Despite the Fukushima catastrophe in Japan last March, nuclear power is experiencing a rebirth in the United States. Billions of dollars in federal funding has been allocated to develop nuclear capacity; applications are under consideration to build more than a dozen new reactors; and last month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced approval for the construction of the first new nuclear reactors in more than three decades. 

But what about the nation’s existing fleet of aging reactors? Licensed to operate for 40 years, many of these plants are steadily, if quietly, getting extensions from the NRC. Seventy-one of the nation’s 104 plants already have won approval for 20-year extensions. The Center for Investigative Reporting, in collaboration with Al Jazeera English’s “People & Power,” takes a closer look into surprising problems in the NRC’s oversight of aging nuclear plants. 

This video originally aired on the Al Jazeera English program “People & Power.”

Narrator Serene Fang: On March 10, 2011, the highest-ranking members of the NRC, or Nuclear Regulatory Commission, gathered in Washington to make an important decision. In a unanimous vote, the NRC approves a 20-year license extension for the controversial Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.

Just hours later in Japan, a plant with the exact same nuclear reactor design will face a catastrophic event: A devastating earthquake, followed by a tsunami with waves twice as high as the seawall around the plant floods out the emergency generators. President Obama warns Americans in Japan to evacuate the danger zone.

Barack Obama: Yesterday, we called for an evacuation of American citizens who are within 50 miles of the plant.

Narrator: Without emergency power, engineers can’t keep the reactors cool. Gas explosions destroy Units 1, 2, 3 and 4. Radiation levels at the plant are so high that it will take months to get the situation under control.

Back in Washington, the chairman of the NRC, Gregory Jaczko, put the agency on high alert.

Gregory Jaczko: First and foremost, when there was the earthquake, the agency activated its emergency response center. We were concerned about the potential of a tsunami to hit the plants on the West Coast.

Narrator: Jaczko also ordered an immediate safety review of all U.S. plants.

Jaczko: Here in the United States, we have an obligation to the American people to undertake a systematic and methodical review of the safety of our own domestic nuclear facilities, in light of the natural disaster and resulting nuclear situation in Japan.

Narrator: There are 104 nuclear plants in the United States, originally licensed to operate for 40 years. Now, many are reaching the end of their approved lifespan, and the companies that operate them are looking to the NRC to relicense them for another 20 years. Our reporting has uncovered serious problems with NRC oversight that could be putting over 100 million Americans who live near nuclear plants at risk. 

This siren tests the emergency alert system in the towns surrounding the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. A series of dramatic equipment failures at the plant have put Vermonters on edge, the most dramatic of which was the collapse of a cooling tower in 2007.

Bob Stannard: Spewing cooling water all over the backyard. It wasn’t radioactive, but that wasn’t the point. The point was it’s a component of a nuclear power plant that was allowed to degrade to the degree where it actually fell down. And that one picture went viral around this state, and almost overnight, the support that this company had received since the day they bought the plant in 2002 evaporated.

Narrator: Bob Stannard, a former state legislator, says he was once pro-nuke but changed his mind after seeing these photos. He’s now a lobbyist for a local advocacy group.

Stannard: That a corporation that would allow this to happen to a plant – when they’re under the microscope and white-hot light of review, not only from the NRC but from the state of Vermont – that they would allow this to happen, I went to my wife and said, “I’ve got to go back to lobbying. I owe it to my grandchildren who weren’t born at that time to do what I can to close this plant down.”

Bob Audette: This picture, we believe, was taken by an employee of Vermont Yankee and was smuggled out to a nuclear safety advocate, who released it to the public.

Narrator: Bob Audette, a longtime reporter with the Brattleboro Reformer, says the company that runs the power plant, Entergy, initially hid the extent of the damage from the public, raising questions about their operating procedures.

Audette: They’re doing a cost-benefit analysis. So they’re saying, “How far can we push this machine? How far can we push this pipe before we replace it? This steam valve, this turbine, how long can the steam dryer last? Should we replace it ahead of time, or can we push it even farther just to save money?”

Narrator: And the cooling tower collapse wasn’t the only serious equipment failure, according to Vermont’s attorney general, William Sorrell. In 2004, poor maintenance on one of the plant’s electrical systems caused a serious fire in the turbine building, forcing the plant into emergency shutdown.

