Rapid Response: Older Nuclear Plants Face Same Safety Checks As New Ones, June 20, 2011
A story from the Associated Press, “U.S. Nuke Regulators Weaken Safety Rules,” claims that “accommodations by the NRC are significantly undermining safety” at older U.S. nuclear power plants. In fact, industry actions and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulatory standards continue to ensure safe operations at all U.S. nuclear power plants. The U.S. regulatory approach features a clear dividing line between the industry and an independent regulator that has at least two inspectors at every plant site every day.
Below, we take a deeper look at the AP article and present the facts.
Myth: “… Aging reactors have been allowed to run less safely to prolong operations … .”
U.S. commercial nuclear reactors no matter how old they are—including those up for license renewal—must demonstrate to the NRC that they will manage aging issues effectively, ensuring equipment functionality and plant safety.
U.S. nuclear power plants are subject to a rigorous program of NRC oversight, inspection, preventive and corrective maintenance, equipment replacement, and extensive equipment testing. These programs ensure nuclear plant equipment continues to meet safety standards, no matter how long the plant has been operating.
Because these sustained maintenance programs exist, the date that a nuclear plant starts operating is not a reliable indication of its age or condition.
Some nuclear plant components are replaced on fixed schedules, while others are used until they show wear and then are replaced. These aging management activities will continue for as long as the plant operates.
Plants constantly replace and repair equipment and components with moving parts, such as pumps and valves. Even massive multi-ton components like reactor vessel heads and steam generators are replaced when needed to maintain high levels of reliability. In 2009 alone, the nuclear energy industry invested approximately $6.5 billion in steam generators and reactor vessel heads, in equipment modifications necessary to uprate plants and in other capital projects.
Myth: “… Despite the many problems linked to aging, not a single official body in government or industry has studied the overall frequency and potential impact on safety of such breakdowns in recent years.”
The Institute of Nuclear Power Operations maintains a database of operational issues in the nuclear energy industry 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.
Established by the nuclear power industry in December 1979, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations is a not-for-profit organization headquartered in Atlanta. Its mission is to promote the highest levels of safety and reliability in the operation of commercial nuclear power plants in the U.S.
“… [There are] rising fears that these accommodations by the NRC are significantly undermining safety—and inching the reactors closer to an accident that could harm the public and jeopardize the future of nuclear power in the United States … .”
Contrary to the speculation in the article, there has not been a single safety-significant event since 2002, according to NRC reports to Congress. The NRC annually reports to Congress the number of “abnormal occurrences” that have taken place at U.S. nuclear power plants. The agency defines an abnormal occurrence as an unscheduled incident or event that the NRC deems significant from the standpoint of public health or safety. The total number of abnormal occurrences throughout the U.S. nuclear energy industry over the seven years spanning fiscal 2003 to fiscal 2009 (the 2010 report has not been issued) is zero.
For more information on the benefits of nuclear energy, see:
Clean Air Benefits
New Plants Needed
Life Cycle Emissions Analysis