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Rapid Response: UCS Distorts US Nuclear Energy Safety Record, March 7, 2013

The Union of Concerned Scientists grossly misrepresents the safety of U.S. nuclear power plants in a report released today.
 
The report makes two main claims:
 
  • 14 “near-misses” at nuclear plants in 2012 indicate that the United States “has been lucky” to avoid a serious nuclear accident
  • The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s oversight "reflects a poor safety culture.”
 
The report fails to identify and discuss the overwhelming number of positive actions taken by industry, with stringent NRC oversight, to maintain high levels of safety at U.S. reactors. More than 100 reactors in 31 states produce nearly 20 percent of America’s electricity, operating at industry sector-leading reliability.
 
Below, we examine the claims made by UCS in the report more closely.
 
Myth #1
 
Fourteen “near-misses” at nuclear plants in 2012 indicate that the United States “has been lucky” to avoid a serious nuclear accident.
 
The Facts
 
UCS misrepresents the findings of the NRC’s inspections and misrepresents lower-level incidents as “near-misses.” In fact, during the past 11 years of reporting (fiscal 2001-2011), the agency found only two abnormal occurrences at U.S. nuclear power plants (Davis Besse in fiscal 2002 and Browns Ferry 1 in fiscal 2011).
 
An abnormal occurrence is defined as an unscheduled incident or event that the NRC determines to be significant from the standpoint of public health or safety. Federal law requires that the NRC report these to Congress annually.
 
After more than 50 years of commercial nuclear energy production in the United States—including more than 3,500 reactor-years of operation—there have been no radiation-related health effects linked to their operation. Studies by the National Cancer Institute, the United Nations Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation, the National Research Council’s BEIR VII study group and the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements all show that U.S. nuclear power plants effectively protect public health and safety.
 
In addition, the industry is continuing to aggressively implement additional safety enhancements based on learnings from the Fukushima accident. These extensive actions will ensure that U.S. plants will operate safely and reliably to provide electricity that Americans rely upon and that helps sustain U.S. economic growth.
 
For more information, see the NRC’s official annual reports to Congress on abnormal occurrences at U.S. nuclear energy facilities.
 
Myth #2
 
The NRC's oversight "reflects a poor safety culture.”
 
The Facts
 
The NRC is an independent, transparent regulatory agency. The agency inspects and monitors all U.S. nuclear power plants and has a robust safety culture, which the NRC defines as “a work environment where management and employees are dedicated to putting safety first.”
 
Consider these facts:
The NRC conducts thousands of hours of inspections a year at each reactor—an average of more than 2,000 hours. At sites with three reactors, this equals more than 6,000 inspection hours each year.
 
These inspections focus on those areas of the greatest significance to safety. The NRC will increase the number of inspections if persistent or recurring operating issues are identified. The agency also can take escalating, additional action, including stopping plant operation, if it deems the facility is not meeting federal requirements.
 
All NRC inspection reports, hearing information, performance ratings, enforcement orders and license information for every nuclear facility are posted on its website and open to the public.
 
In addition to the NRC inspections, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations routinely evaluates the effectiveness of industry corrective action programs as part of an overall review of the plant’s performance improvement program.
For more information, see the NRC’s safety culture website and NEI’s website on operational safety.