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An Assessment of Illinois' Nuclear Reactors and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Inability to Regulate Assertively

Prepared July 24, 1997

I. Summary and Recommendations:

Since 1993 NEIS has observed and documented a dramatic decline in the safety and performance levels of Illinois' 13 operating nuclear reactors -- 12 by ComEd, a subsidiary of Unicom, and one by Illinois Power (IP). Illinois reactors have been placed regularly on the Federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC's) "close watch" and "trending downward" lists for poor performance and declining safety. They have experienced an increase in the number and size of fines from NRC for poor operating practices.

This decline has emerged under and in spite of the "watchful" eyes of onsite inspectors of both the NRC and the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety (IDNS). It has occurred after NEIS twice alerted the Illinois Delegation to Congress and Governor Jim Edgar of the trend (in July, 1993, and October 1996). It continues at a time when the Federal General Accounting Office (GAO) has just completed a preliminary investigation into NRC's inability and dis-inclination to regulate the nuclear industry in an assertive manner.

In conclusion conditions at Illinois nuclear reactors are deteriorating, and the regulators charged with monitoring these conditions and ordering nuclear utilities to reverse this deterioration are found not to be regulating assertively or effectively. Taken together, these conditions represent a major threat to the health and safety of the Illinois public, environment and the economy.

Recent petition gathering efforts initiated by NEIS have demonstrated that nuclear safety is a major concern of the Illinois public from all parts of the State. The public is calling for regulators to take stronger measures against nuclear utilities demonstrating consistently poor performance.

NEIS recommends that the Federal NRC and State IDNS implement recommendations formulated both in the recently released GAO report, NUCLEAR REGULATION: Preventing Problem Plants Require More Effective NRC Action (GAO/RCED-97-145, May 1997), and the recommendations to improve NRC regulatory capability solicited by the office of Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun provided by NEIS in February, 1997. These recommendations call for stronger sanctions against repeat offenders and poor operators of nuclear plants, including increased use of suspension and revocation of nuclear plant operating licenses until such time as sustained improvements can be demonstrated at the offending facilities (see attached documents).

II. Background:

NEIS first began reporting about the decline in reactor performance and safety in July, 1993, with the release of the Public Citizen study, NUCLEAR LEMONS: An Assessment of America's Worst Nuclear Power Plants, 4th Edition. The study examined relative performance of 111 U.S. nuclear reactors over the years 1990-92, using 11 safety and performance criteria, many of which are used by both NRC and the nuclear industry. Statistically, compared to their peers in the U.S. nuclear industry, ComEd's 12 and Illinois Power's (IP) one operating reactors fared poorly. Seven of 13 reactors placed in the bottom-third in overall ranking compared to the other 98 U.S. reactors. Many reactors placed in the "10-worst" in selected categories, or in the "bottom-third" in a majority of the categories (see enclosed chart).

NEIS sent this analysis to Governor Jim Edgar, selected State Cabinet heads, and the Illinois delegation to Congress. Concurrently, thousands of signatures on petitions calling for State action were sent to Governor Edgar, and received no reply. Letters to Congress calling for greater pressure on the NRC to force better performance from ComEd and IP also received no response.

In October, 1996, Public Citizen released its 5th edition of NUCLEAR LEMONS, and the results for Illinois reactors were even worse. Not only did Illinois reactors rank poorly compared to other U.S. reactors; their rankings for the years 1993-95 dropped dramatically compared to their own previous performance in the same categories. A new category measuring the number of times NRC used "license discretion" on enforcing its own regulations showed that many Illinois reactors had their standards altered more often than other U.S. reactors (see enclosed chart).

From January, 1996 to the present conditions at Illinois reactors worsened dramatically. Since January, 1997, six of ComEd's 12 operating reactors (Dresden 2 & 3, already on the list a record-setting 5 consecutive years; LaSalle 1 & 2; and Zion 1 & 2) were placed by NRC on its "close watch list" for poor performance and operating conditions requiring additional NRC supervision. IP's Clinton 1 reactor was placed on the "trending downward" list for similar but not as severe problems. All reactors remained on these lists an additional six months after the NRC review in July, 1997.

