The Relicensing of Columbia: Cover-Up or Gross Negligence?

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which regulates commercial nuclear power plants in this country, has renewed and extended the Columbia nuclear plant’s 40-year operating license to 2043, even though it wasn’t due to expire until 2023.

By Paul Koberstein

The early license renewal meant the plant’s aging components received at age 29 the kind of scrutiny they were originally scheduled to receive at around age 40. But as it turned out, the schedule wasn’t the only thing that was short-circuited. In its haste to reissue the license, the NRC missed a few things. It failed to disclose, discuss or assess the plant’s full range of safety and environmental impacts, such as the ones discussed below.

Charles H. Eccleston, a project manager with the NRC’s Office of License Renewal until he left in 2010, said in an interview that the omissions discovered by Cascadia Times appear to have violated both the NRC’s own regulations and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The NRC’s rules and NEPA, the nation’s primary environmental law, each requires the NRC to fully disclose these impacts in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The NRC did produce an EIS in April 2012, but the 300-page tome appears to be little more than boilerplate.

“During its license renewal process, NRC either intentionally covered up critical safety and decision-making issues or never discovered them in its process of preparing an EIS to extend the operating life by an additional 20 years,” Eccleston said in an online interview.

“If the former is true, the agency has conspired to withhold critical safety and decision-making information from the public, stakeholders, Congress, and the decision-maker. If the latter is true, the agency is guilty of gross negligence in executing its safety, environmental, and review responsibilities. In either case, the public is left to wonder about what other critical safety issues may also have not been reviewed or disclosed.”

Perhaps the most disturbing conclusion, Eccleston said, is that these same practices may have been repeated at numerous other sites in the process of renewing their operating licenses.

“It is anyone’s guess as to how many other flawed licenses have been granted that did not disclose or adequately evaluate key safety and environmental concerns. The public could be faced with the nuclear equivalent of a ‘ticking time bomb.’”

The NRC has allowed plants all across the country to pursue early relicensing . The NRC so far has extended the licenses of 73 reactors out of 100 in total, with applications for another 18 pending. Each extension gives plants a 50 percent longer life span than provided by the original license.

The relicensing process forces the NRC to peer into its crystal ball and project how well the nation’s nuclear power plants will perform far into the future. NRC regulations require applicants to address the effects of aging at their plants and describe how those effects will be managed.  The commission has the legal discretion to reject a license renewal if it finds that continued operation of a plant would endanger public health and safety or the environment, but has never made such a finding. In fact, it has never rejected a single application to extend a nuclear power plant’s original license.

The NRC’s Environmental Impact Statement on Columbia’s relicensing application provides no disclosure or discussion of:

the so-called “gas bubble issue,” which could lead to a meltdown under certain accident scenarios, according to NRC analyses. Those concerns have been studied for more than a decade, but still have not been resolved, as was discussed in Part 1;

the cracks in Columbia’s leaky condenser that were found in 2011. The NRC appears to have ignored a specific requirements that the condenser shell’s “structural integrity” be included as part of an “Aging Management Review” during the relicensing process. In addition, there was no disclosure of the high levels of radiation contamination in Columbia’s workplace, resulting in excessive contamination of workers. Both of these issues were discussed in Part 2;

Columbia’s worsening record of safety violations, including the miscalibration of Reactor Building monitors that the plant said are important to the prevention of uncontrolled releases of gaseous radioactivity, which was discussed in Part 3;

the frequent reliance on scrams to avoid accidents, described in Part 4; and

the exponential growth in its radioactive air emissions as well as the radiation dosages it spread beyond its site boundary; described in Part 5.

“The hill of NRC faults and deceptive practices is growing by the week,” Eccleston said. “I now have a list of about 20 major problems that I believe NRC could be sued on and the list just keeps expanding.”

Energy Northwest, owner of the Columbia Generating Station, did not respond to an email with questions about the relicensing process.

