A large fraction of the nation's nuclear power plant operators – 28 percent – did not tell federal regulators about failures of defective parts that could lead to major safety problems in other reactors across the country, according to a new report Friday by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's inspector general.
As a result, industry watchdogs say, some power plant operators may unknowingly be operating nuclear reactors with defective parts.
Under federal regulations, power plant operators are required to report certain types of part failures that could jeopardize nuclear plant safety – even if backup systems prevent any dangerous condition from occurring at the plant.
Such requirements were intended, in part, to help operators of the 104 US nuclear reactors send up a red flag and identify suspect parts that could trigger dangerous failures. A 1990 Government Accountability Office study found counterfeit and substandard parts were rife in the nuclear power industry, the military and other government systems.
In that old GAO study, nuclear power companies were found to have unwittingly “installed nonconforming products in, or are suspected of having received them for, about 64 percent of the 113 domestic nuclear power plants,” the GAO study found.
But two decades later such problems were thought to have been patched – until the new inspector general’s report Friday. Based on interviews in 2009 and 2010, the office of the inspector general (OIG) found that the nuclear power operators who did not issue the reports they should have apparently failed to do so because of “confusion” over two parallel sets of reporting requirements.
“Based on interviews and analysis, OIG determined that licensees representing at least 28 percent of the operating reactor fleet do not, as standard practice, notify NRC of defects” unless mandated by both sets of reporting requirements. As a result, a number of incidents went unreported, the OIG found.
But to some long-time critics and observers, the industry failure to report the parts defects are part of a larger pattern of weak enforcement of otherwise sturdy rules that makes the nuclear power industry's safety margins less robust than they should be.
“The OIG report shows that owners and NRC are not abiding by this regulation,” says David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear watchdog group based in Cambridge, Mass. “Thus, reactors may be operating today with parts known by some, but not by all, to be defective.”
Still, he noted that while the reporting problem is serious, it is “not quite a clear and present danger.” That, he explains, is because all nuclear power plant owners have other inspection programs to find defective parts or parts that have just worn out. So, the notification process is a supplement to those programs for added assurance against defective parts that could undermine safety, he says.
“They claim there's confusion,” he says. “But we've seen this argument used as cover for noncompliance and an end run on regulatory enforcement.”
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission did not return calls and e-mail requests for comment by press time. But a nuclear industry spokesman said he welcomed the report as a way to correct a reporting mistake and move forward.
“The report just came out so we're taking a look at it,” says Bryant Kinney, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington nuclear industry trade group. “The broader process shows the nuclear reactor industry in the US continues to operate safely.... But if it adds clarity to the process between us and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission we welcome it.”
But some in Congress said they were troubled that the OIG did not give any specific examples – and promised to probe further.
“This troubling study by the NRC’s inspector general raises serious questions about the self-policing allowed at nuclear facilities with regard to reporting of safety concerns,” said Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts, in a statement. “While there are no specific examples listed in the report, it is apparent that confusion and omissions regarding the reporting of defects at nuclear facilities are commonplace.”