The Road Ahead for Nuclear Safety as Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Steps Down, Clinton Has a Chance to Shape Its Future Leadership
Peter N. Spotts, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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 operations.
"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 functions."
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. …