WASHINGTON -- To critics of the nuclear power industry, there was a fitting symbolism in the recent shutdown of the Peach Bottom nuclear plant after control room operators were reported sleeping on the job.
'Sleeping on the job is a perfect metaphor for the industry's and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's approach to safety,' said Scott Denman, of the Safe Energy Communication Council, which promotes alternatives to nuclear and coal power.
Another critic, Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy Project, called the NRC's March 31 shutdown action 'long overdue' because of numerous past safety problems at the Pennsylvania plant.
Critical Mass said the episode underscored 'numerous failures in federal oversight of nuclear safety in general and at the Peach Bottom plant in particular.'
At Peach Bottom, plant supervisors and workers were also reported to have read magazines and played video games on control room personal computers designed to monitor certain maintenance operations.
While these activities might be innocent enough in another line of work, industry critics say such behavior is especially disturbing at a nuclear plant, with its potential for disaster.
The most serious accidents at nuclear plants have been blamed on a combination of equipment and human failures, as witness both Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
In one 'near-miss' accident at Rancho Seco in California on Dec. 26, 1985, a malfunctioning control system prevented plant operators from controlling the reactor. While operators were attempting to bring the plant under control, a senior reactor operator suddenly collapsed and had to be taken to a hospital.
During the course of their efforts, said Kennedy Maize of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the other operators 'sent a burst of cold water into the reactor, which was still under high pressure.'
This combination of the cold water and high pressure 'threatened to rupture the steel vessel that is the first line of defense against a major release of dangerous radioactivty,' said Maize.
The NRC later found that if the accident had gone on another 90 minutes, the vessel reactor could have cracked. This, said Maize, could have resulted in 'a nuclear disaster as great as the tragedy' at Chernobyl. The Rancho Seco plant, Maize noted, has the same designer, Babcock & Wilcox, as Three Mile Island.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has petitioned the NRC to shut down the industry's eight Babcock & Wilcox plants pending a safety study and modifications. The organization cites 10 potentially serious accidents at B&W plants since the Three Mile Island accident.
Modifications ordered by the NRC on B&W plants after the Three Mile Island accident still have not been fully implemented eight years later, the organization charged. Instead, the NRC has allowed the reactors to continue to operate and has turned over the lead role in the safety review to an industry group.
The NRC, for its part, said the B&W plants are operating safely and that it is closely monitoring the industry group's review of B&W plants. The agency also defended its record of overseeing plant safety.
Since the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979, said NRC Chairman Lando Zech, plant equipment and personnel training have been substantially upgraded, with a resulting increase in safety at all of the nation's nuclear plants.
In addition, he said, the NRC has kept plants shut down for long periods for unsafe conditions or mismanagement. Critics, using the same figures, say it just means the nation's 107 licensed commercial nuclear plants have so many problems that they average being shut down almost 40 percent of the time.
Among plants currently shut down are Rancho Seco, Peach Bottom, Pilgrim in Massachusetts, and all five Tennessee Valley Authority units. Recently authorized to go back into operation after lengthy shutdowns were Fort St. Vrain in Colorado, Palisades in Michigan and Davis-Besse in Ohio.
'We regard it as a very serious matter when a plant is not being operated in a safe manner,' said Zech. 'None of the plants that we order shut down, or that go out of service after experiencing problems, are allowed to restart until we are assured they can be operated safely.'
The industry's critics disagree.
'The NRC is a very insulated, narrow-minded group of men who are failing to look carefully at the issue of nuclear power safety and who are becoming more and more captives of the industry,' said Kathleen Welch of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
The critics cite a number of other issues which they say illustrate both that the NRC is failing to do its job and that the nuclear industry is seriously lax on safety matters. These include:
-The NRC's licensing of plants with potential safety problems, such as Diablo Canyon in California and Indian Point in New York. Diablo Canyon had a history of design and quality control problems and is located near a major earthquake fault. At Indian Point, the NRC rejected safety improvements that Commissioner James Asselstine said would have cut the plant's severe accident risk in half.
