Nuclear agency boosts the cost of ignoring industry-wide safeguards

A Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspector recently discovered two operators asleep at the console of Commonwealth Edison's Dresden power plant near Chicago. The NRC promptly fined the company $40,000 for its employees' "inattentiveness," a punishment the company is appealing.

The incident is significant because until three months ago, the NRC could have assessed Commonwealth Edison no more than $5,000 for this relatively serious infraction. But in the wake of the accident at Three Mile Island and subsequent criticism of the NRC itself, the federal agency is cracking down on the nuclear industry.

Armed with legislation passed earlier this year, the NRC now can levy civil penalties of up to $100,000 a day with no ceiling on the total accumulated fine. Previously, fines of no more than $5,000 per violation were allowed, with a maximum of $25,000 for violations lasting as long as a month.

Under the old system, officials say, it often was cheaper for a company to violate health and safety regulations than it was to comply with them.

"In essence, we've been given a mandate to get tougher," says Dudley Thompson , director of the NRC's enforcement and investigation staff. "It's the old story of the mule and the two-by-four. Now the two-by-four is a little bigger."

Mr. Thompson and other NRC officials have been holding public meetings around the country this month to explain the new enforcement policies, mostly to nuclear industry officials. But these industry officials clearly are troubled by what they see as overregulation.

"This is going to have a very profound effect on the industry," said Marlin Remley, safety director for Rockwell International, which fabricates nuclear fuel for test and research reactors. "There's an awful lot of stick in this thing and very little carrot."

The NRC can reduce fines by as much as 50 percent when companies promptly report violations to federal officials and voluntarily take corrective action. But industry spokesmen warn that even this consideration of "good faith" efforts is not enough to preclude willful violations or subsequent cover-ups to avoid the increased fines.

The new, stiffer civil penalties, warns J. R. Holder of the Washington State Public Power Supply System, "could reduce the incentive of the nuclear industry to police itself or share near-misses."

The industry also worries about the NRCs's ability to cite and fine individual employees. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which operates the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant in California, already has lost employees to other countries or professions where they do not face this threat, according to the utility district's quality assurance director, Andy Schwieger.

Federal officials say the new enforcement policy may be revised to take into account greater industry-identified and -corrected violations.But generally they are taking a hard line in the face of industry opposition.

Some industry critics see the federal agency's tougher stand, in the words of one, "as a public relations ploy to enhance the image of the NRC." But federal officials say the NRC sought authority to impose stiffer penalties a year before the Three Mile Island accident, which stained the reputation of the industry and its regulators.

Less clear is what changes the Reagan administration may make regarding the new enforcement procedures. The President-elect strongly supports further development of nuclear power "accompanied by proper safety precautions."

The NRC is answerable to Congress, but its five members are appointed by the President. Between now and mid-1982, Mr. Reagan will be able to appoint three new commission members.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.