During this period these reactors suffered a long series of embarrassing and potentially dangerous incidents, mishaps, operator errors, management errors and oversights, techni- cal/materiel problems, and procedure violations (see enclosed list).

The number and size of fines also increased during this period. ComEd and IP reactors were fined 12 times for a total of $1,750,000 (13% of all fines and 25% of all dollar amounts since nuclear plants first opened in Illinois). Both utilities received the largest fines in their history during this period (ComEd's LaSalle 1&2 was fined $650,000 in January, 1997; IP's Clinton 1 received a $450,000 fine in June, 1997).

NRC sent numerous warnings to ComEd management about the chronic and repeated appearance of certain reactors (most notably Dresden 2&3 and Zion 1&2) on these lists. NRC even went as far as to call ComEd's top managers and Board of Directors to Washington, D.C., on two occasions. These meetings resulted in severe scoldings and threats, but in no definite action or sanctions from NRC.

It was also during this period that NRC itself was coming under criticism for its lack of ability or dis-inclination to regulate assertively. Two articles a year apart in TIME magazine portrayed a regulatory agency averse to regulating the nuclear industry, and to even follow its own regulations and standards with consistency. Worse NRC was portrayed as an agency with a tendency to punish even members of its own staff when those people followed NRC regulations too vigorously for the tastes of officials higher up in the chain of command.

These charges against NRC were strengthened by two reports issued in 1997. The first, Recommendations to Improve the Senior Management Meeting Process (December 30, 1996), was a study conducted by Arthur Anderson, Inc., which analyzed NRC's procedures and methodology for placing reactors on its "close watch" list and for assessing conditions at reactors. The report found that while NRC decisions were "logical" and "risk-averse," they were also highly subjective, lacked consistent, understandable and objective criteria, and were "reactive" to problems rather than anticipatory.

The second study by the General Accounting Office (GAO; NUCLEAR REGULATION: Preventing Problem Plants Requires More Effective NRC Action, GAO/RCED-97-145, May, 1997) was commissioned in 1996 at the request of Sen. Joseph Biden, Jr. (D.-DE). The results of this study were released in May, 1997, and were very critical of NRC in a number of key regulatory areas:

  1. NRC failed to take aggressive enforcement actions relating to safety requirements;
  2. NRC too often merely took the word of non-complying nuclear utilities to take corrective actions, then rarely followed up on the utilities to make sure these actions took place;
  3. NRC's lack of aggressive action when problems were first reported and identified actually contributed to the worsening conditions at the case-study plants reviewed in the report;
  4. When NRC did finally act, their interventions were too late or too little;
  5. NRC cannot verify with existing documentation whether the reactors in operation are actually operating in accordance with their "design basis" -- and hence cannot objectively and conclusively state if reactors are actually operating safely.
  6. In its evaluations and inspections NRC does not even assess whether or not nuclear plant management is competent.
In February, 1997, NEIS was contacted by the office of Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun to submit suggestions as to how NRC could better regulate the nuclear industry. NEIS compiled suggestions from several nationally recognized safe-energy and nuclear power watchdog organizations, and submitted these to the Senator's office (see enclosed, and below). In addition both the Anderson study and the GAO report had its set of recommendations for improving NRC's regulatory attitude and abilities.

III. Analysis:

Based on these observations and results, two conclusions are apparent:

1.) ComEd and IP's 13 operating reactors are deteriorating, and if not improved, represent a threat to the health and safety of the public, environment, and economy of Illinois; and

2.) The NRC has not been doing an adequate job to regulate the nuclear industry in an assertive and proactive manner.

We present the following analysis to support these conclusions:

A. ComEd and IP's 13 operating reactors are deteriorating, and if not improved, represent a threat to the health and safety of the public, environment, and economy of Illinois:

By whatever criteria one selects, whether those of NEIS which openly favors the closure of nuclear plants, or those of the NRC whose own criteria and abilities NEIS questions below, conditions at ComEd's 12 and IP's single reactor are poor, worsening, and without improve- ment, represent a major threat to Illinois.

NRC's own documentation -- "watch list" placements, fines, SALP reviews, transcripts of meetings with ComEd's Board and management, etc. -- is replete with the enormous list of failings on the part of ComEd and IP to run their reactors well. A brief chronological summary of these incidents over the past two years is included in this report.

