This post is a part of a series on The Role of Regulation in Nuclear Plant Safety
Regulation and Nuclear Power Safety #1
In July 1981, water flooded the Radwaste Processing Building containing highly radioactive waste for Unit 1 at the Nine Mile Point nuclear plant in upstate New York. The flood tipped over 55-gallon metal drums filled with highly radioactive material. The spilled contents contaminated the building’s basement such that workers would receive a lethal radiation dose in about an hour. The Unit 1 reactor had been shut down for over two years and was receiving heightened oversight attention when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) investigated the matter. But the NRC was reacting to a television news report about the hazardous condition rather than acting upon its own oversight efforts. The media spotlight resulted in this long over-looked hazard finally being remedied.
The headline looked good—the NRC was probing a secret spill on Nine Mile Point Unit 1. The article accompanying the headline explained that the NRC had dispatched inspectors to the site a day after learning about the spill. On its surface, it had the appearance of timely response by the regulator.
The Rest of the Story
Famed newscaster Paul Harvey had a long-running radio program called The Rest of the Story in which he revealed the information behind the headlines. Here’s the rest of this story.
WIXT News Channel 9 reported on August 22, 1989, that the Radwaste Processing Building at Nine Mile Point had been inaccessible for nearly a decade due to high radiation levels. The TV station based its account on a March 1989 report by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). INPO reported that many of the 150 metal drums containing highly radioactive waste had been tipped over by the rising flood waters in the building.
The drums contained materials from filter/demineralizer units used at the plant to remove radioactivity from water systems. The filter/demineralizer units are very effective in removing radioactivity from the water. In doing so, the filter elements and the demineralizer resin beads collected radioactive particles, concentrating the radioactivity to very high levels. Some contents from the tipped-over drums mixed with the flood water. The area was contaminated at radiation levels ranging up to 400 rem per hour. At that rate, an individual would receive a lethal dose in about an hour.
The plant’s owner notified the NRC by letter dated October 30, 1981, that it had discharged 21,100 gallons of radioactively contaminated water into Lake Ontario because the tanks for storing such water were full and they did not want to add more volume to the flooded waste storage building.
While there is some talk now about “draining the swamp,” the owner took steps during the 1980s to “preserve the swamp” inside this inaccessible building. Concerned that allowing the flood water to evaporate away, turning radioactive slime into radioactive dust that might contaminate the entire building instead of just its basement, the owner kept the basement floor covered with several inches of water.
By letter dated September 10, 1987, the plant’s owner paid a $2,500 fine imposed by the NRC on August 13, 1987, for its improper handling of radioactive materials. Federal regulations do not allow packages containment radioactive material to be shipped if the radiation level on the outer surface of the packages exceeds 0.2 rem per hour. But the owner sent two packages containing radioactively contaminated equipment to the Brunswick nuclear plant in North Carolina with radiation levels on their outer surfaces of 1.5 and 1.8 rem per hour.
On July 18, 1988, McGraw-Hill’s Inside N.R.C. reported that the NRC had moved Nine Mile Point Unit 1 to the top of the agency’s list of problem plants and would be issuing a Confirmatory Action Letter to the owner forbidding Unit 1 from restarting without the NRC’s permission. Unit 1 had shut down in January 1988 for a scheduled refueling outage with plans to restart in mid-August until the NRC changed those plans. Inside N.R.C. reported that an NRC senior manager told the Commissioners during a July 13, 1988, briefing about the agency’s concerns about “the inability of the utility to diagnose and correct problems” and that the NRC’s response would be to “generally increase oversight of the unit.”
The Post-Standard in Syracuse reported on May 25, 1989, that the NRC issued Nine Mile Point low ratings. It reported that a company spokesperson “believes the new [NRC] report contained the lowest cumulative rating … received since the NRC begin issuing these types of reports in the 1970s.”
So, the NRC was giving Nine Mile Point extra scrutiny in 1988 and 1989 for known safety problems, including improper handling of radioactive materials.
Inside N.R.C. reported on August 28, 1989, that the NRC dispatched an Augmented Inspection Team (AIT) to Nine Mile Point on August 23 after media accounts based on the March 1989 INPO report. An NRC spokesperson told Inside N.R.C. that at least one of the NRC’s resident inspectors at Nine Mile Point reviewed a draft of the INPO report long before August 1989. Why hadn’t the NRC responded to the problem before seeing it on the TV? The NRC spokesperson was quoted as saying “That’s part of what they’re [the AIT] trying to determine now—what if anything was passed on.”
Inside N.R.C. reported on September 11, 1989, that the NRC AIT concluded that the company may have violated federal safety regulations in the late 1970s when “it converted a solid waste storage building into a low-level waste tank without informing the agency.” Inside N.R.C. stated that no NRC personnel went into the waste building during the AIT examination of the flooded waste building, quoting an NRC spokesperson as saying, “We didn’t think it was necessary for anybody to take the risk.” Speaking about risk, an NRC senior manager during a press conference at the plant on August 28, 1989, stated, “We have found no improper endangerment of the public or workers at the reactor.” So, either the NRC could not find improper endangerment because it was on the other side of the door, or the NRC found it was proper endangerment.
