US regulators are helping the nuclear power industry keep its aging plants in line with safety requirements by repeatedly loosening those requirements, according to a year-long AP investigation. The AP found thousands of problems—from cracking tubes to failed cables to leaking valves—all of which made the plants less safe. As these problems cropped up, industry and government studies time and time again concluded that regulations were "unnecessarily conservative." Regulations are loosened, and the reactors are back in compliance.
“That's what they say for everything, whether that's the case or not,” said one retired Nuclear Regulatory Commission engineer. "Every time you turn around, they say 'We have all this built-in conservatism.'" Regulators and the industry defend their conduct, with one industry group reasoning that there’d be more failures "if we didn’t replace and do consistent maintenance" of parts. But the AP found “troubling evidence of unrelenting wear.” Examples abound: When valves leaked, more leakage was allowed—up to 20 times the original limit. When rampant cracking caused radioactive leaks from steam generator tubing, an easier test of the tubes was devised, so plants could meet standards. For the AP’s complete report, click here. (Read more Nuclear Regulatory Commission stories.)