Then, in 2009, in a series of state hearings on the condition of the plant, Vermont officials asked Entergy if underground pipes at the plant could be leaking radioactively contaminated water. Time after time, Entergy executives testified that they had no underground pipes.

William Sorrell: They were on record repeatedly as denying the existence of underground pipes carrying radioactive materials.

Narrator: But in January of 2010, water contaminated with radioactive tritium was found leaking from these underground pipes. Entergy backtracked, telling Vermont’s attorney general that while they didn’t have underground pipes, they did have a network of buried pipes.

Sorrell: “Sorry, we’ve said this to you in the past, including under oath, but that was incorrect information, misleading information and ­– sorry.”

Narrator: Attorney General Sorrell opened a 17-month investigation. In a deposition videotaped for a later lawsuit, former Executive Vice President Curtis Hébert admitted that the company misled state officials.

Curtis Hébert: Testimony that was given pursuant to underground and below-surface pipes, that could have been more accurate. Just a general management breakdown is how I would describe it.

Sorrell: Shame on a multibillion-dollar-a-year corporation if they cannot articulate clearly, and if they can’t, that doesn’t mean that you give them a pass, and say, “Oh, mistake on your part.” I mean, you want absolute credibility and clarity from those that operate nuclear power plants.

Narrator: Vermont Yankee had to remove and treat more than 300,000 gallons of radioactively contaminated water.  By now, the state’s governor, attorney general and Legislature joined the groundswell against relicensing.

Randy Brock (Republican state senator): If its board of directors and its management were thoroughly infiltrated by anti-nuclear activists, I do not believe they could have done a better job of destroying their own case.

Narrator: But under U.S. law, only the NRC can decide if a plant is safe. And on the eve of the Fukushima disaster, the NRC approved Vermont Yankee’s 20-year license extension.

Audette: People don’t trust the NRC. They think it’s the lapdog of the industry, that basically it’s there to affirm everything the industry does. And it’s too cozy with the industry.

Narrator: It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The NRC initially developed an extensive inspection regimen to ensure aging plants were safe to operate an additional 20 years. But those inspections went awry with the very first nuclear plant that came up for relicensing: Yankee Rowe in Massachusetts.

Robert Pollard (of the Union of Concerned Scientists): Over the 30 years of its operation, the reactor vessel has become so embrittled that the vessel is in danger of rupturing.

Narrator: The NRC’s inspections found that the plant’s reactor vessel was in need of immediate replacement. Unwilling to spend the money, the company decided to shut the plant down even before its original license had expired.

David Lochbaum: That was an eye opener for the nuclear industry. You seek a 20-year extension to your facility, and you end up having to shut down eight years early.

Narrator: David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says that when the next plant came up for relicensing, the industry successfully lobbied to narrow the requirements.

Lochbaum: In 1995, the NRC revised its license renewal process to narrow the focus. That was the lesson learned from Yankee Rowe: We’ll just stop looking, and because we’re not looking, we cannot find any more of those problems.

Narrator: The NRC’s revised regulations for relicensing would now focus only on the aging management plans provided by the utility itself.

It’s striking what the NRC does not review: no thorough inspections of the infrastructure, no review of new earthquake hazards and no re-evaluation of emergency plans.

Lochbaum: We never look. So therefore, we never catch those shortcomings and fix them.

Narrator: Since then, 71 nuclear plants have applied for relicensing, and every single one has been approved. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko insists that the streamlined standards don’t put the public at risk. 

Jaczko: Our job is to make sure that plants are safe today, tomorrow and every day that they have a license to operate. So if there’s a problem with a particular facility, it’s our job to make sure they address that, that problem now, not wait until license renewal. 

Narrator: But NRC inspectors who are stationed in plants are only able to examine about 5 to 10 percent of plant systems each year. And several close calls have raised questions as to the adequacy of this oversight. At the Byron plant in Illinois, a critical pipe which cools the plant was allowed to rust to such a degree that it created an emergency.

George Mulley: They started to peel away the rust off the pipe, and the pipe just burst. It was done. The only thing holding that together was the rust, and so it burst. That forced the shutdown of a nuclear power plant. That doesn’t happen every day.

