By-the-Book NRC Chief Starts to Shake Up Old-Boy Agency

Ex-University professor Shirley Jackson has a clear message for America's nuclear watchdog agency: Let's get back to studying the basics.

Dr. Jackson - a no-nonsense, MIT-trained physicist - has been head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) now for a year. If nothing else, she's shown during that time that she isn't going to be a laissez faire leader.

She's leaning on the NRC and the utilities it regulates to stick to the operating rule book. It's a change that's impressed critics who judged the agency too lax in the past.

"She's saying: The rules are out there, and I expect them to be enforced and followed," says one NRC inspector. "We'd kind of gotten away from that. We've allowed ourselves to be convinced that some regulations were too tough."

Jackson has also ordered closer attention to reactors that have a history of lingering problems, such as Illinois's Dresden plant. She's asked for a broad review of NRC policy, focusing on the safety challenges that utility deregulation and the aging of today's nuclear plants will pose.

But the first female head of the agency still has her work cut out for her. Criticism persists that the NRC is too cozy with the industry and too slow to react to developing problems. The US General Accounting Office is mounting two separate inquiries into the agency's practices. Whether Jackson can change the agency's culture remains to be seen.

"We're not asking the NRC to be perfect," insists Ann Harris, a TVA employee who says that in her 14 years with the utility - and as a whistleblower at the Watts Bar plant in Tennessee - she has seen the best and the worst of the NRC. "We just want the agency to do its job."

Critics and supporters are watching closely to see how Jackson handles the NRC's latest problem child, Northeast Utilities, which operates four reactors in Connecticut and one in New Hampshire.

According to the NRC's own office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, NU's Millstone plant near Waterford, Conn., should have been placed on the agency's "watch list" of the nation's worst-run nuclear power plants three years ago.

A Millstone around...

Senior NRC managers had cited serious problems at the plant for at least five years. Yet only when one engineer at Millstone blew the whistle on how the plant cut potentially dangerous corners to save money during refueling did the agency act.

George Galatis, the engineer, charged last August that NU had routinely violated its license during maintenance and refueling outages at the Millstone 1 reactor. During these outages, he said, the plant offloaded an entire reactor core's worth of nuclear fuel into a temporary storage pool not designed to handle the load. Millstone's license only authorized it to offload up to one-third of the core's fuel.

This was more than a simple change in procedure. Under some accident scenarios, a full load of fuel in the pool could have led to large releases of radioactivity. Mr. Galatis also alleged that the utility lied to the NRC about the offloads, and when he brought the information to his own supervisors and then to on-site and regional NRC officials, they ignored it. Shortly after Galatis filed his petition, the NRC granted NU a license amendment to allow full-core offloads.

"It's a standing joke within NU that the NRC is a subsidiary of NU," Galatis says.

Jackson, however, was not amused. Late last fall, she directed James Taylor, who oversees the agency's day-to-day operations, to see what lessons the NRC staff could draw from the Millstone fiasco. The staff found at least 15 plants nationwide where utilities were offloading more fuel than their licenses allowed.

Four of five Northeast Utilities-run reactors are now off-line as NRC inspectors comb the plants, turning up problem after problem.

Other violations or lingering problem reactors are getting more attention under Jackson's watch as well. Last month, she created an independent safety assessment team to investigate the Yankee Atomic Electric Company, which runs the Maine Yankee nuclear station near Wiscasset, Maine. Her move follows an NRC probe into allegations that the utility fudged numbers when analyzing how well the emergency core-cooling system would operate under conditions similar to those that led to the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979.

The NRC chairman says she will also dispatch a special inspection team to get to the bottom of chronic problems at Dresden 2 and Dresden 3 reactors near Morris, Ill. The plant, run by Chicago's Commonwealth Edison, has remained on the NRC's "watch list" for the last four years. The reactors also were on the list during 1987.

Jackson is well aware that the NRC must lift its game. Administrators are familiar with the allegations that the agency is too close to the industry it regulates - criticisms similar to those being lobbed at the Federal Aviation Administration in the wake of the ValuJet crash. Critics say that the NRC, like the FAA, is trying to promote and police an industry at the same time.

In assessing the challenges that face the NRC and the industry, Jackson says, "It's very important that we don't damn with a broad brush everyone who works here or all of those we regulate."

"In spite of the various issues we're working our way through, I have not lost my basic view that the staff here is technically competent, is serious about doing its job, and serves the public well," she says in an interview. "Many times when I have discussions with reporters, they want me to explain or atone for what may have gone on in the past. All I can do is deal with the here and now, without slinging a lot of mud around."

Path to power

Jackson is someone who has done fairly well dealing with the here and now in the past. Born in Washington, D.C., on the cusp of the postwar baby boom, she graduated at the head of her class from Roosevelt High School.

In 1968, she received a bachelor's degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., and five years later became the first black woman in the United States to earn a PhD in physics - also from MIT.

What she characterizes as her strong commitment to public service appeared early when, during her MIT years, she regularly crossed the Charles River to serve as a volunteer at Boston City Hospital and tutor students at a YMCA.

Since then, she has conducted research at some of the world's premier high-energy physics labs, served on state and national science panels, and sat on the board of advisers to the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations, a group set up by the nuclear industry after the Three Mile Island accident to train plant operators and managers and to evaluate plant safety performance.

People who have worked with Jackson describe her as thorough, determined, and highly focused.

