Nuclear Watchdog Agency Shows Signs of Loosing Bite the Monitor Today Begins an Examination of the Effectivenesss of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission - the Nation's Nuclear Cop. Subsequent Articles Will Look at Conflicts Related to the Watts Bar Plant in Tennessee, a Day in the Life of a Nuclear Inspector, and Ways to Improve the NRC. Series: First in a Four-Part Series. One of One Stories Appearing Today

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For over 20 years, a corps of ex-Navy engineers, lawyers, and inspectors has worked quietly from two towers here in Maryland to ensure that the most dangerous technology ever devised operates safely in civilian hands.

It's likely that most Americans seldom give this federal agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a second thought. That's because it has worked relatively well over the years, if the safety record of the 110 nuclear power plants in the US is any measure. There's been only one major mishap on the NRC's watch: the 1979 Three Mile Island partial core meltdown.

But the NRC, like the facilities it oversees, today faces an uncertain future. Whistleblowers say the agency is lax in its oversight and too cozy with the industry it regulates. The result, they say, is a growing danger of another serious nuclear accident.

Such criticism isn't necessarily new - but it's increasing in volume at a time when fundamental change in the nuclear business has the potential to undercut the industry's own safety efforts.

A review of NRC documents and transcripts, as well as conversations with inspectors and industry insiders across the country, indicates that the agency may, indeed, have problems. Specifically, the Monitor has found that:

*NRC inspectors may too often be willing to take a utility's word that it is addressing troubling problems, instead of doing inspections at the plant or verifying calculations to ensure the problems are fixed.

*Higher-level NRC managers sometimes downgrade the severity of safety problems identified by on-site inspectors without giving reasons for the change.

*The agency is too slow to act when confronting potentially dangerous problems that could affect plants using similar reactor designs.

*NRC inspectors who persist in pressing safety issues have been subjected to harassment and intimidation by their supervisors.

Whether such flaws, in themselves, could lead to another Three Mile Island is debatable. But they arguably reflect on the thoroughness with which the federal government monitors the awesome power generated by splitting atoms.

"What I'm afraid of is the next nuclear accident," says one veteran NRC inspector. "We need nuclear power, but the watchdogs are not watchdogs."

What critics find particularly troubling is that the NRC's apparent problems come at a time when demands on the agency are growing, the nuclear utilities they regulate face an uncertain economic future, and key parts of many plants are wearing out faster than anticipated.

Drawing a parallel to some of the pressures on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration before the Challenger explosion in 1986, David Lochbaum, a longtime industry consultant, says:"It is eerie how applicable those concepts are to the current condition of the nuclear industry."

Deregulation is a major cause of the pressure on the industry. In many states, consumers will soon be able to pick the cheapest supplier of electricity they can find, similar to the way they now opt for the best deal in long-distance phone service. This puts nuclear power at a disadvantage because it's a relatively expensive way to produce kilowatt-hours.

For instance, seven of the eight nuclear power reactors in New England may soon be too high-cost to stay in business, according to a recent study conducted for the Massachusetts State Attorney General's Office by the Resource Institute, a private research firm.

Aging plants are another source of fiscal problems. As nuclear facilities get older, they face expensive technical troubles, such as weakening and cracking in the steel shell that surrounds nuclear reactors. In some cases, utilities have elected to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to repair plants with age-related problems. At least two plants - Yankee Rowe in Massachusetts and Trojan in Oregon - have shut down permanently because age-related repairs were too expensive. …