Nuclear power's poor test score

When close to a third of the class falls "below average" on a performance survey, does the fault lie with the students -- or in some fundamental way with the teacher and classroom? When the "classroom" in question turns out to be the US nuclear industry, should there not be close public scrutiny of existing federal regulations and enforcement procedures concerning that industry?

Unfortunately, those are the types of questions that have to be asked about the first performance report by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on the 50 operating atomic power plants in the United States. Describing conditions in late 1979 and 1980, the report found 15 of the plants to be "below average" in such areas as maintenance, management, regulatory compliance, and radiation and fire protection. Another 26 plants were found to be "average" in their performance. Thus, taken together, 41 plants or 82 percent of the total were average or below average, with only 9 plants, or 18 percent, "above average."

The commission staff report (which will be presented to the full NRC next month) went out of its way to avoid any suggestion that inadequate performance was tantamount to a lack of safety. Nor did the study suggest that conditions were serious enough to warrant any plant closings. But, coming after the Three Mile Island incident of 1979 and the current disarray in the nuclear power industry (with new plants being delayed or canceled because of dropping demand and soaring costs), the report raises anew the need for the Reagan administration and the NRC to demand the highest possible performance standards for the nuclear industry. Demanding strict monitoring and regulation, after all , is in the best interests of the industry itself, since polls clearly suggest that the American people's support for nuclear power is directly linked to close federal supervision. Yet, as shown by the protests at the Diablo Canyon site in California, where critics insist the plant is dangerous because built near an earthquake fault, there are genuine questions as to whether licensing officials are yet adequately responding to public concerns about the long-range safety of nuclear power.

The Reagan administration supports the rejuvenation of the nuclear industry, including the streamlining of licensing times for new plants. While its overall strategy presents some problems (such as its indifference to the difficult financing challenges facing the industry), the desire to expand nuclear power production seems reasonable provided the federal government is scrupulous in the day-to-day monitoring of plants.

Given the outward evidence, that may be proving to be the case at the NRC. The commission will be holding hearings in early October, for example, on the possibility that some nuclear plant operators may have cheated on training exams. Also, the commission staff recently identified eight plant reactors that it believes are vulnerable to developing cracks. Although there is no present safety problem, officials say that some reactors could reach the danger threshold within a year. Obviously plant operators and the NRC must take all possible steps to ensure plants are rendered as safe as possible.

Meanwhile, the 15 plants that have failed the "performance tests" and the industry and NRC as a whole must tighten up general operating procedures. The nuclear industry is one of those unique industries -- like the airlines, or a police or fire department, or an ammunition depot -- where inefficiency and sloppiness cannot be tolerated.

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