March 24, 2011 9:28 pm

US watchdog sees gaps in reactor safety

Defects in components of US nuclear plants are going unreported because of “contradictory and unclear” regulations, according to a report from the federal nuclear regulator’s watchdog.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspector general’s report, released on Thursday, is based on a review conducted in January, before the crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant and the ensuing concern over the safety of nuclear sites in the US. The inspector general’s findings, however, raise questions about risks at the 104 operating reactors across the country. Nuclear plants provide 20 per cent of US electricity, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s lobbying organisation.

Under NRC rules, the companies that operate nuclear plants are supposed to report problems caused by faulty components. That includes parts involved in keeping nuclear fuel cooled, shutting down the reactor and preventing accidents that could lead to leaks of radioactive material.

But plant operators were also required to report defects in those parts, even if they had not caused an incident, if the faulty components “could cause a substantial safety hazard”, the report said.

In spite of these requirements, industry data showed many problems with parts were not being reported, with 28 per cent of nuclear plants not reporting defects unless an incident occurred.

The report found that the under-reporting occurred because the NRC’s regulations were “contradictory and unclear”. As a result, the regulator, nuclear operators and part manufacturers may not be aware of manufacturing defects. This lack of information could endanger the safety of other plants. “Reactors may be operating today with parts known, by some but not by all, to be defective,” said David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit nuclear safety watchdog.

What is more, the NRC does not check whether operators are reporting defects. “Unless the NRC takes action to fully implement [its reporting rules], the margin of safety for operating reactors could be reduced,” the report concluded.

In a statement, the NRC said it “has a variety of other regulations that encompass reporting all defects and the NRC continues to conclude plants are operating safely. The NRC will look at the inspector general’s report to see if our reporting systems can be further strengthened”.

Mr Lochbaum said the report is “solid” and that the inspector general’s office “deserves recognition for having flagged it.”

“But it’s not quite a “clear and present danger”, he added. “All owners have inspection and testing programs to find defective parts, or effective parts that have just worn out. The notification process supplements these programs for added assurance against defective parts undermining safety, but they are not the only protection against it.”

On Wednesday the NRC announced it had launched a review of nuclear power plant safety in light of the Japanese crisis.

“Examining all the available information from Japan is essential to understanding the event’s implications for the United States,” said Greg Jaczko, NRC chair. “We will perform a systematic and methodical review to see if there are changes that should be made to our programmes and regulations to ensure protection of public health and safety.”

The NRC-appointed task force is set to release updates on the review at regular intervals.

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