Fission Stories #120: Does Operating a Reactor Make Workers Dumber?

December 4, 2012
Dave Lochbaum
Former contributor

The Fort Calhoun nuclear plant has been shut down since April 2011. First for a scheduled refueling outage, then for an unscheduled battle with flood waters, and later with an unscheduled flood of safety and security problems.

Since the reactor has been shut down, the company has submitted more than a dozen reports to the NRC about safety problems identified by plant workers. NRC’s regulations require owners to report events or discoveries at plants that rise above a threshold. Typically, fewer than a handful of such reports, called Licensee Event Reports (LERs), are submitted to the NRC each year for a nuclear plant. Fort Calhoun submitted 18 LERs to the NRC in 2012 through September 25th, leaving plenty of time to submit three more to get a Blackjack.


Fig. 1


The 18 LERs submitted, so far, in 2012 is nearly four times the average number of LERs submitted to the NRC annually during the prior decade. Widening this reporting gap even further is the reason why many of the  LERs between 1999 and 2011 were identified: because something broke. (Duplicates in the list are crossed out). For example, the NRC was notified on May 26, 2000, that an auxiliary feedwater pump experienced oscillating speeds during a test. And the NRC was notified on April 27, 2005, that the reactor had automatically and unexpectedly shut itself down.

By contrast, the majority of the problems reported to the NRC during 2012 were ferreted out by workers. As examples, on June 25, the NRC was informed that component cooling water pumps had been operated for years inconsistent with their manufacturer’s recommendations; on July 23, the NRC learned that vital electrical equipment had not been purchased many years ago for the environmental in which it needs to function during an accident; on September 10, the company informed the NRC that a portion of the containment structure carried more weight than allowed by its design; and on September 24, the NRC learned that controls for safety valves inside containment were not designed to function in the high temperature that would exist inside containment during an accident.

The majority of the LERs submitted during 2012 were for safety problems that had existed at Fort Calhoun for years; in some cases back to original startup of the facility in 1973. And the majority of these problems were found by workers instead of being self-revealing.

Our Takeaway

Operating a nuclear power reactor apparently dumbs down its work force. Workers just cannot seem to find safety problems except for those that reveal themselves by creating puddles on the floor or catching something on fire. Workers report puddles and fires, but can’t seem to find and report other safety problems.

But shut down a nuclear power reactor for awhile and the work force’s IQ seems to skyrocket. Suddenly, the fog fades and smarter workers find safety problems right and left, and in the middle, too.

And Fort Calhoun is only the latest in a long string of nuclear plants whose workers developed sharper senses of safety after the reactor shut down. Millstone, Salem, DC Cook, Davis-Besse and Palo Verde over the past 20 years have encountered similar safety smartness spurts.

Or maybe the workers didn’t take smart pills. Maybe there are barriers to finding safety problems when reactors operate that magically disappear when reactors are shut down. Better still, perhaps those barriers are replaced with inducements to find safety problems that have long lurked undetectable.

Nuclear power plants are built and operated for only one reason – to generate electricity for money. That sole reason explains why safety problems are hidden while reactors operate and lose their invisibility when reactors languish in protracted outages like at Fort Calhoun. Finding safety problems while operating can only led to shutdowns and revenue interruptions. Finding safety problems while shut down helps persuade the NRC that the proper safety culture now exists at the plant to allow its reactor to safely resume revenue-making.

The NRC would serve the American public far better if it stopped playing this silly game. When it receives reports of safety problems that went undetected for literally decades at operating reactors, the NRC must insist that the owner figure out why its testing and inspection efforts failed so many times over so many years to find the safety problems. Unless the testing and inspection faults are found and fixed, they will continue to be ineffective at their primary purpose – ensuring safety.

Alternatively, the NRC could require every nuclear plant in the country to be shut down for at least two straight years every decade. The smartness boost this gives workers would more than make up for the defective safety tests and inspections performed during those other eight years.


“Fission Stories” is a weekly feature by Dave Lochbaum. For more information on nuclear power safety, see the nuclear safety section of UCS’s website and our interactive map, the Nuclear Power Information Tracker.