Our Heroes: David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists

Image from David Lochbaum

A nuclear engineer by training, Dave Lochbaum worked in nuclear power plants for nearly two decades. In the early 1990s, he and a colleague identified a safety problem in a plant where they were working, but were ignored when they raised the issue with the plant manager, the utility and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). After bringing their concerns to Congress, the problem was corrected not just at the original nuclear plant but at plants across the country.

Concerned about nuclear safety and frustrated with the NRC’s complacency, Lochbaum joined the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in 1996. Today, he directs the UCS Nuclear Safety Project and is widely considered one of the top independent authorities on nuclear power in the United States. At UCS, he monitors safety issues at the nation’s nuclear power plants, keeps a close eye on the NRC and is a go-to expert for the government, media and public during breaking events like the 2011 nuclear power plant crisis in Japan.

Drawn to the nuclear industry in part by his background – his father worked in the industry, too, and his mother’s family is from West Virginia where the coal mining industry’s environmental and public health legacy was inescapable – Dave identified the need for alternative energy at an early age, but now brings a balanced, nuanced and highly knowledgeable voice to the table.

Dave recently took time to talk with me by phone from his office in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Let’s start with Japan’s nuclear crisis. Having worked in nuclear power plants of the same design of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, what were your initial thoughts during the first week of the unfolding disaster?

As the hours passed, after the initial word of the earthquake went out, I honestly felt that the workers would be able to use that time to recover and mitigate how bad things would be, but when I saw the video the following morning, of the Unit 1 reactor building exploding, I knew pretty much it was game over.

And how do you now feel about this terrible catastrophe? Could it have been avoided?

Well, earlier this month, the Japanese government released a preliminary report on the accident that included nearly two dozen recommendations to make surviving Japanese nuclear reactors less vulnerable. When the to-do list after a disaster is that long, there are probably many items on that list that should have been done long ago to protect the public. Government officials don’t get bigger brains after disasters; they tend to get stronger spines to stand up against corporations that have resisted safety measures all along.

The crisis in Japan raised serious questions about the lax government oversight of Japan’s nuclear industry. Similar concerns have been raised about the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the government agency that oversees the nuclear industry in this country. Please tell us about the NRC and its origins, is it doing its job well, and what lessons can the NRC take away from Japan’s tragic experience?

Well the Nuclear Regulatory Commission started out as the Atomic Energy Commission back in the mid-1940s after World War II. It inherited the Manhattan Project. In the mid-70s, the atomic energy commission was split into two parts, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and what is now the Department of Energy to handle the promotional aspects of nuclear power. Across four decades of monitoring safety and security levels at U.S. reactors, UCS has consistently found that the NRC does a good job of establishing safety regulations, but a poor job of enforcing them. We seldom complain that the safety bar is set too low and needs to be raised; we more often complain that the NRC is watching its nuclear plants limbo beneath that safety bar.

Where do you see the NRC and nuclear safety headed in the wake of this disaster?

Well, I think the nuclear industry and the NRC both recognize that the status quo is dead. The tragedy that hit Japan is something that could happen here, so I think they both are realizing that the changes are absolutely necessary. The question remains whether, how far, how many steps will be taken down the road that need to be taken. I mentioned before that Japan’s government came up with a list of 24 recommendations to make their plants less vulnerable. The NRC and the industry have come up with a handful of recommendations. There are many more steps that need to be taken to make a Fukushima less likely to occur here.

Your organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists, does a lot of clean energy policy and advocacy work. What do you think the role of renewables will be in America’s energy future?

Well, ironically, I believe that the role of renewables in the future is best illustrated by nuclear power’s role in the past. It was just over 50 years ago that anyone on the planet first used nuclear power to generate electricity. In December 1952 scientists at the Idaho National Lab used nuclear power to illuminate four light bulbs. Over the past 50 years we went from four light bulbs to over 400 nuclear power reactors worldwide. With similar policies in national government support and focus, renewable energy technologies could easily replicate growth without, of course, the major disasters along the way.

How do you feel the government is doing at this point? Is it doing enough to push renewables, and energy efficiency as well, forward?

