The government does not require that control room operators at nuclear power plants be trained in handling serious accidents, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was told yesterday.
In fact, according to Paul Collins, chief licensed operators' only experience has been working at the side of senior operators at normally functioning reactors.
Prospective operators are taught the proper response to various gauges, buzzers and lights that warn of malfunctions, but this training assumes that the safety systems will work. Even when an operator is being given more sophisticated training using accident-simultor machines - a type of training now optional - "when the safeguard systems are called on, they act each and every time," Collins said. "We're changing that."
"I would think we want to rethink this entire program pretty hard," said acting NRC chairman Victor Gilinsky uring Collins' briefing, Commissioner John F. Ahearne urged Collins to seek advice from the Navy's nuclear engineer training program, which "uses simulators where most things are going wrong," he said.
Responded Collins, "Since Three Mile Island, we've been thinking about almost everything."
The March 28 near-disaster at the Three Mile Island 2 plant near Middletown, Pa., occured partly because valves for an emergency pump had been wrongly left closed. No simulator that Collins knew of had been programmed to those conditions, he said, but all of them are being changed to do so now.
Although some operatos are not trained with simulators, those on duty at Three Mile Island that day had gone through the simulator program of Babcock & Wilcox Co., which built that plant, Collins told reporters later.
All four companies that make and sell nuclear reactors have their own simultor training courses; B&W at Lynchburg, Va.; Combustion Engineering Inc. at Windsor Locks, Conn.; Westinghouse Electric Corp. at Zion, III.; and General Electric Co. at Morris, III.
Although the NRC staff keeps tabs on the accuracy of those programs, it doesn't specify situations that must be presented to the trainees. "Any accident simulation . . . is optional by the vendor," Collins explained.
Certification from a simultor program is not required but is only one of the ways an aspiring operator can complete one of the requirements for the job, Collins went on.
The applicant may also fulfill the "extensive actual operating experience" requirement by having been previously licensed or certified by the NRC or by having operated other reactors, such as university experimental ones or those in the Navy. About one-third of the nation's 2,533 licensed reactor operators come from the Navy program with its disaster-oriented training, Collins said. Only six of all the operators are women, he noted later.
In addition to "hands-on" operating experience, license applicants must have a high-school or equivalent education and two years' involvement in operations, construction or design at some kind of power plant. One of those years must be at a nuclear plant.
"Carrying cement, for example?" asked Ahearne.
"I can't recall receiving any application" of that kind, Collins deadpaned.
There are further requirements for becoming a senior operator, and all operators must requalify every two years. Senior operators and experience operators hired at a new plant must fo through one week of simulator training, besides meeting other requirements. Tests are both oral and written and cover emergency operating procedures, Collins said.
"It's thorough program with a lot of substance," Ahearne responded, "but there's no emphasis on getting operators to go through procedures where they have to react to a highly abnormal situation." He recommended by that Collins require simulator training of all applicants and that such training include abnormal situations.
The commissioners were repeatedly frustrated in trying to obtain statistics an operators' average age, experience, attrition or illness rate. "I'm afraid I have a manu al acounting system," Collins said. Between 10 percent and 11 percent of applicants who take operato examinations fail, he said.
Sen. Richard Schweiker (R-Pa.) has asked the General Accounting Office, a congressional watchdog, to investigate NRC licensing procedures and report to him within three weeks.
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) asked the GAO to probe the entire Three Mile Island incident and to respond in six months to his energy and power subcommittee. Although the NRC is conducting its own probe, "any agency investigation of itself must be subject to question," Dingell said, and President Carter's special commission on the accident lacks technical expertise and has a limited mandate.
Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) announced that his subcommittee on nuclear regulation would continue hearings Monday moring on the Three Mile Island accident.