Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

Preventing Problem Plants Requires More Effective Action by NRC

T-RCED-98-252: Published: Jul 30, 1998. Publicly Released: Jul 30, 1998.

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GAO discussed how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) oversees the nuclear power industry, focusing on: (1) how NRC defines nuclear safety; (2) some of the causes for weaknesses in how NRC oversees nuclear plants that have problems; and (3) the challenges ahead for NRC safety regulation.

GAO noted that: (1) its 1997 report points out that Congress and the public need confidence in NRC's ability to ensure that the nuclear industry performs to high safety standards; (2) while GAO's report did not make judgments about the safety of nuclear plants or the appropriateness of NRC's current regulatory structure, the many safety problems identified at plants GAO examined raised questions about whether NRC's regulatory program was working as it should, and GAO made recommendations to strengthen it; (3) NRC assumes plants are safe if they operate as designed and follow NRC's regulations; (4) however, all three facilities GAO examined--the Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Connecticut, the Salem Generating Station in New Jersey, and the Cooper Nuclear Station in Nebraska--were operating outside their approved designs; (5) NRC reasoned that these plants were still safe because the many safety features and systems built into a plant's design provide an adequate margin of safety; (6) NRC has found other plants that are not operating as designed and is exploring the reasons that the licensees have not maintained current information on their design changes and have not examined the impact of such changes on the safe operation of plants; (7) the three nuclear plant facilities that GAO examined had long-standing safety problems, and NRC did not take aggressive action to ensure that the licensees fixed their safety problems in a timely way; (8) these problems ranged from failures of equipment to work properly when tested, to weaknesses in how licensees' conducted their maintenance programs; (9) NRC staff repeatedly extended the amount of time allowed the plants' operators to make corrective actions; (10) furthermore, NRC was slow to place plants with declining performance on its Watch List, which is a tally of plants whose declining performance trends require closer regulatory attention; (11) NRC faces many challenges to make its regulatory program work as effectively as it can, particularly in light of major changes taking place in the nuclear industry; (12) according to one utility industry study, as many as 37 of the nation's nuclear sites are vulnerable to shutdown because production costs are higher than the projected electricity prices in the market; (13) decisions that NRC will be making include how safe is safe, and what should be the nuclear plant regulatory approach of the future; and (14) NRC's regulatory approach needs to be anchored in goals and objectives that are clearly articulated, and performance measures that hold NRC managers as well as licensees accountable.

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