The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear watchdog group, lists a Duke Energy nuclear power plant among last year's significant industry mishaps the organization calls "near misses."
None of the 15 incidents cited by the UCS posed immediate danger to nuclear plant employees or to the public. But the UCS says that 15 such reports -- more than one a month -- is unacceptably high for a mature industry. The problems typically involved impaired equipment or faulty procedures.
The organization says the NRC was lax in addressing safety concerns in those instances, though in other cases the federal agency performed its functions admirably. The UCS report, called "The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety in 2011: Living on Borrowed Time," was written by UCS scientist David Lochbaum, who took a break from the organization several years ago and worked for the NRC for a year.
The term "near miss" suggests a situation that's on the verge of a nuclear accident, but actually refers to a unacceptable condition that warrants a special inspection from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The inspections typically result in recommended corrective actions, as opposed to fines.
"We replaced the breakers and the plant operated safely," said Duke spokeswoman Sandra Magee. "This heater breaker issue posed no danger to the public. We have more than one method for cooling the reactor system."
According to UCS, the situation at Duke Energy's Oconee nuclear plant in South Carolina involved a glitch in the backup reactor core cooling system that would have rendered the system useless during an accident. The backup system was installed in 1983 and the plant's workers didn't discover the problem until 2011.
Another plant mentioned in the UCS report was the North Anna plant in Virginia which lost offsite power after experiencing an earthquake which was more severe than the plant was designed for.