How risky is the new era of nuclear power?

NRC Commissioner Gregory Jaczko says the agency should require plants to take more elaborate steps, such as installing fire-resistant power cables as backups to standard sets.

In February 2000, a steam generator tube at the Indian Point plant ruptured, causing a small radiation leak outside the plant. Workers had spotted corrosion in the tube in 1997, but Con Edison, the plant's operator, persuaded the NRC to delay a follow-up inspection slated for June 1999.

An NRC engineer was skeptical of the request, but agency policy discouraged her from asking follow-up questions, an NRC Inspector General's report found later. The tube broke before the next scheduled inspection in 2000.

The NRC says the inspection was delayed because the plant had been shut down for 10 months before the request, leaving little time for the tube to degrade further.

The UCS' Lochbaum largely blames enforcement lapses on an NRC culture he says discourages workers from raising safety issues out of fear of retaliation. A 2002 Inspector General's survey said only 53% of NRC employees "feel it's safe to speak up" at the agency.

The NRC's Richards says, "We emphasize safety as being important and … that people should raise concerns."

To bolster enforcement, the UCS report urges Congress to require the NRC to recruit managers from outside its ranks to transform the agency's culture.

Another proposal, in a bill by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., would allow states to seek an independent safety assessment of a nuclear plant when it seeks a license extension or an increase in power output, or has repeated safety problems.

The UCS also criticizes the NRC for not requiring new reactors to be significantly safer than current ones.

Under a tentative ruling by the agency, new reactors wouldn't have to include features such as double-walled containment structures to withstand aircraft attacks. The NRC this year similarly decided against a proposal to force existing reactors to install giant mesh shields to deflect air attacks.

NRC Deputy Director Gary Holahan says nuclear plants already are "one of the most robust, safest facilities … against air attacks."

Developers of more than half the 32 planned reactors have chosen two models that use "passive safety" systems. If the core overheats, they rely mostly on a gravity-driven release of water to cool it, rather than on motorized pumps like those in existing reactors. The new systems cut costs and avoid potential breakdowns if power is lost, making them safer than current models, say the NRC and manufacturers Westinghouse and General Electric.

But UCS scientist Edwin Lyman says the new designs' reduced reliance on backup pumps is a concern because their performance in a crisis is less certain. "They're shaving safety margins," he says.

Another point of contention: The NRC plans to have about 30% of its inspections of new reactors done by private contractors as it tries to streamline licensing reviews. Lochbaum worries that safety will be sacrificed in a rush to issue licenses quickly. Many engineers who designed the reactors will be responsible for reviewing them, he says.

But NRC's Holahan says the contractors will simply be providing technical information. "We make the final decisions about whether something is safe," he says.

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