THOUGH THE VIRGINIA Electric and Power Co. hasn't been exactly a strong contender for any corporate-candor award in recent years, its recently reported dealings for a nuclear-plant license in nearby North Anna, Va., take the cake. Vepco discovered not one, but two, possible safety problems at the plant and didn't report either one until after the license was authroized. As the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's staff put it, this double occurrence "raises questions regarding Vepco's commitment" to safe operations at the plant. Issurance of the license has been held up pending new hearings set for Thursday.
This isn't the first time that Vepco's role in the North Anna case has come under question. In October, Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), who heads a subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, held hearings on allegations that Vepco and the NRC had known about the existence of geological fault under the North Anna site for three months in 1973 before the public was told. Both Vepco and NRC officials have vigorously denied that any concealment took place. But after an investigation, the Justice Department characterized the NRC's actions as "ill-considered and inept and . . . as demonstrating a pervasive bias against the scrutiny which a project of this importance deserves and is entitled to under federal law." The NRC reprimanded its staff for covering up knowledge of the fault - but only in a footnote to a commission ruling.
Then came the possible safety problems that Vepco didn't report fast enough. The first problem had to do with computer codes used to evaluate pipes and connections in the nuclear reactor's safety system. The second involved electrical circuit "chips" which are parts of a monitoring system. Westinghouse Corp., designer of the reactor, told Vepco on Dec. 9 that there might be some faulty circuits and on Dec. 12 said, yes, there more than officially feared. But not until Dec. 16 - three days after the commission's licensing board had authorized a license for Vepco - did the electric company inform the commission of the problem.
At least the commission staff had the good sense to urge the licensing board to hold more hearings before actually issuing the license. Vepco's record on these serious matters is indeed troubling, especially in light of the efforts of other electric comanpines around the nation to win public support for nuclear power. There's enough public anxiety, legitimate or unfounded, about these projects anyway, without Vepco's fanning the flames. The licensing board should impress upon Vepco the necessity to come clean prompty when safety is involved.