Pervasive problems plague the control of radioactive waste at the nation's nuclear power plants, in part because the federal government has been sluggish in instituting and enforcing safeguards, according to a federal report issued yesterday.
The Government Accountability Office's indictment of the nuclear facilities and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is the most comprehensive reckoning to date of problems that have begun to emerge at a number of plants in recent years.
Vermont Yankee is one of three nuclear power plants reporting missing or unaccounted-for spent fuel in recent years.
(Vermont Yankee Corp. Via AP)
Inadequate oversight and gaps in safety procedures have left several plants unsure about the whereabouts of all their spent fuel, the GAO said, and problems in tracking the materials suggest that radioactive rods could be missing from more than the three plants that are widely known to have problems.
"NRC inspectors often could not confirm that containers that were designated as containing loose fuel rods in fact contained the fuel rods," the report said. "The containers, in some cases, were closed or sealed and, in other cases, the contents were not visible when looking into the spent fuel pool. Thus, spent fuel may be missing or unaccounted for at still other plants."
The commission said it agreed with the GAO's findings of "uneven" control of spent nuclear fuel. NRC spokeswoman Beth Hayden said the agency had been forced to prioritize safety concerns after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and that this had caused delays in implementing security measures to safeguard the spent fuel rods.
The nuclear industry pointed out that the GAO had not found evidence of adverse health consequences. Problems in accounting for the fuel are being addressed, said Steven Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Critics, however, said close ties between federal regulators and the commercial facilities they supervise has dulled the edge of oversight.
"I would respectfully remind the NRC that the 'R' stands for 'regulatory,' " said Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.), who, with other members of Congress, had asked the GAO to study the issue. Rep. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) added: "The days of letting the nuclear industry self-regulate without proper federal oversight must come to a long overdue end."
Three plants have reported missing or unaccounted-for spent nuclear fuel in recent years: Millstone in Connecticut, Vermont Yankee, and Humboldt Bay in California.
The report said federal regulations do not make clear how plants should conduct physical inventories of spent fuel, nor how they should control and account for loose fuel rods and fragments.
Plants had different notions about how to monitor their inventories of spent fuel, consisting of highly radioactive rods that have been removed from reactors and are generally stored in large swimming pool-like structures.
Some plants had failed to match paper records with the contents of spent fuel containers, the report said.
The GAO said the government has sufficient warning of the scope of the problem to begin implementing changes, but the NRC's Hayden said the agency is still in the process of getting the information it needs.
"Until we have that detailed information, we can't just go out and do additional inspections or levy additional requirements," she said. "When we are dealing with nuclear safety and security, we need to move in a very careful and deliberate way."
Hayden said the requirement that the agency fund 90 percent of its budget from fees on the industry in no way compromises its independence.
But Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, a nonprofit group that studies energy issues, said GAO surveys of commission inspectors showed that the public ought to be concerned: Despite the range of problems identified, 28 inspectors said the agency does not need to exercise more oversight, while only 24 said increased control is needed.
Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Watchdog Project for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a nonprofit clearinghouse opposed to the use of nuclear power, said the GAO report is the latest in a string of independent assessments that have found fault with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's oversight of commercial facilities.
"The consistency of these findings suggests the NRC is more interested in shielding production margins at power stations than it is in prioritizing public health and safety," he said.