Most of the post-mortems on year-plus outages conducted by the NRC, the NRC’s inspector general, and the GAO show that the NRC had known about many of the problems but had not “connected the dots” to see the picture of a plant headed for trouble. Why? Because the dots resid- ed in numerous places within the agency: some with regional staff, some with headquarters staff, and some with a different program office. There is no excuse today for not making all of the dots readily available to all NRC staff.
Until the NRC completes these five steps, it is quite likely that safety levels at nuclear power reactors will drop even while their safety assess- ments reflect good, sustained performance. This divergence between reality and perception has already caused too many year-plus reactor out- ages, and too much is at stake for the NRC not to take these steps now.
Recommendation #6: The scope of the NRC’s monthly report to Congress should be expanded to include the agency’s efforts in addressing the five recommended improvements detailed above.
Just as the NRC ensures that its licensees are following federal safety guidelines at their plants, Congress ensures that the NRC is doing everything possible to provide effective indus- try oversight and protect public safety. In the early 1980s, for example, Congress responded to a number of problems at nuclear power plants under construction (e.g., Zimmer in Ohio, Midland in Michigan, Diablo Canyon in California) by passing legislation that forced the NRC to examine quality control during plant construction. The agency reported back to Congress:
The staff concluded that the root cause for the major quality-related problems in design and
Walking a Nuclear Tightrope
construction was the failure or inability of some utility management to effectively implement a management system that ensured adequate con- trol over all aspects of the project.
As a result, the NRC revamped its regulatory process to expand the depth and breadth of its inspection efforts at plants under construction.
Congress revisited the subject of quality assurance 10 years later, this time directing the GAO to investigate how the NRC evaluates quality control during plant operation. The GAO’s report sounded eerily similar to what the NRC had earlier told Congress about plant owners’ failings:
The fact that several NRC determinations that major utility management improvements were needed at operating plants came only after the occurrence of safety-related incidents or several years of marginal utility performance illustrates that NRC will need to develop better and more disciplined assessment tools if it is to successfully detect and correct utility performance problems before the problems lead to plant incidents.2
Senators Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) and Joseph Biden (D-DE) subsequently asked the GAO to investigate how the NRC handled three specific troubled plants: Cooper in Nebraska, Millstone in Connecticut, and Salem in New Jersey. In the case of the Salem reactors, which the NRC kept shut down until it was satisfied that 43 different technical problems had been corrected, the GAO determined that the NRC had known about 38 of the problems prior to the outage—in two cases for nearly seven years prior—but had allowed Salem to continue oper- ating.13 This finding led the NRC to revamp its regulatory process for operating reactors and