Commercial nuclear power plants have averaged more than one fine a week and paid $18.5 million since 1987 for safety violations ranging from improper release of radioactivity to workers sleeping on the job, according to government documents.
While industry and Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials say that conditions at nuclear power plants have improved over the last decade, the number of violations resulting in civil penalties has remained fairly constant from year to year, according to an Associated Press review of enforcement records.
Fines for a single offense ranged from $2,500 to $1.25 million. None resulted from infractions that endangered residents near the plants, although some were indicative of conditions that, if left uncorrected, could be dangerous.
Four of the 51 utilities operating commercial nuclear reactors account for a quarter of the NRC violations over the last 4 1/2 years.
The NRC documents also show that:
* Since 1981, utilities have been fined $36.8 million for 462 safety violations at the 111 commercial reactors. A quarter of those fines amounted to $100,000 or more.
* Some plant operators failed for years to come to grips with specific safety concerns and have faced repeated fines for similar violations.
* Civil penalties, although narrow in scope, often reflect broader management and operational problems. A series of fines often coincided with broader management and operational problems.
* Although many violations are acknowledged by plant officials, others come to light only through confidential tips from employees or the chance appearance of an NRC inspector. No one knows for sure how many violations escape NRC detection.
Not surprising to industry officials, some of the utilities most heavily committed to nuclear power often are among those with a high number of civil penalties.
Commonwealth Edison, which operates a dozen reactors in Illinois, has paid nearly $1.5 million in fines responding for 23 violations at five of its plants since 1987, more than any other utility. The penalties have ranged from $25,000 to $150,000 each for infractions such as failing to seal a reactor containment vessel and control-room operators’ skipping requalification classes.
Other utilities with nearly a dozen or more violations during the period are: Carolina Power & Light, 15 fines totaling $1.3 million; Duke Power Co., 14 fines totaling $625,000; Northeast Utilities, 11 fines totaling $426,250.
The plants with the most violations aren’t always assessed the highest fines. A single incident at the Peach Bottom plant in Pennsylvania cost its operator $1.25 million.
Just last month, the Virginia Power Co. was slapped with a $125,000 fine for two safety violations at its Surry nuclear plant. One of the infractions stemmed from a problem that had to be fixed twice; the other took 11 years to correct.
The 11-year-old problem involved malfunctioning electrical controls on safety pumps that are part of the reactor’s emergency shutdown system. The NRC said the utility had known of the electrical problem since early 1981, but considered it acceptable because the pumps could be operated manually. The NRC disagreed and fined the utility $50,000.
All told, Virginia Power has paid nearly $1 million in fines for problems at Surry since 1987.
Industry spokesmen say the number of civil penalties reflects the strict NRC regulations and “24-hour-a-day” enforcement activities and not always serious safety flaws or unsafe plant operation.
“Taken as a whole, the number (of fines) can be misleading. . . . The proof is in the (plants’) performance and safety levels,” said Steve Unglesbee of the U.S. Council for Energy Awareness, a nuclear industry lobby. He said that a sharp drop in the frequency of automatic plant shutdowns and other operating statistics reflected improved overall safety.
“Plants are safer because they’re operating better,” said James Lieberman, head of the NRC’s office of enforcement. But he added, “We’re still concerned, and that’s why the penalties keep coming.”
Lieberman said that although some of the violations do not in themselves directly threaten plant security, they often reflect broader management or operational shortcomings that may pose a safety hazard to workers and perhaps the public if not corrected.
“We focus our attention on the more significant safety systems,” he said.
Nuclear critics contend, however, that the NRC’s enforcement program catches only a fraction of the safety violations, and not all of those result in fines.
In 1981, workers at the Nine Mile Point plant in Upstate New York flooded a subbasement of the reactor building where highly radioactive wastes were stored. The basement area was severely contaminated for years as cleanup efforts foundered.
The NRC didn’t find out about the flooding for eight years, then dispatched a special team to investigate. “They (the NRC) found out about it when one of the (industry) reports got leaked to the press,” said Robert Pollard of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a leading nuclear watchdog group.
Niagara Mohawk Power Corp., which operates the reactor near Scriba, N.Y., received a “notice of violation” from the NRC in 1990. The NRC informed the utility that it would be spared a fine “because of the age of the violation” and because “extensive management changes have been made” since the incident.
In typical penalties last August, utilities faced fines ranging from $25,000 to $75,000 for reactor doors being left open (Browns Ferry plant in Tennessee); a worker not responding properly to a security alarm (Vermont Yankee); excessive radiation exposure of two workers while they unpacked a shipping crate (Ft. St. Vrain in Colorado); and a faulty ventilation valve (Oconee in South Carolina).
Industry spokesmen said that a majority of fines stem from violations reported by the utilities, but the NRC says many infractions are exposed by NRC inspectors, workers and anonymous tipsters.
One of the largest penalties in 1990, $240,000, was levied against the Tennessee Valley Authority for its retaliation against three employees who had brought safety concerns about the Watts Bar nuclear plant to the attention of the NRC.
The largest civil penalty ever imposed by the NRC stemmed from an anonymous tip from a worker at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant near Lancaster, Pa., in 1988. The tipster reported that control room operators were sleeping on duty and an investigation later substantiated the charge. It led to a $1.25-million fine against Philadelphia Electric Co. and fines of from $500 to $1,000 each against 33 workers and supervisors.
Although Philadelphia Electric twice had been fined a total of $100,000 for safety violations the year before and was under close NRC scrutiny, agency officials acknowledged that without the informer, the snoozing operators might not have been discovered.
“One of the problems at Peach Bottom was that the inspector came on-site and the security people contacted the control tower to call reveille,” recalled Lieberman. It is now against the law to warn workers that an NRC inspector is on the premises.
Two years later, an NRC inspector found two control room operators at the Indian Point nuclear plant sitting at their desks early one morning, with “heads tilted back, eyes closed and feet up on the desk,” apparently dozing.
The operators denied that they were asleep or inattentive, but the utility, which said it could never prove any wrongdoing in its internal investigation, nevertheless paid a $50,000 fine.