-Potentially serious accidents at other plants in the last two years, including Davis-Besse in Ohio and San Onofre in California, another Babcock & Wilcox plant. The NRC staff has estimated that there is a 45 percent chance of a severe U.S. nuclear plant accident in the next 20 years.
-Potential problems with containments, the large concrete and steel buildings designed to hold in radiation in the event of an accident, at some plants. The NRC staff has reported that General Electric's Mark I containment, used at about one-fourth of the nation's operating plants, has a high likelihood of failure during a core meltdown accident.
-The reduction of the NRC's budget for safety studies. An NRC staff report in April 1986 said the cutbacks 'are expected to have intermediate and long term implications that will be detrimental to public health and safety.'
-The NRC's failure to develop training guidelines for nuclear power plant workers, instead designating this responsibility to an industry-funded organization whose records are not available to the public. The critics also point with alarm to increasing reports of drug and alcohol use at nuclear plants in recent years. ---
These safety issues are especially important, said NRC commissioner James Asselstine, in view of many nuclear plants' operating records in recent years.
Asselstine, a commission dissenter and frequent critic of its safety enforcement record, said that 'losses of reactor safety systems, multiple and simultaneous equipment failures, human errors, poor maintenance practices, poor management and rapid unplanned reactor shutdowns are still frequent occurrences at nuclear power plants in this country.'
In this light, say the industry's critics, recent regulatory changes adopted or proposed by the NRC are of great concern because they severely undercut safety standards.
These include a regulation adopted by the commission to compute the cost-effectiveness of any proposed 'backfitting' -- that is, safety improvements on old equipment or installation of new equipment at nuclear plants -- before determining whether to require them.
Since adopting the backfitting regulation, said Asselstine, the commission's 'hands have been tied. We have not imposed one significant new requirement on the industry -- even after the Chernobyl accident.'
The previous backfitting regulation was approved in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 to upgrade plants to prevent similar accidents.
The industry has contended that many of the backfitting requirements were too expensive, but Asselstine said, 'I have not seen any persuasive case by the industry that any of these backfit requirements weren't necessary.'
Also attacked by the critics is legislation proposed again this year by the NRC to speed the licensing process by permitting one-step licensing, instead of the lengthier two-step process currently in effect.
The proposal, pending in Congress, would allow a utility to get its single license before construction. It is seen by industry critics as a way to reduce the public's opportunities to challenge a licensing application.
'We want to be able to fight all the battles at the front, rather than fight the same battles over and over again every few years,' said Scott Peters of the nuclear industry's Atomic Industrial Forum. ---
Perhaps the commission's most controversial current proposal is one to allow plant licensing to proceed without the currently required state approval for emergency evacuation plans within a 10-mile radius of nuclear plants.
The proposal was sparked by Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis's refusal to certify emergency evacuation plans for the Seabrook, N.H. plant, just across the border from his state; by New York Gov. Mario Cuomo's similar action concerning Shoreham, on Long Island, and by Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste's withdrawal last August of state certification for emergency plans for his state's Perry and Davis-Besse plants.
These actions have blocked the startups of Seabrook and Shoreham, and placed a legal cloud over the already licensed Perry andDavis-Besse plants.
Dukakis and Cuomo said the heavy population densities and inadequate roads in the vicinities of Seabrook and Shoreham made safe evacuation of residents impossible.
'There's been a meltdown in the NRC's star chamber,' Dukakis said. 'The commission's action to strip governors of their power to protect the men, women and children of their states is as alarming as it is lacking in common sense.' ---
NRC Chairman Zech feels his agency and the industry get a bum rap on safety.
'In my three years on the commission,' said Zech, 'I've visited 75 plants in the United States and many others overseas in Europe and Asia. There's no question that U.S. plants overall are improving in operational reliability and safety and are among the best in the world. There is room for even more improvement, but U.S. plants are being operated in a responsible manner today.'