BOSTON -- The number of safety violations at U.S. nuclear power plants varies dramatically from region to region, pointing to inconsistent enforcement in an industry now operating mostly beyond its original 40-year licenses, says a congressional study awaiting release.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission figures cited in the Government Accountability Office report show that while the West has the fewest reactors, it had the most lower-level violations from 2000 to 2012 -- more than 2 1/2 times the Southeast's rate per reactor. The Southeast, with the most reactors of the NRC's four regions, had the fewest such violations, according to the report.
The striking variations do not appear to reflect real differences in reactor performance. Instead, the report says, the differences suggest that regulators interpret rules and guidelines differently among regions, perhaps because lower-level violations get limited review. The study says the NRC's West region may enforce the rules more aggressively, and that common corporate ownership of multiple plants may help bolster maintenance in the Southeast.
But the reasons aren't fully understood because the NRC has never fully studied them, the report says. Right now, its authors wrote, the "NRC cannot ensure that oversight efforts are objective and consistent."
Told of the findings, safety critics said enforcement is too arbitrary, and that regulators may be missing violations. The nuclear industry has also voiced concern about the inconsistencies, the report said.
The analysis was written by the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, at the request of four senators. Before the government shutdown, the report had been set for public release later this month.
The GAO analysis focuses on lower-level safety violations. They represent 98 percent of all violations identified by the NRC, which regulates safety at the nation's commercial reactors. Lower-level violations are those considered to pose very low risk, such as improper upkeep of an electrical transformer or failure to analyze a problem with no impact on a system's operation, such as the effect of a pipe break. Higher-level violations range from low to high safety significance, such as an improperly maintained electrical system that caused a fire and affected a plant's ability to shut down safely.
Safety violations at Pennsylvania nuclear power plants varied, the study said. The report shows that the Limerick plant near Philadelphia had four high-level and 110 low-level violations from 2000 to 2012, while the Beaver Valley plant at Shippingport north of Pittsburgh had three high-level and 113 low-level. The Susquehanna plant near Allentown had the highest numbers: five high-level and 175 low-level. Peach Bottom southeast of Harrisburg had four high-level and 131 low-level, while Three Mile Island in Middletown had two high-level and 126 low-level.
First Published October 15, 2013 8:00 PM