WASHINGTON (March 7, 2013)—Many of the significant safety lapses at U.S. nuclear power plants in 2012 happened because plant owners—and often the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)—either tolerated known problems or failed to address them adequately, according to a report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists. UCS, a nonprofit, nonpartisan science-based organization, has been evaluating nuclear plant safety for more than 40 years.
The report, “The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety in 2012: Tolerating the Intolerable,” is the third in an annual series on the performance of U.S. nuclear plants and the NRC. This year’s report documents the special inspections the NRC conducted in response to safety equipment problems and security shortcomings at 12 plants. None of the 14 “near-misses” that triggered special inspections in 2012 harmed plant employees or the public, but their frequency—more than one a month—is high for a mature industry.
“It’s evident the NRC is capable of being an effective watchdog,” said Dave Lochbaum, director of UCS’s Nuclear Safety Project and author of the report. “But too often the agency does not live up to its potential, and we are still finding significant problems at nuclear plants that could trigger a serious accident.”
Since UCS began issuing the report, Wolf Creek in Kansas, Palisades in Michigan and Fort Calhoun in Nebraska have been repeat offenders, experiencing three or more near-misses from 2010 through 2012. Over that three-year period, nearly 40 percent of the nuclear fleet experienced conditions that increased their likelihood of reactor core damage by at least a factor of 10—an unacceptably high percentage.
Besides Wolf Creek, Palisades and Fort Calhoun, the plants that experienced special inspections in 2012 were Farley in Alabama, Palo Verde in Arizona, San Onofre in California, Byron in Illinois, River Bend in Louisiana, Brunswick and Harris in North Carolina, Perry in Ohio, and Catawba in South Carolina. Wolf Creek and Fort Calhoun each experienced two near-misses last year.
“‘Defense in depth,’ NRC jargon for redundant safety systems, is supposed to ensure that one component failure or one operator failure won’t result in damage to the reactor core,” said Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who worked at U.S. plants for 17 years. “The most depressing thing about 2012’s near-misses is how many of them violated the single-failure principle.
“Many of the near-misses last year involved problems that were festering for years, if not decades,” he added. “That means that the plant owners’ testing and inspection regime is broken. Nothing is going to change unless the NRC requires plant owners to fix it.”
Lochbaum did have some compliments to pay. He commended the NRC for stepping up its efforts to ensure that plant owners don’t purchase and install counterfeit, fraudulent or suspect equipment. He also praised the agency for hosting the first International Regulators Conference on Nuclear Security, which took place in December.
Lochbaum also identified areas where improvement is needed. For example, he pointed out that the NRC’s “safety culture” is seriously compromised, according to a survey of agency staff conducted last fall. It found that only half of the agency’s workforce is fully engaged and that less than half believes the agency takes safety culture surveys seriously. “It is laudable that the NRC wants plant owners to establish and maintain positive safety culture at their nuclear plants,” writes Lochbaum. “It is laughable that the NRC’s own safety culture is so wanting.”
In addition, the NRC is lax about enforcing its fire regulations, Lochbaum noted. Nearly half the U.S. fleet still does not comply with the standard the agency established in 1980 and amended in 2004. Last year the NRC gave the Browns Ferry nuclear plant yet another extension to comply. The 1980 regulation was adopted in response to a fire that took place at … Browns Ferry.
Lochbaum also found that the NRC routinely fails to enforce its rules governing reactor coolant leaks. For example, the Palisades plant in Michigan was leaking reactor coolant for 28 consecutive days last summer. The NRC had the authority to slap the owner with a $3.92 million penalty, but it didn’t fine the plant a penny.
“The NRC’s job is more than just establishing safety standards. It also involves enforcing them consistently,” said Lochbaum. “Setting safety standards properly means one knows what it takes to protect public health. Failing to enforce them means one really doesn’t care if the public is protected or not. That’s unacceptable.”