-slap-in-disbelief moment of humor.   

Convenient translations to real-speak will be provided by the Fairewinds Crew.

Case in point is contained in an article from Nuclear Energy Insider, London, UK, July 13, 2016:

US reactor closures raise urgency of new decommissioning rules… A recent spate of early U.S. plant closures has increased the need for a swift implementation of new decommissioning regulations which match post-operation risk profiles, industry experts said.

Nuclear operators want new regulations which recognize lower risk profiles after a plant is permanently stopped.

Air Quote: Urgency? Need for ‘swift implementation’? These plants have been operating for 40 years, and the NRC allows the industry to have 60 more years to dismantle them. Why all of a sudden is there a rush to push the public under a bus as nuclear safety is thrown out the window.

“Post-operation risk profiles.”  The suggestion is that the risks associated with a plant in the decommissioning phase are negligible and operators of the plant should not be held to the same standards as when the plant was producing marketable energy.  That of course belies the fact that some risks actually increase in this phase.

Examples include risk associated with fuel handling, deterioration of infrastructure, undetected material failures in novel fuel storage systems, invasion by destructive vermin, a lesser skillset shared by a skeletal staff, and the ever-increasing risk of targeting by terrorists, and of course, acts of God.


Rod McCullum, Senior Director Used Fuel and Decommissioning Program Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), recommended the NRC pursue a limited-scope rulemaking to ensure swift implementation and make operable by rule what you’ve already done in numerous exemption requests.

Air Quote: Hundreds of comments were sent to the NRC asking for stronger decommissioning regulations for the nuclear power industry. Fairewinds alone sent a 40-page report highlighting the dangers during decommissioning. What NEI wants is for the NRC to accept all the weakened regulations submitted by the nuclear power industry while ignoring all the public comments that would strengthen decommissioning regulations.


Speaking to Nuclear Energy Insider June 24, McCullum said that by prioritizing the licensing actions, the NRC could address the transition issues by the end of the year.

“We would like the Commission to move more quickly, but they have not moved quickly and the NEI is thinking about how to inspire them to move quickly,” he said.

Air Quote: This is a not-so veiled threat by the atomic power industry to the NRC – if the nuke industry does not get what it wants, it will go to its friends in Congress and have Congress apply political pressure to the NRC. Who is regulating whom? That’s a WHOLE lot of hurry! One is tempted to ask where the fire is; but that’s an uncomfortable question when it comes to reactors.


Nuclear operators are optimizing spending in response to difficult market conditions and the industry has called for improvements to regulations for post-shutdown operations in order to reduce costs.

Air Quote: “Optimizing spending” simply means that they are spending as little as possible.   “Improvements to regulations” means a relaxing of rules that are costly to maintain.


According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), existing regulations do not adequately recognize lower risk profiles during the period when a power reactor permanently ceases operation, defuels, and decommissions. 

Air Quote:Lower risk profiles” is once again an unsubstantiated claim, encouraging the assumption that a reactor facility is at no risk, once it’s been shut-down.


To improve the efficiency of the regulatory process, the NRC launched in December 2015 the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR), a consultation on the current system of applying for license amendments and exemptions. 

Air Quote: “Improve the efficiency of the regulatory process.”  This is a pitch that hits a government agency where it lives: right in the budget.  If they further relax the already weakened rules, the NRC will spend less money and need to invest fewer man-hours in the regulatory process. Of course, the old adage: “You get what you pay for,” is more than a little true when it comes to issues of nuclear safety.


NRC and industry representatives have highlighted the significant expenditure needed to meet the current regulation by exemption used for decommissioning. 

Air Quote:  Decommissioning is going to cost us a lot more than we figured so we need to have the safety rules relaxed in order to make it more “cost effective” for us.


Meena Khanna, Branch Chief Plant Licensing Branch at the NRC, said the reactor shutdowns had put pressure on the time needed by staff to plan and schedule license reviews.

