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Safety Called Inadequate at Rancho Seco

Times Staff Writer

The Rancho Seco nuclear power plant near Sacramento has serious safety problems, and a “detailed improvement program” should be prepared before the plant is allowed to restart, a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission charged in a letter released Tuesday.

Commissioner James K. Asselstine, quoted in a letter from NRC Chairman Nunzio J. Palladino to California Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento), criticized plants designed by the Babcock & Wilcox Co. as having “two strikes” against them. “I have particular concerns regarding Rancho Seco,” Asselstine said.

“In view of the extensive history of operational problems at that plant,” he added, “I would insist upon a detailed improvement program concerning the management and operation of that plant together with demonstrated progress in carrying out the essential elements of that program before the plant is allowed to restart.”

Rancho Seco has been closed since a leak last Dec. 26 vented radioactive steam into the atmosphere. NRC investigators have attributed the leak to design weaknesses in the reactor’s automatic control system and inadequate training of operators to cope with the emergency.

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sh Dissenting Comments

Palladino, responding to Matsui’s concern about the commission’s efforts to correct problems at plants designed by Babcock and Wilcox, reported Asselstine’s dissenting comments in his letter.

Palladino himself, however, told Matsui that “industry has accepted the responsibility for reassessing the performance of B&W; (Babcock and Wilcox) plants. . . . The staff is monitoring this effort, and I have no reason to believe that anything short of a thorough and comprehensive re-evaluation will be made.”

Asselstine had urged commission members to form a special review group “including experts from outside the NRC” to conduct a review of “the safety vulnerabilities” of the Babcock & Wilcox design and “the adequacy of past NRC efforts to ensure that the B&W; plants meet acceptable safety standards.”

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He added: “Unfortunately, I must tell you that all of my colleagues on the commission rejected my proposal.”

sh ‘Degree of Discord’

Matsui said Tuesday that Palladino’s letter reflects a “startling degree of discord” within the commission.

“I’m not reassured when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission asks the nuclear industry to conduct its own safety review when a safety question is raised,” Matsui said. “I expect the NRC to keep at least an arm’s length from the industry.

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“Seven years after Three Mile Island, there is still a startling degree of disagreement within the NRC as to whether effective action has been taken to improve the safety of B&W; plants,” he added.

‘Flurry of Activity’

“It seems that when public concern about nuclear safety is highest, there is a flurry of activity at the NRC--but when the furor subsides, NRC activity subsides as well.”

The Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg, Pa., was also built by Babcock & Wilcox. Part of the facility has been closed since radiation was released in March, 1979.

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Matsui, in a letter responding to Palladino, said he was “particularly troubled” by Asselstine’s statement that “the commission has stonewalled his efforts to establish an independent review group.”

“In my opinion,” Matsui said, “the NRC proposal to reassess the long-term safety of B&W; nuclear reactors is little more than window-dressing and your letter has given me little reason to think otherwise.”


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