NEAR MISSES AND UNBELIEVABLE MISHAPS169
of 13,000 psi. In other words, they were oﬀ by one zero and screwed the studs at 1/10th the required pressure.” Some of the crucial bolts were left so loose they could still be turned by hand. Fortunately, this “ﬁrst of its kind” mistake did not lead to a “ﬁrst of its kind” nuclear catastrophe.
Te irregularities that mark the NRC’s regulatory history have a trou-bling parallel in the quotidian world of nuclear power plant management. A review of NRC inspections and incident reports reveals the seamy side of the inner workings of these high-tech atomic furnaces. In addition to polic-ing the familiar panorama of a control room’s gleaming desks and glowing screens, the NRC’s inspectors have to clamber deep inside the cranky bowels of these aging structures, stepping over tangles of electrical cables, peering into dark, dripping recesses, and poking at metallic scales encrusting rusted pipes and valves. Te combination of failing equipment and worker error can be downright frightening. For example: During a safety test on October 22, 2009, workers at California’s Diablo Canyon plant found they couldn’t open the valves that released emergency cooling water to prevent a core meltdown. Tis poten-tially catastrophic problem had gone undetected for
. Sometimes, it is management failure that compounds the problem. On June 8, 2010, an electrical short triggered a shutdown at Virginia’s Surry nuclear plant, and 90 minutes later, a ﬁre broke out in the main control room of the Unit 1 reactor. An NRC investigation noted that a similar ﬁre had erupted at the Unit 2 reactor six months earlier. When workers tested the control rooms, they found that the electrical systems were so degraded that “some produced visible sparks during testing.” After the ﬁrst ﬁre, workers had begged technicians to investigate the threat, but according to a report prepared by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “the company closed the report without any investigation or evaluation.”
A Chilling Inventory of Reactor Incidents
Acknowledging that no reactor is foolproof, Nils J. Diaz, a former NRC Chairman, spelled out a theory of preventative oversight in a 2004 speech entitled “Te Very Best-Laid Plans (the NRC’s Defense-in-Depth Philos-ophy.”
Te gist of the NRC’s “defense-in-depth” philosophy is described as follows: An approach to designing and operating nuclear facilities that prevents and mitigates accidents that release radiation or hazard-ous materials. Te key is creating multiple independent and redundant layers of defense to compensate for potential human