When corrosion thinned the pipes that circulate cooling water in Exelon Corporation's nuclear reactors outside Chicago, the company had a simple solution—it kept lowering the minimum thickness it considered safe. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission did not notice for eight years, and when it did discover the safety violation—after a leak forced a 12-day shutdown—it gave Exelon only a slap on the wrist. “They always say, ‘Oh, but nothing happened,’” a former NRC regulator tells the New York Times. “Well, sooner or later, our luck—you know, we’re going to end up rolling craps.”
The NRC and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, have long been criticized as too tight with the nuclear industry to regulate it effectively. The number of civil penalties paid by reactor licensees has plunged 80% since the late 1990s, the result of ramped-up lobbying and fear of upsetting the nuclear industry and the cushy jobs it provides for post-government work, say critics. But with most of America's 104 reactors seeking 20-year extensions on their original 40-year licenses, a thorough review of how the system works is overdue, they say. “The only difference between Byron and Fukushima is luck,” adds another critic.