PRESIDENT Clinton -- who came into office vowing to "ensure
safety" at the nation's nuclear-power plants -- suddenly has a rare
opportunity to put his stamp on the industry.
The surprise news that Ivan Selin, chairman of the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission, would step down July 1 leaves the NRC
rudderless. His departure could leave four of the NRC's five
commission seats vacant.
Mr. Clinton's next moves will be closely watched -- both by the
industry and by watchdogs who charge that the NRC under Mr. Selin
has put nuclear profits ahead of nuclear safety.
To industry insiders, the NRC under Selin has improved its
approach to regulating the nuclear industry.
"He enhanced the agency's credibility on Capitol Hill and opened
the regulatory process to the public, holding press conferences in
various regions and getting the regional administrators to hold
more meetings at plant sites," says Joe Colvin, executive vice
president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents the
industry in Washington, D.C.
Working with Congress, Selin also helped usher in one-step plant
licensing. A change long sought by the industry, one-step licensing
allows a utility that selects an NRC-approved reactor design to
bypass one of two permit steps, reducing the time it takes to bring
a new reactor on line. In addition, Mr. Colvin says, under Selin's
tenure, the industry significantly improved its safety record.
Yet to some nuclear-safety advocates, the NRC has only succeeded
in sidestepping its responsibilities to ensure safe reactor
"The way they handle issues has been very disappointing," says
Stephen Comley, head of We the People, Inc. of the United States, a
nuclear-safety group based in Rowley, Mass., near New Hampshire's
Seabrook Nuclear Power Station. "They are taking chances with the
safety of my family."
Among other examples, Mr. Comley cites a January report to the
NRC by Connecticut-based Northeast Nuclear Energy Company.
The utility found that huge motor-operated valves critical to
emergency cooling systems at its Millstone 2 nuclear plant could
lock shut during the type of accident the valves were designed to
handle. Two weeks ago, the company found similar problems in valves
at its Connecticut Yankee plant. These valves are common to
virtually all reactors.
The NRC's response to this information is a case study in the
criticism currently being leveled at the agency.
Earlier this month, the NRC issued an "information notice" to
utilities, referring to Northeast's findings. The notice
acknowledged that the problem could leave the cooling systems that
are designed to prevent reactor cores from overheating during a
loss-of-coolant accident "incapable of performing their safety
But the notice required no response or action by a utility. A
Northeast spokesman says Millstone 2, which is shut down for
refueling, will not restart until the problem is fixed. …