B. The NRC has not been doing an adequate job to regulate the nuclear industry in Illinois in an assertive and pro-active manner:

While the increase in fines and frequent and lengthy placement of reactors on NRC "watch lists" might seem to indicate that the NRC is "getting tough" on ComEd and IP and regulating more forcefully, the opposite actually seems to be the case. The reasons for this conclusion stem from the findings of the GAO report as they apply to recent events in Illinois.

1.) Fines and public embarrassment are ineffective:

If fines and placement on "watch lists" resulting in greater scrutiny by regulators were supposed to either force or embarrass ComEd and IP to improve conditions at reactors, they have failed in this mission. Over time, the number and size of fines have increased, as have the number of reactors on the NRC "watch" lists. At this time, 7 of 13 Illinois reactors are on either the "close watch" or "trending downward" list. If the utilities were actually improving and responding to the fines imposed or the concomitant public embarrassment, these numbers should be going down, not up.

The GAO report concluded that often fines are administered so long after the fact that they cease to have a meaningful corrective impact on operation, and are too far removed in time from the original problem for them to serve as a punishment or deterrent for improper actions. Utilities simply do not get the "cause-effect" message that fines are supposed to impart.

One also must question the assumptions that fines and public embarrassment might effect improvement in reactor operation on corporate grounds as well. It does not seem logical to assume that fines of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars will have much of a financial impact on a utility like ComEd which claims around $21 billion in assets, and which annually boasts around $6 billion in sales, and $1-1.5 billion in profits.

If management is the problem -- as NRC has contended frequently over the past four years - - then only the shareholders can remedy it, and they have shown no inclination to do so thus far. Each year the same people remain in top management positions at ComEd, regularly re- elected by the shareholders. Indeed, many of the major shareholders are these same top managers themselves. Even the recent spate of large fines has not had an appreciable enough impact on shareholder dividends to effect change in management. And ratepayers have absolutely no effect on corporate decision making.

As a result ComEd management is virtually insulated from outside efforts to induce corporate change; and so little has come, in spite of the frequent requests from NRC.

Finally, it is also important to note that public embarrassment is not listed as an official sanction for NRC's use in the Code of Federal Regulations. It should therefore not be relied upon by the agency.

2.) NRC must shoulder some responsibility for reactor decline:

The documented downward trend in reactor safety and performance has occurred in spite of the fact that NRC has always had onsite inspectors at each reactor. In 1994 Illinois added its own IDNS onsite inspectors. While the number of observers have increased, the conditions at these reactors has worsened. This observed increase in problems and fines is not merely a function of having more eyes with which to see.

On occasion NRC has publicly stated that it is not its job to identify problems at nuclear reactors for the utilities. NRC claims to see its role as one of regulator and observer.

There is considerable dissonance between what NRC says and what it does in these self- professed roles. The GAO report and current Illinois reactor problems illustrate the degree of this disconnect between NRC's words and its actions. While always in possession of increasingly powerful sanctions to force better reactor operation and performance and utility compliance with regulations, NRC has consistently chosen to avoid using its most powerful means to do so: reactor license suspension or revocation. As a result it has become an ineffective regulator when the utilities call NRC's bluff, and fail to comply with NRC regulations or orders in a complete or timely manner.

This unwillingness to demonstrate its authority weakens NRC's role as an observer, since even when NRC points out corrective measures to a utility, as it did in 1996 during an emergency at ComEd's LaSalle reactors, the utilities have received an implicit yet clear message that NRC's observations can be disregarded and actions deferred.

The NRC has always had at its disposal 1.) the means (its onsite inspectors and regional administrators), and 2.) the authority (its regulations and sanctions) to regulate nuclear reactors in Illinois and elsewhere in an assertive and pre-emptive manner. It has simply chosen not to do so, and as a result NRC has tolerated poor performance on the part of the utilities far longer than it should have.

In the increasingly expensive world of reactor operations and maintenance, and even more so in the upcoming world of utility deregulation, unless a utility is forced to make an expend- iture, either by economics or regulations, it will not do so. A continued laid-back approach to regulation by NRC could lead to increasingly serious incidents in the future.

This situation does not serve to protect the public or the environment.