Narrator: George Mulley, a 26-year veteran of the NRC inspector general’s office, investigated the Byron emergency. He says corrosion like this doesn’t happen overnight. Month after month, plant engineers lowered the acceptable thickness of the pipe, eventually claiming that a paper-thin pipe would be safe to operate.

Mulley: Now, 0.03 is 300ths of an inch. I don’t know how ­– actually, I don’t know how you can get a pipe wall that thin. It’s like seven or eight sheets of paper. I mean, you are talking paper-thin, and this is carrying water under pressure used to cool a power plant.

Narrator: According to Mulley, the NRC should have caught the problem much earlier.

Mulley: There’s still an attitude in the agency and the managers ­– “Well, I trust the licensee.” 

Narrator: Mulley says this is a widespread problem at the NRC.

Mulley: I had a manager tell me once on an investigation ­– I said, “You didn’t check. This guy was not telling you the truth. You didn’t check what he told you; why is that?”

“Oh, I would never check what the licensee tells me.”

“Well, why is that?”

“Because it’s against regulations for licensees to lie to me.”

Narrator: In his final report to Congress, Mulley criticized the NRC’s oversight of the Byron plant. But instead of sending on his findings, his superiors rewrote the report to lay the blame on the utility and kept it from being made public.

We asked Chairman Jaczko about the Byron incident.

Jaczko: I wouldn’t necessarily characterize it with the characterization that the pipe burst. As I said, we have pipes that …

Narrator: Well, a worker was scraping rust off of it, and apparently, there was no pipe left, and he just scraped right through the rust.

Jaczko: Well, again, I think we have a very robust program here to, to address these issues. There are going to be challenges with corrosion and with other degradation of, of piping systems.

Mulley: You would hope that at least the Fukushima incident says, “You know what, you don’t like to think about it, but big things can happen, and you’ve got to act, and you’ve got to regulate as if big things can happen.”

Narrator: In California, one of the most seismically active zones in the world, many think it’s only a matter of time until the Big One.

Sam Blakeslee: This may be the facility that if something does go wrong, it could be our Fukushima – not because of a tsunami, but because of a massive earthquake that could cause catastrophic damage.

Narrator: State Sen. Sam Blakeslee represents the district that includes the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, considered the most seismically dangerous in the country.

Blakeslee: Now, if we’re talking about something over a magnitude 7, how much of that data is within 300 meters of a facility…

Narrator: Blakeslee knows the devastating power of earthquakes better than most. He has a Ph.D. in earthquake studies, and he’s been urging the NRC to take seismic threats more seriously.

In 2008, he became even more alarmed when a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey discovered a new earthquake fault.

Jeanne Hardebeck: Looking offshore, I found that a number of small earthquakes that previously had looked kind of scattered actually lined up along a line that ran, basically, right along the coastline near the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

Narrator: Jeanne Hardebeck’s research points to a dangerous possibility. She says that the newly discovered Shoreline Fault could combine with another fault called the Hosgri to create a powerful earthquake right at the plant. A similar scenario surprised Japanese seismologists at Fukushima.

But the owners of Diablo Canyon, Pacific Gas & Electric, say there’s nothing to worry about. They say Hardebeck’s analysis is flawed and that the plant can operate safely for years.

John Conway (of PG&E): Having now completed a very rigorous and thorough feasibility study, I’m both pleased and excited to announce we are officially beginning the process to seek license renewal for the Diablo Canyon facility.

Blakeslee: I could not understand why the utility’s racing to relicense before the seismic information came forward. It was almost as though they were afraid of what they would find.

Narrator: In the wake of the Japanese disaster, Blakeslee called for hearings and confronted an NRC official.

Blakeslee: We’re now in a situation where we have information about a Shoreline Fault – a new fault, in my district, next to my constituents – and you’re telling me you’re just going to continue business as usual and not delay to get the information before you do your safety review. And that’s unacceptable.

Troy Pruett (of the NRC): The Shoreline Fault is well below the acceleration is designed to …

Blakeslee: How do you know that?

Pruett: Based on the scientific studies that have been performed to date.

Blakeslee: By whom?

