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7 engineers at U.S. agency go public with nuclear safety concern via Syracuse.com

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Seven electrical engineers who work for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission have taken the unusual step of petitioning the NRC as private citizens in hopes of compelling regulators to fix a “significant safety concern” that affects all but one of the nation’s 100 nuclear plants.

The petition filed this week by the NRC Seven, as some call them, is similar to what anti-nuclear activists or other outside watchdog groups would file to raise a concern with the NRC.

The engineers say there is a design flaw in the electric power systems of all but one of the 100 U.S. nuclear plants. The flaw prevents the detection of certain disruptions on power lines connected to the plants. If a degraded power line were called into service during an emergency, the reactor’s motors, pumps and valves could burn out, preventing a safe shutdown.

No such catastrophe has occurred. But since discovering the flaw in 2012, NRC staff have looked back and identified 13 events since 2002 when an undetected electrical fault could have resulted in serious problems during an emergency plant shutdown, the employee petition said.

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But the fact that “NRC Seven” went outside the agency to file a citizens’ petition to compel action raises concerns about the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, he said.

“Why must seven members of a federal safety regulator take such drastic steps? Why indeed,” Lochbaum wrote in a blog post late Friday. “The NRC Seven’s action constitutes prima facie evidence that the NRC has a safety culture problem.”

NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan disputed that, pointing to a 2012 report by the agency’s Office of Inspector General. A survey of the NRC’s 3,800 employees concluded that the agency’s safety culture was “significantly more favorable” than the norm for U.S. companies, the report said.

[…]

NRC officials eventually determined that all nuclear plants but one share the same problem: At times, faults or disruptions on the power lines serving a nuclear plant can go unnoticed. If a plant were to shut down, so that its equipment relied on outside power rather than its own generator, the undetected electrical issue could cause serious problems.

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