Air Quote: Pretty much as in the previous quote, only the costs are now being expressed in man hours. The solution they are obviously seeking is to be relieved of much of the essential labor and cost that is involved in executing their current responsibilities with regard to decommissioning.  Don’t hire more staff to handle the necessary work, simply deny that the work even exists.


There has, however, been a declining trend in the number of NRC staff hours per review

Air Quote: We aren’t actually doing the reviews as stringently as we are required under the current rule to do them; so we may as well drop the requirements.


As market pressures continue to impact operators' profits, an efficient implementation of new decommissioning rules is required to help limit the cost to industry and the regulatory authority.

Air Quote: The nuclear industry is losing money, lots of it, so they have to make the decommissioning process cheaper.

Behind the Scenes:


As we step into autumn and the seasons change, we’d like to share with all of you some of the exciting changes in our lives that occurred during the summer and more changes that will happen this fall.

Fairewinds Program Administrator Caroline Phillips and Fairewinds Web Content Manager/Audio Engineer Toby Aronson were married on May 28 in a beautiful lakeside ceremony in Hinesburg, Vermont. Following a superb outdoor party and dancing under the stars, the couple traveled in Spain for their two-week honeymoon.

Ben Shulman-Reed, a recent University of Vermont (UVM) graduate and Fairewinds Energy Education spring intern, joined the Fairewinds Crew! A phenomenal researcher and writer, Ben has been working alongside Fairewinds Chief Engineer Arnie Gundersen, Fairewinds colleagues, and Science Advisors on a ground breaking report that represents the culmination of a year’s worth of work. Stay tuned for its upcoming release.

Finally, it’s with a heavy but encouraging heart that we announce that Caroline (Phillips) Aronson will be leaving Fairewinds to pursue a career in Education. When Caroline joined us as Fairewinds Program Administrator two years ago, she arrived with her degree in American Literature from UVM, fluent in two languages, time spent living in Europe, South America, and Nova Scotia, and experience teaching English as a second language. During her two years with Fairewinds, Caroline has taken over our Twitter feed, Facebook Page, recruited and organized work with eight interns from UVM, grasped the plight of the world’s energy future, and become skilled at speaking truth to power. The high schoolers who have her for their teacher will be lucky indeed, and she will be sorely missed at Fairewinds.

Fairewinds In The News:

Fairewinds President Maggie Gundersen and Fairewinds Chief Engineer Arnie Gundersen are invited presenters at the 45th annual members meeting of the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution (NEC) on Saturday, October 22 at 118 Elliot Street in Brattleboro, Vermont. This meeting is free and open to the public. Maggie and Arnie will discuss The Flawed Myth of Nuclear Power by highlighting the nuclear industry's self-serving claims that atomic power provides an answer to global warming as well as the long-term radiation and environmental justice issues facing communities from nuclear power sites as they begin the slow process of decommissioning. To follow-up the themes of Fairewinds’ presentation, the film Down to Earth Climate Justice will be shown with a brief introduction by producer Anne D. (Andy) Burt. This documentary of first hand stories told by climate change activists of all ages is especially encouraging in its depiction of numerous young people stepping forward to take up the challenges facing our environment today. The meeting starts at 2pm, Maggie and Arnie will present around 3:45pm, and the movie will be shown at 5pm- come for all or only some, but come and join in the discussion of our energy and environmental future! 

Energy News:

LA Times:

On October 5, 1966, the Fermi-1 atomic reactor owned by the Detroit Edison utility suffered a partial meltdown caused by floating shrapnel inside the reactor vessel. In other words, 50-years ago, we almost lost Detroit.

Hiding behind the claims that no radiation from the nuclear plant entered the surrounding environment and no injuries were reported by staff, the nuclear industry has tried its best to sweep the partial meltdown of its first and only commercial fast-breeder reactor under the rug. LA Times reporter Michael Hiltzik, remembers the saga of Fermi-1’s partial meltdown. “It showed how unforgiving nuclear power technology could be. The accident’s cause was trivial, yet it succeeded in shutting down the plant for four years. (Fermi-1 was permanently shut down in 1972, but its successor, the 1,100-megawatt Fermi-2, went online in 1988 and is still operating.)”, Hiltzik writes.

