Improving Government Oversight
Unlearned Lessons from Year-plus Reactor Outages
Union of Concerned Scientists
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) seems to be following the script of the movie Groundhog Day, reliving the same bad event again and again. This event-an outage at a nuclear power plant that lasts more than a year-has happened 51 times at 41 different reactors around the United States and shows no signs of stopping.
These long shutdowns are a sign of widespread safety problems at the reactors. Each such occurrence results from a violation of federal regulations that require plant owners to find and fix safety problems in a timely, effective manner, coupled with the NRC's inability to detect those violations (allowing problems to multiply and worsen as a result). The accident at Three Mile Island might have been prevented had the NRC broken this cycle.
Since the nuclear power industry is unable to script Hollywood-style happy endings once events have begun to spin out of control, Congress must compel the NRC to be a more aggressive enforcer of federal safety regulations. Otherwise, declining safety performance could result in a nuclear disaster rather than a costly year-plus outage.
In Walking a Nuclear Tightrope: Unlearned Lessons of Year-plus Reactor Outages, the Union of Concerned Scientists identifies common themes among extended outages and steps the NRC must take to end these costly and avoidable threats to public health and the U.S. economy. Download the full report.
Nuclear Tightrope echoes concerns voiced nearly 30 years ago by another UCS report, Looking But Not Seeing: the Federal Nuclear Power Plant Inspection Program. This December 1978 report foresaw many of the safety problems now chronicled in Nuclear Tightrope and described steps needed to resolve them. Sadly, those warnings went largely unheeded-one reactor meltdown and 45 year-plus reactor outages to restore safety levels have occurred since Looking But Not Seeing was published. For safety and economic reasons, we must stop the nuclear groundhog day.
And UCS's viewpoint is neither isolated nor outdated. The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report titled Nuclear Regulatory Commission: Oversight of Nuclear Power Plant Safety Has Improved, but Refinements Are Needed on September 27, 2006, that reinforces UCS's conclusions. GAO concluded that "NRC has improved its oversight process in various areas, but it has been slow to act on needed improvement, particularly in improving the agency's ability to identify and address early indications of declining safety performance."
For Nuclear Tightrope, UCS prepared a case study for each year-plus reactor outage.
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