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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
JUNE 17, 1998
10:32 AM
CONTACT:  Union of Concerned Scientists
Rich Hayes, Press Secretary
(202) 332-0900,
New Report Finds Nuclear Plant Safety Eroded By Incompetence; Public Health May Be At Greater Risk Than Believed
 
WASHINGTON - June 17 - Careless plant safety inspectors, frequent worker mistakes, and poor  procedures are turning some of the nation’s 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 America’s 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 nation’s 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 plant’s 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 plant’s 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 serious malfunction.

"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 NRC’s regulatory effectiveness to ensure that public health and safety are adequately protected.

"Like the Titanic’s 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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