Pruett: There’s a number of folks that were involved with that. PG&E was a party to that. We expect licensees to do those studies.

Narrator: But relying on information from licensees to determine if a plant is safe may put the public at risk.

These PG&E documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting reveal that despite their public claims of safety, PG&E’s own seismologists have considered the implications of a magnitude 7.2 earthquake along the Shoreline Fault. This graph shows the ensuing shaking could exceed what the plant is designed to withstand.

Blakeslee: The problem is with the magnitude 7.2, you’re getting perilously close to the limits of the facility.

Narrator: But in its formal report to the NRC, PG&E sent another graph, this one showing no seismic concerns. They told the NRC that because the Shoreline Fault is segmented it can’t rupture with nearby faults, and therefore, a larger earthquake at the plant is impossible. Hardebeck says that way of thinking doesn’t add up.

Hardebeck: The data, I’m looking at it, actually doesn’t make sense to think of these faults not connecting to each other. The earthquakes along the Shoreline Fault very clearly go all the way to the Hosgri Fault.

Narrator: PG&E declined our request for an interview but in a written statement said, “Diablo Canyon was designed and constructed with seismic safety in mind and components of the facility were tested to withstand probable ground motions resulting from nearby faults.”

Blakeslee: We should be asking the question, “Why isn’t that work being done by other seismic organizations, which have no direct financial interest or benefit in how or when that data is viewed, reviewed and interpreted?” One of the reasons there isn’t that kind of rigorous third-party, independent oversight is because the NRC doesn’t ask it, doesn’t demand it, doesn’t seek it.

Narrator: PG&E isn’t the only company that has an incentive to minimize earthquake risks. While the industry claims all its plants are seismically safe, the NRC has recently acknowledged that at least 27 reactors in the U.S. have a known earthquake hazard that is greater than the plant is designed to withstand.

Entergy ad: Did you know that the Indian Point Energy Center helps power everything you see here, and here, and here?

Narrator: You might be surprised to know that the plant that tops the list is Indian Point, just outside New York City.

Entergy ad: It provides about a quarter of the electricity for New York City and Westchester.

Narrator: The plant’s owner, Entergy, has turned to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani as a paid spokesman because Indian Point has some powerful opponents in New York.

Andrew Cuomo: My position has been for a long time that the plant is risky and the plant should not operate.

Narrator: Governor Cuomo vigorously opposes Indian Point’s relicensing. His administration has sued the NRC, alleging that the agency is not enforcing its own safety regulations.

Anthony Roisman (legal consultant in New York and Vermont): There is a growing recognition, not just among crazies who wear headbands and play bongs, but a large body of conventional people like elected officials and states who are beginning to get nervous about the adequacy of nuclear power to be run safely in this country, not whether it could be, but whether it will be.

Narrator: We took a boat ride to within a few hundred yards of the plant with attorney Phillip Musegaas from the environmental group Riverkeeper, which has been working with Governor Cuomo to fight the relicensing of Indian Point.

Phillip Musegaas: What we’re looking at – the two big oval-top domes that you see are the two nuclear reactors. Each reactor takes in about 1.2 billion gallons of water a day.

One of the things we learned right off the bat, which amazed us, was that the relicensing process, we are not allowed to raise concerns about the risks of the spent fuel pools that hold all the nuclear waste. We’re not allowed to raise concerns about the emergency evacuation plan; we’re not allowed to raise concerns about terrorism or security.

Narrator: Terrorism is a real concern. The 9/11 Commission found one of the hijackers, Mohamed Atta, considered targeting a nuclear plant near New York City, believed to be Indian Point.  City officials ordered a review of evacuation plans. Barry Scanlon, a former official in the Federal Emergency Management Agency, helped write the review.

Barry Scanlon: We found that the plant’s plans, and the evacuation plans and preparedness plans, were not adequate to prevent an unacceptable dose of radiation affecting people should there be an event.

Narrator: What we got was people being incredulous, that they can’t get over the Bridge on a rainy day, never mind if there was an evacuation for a nuclear event. If a serious accident were to happen at Indian Point, this is where New York City would handle the crisis.

Kelly McKinney: Every hazard that you could imagine or we could imagine, we have plans for.