The following are recent examples of poor reactor operation in Illinois that correspond to the points raised by the GAO's recent report:

  1. GAO Report: NRC failed to take aggressive enforcement actions relating to safety requirements:

    Perhaps the most egregious example of this criticism is the long-standing residency of the Dresden 2&3 reactors on the NRC's "close watch" list. Dresden resided on this list for six consecutive years as of July, 1997 -- an ignominious industry record. Since placement of the reactors on this list is supposed to mean the reactors are receiving added NRC oversight, Dresden's excessive and continuous duration on the list begs two questions:

    1.) Just how badly deteriorated is a reactor that must receive 6 years worth of "extra" NRC oversight? If the deterioration is this bad, why wasn't it spotted by NRC inspectors before, so that preventive measures could have been implemented?

    2.) Just what does it actually mean -- to the utility, to the NRC, and the public -- for a reactor to be on a "watch list," if a reactor can reside there indefinitely while continuing to operate? Put another way, at what point can and should NRC pull the license on the Dresden reactors, which have resided on the NRC "watch list" for 7 of their 25 years of operation?

  2. GAO Report: NRC too often merely took the word of non-complying nuclear utilities to take corrective actions, then rarely followed up on the utilities to make sure these actions took place:

    While many examples of this criticism come to mind with ComEd's reactors recently, the most blatant and distressing example of this dis-inclination to regulate occurred this past Spring after NRC placed six ComEd reactors in its "close watch" list. In addition NRC ordered ComEd to submit in writing, under oath, and within 60 days the answers to two fundamental questions:

    "(a) Information explaining why NRC should have confidence in ComEd's ability to operate six nuclear stations while sustaining perform- ance improvements at each site.

    (b) Criteria that [ComEd] ha[s] established or plan to establish to measure performance in light of the concerns identified above and your proposed actions if those criteria are not met." [emphasis ours; Source: NRC "Request for Information Pursuant to 10 CFR 50.54(f) Regarding Performance at Commonwealth Edison Company Nuclear Stations, January 27, 1997]

    ComEd submitted its 80-page reply to NRC on March 28. NRC then reviewed the ComEd response, and convened a meeting between ComEd top management and the NRC Commission and Region staff in Washington, D.C. on April 25th. The following excerpts from the transcript of this meeting are very revealing of NRC's abdication of regulatory responsibility and dis-inclination to regulate assertively:

    1.) ComEd failed to answer question #1, and NRC acknowledged this fact, yet accepted the ComEd proposal to continue operation:

    A line of questioning by NRC Chair resulted in her asking NRC staff whether ComEd's reply answered Question #1 of the 50.54(f) letter:

    MR. FRANK MARAGLIA (NRC Deputy Director, NRR): "I think the answer to that is yes, we've said that [ComEd has] established measures in the program which, if effectively implemented, will give us that basis to be able to have concrete evidence and indicators....So it is in some respects a commitment and a promise for the future, and to have a plan and a program by which it can be monitored."

    MR. JOSEPH CALLAN (EDO, NRC): "...the types of things that...Com- monwealth Edison is proposing...are variations on processes that have worked at other facilities over the years....So the programs, we have a relatively high confidence level that the programs themselves are solid. The issue the implementation aspects of the program, and if we just go on history, then we shouldn't have much confidence [in ComEd] quite frankly. The performance of ComEd over the years in implementing programs has been fairly dismal....there is very little [ComEd] can point to themselves to give us confidence that this time, these programs...will work at Commonwealth." [Source: NRC Commis- sion Meeting Transcript, April 25, 1997]

    2.) NRC acknowledged that it does not possess and has not developed a means to actually track ComEd improvement at multiple stations:

    NRC Chair Shirley Jackson made a critically astute observation in questioning her NRC staff on the level of ComEd's compliance to their 50.54(f) letter:

    CHAIR JACKSON: "Given [ComEd's] cyclic performance...can [NRC staff] discuss the effectiveness of the NRC inspection program and our enforcement policy in identifying and taking appropriate regulatory action concerning the cyclic performance of [ComEd]?...can [NRC's] process be improved relative to identifying and preventing cyclical or declining performance? it additional NRC resources that if focussed on [ComEd] any earlier or on a continuing basis have helped to mitigate or change the declining or cyclic performance?....since we are coming off of a history...of over a decade of a certain kind of weak performance, it does beg the question of the effectiveness of [NRC's] inspection and enforcement policy in addressing these sorts of issues.

