Walking the Beat with a Nuclear Patrolman NRC'S THIN BLUE LINE Series: Third in a Series Examining the Effectiveness of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission - the Nation's Nuclear Police. Previous Reports Appeared on June 4 and June 11. the Last in the Series Will Look at Ways to Improve the NRC
Peter N. Spotts, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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 nuclear industry.
The result, critics say, is an agency in which dissent is often stifled and a nation in which reactors may be operating with defective systems.
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 licensee."
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. …