The Palladium Times reported on October 3, 1989, that the leader of the NRC AIT stated that “If there’s a radiological event that costs more than $2,000, they would have had to notify us.” The paper reported that the company was “preparing to clean up the material at an estimated cost of $1.5 million.”
Company officials met with NRC representatives on October 30, 1989, to discuss violations identified by the NRC AIT. The NRC summary of the meeting reported, “The licensee began their presentation by stating that, except for the apparent violations, the findings noted in NRC Inspection Report 50-220/89-80 were essentially correct.” Company officials contested the violations cited by the NRC on grounds that “Actual Property Damage Less Than $2,000” and that the waste “building was used in accordance with its design.” The company outlined its plans to use a robot to enter the lethal Radwaste Processing Building in early 1990 and mitigate the mess. The company told the NRC that its robot would save about 100 person-rem of radiation exposure to non-robotic (i.e., human) workers.
The NRC issued a Severity III violation, the third most severe of the four sanction levels used at the time, to the company on February 23, 1990, for violating federal regulations. Specifically, the company failed to evaluate the intentional overflowing of liquid radioactive storage tanks in July 1981 and flooding the waste storage building floor, as required by regulation 10 CFR 50.59. The NRC indicated that a fine would normally be imposed along with the Severity Level III infraction, but was being waived in this case due to the “major management changes [that] have been made during the extended outage because of your past inability to identify and correct problems.”
The NRC staff briefed its Commissioners on May 14, 1990, about the readiness of Nine Mile Point Unit 1 to restart. Many items on the “To Do” list had been completed, but some yet remained The NRC approved restart on Friday, July 27, 1990. After being shut down for about two and a half years, the Unit 1 reactor was restarted on July 29, 1990.
I often say and write that NRC really stands for Nielsen Ratings Commission. Too often, it doesn’t matter what the regulations say, doesn’t matter whether it’s right or wrong, and doesn’t matter if it’s safe or unsafe—what matters is the media spotlight. When the spotlight is off, wrong seems right, illegal seems legal, and unsafe looks like safe enough. When the spotlight gets turned on, darkness becomes brigthness and right morphs into wrong. This case epitomizes the appropriateness of that moniker.
The owner informed the NRC in writing in October 1981 that it had released radioactively contaminated water into Lake Ontario rather than deepen the flooded basement of the waste storage building. The NRC did nothing.
High radiation levels rendered the Radwaste Processing Building inaccessible for most of the 1980s. The NRC did nothing.
The NRC sanctioned the owner in 1987 for improperly handling radioactive materials. The NRC did nothing about the handling of the radioactive materials that rendered a building inaccessible.
The NRC reviewed a draft INPO report in early 1989 that blasted the company for mishandling the flooded waste storage building problem. The NRC did nothing.
The NRC issued the plant its lowest performance ratings ever in May 1989. The NRC did nothing about the flooded waste storage building.
Is the NRC to blame for the decade of doing nothing?
Nope. It’s the media’s fault.
Had the media turned its spotlight on the July 1981 release of radioactive liquid into Lake Ontario and the flooding of the waste storage building’s basement, the NRC would have done something.
Had the media turned its spotlight during the 1980s on the building made inaccessible by spilt radioactive material, the NRC would have done something.
Had the media turned its spotlight on the company’s handling of other radioactive materials in 1987, the NRC would have done something.
Had the media turned its spotlight on the company’s abysmal ratings in May 1989, the NRC would have done something.
When the media turned its spotlight on INPO scathing report in August 1989, the NRC did something.
So, if the media had only spotlighted the problem at the plant sooner, it might not have taken nearly a decade for this problem to get fixed.
But the NRC has inspectors assigned full-time to each operating nuclear plant whereas the media is not allowed, except under rare special circumstances, to venture inside the plants’ security fences. Thus, the media has much better justification for taking so long to turn on its spotlight than the NRC has for needing the spotlight in the first (second) (third) (fourth) place.
Consequently, this case represents under-regulation by the NRC.
Postscript: The NRC has made several changes to its oversight processes since the 1980s that make it less likely, but not impossible, for under-regulation of this nature to be repeated. After the Millstone saga in the mid 1990s, the NRC replaced the ratings system it used at Nine Mile Point and elsewhere in the 1980s with its Reactor Oversight Process (ROP). The old ratings system enabled conditions at Nine Mile Point to deteriorate to the point where Unit 1 had to remain shut down for over two years until enough of the safety problems had been remedied to permit its restart. Dozens of other reactors had to remain shut down for over a year while safety problems were corrected. Since the ROP was adopted in 2000, only two reactors have been mired in such protracted outages. The ROP is better at flagging problems sooner, allowing them to be corrected before they build up to epidemic proportions. After the Davis-Besse debacle in 2002, the NRC tweaked the ROP to require its inspectors at each site to review every problem report written. While most problems do not require further NRC engagement, this review makes it less likely that a building rendered inaccessible due to very high radiation levels will escape the agency’s notice and response.
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UCS’s Role of Regulation in Nuclear Plant Safety series of blog posts is intended to help readers understand when regulation played too little a role, too much of an undue role, and just the right role in nuclear plant safety.
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