    "...a lot of focus of what we've talked about this morning relate in some part to the second part of the question, namely to explain criteria that [ComEd] established or plan to establish to measure performance. But...strung through all this but not explicitly addressed is what is the answer to the first question, and that is why NRC should have confidence on [ComEd's] ability to operate its nuclear stations while sustaining performance improvements at each site....How is [NRC] staff going to review and integrate the site-specific assessment finding to reach an overall conclusion as to whether [ComEd] has effectively implemented its performance improvement plan but in a way where they sustain performance at all of the sites?'s not the narrow issue of did they specifically address what they've been asked to address...but, inherent in that is why NRC should have confidence on ComEd's anility to operate its stations while sustaining performance improvement at each site. So I want you to tell me how the various things [NRC staff has] outlined , which seem very site specific, okay, is going to allow an assessment corporate-wide....What is it today that's giving us confidence in [ComEd's] ability to do that?" [Source: as above; emphasis ours]

    MR. JOSEPH CALLAN: "...I think if you look at the history of [ComEd] and just look at specific plants, I would argue that the NRC inspection and enforcement programs worked reasonably well....What our inspection and enforcement programs were not and are not equipped to do well is to step back and look at several stations simultaneously and look at corporate performance, and the issuance of this [50.54(f)] letter to Commonwealth is perhaps maybe the first time that we have systematically done that with a licensee, with a corporate entity." [Source: as above; emphasis ours]

    This discussion illustrates that to a certain extent, NRC suffers from the same kind of operational problems they accuse ComEd of having, only from the regulator's standpoint. It has taken both NRC and ComEd over 20 years of reactor operation in Illinois to begin to identify and come to grips with this situation.

    In the end, while NRC staff was able to praise the initiatives selected by ComEd for implementation, they could offer no justification why NRC should accept ComEd's proposal. They could not offer Chair Jackson any concrete evidence existing today, as she requested, why ComEd's plan should be believed, only the following assurance:

    MR. CALLAN: "...we've said that [ComEd has] established measures in a program which, if effectively implemented, will give us that basis to be able to have concrete evidence and indicators that demonstrate [performance]...." [emphasis ours]

    This is precisely what NRC settled for in its 1994 discussions with the ComEd Board and management.

    3.) NRC pointed out the lack of detail, quantifiable measures, and timelines in the ComEd plan, yet found it acceptable:

    NRC Commissioners Rogers, Diaz, and McGaffigan all pointed out lack of sufficient detail from which to assess both what ComEd was measuring, and whether this would result in improved performance. McGaffigan pointed out that ComEd failed to provide a baseline of performance today at ComEd's 12 reactors over the seven performance indicators ComEd presented as areas for future improvement and evaluation.

    In what is becoming an all too familiar pattern, NRC: once again severely criticized ComEd's performance; ordered ComEd to reply to NRC's criticism, this time under oath, which ComEd failed to do completely; and then accepted yet another ComEd pledge to perform better in the future, offering no rational, logical, objective, historic, or even much of a subjective rationale for doing so. As one Chicago Tribune headline put it, "NRC gives Edison stern lecture, then another pass."

  3. GAO Report: NRC's lack of aggressive action when problems were first reported and identified actually contributed to the worsening conditions at the case-study plants reviewed in the report:

    While no ComEd or IP reactors were used in the case studies in the GAO report, the ComEd's Zion reactor.

    Zion had been on the NRC's "close watch" list in 1991-92. At a meeting with ComEd Board and Management in February, 1993, then NRC Chair Ivan Selin raised concerns about ComEd's intention to transfer the station manager of Zion, Tom Joyce, to another post in the organization:

    CHAIR SELIN: "You [ComEd's Mike Wallace] should know that there's some skepticism about, as the [regulatory] attention gets elsewhere and [station manager] Tom Joyce leaves the plant, that Zion will stay at the level it's achieved [off the "watch list"].

    Selin and NRC had noticed a trend at ComEd to send a quality person to make rapid change at reactors under NRC scrutiny or criticism, then transfer them to another plant once the emergency performance was over, and NRC was no longer critical of site operation.

