Officials at nuclear plants blame a shortage of inspections for the disaster that led to the shutdown of San Onofre

The nuclear regulatory agency responsible for tracking safety lapses at the San Onofre nuclear plant in California cut inspection staff drastically in recent years in part because the leaders were overextended elsewhere, The Washington Post reported this week.

An internal memo obtained by the Post and dated last August shows that the San Onofre plant’s reactor oversight teams had steadily shrunk in size during the years leading up to the current crisis, from about 130 in 2011 to just a couple dozen earlier this year. On top of that, the people responsible for supervising the agencies’ inspections of San Onofre’s plant’s equipment were even thinner. By the end of last summer, just a quarter of the inspectors had been brought back to full staffing; their supervisor, the one responsible for all plant inspections, was also ill.

In response to a question from congressional investigators, San Onofre’s plant operator said the agency that makes sure the plant is safe had cut back on “anomalies” at the plant, i.e. unusual inspections, between 2010 and 2011.

Two years ago, as the same investigators who went to the newsroom for this story did, a few senior staff at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said this wasn’t really a surprise. “Ahead of any major plant event, we really have our hands full,” said one internal document provided to the congressional investigators. Another review would “probably trigger the need for increased inspections for existing equipment,” the document concluded.

But in the email obtained by the Post, the internal author said this time, “Not so. Even with the new staffing and personnel … attention to safety issues with existing equipment has been noticeably low in the past.”

During the crisis at San Onofre, reports have shown that operators first questioned the adequacy of the plant’s repair plan after inspectors noticed bright-red transformers flashing, leading them to believe that the plant had not always maintained its nuclear equipment properly.

Federal regulators ultimately decided that workers hadn’t taken enough precautions to prevent the transformers from melting, and they approved a fix that they say is adequate, and the NRC criticized plant operators for not moving quickly enough to address safety issues.

The internal review document not only blamed the reduction in inspectors on “short staffing” at the agency, but on reduced staff at the NRC itself as well.

According to the Post, the only thing the NRC did differently this time than in past incidents is add two new inspectors, raising the total to 23.

In an interview with the Post, NRC spokesman Victor Dricks said the agency is committed to doing more. “The NRC has more inspectors [now] than ever before,” he said. “We’re committed to ensuring that [the plant] is ready to restart, but we’ll monitor very closely the two inspectors that will be assigned there, to make sure the site will be able to resume safely.”

Dricks also stressed that when it comes to inspections, “more is never necessarily better,” adding that the agency “offers its very best individuals to inspect the site.”

A spokesman for the NRC said that the editorial board on the Post’s parent company, The Washington Post Company, supported the union’s call for increased funding for the agency, the Post reported. The spokesman did not respond to an emailed request for comment on whether the agency could do more to make sure safety checks were being done.

But this was not the first warning the regulators had given about the low staffing levels. In early 2013, a report written by one NRC manager warned of cutbacks that would lead to a shortage of inspectors.

“On the operational side of things, we have had two years of uncertainty about whether the U.S. facilities can be operating safely,” the report said.

But the commission maintains that without further increases in funding, the agency will fall behind by the end of next year.

“The longer the NRC does not approve additional inspections, the more likely the agency will fall behind schedule,” the proposed annual funding bill stated.

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