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POGO Alert: "Who the Hell is Regulating Who?" The NRC's Abdication of Responsibility

September 1, 1996 

 

The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has recently concluded its two-year investigation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Danielle Brian, POGO's Executive Director, stated, "Our findings prove that for nearly twenty years the NRC has acquiesced to the nuclear industry by allowing significant safety problems to fester for years before they are actually, if ever, fixed. What is the NRC doing to protect public safety?"

At Senator Joseph Biden's request, POGO's study will be part of a current General Accounting Office investigation examining deficiencies in the NRC's oversight program. Senator Biden stated, "The fox is guarding the henhouse, and I continue to be troubled by what appears to be a decidedly pro-industry tilt at the NRC." Senator Biden's concerns are confirmed by POGO's report. POGO's findings include:

A trend of "resolving" safety issues with "No Requirement" exists in which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) dismisses high priority safety improvements without actually fixing them. From 1984 to the present, more than half of the high priority Generic Safety Issues have been dismissed without requiring any safety improvements. This is part of the NRC's pattern for handling safety issues -- even those it deems high priority. For example, issues that do require changes are considered "resolved" before the change has been implemented. Thus, high priority safety issues are resolved only on paper and can wait more than a decade before actually, if ever, being fixed.

  • Lack of NRC oversight and lenient enforcement of its regulations have caused many safety issues to resurface recently. Despite the public perception that there has not recently been an accident in the United States:
  • One safety issue that has the potential to melt the nuclear core and/or break the containment of radioactivity, emergency sump performance, has reappeared four times since the issue was "resolved" eleven years ago -- most recently, in September 1995. This critical process involves recirculating water through the reactor system to maintain core cooling.
  • Degraded steam generator tubes, a problem "resolved" by the NRC in 1988, have ruptured at six nuclear power plants since its resolution. Steam generator tubes are used to convert water into steam which eventually drives the reactor's turbine-generator. According to a former NRC Commissioner, this problem is "...a loaded gun, an accident waiting to happen." This problem caused one plant to shut down in 1994, and caused an alert to be sent out to all nuclear plant-operating licensees in April 1995.
  • In 1990, as a result of diesel generator failures, Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro, Georgia was within hours of a meltdown. These generators are needed to restore power in case of an emergency and keep the reactor from melting down, yet they do not always start when needed. The NRC "resolved" this problem in 1993 with no new requirements. However, 89% of the offsite power outages occurring from 1965 to 1989 occurred when the major electrical power source either was already out of service or had failed during the outage.
  • In 1993, the Tennessee Valley Authority "...administered an examination to determine the Chemical Technicians current level of basic chemistry knowledge". The mean scores from TVA's three operating facilities ranged from 26% to 42%.
  • Water Hammer, a problem originally identified by the NRC in 1978 and resolved without any corrective requirements for operating plants in 1984, causes vibrations that rupture pipes and can spray radioactive water. Five water hammer events have been documented at Watts Bar (TN) with one recently listed by the plant on March 20, 1996.
  • The Thermo-Lag 330-1 Fire Barrier System, which is required to protect safe shutdown equipment, has yet to be replaced at all 80 reactors even though the NRC and the industry know that it is actually flammable. Instead, the industry developed "fire watch", a resolution that will only identify a fire but not retard it as required by NRC regulations.
  • In 1992, operators of TVA's Sequoyah facility (TN) discovered they had been operating the facility despite unreliable radiation monitors for fifteen years -- these monitors are vital to protecting the outside environment. The monitors were not likely to be triggered until a significant amount of radiation had already escaped into the atmosphere.

All 110 operating nuclear reactors in the U.S. are operating despite documented significant safety problems that have not been fixed or field-verified by the NRC:

  • The NRC has yet to verify 389 high priority safety improvements that the operators claim to have fixed, or implemented, at every nuclear power plant in the United States.
  • Currently, there are 76 high priority safety improvements that remain unimplemented at a minimum of 62 different nuclear power plants. Some of these issues were "resolved" as far back as 1978 by the NRC, yet these resolutions are known not to have been applied at all plants.

The NRC's acquiescence to the nuclear industry is blatant:

  • The NRC allows licensees to decide if they will follow the NRC's requested actions or if they would like to propose their own alternatives. In one case, the NRC management accepted all 25,000 opinions made for new technical specifications by the nuclear industry, despite NRC staff objections.
  • According to a 1993 NRC Inspector General report, NRC inspectors stated they were dissuaded from finding violations at nuclear power plants. Inspectors who made this allegation said they were personally penalized if they found violations.

NRC Chair Shirley Ann Jackson stated in April 1996, " . . . there is the danger that increased competitiveness in the electricity industry may create pressures to minimize expenditures to the point that safety is compromised." Jackson has repeated this theme in other recent speeches.

Currently, the NRC lists 11 nuclear reactors on their "Watch List" of plants needing additional oversight or with a declining trend in performance. They are Indian Point 3 (NY), Millstone 1, 2 and 3 (CT), Dresden 2 and 3 (IL). When a plant is listed on the "Watch List", time does not force safety to the forefront -- Dresden's reactors have been on the list for nearly ten years.

* [sic] Testimony of Loren L. Bush, NRC Chief. 


Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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