Source: PUBLIC CITIZEN, Date: January/February 1994, Title: “What the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Won’t Tell You: Aging Reactors, Poorly Trained Workers,” Authors: Matthew Freedman and Jim Riccio
SSU Censored Researcher: Kate Kauffman
SYNOPSIS: Secret internal industry documents obtained by Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy Project reveal that America’s nuclear reactors have more serious safety, training, and equipment problems than government regulators acknowledge.
The internal documents are plant evaluations performed by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), an Atlanta-based group founded by nuclear utilities in the wake of the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. INPO routinely sends inspection teams to operating reactors, reviews significant operating problems and equipment malfunctions, and maintains data bases on nuclear power plant operation. The detailed reports are submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), where they are required reading for NRC inspectors. However, the NRC has not released the reports to the public nor has it been diligent in acting on reported problems.
A 1991 report by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, found 12 instances in the previous two years where “NRC decided not to issue its own information notice because INPO had already alerted the industry to a potential problem.” The GAO concluded that “information that may be important to the public’s understanding of nuclear power operations is not publicly available.” Public Citizen’s examination of the documents reveals longstanding deficiencies at nuclear reactors across the nation that could jeopardize public health and safety. The findings conflict with public assessments made by the NRC.
While the NRC is expected to use the INPO reports to improve conditions at the nuclear reactors, a comparison of the INPO and NRC documents by Public Citizen reveals that NRC regulators often recommend reduced oversight at reactors where INPO identified serious deficiencies. Altogether, NRC’s reports only managed to report on about one-third of the total findings identified by INPO; the other two-thirds were either ignored or directly contradicted. Out of 55 findings at 34 reactors cited by INPO for deficient chemistry programs, NRC addressed only two.
The failure of NRC to report and correct deficiencies at the nation’s nuclear reactors is a serious one; since current reactors are the first generation to operate for any substantial length of time (the oldest operating unit just turned 30 years old), much of the understanding of long-term aging problems remains incomplete–and hypothetical.
Most importantly, the secret documents reported by Public Citizen reveal that the aging nuclear reactors are plagued by a variety of management and technical problems which reduce the margin of safety at operating reactors. And while the NRC has evidence of the problems, it is neither reporting nor admitting them.
COMMENTS: While the story was reported in most daily newspapers and carried on the Associated Press and Reuters wires, no major television networks nor newsweekly magazines carried it. The authors, Matthew Freedman and Jim Riccio, felt that the level of exposure was constrained by the paucity of reporters who cover nuclear energy and the tendency of many major newspapers to bury stories critical of the nuclear industry. The New York Times placed the story in the Metro Section while the Boston Globe put it on page 70.
Equally important, according to the authors, “There was no follow-up by any reporters, despite our urging them to investigate further the connections between the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). Reporters are generally reactive on nuclear safety issues and rarely take any initiative to investigate nuclear regulation unless there is an accident or an imminent risk of disaster. Our report raised many questions about the propriety of relations between NRC and INPO and asserted that NRC is misrepresenting the state of nuclear safety in public evaluations of specific reactors. No reporters attempted to explore the reasons for such misrepresentation, nor have they subsequently challenged other NRC public evaluations on the basis of our report’s findings.”
Noting that nuclear regulation is extremely complex and difficult for most citizens to understand, the authors also feel that the arcane nature of regulatory procedures do not facilitate a free exchange of information between regulators and the public. However, they add, “Government regulators, charged with overseeing the operation of the nation’s commercial nuclear reactors, have a special duty to be open, honest and aggressive about safety problems. When agencies like the NRC find deficiencies at licensed facilities, the public has a right to know that their health and safety may be in danger.
“If regulators provide incomplete or incorrect information, then reporters have a responsibility to publicize the agency’s failure to act in the public interest.”
“Without timely and thorough media coverage of federal regulatory actions, citizens have no ability to know whether or not they are being adequately protected from risks which could endanger their families and communities.”
The authors consider the primary beneficiaries of the limited coverage to include “the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the commercial nuclear power industry, which includes reactor manufacturers, industry associations and electric utilities who own or operate nuclear facilities. In the absence of information to the contrary, the public will continue to trust the NRC and local utilities to ensure the safe and economical operation of nuclear reactors.”
While the authors feel their investigative article issued a strong wake-up call to the nuclear industry and journalists, they doubt whether anyone was listening.
“Our article details the first comprehensive comparison of internal nuclear industry documents with public evaluations of reactor safety performed by the NRC. Our findings that wide disparities exist between what the industry knows and what NRC makes publicly available should have generated far more investigation into the INPO-NRC relationship. It also should make reporters increasingly skeptical about the NRC’s willingness to be forthright about safety concerns and provide accurate information to the public.”
“These results failed to materialize primarily because reporters tended to treat our report as a oneday flash in the pan, not a basis for undermining long-term confidence in the behavior of federal nuclear regulators.”
“Since our initial release, there has been little, if any, further press attention given to the story.”