Exelon Corp., the nuclear giant attempting to merge with Pepco Holdings, has been “let off the hook” by the Nuclear Regulatory Committee in the past for safety violations, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear safety watchdog group.
“Failing to enforce existing safety regulations is literally a gamble that places lives at stake,” the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) said in its 2012 nuclear safety report. “The NRC must enforce its own regulations.”
The NRC has issued more than 100 escalated enforcement actions against Exelon, but the committee did not penalize the company to the same degree as it did other plants with similar problems, the UCS said in its 2013 nuclear safety report.
The NRC rejects these claims.
“The NRC’s Reactor Oversight Process, with its objective means of determining the significance of any given event or finding, treats all plants equally,” said Maureen Conley, a representative from the NRC’s Office of Public Affairs.
According to the UCS’ 2013 nuclear safety report, during the unanticipated shutdown of Exelon’s power plant in LaSalle county Illinois last year, workers made mistakes with safety relief valves and pumps that worsened the situation.
Exelon received no penalties from the NRC for the unmistakable training shortcomings, the UCS said in the report.
The 2013 report said “The NRC’s [special investigation team] determined that licensed control room operators lacked adequate understanding of how the residual heat removal pumps and safety relief valves function, but did not find any violations associated with this cluelessness.”
According to the report, similar problems reported in 2011 and 2012 at the H.B. Robinson Nuclear Plant in South Carolina, which is operated by Carolina Power and Light Company, and the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama, which is operated by Tennessee Valley Authority, did result in violations.
“The NRC gave a free pass for the very same problems at LaSalle,” UCS observed.
Krista Lopykinski,director of Exelon Generation Communications, countered the UCS, saying “LaSalle Station responded as expected, safely and without incident.”
Exelon was also cited this past May for violating federal regulations by misreporting decommissioning costs, according to NRC investigation report No. 3-2010-034, conducted by Ho K. Nieh, Director of the Division of Inspection and Regional Support at the NRC.
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, decommissioning is the process used to safely close down nuclear power plants, reducing the residual radioactivity levels in order to render the area safe for the public.
Exelon “failed to provide complete and accurate information to the NRC in the 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2009 Exelon Decommissioning Fund Status reports,” according to Nieh in a letter to Michael Pacilio, president of Exelon Nuclear.
According to the letter, no penalties were taken against the company by the NRC for providing false information.
Nieh said that the commission initially considered harsher enforcement of the violation in accordance with the enforcement policy, but chose to lessen the company’s consequences because the violation “did not result in an actual safety consequence.”
Lopykinski said Exelon Generation responded to concerns raised by the NRC by modifying and strengthening its process for providing decommissioning funding submissions in a way that the NRC found acceptable.
Exelon employees are not encouraged to bring up safety issues without an immediate solution according to Barry Quigley, a senior reactor operator for almost 30 years at Exelon’s Byron nuclear power plant who is also individually licensed by the NRC.
“We’re not supposed to identify a problem until we have an answer to it,” Quigley said.
Lopykinski said that “within Exelon, raising concerns is a documented job responsibility” and that there is required training on “the various methods in which employees can raise concerns.”
In 2002 the NRC found a supervisor at Exelon’s Byron nuclear power plant in Illinois discriminated against an employee who had raised safety concerns by not selecting the employee for a new position he had been seeking, violating employee protection regulation 10CFR 50.7, according to NRC Office of Investigations case no. 3-2001-005.
“The investigation found that the manager had based the hiring decision on the employee’s raising an internal safety issue,” wrote Frank J. Congel, director of the NRC’s Office of Enforcement, in the Confirmatory Order, document no. EA-02-124.
On September 27, 2002, Exelon admitted to violating the NRC’s worker-protection rules, according to Congel in the Confirmatory Order, document no. EA-02-124.
Instead of issuing a violation notice or fines towards the company, the NRC exercised its “enforcement discretion” and issued a Confirmatory Notice, which allowed Exelon to conduct a counseling program for its plant supervisors in place of traditional consequences, wrote Congel in a letter to John Skolds, president of Exelon Nuclear, dated October 3, 2002.
Quigley filed a petition asking for a hearing to be held in order to alter the confirmatory notice and raise awareness about Exelon’s discrimination against those who raise issues about nuclear safety, fears retaliation for recent and future activities but elects to continue
raising issues related to nuclearaccording to the petition.
“The view from the outside is that the largest nuclear utility
in the country acknowledged illegal action yet brokered a secret plea
bargain with the regulator,” Quigley sai“The view from the outside is that the largest nuclear utility in the country acknowledged illegal action yet brokered a secret plea bargain with the regulator,” Quigley said in his petition.
The NRC believes that the matter was resolved in a way that was “salutary and efficient”, as well as being “in the public interest,” Congel wrote in the confirmatory order, document no. EA-02-124.
Examples of discrimination cited in the petition include the “forced psychological testing of an SRO who questioned actions” and a “highly respected Shift Manager” who had his plant access revoked after he raised safety concerns.
According to the petition, Quigley went as far as to secure funds, specifically “a large home equity loan,” in case he was fired for speaking out.
The company “actively encourages employees and contractors to raise issues and concerns,” Lopykinski said.
Both the Maryland People’s Counsel and the Maryland Public Service Commission were unable to comment on how any the UCS’ allegations could impact Maryland’s Exelon-operated Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant, according to Paula Carmody, head of the Maryland Office of People’s Counsel, and Ellen Vancko, a senior commission advisor at the Maryland Public Service Commission.
“The NRC has exclusive jurisdiction over the safety of that plant. We are not able to comment because we are not the experts on the safety of the plant,” Vancko said.
According to Exelon, in addition to operating Calvert Cliffs, Exelon employs around 7,000 people and operates seven non-nuclear power plants in Maryland.