Victor Gilinsky

Fear, Safety, and Nuclear Power

VTR Date: December 28, 1983

Guest: Gilinsky, Victor


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Victor Gilinsky
Title: “Fear, Safety, and Nuclear Power”
VTR: 12/28/83

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Not long ago, psychiatrist Robert DuPont wrote a piece in the New York Daily News entitled “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Nukes”? He wrote that, “Fear of nuclear power casts a dark shadow over the nation’s energy future”. He’s concerned, he wrote, that “the political debate about the proper place of nuclear power in this nation’s energy future is being warped by an irrational fear of this method of generating electricity”. Well, this is a subject of profound concern to us all, not just to someone like me who lives less than ten miles from the Indian Point nuclear facility here in New York, but to all of us who fear nuclear accidents, who fear that, at last, we may have forged the means of our own destruction, not with the weapons of war, but with the presumed instruments of peace. So that I’ve invited today to THE OPEN MIND, Victor Gilinsky, one of the members of this nation’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Mr. Gilinsky, I appreciate your joining me today. I know our topic is a difficult one, but it is the question of safety, and the concern of most Americans. Are we right, or is Dr. DuPont right? He identifies himself in this newspaper clipping as President of the Phobia Society of America. Do you think people who live in fear of nuclear accidents are phobic?

GILINSKY: Well, you know, there are, obviously, special fears that are attached to nuclear power, having to do with a lot of things, including its origins. But there are things to be concerned about. It’s obviously a technology that has certain intrinsic dangers. And, in order to assure public safety, you’ve got to be careful. That’s the main thing.

HEFFNER: How careful are we?

GILINSKY: Well, one of the things we’ve discovered is that, in many ways, we haven’t been careful enough. And what we’re trying to do now is to learn form the mistakes and correct the errors and improve the level of care.

HEFFNER: I guess, first, I’d want to know, why hadn’t we been careful enough, and who hadn’t been careful enough?

GILINSKY: Well, I think the difficulty goes back to the fact that we took this rather advanced technology with special dangers, as I said, attached to it, and turned it over to private utilities, I think, prematurely, before they were ready, before the technology was ready. And there’s an additional difficulty in that, in this country, we have a great number of utilities. We have, in fact, at the present time, something like 60 utilities involved in nuclear power. What that means is that most of them have one or two reactors, and just a few of them have more than that. And that means, further, that the ones with one or two reactors – and three-quarters of them have one or two reactors, or will have when the present construction program is complete – they tend not to develop, or it’s more difficult for them to develop, the critical mass, you might say, of technical skills and technical competence and managerial skills to operate this technology. In addition, many of these utilities had a kind of old-fashioned approach, you might say. They were used to running coal plants. There, you could run the plants until they broke down, and fix them, and that was okay. Well, it’s not okay in nuclear power. You have to be very careful. You have to anticipate problems. And it’s taken some of them rather long, perhaps too long, to come to that realization.

HEFFNER: Now, is this in the area of the technical skills or in the managerial skills?

GILINSKY: Well, both. I think that, often, you can’t separate the two. On the one hand, it’s a matter of understanding what to do, and understanding the technology; but also you have to be very firm and very disciplined in how you deal with it. And you have to be very respectful of it, so to speak. That’s something that people associate with Admiral Rickle in the Navy. It’s the kind of thing you think of when you think of the Admiral. And it did instill that sort of approach there. It didn’t get instilled in many, or too many, of the places where it was employed, technology was employed, in the commercial world. Now, let me say some of the companies have done a very good job. Some of them are very competent. But some of them aren’t. Some of them have done a poor job. And here we are, you know, 25 years after all of this got going, and we still have to drag some of these entities into the modern world.

HEFFNER: You say, “We still have to drag them into the modern world”. Who are “we”?

GILINSKY: Well, I’m talking about the fellow regulators. And I have to say that the regulators too, and the government generally, was slow to come into the realization of what was required in applying this technology commercially. I think there was a tendency to say that we are simply adding a different form of heat, so to speak, to a conventional plant, and that most of the skills were the skills of the utilities that had been employed earlier, and that there really wasn’t going to be a whole lot to it. The government just had to review the designs of the reactor, and if that was okay, the thing was going to work okay. It turns out that the technology has certain imperatives of its own, so to speak, and it affects not only how you want to design the entire plan, but also how you want to organize the human complement. And that was not understood well enough in the commercial world. It’s the kind of thing that Admiral Lookover did understand. In fact, it’s probably the essence of his genius, that he said that this thing is telling you that you have to design not only the reactor but the submarine in a certain way, and you have to run it in a certain way, and people have to get certain kinds of training. You know, on and on, and discipline.

