Nuclear regulator ignores employee safety warnings, watchdog report finds
- A report by the Better Government Association levels charges that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency downplays safety concerns brought by employees, and has created an environment where those employees do not feel comfortable raising concerns.
- BGA, which calls itself a "full-service watchdog organization," focused on Illinois policy and holding public officials accountable. It launched Chapter 1 of the series in November with a report that Exelon’s nuclear power plants in the state were leaking radioactive waste.
- The U.S. nuclear fleet is struggling to compete with gas-fired plants and the NRC is preparing to issue new decommissioning rules. A half dozen nuclear plants have shut down since 2013, and several are slated to shut down in 2019.
According to BGA's reporting, based on dozens of interviews and thousands of pages, the NRC downplays or ignores safety concerns, gives too much leeway to plant operators, and has not upheld any of the nearly-700 complaints that whistleblowers have brought in recent years.
The report paints a damning image of higher-placed officials at the agency overruling employees in the field, and creating an environment where staff do not feel comfortable speaking up and raising concerns.
BGA spoke with NRC risk analyst Lawrence Criscione who said "It's the NRC's longstanding practice to consistently declare the plants are safe and to avoid directly answering any questions that might suggest otherwise."
Criscione has raised concerns about the risk of flooding at some nuclear plants. And BGA's report concluded a third of the United States' plants have been deemed vulnerable to major flooding, but that those concerns have been downplayed.
The average age of nuclear reactors in the United States is about 36, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The NRC licenses reactors for 40 years, followed by a possible 20-year extension plant owners can request.
The most recent reactor to come online is Tennessee's Watts Bar Unit 2, which began operating last year. But that ended a dry spell for the industry; before the second unit at Watts Bar, it had been more than 20 years since a new commercial reactor was completed.
As the fleet ages, the industry is also facing pressure from cheap gas-fired power.
A half dozen reactors have closed since 2013, and several more plants, including Entergy's Pilgrim in Massachusetts, and Exelon's Oyster Creek in New Jersey and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, are slated to close in 2019.
Earlier this year, a report from investment consulting firm Callan LLC raised red flags about the funds available for decommissioning.
According to Callan, the funds' balances totaled $64 billion at the end of 2016, almost $42 billion short of total estimated decommissioning expenses for the sector. The study covered 27 investor-owned utilities and 27 public power utilities.There are currently 99 operating nuclear reactors and 11 non-operating reactors.
- Better Government Association Nuclear Regulator Downplays Safety Warnings
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