In three attepts last June 28, operators failed to shut down a nuclear reactor at the Browns Ferry power plant in Alabama. Each time, about one-third of the reactor's control rods stuck. Only when an automatic switch kicked in did the atomic facility finally "scram" to a halt.
No harm was done, but this mishap at a Tennesee Valley Authority (TVA) plant nevertheless has become a test for the US nuclear power industry:
Can it police itself on safety?
Following the unprecendented accident at Three Mile Island (TMI) in March 1979, nuclear-dependent electric utilities created a watchdog group called the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO).
"TMI was sobering to the industry. It now wants to find the 'weak sisters' among the utilities and lay it on the line. Safety has become a very powerful word," says Eugene P. Wilkinson, INPO president and former commander of the Navy's first nuclear submarine.
INPO, using trained teams of investigators, has begun to regularly check safety standards in atomic power plants, help utilities exchange technical information, and to probe such incidents as the recent one at Browns Ferry.
But, federal officials point out, INPO's report on Browns Ferry still has not been released four months later. A parallel investigation by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has already resulted in TVA altering the hydraulic system that failed to activate the reactor control rods.
INPO's first reports, such as Browns Ferry, will be watched closely by the NRC and other federal offices to see just how independent INPO can be of industry pressure and, more important, what level of risk utility executives are willing to accept in atomic plant safety design and procedures.
A White House committee set up to oversee post-Three Mile Island reforms will soon release a report on INPO. Concerns are being raised about industry suggestions that INPO could someday replace the NRC. "There are very few cases of a profession or an industry being able to regulate itself," comments a committee spokesman. "Would you rely on the tobacco industry for information on smoking?"
More immediate, however, are negotiations between the NRC and INPO and how much information they should share with each other, since investigations often overlap.
About 28 percent of INPO's present 149- member staff is on loan from utility companies. Within two years, INPO's is expected to have 300 workers performing one evaluation a year of each US plant. "We have 20 new plants coming on line in the next two years," says Mr. Wilkinson, on a tour of the Seabrook plant under construction in New Hampshire.
"INPO does not mind taking our data, but it hesitates giving theirs," complains a top NRC official. "The utilities are afraid we may pick up some of their ideas on potential problems and force them to spend money they don't want to spend. the utility industry is rather conservative and protective. They keep things close to home."
INPO's agreement with utilities is to let the companies release reports, if they choose to. "We don't work for the public," says Wilkinson. The first INPO evaluation, done on Commonwealth Edison's Dresden power station near Chicago, was released by the utility in September.
"We should learn from these reports. There's greater interdependence in the utility industri now. That shouldn't be part of NRC's duty. We think the industry should police itself. You shouldn't have to be policed by the government," said Wilkinson in a Monitor interview.
"The government has statutory authority to report problems. but the industry can respond with the expertise -- what legal, technical, and financial changes need to be made in other plants," he added.
NRC officials say INPO can give the industry a concentration of expertise that the NRC cannot. "But if INPO truly is objective, it does not have to show its reports to the utility before they are released."
If INPO uncovered unsafe conditions at a plant and the utility failed to correct them, Mr. Wilkinson says he would let othe rutilities know, then report it to the NRC, and then perhaps go public with the information. "I don't anticipate much trouble," he says.
Wilinson asserts that INPO is nor subservient to the industry. "We're independent and nonprofit," he contends. "We provide the NRc information if it is not proprietary. We should have some kind of cooperation."
One carrot-and-stick for industry cooperation with INPO is creation of a new insurance pool to cover a utility's cost of substitute power during an emergency shutdown of an atomic reactor. A negative INPO report could lead to a utility being dropped from this special insurance coverage.
INPO's role as a clearinghouse and standard setter for the nuclear industry has peked interest in other nations. Overtures are now being made to INPO by such countries as France, Japan, and South Africa to exchange information.
INPO will have finished evaluations of eight utilities this year, gearing up by 1982 to be able to evaluate every nuclear plant in the US once a year.
"There was a public perception that the industry was not prepared to respond to emergencies and the industry didn't recognize what it was dealing with at TMI.It's the public perception that matters. We all accept risks in life and, by golly, there's risk in a nuclear plant. Nothing's going to change that," says Wilkinson.
"Even after you improve the industry standards, there is still a risk of an accident. But you reduce the probability."
INPO's most difficult task is trying to prevent human error, such as turning the wrong valve. "Checking material and procedures is easy. Checking the people is not," says Wilkinson. He cites Three Mile Island as an example: "If all the operators had walked outside and left TMI, it would have come out OK."
Basic concepts in control room design come from coal- and oil-fired plants, he says, "where the purpose was simply to put kilowatts to the grid."
"Something needs to be done to enhance control room design," he says. "I'd like to see special panels where all the safety information is easily readable."
A major overhaul of all the industry control rooms, however, would be too costly, he says, and the system is working now and operators are used to it. "I don't like to change anything more than necessary."
Especially important to the White House oversight committee is that INPO change attitudes of utility executives who overestimate the safety of nuclear power. "If you have a utility executive who thinks nuclear power is duck soup, then you can train operators until their faces turn blue and it won't work," says one White House official.