By ordering the temporary closing of some five nuclear reactors throughout the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is exercising the type of judicious action that is essential to help alleviate public unease about the safety of nuclear power. The purpose of the shutdown is to check for cracks in cooling pipes. The NRC has been inspecting boiling-water reactors since 1982 and has so far found cracks in some 13 nuclear power plants. The five reactors to be inspected between now and the end of this year had not voluntarily shut down for inspection.
What stands out about the current shutdown order is the way the process was worked out by the nuclear industry and the NRC. Earlier this year the NRC staff had wanted an immediate shutdown of the plants so that inspections could be made. In mid-July, the NRC commissioners ordered that the plants be closed within one month. Plant officials challenged the order on the grounds that such quick shutdowns would come at the worst possible moment - namely, in the midst of summer, when air-conditioning use is at its peak. To shut down the reactors, the industry officials argued, would merely drive up consumer electric bills. The NRC listened - and then reached a compromise by requiring that the shutdowns occur on a plant-by-plant basis between September and December, to coincide with normal refueling operations scheduled for the plants.
In short, the public wins by the compromise because the plants will be checked for possible safety defects. And since there was no evidence to suggest an immediate danger from continued operation, the public gains by keeping the plants running during this summer period of heavy energy usage.
What will happen if cracks are discovered? That would depend on the severity of the cracks, as well as whether or not there were actual leaks. But remedies could run from simple repair work to a required replacement of the entire piping systems.
Nuclear power continues to play an important role in meeting total US energy needs. For that reason, the public has the right to expect the highest degree of responsibility by both the NRC and the nuclear industry. The shutdown of the five reactors thus adds up to a sound precedent for future NRC-industry cooperation.