HEFFNER: And you’re saying that’s true of the nuclear plants, not just of the nuclear submarines.

GILINSKY: Oh, it is more true of the nuclear plants, because they are very much bigger than the submarines. The submarines are little tea kettles compared to the commercial plants.

HEFFNER: You seem to be saying this is something in the past. Does that imply that we are past all that, and now it’s no longer technology as usual, business as usual, government as usual, but there is a firm enough recognition of the new imperatives?

GILINSKY: Well, I don’t think we’re there yet. But there has been a substantial change since the Three Mile Island accident. At least people realize that you can get yourself into a lot of trouble, and begin to discuss accidents in a much more straightforward way. People stopped talking about them as highly unlikely; realized that it’s something that could happen now. It isn’t just some, comparable to being hit by a meteor, or whatever. And generally speaking, people deal with this subject in a much more workmanlike way. And I think that’s a good thing. That’s true in my own agency. That’s true in most of the utilities that I visit. So, I regard that as a plus, that…

HEFFNER: But Commissioner, how can you deal with this phenomenon in a workmanlike way? You say it has “an imperative of its own”. It has a life, maybe death, of its own. How can one even consider developing the patters that are sufficient? Aren’t we dealing with a threat that is so overwhelming that we should not pretend that we can protect ourselves sufficiently? Or do you feel we can?

GILINSKY: I don’t think so. I think we can. I think it takes a great deal of care and discipline. I think we may have to introduce some changes in the institutions that would operate these plants. In fact, that’s one of the things I suggested, that we expand the scale of operation in the sense that we have organizations that operate a number of plants for individual utilities. I don’t think it’s a good thing to go on having 60 different entities operating plants. There’s too much division of our effort. There are too many answers to the same question. It makes it much more difficult for our own agency to supervise the safety of these activities. And it also means there’s inadequate sharing of experience, and so on. But, I think that this is something we can do, and it’s a worthwhile thing to do.

HEFFNER: You say, “Something we can do”. Now you mean in the sky, by and by, that we’ll have that pie? Or do you mean it’s something we can do; it is practical? Is it something we can do within the framework or our present political structure? Are we going to accomplish what you think needs to be accomplished?

GILINSKY: Well, it remains to be seen whether we’re going to deal adequately with the inadequate performance, you might say. But there are many of the utilities that do a perfectly decent workmanlike job, and I think they’re adequately attending to public safety and doing their job, running economic plants, and so on.

HEFFNER: But you and I are not going to worry about the ones who are doing the right job; we’re worried about the ones who are not.

GILINSKY: Right. That’s, you know, our job, to make sure that they are maintaining the discipline that’s required.

HEFFNER: Do you have the authority, do you have the capacity, do you have, not as an individual, in terms of the commission, do you have the wherewithal fro bringing about the changes that you feel are necessary?

GILINSKY: Well, the agency doesn’t lack for authority. There’s no question about that.

HEFFNER: What does it lack for?

GILINSKY: In my frank view…

HEFFNER: Please.

GILINSKY: …I think we’ve been slow in grabbing hold of some of these problems and dealing firmly with them. There’s a lot of history to this subject, and it weighs heavily on all the participants, both on the utilities side and on the government side. So, that’s certainly been a factor. I think one of the difficulties has been that there has not been sufficient accountability in the utilities. The utility managements have just gone on despite some really, situations you could only describe as a near disastrous, at least economically, in terms of failures that have led to having to almost rebuild plants because they weren’t adequately built. And yet there doesn’t seem to be the accountability at the top. We see the same people still there.

HEFFNER: Well, now, you say that your commission does have the authority, doesn’t lack for power. Therefore, I have to come back to what does it lack for in bringing about these changes that are necessary?

GILINSKY: Well, you have to go all the way back, and see how the thing developed. It developed as a very narrow look at the reactor part, at the nuclear part of a plant. I said earlier that the whole concept was that you were transferring this technology over to utilities that were running steam plants, and the government would just take a look at the reactor part. And, in fact, at the plans. And, in fact, not actually at the plans, but at the outlines, so to speak. At the conceptual plans.

HEFFNER: You mean, going from submarine to factory, to plant?

GILINSKY: Well, you might put it that way. Gradually, the agency realized that it had to get into more detail. And gradually, it realized it had to get into more detail in other parts of the plant. And eventually, it realized that it had to examine more carefully the human crew that was running the reactor. And then, more recently, particularly since the accident we had in Pennsylvania four and a half years ago, began to look harder at the management, the upper management, of these plants. But it’s been a slow process. And the agency has not leaped to expand its authority, you might say.

