The government's panel of nuclear safety experts has recommended that the Virginia Electric and Power Co.'s North Anna nuclear plant the nation's most beleaguered nuclear facility, be licensed to produce electricity next spring, providing that several "outstanding issues" are resolved.
The "outstanding issues" include charges that Vepco suffers from "management weaknesses" and "faulty leadership" and a claim that it is only because of "great good luck" that significant safety problems don't exist at the North Anna plant.
The accusations against Vepco came Thursday from Ernst Volgenau, director of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's office of inspection and enforcement, following a four-month investigation into construction practices at the nuclear site.
Volgenau appeared before the NRC's Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRSe, a group of technical experts hired as consultants to ensure that nuclear plant owners document Plant safety before they begin generating electricity.
In a sometimes heated exchange involving Volgenau, Vepco representatives, ACRS members and other NRC staff spokesmen, Volgenau cited problems he said were caused by the "corporate management" of Vepco and "bad onsite supervision." He said, "We're determined to see it fixed."
The Volgenau investigation was ordered by NRC chairman Marcus A. Rowden after information was received from three individuals identified as "employees" at the site that there were construction irregularities and failures to follow NRC standards at North Anna.
Volgenau's written report, released earlier, cited 30 infractions of rules and regulations at the North Anna site in Louisa County, Va., 75 miles southwest of Washington. It recommended that Vepco be fined $31,900.
Vepco has protested strongly against the fine and stated at the ACRS meeting it is conducting its own investigation to determine the "underlying reasons" why some workmen performed substandard work.
"We want to know their motives and if necessary we will take legal action," Vepco official Ashby Baum said.
Vepco senior vice president W. L. Proffitt said at least one case is known in which a supervisor had a "clear drawing" of the way the work was to be done and "did it another way."
Vepco also defended itself against Volgenau's charges that inspection procedures were weak at North Anna by submitting testimony from a consultant who examined the system and found it on a par with systems used by other utilities.
This was countered by testimony from an ACRS consultant who agreed essentially with the findings of the Volgenau investigation.
Although Volgenau has reported results of the probe, further phases of it are continuing, including actions to verify the quality of construction already completed as well as that still under way.
In addition, NRC project manager Alexander Dromerick cited five other "outstanding issues," but said none pose major problems and he expects all to be resolved soon.
They include a need to modify the design of wall supports in the containment area for spent fuel. Until the government makes decisions about storing nuclear waste and reprocessing it for reuse, most utilities have to store amounts of spent fuel on-site.
Another problem involves the coding system used to measure pressure on pipes and other components serving the nuclear reactor.
Even with these resolved, however, Vepco still doesn't have clear sailing to its operating license. A recent hearing by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board on Vepco's operating application has been extended at the behest of the North Anna environmental Coalition, arch-foe of Vepco's nuclear program. No date has been set for the extended hearing.
The coalition contends that the operating record of Vepco's Surry plant, which has encountered significant difficulties during its four years of producing power, coupled with the construction record at North Anna, disqualifies Vepco from the use of nuclear energy.