John Macdonald strides into the control room of Seabrook
Station, a nuclear plant on the coast north of the
Massachusetts-New Hampshire border.
He pauses to look at the dials and displays in this cockpit for
controlling one of the world's most dangerous technologies.
"If you want to know what's really going on at a nuclear plant,
just ask a reactor operator. They'll talk your ear off," he says,
grinning, as one approaches.
Mr. Macdonald is keenly interested in what the operators have to
say - as well as all the digits on the monitors here. He is the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission's senior resident inspector at the
plant. As such, he is one of 181 on-site inspectors at 110
commercial plants across the country.
They are the agency's cops on the beat, the first line of
defense against nuclear catastrophe. They prowl corridors and peer
from catwalks, listening, watching, and asking probing questions.
How well they do their job - and the conflicts they face - go to
the heart of the debate over the effectiveness of the NRC itself.
Certainly being a resident inspector is one of the more unusual
jobs in government. Unlike many other federal watchdogs, resident
nuclear inspectors go to work every day with the people they are
supposed to oversee.
They have offices at the plant. They eat in the company
cafeteria. Though federal rules forbid them from "socializing" with
plant workers, they have to develop a level of trust with utility
managers and staff while maintaining a sense of detachment.
Tensions can surface even with their own NRC superiors. Some
on-site inspectors say they're hampered with by-the-book
administrative work that eats into time better spent inspecting
pumps and pipes. Other inspectors complain of supervisors altering
or ignoring their findings. They cite instances of being harassed
for pursuing safety issues by a senior management too cozy with the
The result, critics say, is an agency in which dissent is often
stifled and a nation in which reactors may be operating with
While resident inspectors lack the authority to slap an errant
power plant with a fine or even a notice of violation, the NRC's
equivalent of a ticket, they are responsible for providing an
independent check on plant performance.
Their reports cover everything from the nuts-and-bolts of plant
repairs to reviewing documents to see how well operators identify
and solve equipment problems. Inspectors keep tabs on how plants
respond to NRC safety directives. They also serve as a
representative to the public living near a nuclear facility - for
instance, giving talks in local schools.
For his part, Macdonald says his experience as an inspector has
been a good one. To spend time with him is to glimpse the magnitude
of the job the NRC faces in regulating a technology in which there
is little room for error.
"You've got something the size of Shea Stadium you've got to
inspect," says one official at NRC headquarters. "You can't be on
top of everything. You hope you're dealing with a responsible
By 8:30 on this morning, Macdonald, dressed casually in khaki
pants and knit shirt, has already checked control-room operating
records and taken part in a conference call with the NRC's regional
headquarters in King of Prussia, Pa.
Moments later, he slips into a corner seat in a conference room
as some 30 Seabrook officials and staff gather for a daily
briefing. One by one, they review the plant's performance in the
past 24 hours and report the status of maintenance projects.
Macdonald jots notes as one describes a problem he's found with a
radiation monitor. The malfunction doesn't seem to be serious, but
the utility will need NRC approval to fix it.
Later, in his office, Macdonald says that the utility was in
effect proposing the NRC adopt new restrictions on the way the
plant operates. …