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Walking a Nuclear Tightrope

Chapter 6 Conclusions and Recommendations

ifty-one year-plus outages at 41 reactors in the space of 40 years represent unac- ceptable regulatory performance by any measure. F

Recommendation #1: The NRC must significantly improve its assessment of corrective action programs at nuclear power plants.

More than 70 percent of the 51 year-plus outages were caused by broad, programmatic breakdowns that gradually reduced safety to a level so low that reactor operation could not continue. The NRC essentially tolerated performance declines until they became too serious to ignore—at which point the problems required great expense and longer than a year to correct. This overly passive regulatory posture thus allowed safety levels to fall far lower than necessary and caused plant owners’ costs to rise far higher than neces- sary. Either result would be sufficient grounds to induce reforms at the NRC; the fact that both results occurred signals an urgent need for overdue reforms.

The reform most needed at the NRC is the way the agency evaluates the health of CAPs at nuclear power plants. Federal regulations require plant owners to manage a CAP that finds and fixes problems in a timely and effective manner, thereby helping to ensure that safety margins are maintained during reactor operation. The most common theme among the 51 year-plus outages was an inadequate CAP; the second most common

was the NRC’s mistaken perception that these CAPs were just fine.

As detailed in Chapter 4, the NRC must view the findings of its inspectors differently in order to narrow the gap between perception and reality. In theory, NRC inspectors auditing safety levels should not be able to find a problem. If an inspector does identify a problem, the plant owner should be required to fix not only any broken equipment but also the weaknesses in its CAP that allowed the equipment to remain bro- ken until the NRC discovered it.

Recommendation #2: The NRC must expand the scope of its generic communications program to alert plant owners about non-hardware problems that have reduced safety levels.

The NRC currently uses its generic commu- nications program to alert plant owners about hardware problems identified at a specific plant. This information, along with input from other sources such as the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations, is brought to the attention of a plant owner’s operational experience program, which evaluates the input for potential applicability and incorporates the applicable lessons into pro- cedures and training. Missing from this extensive infrastructure are generic communications about non-hardware problems.

During our review of the 51 year-plus outag- es, we did not find a single instance in which the NRC had alerted plant owners about programmatic


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