Safety Breaches Seen Plaguing U.S. Reactors in Report

Almost one-in-six U.S. nuclear reactors experienced safety breaches last year due in part to poor oversight by federal regulators, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Incidents including a cooling water leak and unusual wear on steam generator tubes were reported at 16 units owned by companies including Entergy Corp. and Edison International, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based environmental group said in its third annual report on reactor safety released today.

“The NRC has repeatedly failed to enforce essential safety regulations,” wrote David Lochbaum, director of the group’s Nuclear Safety Project and author of the study.

Since the 2010 report, almost 40 percent of the 104 U.S. reactors have had safety breaches serious enough to require the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to dispatch inspection teams, the group said. The agency, in response, said none of the incidents posed a risk to public safety.

The NRC is in the process of writing rules to improve safety after a triple meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant two years ago. The agency issued its first regulations in response to the disaster a year ago, and in the coming days the five-member commission may announce its decision on a staff recommendation to require radiation-scrubbing filters on the venting systems of 31 aging reactors.

‘Near Miss’

The NRC last year reported 14 events that the Union of Concerned Scientists defined as “near misses.” Those are incidents that raise the risk of a meltdown by 10 times or more and prompted the dispatch of an NRC inspection team, according to the study. Some events affected multiple units at plants, and some facilities experienced more than one incident. Near-misses occurred at 16 reactors in total, the report said.

Such events include a cooling water leak at Entergy’s Palisades plant about 58 miles (93 kilometers) southwest of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The report also cited unidentified security problems at Southern Co.’s Farley plant in Alabama and equipment failure at Exelon Corp.’s Byron plant in northern Illinois.

Some facilities, such as Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corp.’s reactor 62 miles south of Topeka, Kansas, have reported multiple incidents since 2010, such as an electrical fault that caused the main generator to shut down, according to the report.

‘Simplest Repair’

The NRC “is tolerating the intolerable,” the scientists’ report said. “The simplest repair available is for the NRC to enforce existing regulations, using its ability to impose fines on owners and shut down reactors that violate safety regulations.”

On its website, the Union of Concerned Scientists describes itself as a watchdog that is neither for or against nuclear power but urges greater regulation to enhance safety.

“Far from showing lax regulation or oversight, these special inspections show the NRC doing its job to protect the public and the environment by finding and correcting problems early, before they can cause real harm,” David McIntyre, an NRC spokesman, said in an e-mail. “None of the incidents cited by UCS actually affected public health and safety.”

The agency is issuing its own annual report card of reactor performance. Of the 104 operating units, 99 were in the highest performance categories, according to a statement today announcing the assessment. Eighty-one units met all safety and security requirements and 18 needed to resolve one or two low-risk issues, it said.

NRC Actions

“The NRC will not allow any of our licensed facilities to operate unless we are satisfied that they can do so safely,” NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane told a House Energy and Commerce Committee panel Feb. 28. While a few plants have had “significant performance problems,” the agency is addressing those issues, she said.

The two reactors at Edison’s San Onofre plant in Southern California have been out of service since January 2012, after workers discovered unusual wear on steam generator tubes. The NRC hasn’t approved the company’s proposal to return one of the units to limited operation.

Not included among the near-misses were reactors affected by superstorm Sandy, which pummeled the Northeast U.S. in late October. The storm forced three reactors to shut down and a fourth, Exelon’s Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey, which was out of service at the time for refueling and maintenance, to declare an alert.