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Do US nuclear plants have defective parts? NRC finds reporting flaws.

An NRC report finds that 28 percent of US nuclear power plant operators did not share information on defective parts with federal regulators. 'Confusion' over reporting rules is blamed.

By Staff writer / March 25, 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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A large fraction of the nation's nuclear power plant operators – 28 percent – did not tell federal regulators about failures of defective parts that could lead to major safety problems in other reactors across the country, according to a new report Friday by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's inspector general.

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As a result, industry watchdogs say, some power plant operators may unknowingly be operating nuclear reactors with defective parts.

Under federal regulations, power plant operators are required to report certain types of part failures that could jeopardize nuclear plant safety – even if backup systems prevent any dangerous condition from occurring at the plant.

Such requirements were intended, in part, to help operators of the 104 US nuclear reactors send up a red flag and identify suspect parts that could trigger dangerous failures. A 1990 Government Accountability Office study found counterfeit and substandard parts were rife in the nuclear power industry, the military and other government systems.

In that old GAO study, nuclear power companies were found to have unwittingly “installed nonconforming products in, or are suspected of having received them for, about 64 percent of the 113 domestic nuclear power plants,” the GAO study found.

But two decades later such problems were thought to have been patched – until the new inspector general’s report Friday. Based on interviews in 2009 and 2010, the office of the inspector general (OIG) found that the nuclear power operators who did not issue the reports they should have apparently failed to do so because of “confusion” over two parallel sets of reporting requirements.

“Based on interviews and analysis, OIG determined that licensees representing at least 28 percent of the operating reactor fleet do not, as standard practice, notify NRC of defects” unless mandated by both sets of reporting requirements. As a result, a number of incidents went unreported, the OIG found.

But to some long-time critics and observers, the industry failure to report the parts defects are part of a larger pattern of weak enforcement of otherwise sturdy rules that makes the nuclear power industry's safety margins less robust than they should be.

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