UCS’s Fourth Annual NRC Review Characterizes the Agency’s Performance as Improved but Still Inconsistent

‘Near-Misses’ are Fewer and Less Severe, but Still Happening

Published Mar 7, 2014


WASHINGTON (March 7, 2014) — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) demonstrated it can be an effective watchdog in 2013, but its overall record was marred by inconsistent enforcement and a number of significant safety lapses, according to a report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety in 2013: More Jekyll, Less Hyde,” is UCS’s fourth annual report on the performance of the NRC and U.S. nuclear power plants. Like previous editions, this year’s report summarizes “near-miss” incidents, defined as 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.

“Like Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic character Dr. Jekyll, the NRC is plagued by a split personality,” said report author David Lochbaum, the director of UCS’s Nuclear Safety Project. “In many cases, the agency does an admirable job protecting the public and industry workers by enforcing safety regulations. But the agency too often turns into Mr. Hyde, and that kind of behavior could lead to a serious accident.”  

Last year there were 10 reported near-misses due to, among other things, power outages, a collapsed crane, and aging equipment. The eight plants that experienced the near-miss incidents were Browns Ferry in Alabama, Arkansas Nuclear One in Arkansas, LaSalle in Illinois, Fort Calhoun in Nebraska, Oyster Creek in New Jersey, Shearon Harris in North Carolina, Susquehanna in Pennsylvania, and Columbia Generating Station in Washington, which had three separate near-misses last year. Last year’s near-miss at Fort Calhoun, which Lochbaum called “another example of the flawed process the NRC uses to relicense aging reactors,” was the fourth at the plant in the last four years.

The number of plant near-misses has declined slightly over the last few years, from 15 in 2011 to 14 in 2012 to 10 last year. The relative severity of these events also decreased last year. “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 report includes examples showing that the NRC is capable of meeting its mandate. For instance, Lochbaum praised the agency for tightening its oversight on aging components, placing Georgia’s nuclear licensing and inspection program on probation due to lax performance, and preventing the Fort Calhoun plant from restarting until it resolved safety problems.

But Lochbaum also took the agency to task for failing to require plant owners to transfer spent nuclear fuel from cooling pools to dry casks, failing to enforce its fire protection standards when nearly half of U.S. reactors are out of compliance, allowing the Diablo Canyon plant in California to operate despite serious deficiencies in its earthquake protection regime, and covering up documents revealing the threat a potential dam failure poses to the Oconee nuclear plant in South Carolina.

“The NRC knows that Diablo Canyon and Oconee are flouting its safety standards and is letting them get away with it,” said Lochbaum. “The only thing protecting the folks in California and South Carolina who live near those plants is plain luck.”

Lochbaum, who spent a year working for the NRC as a reactor safety trainer, offered a number of recommendations to strengthen the agency. All of them could be described as “no-brainers.” Among other things, Lochbaum said the NRC should:

  • periodically re-inspect safety fixes to make sure they are still effective;
  • revise its license renewal process to ensure plant owners are complying with all applicable regulations; and
  • require plant owners to evaluate why their routine testing and inspection procedures fail to discover longstanding problems.

“Many of the near-misses last year were due to design and operational problems that existed for years, if not decades,” said Lochbaum. “It’s not only inexcusable that plant owners are consistently overlooking potentially serious problems, their negligence also threatens the tens of millions of Americans who live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant.”