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Complacency on Nuclear Safety : U.S. Panel Wants to Deregulate, Not Demand Improvements

May 11, 1986|JAMES K. ASSELSTINE | James K. Asselstine is a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Although there are differences in the designs of nuclear power plants in the Soviet Union and the United States, the accident at the Chernobyl reactor carries with it an important lesson for the American nuclear power program.

A severe nuclear reactor accident involving the melting of the reactor core, which creates the potential for dangerous releases of radioactive material, is simply unacceptable and we must make every effort to reduce or eliminate the chance of such an accident in this country.

Unfortunately, as the memory of the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania faded with time, both the nuclear industry and its government regulator, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, have lost sight of this most fundamental principle of nuclear safety. Constant vigilance in the control of nuclear energy and the search for continuing safety improvements has been replaced with an attitude of complacency on safety--both on the part of the industry and the NRC.

This is evident in a series of NRC decisions in recent years. The commission rejected a set of safety improvements recommended by the NRC's technical experts for the Indian Point nuclear power plants in New York, the two reactors situated in the most heavily populated site in this country. These safety improvements would have cut in half the risk of a severe nuclear accident at the Indian Point plants. Then the commission, in its Severe Accident Policy Statement, declared all the country's plants acceptably safe for the foreseeable future and ended efforts to develop new safety features that would substantially reduce the risk of a core meltdown.

At the urging of the nuclear industry, the commission also has erected a thicket of procedural obstacles to retrofitting existing plants that effectively prevent the agency's technical staff from imposing new safety requirements. This new retrofit rule shifted the burden of proof to the proponent of the safety improvement--an absolute contradiction of the recommendations of the President's Commission on the Three Mile Island Accident. And finally, the commission has rejected or deferred proposals to address areas of weakness in human performance such as drugs and alcohol abuse and plant maintenance.

Taken together, these actions not only reflect the attitude of complacency on safety by the NRC and the industry, but a willingness by the commission to move toward deregulation of the nuclear industry.

Safety studies of U.S. nuclear power plants and actual operating experience with the plants demonstrate that this complacency and the move toward deregulation are unjustified. Safety analyses of several U.S. nuclear plants indicate that there is about a 45% chance of a core meltdown at one of the 100 plants now in operation in this country during the next 20 years.

In addition, plant operating experience demonstrates that losses of reactor safety systems and other equipment malfunctions, human errors, inadequate maintenance practices and unplanned reactor shutdowns are frequent occurrences at nuclear power plants in this country. In 1985 alone, serious operating events that created the potential for a more dangerous accident occurred at the Davis Besse plant in Ohio and at the Rancho Seco and San Onofre plants in California. Also in 1985, a management collapse in the Tennessee Valley Authority's nuclear power program, the second largest in the United States, resulted in the indefinite shutdown of five TVA reactors.

The number of serious safety events at our nuclear plants together with the safety analyses that show a high likelihood of a core meltdown in the United States within the next 20 years provide ample evidence that we are not yet at the point where we can deregulate the nuclear industry or relax our search for practical safety improvements. Accordingly, the NRC and the nuclear industry should undertake a comprehensive program to reduce the risk of a severe nuclear accident. That program should consist of at least three new safety initiatives.

First, each of the 100 operating plants should be reexamined to identify design deficiencies and vulnerabilities that could cause or contribute to a serious accident.

Second, improvement programs should be required in areas of demonstrated weak performance at the plants such as management, maintenance, personnel performance and equipment reliability. The objective should be to bring all U.S. plants up to the highest standards of operating performance. Rapid improvement should be mandatory for those plants with poor operating records.

Third, new design features that have the potential to reduce both the likelihood and the consequences of a core meltdown accident should be considered.

Other countries such as Japan, Sweden and West Germany already are achieving substantial improvements in reactor safety at reasonable cost, even though their requirements are stiffer than those in the United States. If we are to heed the lessons of the Chernobyl accident, we must follow their example and return to a vigilant and forward-looking approach to nuclear safety. That approach should stress the need to improve plant performance, to learn the lessons of operating experience and to pursue practical safety improvements in existing as well as any future plants to reduce accident risk to a level that is as low as reasonably achievable. Public protection and public confidence in our nuclear power program require nothing less.

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