Millstone scrutiny warranted

The region should welcome the decision by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to place the Millstone Power Station Unit 2 in Waterford under greater scrutiny. The additional oversight results from an incident earlier this year during which reactor operators made some troubling mistakes.

The NRC has a deserved reputation of sometimes being too cozy with the industry it regulates. An Associated Press investigation recently showed that in relicensing power reactors the NRC depends largely on the assurances and information provided by plant operators. Requirements for equipment integrity have eased as plants have aged, though both regulators and industry officials insist operations remain well within documented safety standards.

This newspaper recognizes a need to expand nuclear power generation as a way of easing the nation's dependence on foreign energy sources. But we also realize that nuclear power is not like other forms of energy generation. A serious accident can have cataclysmic consequences. A significant mishap, even if safely contained, could turn public sentiment against nuclear power and end prospects for expanding the industry.

This is why the NRC's cautious approach in light of the mistakes at the Dominion Nuclear Connecticut-operated plant is the right one. Increased examination of employee performance and supervision can determine whether the missteps made last February were an aberration, or indicative of a slip in quality performance and oversight.

Problems arose during a routine testing of turbine control valves. The high pressure steam produced by the heat of the atomic reaction within the reactor core spins the turbine, generating electricity.

The valves are critical in controlling this process. During the Feb. 12 testing, an operator noticed an increase in pressure, but mistakenly pressed a button several times boosting that pressure, before pressing the correct button for decreasing it.

The mistake caused a reactor power spike, from 88 percent to 96 percent of rated thermal power. NRC characterized the event as having low to moderate safety significance. The company said it disciplined six workers for poor performance. Dominion also reports that it has corrected procedures to prevent another similar mishap.

"We remain extremely disappointed with our performance during this event," said Millstone spokesman Ken Holt.

If, as the company claims, safety remains the top priority, it should have nothing to fear from increased scrutiny. At a future date the NRC will perform a follow-up inspection to evaluate the corrective actions taken.

Tough regulation is in the best interests of the public and the industry.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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