HEFFNER: Wouldn’t one logically assume that the agency would leap to expand its authority, given the life-and-death quality of what we’re talking about?

GILINSKY: Well, opinions differ on where we are in terms of safety, and…

HEFFNER: What’s your opinion?

GILINSKY: It’s a mixed bag. As I said, in many of the plants you have managements and operating crews that are highly competent. And people, when you go and talk to them, you feel immediately that you’ve got confidence in them. In other places – and I’ve been in a lot of plants; I must have been to, I don’t know, 75 units by now – you are not as confident. You don’t have the feeling that people are as disciplined and as conscious of their responsibilities as they should be. And I see it to be my job to improve that situation.

HEFFNER: But if the situation has not improved adequately to the needs of safety at this moment, if the situation is, as you describe it, some places, doesn’t that lead one to say, “For crying out loud, close them all down?” Those that are not meeting the standards that you, as a professional, would want to see them meet.

GILINSKY: Well, in fact, they are meeting, by and large, the standards that have been set.

HEFFNER: You mean the standards aren’t high enough?

GILINSKY: I think in many ways the standards haven’t dealt with the problems that they need to. And, again, this is part of this expanding view of what it really takes to run these plants. And also, you have to say, it’s difficult to set standards for management attention. Those aren’t things you can put down in numbers. Those are the qualitative, subjective matters. And they’re not easy to deal with.

HEFFNER: You’re one of five commissioners. What is your agenda for the commission? I don’t think that’s an unfair question to ask. Obviously you’re deeply concerned about the present situation. You understand its historical background. You understand there’s a new imperative. What’s your own agenda?

GILINSKY: Well, I’ve tried to get more attention focused on these operational questions, which I think are ultimately the most important. In the past, there’s been a tendency to emphasize design matters: Are the designs right? Should they be a valve here, should there be a valve there? Are the logistics systems adequate? And so on. By and large, these systems – you can argue about the details – are reasonable systems. What I think has not had enough attention is the quality of the crews that operate the plants. The training, the experience, and the overall discipline of the operation. Nothing is more important that that. It gets back to the kind of thing we were talking about, the admiral in the Navy. You know, I’ve been to some other countries recently, particularly Japan. It’s interesting how they do things. In many ways, it’s a much more disciplined operation. And much more careful, in many respects, than, at least many of our own utilities.

HEFFNER: Do you think that’s a general statement about the perfectionism of the Japanese? Or a heritage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

GILINSKY: I think it has to do with several factors: Partly the feeling on the part of everyone that they ought to be doing, it’s very important that they do a good job. You see it out of every level. That’s very impressive. But also, I think, an important factor is that the scale of their utilities is larger. Even though Japan overall has a smaller program, it has an even smaller number of utilities. So, by and large, you have these plants in the hands of the companies that are operating on a bigger scale. And that is a good thing, because that allows a certain standardized way of operating, standardized training. And you don’t have to solve each problem ten times; you solve it once, and then make sure that the solution is applied in each of the plants. And that was the kind of thing I was trying to get at, about our trying to change our scale of operation. Instead of having 60 entities, maybe you have six, or ten.

HEFFNER: You obviously believe that there’s not only economy in scale, but safety in scale, too.

GILINSKY: I think so, yes.

HEFFNER: Well, then again, you’re the expert. Are we who are questioning and listening to you, have to, by definition, feel rather helpless to bring about the changes that are clearly necessary, or clearly in terms of your own analysis. What is being done? What can be done?

GILINSKY: Well, here…

HEFFNER: Do we need to have a giant accident to bring about those changes?

GILINSKY: Well, let’s hope not.

HEFFNER: But do you think we do?

GILINSKY: Well, we need to sit down and think about these problems, in some cases, a little more seriously than we have up to now. The arrangement we have has to do with the historical setup of the utilities in the United Sates. And there is a disinclination to mess with that. Now, I’m not talking, when I said about changing he scale, about changing the ownership relations among the utilities. But I do think that we need to have larger operating companies operating under contract to utilities operating plants for a number of utilities. So we get a larger scale of operation. There will be standardized operation over procedures and discipline and training, over a larger scale. I think that would lead to an improvement.

HEFFNER: Do you also feel that enlarging the scale should be accompanied by making those who control this effort a public rather than private enterprise?

GILINSKY: I don’t know that that makes a whole lot of difference. These entities are, in a sense, all public enterprises, where they’re profit-making, or call them monopolies, they operate under strict regulation. And I don’t know that that is an important distinction.

