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NRC debates 'safety culture' at nuke plants


Stephen Koff
Plain Dealer Bureau Chief

Washington - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission operates in an orbit dominated by engi neers, certainty and rules. There are rules for how hot a reactor can get and how cooling pumps are supposed to operate.

But no one dictates to nuclear power companies how to have a safe operating culture. That fact is bedeviling some of the NRC's top advisers as they continue sorting through the lessons of the near-disaster at the Davis- Besse reactor near Toledo, where general management malaise - a defunct safety culture - was determined to be an underlying cause of an undetected hole in the reactor lid.

Can corporate safety culture be regulated? Can the federal gov ernment have a rule that tells utilities that own nuclear plants to look and act sharp?

A daylong hearing yesterday by the agency's Advisory Com mittee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS) showed the depth of the riddle, with industry insiders at times disagreeing as to whether it's a fool's errand even to at tempt to regulate a plant's so- called safety culture.

"I believe that the current reg ulatory process is adequate for giving us what we need," said Alan Price, a vice president at Dominion Energy's Millstone plant in Connecticut - a plant once shut down, before Domin ion bought it, because of safety problems and cover-ups.

A one-size-fits-all mandate would be bound to miss some thing, Price and others said.

George Felgate, director of analysis at the Institute of Nu clear Power Operations, or INPO, said that "if safety culture is un healthy, it shows up in the symp toms."

And the symptoms are the way the plant's equipment and com ponents are performing, which already are regulated. INPO was formed by the industry to police itself after the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979.

But the issue clearly troubles George Apostolakis, an ACRS member and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Tech nology.

The NRC is charged with pro tecting health and safety, he said, "and yet we're very reluctant to get involved" in an aspect that might have a real impact.

Thomas Murley, a retired NRC director of reactor regulation, said the very term "safety cul ture" had been in "the forbidden lexicon" of the agency for years. Yet, Murley said, "We know now that a good safety culture is es sential to nuclear safety."

Until the hole was discovered at Davis-Besse in March 2002, the plant was getting the NRC's highest safety ratings. That fact, which was supported by hard data, makes it difficult to say ob jectively that Davis-Besse's safety culture was worse than that at any other plant, said David Col lins, an engineering analyst at Millstone.

Furthermore, before the NRC can force plants to make certain changes, under its own rules it must prove that the changes are necessary for public health and safety. The NRC, whose rules are driven almost entirely by formu las and mathematical calcula tions, could have a challenging time quantifying the specific value of a safety culture rule, agency officials acknowledged.

Felgate, of INPO, said his group has asked its members to look at their own management safety cultures. He said INPO would be better suited than the NRC to assess safety culture, and at least one ACRS member, Gra ham Leitch, agreed.

INPO's inspections and ratings of plants are said to be tougher than the NRC's - though Apos tolakis noted that INPO, too, failed to catch the hole in Davis- Besse's lid. But INPO as a rule does not release any of its find ings to the public.

The fact that the government would consider asking a private group to help regulate nuclear plants - and keep its informa tion from the public - did not appear to trouble ACRS mem bers. Later in yesterday's meet ing, however, Jack Grobe, an NRC official overseeing Davis- Besse as it makes repairs in hopes of restarting soon, noted the public's right to NRC infor mation and the possible problem with INPO.

He also said that despite testi mony to the contrary, he's not convinced each plant already is reviewing its safety culture. "I think the imperical evidence wouldn't support that [assertion] because we continue to have ad ditional problems. Not as severe as at Davis-Besse, but additional performance problems."

The difficulty of dealing with safety culture was especially ap parent late in the day, when sev eral ACRS members disagreed about whether the matter could be regulated at all. ACRS mem ber Dana Powers said he had yet to see a proven correlation be tween safety culture values and the prevention of a specific sig nificant problem at a plant.

He added that the industry could see complying with new rules as a burden - and though he did not say so, Congress has allowed utilities to fight new NRC rules if they are seen as un duly burdensome.

Countered ACRS member Ste phen Rosen: "It's better than nothing. We're sitting here doing nothing."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-4212

2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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