Review Of Nuclear Plant Safety in U.S. Follows Japanese Tragedy

Posted on Tue 03/15/2011 by


By Jim Kouri, CPP.

“If the disastrous 8.9 Richter-scale earthquake that struck Japan hit the California coast, it could have ripped apart at least four coastal reactors and sent a lethal cloud of radiation across the entire United States.” – Professor of physics George Friedman, Southwest University.

The devastation and horror experienced by Japan has resulted in U.S. government officials reviewing their own emergency/disaster plans including the response to structural damages at the nation’s nuclear power plants.

The U.S. Department of Energy oversees contractors that operate more than 200 “high-hazard” nuclear facilities in the United States, where a man-made or natural disaster would lead to serious consequences for nuclear plant workers, emergency responders, and the general public.

DOE is the agency charged with regulating the safety of nuclear facilities. A key part of DOE’s self-regulation is the Office of Health, Safety and Security (HSS), which develops, oversees, and helps enforce nuclear safety policies. This is the only DOE safety office intended to be independent of the program offices, which carry out mission responsibilities.

At the request of the US Congress in 2008, the Government Accounting Office reviewed relevant DOE policies, interviewed officials and outside safety experts, and surveyed DOE sites to determine the number and status of nuclear facilities. GAO also assessed oversight practices based on a series of reports on DOE nuclear safety and discussions with nuclear safety experts.

HSS falls short of fully meeting GAO’s elements of effective independent oversight of nuclear safety: independence, technical expertise, ability to perform reviews and have findings effectively addressed, enforcement, and public access to facility information.

For example, HSS’s ability to function independently is limited because it has no role in reviewing the “safety basis” — a technical analysis that helps ensure safe design and operation of these facilities — for new high-hazard nuclear facilities and because it has no personnel at DOE sites to provide independent safety observations.

In addition, although HSS conducts periodic site inspections and identifies deficiencies that must be addressed, there are gaps in its inspection schedule and it lacks useful information on the status of the safety basis of all nuclear facilities.

For example, HSS was not aware that 31 of the 205 facilities did not have a safety program that meets the requirements established in 2001. While HSS uses its authority to enforce nuclear safety requirements, its actions have not reduced the occurrence of over one-third of the most commonly reported violations in the last 3 years, although this is a priority for HSS. These shortcomings are largely attributable to DOE’s decision that some responsibilities and resources of HSS and prior oversight offices more appropriately reside in the program offices.

For instance, DOE decided in 1999 to eliminate independent oversight personnel at its sites because they were deemed redundant and less effective than oversight by the program offices. DOE also decided in forming HSS in 2006 that its involvement in reviewing facility safety basis documents was not necessary because this is done by the program offices and adequately assessed by HSS during periodic site inspections.

Moreover, DOE views HSS’s role as secondary to the program offices in addressing recurring nuclear safety violations. Nearly all these shortcomings are in part caused by DOE’s desire to strengthen oversight by the program offices, with HSS providing assistance to them in accomplishing their responsibilities.

In the absence of external regulation, DOE needs HSS to be more involved in nuclear safety oversight because a key objective of independent oversight is to avoid the potential conflicts of interest that are inherent in program office oversight. Contributing Editor Jim Kouri, CPP is currently fifth vice-president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police and he’s a columnist for The Examiner ( and New Media Alliance (  In addition, he’s a blogger for the Cheyenne, Wyoming Fox News Radio affiliate KGAB ( Jim Kouri also serves as political advisor for Emmy and Golden Globe winning actor Michael Moriarty.

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