    ComEd reassured Chair Selin that the other station personnel could handle Zion's improvement. Tom Joyce did leave Zion in early 1993. By July, 1993, Zion had experienced two fires, and began the downward spiral resulting in its repeat on the "watch list" in January, 1997.

    NRC did not use its intuition nor its authority to head off Zion's downward slide back on the "watch list."

  4. GAO Report: When NRC did finally act, their interventions were too late or too little:

    While NRC has yet to act decisively on ComEd's current round of reactor and management problems discussed with ComEd's management and Board at the April 25, 1997 meeting in Washington, it is important to remember that NRC had called ComEd's management to Washington before, on February 28, 1994, to complain about many of the same problems. NRC was given similar promises of improved performance and increased allocation of resources. At this 1994 meeting, then NRC Chair Ivan Selin told ComEd's manage- ment,

    "In the two and a half years that I've been in this job, it's always been one something or something else [with Edison's performance]. I have to say that I don't think [the ComEd] Board has done its job. I think that the NRC has had to do things that the Board should have done earlier about calling your attention to the problems. I don't think management has done its job."

    Yet, three years later ComEd finds half of its reactors on the "close watch" list, and four reactors down indefinitely. Whatever NRC did after this meeting in 1994, it clearly was "too little, too late" to prevent the 1997 ComEd relapse.

    In another instance involving the Byron nuclear plant, the NRC nagged ComEd for three years before ComEd took action to dredge silt out of Byron's cooling tower pool, a problem which had safety implications in case of emergency at the reactor. NRC also fined ComEd $100,000 for the violation.

  5. GAO Report: NRC cannot verify with existing documentation whether the reactors in operation are actually operating in accordance with their "design basis" -- and hence cannot objectively and conclusively state if reactors are actually operating safely:

    NRC has ordered all nuclear utilities to reassess whether they are in compliance with their original or amended design basis for operation. NRC then plans to review these results as utilities submit them.

    In Illinois ComEd has asked to defer completion of this task at the LaSalle reactors - - both currently on the NRC's "watch list" -- until May, 1999. They also intend to re-start these reactors prior to completion of this reassessment.

  6. GAO Report: In its evaluations and inspections NRC does not even assess whether or not nuclear plant management is competent: The dialogue above concerning NRC's historic inability to assess corporate management performance is notable again here.

    In addition though, at the site level, NRC's historic "watering down" of its primary assessment tool -- the Systematic Assessment for Licensee Performance, or "SALP" rating -- has further eroded the ability of NRC to make assessments on the competence of site management. In the early 1980's, SALP assessments occurred in 14 distinct areas of reactor site operations. By the mid-80's this was reduced to 11, then to seven, and in the 1990's, the SALP assessments occur over four very broad areas of plant operation.

    This dilution has hindered assessment both in sufficient detail in the present, and in making comparisons of plant performance over time. It has rendered the SALP virtually useless as a reliable assessment tool.

Conclusions and Recommendations:

A well documented decline in the operation, performance, and safety at Illinois 13 operating nuclear reactors is underway which increases the probability that Illinois could suffer a serious nuclear power accident. The two nuclear utilities in Illinois -- ComEd and Illinois Power -- must take full and primary responsibility for the operating conditions at their reactors.

At the same time the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been under criticism by members of Congress, the GAO, and local Illinois environmental and safe-energy organizations for its lack of assertiveness in regulating the operators of these reactors. It must also accept some of the blame for poor reactor performance stemming from poor regulatory performance.

Current law invests NRC with both final authority on reactor safety issues, and its own power of self-monitoring. As a result the public has lost faith in the existing and inadequate mechanisms to petition NRC to regulate more forcefully and pro-actively.

As a result only Congress has the authority to challenge NRC's complacency and abdication of its regulatory responsibilities.

For this reason, NEIS calls upon the Illinois delegation to Congress to support a continued and thorough investigation of the NRC, to assess its standards and regulations, and to provide the public with a means to challenge its historic dis-inclination to regulate in the public interest. NEIS urges implementation of the recommendations found in the recent GAO report on NRC, and of the recommendations for regulatory change it forwarded to Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun in February, 1997.

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