Total eclipse

Nuclear power regulation slips deeper into the shadows

By Paul Gunter

On July 17, 2019, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held its regularly scheduled information exchange meeting with the nuclear industry’s Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) at NRC Headquarters in Rockville, Maryland.

INPO is a secretive industry task force headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, led by the nation’s senior nuclear utility executives. Industry watchdogs often refer to INPO as “the shadow regulator” of the U.S. atomic power industry.  

It is significant that NRC management chose this brief hour-long meeting in July with INPO to make a public announcement that the nation’s federal regulatory agency is proposing to dramatically cut back its “Regulatory Oversight Process” in what is being called a “transformative process.” 

The NRC proposal announces staff recommendations that, if adopted by the Commissioners, hands over yet more of its oversight authority to the financially failing and aging U.S. nuclear industry. The industry cost-saving recommendations include a reduction in the scope and frequency of NRC baseline reactor safety inspections and radiation protection inspections. They also include undercutting requirements and the issuance of mandatory orders in favor of industry “self-inspections,” “self-assessments,” and “voluntary initiatives”.   

NRC inspection Fermi

NRC inspections, such as this one at the Fermi 2 nuclear plant, will become ever rarer as the agency hands oversight to the industry itself. (Photo: US NRC)

While its predecessor, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), was abolished by Congress in 1974 as a captured regulator and an openly biased promoter of atomic power development, the NRC that took charge in 1975 has long prided itself on its transparent regulatory style, openness to public participation and government accountability.  

Much of the agency’s claim to transparency, openness and impartial scrutiny, disputed by many public interest watchdogs, is now on the verge of disappearing, much like watching a submarine submerge below the surface and out of public view. And it is feared that the shadowy industry-led INPO will quietly supplant what is being surrendered by the NRC, without generating publicly available records or accountability.  

INPO was originally formed out of recommendations by President Jimmy Carter’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island (commonly referred to as “the Kemeny Commission”). Following the March 28, 1979 partial reactor meltdown near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the Kemeny Commission found that both the NRC and the nuclear industry had failed to take the necessary steps to prevent the accident. 

The Kemeny Commission recommended that the industry “set and police its own standards of excellence to ensure the effective management and safe operation of nuclear power plants.” INPO was initially set up not to supplant NRC authority and oversight, but as a catalyst to create internal peer pressure, so that industry itself would better manage nuclear safety issues and “promote excellence”, but without creating a public record as is required of the NRC.  

According to a 1991 Congressional investigative report, “Nuclear Regulation: NRC’s Relationship with the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations,” authored by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), INPO-generated reports have already resulted in the reduced transparency of publicly available nuclear safety information. The NRC does not routinely use INPO reports in its oversight and licensing process. Even in matters concerning the review of an operating license for a nuclear power plant, neither NRC nor its Atomic Safety and Licensing Board routinely use INPO evaluation results. INPO reports issued internally to industry are deemed proprietary and withheld from the public, even under the threat of INPO lawsuits for unauthorized disclosures. 

The NRC has routinely chosen not to issue its own public information notices when INPO had already alerted the industry to a potential safety problem. The GAO noted numerous cases where NRC staff members were preparing a draft information notice for public issuance and INPO issued an internal report alerting industry to the same reactor safety problems. The NRC staff would review the secret INPO report and conclude that INPO had sufficiently alerted the industry. The NRC’s draft information notice would then be withdrawn and never publicly issued. 

Salem alert sign

The public could be left in the dark about safety problems at nuclear plants, as NRC hands oversight to INPO and the industry. (Sign near Salem nuclear power plant in New Jersey by Famartin for WilkiCommons)

The GAO noted, “In such cases, the public is not aware of the notification because INPO documents are not publicly disseminated.” 

The GAO disclosed that the NRC and INPO have numerous memoranda of agreement including that the NRC has agreed to protect INPO’S proprietary information, denying the public any knowledge of existing safety issues. 

According to the GAO, “As a result, the fact that NRC has deemed that certain information concerning an event, condition, or circumstance may have potential generic safety significance to nuclear power plant operations is not publicly disclosed.

Therefore, information that may be important to the public’s understanding of nuclear power plant operations is not publicly available.” 

INPO has long been developing its own internal reactor oversight through a self-assessment and corrective action process invisible to a public concerned about atomic power’s inherent dangers. In a rare publicly available INPO document, “The Principles of Self-Assessment and Corrective Action Programs” from 1999, a number of INPO off-the-public-record self-assessment categories are shown to include: 

    1. “event investigations and outage/maintenance activity critiques”; 
    2. “safety system or equipment walkdowns and reviews”; 
    3. “industrial safety inspections”; 
    4. “evaluation of industry operating experiences”; 
    5. “trends in performance data, or problems tracked in the corrective action program”; 
    6. “nuclear power station events”;
    7. “indications of process inefficiencies”, and;
    8. “emergent industry issues”.

INPO’s advocates argue that public disclosure of any of these self-assessments would “inhibit the openness and candor of nuclear industry responses to protect the utilities’ financial viability and public credibility”.

Nuclear power is inherently dangerous and exorbitantly expensive. As the technology ages and deteriorates, or unproven first-of-a-kind reactor designs are introduced for certification and licensing, these factors skyrocket.

It is increasingly difficult to understand why the NRC would choose to transform its safety oversight without first “ensuring in-depth public awareness, comment and input” according to a July 15, 2019 letter from several US Congressional Committee leaders addressing the NRC.  

It is more difficult to accept, indeed tolerate that reactor condition reports, revelations of safety inspections, emerging issues and more have been turned into proprietary information, protected by gag order, for the benefit of the very industry that seeks to increase its profits from the risk to public health and safety.

This article was commissioned by the Tokyo-based Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, and first appeared on their website. CNIC also provided the Japanese translation.

Headline photo of total eclipse by O’Dea for WikiCommons.

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