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GAO questions disparities in nuclear plant oversight

Calvert Cliffs included in report suggesting inconsistency in safety regulation

Tim Wheeler

11:00 AM EDT, October 18, 2013

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A new government report raises questions about the consistency of federal nuclear power plant oversight, noting regional disparities in the frequency with which plants - including Maryland's Calvert Cliffs - have been cited for safety problems or violations.

The review released this week by the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, found significant differences across the country in how often the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reported finding low-risk safety problems and low-level violations at the nation's 62 operating nuclear plants. 

While there were not similar regional disparities in the number of serious violations reported, the differences in identifying minor problems could affect the NRC's ability to head off safety lapses before they get worse. Moreover, the GAO found NRC's record-keeping system was not good enough for the public or even the agency's own inspectors to adequately track nuclear plants' performance.

The NRC regional office handling the western United States issued the most low-level citations, even though it oversees the fewest plants, the GAO found, while the regional office responsible for the Southeast reported the fewest minor problems. NRC's regional office handling the Northeast issued the second fewest minor safety findings while overseeing the second largest number of plants, according to the report.

The twin-reactor Calvert Cliffs plant in Lusby received a total of 140 low-level and seven serious safety citations from the NRC from 2000 through 2012, according to the GAO.  The plant is operated by Constellation Energy Nuclear Group, a joint venture of Exelon Corp. and EDF Group.

The report noted that both NRC and regional officials have suggested the disparities in low-level safety issues reported may stem from differences in how agency staff identify and resolve those issues. The GAO said federal oversight of nuclear plant safety is more important than ever in the wake of the tsunami-triggered disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan two years ago, and in light of the increasing age of the US nuclear facilities, most of which were built in the 1970s and '80s.

A spokesman for Constellation nuclear group said that Calvert Cliffs' operators and on-site NRC inspectors "document numerous technical and procedural violations each year to ensure that minor concerns are identified and corrected before they could affect plant operability or safety."

"The U.S. nuclear industry is one of the safest, most highly regulated and transparent industries in the world," the spokesman, Kory Raftery, said in an email.

Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the NRC's Northeast regional office, said federal regulators have revised their system to rely more on objective measures of plant peformance, reducing opportunities for subjective judgment.

"US nuclear power plants, unlike some in other countries, have unique characteristics, unique aspects to them," said Sheehan. "They don't lend themselves to one size fits all."

Though NRC staff still decide how to rank safety issues identified at plants, Sheehan said all the agency's senior risk analysts get the same training.  And the spokesman defended the agency's record-keeping, saying, "we try to have a lot of transparency in how we do these things."

"Could there be more consistency among the regions?" Sheehan added. "That's an issue the agency has said we'll continue to look at. It is a topic of discussion among regional administrators and other staff."

David Lochbaum, who monitors nuclear safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the GAO report echoes some of the findings of a report his group did two years ago on NRC oversight.  That report questioned whether staff and funding limitations were affecting the NRC's rating of plants' safety, he said in an email.  Only 10 reactors had maintained top safety ratings from the NRC for an entire decade at that time, he noted, and neither of Calvert Cliffs' units was among the top performers then.