A change in climate needed for nuclear power

By Dave Lochbaum | October 14, 2015

In the 36 years since the event at Three Mile Island—the worst US nuclear plant accident to date—nearly four dozen US reactors have remained shut down for longer than a year while workers restored safety levels to the minimums acceptable to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for operation. The most recent example was the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant in Nebraska, shut down between April 2011 and December 2013.

Much of the reason for this problem can be laid to management—a term which Merriam-Webster defines as the “judicious use of means to accomplish an end.” Because a nuclear power plant’s end is the generation of electricity, then being unable to generate electricity for over a year is pretty compelling evidence of bad management.

Bad management also factored into the 2013 closures of the Crystal River 3 reactor in Florida and the San Onofre Unit 2 and 3 reactors in California. In both cases, management contracted for the replacement of large components that were wearing out for the purpose of refurbishing the plants for decades’ more electricity generation. Rather than prolonging the plants’ lifetimes, poorly managed replacements ended them—after many millions of dollars had been spent for electricity that would never be generated.

To remedy such situations, the US nuclear industry created the Institute of Nuclear Plant Operations, or INPO, to act as a peer watchdog. INPO established quality standards that it uses when evaluating the performance of plants and their managers. In theory, a plant would first fall short of INPO’s stellar criteria before it dropped below the NRC’s cellar minimums. In practice, INPO failed to prevent nearly four dozen reactors from falling so far below the NRC’s standards that it took more than a year to get them back up.

We at the Union of Concerned Scientists suggest a different approach: climate change. By that, we mean that the current economic and regulatory climate tolerates bad management and ineffective oversight that compromises safety levels, increases costs, and reduces reliability too often. Whether one is for or against nuclear power, we all need to be advocates for nuclear safety, assessing whether regulations and their enforcement manages the risks of nuclear power to an acceptably low level. To do so, a change in climate is necessary, whatever the future holds—whether it be that only existing reactors operate to the end of their licenses, or new reactors be built and operated.

Good management is good business. Safety, economics, and reliability are interwoven—which means that good management achieves successful results in all three areas while bad management underachieves across the board. This can be seen in a report released in June 1998 titled “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” in which the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) assessed the safety performance of 10 US reactors over a 14-month period. We zeroed in on the Surry plant in Virginia because it produced electricity at lower cost than any other US nuclear plant at the time, and we suspected it might be doing so by taking shortcuts. The data revealed just the opposite. In fact, Surry placed first on our safety scorecard, well ahead of second place. We found that the engaged, proactive workers there complemented the aggressive efforts by management to look for and resolve problems; the situation appears to be similar to what happens wherever there is a positive, healthy culture of workers and management engaged in keeping an eye on nuclear materials security. By finding problems at the earliest opportunity and fixing them right the first time, Surry scored highest on safety. That combination also enabled them to compile enviable financial performance. Conversely, the plants at the other end of the spectrum rated low on safety and high on costs.

But once achieved, good management is difficult to sustain. Top-notch managers retire or resign to pursue other opportunities. Just as the best juggler can get too many balls up in the air, even top performing managers can become task-saturated. And few, if any, managers complain about budgets being excessively large. The backstop to the problem of management’s game dropping a notch or two is effective regulatory oversight.

The role of the NRC. The nearly four dozen outages of more than a year in length over the past 36 years suggest that there’s ample room for improvement in the NRC’s oversight regime. How safe could these plants have been during the months they operated before shutting down to restore their extensively compromised safety margins? For example, after the two reactors at the Salem nuclear plant in New Jersey were shut down in the mid-1990s, the NRC found that 43 safety problems needed be corrected before it would permit the reactors to restart. The Government Accountability Office subsequently found that the NRC knew about 38 of the 43 safety problems well before the plant was shut down—some dated back more than six years. In the more recent Fort Calhoun case, several safety problems that kept the plant shut down dated all the way back to the plant’s construction in the 1970s.

The NRC must intervene before unresolved safety problems proliferate to epidemic proportions. A doctor who brings a patient out of a year-plus coma is good. The doctor who treats a patient’s health problems before he plunges into a coma is much better.

The NRC has already demonstrated the needed capability for regulatory oversight. One example is the NRC’s response to the spring 2001 discovery by workers at the Oconee nuclear plant in South Carolina that cooling water from its reactor had leaked from a cracked component at a location previously believed to be nearly invulnerable to degradation. That belief resulted in that portion of the component not being periodically inspected. The chance discovery affected 69 of the nation’s operating reactors.

The NRC examined the problem and determined the factors—such as the type of metal, age of the reactor, temperature of the cooling water, among others—that contributed to the formation of the cracks and their growth rates. In August 2001, the NRC used this information to separate reactors into three categories of susceptibility: those highly vulnerable and needing inspections before the end of 2001; those moderately vulnerable and needing inspections at the next opportunity; and those not very vulnerable and needing little change to the scope and frequency of inspections.

The consequent inspection results confirmed that the NRC had nailed it—none of the reactors deemed to have moderate or low susceptibility were found to have significant degradation, while all of the reactors deemed to be highly susceptible were found to have significant degradation. In other words, the NRC had responded to this emerging safety problem with timely and effective oversight.

Bad management and ineffective regulatory oversight undermines safety levels, inflates costs, and reduces reliability. Climate change is needed if these impairments are to be eradicated, or at least lessened, and nuclear power is to achieve optimal safety, financial, and reliability performance. A good starting point would be for both the INPO and the NRC to conduct case studies on the recent year-plus outage at Fort Calhoun. How should the inspection regimes of these respective institutions be changed to detect safety problems earlier? How should their assessment efforts be altered to connect-the-dots better and intervene sooner? What must be done differently to flush out and fix safety problems more promptly?

Year-plus reactor outages drive safety levels down and the costs of nuclear power up—and people living near the reactors, ratepayers, and stockholders all lose. Steps must be taken to prevent future losses.

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