A LOT OF PEOPLE are hoping that the six -- count them, six -- commissions currently investigating the Three Mile Island nuclear accident will once and for all answer the question of whether nuclear power is safe -- or whether it is such a complex technology that it cannot be adequately managed no matter how closely regulated. This is a misplaced hope. The question cannot be answered now for the simple reason that no one knows how a well-regulated nuclear industry would behave. And that in turn should suggest what the various commissions -- in particular the Kemeny Commission appointed by President Carter -- should be thinking about.
No one yet knows, for example, whether the kind of stupid human error (paper clips in the switches, turned-off valves, etc.) that has turned up so often in the nuclear industry reflects an inevitable limitation of human capacity or is merely the result of slipshod recruiting, training and managing of personnel. So the challenge for the Three Mile Island investigators is not so much to try to answer the grand and ultimate question as it is to point out the more mundane steps needed to make the current system work. Only then will the country be able to judge whether nuclear power can be safely managed.
All this takes you immediately to the doorstep of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, whose jurisdiction, role and effectiveness add up to the central issue. The president's commission has correctly identified the NRC's chief failing: it spends most of its effort on licensing new reactors and pays much too little attention to regulating the operation and maintenance of those reactors once they are built. There is good historical reason for this. Back in the days when utilities had to be convinced to invest in the new nuclear technology, it was explained that nuclear power was just another way to generate the steam that drives the turbines that make electricity. All a utility had to do, so the message went, was turn the key and run its plant just as it had always done. The tricky steps that required a knowledge of nuclear fission -- designing and licensing the plants -- would be handled by government experts. This attitude was, naturally, reflected in the priorities of the regulators at the Atomic Energy Commission and their successors at the NRC.
The Three Mile Island accident highlighted what should have been obvious already: that there is a tremendous need for tougher regulation of power plant operation . The nuclear industry, which should be anything but casual in its approach to the rules, can be sloppy. This is due in large part to the lack of attention given to inspection and enforcement by the NRC. Infractions of the rules are almost never taken up by the commission and, when they are, the rare $5,000 fine means no more than a light slap on the wrist.
The non-solution that is reportedly being seriously considered by the president's commission is to strip the NRC of its licensing authority, which would be transferred to the Environmental Protection Agency, thus leaving the NRC, in theory, to focus all its resources on inspection and enforcement. This is a truly terrible idea. Licensing a new plant, and then seeing that it operates in the way it was designed, are obviously two functions that should go hand in hand. The right answer is not to create another example of weird government disorganization for the next generation of presidential candidates to condemn, but rather to make sure that the NRC does the right job -- meaning both as licenser and overseer -- and that it does the right job right .