Unfortunately the federal government seems to still want to continue to give the bulk of the subsidies to the nuclear power industry in the forms of loan guarantees, liability breaks and so on. And for such an allegedly mature industry, it seems like that government largesse could be better used by the renewable energy technologies that provide the same clean air benefits that nuclear power does without the thorns on the nuclear rose.

This might be a good opportunity to say a few words on the Price-Anderson Act. That’s one of those big subsidies for the industry. Can you speak a little to that?

Yes, when the government first encouraged private industry to take over a nuclear power development, the civilian nuclear power industry, the major players, the reactor vendors and the prospective plant owners balked at undertaking that venture, because if a bad day ever occurred at a nuclear power plant the price tag on that, the liability for people living downwind, would be so large that it would be more than the capitalization of the companies running the facilities, as Fukushima and Chernobyl have all too realistically have shown us. So the federal government developed the Price-Anderson Act, which limits the liability coverage that private owners need to provide. Right now it’s currently $350 million. It provides a pool of insurance federally mandated for any offsite damages over that.

What that has done has basically inhibited the development of safety features because if you are a reactor vendor who develops some new widget that makes your plants much more safe, you don’t get a price break. That cost raises the capital cost of the plant, but you don’t get a break on insurance down the road as you do in other things where if you develop a safer product you reap benefits from reduced liability protection. But since the government limits it to 350 [million dollars], there is no incentive for developing and operating safer nuclear power plants.

Another key issue for UCS is the water and energy connection. Some of the older power plants withdraw a great amount of water from the local water body, whether it’s an estuary or a river or a lake. Could you please say a little bit about the relationship between water and energy and how nuclear power, in particular, is dependent on that relationship?

Nuclear power plants, in the United States and worldwide, are located next to a nearby lake, river or ocean, because they do need considerable amounts of water to remove the waste heat. Nuclear power plants are only 33 percent efficient. For every unit of electricity they send out over the power lines, there are two units of thermal power that are wasted and must be rejected to the environment. So they consumer large amounts of water to remove that large amount of waste heat.

The problem with global warming and droughts and other situations is that that nearby body of water may not be sufficient to remove that heat. Plants in the United States, France and elsewhere have had to shut down in summer because the hot water doesn’t allow them to reject that much heat. In addition, during drought situations, the nearby rivers and lakes sometimes can be lower due to the drought conditions and not be able to provide enough water to the plant to remove its heat. So while the nuclear industry will sometimes say nuclear power is the solution to global warming, if we don’t solve global warming nuclear power’s future is going to fade out.

In terms of climate change, can you speak to UCS’s position on nuclear with respect to the issue of climate change?

Currently, for example, in the United States, 20 percent of our electricity comes from nuclear power plants. That can’t go away tomorrow without having an impact on global warming, because if that were to happen likely a number of old fossil-fired plants would be put back into service or existing fossil-fired plants would be operated at a greater capacity factor, used more broadly, with the negative impacts on acid rain and global warming.

So we think the existing fleet of the nuclear power plants, if they are operated safely and securely, can serve as a transition technology to the better choices of tomorrow: renewable technologies as they are developed and expanded. So that we encourage the development of those renewable technologies that provide tremendous clean air benefits without the baggage of waste and accidents and other things that nuclear power poses. But we want to see, or prefer to see, that today’s nuclear power plants are operated as safely and securely as possible until we reach that better future tomorrow.

You are a nuclear engineer by training. What path led you to the Union of Concerned Scientists?

Back in 1992, a colleague and I were working at the Susquehanna Nuclear Plant in Pennsylvania. We discovered a safety problem with the spent fuel cooling system at that facility. We raised it to the plant owner who refused to do anything about it, so then we went to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which refused quite literally even to look at the issue. Then we went to the United States Congress and the three committees that oversee the NRC. They finally put enough pressure on the NRC to put enough pressure on the owner to cause the problem to be fixed. But shortly thereafter Bob Pollard retired from UCS as their nuclear safety engineer, and I applied for and got this position, to allow me to pursue fixes to safety problems without the fear of losing my job along the way.

The ability of an employee to feel comfortable speaking out is key to nuclear safety. I think you had recently been quoted in a New York Times article about an engineer who had raised concerns about an emergency venting system at his plant, a plant that was of similar design to facilities in Japan including the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Could you speak a little bit to that?

