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US nuclear watchdog questions oversight of safety enforcement

The report comes as concerns are rising over the safety of America's aging nuclear infrastructure after the catastrophic failure of the containment system at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in the Japanene earthquake. A similar containment system is used at about two dozen U.S, plants.

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The federal government's nuclear watchdog has faulted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for failing to follow through on safety agreements with nuclear facilities, saying its system for tracking corrective action raises questions about its oversight of nuclear safety and security.

After an eight-month audit, the NRC's Office of Inspector General concluded last week that the commission has no centralized way to oversee or follow up on documents confirming that a nuclear facility has committed itself to address "significant concerns regarding health and safety, the environment, safeguards or security."

The documents — known as Confirmatory Action Letters, or CALs — are one of the last measures before the NRC cracks down with a stringent binding order like suspension or revocation of a nuclear plant's license.

Because CALs are reserved for a small number of potentially serious cases — 15 to 20 of the hundreds of incident reports the NRC issues each year, according to its records — effective oversight of the confirmation process is of "utmost importance," the inspector general said. But in some cases, the action letters are so poorly drafted that they don't even make it clear who the intended recipients are, the report asserts.

Read the full inspector general's report (.pdf)

Bureaucracy to blame
The problem is one of red tape, not willful inaction or neglect, the report says. But the weaknesses — which include lack of consistent guidelines for regional NRC offices, regional offices' failure to comply with those guidelines and some offices' lack of any tracking system whatsoever — "degrade" the agency's accountability, it says. 

A spokesman for the NRC said the agency believes "the CAL process has been effective" and that it would have a formal reply "in the near future." In an informal meeting last month, the NRC generally agreed with the inspector general's recommendations to update its main enforcement manual, centralize tracking and submit to occasional audits of the action letter system, the report said.

If the NRC is to do that, it won't be with added staff or much new money. In its fiscal 2013 budget request, the agency notes that it's asking for about $128 million less $15 million more than it got last year, a 1.4 percent increase, including what it called a "cost-conscious" reduction of 25 jobs.

And those cuts are coming as concerns are rising over the safety of America's aging nuclear infrastructure.

Until last week, the NRC hadn't licensed any new reactors for more than 30 years. Consequently, many of the nation's 104 nuclear plants are operating under licenses that the NRC has extended for up to 20 years beyond their original 40-year lifespans.

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The need to keep those creaky plants running means many safety problems arise "because reactor owners, and often the NRC, tolerate known safety problems," the Union of Concerned Scientists — a nonprofit science watchdog at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — warned last year (.pdf).  

About two dozen of those plants use the same containment system as the one that failed when a powerful earthquake and tsunami breached the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan, msnbc.com reported last year.

(The containment system is manufactured by General Electric Co., which is a parent company of msnbc.com through its 49 percent stake in NBCUniversal.)

To date, the NRC has never rejected an application for a license extension.

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