Walking a Nuclear Tightrope
Chapter 5 NRC Performance during ear-plus Outages
n this chapter, we review the effectiveness of NRC oversight in terms of six specific year- plus outages. Three of these outages reflect a performance level far below what should be minimally acceptable for a federal safety regula- tor, but the other three reflect quite favorably upon the NRC’s capabilities. I
Like any person or organization, the NRC has good days and bad days. We point out examples of the agency’s bad days in the hope that similar problems will be avoided, leading to more good days—examples of which show that the agency is not fundamentally flawed and has the capacity to learn from its mistakes.
In February 1982, Southern California Edison (SCE) shut down Unit 1 for a scheduled refueling outage and, two months later, submitted informa- tion to the NRC indicating that some vital equip- ment on the reactor would not survive an earth- quake of the magnitude specified in the current regulations. When the NRC asked whether that equipment would survive the smaller earthquake specified in the older regulations, SCE—rather than answering that question explicitly—agreed to voluntarily upgrade the vital equipment to meet the current standard. That voluntary gesture became a requirement in August of that year when the NRC ordered SCE to upgrade Unit 1 to sat- isfy the current earthquake regulations before it could restart the reactor.
The NRC’s oversight of the 51 year-plus reactor outages was worst in the following three cases:
San OnOfre Unit 1 (San Clemente, Ca, febrUary 1982 tO nOvember 1984)
In May 1976, the NRC began its Systematic Evaluation Program to assess the safety of older reactors according to current regulations. This effort led the NRC to conclude that San Onofre Unit 1 did not comply with the current regula- tions for protection against earthquakes—even though it was operating in proximity to active geologic faults. For these reasons, consumer advocate Ralph Nader petitioned the NRC to shut down the reactor in July 1981, but the NRC denied Nader’s petition that November.
In 1984, the California Public Utilities Commission ruled that Unit 1 would be removed from the rate base if it was not returned to service by the end of the year. SCE responded by lobby- ing the NRC to allow Unit 1 to be restarted even though the agency’s August 1982 order had not been met. In a truly deplorable decision, the NRC granted SCE its wish, using a questionable legal maneuver that its own general counsel sug- gested would probably not be upheld by the courts if appealed. The public was poorly served by an agency that ignored federal regulations and allowed a reactor with a known safety deficiency to restart for purely financial reasons.