Nuclear commission considers fewer plant inspections

Ellen Knickmeyer
Associated Press

Washington – Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff is recommending that the agency cut back on inspections at the country’s nuclear reactors, a cost-cutting move promoted by the nuclear power industry but denounced by opponents as a threat to public safety.

The recommendations, made public Tuesday, include reducing the time and scope of some annual inspections at the nation’s 90-plus nuclear power plants. Some other inspections would be cut from every two years to every three years.

DTE's Fermi 2 plant in Monroe County's Newport, Michigan.

Some of the staff’s recommendations would require a vote by the commission, which has a majority of members appointed or reappointed by President Donald Trump, who has urged agencies to reduce regulatory requirements for industries.

As the NRC continues to consider changes, DTE Energy officials said they will provide information as the commission requests.

"The health and safety of the public is our top priority, and we operate our plant 24 hours a day, seven days a week focused on that commitment," according to the DTE statement. "That priority is No. 1 regardless of the number of NRC inspections at the plant. 

"Because the NRC is also committed to the health and safety of the public, we’re confident whatever decision the agency makes will reflect that commitment," the statement continued.

The nuclear power industry has prodded regulators to cut inspections, saying that the nuclear facilities are operating well and that the inspections are a financial burden for power providers. Nuclear power, like coal-fired power, has been struggling in market completion against cheaper natural gas and rising renewable energy.

DTE Energy operates Fermi 2, a nuclear power plant in Monroe County. The company said they have halted their plans to build Fermi 3 — a third plant at the current site in Frenchtown Township.

"Regarding Fermi 3, the company has no immediate plans to build a new nuclear power plant, but is maintaining the license as a long-term planning option," the DTE statement said.

While Tuesday’s report made clear that there was considerable disagreement among the nuclear agency’s staff on the cuts, it contended the inspection reduction “improves efficiency while still helping to ensure reasonable assurance of adequate protection to the public.”

Commission member Jeff Baran criticized the proposed changes Tuesday, saying reducing oversight of the nuclear power industry “would take us in the wrong direction.”

This May 22, 2017 file photo, shows cooling towers at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Middletown, Pa.

“NRC shouldn’t perform fewer inspections or weaken its safety oversight to save money,” Baran said.

Baran urged the commission to put the inspection rollbacks up for a broader public discussion before deciding.

“It affects every power reactor in the country,” he said. “We should absolutely hear from a broad range of stakeholders before making any far-reaching changes to NRC’s safety oversight program.”

The release comes a day after Democratic lawmakers faulted the NRC’s deliberations, saying they had failed to adequately inform the public of the changes under consideration.

“Cutting corners on such critical safety measures may eventually lead to a disaster that could be detrimental to the future of the domestic nuclear industry,” Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and other House Democrats said in a letter Monday to NRC Chairwoman Kristine Svinicki.

Asked for comment Tuesday, NRC spokespeople pointed to the staff arguments for the changes in the report. Trimming overall inspections “will improve effectiveness because inspectors again will be focused on issues of greater safety significance,” staffers told commission members in the recommendations.

Edwin Lyman, a nuclear power expert at the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, faulted the reasoning of commission staff that the good performance of much of the nuclear power industry warranted cutting back on agency inspections for problems and potential problems.

“That completely ignores the cause-and-effect relationship between inspections and good performances,” Lyman said.

Detroit News reporter Sarah Rahal contributed.