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Asking about safety of oil drilling is fair

After 11 fatalities and an estimated 206 million gallons of oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico, people are asking whether drilling for oil can be done safely to protect people and the environment. 

It’s a fair question. My answer is “yes.” By applying the leadership and innovation that have built this nation, oil drilling can be safer, more efficient and more reliable.  We can follow the model of energy safety created for the nuclear industry.

On April 1, 1979, the most serious event in U.S. commercial nuclear energy happened at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.  Although there were no fatalities or injuries, and the safety systems and equipment worked as designed, there was a release of radiation into the atmosphere. 

Shortly after the Three Mile Island incident, three U.S. nuclear industry leaders, Dr. Zach Pate, Mr. Joe Farley and Mr. Bill Lee, met to discuss nuclear safety reaching four significant points of agreement that were in concert with the Kemeny Commission (created by then President Jimmy Carter to review Three Mile Island). 

1) Safe operations must be the most important goal of commercial nuclear power plant operations. 

2) Companies who own and operate commercial nuclear plants must unite for safe operations as a shared goal, not a competitive advantage. 

3) Nuclear power plant employees must be trained to implement a culture of continuous improvement in safe operations.  

4) Technology will be fully utilized to ensure safe nuclear power plant operations. 

Turning agreement into action, in Dec. 1979 the Institute of Nuclear Plant Operations (INPO) was founded “to promote the highest levels of safety and reliability — to promote excellence — in the operation of commercial nuclear power plants.”

INPO is funded by member companies who own and operate nuclear plants, and provides inspection, training, assistance and evaluation based on self-imposed high standards of safety.  INPO does not replace the strict regulation of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but performs a complimentary role.

The INPO system has worked well.  U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics show that it is safer to work in a nuclear power plant than in a bank, and on average U.S. nuclear plants are online 91 percent of the time generating clean, carbon-free electricity at an average cost of just 1.9 cents per kWh.  Grand Gulf Nuclear Station near Port Gibson recently celebrated 25 years of safe, reliable operations. Grand Gulf is implementing an uprate which will make it the largest single-unit producer of nuclear electricity in the nation. 

By adopting the INPO model for oil drilling, the oil industry can increase safety through enhanced communications, stringent inspections, higher safety and evaluation standards, enhanced training programs and the application of new technologies.  This innovative model for the oil industry will result in the enhanced safety of employees, the public and environment. 

Oil will continue to be an important fuel for the U.S. economy for decades to come.  The oil industry can achieve safe operations, but it will require a united and unwavering commitment to implementing a safety culture. 


Glenn McCullough Jr. is a former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, former INPO director and member of  the Executive Committee of the board, former mayor of Tupelo and current chairman of Advance Mississippi, an energy policy coalition.


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