Walking the Beat With a Nuclear Patrolman
NRC'S THIN BLUE LINE
John Macdonald strides into the control room of Seabrook Station, a nuclear plant on the coast north of the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border.
He pauses to look at the dials and displays in this cockpit for controlling one of the world's most dangerous technologies.
"If you want to know what's really going on at a nuclear plant, just ask a reactor operator. They'll talk your ear off," he says, grinning, as one approaches.
Mr. Macdonald is keenly interested in what the operators have to say - as well as all the digits on the monitors here. He is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's senior resident inspector at the plant. As such, he is one of 181 on-site inspectors at 110 commercial plants across the country.
They are the agency's cops on the beat, the first line of defense against nuclear catastrophe. They prowl corridors and peer from catwalks, listening, watching, and asking probing questions.
How well they do their job - and the conflicts they face - go to the heart of the debate over the effectiveness of the NRC itself.
Certainly being a resident inspector is one of the more unusual jobs in government. Unlike many other federal watchdogs, resident nuclear inspectors go to work every day with the people they are supposed to oversee.
They have offices at the plant. They eat in the company cafeteria. Though federal rules forbid them from "socializing" with plant workers, they have to develop a level of trust with utility managers and staff while maintaining a sense of detachment.
Tensions can surface even with their own NRC superiors. Some on-site inspectors say they're hampered with by-the-book administrative work that eats into time better spent inspecting pumps and pipes. Other inspectors complain of supervisors altering or ignoring their findings. They cite instances of being harassed for pursuing safety issues by a senior management too cozy with the nuclear industry.
The result, critics say, is an agency in which dissent is often stifled and a nation in which reactors may be operating with defective systems.
While resident inspectors lack the authority to slap an errant power plant with a fine or even a notice of violation, the NRC's equivalent of a ticket, they are responsible for providing an independent check on plant performance.
Their reports cover everything from the nuts-and-bolts of plant repairs to reviewing documents to see how well operators identify and solve equipment problems. Inspectors keep tabs on how plants respond to NRC safety directives. They also serve as a representative to the public living near a nuclear facility - for instance, giving talks in local schools.
For his part, Macdonald says his experience as an inspector has been a good one. To spend time with him is to glimpse the magnitude of the job the NRC faces in regulating a technology in which there is little room for error.
"You've got something the size of Shea Stadium you've got to inspect," says one official at NRC headquarters. "You can't be on top of everything. You hope you're dealing with a responsible licensee."
By 8:30 on this morning, Macdonald, dressed casually in khaki pants and knit shirt, has already checked control-room operating records and taken part in a conference call with the NRC's regional headquarters in King of Prussia, Pa.
Moments later, he slips into a corner seat in a conference room as some 30 Seabrook officials and staff gather for a daily briefing. One by one, they review the plant's performance in the past 24 hours and report the status of maintenance projects. Macdonald jots notes as one describes a problem he's found with a radiation monitor. The malfunction doesn't seem to be serious, but the utility will need NRC approval to fix it.
Later, in his office, Macdonald says that the utility was in effect proposing the NRC adopt new restrictions on the way the plant operates. "That represents a good safety ethic," he adds.
The NRC, in fact, has to rely a lot on the integrity of utilities. That's because the agency "does not have the manpower to come in and see that every 't' is crossed and every 'i' is dotted," says William Jocher, a former executive of the Tennessee Valley Authority who raised safety issues about the utility's Sequoyah nuclear plant.
Indeed, the amount of work involved raises an enduring question: Does the NRC have enough nuclear beat cops? At present, the agency matches the number of reactors at a site with the same number of resident inspectors, then adds one more. The so-called n+1 formula represents a compromise. In 1981, two years after the accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, the agency wanted to increase the number of resident inspectors from at least one per reactor to two. Congress balked at the cost.
Inspectors must have science or engineering backgrounds, although not necessarily in the nuclear field. Many come from the Navy or from nuclear utilities. Macdonald, one of two inspectors at Seabrook, came to the agency after getting a degree in marine engineering and a US Coast Guard license for operating steam, diesel, or gas turbines.
He joined the NRC in 1984 and arrived at Seabrook in April 1995, after serving as senior resident inspector at the Pilgrim nuclear plant in Plymouth, Mass., and as a resident inspector at plants in Vermont and Florida. His junior colleague, David Mannai, came to Seabrook from the Susquehanna nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. On this day, Mr. Mannai is away taking part in a six-week training program in Tennessee to get the basics on Seabrook's reactor, which is different from Susquehanna's.
Resident inspectors serve at one plant for up to five years. The rotation policy is designed to ensure that the watchdogs don't get too close to the people they're overseeing. Yet because nuclear facilities are complex assemblages of pumps, pipes, turbines, and emergency generators, it can take an inspector several years just to learn everything about a plant. "On average it takes one to two years to really get a handle on a site with any confidence," Macdonald says.
Ordinarily, Macdonald says, he and Mannai meet early in the morning in their office at the plant to set inspection agendas. Inspectors have a core set of plant activities they must scrutinize regularly. These range from plant maintenance and engineering to radiation exposure and security. The core program also includes "initiative" inspections - ones where "you have an itch, a hunch, or some aspect of the plant hasn't been reviewed in awhile," Macdonald says.
In following this routine, inspectors will do everything from watch workers make repairs to review plant records to see how quickly a utility spots and fixes a problem. NRC guidelines are detailed - down to recommending how much time inspectors can devote to each inspection category. The idea is to catch problems before they become too big.
YET such micromanaging can also serve as a straitjacket, some inspectors say. "If you polled every senior resident inspector out there, they'll tell you the same thing: [NRC] management won't let us do our job," says a 20-year NRC veteran who is a resident inspector in another region.
