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U.S. nuclear plant safety checks system under fire

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Relicensing is a crucial part of America's current energy strategy. The nation's 104 nuclear plants supply about one-fifth of the nation's electricity. If they are shut down, the US would have to replace them with new nuclear plants – or dozens of coal-fired plants, which would raise greenhouse-gas emissions.

So far, the NRC has relicensed nearly half of the nuclear plants, with another 35 under review. The agency expects some 20 more plants to apply for relicensing soon.

Concerns about the relicensing process stem from a report released last September by the NRC's internal watchdog, the Office of Inspector General. In the 13 relicensing cases it examined, the office found little evidence that NRC staff had confirmed the integrity of aging safety systems they approved. For example: 98 percent of 458 passages in audit, inspection, and safety evaluation reports failed to adequately document or support NRC conclusions.

Problems fell into two categories: "red" cases, where no specific support was found, and "yellow" cases, where support was often provided by the companies whose plants were being relicensed. In those latter cases, the report found that NRC safety evaluation language was often "identical or nearly identical" to the information that the companies had provided in the license renewal application.

"We asked NRC staff: 'Where is any evidence that you did anything?' " says Stephen Dingbaum, the NRC's assistant inspector general for audits. "With its cut-and-paste approach, the agency has left itself in a position in which it is difficult for them to show what they have and haven't done."

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