The NRC’s Office of the Inspector General has filled a key oversight role, conducting investigations that have changed how the agency regulates nuclear waste, fire protection and security. But ex-employees say the office has shied away from challenging the commission, altering the report on one investigation and dropping another probe.
The Japan Task Force, made up of expert staff at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said that U.S. nuclear plants are safe but called for potentially sweeping change—including upgrades at many plants and broad regulatory changes to address low-risk, high-consequence disasters.
A post-Fukushima inspection of U.S. nuclear plants found widespread problems with emergency equipment and procedures supposed to be in place in case of major disasters, like a flood or earthquake of unexpected severity or a terrorist attack that causes an extended blackout.
N.R.C. Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko said the agency is giving nuclear companies too much leeway and "must close this very long chapter of not enforcing all fire protection violations."
Officials at Fort Calhoun plant in Omaha, Neb., said the situation at their plant came nowhere near to Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant, where uncooled spent fuel released radiation. They said it would have taken 88 hours for the heat produced by the fuel to boil away the cooling water.
Fire poses one of the dangers at a nuclear power plant, but at nearly half the country’s commercial reactors, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not writing violations. Instead, plants are relying on a patchwork of interim measures to address longstanding fire hazards, an approach that critics say increases the risk of a serious accident.
Records show that portions of Nuclear Regulatory Commission guides rely on material from the industry’s leading trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute. The NRC says it maintains final say over its official guidance to plants, but critics say the NRC is handing too much influence to the industry.
Opponents of nuclear power have warned for years that if spent fuel pools lost water, it could lead to a fire and a catastrophic release of radiation. Now, there have been hydrogen explosions at two of the reactor buildings housing spent fuel pools at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
Congressman Ed Markey has asked the Government Accountability Office to look into earthquake and flood protection at nuclear plants and questions whether the new AP1000 reactor design by Westinghouse is vulnerable to earthquakes.