There’s a trillion-dollar industry, a major portion of which has essentially no government oversight. It happens to handle the deadliest stuff on Earth.
I found this loophole by accident after San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) dropped an 80,000 lb object 40 feet on June 1st, 2001 (specifically, a crane was dropped). I heard about the incident from someone who works at the plant.
One would think that the recent crane accident was reportable to NRC. But it wasn’t, according to Charles Marschall ((817) 860-8185) of the NRC Region IV office in Texas (as I describe in documents linked to, below). Was it reportable to OSHA, Cal-OSHA, or to any agency? No. But safety at a billion-dollar facility involves looking at all aspects of the facility’s operation. You can’t just wait for a major accident to happen. You have to look at the small stuff to gauge how well a company can handle the big stuff. You have to look at the non-nuclear stuff to gauge whether a company might be able to safely handle the nuclear stuff (leaving aside for the moment, my contention that most “nuclear stuff” cannot be handled safely at all). All — and I stress all — crane accidents that have happened since SONGS opened (including one in 1997 involving an “inattentive” NRC-licensed crane operator moving nuclear fuel) relate to nuclear safety issues ge nerally, and to the upcoming plan for Dry Cask Storage at SONGS.
But NRC has taken too much responsibility to operate effectively. It thinks it can be all the usual government regulatory and oversight agencies at once. This is absurd. When I called the NRC and spoke to Mr. Marschall the Monday after the crane accident he said that it probably wasn’t reportable to them because it didn’t involve nuclear safety. A look at a hefty sampling of NRC incident reports appears to confirm that aside from actual worker deaths (and anti-nuclear protest activities), only a directly connected incident would be reported. Yet when I asked SONGS officers directly, which I was able to do because coincidentally there was an annual NRC safety review (whitewash) which the public was allowed to attend on June 11th, 2001 at the plant, they said it wasn’t reportable to anyone else.
(As an aside, Mr. Marschall didn’t happen to mention this opportunity in several phone calls in the week prior to Monday’s meeting, despite being the contact person for the public about the meeting. I found out about it on my own. I think that was rude, if not downright deceitful, not to have suggested I might want to attend. At the meeting a significant effort by the NRC team seemed to be made to make the public (three of us, including my wife and I) feel welcome and encouraged to attend these sorts of meetings. But where was even one word the week before about it, from Mr. Marschall?)
When I contacted OSHA, they replied that OSHA has no jurisdiction at a nuclear facility, because it would be under DOE jurisdiction instead (I have this in writing), which, of course, would really mean NRC, as the regulatory agency. Yet NRC only takes reports on nuclear stuff! That’s a loophole you can drop a crane through. And SONGS did just that.
The person I spoke to at OSHA said that this lack of OSHA oversight is actually very unusual. So unusual, that in fact, she could think of no other civilian industry which has similar exemptions from their oversight. Some government agencies, like the CIA, the FBI, the military, and the GSA, also don’t report to OSHA. But private contractors on military bases do, and even civil servants on those bases are protected by OSHA. So that’s some pretty elite company these nuke plants have! Question #1 is why? Question #2 is, is the NRC handling that responsibility correctly? The answer is indisputably no, for the simple reason that they virtually ignore the entire non-nuclear “side” of the plant. OSHA thinks DOE (i.e., NRC) is overseeing that area. But NRC isn’t. Where does that leave safety for our citizens?