Union of Concerned Scientists gives US nuclear oversight 'mixed reviews'

The report’s findings take on particular relevance given the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan, which has led some lawmakers to call for increased oversight of U.S. reactors.

The report identifies “serious safety problems” at three U.S. power plants that the NRC “overlooked or dismissed.”

At the Indian Point power plant in Buchanan, N.Y., the NRC found that a liner of a refueling cavity for one of the reactors had been leaking for 17 years.

“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 report says.

The liner, the UCS report says, is intended to prevent leakage of radioactive materials during an earthquake.

“That means the chances that the liner could fulfill its only safety function are nil. The NRC tolerates this longstanding safety violation,” the report says. “However, if an earthquake caused a near-miss at Indian Point, the NRC would sanction the company for having violated safety regulations for so long — even though the agency is essentially a co-conspirator in this crime.”

The report also points out three examples in which the NRC did an “outstanding” job catching safety issues.

For example, the owner of a Oconee nuclear plant in South Carolina fixed a safety problem at one reactor without making the same fix at the plant’s other reactors, according to the report.

“NRC inspectors persistently challenged lame excuse after lame excuse until the company finally agreed to test the other two units,” the report says. “When it did so, their systems failed, and NRC inspectors ensured that the company corrected the problems.”

Based on the analysis, the Union of Concerned Scientists is calling on the NRC to “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.”

A safety problem that is caught at one plant should result in a broad investigation about why the problem occurred in the first place, the report says.

“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,” the report says. “Every such finding should trigger an evaluation of why an owner failed to fix a problem before NRC inspectors found it.”

The NRC has stressed that U.S. nuclear plants are safe. The commission has noted that plants must show they can withstand major natural disasters in order to receive NRC approval.

UCS is an independent group of scientists that oversees the nuclear industry. The group takes no position on nuclear power.