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
*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. …