WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Nuclear Energy Institute criticized the Associated Press today for selective, misleading reporting in a series of new articles on U.S. nuclear power plant safety. The coverage has factual errors, fails to cite relevant reports on safety that contradict the reporting, and raises questions about historic operating issues while ignoring more recent evidence of improved performance in areas that it examines.
It also gives short shrift to the considerable amount of time, money and manpower that the nuclear energy industry and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission devote independently to aging management and long-term plant reliability.
The first article in the series focuses on federal safety standards but ignores the industry’s actual safety performance. There has been only one safety-significant “abnormal occurrence” throughout the industry since 2001 and that lone instance came nine years ago, according to annual reports to Congress available on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s website.
While the AP account discusses the 2002 occurrence at an Ohio nuclear energy facility, it fails to note the industry’s more recent safety record and fails to note that, in response to the Davis-Besse reactor vessel head degradation, the industry implemented a materials management initiative to strengthen research efforts and predictive maintenance in the area of materials reliability. The NRC in 2005 levied its largest single fine ever against the utility that operates Davis-Besse.
The NRC defines an abnormal occurrence as an unscheduled incident or event that the NRC deems significant from the standpoint of public health or safety. NRC’s annual reports to Congress for fiscal years 2001-09 (the 2010 report is not yet available) can be found at: http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/nuregs/staff/sr0090/.
AP references operating issues common to industrial facilities—“Failed cables. Busted seals. Broken nozzles,”—and then states, “[n]ot a single official body in government or industry has studied the overall frequency and potential impact on safety of such breakdowns in recent years.”
This is incorrect. The Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, established in 1979, maintains a database of operating issues and tracks and trends them. Every utility that operates a nuclear power plant has access to this information for review and corrective action as needed. INPO was established to help the industry achieve operational excellence above and beyond federal regulatory requirements. It accredits training programs, conducts plant evaluations, and shares operating experience and lessons learned throughout the 104 reactors that produce 20 percent of U.S. electricity supply.
AP’s assertion that safety standards have been weakened is belied by one of the regulatory issues that gained significant media attention in the weeks after the Fukushima Daiichi accident—the NRC’s ongoing evaluation of updated seismic analyses in the Central and Eastern United States. The purpose of the NRC’s screening analysis is to determine whether nuclear facilities in the Central and Eastern U.S. should take additional protective measures to ensure their ability to safely manage the impacts of an earthquake, based on improved seismic knowledge since the facilities were built.
The AP article contains myriad references to historic operating experience going back decades. But it fails to note that the industry’s defense-in-depth approach to safety is designed to assure that multiple safety barriers remain in place even when problems in a given system or piece of equipment occur. Nor does the article acknowledge innovations and improvements that have rectified problems or otherwise increased safety margins. Over the past four years alone, more than 20 of the Top Industry Practice awards presented to industry employees during NEI’s annual conference in May have been for innovations that focus on aging management or long-term plant reliability.
AP’s initial article states there were seven steam generator tube “ruptures” in 1993. Any tube “rupture” would meet the NRC reporting requirements under NUREG 10-22. However, NRC records do not show any “ruptures” in 1993, so it is not immediately clear what situation AP’s reporting reflects. Regardless, the article fails to acknowledge the industry’s improved steam generator performance in the intervening years as the industry’s technical knowledge of water chemistry and metal alloys grew and dozens of steam generators were replaced to prevent problems. While 15 plants reported degraded steam generator tubes in the 1980s, only seven reported degraded tubes in the 1990s, and only five plants did from 2000-2004. No plants have met the NRC’s reporting threshold for degraded tubes since 2005.
The length of a plant’s initial operating license is 40 years, as the article states, but the length of time was based on a judgment of an appropriate period to amortize the large capital investment, not the anticipated design life. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 permits nuclear plants to renew their operating licenses for an additional 20 years.
Plants replace and repair equipment and components, such as pumps, valves and piping, throughout their operational life. Even massive multi-ton components like reactor vessel heads and steam generators are replaced when needed. The industry invested approximately $6.5 billion in 2009 (the last year for which data is available) to replace steam generators and reactor vessel heads, in the equipment modifications necessary to uprate the plants, and in other capital projects. Capital expenditures in this area have increased annually since 2005.
Such investments, along with INPO’s activities, are among the ways that the industry has steadily improved its safety and operating performance. Other means include continued innovation by industry employees; improved diagnostic and monitoring technologies; and a new reactor oversight process put in place in 2000 that has enabled the NRC and the industry to better and more effectively focus their respective resources on issues most important to safety.
The new risk-informed reactor oversight process was described by the Union of Concerned Scientists as an improvement over the process it replaced. David Lochbaum of UCS stated in a March 29, 2001, letter to the NRC’s David Meyer, “the Union of Concerned Scientists believes that the ROP is much better than its predecessor in monitoring plant safety levels and communicating to various stakeholders about the safety levels.”
The NRC’s oversight process includes deployment of at least two independent inspectors at every nuclear plant site every day of the year. Each site receives an average of 6,000 hours of federal oversight annually, according to the NRC. Key safety indicators and inspection reports for every nuclear facility are compiled on the NRC’s website, adding to the transparency that made AP’s reporting possible.
The second AP article focused on tritium leaks at U.S. nuclear energy facilities. While the article noted that “none is known to have reached public water supplies,” it makes only a vague reference to the fact that in 2009 the industry voluntarily launched an underground piping integrity initiative policy to better manage issues related to the integrity of underground piping. Even though no public health or safety risk has resulted from tritium releases at commercial nuclear power plants, the initiative commits the industry to a series of actions to establish more frequent inspection and enhance dependability of underground piping with a goal of protecting structural integrity and preventing leaks, with a special emphasis on piping that contains radioactive materials.
The NRC formed its own Groundwater Protection Task Force in March 2010 to bolster its oversight in this area.
The industry’s average capacity factor—a measure of efficiency—has been within a percentage point or two of 90 percent every year for the past decade. In addition, both
"NRC and industry safety indicators are at or near all-time highs,” said NEI’s senior vice president and chief nuclear officer, Tony Pietrangelo. “It is not possible to achieve this outstanding level of performance on a consistent basis if the facility is not being well managed and well maintained."