US Audit Flags Gap in Nation's Nuclear Safety

THE Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), breaking its promise to Congress, has failed to conduct regular safety inspections to uncover counterfeit and substandard parts in the nation's nuclear plants.

NRC Inspector General David Williams, who revealed the policy shift in an audit obtained by the Monitor, says the agency decision, which was never made public, has serious ``safety implications.''

Mr. Williams's charges could heighten concern in Congress and the White House over NRC's controversial inspection policies. NRC is often criticized by safety advocates for being too cozy with the nuclear industry, which operates 107 power plants in the United States.

Some senior NRC officials who reviewed Williams's report insist that ``the findings were not safety significant.'' They say the issue of counterfeit and substandard parts is being properly dealt with by NRC and the industry.

A senior NRC manager insists that not every safety-related part is equally critical. He says NRC is moving toward a ``graded approach'' that will focus investigators' attention on the most vital areas affecting safety.

Critics who were shown copies of the IG audit pounced on NRC, however. Ernest Hadley, a Massachusetts attorney who has crossed swords with NRC since the mid-1980s, says: ``The inspector general has just touched the surface of this serious, serious problem.... If the NRC had done the job they are supposed to do, the plants would not be full of these counterfeit, substandard parts.''

Stephen Comley, founder of We the People Inc., a nuclear-whistleblower-protection group, says: ``The NRC and the politicians in Washington have known about this [counterfeit problem] for a long time. They are allowing the industry and the NRC to play Russian roulette in America's neighborhoods.''

Mr. Comley's complaint to the inspector general triggered Williams's investigation.

The IG report essentially boils down to this: In the 1980s, NRC began turning up serious problems with counterfeit and substandard parts in reactors across the country. By 1990, prodded by Comley, Mr. Hadley, and other critics, Congress began examining the issue of bogus parts that could fail in nuclear-safety systems.

Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, requested that the General Accounting Office investigate the problem. The findings, made public in October 1990, were startling.

GAO reported that ``at least'' 72 of the nation's nuclear-power plants - more than 60 percent - were either operating with counterfeit/substandard parts in their safety systems or had received such parts in their inventories. The most common bogus parts were fasteners - nuts, bolts, screws - which could fail under stress.

Meanwhile, NRC had conducted its own investigations and found that 12 of 13 utilities flunked quality-assurance examinations. GAO concluded: ``Unchecked, the problem could have a significant impact on safe plant operations.''

NRC decided the counterfeit problem was so widespread that power companies needed time to develop new ways to weed out bad parts. NRC dropped pending enforcement actions in 1990 against two utilities but promised Congress that new tough quality-assurance inspections would begin in approximately 18 months.

Those inspections never began, Williams reports. Nor was Congress told.

The pressing question is: Why?

One possibility: The bogus-parts problem is so big that NRC is baffled by it. Analysts say it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars a day in lost production to shut down a plant to replace key parts. Widespread shutdowns could threaten the profits of utilities.

Comley says the IG report confirms suspicions of many NRC critics. In the 1980s, when he first began probing NRC as a citizen (Comley runs a nursing home in Rowley, Mass.), he says that a well-placed NRC official told him: ``Whenever safety allegations come into the NRC which may pose a threat to the further operation or licensing of a nuclear power plant, those allegations are penciled away.''

THE IG report raises a similar concern when it quotes an unnamed official in the NRC's Office of Investigations. The official says that when the counterfeit problem first began, investigators at NRC were ``discouraged'' from pursuing two cases by higher-ups. The IG report indicates that NRC still is not vigorously searching for violators.

Instead of regular, detailed inspections that root out hidden problems, NRC inspects a utility only after a part has failed, or if it gets a formal complaint. Williams says that the NRC has never explained, to either Congress or the public, the rationale for halting regular inspections.

Hadley, who represents We the People Inc. in legal matters, says that over the past few years, Williams's various reports on NRC have two recurring themes.

The first theme involves the NRC's regulatory philosophy, which seems to be: ``Let's turn regulation back to the utilities, and they can tell us if they have a problem.''

He says the second theme involves the NRC misleading Congress. ``Congress needs to demand that the individuals at the NRC who provide false or misleading information be accountable.''

Critics also rap Congress and the White House on safety. Comley says many of his letters to members of Congress, including the two Democratic senators from his own state of Massachusetts - Edward Kennedy and John Kerry - have gone unanswered.

``I'm outraged that people in Washington have allowed this to go as far as they have,'' Comley says. ``Hopefully, Kennedy and Kerry are going to pay closer attention now to what we have been trying to bring to light ... so an accident doesn't happen.''

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