Back in 2005 a worker at a nuclear plant in the Midwest identified a problem with the containment vent system for that plant and plants like it, roughly one third of the plants in the United States. He raised that issue first to his own company, which didn’t want to fix it, then to the Boiling Water Reactors Owners Group, which were basically an informal group of all the owners of that type of reactor, and they didn’t want to fix it. Went to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Nuclear Energy Institute and all the others who should be concerned about that, and they all said it was so unlikely to ever to occur that it wasn’t necessary to fix it. And that was—the vent problem that the engineer raised involved the ability to open up the vents for the containment system in case there was an extended loss of power. Those vent valves are motor-operated valves, they need electricity in order to open. If you lose electricity, that’s one of the scenarios that can lead to core damage, or the scenario where you would need to open up the valves to vent the containment. But the safety net for that accident sequence won’t work, because the same thing that caused the accident, the cause of electricity, prevents those valves from working. That very scenario came into play at Fukushima and we saw explosions that destroyed three reactor buildings and damaged the primary containment on a fourth. So, had his concerns been listened to five or six years ago, those accidents might have been mitigated. By the way, that engineer no longer works in the nuclear industry, as part of the ethical cleansing that goes on in the industry.

Any particular fission stories that stand out in your mind from when you worked in the industry?

Well, I think the one that leaps to mind is there was a plant also in the Midwest that was trying to put in a better security system to protect the plant from outsiders who may wish to attack the plant and cause sabotage. So as they were drilling one of the holes for a security fence post, they inadvertently drilled through the electrical power supply to the plant and at that plant the normal power supply in the backup were stacked on top of each other so one auger drilled through both. So in the attempts of protecting against sabotage, they inadvertently sabotaged the plant. So it was the best laid plans of mice and men going south. So, people try real hard, but it’s amazing how many times unintended consequences can lessen those safety margins.

Have your views of nuclear power, nuclear safety and nuclear security changed over the years?

Well, I graduated from college and went into the nuclear industry shortly after the Three Mile Island accident and there was quite a bit of attention on safety and security at nuclear power plants. I guess I entered the nuclear industry thinking that nuclear power plants were generally well-managed, and that the NRC is an aggressive regulator. I now realize that not all plants are well-managed. Many are, but some aren’t. And the NRC is on the wrong end of the puppet strings.

Can you tell us a little bit about your work? Is there such a thing as a typical day for you?

It varies, but on average, I spend about one-third of my time fielding media questions or Congressional staff questions. About one-third of the day communicating with activists around the country, either answering their questions or I come across something that I thought might interest them so I communicate it to them. And the remaining one-third of the time is spent on my next report, my next testimony or my next fact sheet, on some nuclear safety problem somewhere.

Were there any early life experiences that led you to this profession?

My father worked for the Westinghouse Electric Corporation in their nuclear power arena. I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I toured the Shippingport nuclear power plant when I was 12 years old. My mother’s family comes from just across the border in West Virginia and I was familiar with the hazards and consequences of coal mining. So in those days I felt that nuclear power plants seemed to be more environmentally friendly than coal-fired plants, both in the whole cycle of cradle-to-grave.

How has your job and the related experiences changed you over the years?

Well, shortly after I came to UCS in the fall of 1996, I got involved in some work at the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant. I went up to Maine to speak at a panel arranged by a local group. Shortly after I returned to my office I received a package in the mail from a family up in Maine with a card thanking me for looking out for their interests and a tin of homemade cookies. I had worked in the nuclear power industry for over 17 years, but no one ever made me cookies. So an unexpected dividend of my UCS job has been working with dedicated and selfless people around the country. Their efforts, and more importantly, their results, have taught me that the American form of democracy works best when it’s not a spectator sport.

Who do you look up to? Who do you find inspiration in?

There’s a whole lot of people I've learned from and been inspired by. My father taught me to do what was right and not just what was convenient. Pete Pasqua, who was my department head in college, taught me that knowing the right answers wasn’t sufficient unless you've asked all the right questions. Jim Riccio, Paul Gunter, Paul Blanch, Arnie Gunderson, Ray Shadis, Rochelle Becker, Jim Warren and so many other activists around the country have shown me that if persistence and stubbornness is gold, they've got the keys to Fort Knox. So those are the people that keep me going day-to-day.