Narrator: Kelly McKinney is New York City’s deputy commissioner for planning and preparedness.

McKinney: So this is it, this is the Emergency Operations Center. So here is Amtrak, here is New Jersey Transit, here is Metro-North Railroad …

Narrator: New York City relies on the NRC’s guidelines for evacuation planning should there ever be a serious incident at Indian Point. Those guidelines say only a 10-mile evacuation zone is necessary.

McKinney: If we had a plume of radioactive material directed, that was headed to New York City, it is highly probable that the health commission would say, “Get into your homes and close the windows and close the doors.” And as we understand it, those levels are going to drop dramatically very quickly.

Narrator: Phillip Musegaas says that idea is a fantasy.

Musegaas: In Japan, the radioactive plumes and radioactive fallout extended well beyond 12 miles. There are areas, there are villages in Japan now 30, 40, 50 miles away, 60 miles away from the reactors, that will most likely be permanently uninhabitable because of the radioactive fallout.

Narrator: Entergy declined our request for an interview but in a statement said, “The company has demonstrated the plant can operate safely for an additional 20 years, and we expect to receive license renewal.”

Jaczko: I can’t comment specifically on Indian Point, but in general, I can just say our decisions about what is fundamental for safety are not based on considerations of cost. And that’s a very clear mandate that we have through our legislation that established the agency. We make decisions about what we think is important for safety.

Narrator: But increasingly, some states are pushing back on the NRC, questioning the agency’s decisions. Back in Vermont, the state has launched an unprecedented fight to reverse the NRC’s relicensing decision. The state Senate voted overwhelmingly to shut the plant down.

Sorrell: No question, the nuclear power industry quite apart from Entergy is watching this case very carefully. No question that the federal government is watching it.

Narrator: Entergy, which also owns Vermont Yankee, has sued the state for stepping on the NRC’s safety turf.

Audette: It is a battle between a small state of 600,000 people and a huge government agency and a huge industry that makes billions of dollars every year.            

Narrator: In January, a federal court ruled in the company’s favor, but Vermont’s attorney general says he intends to pursue an appeal. The case is expected to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Narrator: Meanwhile, late last year in Washington, a bitter dispute among the agency’s commissioners broke out in public congressional hearings.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.: Do you believe that employees, professional staff of the NRC, have experienced intimidation, hostile or offensive conduct by the chairman?

Kristine Svinicki (NRC commissioner): Yes.

Narrator: Infighting among the NRC’s commissioners threatens to keep it from moving quickly on safety reforms after Fukushima.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.: The American public rightly expects the NRC to redouble its efforts to ensure that our nuclear plants are the safest in the world. But that has not happened. We should be focusing on the work that you have to do, not petty politics and personal ambition.

Roisman: This regulatory agency does not regulate effectively. And until it does, there is no way that the public can have any confidence that plants, whether they’re licensed or relicensed, won’t have some catastrophic event. And there’s no point. No one will benefit from a post-catastrophic event, hand-wringing that says, “Oh, we should have done this and we’ll do this better next time.” The consequences are unimaginable.

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Serene Fang is a producer, editor and videographer based in the San Francisco Bay area. For the PBS series FRONTLINE/World, she produced and edited stories about emerging zoonotic diseases in Uganda; methyl-mercury pollution in the Arctic; and former Guantanamo detainees from China's restive Muslim population. She also directs and shoots a monthly web music series for PBS Arts. Her work has appeared on programs such as Nightline, MSNBC, PBS Need to Know, The Sundance Channel, Dateline NBC, and the Today Show. Fang has a master's degree in Journalism from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Joe Rubin is an investigative journalist and innovative storyteller. "iWitness," the interview series he helped create for PBS' FRONTLINE/World, won the 2009 Webby Award for the best online news and video series. As a videojournalist, Rubin helped usher in an era of backpack, NPR-style television reporting from five continents for programs such as ABC's "Nightline" and FRONTLINE/World. Rubin's documentaries have ranged from a look at present-day Cuba through the prism of vintage car mechanics to an investigation into the maddening hunt for notorious Serbian war criminals Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. Several of Rubin's projects have tackled environmental issues, including a documentary he produced for Al Jazeera English about a showdown in California over its global warming reduction law.