Managers at his regional headquarters, he explains, keep close tabs on the inspection numbers in part because inspection time is factored into the fees the NRC charges utilities for its work. These fees pay the NRC's overall bill.
"I've had to use every goofy little process for sorting beans" to make sure the numbers match management's expectation, he says. Such detailed bean-counting, he says, has cut his direct involvement in inspections by 30 percent, leaving a larger proportion to less-experienced colleagues.
In addition, he says, inspecting by the numbers can misdirect efforts. "I have to put in a specific amount of time inspecting [plant] operations, even when I know the problems are in maintenance and engineering," he says.
What management really needs to know, he says, is whether conditions are improving or getting worse at a nuclear plant. "Instead, they are forcing senior resident inspectors to be gatekeepers of accounting stuff."
NRC administrators defend the procedures. Robert Gallo in the NRC's office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, which runs the agency's licensing and inspection programs, notes that while the administrative workload is an issue among the senior resident inspectors, it's an inescapable part of the job. Part of that job is to train subordinates so that they become adept at ferreting out problems. "You can't do it all yourself," Mr. Gallo observes.
When asked how tightly he has to hold to time allocations on the various inspections, Macdonald replies: "When I come across a safety issue, resolution is paramount, not accounting for time."
Critics outside the NRC add that too often some inspectors look only at a utility's documents to verify a plant is being well-run instead of checking hardware.
"Everyone starts with paper," acknowledges one senior resident inspector at a plant in the South. "That's how you figure out the next step - where you need to crawl around and follow up." But he adds that some of his colleagues do stop at paperwork, adding, "It's a function of their energy level."
The problem with inspecting only paper, according to internal NRC reports, is that utilities often say they are correcting problems when they aren't.
WHEN a potential violation is found, it is turned over to regional NRC offices to pursue possible enforcement actions. But the response may vary, depending on the political climate in Washington, says Herb Livermore, who recently retired after more than a decade as a resident inspector. "If management got word from D.C. that we were getting too tough, you wouldn't get much support," he says. "If word came down that we were being too lax, you'd get more support."
A senior resident inspector adds: "The real problem is getting my [regional] management to dig in and hold the line" with headquarters.
At times, say some inspectors, they meet resistance ranging from stone-walling to harassment and intimidation.
Two years ago, regional reactor inspector Larry King and a colleague went to a nuclear plant near St. Lucie, Fla., to follow up on items from previous inspections. What they found prompted his colleague to write up three violations, says Mr. King, who in 1994 won a harassment and intimidation action against the NRC after being denied more than a dozen promotions for persisting in pressing safety issues.
But the NRC section chief, who had been the senior resident inspector at the St. Lucie plant, "changed the violations to 'unresolved items,'" King says. He and his partner tried to voice their concerns in a larger performance assessment the NRC was conducting, "but our results were not included. Now they're finding all kind of problems at the plant."
Rebecca Long, an inspector in the NRC's Region 2 office in Atlanta, says that watering down reports without allowing inspectors to respond violates NRC policy. But, she says, King's experience isn't unique.
Ms. Long, who has won a sex and job discrimination case against the agency, had one supervisor who quietly withdrew a citation she had prepared for problems at a research reactor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. The reactor was allowed to operate until nearly a year later, when the agency shut it down following an accident that stemmed from the violations Long identified in her original citation.
Other supervisors made life even more difficult, Long says, after she found violations at the TVA's Browns Ferry and Watts Bar plants. Immediate supervisors were berating her work and downgrading her in job evaluations, she says, even as their superiors at regional and national headquarters were praising the quality of her inspection reports.
Today, Long carefully avoids describing anything that might constitute a violation of her settlement with the agency. But she notes that her victory has been bittersweet. "Nobody was ever punished," she says of her nine-year ordeal. "People did things the NRC manual says they should be terminated for."
The danger, critics say, is that such cases chill people who otherwise might raise safety concerns. "Many people have come to me and said that after seeing what I went through, they never would disagree with management," Long says. "They're afraid they'll get into trouble."
Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project in Washington, which provides legal counsel for whistleblowers, agrees: "The NRC has the symptoms of an agency saturated with frustrated whistleblowers afraid to come out of the closet."
If Seabrook's Macdonald has been spared the frustrations some inspectors cite, he acknowledges the inherent pressures of the job. Inspectors often work 10- to 12-hour days. They must abide by regulations preventing them from socializing with utility workers.
The NRC's rotation policy can add to the sense of isolation: "We've moved four times since I joined the NRC. We've had to build protective walls to avoid being too deeply rooted in a community."
"The resident program is not a career program," he adds. "Generally, you enter as a young person, take one, two, or three [plant] assignments, and move into a regional or headquarters job."
All of which raises another issue: experience. Being an on-site inspector is becoming "more and more of a young person's position," he says. The age and experience of the NRC's resident inspectors bear watching since these people are the ones who raise the majority of safety and performance issues, he says.
According to NRC figures, 75 percent of the agency's resident inspectors and 17 percent of the senior resident inspectors are in their first assignment. Thus, while they will have gone through a training and mentoring program, many have less than five years' experience in dealing directly with plants, utilities, and their own regional offices.
MACDONALD, who received the agency's Meritorious Service Award in 1993, says management changes have helped offset the trend. "Over the past six or seven years, the technical support [for inspectors] has improved dramatically," he says. "If I find an instrumentation issue and raise it during my early morning call to the regional office, I'll have a call back by 9 a.m. asking for details."
Some veteran inspectors, however, remain concerned that young, inexperienced watchdogs are unlikely to buck the system. "The senior resident who wants to be executive director of operations someday knows that sticking his neck out isn't going to do his career any good," says one veteran inspector in another region. "The older ones will tell you up front that to get along, you have to go along. They're starting to replace us old goats with lambs and sheep. That's where we're headed."