The crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami is a stark reminder of the risks inherent in nuclear power. One of its consequences has been heightened concern about the safety of nuclear power facilities in the United States.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency responsible for ensuring that U.S. nuclear plants are operated as safely as possible, gets mixed reviews in a March 2011 UCS report, The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety in 2010: A Brighter Spotlight Needed. The report—the first of an annual series—was prepared and scheduled for release before the crisis in Japan began to unfold, but the disaster makes the report’s conclusions more timely than ever.
Authored by UCS nuclear engineer David Lochbaum, the report examines 14 “near-misses” at U.S. nuclear plants during 2010 and evaluates the NRC response in each case. The events exposed a variety of shortcomings, such as inadequate training, faulty maintenance, poor design, and failure to investigate problems thoroughly.
Since NRC inspections cannot reveal more than a fraction of the problems that exist, it is crucial for the agency to respond effectively to the problems it does find. The report offers examples of both effective and ineffective responses.