HEFFNER: You don’t feel that it is? At this point, or never?

GILINSKY: No, but it doesn’t leap out at you. I don’t know. Many of the private entities do very well. And, you know, there is not, I think, a conflict between good economic…money-oriented management and safety. You see, people who are determined to run economic facilities often are determined to do a good job. And that usually means running a safe plant too. So, it’s…What we’re really talking about is setting up effective ways of dealing with very complex machinery that has certain dangers attached to it. And it requires a very high level of care, attention, discipline.

HEFFNER: Is your commission bringing this to the attention of the Congress, assuming that there are changes needed in the structuring of the commission? Or perhaps in some of the procedures it may make use of to exercise its authority?

GILINSKY: I don’t think that, as I said, that we lack for authority…

HEFFNER: People who will use the authority? Is that it?

GILINSKY: I think what we lack is a clear idea on how to use the authority, yes. A willingness to do that.

HEFFNER: Will that have to come from the commission members, or can it come from presidential leadership?

GILINSKY: Well, it, ultimately, by law, has to come by action of the commission. But I think the commission pays attention to, certainly, the president, and the Congress, and the public.

HEFFNER: Given the present makeup of the commission, may we anticipate changes along the lines that you would like to see changes come?

GILINSKY: Well, I don’t know. I will be leaving the commission in about six months, and my colleagues will have to deal with these problems. I don’t sense an eagerness to leap at the kind of things you were talking about.

HEFFNER: Is there that little concern for safety, then?

GILINSKY: Oh, no. I wouldn’t put it that way. I would just say that people have different views as to what is important, and how serious the problems are, and so on.

HEFFNER: Well, there was an interesting piece in the New York Times in July ’83. It said, Steven Marcus’ piece said, “One day recently, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decided that five nuclear power plants were potentially dangerous, and ordered them shut down. Then, on the very next day, the commission reversed itself”. Such is the tenuous position of the regulator. Too little regulation may expose people to danger. Too much may be costly and unnecessary. Is there division down the middle? Are they equally important?

GILINSKY: Well, just to show you how complex these things are: I was probably more responsible than anyone for that switch, reversing the…

HEFFNER: How so?

GILINSKY: Well, I felt that our staff did not have their facts together, and their thoughts together the first time around. And actually, the commission did not take a final position. It appeared as if they were going along, but, after reflection, and after, in fact, talking with industry people, we changed our minds, at least in part.

HEFFNER: Whether you changed your mind…

GILINSKY: But I think, in that case, it was a reasonable thing to do.

HEFFNER: When you changed your mind – and I respect what you say of course, about its being a reasonable shift the next day – what were the elements, or what were the proportions of the elements that went into the second decision? How much were you concerned about economics, and how much were you concerned about safety?

GILINSKY: Well, what was at issue at that point was whether or not to shut five plants down for inspections, 30 days from then, to examine pipes that were thought to be, or might be cracked, or might have cracks in them, because these are small cracks. One of the issues was how well the inspectors were able to identify these cracks. And, a few days after the meeting, we were going to get the results of tests that had been performed on sample pieces of equipment which contained cracks, which, when these tests were done, reveal how well the various utility inspectors were able to identify cracks. And what I suggested to them is that we wait until we get the results of those tests before we made a decision.

HEFFNER: Meaning if they could do it well you would go ahead, or if they couldn’t, you wouldn’t go ahead?

GILINSKY: Well, one of the uncertainties was how well they…how far we could base our decisions on the information we had. And the information was based, in part, on the results of these inspections. The question is: to what extent could you rely on them? Now, as it turned out, they performed very poorly. And I have to say that I think, whole our agency moved a little too fast at the start, it’s probably moving too slowly after having received all that information. So, if that doesn’t leave you with a sort of a clear view of who are the good guys, who are the bad guys…It’s an interesting example. You’re dealing with a pretty complex situation.

HEFFNER: Ambiguity. And one is supposed to be able to deal with ambiguity at this stage of life. But I must say, it scares the dough out of me. Doesn’t it out of you?

GILINSKY: Well, you’re often faced with situations in which your information is not as good as you’d like it to be. And the fact of the matter is you are dealing with facilities that are economically valuable. They turn out power for a lot of people. And you cannot simply turn them off on the basis of some vague speculation.

HEFFNER: That’s exactly the point. I wish we had another half hour…


HEFFNER: …but I’m just getting the signal that time is over. But some day we ought to talk about economics and safety.


HEFFNER: Thank you very much for joining me today.


HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.