Holding Nuclear Power Plants to Strict Standards

It’s not uncommon for regulatory agencies to be accused of being too cozy with whatever industry they regulate. It happens to the FDA, the SEC, the FAA and other federal regulators. And it’s happening to the NRC with some vigor recently, especially since the public’s attention to the Japanese nuclear emergency.

As an independent regulatory agency, the NRC has a robust and comprehensive approach to holding U.S. nuclear power plants to strict safety standards. We have our own inspection and maintenance requirements that have led plants to detect and repair, replace or otherwise fix the equipment, systems or other issues mentioned in recent news coverage. In 2009, for example, the NRC’s inspections at the Fort Calhoun plant in Nebraska showed the plant needed to correct deficiencies in its flood response plan. The NRC increased its oversight of Fort Calhoun while the plant responded, and today the plant is well-positioned to ride out the current extreme Missouri River flooding.

The NRC has also ensured Westinghouse meets existing, stringent safety requirements in that company’s attempt to get its AP1000 new reactor design approved. There are many other examples.

The NRC never wavers from its primary mission – ensuring that the public remains safe during the civilian use of radioactive materials in the United States. The NRC carries out that mission by requiring all 104 U.S. nuclear power reactors to meet safety requirements. We work with professional societies to create and maintain the formal standards that support our requirements.

These professional groups, along with researchers from the NRC and the industry, regularly reassess whether or not standards should change. The NRC only permits such changes if they continue to maintain acceptable levels of public safety. The NRC may also review – and change – its own regulations for a variety of reasons. Any changes are always made for sound scientific reasons and without regard for potential economic impacts on plant operators.

And when problems are found and a licensee hasn’t upheld NRC requirements the punishment can be severe. The Davis-Besse nuclear power plant owned by FirstEnergy was fined $5.5 million for lying to the NRC and failing to follow agency requirements. The NRC kept Davis-Besse shut down for years until the plant’s damaged reactor vessel head was replaced and other required repairs were done. And when the NRC’s required inspections recently spotted degradation in the interim replacement head, the NRC forced FirstEnergy to accelerate its plans to install a brand-new, corrosion-resistant head.

The bottom line remains the same – the NRC sets appropriate technical requirements using impartial professional standards, expertise and analysis; we have inspectors stationed at every nuclear power plant in the country, who inspect plants every day; and we enforce our requirements to ensure the public remains safe. We have a single mission – safety.

Gregory Jaczko
Chairman, NRC