NRC Spokesman Victor Dricks said any increasing trend in radioactive dose “is something that would be readily apparent to the NRC inspector if the doses were to approach NRC dose limits.  As you acknowledge, the doses from Columbia’s radioactive effluents are well within NRC dose limits.  Therefore, Columbia remains in compliance with NRC dose limits.  The NRC will continue to inspect Columbia’s radioactive waste management system to ensure its continued compliance with NRC dose limits.  “

Of all the problems with the Columbia relicensing, the growth of radioactive air emissions may prove to be the most serious. In its review of Columbia’s relicensing application, the NRC said “the radiological impacts from the current operation of CGS are not expected to change significantly. Continued compliance with regulatory requirements is expected during the license renewal term; therefore, the impacts from radioactive effluents would be SMALL.”

It is true that the emissions as of today are small, but the trend is another matter. The NRC’s Environmental Impact Statement reported emissions data from only 2010. But if the NRC had dug a little deeper, and looked back an additional decade, it would have seen the big picture. After 1999, the radiological impacts from the operation of the plant grew by a factor of 264 through 2010. If this trend were to continue to climb at that same triple-digit rate throughout the 20-year license renewal term, the dosage of gamma radiation received by the public would exceed regulatory limits sometime around the year 2040  — or just a few years before the renewed license is due to expire.

In other words, instead of looking at just one year’s worth of data and projecting that the impacts from the plant’s radioactive effluents would continue to be SMALL, the NRC would have looked at the trend and projected they would become  ILLEGAL, as the chart below illustrates.

Using trend analysis software, this chart projects future gamma radiation doses for a hypothetical person outside the Columbia Generating Station site boundary. It assumes that doses will  increase in the future at the same triple-digit rate they increased from 1999 to 2010. This projection shows that the doses would exceed the federal standard of 120 millirads around 2040, as highlighted by the orange circle. Columbia’s extended license is due to expire in 2043. This projection is based on 2010 data that was cited by the NRC in its Environmental Impact Statement on the Columbia relicensing. It also includes actual data from the 11 years before that. Source: linear trend analysis using Microsoft Excel software, based on data in Columbia’s annual radiological effluent reports from 1999 to 2010.

Given that this report is being published more than 18 months after the NRC issued the license extension to Columbia, it is far too late for someone to use the information dug up here to mount any kind of legal challenge under NRC rules. The NRC allows interveners only 60 days to appeal any of its relicensing decisions.

But NEPA violations are another matter. NEPA gives interveners  six years to challenge agency decisions in court, but only if an intervener had previously  raised the issue, says Portland attorney Nina Bell. NEPA challenges are notoriously difficult to win and in these circumstances, probably impossible. A hearing before Congress into NRC relicensing failures may be the only recourse..

Northwest Environmental Advocates, a Portland group, was the only organization to challenge Columbia’s renewed license before it was issued. And the group filed its challenge late, under NRC rules.

Bell, the group’s executive director, says the NRC failed to notify her that Energy Northwest had applied for a renewed license 13 years early, despite its longtime history of intervening in license proceedings for seven commercial nuclear reactors in Washington State, including five Energy Northwest (WPPSS) projects, four of which were never completed. “We incorrectly assumed that the licensee and the NRC staff would consider us potentially interested parties and would therefore inform us,” said Bell, an attorney.

“Yet NWEA received no such notice.”

She said the late filing also had to do with the timing of an earthquake and nuclear accident halfway around the world. The Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear accident had not yet taken place on the date when the relicensing hearing notice was issued:  March 11, 2010. The accident happened on  March 11, 2011, almost exactly one year later.

Bell’s challenge focused solely on issues raised by the Fukushima accident. She says she was not aware of the issues now being raised by Cascadia Times.

Her petition noted that the NRC did not address the lessons learned from Fukushima in any previous license extensions, and deduced that the NRC likewise would not address the health and safety impacts of Fukushima in evaluating the environmental impacts of the Columbia plant.

Eventually, events proved her deduction to be accurate. The NRC did not address the Fukushima accident in the Columbia relicensing decision. Instead, it reviewed the Fukushima accident in an entirely separate process. The NRC denied Bell’s petition to reverse the license renewal.

“Do I have comments on the fact that NRC failed to address cracks in the condenser shell?” she asked. “It’s rather difficult to review all aging issues if one conducts the relicensing so far in advance of the end of the original license term, as NRC did with this plant.”

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