US nuclear plant operations, while still very good, are trending in the wrong direction, says Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko, and complacency from years of safe operations, combined with overload from backlogged and new safety requirements, could mean trouble ahead in 2012.

Speaking to nuclear CEOs at their annual Institute of Nuclear Power Operations meeting in November, Jaczko fingered what he fears are declining performance trends.

“While many plants have performed very well this year, there are a number of nuclear power plants that have experienced significant safety challenges,” he said. While public attention has focused on Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi, a handful of US plants have been cited for declining performance or forced into long outages.

Jaczko said the last time three plants were simultaneously in prolonged forced outages, as they were when he spoke, was in the late 1990s.

Guarding History’s Lessons

He said NRC had performed 19 special inspections into specific safety issues during 2011 – more “than at any point in recent memory” – and had four plants on watch lists for repeated safety missteps. Jaczko warned, “We should all be on guard to the possibility that they could be indicative of broader issues for the industry.”

Complacency has long been recognized as a challenge for nuclear plant staff. In the early 1990s, US plant management turned around poor performers and yanked the industry average capacity factor from about 70% to 90%, a level that’s been maintained since the turn of the century.

That has meant many plants generating trouble-free at full capacity all year, potentially letting everyone from CEO to maintenance staff to NRC regulators get overconfident.

Cause And Effect

Dave Lochbaum, a former reactor operator and nuclear expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said Jaczko is right to be concerned but it’s not clear yet whether the plants cited are a declining trend or an “oscillation” around high-level performance now that gains in safety measures have plateaued.

“Things have turned,” he said, “but it’s harder to figure cause and effect.” Whatever the causes, he said, the shifts do show that maintaining safety continues to require “aggressive” effort.

Marvin Fertel, CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said he thinks worker turnover, not complacency, may be the cause. He said INPO identified troubling performance issues a year ago and issued a special report on it to the industry. Performance measures showing problems included worker adherence to procedures, he said.

With more than a third of nuclear workers reaching retirement eligibility, Fertel said the turnover is affecting not just nuclear plants but NRC and the companies providing specialized services to the industry and to regulators.

Many nuclear companies are working with local college systems to recruit and train workers. NRC began last decade stepping up its recruitment and training efforts.

But absorbing rookies is coming at the same time operators and NRC are dealing with what Jaczko sees as both a backlog of old safety issues and an onslaught of new ones from 2011′s slew of natural disasters.

Topping Jaczko’s backlog list is fire protection, an issue dragging on since 1975 in various forms. Many US reactors aren’t in compliance with NRC rules, he said. Another unresolved issue, dating from 1979, is a potential for debris blockage of critical water recirculation inside reactor containments during an accident, he said.

When The Earth Moves

NRC was already working on updating seismic hazard estimates for many eastern plants, work made instantly urgent by the earthquake near Dominion’s North Anna in August. Now complicating the backlog are a dozen major recommendations so far from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, Jaczko said.

Fertel said it’s vital that NRC and industry agree on priorities to rank issues on safety importance, and not just dump new requirements on operators. There are concerns about cost, of course, he said, but more important are the capability of humans to integrate ongoing operations with new safety concerns.

Most issues after 9/11 involved changes outside the control room, he said, but the Fukushima issues will involve those at the reactor controls.

“There are limited resources, for both NRC and operators,” he said, and to maintain safety, both industry and regulators need to understand the “cumulative impact” on the people involved.

Jaczko noted the industry has frequently raised the issue of cumulative impacts, referring to both the cost and complexity of regulatory requirements. He said the industry is now facing the real cost of letting issues pile up unresolved. He urged the CEOs not to let the list grow longer in 2012.

Photo Caption: Greg Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and acting Assistant Energy Secretary for Nuclear Energy Pete Lyons (R), testify on Capitol Hill on March 30, 2011 in Washington, DC. The hearing focused on nuclear power plant safety in light of the earthquake and nuclear plant troubles in Japan.