Report Finds Nuclear Plant Safety Eroded By Incompetence; Public Health May Be At Greater
Risk Than Believed
- June 17 - Careless plant safety inspectors, frequent worker
mistakes, and poor procedures are turning some of the nations nuclear power
plants into safety hazards, according to a new study released today by the Union
of Concerned Scientists. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: A Report on Safety
in Americas Nuclear Power Industry is based on a UCS monitoring program at ten
selected plants that represent a cross section of the nuclear industry.
"Although we found some encouraging signs, it appears that safety conditions at
nuclear plants across the country may be worse than we previously believed,"
said David Lochbaum, Nuclear Safety Engineer at UCS and author of the report.
"If plant owners are going to fulfill their obligation to protect public
health, they cannot continue to shortchange safety measures."
The most serious finding in the report is that internal safety inspectors, a key
element in the quality assurance programs required by federal law, did not find any
of the more than 200 safety problems ultimately detected at the plants. This serious
breakdown in safety assurance at the nations nuclear plants clearly reflects a
lack of industry and NRC emphasis on essential safety monitoring.
A second troubling finding is the high percentage of problems caused by human error
and faulty procedures. Although they are the most easily correctable, worker
mistakes and poor guidelines ranked first and second, respectively, as the sources
of problems at the plants. Since the plants are all at least ten years old and past
the "break in" phase of operation, training programs and revised procedures
should have reduced these deficiencies long ago.
"The gravity of these findings cannot be overemphasized. If not for human
mistakes and bad procedures, the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters might
have been prevented," said Lochbaum. "The nuclear industry is too old to
be experiencing so many preventable safety problems."
From November 1996-January 1998, UCS monitored 10 plants that represent the industry
as a whole - Calvert Cliffs, Cooper, Indian Point 3, LaSalle, Millstone 3, Oconee,
Oyster Creek, River Bend, Sequoyah, and Surry. The monitoring program was designed
to see how effective plant owners identify and respond to safety problems.
Assessing such performance is key to determining whether safety margins are being
maintained or eroded as nuclear power plants age and come under pressure to compete
with other technologies. At three plants - Surry, Oyster Creek, and Oconee - most of
the incidents were minor. Problems were discovered quickly and fixed properly.
But at the LaSalle, Millstone, Cooper, and Sequoyah plants, problems often remained
undetected or uncorrected for a long period of time. For example, at the Cooper nuclear
plant in Nebraska, the plants owners skipped the maintenance required every five
years on circuit breakers that control power to emergency equipment. Some breakers had not
been overhauled since their installation 23 years earlier. At LaSalle in Illinois, the
plants owners ignored repeated warnings over a 17-year period about potentially
faulty safety control switches. The switches were not replaced until a failure caused a
"These were near misses," said Lochbaum. "Protecting public health and
safety cannot be a part-time effort."
Based on the monitoring program results, UCS recommends that:
o Internal inspectors receive better training or incentives to identify problems.
o Workers receive additional training or greater oversight toreduce the number of errors.
o Procedures be revised so that workers install and use equipment properly.
o The NRC improve its enforcement of federal safety regulations in order to eliminate
instances of continued substandard operation.
o The US Congress formally review the NRCs regulatory effectiveness to ensure that
public health and safety are adequately protected.
"Like the Titanics hull, nuclear safety works only if there are no holes,"
said Lochbaum. "The nuclear industry needs to plug these holes
before a mishap catches up with it."
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