What if: Nuclear Rules for Automobile Safety Recalls?

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Fast Fission Podcast #23 – Download MP3 Here

I’ve been reading a lot about the Toyota gas pedal recall because I own a Camry that is a few years old.  Several people have been killed in accidents resulting from sudden acceleration caused by a faulty accelerator design. So far my car is not in the group of affected vehicles, but I’m keeping my eye on it.

I’m sure you’ve noticed the press is having a feeding frenzy and many are demonizing Toyota. Congress has decided to get involved – they’ve scheduled a hearing to oversee the government’s response. Overall it’s been much like when an airplane crashes or a contaminated food product gets recalled – some people die, government agencies demand action to fix the immediate problem, and politicians act concerned until the media moves on to the next high profile news story.

Then the hypocrisy dawned on me – how differently we treat problems in the nuclear industry! For example, in Vermont where a minute, a barely measurable quantity of slightly radioactive liquid in test wells has politicians demanding action from Federal regulators, the state government and Public Service Board are delaying important decisions that threaten the plant’s long term financial viability, and many newspapers are regurgitating unsubstantiated claims of environmental harm made by sworn enemies of the plant.   Keep in mind that the tritium that has leaked from Vermont Yankee has not broken any laws, not exceeded any environmental limits, nor harmed even the smallest field mouse.

Consider that in the entire history of the US nuclear industry (about 40 years) not a single person has died from a reactor mishap at any commercial nuclear reactor in the United States. However, in this single instance of a gas pedal design defect a number of people have died (the exact number is not available) , many more have been injured, and these types of problems occur almost every year! If the government response to the Toyota acceleration issue, a problem that has actually killed people, used the same rules that we apply to the operation of commercial nuclear plants (where no deaths have occurred) we would have

  • Placed a federal ban on driving all Toyotas until the problem was thoroughly analyzed, the root cause determined, and repairs completed.
  • There would be an extent of condition analysis by a team of engineers to determine what other vehicles have similar gas pedals, and to recommend a course of action.
  • We would have added two full time government (NTSB) inspectors to every automobile manufacturing plant and every licensed automobile repair shop. The auto makers and repair shops would have to pay the salaries of the inspectors, plus a mark-up for administrative costs.  They would raise prices to pass along the cost to car buyers and owners.
  • Every car in America would be retrofit with two redundant emergency braking systems and battery backup power. Car owners would be forced to pay for the upgrades even if the cost was more than the car was worth. Violators would be subject to fines and prosecution.
  • We’d require special training for all drivers on how to respond to stuck accelerators, and what to do even if both emergency braking systems failed while driving at 120 mph hour going into a sharp turn – after all, that’s the worst case scenario, right?
  • Don’t forget we’d have to place a tax on every mile driven so we could pay for the environmental impact of waste oil and exhaust fumes, and for the eventual scrapping and decommissioning of the vehicles.

I am suggesting none of this. I’m merely pointing out the inequity in the amount and cost of Nuclear regulation considering the low risks posed by nuclear plants and the great benefits they provide: low cost, clean, reliable energy.

There are many risks in life that we as a society choose to ignore. Sometimes we’re willing to accept what is actually a very high risk (for example, riding a bicycle, driving a car, smoking, eating unhealthy foods, and playing sports) because we believe those activities add to our quality of life.  We also tend to perceive the risk to be less when we feel we have some control over the outcome.

There are many people who stand to gain financially and politically if Vermont Yankee shuts down or is denied a license renewal. The big financial winners would be companies and individuals who sell competing energy from gas and coal because that’s where the replacement power would come from.  The political winners would be anti-nuclear activists and politicians who have aligned themselves with the antis. The rest of us would be the losers: we’d suffer from higher energy prices, greater amounts of air pollution, and the loss of thousands of direct and indirect jobs.

If this scenario were to evolve in part from this ridiculous focus on an inconsequential tritium leak it would be an immense travesty of justice.

John Wheeler

This Week in Nuclear

Author: John Wheeler

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