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Nuclear power report: 14 'near misses' at US plants due to 'lax oversight'

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission failed to resolve known safety problems, leading to 14 'near-misses' in US nuclear power plants in 2009 and 2010, according to a new report from a nuclear watchdog group.

By Staff writer / March 18, 2011

This 2005 file photo shows two then-active cooling towers at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Middletown, Pa., located on an island in the middle of the Susquehanna River. Exactly 31 years after the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, on March 28, 2010, the HB Robinson nuclear plant in South Carolina experienced electrical failure that led to a 'near-miss' accident.

Carolyn Kaster / AP

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Nuclear plants in the United States last year experienced at least 14 "near misses," serious failures in which safety was jeopardized, at least in part, due to lapses in oversight and enforcement by US nuclear safety regulators, says a new report.

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While none of the safety problems harmed plant employees or the public, they occurred with alarming frequency – more than once a month – which is high for a mature industry, said the study of nuclear plant safety performance in 2010 by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based nuclear watchdog group.

The report, the first in what the UCS expects will become an annual study, details both successes and failures by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which it calls "the cop on the beat." Charged with overseeing America's fleet of 104 nuclear reactors, the NRC made some "outstanding catches," but was also inconsistent in its oversight, seeming at times to nod off when most needed.

"The chances of a disaster at a nuclear plant are low," the report states. "But when the NRC tolerates unresolved safety problems – as it did last year at Peach Bottom, Indian Point, and Vermont Yankee – this lax oversight allows that risk to rise. The more owners sweep safety problems under the rug and the longer safety problems remain uncorrected, the higher the risk climbs."

Severe accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, for instance, occurred when a few known problems were combined with worker mistakes to "turn routine events into catastrophes," the report said. Nuclear plant owners "could have avoided nearly all 14 near-misses in 2010 had they corrected known deficiencies in a timely manner," which suggests the industry is engaged in a game of "nuclear roulette" that could someday end badly, wrote David Lochbaum, the UCS nuclear engineer who authored the report.

Ironically, the most significant near-miss occurred on the 31st anniversary of the Three Mile Island accident – March 28, 2010 – at the HB Robinson nuclear plant in South Carolina. A high-voltage power cable at the plant failed and started a fire, shutting the plant down and causing an alert – the third-most serious emergency classification. Equipment failures and a remarkable number of operator errors transformed "a relatively routine event into a very serious near-miss," the report said.

"Unbelievably poor worker performance" contributed, too, suggesting bad training, the study said. Hours after the fire was put out, workers decided to re-energize the cable that started the fire – igniting a second fire that caused further damage. Six months later, the plant had another "near miss" due to another set of preventable factors.

Other examples include the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in Maryland, which on Feb. 18 automatically shut down when rainwater leaked in through holes in the roof and dripped onto electrical equipment. Workers had noticed a number of leaks across many months before this event, but plant managers had put off repairs. "After all, the roof only leaked when it rained," the report said.

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