U.S. nuclear plant safety checks system under fire

Congress and two states scrutinize the relicensing process after a federal audit found problems with safety documents.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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The federal relicensing system used to ensure that America's 1970s-era nuclear plants are safe for future decades is coming under fire following an audit that found key safety evaluations lacked critical documentation.

Without the documentation, regulators cannot be sure how carefully – or even if – the plants' key safety systems had been checked.

In filings last month, New York and Vermont regulators called for an overhaul of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission relicensing program before the NRC allows a plant in each of their states to operate for 20 more years.

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Congress is eager to look at the relicensing question, too – as well as at other concerns such as the video showing guards asleep at a nuclear plant last year. Hearings are expected this month or next, says a staffer with the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

A half-dozen citizen groups have also filed objections, claiming the internal audit of the NRC's relicensing practices raises serious questions not only about current relicensing applications but past ones as well.

"Do we think the whole process is flawed? Yes, we do," says Richard Webster, an attorney for the Eastern Environmental Law Center in Newark, N.J. "The NRC can't document that these reviews were done properly and there are indications some weren't done well at all."

Relicensing is a crucial part of America's current energy strategy. The nation's 104 nuclear plants supply about one-fifth of the nation's electricity. If they are shut down, the US would have to replace them with new nuclear plants – or dozens of coal-fired plants, which would raise greenhouse-gas emissions.

So far, the NRC has relicensed nearly half of the nuclear plants, with another 35 under review. The agency expects some 20 more plants to apply for relicensing soon.

Concerns about the relicensing process stem from a report released last September by the NRC's internal watchdog, the Office of Inspector General. In the 13 relicensing cases it examined, the office found little evidence that NRC staff had confirmed the integrity of aging safety systems they approved. For example: 98 percent of 458 passages in audit, inspection, and safety evaluation reports failed to adequately document or support NRC conclusions.

Problems fell into two categories: "red" cases, where no specific support was found, and "yellow" cases, where support was often provided by the companies whose plants were being relicensed. In those latter cases, the report found that NRC safety evaluation language was often "identical or nearly identical" to the information that the companies had provided in the license renewal application.

"We asked NRC staff: 'Where is any evidence that you did anything?' " says Stephen Dingbaum, the NRC's assistant inspector general for audits. "With its cut-and-paste approach, the agency has left itself in a position in which it is difficult for them to show what they have and haven't done."

Even more serious, he says, in 35 percent of "red" cases there was "no mention of review methodology or no specific support" at all for NRC staff findings that the 13 plants had successfully met safety requirements.

"The safety analysis was probably done," Mr. Dingbaum says. "It's just that we don't have sufficient evidence to know whether it was, or was not, done."

In written responses to those charges, the NRC agreed there is a problem, but it argues it is mainly about providing adequate documentation.

"The staff will update report-writing guidance to include management expectations and report-writing standards," William Kane, the NRC's deputy executive director for reactor and preparedness programs, wrote in a memorandum to Mr. Dingbaum in October.

Such improvements don't necessarily call into question the quality of past relicensing, says Gregory Jaczko, one of the NRC's three commissioners. "It was a good report.... We need to see put in place an improved review process, and then we'll have better information about whether there's anything we need to go back and revisit with any of the previous [relicensing] reviews."

Nuclear industry spokesmen, too, say there's nothing seriously wrong.

"We saw the [inspector general's] report as confirming that the NRC's license-renewal process was comprehensive," says Anthony Pietrangelo, vice president for regulatory affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington. "But from a documentation standpoint ... they need to do a better job of explaining how they verified the adequacy of the licensing program." [Editor's Note: The original quotation did not adequately state the Nuclear Energy Institute's position.]

State regulators remain wary.

There is the "more serious question of whether license renewals have been granted to plants that do not actually meet NRC safety requirements," New York regulators argued last month when they petitioned the NRC to halt relicensing of the Indian Point nuclear plant in Buchanan, N.Y., until the process is fixed.

The relicensing process is already under fire for another reason. Massachusetts and New York have filed lawsuits arguing that the relicensing process should also take into account the vulnerability of plants to terrorist attack.

In any case, aging nuclear plants present unexpected problems, antinuclear advocates say. They point to Vermont Yankee, a 35-year-old facility owned by Entergy Nuclear Operations. The NRC had already conducted a relicensing evaluation of its safety systems but had not announced a decision when, last August, one of the plant's cooling towers partially collapsed.

That spurred Vermont regulators to demand an overhaul of the NRC's relicensing process. State officials had already approved an independent review of the plant's safety systems.

"After the cooling tower collapsed, it really shook the confidence of Vermonters," says Stephen Wark, a spokesman for Vermont's Department of Public Service, which oversees utilities. "That's one reason why we're working with NRC but also pursuing a parallel path doing our own independent safety review."

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