Report paints worrisome picture of U.S. nuclear safety

14:09, March 18, 2011      

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By Matthew Rusling

U.S. Nuclear power plants continue to experience safety issues and worker errors that increase the risk of damage to the reactor core and heighten the possibility of harm to the public, according to a report released Thursday.

The report comes just as Japan is undergoing a major nuclear crisis and while authorities on the island nation struggle to avert an even worse disaster.

The situation has sparked a debate over U.S. nuclear policy amid Americans' fears that Japan's crisis could hit home.

"Our efforts have consistently concluded that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has, with few exceptions, set the safety bar at the proper height, but has too often allowed unsafe reactors to limbo beneath that bar," according to a statement by Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) Senior Scientist Edwin Lyman. The statement was read during a conference call with reporters on Thursday.

The report is the first in an annual series on the safety- related performance of the owners of U.S. nuclear power plants and the NRC, which regulates the plants.

The report found that recognized but misdiagnosed or unresolved safety problems often cause significant problems to flare up at nuclear power plants, or increase their severity.

When onsite NRC inspectors discover a broken device, an erroneous test result, or a maintenance activity that does not reflect procedure, "they too often focus just on that problem," according to the UCS.

The NRC can "better serve the U.S. public and plant owners by emulating the persistence shown by onsite inspectors who made good catches while eliminating the indefensible lapses that led to negative outcomes," the UCS said.

The report, however, did yield some positive findings. The chances of a disaster at a nuclear plant are low, the report found. When the NRC finds safety problems and ensures that owners address them, it keeps the risk posed by nuclear power to workers and the public relatively low.

There are other times, however, when the NRC tolerates unresolved safety problems, which permits risks to rise.

"The more owners sweep safety problems under the rug and the longer safety problems remain uncorrected, the higher the risk climbs," the UCS argued.

While none of the safety problems in 2010 caused harm to plant employees or the public, their frequency -- more than one per month -- is high for a mature industry, the report said.

"The accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 occurred when a handful of known problems -- aggravated by a few worker miscues -- transformed fairly routine events into catastrophes," the UCS argued.

Source: Xinhua

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