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March 2011, Week 3

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[The online version of article includes a summary table 
of Nuclear Near Misses in 2010:
http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/nuclear_power/nrc-exec-summ-2010.pdf

For the full report, go to
http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/nuclear_power/nrc-2010-full-report.pdf 
-- moderator]

The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety in 2010: A
Brighter Spotlight Needed

by David Lochbaum,
director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Nuclear
Safety Program.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading
science-based nonprofit working for a healthy
environment and a safer world.

This report is the first in an annual series on the
safety-related performance of the owners of U.S.
nuclear power plants and the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission (NRC), which regulates the plants. The NRC’s
mission is to protect the public from the inherent
hazards of nuclear power.

In 2010, the NRC reported on 14 special inspections it
launched in response to troubling events, safety
equipment problems, and security shortcomings at
nuclear power plants. This report provides an overview
of each of these significant events, or "near-misses."

This overview shows that many of these significant
events occurred because reactor owners, and often the
NRC, tolerated known safety problems. For example, the
owner of the Calvert Cliffs plant in Maryland ended a
program to routinely replace safety components before
launching a new program to monitor degradation of those
components. As a result, an electrical device that had
been in use for longer than its service lifetime
failed, disabling critical safety components.

In another example, after declaring an emergency at its
Brunswick nuclear plant in North Carolina, the owner
failed to staff its emergency response teams within the
required amount of time. That lapse occurred because
workers did not know how to activate the automated
system that summons emergency workers to the site.

OUTSTANDING CATCHES BY THE NRC

This report also provides three examples where onsite
NRC inspectors made outstanding catches of safety
problems at the Oconee, Browns Ferry, and Kewaunee
nuclear plants--before these impairments could lead to
events requiring special inspections, or to major
accidents.

At the Oconee plant in South Carolina, the owner fixed
a problem with a vital safety system on Unit 1 that had
failed during a periodic test. However, the owner
decided that identical components on Units 2 and 3
could not possibly have the same problem. NRC
inspectors persistently challenged lame excuse after
lame excuse until the company finally agreed to test
the other two units. When it did so, their systems
failed, and NRC inspectors ensured that the company
corrected the problems.

POOR NRC OVERSIGHT

However, the NRC did not always serve the public well
in 2010. This report analyzes serious safety problems
at Peach Bottom, Indian Point, and Vermont Yankee that
the NRC overlooked or dismissed. At Indian Point, for
example, the NRC discovered that the liner of a
refueling cavity at Unit 2 has been leaking since at
least 1993. By allowing this reactor to continue
operating with equipment that cannot perform its only
safety function, the NRC is putting people living
around Indian Point at elevated and undue risk.

The NRC audits only about 5 percent of activities at
nuclear plants each year. Because its spotlight is more
like a strobe light--providing brief, narrow glimpses
into plant conditions--the NRC must focus on the most
important problem areas. Lessons from the 14 near-
misses reveal how the NRC should apply its limited
resources to reap the greatest returns to public
safety.

Because we have not reviewed all NRC actions, the three
positive and three negative examples do not represent
the agency’s best and worst performances in 2010.
Instead, the examples highlight patterns of NRC
behavior that contributed to these outcomes. The
positive examples clearly show that the NRC can be an
effective regulator. The negative examples attest that
the agency still has work to do to become the regulator
of nuclear power that the public deserves.

FINDINGS

Overall, our analysis of NRC oversight of safetyrelated
events and practices at U.S. nuclear power plants in
2010 suggests these conclusions:

* Nuclear power plants continue to experience problems
with safety-related equipment and worker errors that
increase the risk of damage to the reactor core--and
thus harm to employees and the public.

* Recognized but misdiagnosed or unresolved safety
problems often cause significant events at nuclear
power plants, or increase their severity.

* When onsite NRC inspectors discover a broken device,
an erroneous test result, or a maintenance activity
that does not reflect procedure, they too often focus
just on that problem. Every such finding should trigger
an evaluation of why an owner failed to fix a problem
before NRC inspectors found it.

* The NRC can better serve the U.S. public and plant
owners by emulating the persistence shown by onsite
inspectors who made good catches while eliminating the
indefensible lapses that led to negative outcomes.

* Four of the 14 special inspections occurred at three
plants owned by Progress Energy. While the company may
simply have had an unlucky year, corporate-wide
approaches to safety may have contributed to this poor
performance. When conditions trigger special
inspections at more than one plant with the same owner,
the NRC should formally evaluate whether corporate
policies and practices contributed to the shortcomings.

The chances of a disaster at a nuclear plant are low.
When the NRC finds safety problems and ensures that
owners address them--as happened last year at Oconee,
Browns Ferry, and Kewaunee--it keeps the risk posed by
nuclear power to workers and the public as low as
practical. But when the NRC tolerates unresolved safety
problems--as it did last year at Peach Bottom, Indian
Point, and Vermont Yankee--this lax oversight allows
that risk to rise. The more owners sweep safety
problems under the rug and the longer safety problems
remain uncorrected, the higher the risk climbs.

While none of the safety problems in 2010 caused harm
to plant employees or the public, their frequency--more
than one per month--is high for a mature industry. The
severe accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and
Chernobyl in 1986 occurred when a handful of known
problems-- aggravated by a few worker miscues--
transformed fairly routine events into catastrophes.
That plant owners could have avoided nearly all 14
nearmisses in 2010 had they corrected known
deficiencies in a timely manner suggests that our luck
at nuclear roulette may someday run out.

___________________________________________

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