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Former NRC Chairman Dale Klein Comments on AP Story on Nuclear Plant Safety

Yesterday, Jeff Donn of the Associated Press (AP) published a story on safety inspections at nuclear power plants that seemed to raise more questions than it answered. Here's the introductory paragraph:
The number of safety violations at U.S. nuclear power plants varies dramatically from region to region, pointing to inconsistent enforcement in an industry now operating mostly beyond its original 40-year licenses, according to a congressional study awaiting release.
Here are a few items to keep in mind when considering this story and its conclusions:
  • NRC conducts an average of more than 2,000 hours of inspections a year at each reactor.
  • NRC will increase the number of inspections if recurring issues are identified, and NRC always has option to close a plant if an inspector deems it doesn't meet Federal standards.
In the original story, NEI's Steve Kerekes refused to comment as AP wouldn't share a copy of the GAO report that they had obtained. It's a full day later and we still don't have access to the actual report.

One person who did read the story was former NRC Chairman Dale Klein. He shared the following statement with us once he got a chance to look at Donn's report:
The recent story about safety violations at US nuclear plants is a mixed bag. From a regulatory perspective it is important to identify errors, learn from them and ensure that corrective actions are taken. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has resident inspectors at every nuclear plant in the country. These resident inspectors are going to find issues, together with other inspections that the NRC conducts. It is not the number of safety violations that is important. The point is to ensure a check and balance system is in place to identify potential problems and fix them before a significant event can occur. As a former regulator, I have been impressed with the dedication of the resident inspectors that work with nuclear power plant operators to ensure safe and secure operations of our nation’s nuclear plants. Nuclear power is a clean source of electricity that should be a part of our total energy program.
We ought to remind our readers that this isn't the first time Donn has covered the nuclear energy industry. Back in 2011, Donn wrote a multipart series on industry safety that we called "shoddy," "selective," and "misleading." We weren't the only ones who took issue with Donn's reporting. The Columbia Journalism Review had this to say about the series:
[T]he AP series, while it tackles a critically important public policy issue, suffers from lapses in organization, narrative exposition, and basic material selection, what to leave in and what to leave out. Too much is left to rest on inconclusive he-said-she-said exchanges that end up more confusing than illuminating for readers.
In any case, with the help of an engineer here at NEI, I'm digging into the article and finding some things that just don't seem to add up. Look for more in this space soon.


Justin said…
It will be interesting to see what the actual Congressional study says that is referenced in the article.
It seems to me that arbitrarily diving the reactors into west, mid-west, north-east and south-east isn't an effective way to measure anything. The over-site at each plant is individual therefore, the analysis should be on individual plants. Sites with multiple units that are all designed the same or sites with large common corporate backing should do better through shared knowledge than small single unit sites and sites that lack huge corporate backing.
Victor said…
The GAO report itself says that "NRC cannot ensure that oversight efforts are objective and consistent." Why are you directing your attack on the AP reporter, who is merely quoting from the report? Looks like a PR smokescreen to me.
Steven said…
The report is cited as a "Congressional Study". That alone says volumes. There is absolutely no guarentee of it's objectivity, relevance, or accuracy to the actual state of the Nuclear Industry and how the NRC Regulates it. With more than 30 years in this industry, it is my opinion that this is nothing more than another attempt to blacken the eye of those that work in the cleanest energy resource available.
Anonymous said…
As a contractor performing Safety Inspections alongside NRC Teams from all the four regions, it has always befuddled me and my fellow colleagues how each region has their very own interpretation of NRC rules and guidelines. What becomes a finding at one Region is dismissed from consideration at another. Regional politics appears to play a major role, as does expected pushback from licensees on findings, and, the whims and technical background of the Team leaders and their Supervisors.

It's the little, relatively inconsequential shortcomings of equipment, design, and personnel that are often dismissed from further consideration without adequate explanation or accountability that become precursors to an a major event or accident.
B Z said…
@Victor, this seems to be a common Blogging strategy wrt nuclear blogs. This is what happens I suppose as the blogosphere replaces professional journalism. At least professional journalists have some code of ethics to follow. Bloggers do not.
B Z said…
@Victor, this seems to be common amongst bloggers. Instead of attacking the idea, they attack the person presenting the idea. Rod Adams at Atomic Insights does this as well, as did Dan Yurman at Idaho Samizdat when it was running. As the amateurs of the blogosphere replace the professional (usually degreed) journalists, you will see a steady errosion of ethical "reporting".
Anonymous said…
Kevin said…
@Victor, without the report being published, it is hard to know what the actual report says. Just because someone says they've quoted the report, doesn't mean you should trust what they say. Look at the report and come to your own conclusions. Besides, the quote could be from a draft that is not final.
Rod Adams said…
@B Z

I will challenge your characterization of me as an amateur. Though I do not have a journalism degree, I do have a BS in English. I also have an MS in Systems Technology and served as a professional officer in the US Navy for 29 years. (I sometimes say I have 33 years of Naval Service when I include my 4 years at the Naval Academy).

I have a keenly developed ethical framework based on many years worth of training and association with the simple honor concept that is inculcated into the fiber of most commissioned officers - we do not lie, cheat, or steal or tolerate those who do. (Admittedly, there are a few bad apples in any profession.)

I call out people who's demonstrated professional ethics do not meet the standards I have been taught to meet. When people shade the truth or select data to make an invalid point, they deserve approbation.

In the case of the congressionally requested GAO report, Mr. Donn seems to have overlooked about 30 pages worth of praise for the processes that the well resourced NRC has for ensuring nearly perfect performance from the plants that it oversees. It describes the very strong tools that the NRC has for enforcing its regulations including two full time RESIDENT inspectors at every unit and the ability to force the plant to shut down if it finds a sufficiently egregious violation - and the bar for that is quite low.

The findings that Donn described as "lower-level violations" are defined in the report as follows: "Very low safety significance".

One has to ask what led him to write this up as something to worry about. In essence, the investigators spent about 15 months and an unreported amount of taxpayer money determining that the "umpires" in the four regions (I, II, III, and IV) have a different interpretation of the "strike zone" and end up with a different total of balls and strikes.

Rod Adams said…

Donn provided the following statement in his coverage of the report:

"Told of the findings, safety critics said enforcement is too arbitrary and regulators may be missing violations. The nuclear industry has also voiced concern about the inconsistencies, the report said."

As a professional observer with some industry experience, I am a regulatory critic vice a "safety critic".

I agree that enforcement is too arbitrary, but the real problem is that some regulators are focusing too much attention on unimportant issues. Their actions are adding enormous compliance costs for correction action programs for items similar to the following examples from Appendix V for "green" (non-escalated) findings

"Licensee did not verify the impact that High-Energy Line Breaks in the turbine building could have on safety-related electrical equipment. Determined to be of very low safety significance because it was a
design deficiency confirmed not to result in a loss of operability. Entered in corrective action plan. "

"Licensee failed to establish and perform adequate preventive maintenance on a certain transformer. "

It is worth noting that there is a federal regulatory agency charged with maintaining pipeline and hazardous material safety. (PHMSA). It has 500 employees, vice 4,000 for the NRC. Its annual budget is $105 million vice nearly $1 billion for the NRC. It has just 100 inspectors to cover about 2.5 million miles of pipelines. Its published safety goals for 2016 include:

"Reduce the number of pipeline incidents involving death or major injury to between 26-37 per year.

Reduce the number of hazardous materials incidents involving death or major injury to between 21-32 per year."

I am currently researching to find out if the GAO has been asked to perform a 15 month long audit of the PHMSA.

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