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NRC Celebrates A Milestone — 40 Years of Safety and Service

Tom Wellock
NRC Historian

It’s been 40 years since the Nuclear Regulatory Commission began operations on January 19, 1975. To be sure, the agency inherited a mixed legacy from its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission. The AEC had established an approach to reactor safety still used today, but critics claimed it worked too closely with the nuclear industry to promote nuclear power. As a new agency, the NRC had to demonstrate that it would be an unbiased, independent regulator.

40yearsOver the years, domestic and international events have challenged the NRC to define what independence meant. A new video on the NRC’s YouTube channel shows us how, in the early years, the essential elements of the NRC’s character were developed and remains today. For example, as the video shows, between 1975 and 1979, the NRC dealt with a major fire at the Brown’s Ferry nuclear power plant in Alabama,  a controversial request to export uranium to India, staff dissent over reactor safety, and tough questioning of its research conclusions regarding the probabilities of nuclear accidents.

From these experiences, the NRC learned that being an independent safety regulator took more than legislation. It meant cultivating a diverse staff, seeking out dissent and heeding critics. Safety research needed to be conducted free of perceived bias, and it learned the limits within which a regulatory agency may act under the United States’ constitutional separation of powers.

All these lessons have proven to be an asset for the NRC when it dealt with its greatest crisis — the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island; and in learning lessons from watershed nuclear events at both Chernobyl and Fukushima. We hope you’ll take a few minutes to watch the video.

15 responses to “NRC Celebrates A Milestone — 40 Years of Safety and Service

  1. Moderator January 20, 2015 at 10:01 am

    Thank you for your comments. The statement regarding separation of powers was a reference to the potential conflict between the NRC’s authority and the executive branch over export license decisions, such as the Tarapur decision discussed in the video. For a detailed history of the Tarapur decision, see J. Samuel Walker, “Nuclear Power and Nonproliferation: The Controversy over Nuclear Exports, 1974-1980,” Diplomatic History 25 no. 2 (Spring 2001): 215-249.

    It is true that after the Three Mile Island accident the NRC did not implement all of the numerous recommendations made by NRC staff and outside review groups, but the NRC acted on many of them. For a summary, see on the NRC webpage, “Backgrounder on the Three Mile Island Accident” (http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/3mile-isle.html#impact).

    Tom Wellock, NRC Historian

    • Public Pit Bull January 20, 2015 at 11:22 am

      Thanks for your prompt informative response Mr. Wellock. Many important changes were made in the aftermath of the TMI accident as noted in the link you provided. But some very significant ones were not.

      A special and independent inquiry into the TMI accident was authorized by the NRC Commission shortly after the accident. A number of recommendations were made in their 1980 report (NUREG/CR-1250). The lion’s share of those recommendations called for significant changes in the NRC itself. My read is that almost all of these institutional recommendations were not implemented by the Commission. Examples include:

      Recommendation: The NRC needs to be a single-administrator agency.
      Status: Not implemented even after 34 years.
      Comment: The NRC is still run by committee. The inquiry report noted that the “NRC is virtually the only agency in the federal government headed by a commission”. Agencies responsible for public health and safety have single administrators. Examples include the FAA, FDA, OSHA, and the EPA. This is one that only the US Congress can implement by legislative action. It was noted that the NRC was like an amateur soccer team, they all run to the ball.

      Recommendation: An independent reactor safety board needs to be established with its sole focus on the safety of existing US nuclear power plants (NPPs).
      Status: Not implemented.
      Comment: The Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS) has existed since the early days of commercial nuclear power. They advise on many matters that have absolutely nothing to do with existing NPP safety. I know of no change that was made to the ACRS as a result of the accident at TMI even though the ACRS was aware of similar precursor events at other plants prior to the TMI accident. They are mandated by law to review new license applications for NPPs and they were busy doing that decades ago. But new NPP license applications are few and far between today. Just look at what the ACRS looks at today. They have a dozen or so subcommittees and there was only one that even had the term “operations” in it. There were five subcommittees looking at designs for future nuclear plants though.

      Recommendation: The NRC inspection program needs significant improvement.
      Status: Partially Implemented.
      Comment: Additional inspectors were assigned both in the field and in NRC regional offices and NRC headquarters after TMI. Funding limitations later have reduced the NRC staff assigned to oversee existing NPPs. Also the so-called NRC baseline inspection program is flawed. When NPPs have been forced from service due to significant operational events, subsequently many problems are found when both the NRC and the power plant look hard at the plant. These problems were not discovered earlier through NRC inspection efforts. Millions of utility dollars (really these are rate-payer dollars) are paid to the NRC for these inadequate inspections at each nuclear site each and every year.

      Recommendation: Form a National Operating Company or Consortium.
      Status: Partially Implemented
      Comment: The Institute of Nuclear Power Operation (INPO) was established by the nuclear industry shortly after the TMI accident. INPO evaluates NPPs on a periodic basis and establishes standards of excellence in nuclear operation for the industry. The inquiry report recommended much more than an INPO. Large utilities with large nuclear fleets operate NPPs better than single nuclear plant utilities. They have vastly superior technical and monetary resources. The inquiry report envisioned that the single NPPs belonging to small nuclear utilities could be brought under a large operating company so that all necessary resources to support the complexities of NPP operation could be more easily brought to bear.

      Recommendation: Establish a centralized body to analyze and evaluate NPP operational data and provide a mechanism to promptly distribute this information to appropriate licensees.
      Status: Implemented in 1984 and abolished in 1998.
      Comment: The Office for the Analysis and Evaluation of Operational Data (AEOD) was established in 1984. Although AEOD was abolished its functions were spread out to five different NRC offices.

      Recommendation: Form an industry-run off-site data center.
      Status: Partially Implemented.
      Comment: Each nuclear power plant now has its own dedicated group to analyze operational data from other plants. Since the NRC has dissolved the AEOD it appears that the industry as a whole has taken one step forward and two steps back.

      In my opinion it is high time to re-look at the inquiry report recommendations. It appears that significant improvements have been made to safety at each NPP, but that necessary institutional changes, have been all but ignored.

  2. theressakilimanjaro January 19, 2015 at 11:00 am

    congratulations for 40 years of good service

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