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.
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"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."Skip to next paragraph
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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."