"I found her particularly effective in public jobs on boards," recalls Paul Leath, chairman of the physics and astronomy department at Rutgers University, where Jackson taught. In 1985, he says, then-Gov. Thomas Kean appointed Jackson as a founding member of the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology. "She was always a voice of sanity, asking, 'What is the best solution?' regardless of the politics of a situation. That served us well in deciding where to set up research centers in the state."

"She's rather quiet and will rarely say anything until she's ready," he continues. "When she does speak, people listen. They know she's thought about what she says. And she does her homework. Often she'll know more about a subject than the person speaking."

That demeanor can mask what some say is a strong sense of compassion and understanding for the human condition.

"She thinks about people as well as about facts," says Richard Slusher, who worked with her at what was then AT&T-Bell Labs. "I was going through some trying personal times. One day she came up to me and said, 'I'm thinking about you and praying for you.' I was caught totally by surprise. But it was what I needed to hear."

"I don't operate on the basis that people don't want to do their jobs," Jackson says of her agency. "I operate on the basis that people need leadership and guidance. And that's what I'm trying to provide - leadership, focus, fairness, timeliness, and accountability."

Under her guidance, the agency is undergoing a broad and deep review of its activities, with an eye toward the challenges that issues such as utility deregulation and reactor aging pose. She says that the lessons being learned from the Millstone, Maine Yankee, and other plants where the NRC performance has been weak will be folded into this effort.

To Jackson, the lessons begin with simply following and enforcing current rules and regulations, even though they may change as experience allows.

In January, for example, when senior managers met with the commission to discuss problem plants, William Russell, director of the agency's office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, conceded that a key plant-licensing document known as the final safety analysis report (FSAR) had been gathering dust as an inspection tool.

"Right now," he said, "I would characterize that as one of the weaknesses that we have in our process."

Stuart Ebneter, administrator for the NRC's Region 2 office in Atlanta, was more blunt. "The FSAR ... is the baseline reference to the plant," he said. "There is absolutely no excuse for inspectors not to use FSARs. We have taught this in our training courses in the past, so they should use it. The reason they don't use it is sitting right here at this table. The regional administrators and the regional managers aren't enforcing it."

And they haven't been enforcing it for the better part of 10 years, acknowledged James Taylor, the NRC's executive director for operations.

After Mr. Ebneter assured the chairman that things would change, Jackson pressed senior staff members for timetables and said she'd hold an open commission meeting to check on their progress. Within a few days of the Jan. 31 briefing, inspectors nationwide received fresh instructions to use the FSARs.

Jackson's toolkit

In an interview, Jackson cites several examples where the commission has been moving to clarify, simplify, and eliminate conflicts within its complex regulations, guide staff on enforcement, and lay out lines of accountability.

Among them:

More-open and objective criteria for putting a problem plant on the watch list. This could shorten the time it takes for the agency to zero in on troublesome reactors. Currently, decisions about adding or removing plants from the list remain largely subjective. Part of the focus now, she says, will be to develop ways to integrate safety reports all the way up the inspection "food chain," with triggers that lead to increasing levels of NRC scrutiny.

Standardized operating procedures for similar types of reactors. These "tech specs," as they're called, are designed to eliminate needless constraints to plant operations - and make it easier for the NRC to monitor performance. Jackson wants to clarify the rules so they can be enforced more consistently.

Tighter guidelines for granting a nuclear plant temporary relief from license requirements. Known as enforcement discretion, the process is intended to save utilities money during expensive maintenance shutdowns by exempting them from rules that may have little bearing on safety.

The utility is supposed to get relief only if it can show that safety is maintained. Yet an NRC Inspector General report in 1994 indicated that too often the NRC failed to verify the conditions that prompted the utility to ask for exemptions were fixed. Acknowledging the potential for abuse, Jackson says her agency is raising the threshold for using enforcement discretion.

A program to build a pool of qualified candidates for inspectors who oversee plants. The agency is also trying to improve the benefits package to ease some of the financial hardships on these on-site workers. Jackson won't speculate on whether more inspectors are needed, saying only that the entire oversight program is under review.

A tougher stand on utilities' abuse of employees who raise safety concerns. While some still see shortcomings in the way the agency handles harassment cases, "for the first time in the agency's history we have a policy" on whistleblowers, says TVA's Harris.

Other actions are more subtle. For the first time, Jackson says, the chairman's office has a system for tracking issues that she and the commission turn over to the staff. It's a means, she says, for ensuring that items ranging from generic safety questions and new regulations to whistleblower allegations are dealt with quickly.

In addition, one veteran inspector suggests that the agency rotate senior managers among regions just as it does resident inspectors among plants.

"In some cases you have the same guys looking at the same utilities for 14 years," he says. At that level, he adds, regional officials are as vulnerable to getting too close to a region's dominant nuclear utility as an individual resident inspector would be to growing too close to a particular plant.

Some long-time NRC watchers remain dubious about whether the agency is turning a corner. Based on past observations, "talk is cheap at the NRC," says Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project in Washington, who has represented more than 200 whistleblowers.

Jackson acknowledges such skepticism: "I recognize that there are many people who feel they've been really hurt in the past by how they've been treated. But there's nothing Shirley Jackson can do to change the past. What Shirley Jackson can do is deal with the present and try to change the future."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to By-the-Book NRC Chief Starts to Shake Up Old-Boy Agency
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today