By David Lochbaum, May 15, 2008
Andy Kadak raises a valid point about Davis-Besse’s near miss resulting from a major breakdown not only at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) but also at the plant operator FirstEnergy and the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). INPO, formed by the industry in response to Three Mile Island, seeks to hold plant owners to standards considerably higher than NRC regulations. Any time a nuclear plant such as Davis-Besse falls below NRC regulations, it first falls below INPO standards. If INPO’s enforcement was successful, declining performance would be corrected before dropping below NRC regulations. But the ongoing recovery at the Palo Verde nuclear power plant in Arizona and the year-plus outages at Davis-Besse, the D. C. Cook plant in Michigan, the LaSalle and Clinton plants in Illinois, Crystal River Unit 3 in Florida, Millstone plant in Connecticut, and the Salem plant in New Jersey demonstrate that INPO has failed repeatedly.
I also agree with Andy that NRC’s failures aren’t limited to enforcement lapses. In addition to the examples he cites, plant owners and the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) have pointed out numerous occasions where NRC inspectors nitpicked issues that were irrelevant to safety or ratcheted up compliance beyond what the regulations required. That the commision routinely gets criticized from both sides strongly suggests that its problems arise from a lack of competence rather than bias. A biased regulator gets the majority of its complaints from one side. An incompetent regulator gets justly criticized from all stakeholders. In addition to being criticized by all the participants of this roundtable, the NRC is currently being formally challenged by the states of New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New York in legal proceedings and by the attorney generals of several other states for inadequate post-9/11 security upgrades. It’s evident that NRC isn’t an effective regulator.
I agree with Victor Gilinsky’s description of NRC’s ebb and flow approach to nuclear safety oversight, but I think that the outside forces dictating the commission’s regulatory mood extend beyond Capitol Hill and NEI. NRC’s senior management is comparable to a weathervane, facing whichever direction the wind is blowing. The prevailing wind may be from Capitol Hill and NEI, but sometimes a gust blows in from the media, state governments, or other quarters and gets the NRC’s focus for a time.
Anthony Pietrangelo observes that some of the problems I cite date back 30 years. I believe it’s fair to mention old problems when similar problems exist today. Regardless of their age, problems in the rearview mirror are relevant when their solutions remain on the road ahead. Old issues transition to a historical nature only when both the problems and their implemented solutions appear in the rearview mirror.
I agree with Anthony that nuclear plants are performing at higher levels today than in the past and that this outcome results from industry and NRC activities. In addition to the reactor oversight process, the NRC’s “maintenance rule” and the industry’s efforts to meet it have improved safety and reliability. I believe these facts are consistent with, rather than contradictory to, our view that the commission generally establishes safety standards at the appropriate level but does an inadequate job of enforcing them. Most plant owners are meeting or exceeding its standards and achieving strong performance results. But some plant owners can’t, or won’t, comply with NRC standards. The NRC’s Office of Enforcement needs to get into the game to narrow the performance gap between industry leaders and laggards.
Like a top-notch sports referee, a high-quality government regulator is virtually invisible. Bad calls by referees and bad decisions (or events traced back to bad decisions) by regulators attract attention while good calls and good decisions go unnoticed. The NRC gets too much attention from too many people to be considered an effective regulator. To be sure, it has a difficult task pursuing “Goldilocks” regulation–regulation neither too lenient nor too harsh. I believe that by improving its enforcement capability to match its demonstrated skill in establishing regulations, the NRC would make much-needed progress toward regulation that’s just right.