The LA Times article by Hiltzik points out that the plant was equipped with elaborate monitoring systems and alarms that went off as designed, but were ignored by on-site workers. Union of Concerned Scientists David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project, compared this partial meltdown to one almost identical that occurred at a similar test reactor at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in California during 1959. Not only did the atomic industry fail to learn from its previous mistakes, but according to Mr. Lochbaum, Fermi workers “must have remembered this [Santa Susana] accident pretty well, since they duplicated almost every key aspect of it just seven years later.”

Unfortunately, it is not a surprise that engineering “mishaps” continue within the atomic power industry today. The San Onofre atomic reactor shut down after a botched replacement of its steam generators by its owner Southern California Edison. The French company formerly known as Areva, which is currently being purchased by Électricité de France (EDF), is having at least 28 of its atomic reactors investigated for "operating at risk of major accident due to carbon anomalies." These so-called “anomalies” are from shoddy parts manufactured by none other than – the company formerly known as Areva. “But the real problem is that the nuclear industry lost its credibility almost at its inception, and has never recovered,” writes Mr. Hiltzik, “It was hastily launched, endowed with the sort of government indulgence that breeds sloppiness, and has tried to conceal its faults through secrecy and legal bluster.”



Nuclear reactor components forged by the French nuclear engineering firm Areva in its factory in Le Creusot, France, have been found to contain dangerously high levels of carbon. These carbon levels make the metal brittle in the atomic reactor vessel and cap, potentially leading to catastrophic failure of the nuclear reactor vessel, allowing the cooling water to completely drain out and cause a meltdown. "The nature of the flaw in the steel, an excess of carbon, reduces steel toughness and renders the components vulnerable to fast fracture and catastrophic failure putting the NPP at risk of a major radioactive release to the environment", says nuclear safety expert John Large, whose consultancy Large Associates (LA) carried out a requested review following the notorious first discovery of this serious issue at the Flamanville plant, a new reactor currently under construction. Areva, a corporation that has been in economic chaos for approximately 5-years, is currently undergoing a major transition in which it will be sold in entirety to Électricité de France (EDF) by 2017. EDF has already taken over operating most of the company. The decision by the government to investigate 28 nuclear reactors designed and built by Areva comes just as EDF/Areva pushes forward with its highly controversial construction of the Hinkley atomic reactor in England. Areva’s horrific engineering blunder, now disguised under a new company name, is being investigated at 28 nuclear plants while ratepayers eat the cost. Atomic plants will be shut down in order to assess whether or not they were installed with this critical flaw causing the cost for power across Europe to rise.


Inheriting Hanford Blog: 

“I begin every day by using my breathing medication through a nebulizer. Every few hours after the first breathing treatment I depend on taking six different medications throughout the day just to be able to breathe.  My exposure to chemicals at the tank farms ruined my life,” writes Seth Ellingsworth, a former worker at the Hanford Waste Site in Washington, in a deeply moving blog post for the Hanford mentorship community blog. 

Seth Ellingsworth started his job to monitor for radiation and contamination at Hanford in 2003. Like dozens of his coworkers, when noxious, radioactive fumes leaked from a massive nuclear waste storage tank, Mr. Ellingsworth trusted his employers, the U.S. Department of Energy and its contractor Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), when they said everything was fine. Everything was not fine.

“I’ve talked to dozens of affected workers,” says Ellingsworth. “Over and over, I hear the same story: workers get exposed, the company denies it, and the company never knows what chemicals are in the air because they refused to do the proper surveying and sampling. Workers have a hard time finding a doctor who can treat them (doctors here do not want to go against Hanford), and then to top it off many workers have to fight for years to get their medical benefits. Many workers are too sick to work and do not receive compensation resulting in financial ruin.”

Sadly, Seth Ellingsworth’s story is not the first of its kind, because time and again the nuclear industry puts profit before the health of its workers, its community, and our world.