U.S. Nuclear Safety Improving, but NRC Withholding Safety Data and Punishing Whistleblowers, UCS Annual Review Finds

Published Mar 6, 2015 Updated Mar 6, 2016

WASHINGTON (March 9, 2015) — There’s good news and bad news in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ annual review of Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) performance and nuclear plant safety.

The number and severity of “near miss” incidents have been steadily declining since UCS initiated its annual review in 2010. In 2010, there were 19; last year there were 11. Last year, the NRC also took steps to strengthen its reactor oversight process. That’s the good news.

The bad news is the agency has been unnecessarily withholding non-sensitive safety data, tolerating inconsistent reporting methods from its field offices, and unfairly punishing whistleblowers who raised safety concerns.

“The NRC likes to say that it represents the ‘gold standard’ for nuclear safety regulation around the world,” said report author David Lochbaum, director of UCS’s Nuclear Safety Project. “And the fact that there are fewer near-miss incidents than there were just a few years ago suggests that may be true. But hiding safety information and persecuting whistleblowers for doing the right thing to protect the public takes a bit of luster off that gold.”

Like previous reports, this year’s review summarizes “near-miss” incidents, when the NRC dispatches an inspection team to investigate an event or condition that increases the chance of reactor core damage by a factor of 10 or more. It also analyzes safety trends since 2010 and cites examples of when the NRC acted last year to ensure nuclear safety as well as when the agency failed to do its job.

Six of the 11 near misses last year were due to electrical system problems stemming from either poor maintenance practices or faulty equipment, or both. The remaining were due to undisclosed security problems. The eight plants that experienced the near miss incidents were Calvert Cliffs in Maryland; Catawba in South Carolina; Clinton in Illinois; Fermi in Michigan; Grand Gulf in Mississippi; Joseph M. Farley in Alabama; Millstone in Connecticut, which experienced two; and River Bend in Louisiana.

The number of plant near misses has declined over the last several years.

“One data point doesn’t necessarily constitute a trend,” said Lochbaum, who worked in the nuclear industry for 17 years before joining UCS. “But the fact that the number of significant safety lapses is slowly dropping is encouraging. The longer this trend continues, the more likely it represents actual improvement and not luck.

“That said,” he added, “it would be a mistake for the NRC to declare victory and stop playing close attention.”

Lochbaum commended the NRC for conducting two reviews last year to evaluate and strengthen a program it established in 2000, the Reactor Oversight Process, to monitor and maintain reactor safety. He also applauded the agency for continuing its efforts to debrief staff members on the cusp of retirement to ensure the knowledge they acquired over years of service would not be lost.  

But Lochbaum took the agency to task for withholding virtually all documents it received from nuclear plant owners regarding fire protection and emergency planning since 2004. None of the documents could be construed as sensitive, and some of them involved plant owner requests for revisions to their operating licenses or exemptions from safety regulations. When the NRC approved license changes or granted exemptions, it deprived the public its legal right to review and contest the requests.

Lochbaum also rebuked the NRC for harassing two staff whistleblowers, Lawrence S. Criscione and Michael Peck, who have been the subject of multiple investigations by the NRC’s inspector general and relegated to dead-end jobs for raising safety concerns. Criscione blew the whistle on inadequate flood protection at the Oconee plant in South Carolina, while Peck—an inspector at the Diablo Canyon plant in California—objected to an NRC report that downplayed the seismic risks at his facility.

“Mistreating Criscione and Peck is wrong because it is unjustified,” writes Lochbaum. “But it is also wrong because many other workers within the NRC are aware of the unwarranted abuse that these two nuclear safety stalwarts experienced simply for their vigilance about safety. The ‘chilling effect’ on the NRC workforce must be rectified.”   

Lochbaum offered a number of recommendations to strengthen the agency. Among other things, he proposed that the NRC consider additional enforcement and inspection efforts to curb the adverse trend of electrical system failure and encourage plant owners to pay closer attention to safety when making modifications to their facilities and during maintenance procedures. He also said the NRC should require plant owners to formally evaluate why their routine testing and inspection regimes fail to discover longstanding problems.

“If the NRC makes these needed reforms, it will likely be successful,” said Lochbaum. “Any regulator truly deserving a gold standard label would not balk at doing what it needs to do to get there.”