THE NUCLEAR REGULATORY
We had a broad mandate
from the President to investigate the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. When
NRC was split off from the old Atomic Energy Commission, the purpose of
the split was to separate the regulators from those who were promoting the
peaceful uses of atomic energy. We recognize that the NRC has an
assignment that would be difficult under any circumstances. But, we have
seen evidence that some of the old promotional philosophy still influences
the regulatory practices of the NRC. While some compromises between the
needs of safety and the needs of an industry are inevitable, the evidence
suggests that the NRC has sometimes erred on the side of the industry's
convenience rather than carrying out its primary mission of assuring
Two of the roost
important activities of NRC are its licensing function and its inspection
and enforcement (I&E) activities. We found serious inadequacies in both.
In the licensing
process, applications are only required to analyze "single-failure"
accidents. They are not required to analyze what happens when two systems
fail independently of each other, such as the event that took place at
TMI. There is a sharp delineation between those components in systems that
are "safety-related" and those that are not. Strict reviews and
requirements apply to the former; the latter are exempt from most
requirements "- even though they can have an effect on the safety of the
plant. We feel that this sharp either/or definition is inappropriate.
Instead, there should be a system of priorities as to how significant
various components and systems are for the overall safety of the plant.
There seems to be a persistent assumption that plants can be made
sufficiently safe to be "people-proof." Thus, not enough attention is paid
to the training of operating personnel and operator procedures in the
licensing process. And, finally, plants can receive an operating license
with several safety issues still unresolved. This places such a plant into
a regulatory "limbo" with jurisdiction divided between two different
offices within NRC. TMI-2 was in this status at the time of the accident,
13 months after it received its operating license.
NRC's primary focus is
on licensing and insufficient attention has been paid to the ongoing
process of assuring nuclear safety. An important example of this is the
case of "generic problems," that is, problems that apply to a number of
different nuclear power plants. Once an issue is labeled "generic," the
individual plant being licensed is not responsible for resolving the issue
prior to licensing. That, in itself, would be acceptable, if there were a
strict procedure within NRC to assure the timely resolution of generic
problems, either by its own research staff, or by the utility and its
suppliers. However, the evidence indicates that labeling of a problem as
"generic" may provide a convenient way of postponing decision on a
The old AEC attitude
is also evident in reluctance to apply new safety standards to previously
licensed plants. While we would accept a need for reasonable timetables
for "backfitting," we did not find evidence that the need for improvement
of older plants was systematically considered prior to Three Mile Island.
The existence of a
vast body of regulations by NRC tends to focus industry attention narrowly
on the meeting of regulations rather than on a systematic concern for
safety. Furthermore, the nature of some of the regulations, in combination
with the way rate bases are established for utilities, may in some
instances have served as a deterrent for utilities or their suppliers to
take the initiative in proposing measures for improved safety.
Previous studies of
I&E have criticized this branch severely. Inspectors frequently fail to
make independent evaluations or inspections. The manual according to which
inspectors are supposed to operate is so voluminous that many inspectors
do not understand precisely what they are supposed to do. There have been
a number of incidents in which inspectors have had difficulty in getting
their superiors to concentrate on serious safety issues. The analysis of
reported incidents by licensees has tended to concentrate on equipment
malfunction, and serious operator errors have not been focused on.
Finally, while the statutory authority to impose fines is fairly limited,
a previous study shows that I&E has made minimal use of even this
Since in many cases
NRC does not have the first-hand information necessary to enforce its
regulations, it must rely heavily on the industry's own records for its
inspection and enforcement activities. NRC accumulates vast amounts of
information on the operating experience of plants. However, prior to the
accident there was no systematic method of evaluating these experiences,
and no systematic attempt to look for patterns that could serve as a
warning of a basic problem.
NRC is vulnerable to
the charge that it is heavily equipment-oriented, rather than
people-oriented. Evidence for this exists in the weak and understaffed
branch of NRC that monitors operator training, in the fact that inspectors
who investigate accidents concentrate on what went wrong with the
equipment and not on what operators may have done incorrectly, in the lack
of attention to the quality of procedures provided for operators, and in
an almost total lack of attention to the interaction between human beings
In addition to all the
other problems with the NRC, we are extremely critical of the role the
organization played in the response to the accident. There was a serious
lack of communication among the commissioners, those who were attempting
to make the decisions about the accident in Bethesda, the field
offices, and those actually on site. This lack of communication
contributed to the confusion of the accident. We are also skeptical
whether the collegial mode of the five commissioners makes them a suitable
body for the management of an emergency, and of the agency itself.
We found serious
managerial problems within the organization. These problems start at the
very top. It is not clear to us what the precise role of the five NRC
commissioners is, and we have evidence that ~ they themselves are not
clear on what their role should be. The huge bureaucracy under the
commissioners is highly compartmentalized with insufficient communication
among the major offices. We do not see evidence of effective managerial
guidance from the top, and we do see evidence of some of the old AEC
promotional philosophy in key officers below the top. The management
problems have been made much harder by adoption of strict rules that
prohibit the commissioners from talking with some of their key staff on
issues involved in the licensing process; we believe that these rules have
been applied in an unnecessarily severe form within this particular
agency. The geographic spread, which places top management in Washington
and most of the staff in Bethesda and Silver Spring, Maryland (and in
other parts of the country), also inhibits the easy exchange of ideas.
We therefore conclude
that there is no well-thought-out, integrated system for the assurance of
nuclear safety within the current NRC.
We have found evidence
of repeated in-depth studies and criticisms both from within the agency
and from without, but we found very little evidence that these studies
have resulted in significant improvement. This fact gives us particular
concern for the future of the present NRC.
For all these reasons
we recommend a total restructuring of the NRC. We recommend that it be an
independent agency within the executive branch, headed by a single
administrator, who is in every sense chief executive officer, to be chosen
from outside NRC. The new administrator must be provided with the freedom
to reorganize and to bring new blood into the restructured NRC's staff.
This new blood could result in the change of attitudes that is vital for
the solution of the problems of the nuclear industry.
We have also
recommended a number of other organizational and procedural changes
designed to make the new agency truly effective in assuring the safety of
nuclear power plants. Included in these are an oversight committee to
monitor the performance of the restructured NRC and mandatory review by
HEW of radiation-related health issues.