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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.

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Similarly, at the Braidwood nuclear plant in Illinois on Aug. 16, both reactors shut down, the report said. First, an electrical problem caused an automatic shut-down in one reactor. Then, a poorly designed safety system dumped water onto the floor of the turbine building – which then rained down to lower floors, shorting out other electrical equipment and causing the other reactor to automatically shut down. "Previous events had also dumped lots of water onto the floor," Dr. Lochbaum noted, but "management did not fix the design glitch. They only sent workers out to mop up the puddles."

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So where was the NRC in all this?

After the near-miss at HB Robinson, the NRC sent a team to the site to investigate. They found a huge number of problems, including errors in design and procurement of safety equipment, maintenance, operations, and training over many years.

"There is simply no excuse for the fact that the company and the NRC had not detected and corrected at least some of these problems before this event," the study said. None of the 14 near-misses would have happened had earlier warning flags been heeded instead of being ignored or discounted – suggesting a wider problem, the report says.

"Our findings match those of the agency’s internal assessments, as well as of independent agents such as the NRC’s Office of the Inspector General, and the federal Government Accountability Office," the UCS report concludes. "These evaluators consistently find that NRC enforcement of existing regulations is inadequate." Study after study shows "the NRC has the regulations it needs but fails to enforce them."

Response from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

The NRC said it is aware of the UCS report, but is focused on responding to events in Japan and will review the report in detail after that crisis has abated.

"The NRC remains confident that our Reactor Oversight Program, which includes both on-site and region-based inspectors, is effectively ensuring US nuclear power plants are meeting the NRC's strict requirements and are operating safely," said Scott Burnell, NRC spokesman, in an e-mailed statement.

President Obama on Thursday called for a comprehensive review of US nuclear plant safety in light of events in Japan. Specifically, it is to include an NRC study on whether US reactors could withstand once-in-a-lifetime events like the earthquake and tsunami that knocked out power to the cooling system of Japan’s Fukushima I nuclear complex, creating a meltdown threat.

“Our nuclear power plants have undergone exhaustive study and have been declared safe for any number of extreme contingencies. But when we see a crisis like the one in Japan, we have a responsibility to learn from this event and to draw from those lessons to ensure the safety and security of our people,” Obama said.

But Lochbaum, who spent years working in US nuclear plants – including some of the 23 US plants that use the same reactor designs as the Fukushima I plant that threatens to melt down – wrote that the NRC must improve to give teeth to such mandates.

"The positive examples [in the study] show that the NRC can be an effective regulator," he writes. "The negative examples show that the agency still has some homework to do to become the regulator of nuclear power the public expects and deserves. The 14 near-misses last year shows the NRC reforms are urgently needed."

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