THE Nuclear Regulatory Commission is bearing down on New England's largest utility with the force of a mid-winter nor'easter.
Today, a team of up to 20 inspectors is scheduled to start combing through four nuclear plants run by the Hartford, Conn.,-based Northeast Utilities. The unusually broad probe was prompted by management lapses discovered at the Millstone 1 nuclear plant near Waterford, Conn.
This inspection comes at a time when the agency, which oversees 110 nuclear plants nationwide, has come under fire from both within and without for failing to enforce regulations at Millstone 1 and other nuclear plants. It also comes at a time when the commission, under its new chairman Shirley Jackson, is tightening up on the lapses.
Last August, George Galatis, a senior engineer at Northeast Utilities, charged that for 20 years managers had violated Millstone 1's license by allowing operators to transfer the reactor's full complement of fuel to the plant's spent-fuel pool during refueling outages.
The practice, he said, presented an unnecessary risk to the public. The pool was rated for offloading only one-third of the fuel - not a full-core load. Even as his petition to suspend, modify, or revoke the utility's license was being considered, the NRC granted Northeast a permit for full-core offloads.
His allegations also led to an NRC Inspector General's report in December critical of the agency's oversight of Millstone 1.
The plant has been shut down for exhaustive inspections and evaluation. As of January it has been placed on the NRC's "watch list," the equivalent of the regulatory dog house. Standard and Poors has lowered its bond ratings for Northeast Utilities and its subsidiaries.
Northeast's internal report was designed to find the basic causes of the problems at Millstone 1. The study, which the NRC plans to make public later this week, pinpointed several causes, according to William Russell, head of the NRC's office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation. Among them:
*A key plant licensing document, known as the final safety analysis report, contained "errors and omissions."
*The utility did not deem the safety report as something "that was required to be accurate."
*Internal memos from 1985 to 1996 identified a number of risks at the plant. The utility's management promised the NRC the problems would be fixed, but the changes either were ineffective, incomplete, or never done.
*The utility's own oversight offices failed to bring this pattern to management's attention.
According to the NRC, the internal report acknowledged that these attitudes may also have affected at least three other Northeast Utilities plants: Millstone 2 and 3 and Haddam Neck, also in Connecticut.
At a press briefing here Friday, NRC Chairwoman Jackson said her agency was determined to "keep peeling back the layers of this onion until we finally get to whatever the center is."
Ted Feigenbaum, Northeast's chief nuclear officer, has acknowledged problems with license documentation and says the company is closely reviewing its operating practices.