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Nuclear Safety

Few federal agencies hold the safety and well-being of so many Americans in their hands as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Charged with supervising the safety of some of the most dangerous technology ever invented, the NRC works to ensure there will be no Chernobyl in the United States. So when it falls down on the job, Americans from Capitol Hill to Nob Hill should take notice.

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A four-part Monitor series concluding today finds that the agency indeed has serious problems:

*NRC inspectors have been too willing to take utilities' word that safety problems are being corrected.

*Higher-level NRC staff sometimes downgrade the severity of safety problems noted by on-site inspectors without providing justification for their actions.

*The agency takes too long - in some cases, many years - to deal with clearly identified problems at nuclear plants.

*NRC staff who persist in trying to point out safety problems are still subject to harassment and intimidation by agency superiors.

*The commission consistently fails to document significant staff decisions, leaving personnel to rely on the utilities to remind them what the NRC has asked for.

*NRC staff too often simply do not follow agency regulations and procedures.

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Concerns about the commission are so high that Congress's General Accounting Office has two teams investigating. One is looking into the NRC's policies for handling whistle-blowers; the other is evaluating the effectiveness of the agency's enforcement program for nuclear power plants.

NRC chairman Shirley Jackson, in office for about a year, is making a determined effort to address commission shortcomings. She wants to develop better criteria for putting plants on the watch list; to write tighter guidelines for granting waivers of license requirements; and to implement better personnel policies to attract and retain qualified inspectors. She's also tightening NRC's internal management and moving the commission to more use of risk-assessment techniques that help inspectors focus on areas in which problems are more likely to develop.

But Congress and the NRC should take additional steps:

*Congress must exercise more supervision. It has held no NRC oversight hearings for more than three years.

*Congress should also fund more NRC inspectors. The commission is negotiating with some states to take over non-power-plant inspections; the NRC inspectors relieved should be moved to the plants.

*The NRC should hold senior utility managers who harass employee whistle-blowers as personally liable as reactor operators found working under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

*The revolving door between senior NRC management and the utilities should be closed, with senior NRC managers barred from taking utility jobs for an appropriate interval of time after leaving the commission.

But the larger issue, as with similar problems at the Federal Aviation Administration, is one of agency culture. Until everyone, including middle management, understands that the client is the public, not the utilities, and that the main goal is safety, not the promotion of the nuclear-power industry, abuses and inept enforcement will continue. And given the nature of the technology involved, that's something the country can't afford.

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