When a safety net breaks, you don't simply treat the injuries suffered by the unlucky performers. You fix the net.
This analogy serves as the starting point for The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety in 2012: Tolerating the Intolerable, our third annual review of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's performance in policing the U.S. nuclear power industry. The report takes the NRC to task for its failure to consistently enforce its own regulations, effectively leaving long-term holes in the safety net that is supposed to protect the public from the inherent hazards of nuclear power.
According to the report, the NRC's lax oversight "reflects a poor safety culture," including a disconnect between the agency's workforce and its senior management, with managers tending to downplay safety problems and react negatively when workers point them out.
The report examines 14 “near-misses” at U.S. nuclear plants during 2012 and evaluates the NRC response in each case. In addition to these 14 near-misses, the report offers examples of both positive and negative aspects of the agency's safety performance:
Proactive CFSI efforts. Every year nuclear plant owners must replace or refurbish component parts to prevent aging degradation from affecting reliability and safety. These efforts are undermined when counterfeit, fradulent and suspect items (CFSI) are used. When recent reports indicated a growing problem of CFSI in government supply chains, NRC took steps to develop an action plan and improve its procedures for identifying and responding to CFSI problems, even though CFSI had not been implicated in any safety incidents up to that point.
Sustained focus on nuclear security. In December 2012, the NRC hosted the inaugural International Regulators Conference on Nuclear Security, featuring keynote speeches by high-ranking U.S. and international security officials and sessions on security topics with panels consisting of regulators from around the world. The NRC deserves credit for this sustained focus more than a decade after 9/11, as well as for conducting the conference in public.
Safety culture. In 2011, the NRC issued a statement outlining its expectation that the nuclear industry would take steps to "promote a positive safety culture." However, as a 2012 survey of NRC staff shows, the safety culture within the agency itself is deeply flawed, with nearly half of its employees expressing skepticism that the NRC is serious about addressing the issue.
Fire non-protection. After a 1975 fire at the Browns Ferry plant, the NRC adopted a new set of fire protection regulations, issued in 1980 and revised in 2004. In 2012, the NRC granted an extension to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), giving the TVA more time to prepare a fire regulation compliance plan—for that very same Browns Ferry plant. For over 30 years, the plant has been allowed to operate out of compliance with the regulations its own accident prompted.
Temporary storage of spent fuel. In 2012 a federal court ruled that the NRC had failed to meet its obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) by neglecting to prepare an environmental impact statement for its Waste Confidence Decision, which specifies how long nuclear waste may safely be stored at nuclear power plant sites.
Recurring reactor cooling water leaks. The near-miss at the Palisades plant, in which cooling water leakage was allowed to continue for nearly a month, even though the leak was in an area where NRC regulations require the plant to be shut down within six hours, points to an ongoing problem: the NRC routinely allows violations of this type to go unpenalized, thus "enabling poor decision-making by plant owners." In a similar incident at the Davis-Besse plant in 2002, the leakage problem was allowed to continue for years; a study later concluded that the reactor vessel head was less than a year from failure, which could have caused a serious accident, when the problem was finally detected and the plant shut down for repair.
Nuclear plant flooding hazards. NRC commissioners told a Senate committee in a 2012 hearing that a Fukushima-like disaster could not happen in the U.S. In fact, two years earler the NRC had notified the owner of the Oconee reactors, located downstream from the Jocassee dam, that they needed to implement measures to guard against what NRC risk analysts considered a near certainty of flood damage in the event of a dam failure. Not only did the commissioners mislead the Senate, they withheld this information from the public for two years.
Incomplete and inaccurate statements. Nuclear plant owners are required by law to include complete and accurate information in all documents they submit to the NRC. Yet each year, NRC staffers find themselves sending thousands of Requests for Additional Information (RAIs) to plant owners in connection with applications for licensing actions. While many of these RAIs no doubt involve questions that plant management honestly did not anticipate, it is also likely that in many cases the RAIs result from efforts to evade the legal requirement of completeness and accuracy, leaving it up to the NRC to take the initiative to ask an unwelcome question. The NRC currently does not investigate RAIs for evidence of such evasion, thus encouraging plant management to continue engaging in it.
Analysis of the near-miss data for the three years covered by UCS reports shows that 40 of the nation's 104 operating commercial reactors experienced a near miss between 2010 and 2012, with 12 reactors experiencing at least two near-miss events, and three—at Fort Calhoun, Palisades, and Wolf Creek—experiencing three or more. The three-year data indicate that the average U.S. reactor is likely to experience seven near misses over its 40-year license period (increasing to about ten if the license is extended by 20 years, as most have been).
While none of the near misses UCS has studied have resulted in harm to nuclear plant workers or the public, the "safety pyramid" principle used by industrial safety experts suggests that reducing the frequency of near misses will also reduce the likelihood of a major accident that could cause serious harm.