Nuclear energy has nearly ceased to be a plausible source of energy for our nation's future. This statement may be painfully blunt, but a review of the facts bears it out. Signs of a deep-rooted illness abound in the nuclear industry.
A major initiative to increase public confidence that nuclear power plants are operated in a safe and responsible manner is needed if the nuclear industry is to reverse this decline.Since 1978, no new nuclear power plants have been ordered, and 90 have been canceled. Plants already operating are facing their own troubles. At the beginning of 1986, roughly 10 percent of the nation's nuclear capacity was shut down, including all the reactors of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Figures from last year show that 1985 was the worst year on record for the number of near-accidents at operating plants.
Some of the reasons for this situation may change - an increase in electrical demand, for example, may lead to a revival of some construction
plans. But unless the nuclear industry looks beyond simple demand-supply equations to additional reasons for its decline, no major changes will occur.
One problem that has to be resolved is the ineffectiveness of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The Commission was created by Congress in 1974 to regulate the industry and ensure the protection of the public's health. But the NRC has failed on both counts. This is one area in which anti- and pro- nuclear forces agree. Nobody with knowledge of the NRC would claim that it has discharged its responsibilities effectively and efficiently.
A consensus is growing in Congress that the NRC is simply not structured to handle a changed nuclear industry. The demands of nuclear regulation have shifted from bringing new plants on line to assuring the safe operation of existing ones. No one should be content to leave in place a structure that has been best described as Byzantine and that is clearly inadequate to its task. It is time to reform the NRC to bring its organization in line with its responsibilities and duties.
Among the reform proposals in Congress is one I have put forth, along with Rep. Morris Udall, D-Ariz., to establish an independent Safety Board for the NRC. The Safety Board is modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board and its working relationship with the Federal Aviation Administration. A number of advantages would result from the application of this structure to the NRC.
First, the Safety Board would lead and coordinate investigations of accidents or events at nuclear power plants. A 1985 NRC study found "overlap and interference of the various" investigations. As many as five groups may investigate a single accident. The confusion that results should surprise no one. As an example, after the 1983 trip system failure at the Salem nuclear power system at Lower Alloways Township, N.J., NRC investigators analyzed the wrong set of breakers - the malfunctioning breakers had been removed and disassembled by another investigatory group.
Second, independent reviews of safety concerns in the nuclear industry will increase public confidence that all appropriate and reasonable steps are taken to protect its health.
Despite claims from supporters that safety is a top concern in the nuclear industry, it is evident that public doubts about that commitment persist. But the public also rejects calls for immediate abandonment of the nuclear-power option. What people want is an institution they can believe before deciding on nuclear power. By allowing outside experts from all sides to take part in investigations, the Safety Board will provide that much-needed credibility.
Third, the Safety Board will be a mechanism for more timely resolution of outstanding safety concerns. As things stand now, delay is the most common response to safety issues at nuclear power plants.
Last year's near-meltdown at Toledo Edison's Davis-Besse plant illustrates this problem. One of the feed-water pumps in question had been cited by the NRC in 1979 as a potential problem, but for six years Toledo-Edison and the NRC put off making the needed changes.
Fourth, an independent Safety Board will be able to conduct investigations that do not overlook possible NRC contributions to an accident. Under present conditions, the NRC asks mid-level managers to comment on the policies, practices and decisions of their bosses. It is an unrealistic and unworkable assignment.
Finally, the Safety Board that Rep. Udall and I propose would not increase the budget deficit. A reduction of the NRC's investigatory responsibility will
allow a reduction of its staff and a transfer of resources to the new board. There will be no increase in costs to taxpayers.
The nuclear industry has already established the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations and the Nuclear Safety Assessment Center to address safety concerns. These are constructive steps, and an independent Safety Board will complement these efforts.
A turnaround in public opinion will not come overnight. But a noticeable change would occur over time as the public becomes familiar with the role and the credibility of the Safety Board. A mechanism for pursuing preventative actions to ensure the reasonable protection of public health and safety - especially an independent Safety Board that will build public confidence - will help persuade the public that nuclear power is being operated in a safe manner.
It is a step the nuclear industry should embrace and support.